Healthy Restaurant Eating

By The Restaurant Dieter

Tag: New American (page 2 of 2)

Review: Cakes & Ale, Decatur, GA

Dressing and feta on the side? Nope.

This is no restaurant for a dieter.

True to form, a recent meal at Cakes & Ale’s new home on Decatur’s town square reconfirmed this. On previous visits,  the kitchen always seemed to choose fat-laden preparations. There might be vegetables on the menu, but they were inevitably sauteed.

Different this time was the sheer obstinacy of this pro-fat position. It was an unpleasant departure from a recent meal at Michael Mina at The Bellagio in Las Vegas. There the kitchen was only too happy to modify dishes to accommodate the dieter.

At Cakes & Ale, the kitchen sent out a server, poorly equipped to do her job well. Though she tried.

The meal started with the usual question: “What is low-fat on this menu?” The server did her best, but she had little to work with. She pointed out the chicken entree (oiled and roasted with skin on), an appetizer of oysters (!) and three fish entrees, none of which used butter, she said. Olive oil, presumably, has ceased being a fat.

Feeling pretty confident about the starters at least, I asked for dressing and feta cheese on the side for a simple, Greek-style salad.

“The chef won’t do that,” she said.

“Then what exactly will the chef do where I can have the dressing on the side?” I asked, with an obvious edge.

Perhaps fearing an eruption, she hurried back to the kitchen to find out. She said that the dressing could be on-the-side for all except the baby eggplant, which were prepared in advance.

Leaving aside the dressing issue for a moment, what arrived was — for $9 — an embarrassment. (Regular readers know I almost never complain about the tab, unless the price-to-value ratio is way out of whack. It was. Somebody’s apparently got to pay for the new digs, and that somebody is us.)

The salad consisted of two or three halved cherry tomatoes, three leaves of leaf lettuce, about two inches from a medium cucumber, a couple small pickled eggplant and an ounce or so of feta cheese.

The lettuce leaves were admirably dry, and there was a portion cup of dressing on the side. But the cucumber and tomatoes had been dressed, and the feta cheese was mixed in as well.

What can we conclude? That nowhere in the kitchen was there a cucumber or tomato that had yet to be dressed? I guess so.

Fish: Not much fat, not much flavor

Trying hard to please, the server said she’d gotten the kitchen to go light on the oil for my entree, a swordfish steak roasted with peppers, onions, artichokes, tomatoes and field peas. The swordfish was nicely cooked, tender and juicy. The field peas were a nice touch, cooked al dente.

What the dish lacked was flavor — either from the fish itself or from any of the other ingredients. Fat lends flavor to food, but the best of chefs don’t use it as a crutch, as seems the case here. They compensate by using plentiful fresh herbs, unusual ingredients or preparations that concentrate the flavors of common ingredients.

These techniques take time and these ingredients are expensive, so one might argue that it’s unfair to compare a humble neighborhood bistro in Decatur, GA, with one of the nation’s top restaurants.

But this was a $27 entree, not a $15 menu item at Red Lobster.

Come to think of it, I’ve had a better fish entree at Red Lobster.

Review: Michael Mina at The Bellagio, Las Vegas, Nev.

Heirloom tomato salad, dressing on the side

At many a fine restaurant, you can get most anything you want — provided, of course, that you doesn’t mess with the chef’s grand vision.

A request for “sauce on the side” may be rebuffed. The chef believes that if you’ve chosen to eat at his restaurant, it must be because you’re there to celebrate his culinary genius. More charitably, he may believe that the dish will be dry or nearly inedible without that touch. And sometimes, he is indeed right.

But dieting is compromise, and so we ask. If you are fortunate enough to eat at James Beard Award winner Michael Mina‘s eponymous restaurant at The Bellagio, your wish will be granted without hesitation. And the food will not suffer in the least, whether you use a bit of the sauce or none at all.

Based on the chef’s own philosophy, that statement probably goes at his restaurants in San Francisco, Washington, Detroit, Seattle and so on.

“I don’t believe in whisper joints,” he is quoted as saying in a profile on his website. “You’re not in my restaurant to worship the food, but to have a fantastic dining experience.”

The Restaurant Dieter and his spouse are happy to report that we did.

Dinner started sharing a fresh and low-calorie chilled shellfish platter: lobster, shrimp, crab, prawns and ceviche. The shrimp were perfectly cooked and sweet enough without just a tiny tab of the accompanying mint aloli. The lobster was tossed in citrus dressing and topped with a daikon gelee. The ceviche had a light coconut foam. The crab was so sweet it required no accompaniment at all.

The real test came with the next two courses. Could I have the heirloom tomato salad “BLT” without the bacon and with the basil aioli and the dressing on the side? “Of course,” the server replied.

And can I also have the ginger vinagrette on the side for the “three seas” tasting of Japanese fish with bamboo rice? Of course.

Both were excellent.

The heirloom tomato salad was sort of a deconstruct itself, so dressing on the side wasn’t particularly difficult. It consisted of spring greens tossed with a series of chunks — of summer’s peak heirloom tomatoes, of crusty bread cubes, of avocado and of a peppered and well-drained plain yogurt. I used perhaps two teaspoons of both the dressing and the basil aioli. The component flavors were so strong that more really wasn’t necessary.

The Japanese fish tasting came with the vinaigrette on the side as requested. It was presented as a line, flanked on either side by a tempura hen-of-the-woods mushroom. These are among my favorite and suffered some from the overpowering tempura batter. I tasted one and gave the other to The Restaurant Dieter Spouse.

Between the mushrooms were the fish treatments. The first appeared to be a Greek dolmades — but instead was steamed bok choy filled with a scallop and mushroom mousse. It needed no vinaigrette.

A piece of chilean sea bass wore a slightly salty coat of miso, but the pink-centered tuna and scallop were perfectly cooked. A dab of the vinaigrette gave all of them a perfect spark; without it, the dish wouldn’t have tasted right.

But somewhere back in the kitchen was one of Mina’s chefs, apparently confident with the basics enough to give the dieter what he wanted.


Review: Jaleo at The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas, Nev.

lobster salad

Don’t hate on the young because they’re beautiful. Hate on them because they deserve it.

The deserving young were much in evidence at Las Vegas’ too cool-for-school Cosmopolitan hotel  and casino. We were seated at one of the many ringside tables at Jaleo, the hot tapas restaurant. If it were any more integrated with the second floor lobby, Jaleo would be the lobby bar. In fact, given the menu of haute cocktails and small plates, it nearly is.
Clearly somebody made a deliberate decision to eliminate the restaurant walls and expose the eye candy passing through; who were we not to consume it? Especially because the eye candy proved oddly more satisfying than the meal itself.
The young flock toThe Cosmopolitan
 Young men swaggered in skinny jeans and low sneakers, skinny ties or restaurant shirts or faux-prep vintage 2011. To a T, the young women poured  –  and stuffed  or literally sausaged – themselves into variations of the same jersey dress. On top these girls were dressed to spill, and on the bottom – well, just what does one wear under a dress that short with heels that tall?
Our young server was a tad older than the crowd and therefore happy to join in our fun. She shared with us a game she and her friends played. It was called “tourist or hooker?”
It seems a shame to focus on the crowd when the restaurant is from chef Jose Andres, with a James Beard award under his belt and notable restaurants in several American cities. But this is a restaurant where the food couldn’t help but take a back seat to the scene.
This is despite considerable effort by the chef to serve the glitziest of small plates with prices and calorie counts to match. There’s little concession to the chunky and middle-aged here. Our server, asked to recommend something low fat, rolled her eyes.
The three-page menu is nearly all small plates, plus three large plates (one a 22-ounce ribeye) and a handful of paellas. But entire groupings of the small plates were off limits to a dieter – ham and pork sausages, cheeses. The  frituras section carried the slogan, “Frying is overrated…Yeah right!” It seemed safe to choose from among the verduras (vegetables) and sopas (soups).
For The Restaurant Dieter, that confidence was misplaced.
The gazpacho was a wonder to look at – a diagonal dam of itty-bitty cucumber and onion chunks, holding back a lake of rosy broth on one side and a raging river of olive oil on the other. It was one of those gazpachos that falls into decadent territory rather than the salad-in-a-bowl we dieters hope for.


A plate of oven fire-roasted red peppers, eggplant and sweet onions held perhaps an ounce of each swimming in at least a third cup of a heavily-oiled dressing. It went mostly untouched.
Grilled vegetables or oil?
A third round of ordering held more promise. I went for a dressing-on-the-side version of the lobster salad The Restaurant Dieter’s spouse ordered.  Chunks of lobster dotted baby frisee, red and green leaf lettuces, orange, grapefruit and pomegranate seeds. At $18, it was among the highest-priced small plates and good, but hardly transporting.
And a plate of two seared scallops atop romesco sauce arrived perfectly cooked and with an acceptable sheen of fat, but again, just OK.
Given the scene at Jaleo, maybe the food’s beside the point. Or maybe food for dieters is beside the point.
The young crowd certainly didn’t seem to mind at all. The girl in the micro-miniskirt decorated with an erect-penis print just chattered away with her bridesmaids, totally consumed with celebrating the sanctity of her upcoming marriage.

Review: Gastroarte (formerly Graffit), New York City

Not low in calorie, but beautiful to look at

Sometimes your worst enemies turn out to be your best friends. Chef-owner Jesus Nunez should have no remorse over the lawsuit from another NYC restaurateur that forced him to change the name from Graffit — no “i” — to Gastroarte. Both are allusions to something visual and perhaps playful, but the latter turns out to be the most accurate moniker.

That’s because the food is as beautiful as it is inventive. And because this is The Restaurant Dieter, you need to know that it’s only moderately low fat and healthy. I say moderately because while Nunez makes few concessions in the olive oil department, his well prepared dishes are modest in portion. As part of a dieter’s restrained day, Gastroarte is doable and quite enjoyable.
The restaurant has an array of tapas and small plates available in the front of the house at the bar. In the back there is a stripped down menu — just 15 items, including six entrees, three fish and three meat.
Amuse bouche 

Dinner began with an amuse bouche consisting of two parts. A small glass held three layers, apples and pears, a blood orange granita and sangria foam. It was excellent if a tad too sweet as an amuse bouche. The second part was a rectangle of kohlrabi the size of a postage stamp, topped with a lime gelee and arugula micro greens. What an inventive little bite. It was the second time recently when kohlrabi has been featured in a high-end dish. Kohlrabi seems an emerging restaurant trend.

The appetizer selection was my own missed opportunity. Not wanting another green salad or beet salad with goat cheese, I opted for a soup the server described as “like a gazpacho” with salt-cured-rock shrimp. Had I studied the menu more closely or asked questions better, I might have focused on those other two ingredients — boiled egg and Serrano ham.
Cold soup with rock shrimp, boiled egg, Serrano ham

What arrived was a velvety soup the color of a rosy peach, finished with bits of white that the server said were olive oil powder. It was beautiful to look at and wonderfully rich, likely thanks to the olive oil powder, boiled egg and Serrano ham. Not the hoped-for low fat gazpacho, but heavenly.

One wishes the server, asked about low fat offerings, had suggested the gazpacho off the tapas menu, which featured fresh and picked cucumber and salmon roe. It sounded healthier.
The wisest choice of all might have been that green salad, for The Restaurant Dieter’s spouse had a pile of fresh greens, sitting atop carpachio-sliced pear with quince and walnuts in a light balsamic dressing. A taste offered by TRD Spouse inspired intense buyer’s remorse.
Scallops with cauliflower and pear

The recommended low-fat main was pan-seared scallops with pear and cauliflower. It was an artful mosaic of discs and dollops: thumbnail-sized cauliflower florets of white and green, cauliflower puree in yellow, green and lavender, diced bits of pear and perfectly cooked oblong scallops. It had the sheen that suggested no fat was spared in its preparation.

Dessert offered a fresh fruit option, which is never refused. A champagne flute was layered with small chunks of fresh watermelon, a lime glee, dollops of coconut cream and topped with a strawberry foam. With the exception of the rich coconut, it was fairly light.
TRD Spouse enjoyed Gastroarte at its zenith. His black rice with calamari arrived in a perfect rectangle, looking like a Thumbelina-sized garden with a colorful array of plantings. His dessert was a swirling universe of orange and blood orange sauce, on which a group of fried chocolate ball planets orbited.
The latter was consumed so quickly I never got a photograph.
Welcome to the newly christened Gastroarte, where the food may not be low in calories, but it certainly is beautiful to look at.
Watermelon, lime gelee, coconut cream and strawberry foam

Review: Gramercy Tavern, New York City

The muffin

Why do upscale restaurants feel the need to send you home with something for breakfast? The last time we were at Jean-Georges in New York, it was the most delicate little brioche. Once it was a tiny package of house made granola.

This past week at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, it was a cinnamon-sugar muffin. Not that I needed to wreck the perfectly healthy meal with that muffin the next morning. Wait, what actually happened is worse. The Restaurant Dieter’s Spouse left his muffin on the counter, so I ate both. I couldn’t throw it away.

The folks at Gramercy apparently couldn’t leave it at the plate of petit four that ended the meal — tiny cheese cake cups, macarons and deep rich chocolates.

This panna cotta arrived before dessert

And two courses before that, they’d served something new: the pre-desert desert. It was a tiny ramekin with a panna cotta, a dusting of granola and a single blackberry. Then came the low fat sorbet PLUS a plate of the regular ice cream, courtesy of the house, since the waiter worried that I was struggling over which sounded better.

(An important aside here: I do not announce myself as a restaurant reviewer and writer until I leave my business card at the end of the meal, although I do bring a tiny notepad and take photographs of my food. The surprise dessert is the first time I’ve wondered if the house suspected a reviewer was in their midst.)

All told, our three-course prix fixe menu wound up with eight items being brought to the table, starting with a goat cheese puff amuse-bouche that simply oozed cheese and fat. (Yes, it was wonderful.)

A dieter who watched intake more carefully than I could do rather well here. Three of the six entrees on the dinner menu were fish. The Restaurant Dieter’s Spouse had a fillet of halibut with fava beans, sun gold tomatoes and an herb vinaigrette. It was cooked so perfectly he felt compelled to ask if it had been prepared sous-vide. It wasn’t.

My starter was delicate ruby red shrimp with a salsa verde atop polenta. What really made the dish were slivers of tart, pickled ramp and the barely cooked bed of collard greens between the shrimp and the polenta. By just tasting a bit of the polenta, it qualified as diet food.

Sea bass with marinated cucumber and yogurt sauce

The highlight of the meal was a delicate pan-roasted sea bass that rested on a salad of cool marinated cucumber and a yogurt sauce flecked with mint and cilantro. The yogurt sauce was so creamy and rich that I suspected cream or buttermilk, but the server said it was just plain yogurt.

The sorbets — plum, peach and blueberry — were deep concentrations of the fruit. They were tart enough that one suspects little to no sugar was added.

With New York sweltering in record heat this past week, the sorbets and the sea bass combined for a meal a dieter could only dream of.

Review: 5 Seasons Brewery, Atlanta, Ga.

When a place showcases the “brewmaster’s philosophy” on its website, a wise man makes allowances for the food quality. When that same place also features the “chef’s philosophy” and goes on at some length about farm-to-table cuisine, sustainable agriculture and locally-sourced produce, a wise man elevates his expectations.

Honey curry grilled Georgia chicken

Only to have them dashed.

My excursions as The Restaurant Dieter are sandwiched in around my day job and other responsibilities. That’s how I found myself in Atlanta’s West Intown neighborhood with a half hour or so for dinner before an event. It was close. I figured what the heck.

The lobby was full of partial quotes from various publications touting the food. Selective editing is wonderful, isn’t it? Perhaps this review will be summarized as: “wonderful, isn’t it?”

The menu was certainly ambitious and referenced several cuisines and cultures. Starters and small plates that included spelt grain bread; alligator egg rolls, sea scallops with lardons, strawberries, orange glaze and watercress; and crab and cream cheese dumplings and ponzu sauce. Mains ranging from grilled Maine lobster to Georgia rabbit enchiladas and Coca-Cola seared duck breast. Plus it offers grilled pizzas, sandwiches and salads and impressive list of sides. No continent was ignored.

Cold, cold, cold

When edamame is on the menu, I always say yes. Whatever follows, I know I’ve at least consumed some satisfying lowfat protein. A cup served in the pods is about 110 calories and 3.5 grams of fat, but it has 9 grams of protein and 9 grams of fiber.

On the menu, I somehow missed that this dish was served cold. Although topped with a generous dusting of a smoked sea salt, nothing could compensate for the unappetizing temperature. It was as if I’d gone to my local Trader Joe’s, bought them frozen, dumped them on the plate and sprinkled the salt. A little steamer — heck even a microwave — would have helped.

To choose a main, I asked the server’s advice: What was light, lowfat and healthy? He recommended an organic salmon in a red Thai curry with vegetables and sticky rice. Given that a Thai red curry typically includes fattening coconut milk, I asked about sandwiches. For this, he recommended a honey curry grilled chicken sandwich served on focacci, and I agreed.

The sandwich came with fries. But, of course, my hosts were happy to substitute that for a soup or side salad for another $1.50. To a dieter, this is a glaring Vegas-size sign that says: “Hey chub, you are not welcome here.” We should reward such restaurants by never going. Period.

The chicken sandwich may have come from Georgia, but it had no accent at all. It was so bland it might have been…Midwestern. This was despite a few strips of roasted red pepper and the yellowish sheen that said it had been marinated in some kind of fat with curry powder. The marinade might well have been the curry sauce that was served on the side, which I tasted but left untouched. Visually and in taste, it brought to mind a cheap honey mustard bottled dressing blended with curry powder.

I’d asked for the focaccia to be served without being slathered with butter and grilled, but the server apparently didn’t hear. It happens. He immediately apologized and offered to redo it, but I was pressed for time and let it go. It was a lot of so-so bread anyway and therefore calories I didn’t need.

5 Seasons certainly is a restaurant with ambitions. Maybe they’re best focused on the beer.

Review: Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, GA

Bacon in a Glass? With a peanut butter dip?

Gee, how much trouble can a dieter get into when he chooses a restaurant called Leon’s Full Service, where that appetizer is one of the most talked about dishes? Or how about that same restaurant’s “pub frittes,” which can be ordered with 14 sauces ranging from catsup to goat cheese fondue?
It’s not that I’ve lost my mind. I figure The Restaurant Dieter must venture beyond what’s safe if there’s anything to be learned at all. Besides, it was a weeknight and I wanted to dine close to my home in Decatur, Ga., an intown Atlanta suburb with a charming downtown restaurant scene.
A couple of years ago that would have been a no-brainer. A franchised location of one of the salad chains, Dressed and Tossed, had opened. I forget which, but it was reliable, fresh and safe. I stopped by on my way home from work at least once a week. It didn’t last, unfortunately, and now is home to an office for Kaiser Permanente, the large health insurer. Ironic, isn’t it?
Leon’s does the “New American” thing in a renovated downtown gas station. The menu hits all the notes, from artisanal cheeses to a grass-fed burger with Tillamook cheddar cheese. Besides the previously mentioned bacon-and-peanut butter starter, there’s healthier fare such as PEI mussels and salads.
I opted for the mixed lettuces with chevre, pumpkin seed and an orange tabasco vinaigrette, dressing on the side of course in one of those little portion cups I’ve mentioned. The dressing missed that bright note of orange that I expected, likely because it was ladled into the portion cup without being thoroughly mixed. The oil floats to the top.
Leon’s Full Service “veggieloaf”
For my main, I went for the seared “veggieloaf,” which the server described as the “lowest fat thing on the menu.” She said it contained quinoa and other hearty grains.
If healthy=ugly — and let’s face facts, sometimes it does — the veggie loaf was a sure winner. Brown, brown, brown. Was that a dirty kitchen sponge on my plate or dinner? Still, the veggie loaf was nicely browned, but it did not have the oily sheen that screams fat. It had just enough spice to belie the bland appearance.  The veggie loaf was was topped with a tangle of greens, no doubt to boost its visual appeal. It rest atop a cool salad of roast cauliflower, shiitake mushroom and julienned sun-dried tomatoes.
Leftover romesco sauce; had to do it
The whole dish sat atop a pecan romesco sauce, that I felt compelled to mostly avoid. It was excellent, and in very small doses added at least a little kick to the veggie loaf. I have no doubt that the diners most satisfied with this dish mop up every bit of the sauce with the veggie loaf.
Chalk this up as another restaurant meal that’s difficult to assess. A Whole Foods recipe for quinoa loaf clocks in at 170 calories and 4 grams of fat for a 6-ounce serving. This was probably more like 8 ounces and tasted richer and denser than the recipe indicates. So let’s just be scientific about this and declare it double. You gotta better idea?
Then for the salad: a tablespoon or an ounce of chevre (70 calories, 6 grams fat);  a tablespoon of oil-and-vinegar salad dressing (I always figure using Newman’s Own dressings when I don’t know — 75 calories and 8 grams fat) and a tablespoon of pumpkin seeds (47 calories and 4.5 grams fat).
Now for a confession: On a previous visit, I have tasted the bacon-and-peanut butter thing, and damn it was good.
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