When The Restaurant Dieter started on Weight Watchers, he threatened to have some little calling cards made. He would hand them to the server at the beginning of every restaurant meal. They would say:
“Hello. Nice to meet you. I’m happy to be here. After a lifetime of fighting my weight, I recently joined Weight Watchers. I’m excited and having some success. However, restaurant meals remain a challenge. You can help me, and if you do, you’ll be handsomely rewarded.
“So here’s what I need: Please don’t give me a pained expression when I ask for something special. Please don’t pretend I’m speaking Urdu and that you don’t understand. If I ask a question about how something is prepared and you don’t know, volunteer to go to the kitchen and ask. If you’re unsure, don’t guess. If I ask for something with the sauce on the side, check that it is before you bring the dish out. This is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I thank you in advance for your kind attention.”
The Four Seasons is the kind of restaurant that draws celebrities and Manhattan power couples. Was that elderly woman seated in the airy Pool Room across from us a celebrity? Or was that finely sculpted face reminiscent of Joan Rivers the work of the same plastic surgeon? It can be difficult to tell.
For the serving staff, it probably pays to assume everybody there is famous and to act accordinly. Perhaps that’s why our server was so attentive. Asked about what was good on the menu for somebody watching consumption of fats and oils, he merely asked, in perfectly accented French: What would you prefer?
The kitchen could and would adapt any of the ingredients on the menu to come up with something that would work. When I suggested a dish that had lentils, he demurred. No, they were soaked in rich ingredients and simply wouldn’t do.
It was almost vexing to have such freedom to choose. In that way, it’s also damn clever. If something came out that wasn’t to your liking…well, it is exactly as ordered.
He did endorse the selection of a king crab, apple and mache salad. It arrived looking fresh and clean. A giant lump of crab meat sat atop a spicy dressing, with mache and Granny Smith apple matchsticks to add a tart punch. I counted it as 5 Weight Watchers points — 3 for 6 ounces of lump crab meat and 2 for 2 tablespoons of Italian-type salad dressing.
King crab, mache and apple salad
For the main, I ordered the filet mignon. The menu indicated it came with cauliflower and caperberries, which our server said were laden with fat. He consented to bring the caperberry sauce on the side and said the kitchen would simply steam the cauliflower. All good.
With late night theater tickets, The Restaurant Dieter and his husband opted out of dessert, so what followed next was the meal’s highlight.
Before the check, the server brought the kitchen’s standard petit fours — tiny cookies and sweets, in this case — for The Restaurant Dieter’s spouse. For me, he brought a cup of exquisitely fresh blueberries, strawberries and raspberries.
Never did I have to whip out my fantasy calling card.
In today’s New York Times, restaurant critic Pete Wells joins the long line of NYT reviewers awarding four stars to Le Bernardin.
The review talks about how the restaurant has managed to stay on top after 18 years under the guidance of Chef Eric Ripert. It is a combination of change — in menu and atmosphere — but staying true to fundamentals. And the essence at Le Bernardin is fish, fresh and wonderfully cooked.
It’s been at least four years since my last visit, but I remember it well. I was relatively new on Weight Watchers and uncertain if a meal at a famous restaurant would sabotage my efforts.
It did not. Each dish might be sauced, but the flavors were so rich that a tiny bit augmented the fish perfectly. My next weigh-in went great.
Wells review notes how quickly the menu changes, with one excellent dish replacing another. And last summer, the restaurant itself got a facelift.
Next time you’re in New York and need a healthy lunch, try a bowl at Manhattan Chili Co., a quick-service food counter in Grand Central Station. The restaurant offers at least two fairly healthful chilis.
A one-cup serving of Totally Vegetable has 160 calories, 1 gram of fat, 8 grams of fiber and 7 of protein. On the Weight Watchers Points Plus system, that’s 4 points.
A serving of the Red Lentil has 130 calories, .5 grams of fat, 6 of fiber and 5 of protein. It works out to 3 Weight Watchers points.
Some of the fiber comes from the fact that the chili is thickened with parsnip and butternut squash.
Both are pretty high in sodium, however with 690 mg and 720 mg respectively. The latter is about half the sodium a person over 50 should consume in an entire day.
“It is what it is,” said owner Bruce Sterman. “We are not a low-salt product.” He pleaded for understanding. In his 21 years of operating restaurants in Greenwich Village and Times Square, he said he’d tried to reduce the sodium. But the customers complained the chilis tasted too bland.
If New York isn’t on your travel schedule, Sterman says his products are sold in some Whole Foods stores.
Restaurants that have vegetables other than potatoes on the menu are always welcome. That’s especially true if they include legumes, which offer some protein The only problem is that they tend to prepare vegetables with lots of fat, as no one will eat them otherwise.
Witness these two plates from Salumeria Rossi on New York’s Upper West Side. The restaurant’s speciality is mostly Italian meats and cheeses. It’s close by our apartment, and The Restaurant Dieter’s spouse has been eager to try it.
Spotting a caponata and a melange of beans on the menu seemed fortuitous. But what arrived was slathered in oil. Moreover, it was outrageously expensive, even by New York standards. Nine bucks each for a plate of beans and a cup of eggplant?
Sometimes fate intervenes, and The Restaurant Dieter is helpless.
Growing up in ethnic Detroit, the foods of Eastern Europe were plentiful. Stuffed cabbage — “pigs in a blanket” we called them — were a staple. Only in adult life would I learn that others use the term to refer to that curious American cocktail party concoction of a Vienna sausage wrapped in biscuit dough.
Even though we were Italian, my mother learned to make these the real polish way from my Aunt Shirley. Done poorly, the meat-and-rice mixture inside is dense and hard, like an overcooked hamburger. But when they are done well, there’s nothing better.
So I found myself in the East Village recently, after going to the gym, with no lunch and time to kill before the vintage shop opened. And right there, on the corner, was Veselka — “Ukranian Soul Food in the Heart of the East Village.” The rightness of this choice was only enhanced by discovering that The New York Times restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, had listed it among his 50 best.
I suppose one could work the menu and come up with something diet worthy — homemade pea soup and a veggie burger, turkey burger or salad. Buy why, when you can rationalize that you just went to the gym and somehow deserve one of the “hearty combo plates.” At $13.95 with soup and salad, it was a bargain by New York restaurant standards.
I devoured the thick and hearty pea soup, one of nine choices. It actually needed salt and pepper, a sure sign that it was fresh made rather than assembled from a cheap commercial base. The pierogi — two meat and two potato — were chewy and took well to the condiments provided — shredded beet relish, caramelized onions, sour cream and applesauce.
The single stuffed cabbage, smothered in a mushroom gravy were melt-in-your-mouth wonderful. How wonderful? Did anyone notice that unlike my typical posts, this one has no photograph of the plate before the food was consumed. Hoovered that one up nicely, I thought.
But that’s why they make the gym in the first place.
Even when the menu is fairly helpful to a dieter, the serving staff can flounder. At the meeting before service begins for the evening, they are likely to hear the chef describe the specials in detail. They are unlikely to be prepared by the chef for a dieter who will test their knowledge of the menu, their understanding of nutritional science and perhaps their patience.
In other words, The Restaurant Dieter. Faced with his many questions, special requests and general neediness, a server can fail.
Which is why the mid-fortyish server one night recently at Print was such a joy. A solid, but not large woman, she wore her hair pulled back and had a big smile. Her accent suggested she might be a native Spanish speaker.
She understood the menu, made great recommendations and provided honest feedback. A grilled vegetable plate consisting of cauliflower-spinach flan, butternut squash, brussels sprouts, roasted carrots, mushrooms and truffle sauce sounded good. But having been asked at the beginning about which foods were low in fat, she discouraged the choice. Too much butter, she said.
That said, there were several good choices on this menu of about a dozen starters and a dozen second courses. Among the starters were oysters, grilled octopus, ceviche and at least five salad or vegetable-based choices. Three looked so good that they became the whole meal.
The salad of garden greens and seasonable vegetables with a red wine vinaigrette exceeded the modest description. Radicchio and arugula were accented with thinly shaved peppery radish, kohlrabi and carrot. A tart red wine vinegar suited their diverse flavors subtly; a more common heavy balsamic would have trampled them.
On the server’s recommendation, the second course was a small ceviche, a simple plate of shaved red snapper accented with little bits of yucca, shaved watermelon radish and shallot. The orange-lime dressing had just enough heat, thanks to shaved habanero
For the third course, it was back to the starters menu for the salad of heirloom tomatoes, watermelon, feta and basil. Tomatoes are a fruit, no? The server graciously accepted my request, so the feta and dressing came on the side. By using a tiny bit of both, the salad maintained that salty-sweet dichotomy that the chef intended, but at a lower-fat threshold.
Print’s location on the ground floor of the Ink 48 Hotel in Hell’s Kitchen makes it convenient for travelers. But go for the food, the diet-friendly menu and a certain dark-haired server.
Where Daniel Boulud is concerned, The Restaurant Dieter may not demur. His husband is so passionate about the chef that no new venture can be ignored for long. Not surprisingly, another recent trip to New York landed us at Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side, the French master’s foray into Mediterranean cooking.
And what a trip it was: The restaurant touts foods from France’s Côte d’Azur to Spain, Italy, Greece, North Africa and Turkey. If the food isn’t to your taste, well at least there’s the geography lesson to consider.
Fortunately, the food lives up to Boulud’s high standards.
The menu divides the dishes based on where they come from: De La Ferme (the farm), De La Mer (the sea) and Du Jardin (the garden). There are appetizers, plates to share, mains and side dishes. In fact, the garden menu is a bounty of vegetable dishes; a vegetarian or even a vegan could do rather well here.
Seeing as this was a Boulud enterprise, the server was knowledgeable, pleasant and helpful. He pointed out several diet-friendly dishes, mostly from the fish main courses. His timing was excellent, for it allowed us to move past danger territory.
Moments before, the bread basket had arrived with a garlic foccacia and buttery flat bread that reminded one of Indian paratha rather than a more typical pita-style flatbread. It was crispy, chewy, yeasty and buttery all at the same time. And that was plain, served with nothing. Imagine it served with Boulud Sud’s hummus or babaganoush. It could easily have been our entire dinner and a diet disaster.
Instead, a serviceable classic Greek salad arrived for me (dressing and feta on the side, of course) and delicately fried artichoke hearts, Roman style, for my spouse. I tasted a piece of one with a dab of aioli — just enough to know that I was better off with the salad. It consisted of tender and small whole romaine leaves from the middle of the heat, fat heirloom tomato chunks, kalamata olives, shaved red onion, seeded cucumber and peproncini.
As a main, I ordered an appetizer portion of grilled blue shrimp and two of the vegetable side dishes, which are large enough to share. The shrimp came head on and with the smoky bouquet of the grill. They rested on a subtle watercress puree and pungent grilled chicory.
The real highlights were the vegetables. Broccoli rabe with a pleasantly bitter edge was charred and tossed with pepperoncini, topped crispy shallots. Tucked among tiny roasted beets were dollops of a lucious, thick Greek-style yogurt infused with a dust of finely chopped pistachio.
Sometimes, you have to just admit your spouse is right.