Great Restaurants Where You Can Dine on the Lighter Side
by John Mariani
I have never believed in pitting so called "healthy food" against "unhealthy food." I believe only in good food and bad food, either of which can be unhealthy if you eat it without any sense of moderation. Gluttony is a sin whether you gorge on mung beans or on caviar.
And there is nothing wrong with a fast food hamburger now and then (except for the taste). But a regular diet of triple-decker bacon burgers with double fries and an extra-large soft drink? That’s trouble. You'll find the antidote to an unhealthy diet not in cutting out but in cutting down—in other words, moderation in all things.
Countless restaurateurs have learned over the years that creating special sections on their menus for "healthy" dishes does nothing but make most of their customers feel guilty while a minority feel moralistic but miserable. Thank goodness we are already seeing the demise of the low-carb, high-protein diet craze of the past three years. It is also now rare to find the term "spa cuisine"—a phrase coined in 1983 by New York City's The Four Seasons Restaurant—on any menu, even that of the Four Seasons. So, too, are those awful little asterisks and hieroglyphs on menus finally vanishing that indicated low-fat, low-cholesterol and low-sodium items. Thankfully, they seem to be going the way of foods made with soy, egg whites, bean sprouts and chemical sweeteners.
In their place, restaurateurs and chefs of real note have taken to offering a wider range of lightweight dishes and vegetarian options that bear little resemblance to diet stuff of the past. Chefs are instead making wonderful dishes for restricted diets by using exactly the same high quality of ingredients they prefer for the rest of the menu. True, you won’t find them featuring much foie gras or bone marrow in such dishes; but they'll use almost everything else, including fat, in moderation.
Even in Sin City, where restraint is all but legally banned, Las Vegas restaurateurs are taking health-conscious eaters to heart. Of course, the easiest way to cut calories and fat is to eat simply prepared seafood. At Seablue, Michael Mina’s stunning restaurant at the MGM Grand, the offerings range from Florida stone crabs to Maine lobsters and Hawaiian fish simply grilled over a wood fire. There are sauces if you want them, but the food is so fresh and flavorful that you might not even feel the need. Begin with such appetizers as tuna tartare with red onion and grilled pita crisps, or marinated Nantucket bay scallops seviche; or work up an appetite with peel-and-eat shrimp. You'll also find a whole category of main courses cooked as tagines in Moroccan clay ovens, like Pacific King salmon with roasted cauliflower, asparagus and curried couscous; North Sea cod with wild mushrooms, shaved truffles, and a white wine risotto; and fruits de mer with housemade fettuccine, baby fennel and Portuguese sausage.
In Washington DC, that home of pork barrel politics, CityZen provides a sleek and seductive dining venue at the Mandarin Oriental, close by the Smithsonian Institution. You can go whole hog if you want to with chef Eric Ziebold’s daring style of cooking in his five-course tasting menu, which may include such indulgences as a braised shoulder of pork with truffles, cabbage melted in butter and roast pork jus. But if you’ve resolved to follow restraint in the New Year, you can also dine divinely on dishes that don’t pile on the calories. Begin with a classic duck consommé Celestine with julienne crêpes and a dab of truffle mousse, or baby artichokes braised with fennel, carrots, tarragon, and sweet garlic croquettes. For lighter main courses, Ziebold offers such dishes as sturgeon crusted with horseradish and served with baby beets, a celery root gratin, wilted spinach and beet vinaigrette; and a flavorful roast loin of rabbit wrapped in a ribbon of bacon and served with a sweet potato-Fuji apple purée. The open-kitchen dining room itself, designed by Tony Chi, is sexy and shadowy, with surfaces of wood and limestone, windows overlooking the city’s majestic monuments, and table settings featuring names like Bernardaud, Spiegelau, Hepp and Garnier Thibault. Even given any restrictions you may wish to impose on yourself, you can dine very, very well here.
Even in the meat-eating heartland of America, you’ll find innovative restaurants that prove you can find satisfaction in other edible ways. At Chicago’s Green Zebra, chef-owner Shawn McClain makes a convincing argument that some of the most sumptuous food in the world is based on vegetarian principles. The reasonably priced items encourage you to order dish after dish of surprisingly innovative food that, only when you think about it, is completely meat-free. (Okay, there’s one halibut and one chicken dish down at the bottom of the menu.) McClain’s culinary visions—roasted shiitake mushrooms in crispy potatoes with Savoy cabbage and savory; potato gnocchi with ramps and Parmigiano; curried eggplant potstickers with pickled cucumber and ginger-carrot emulsion; avocado panna cotta with tomato gelée, crème fraîche, and corn chips—are as sound as any that might apply to meat, poultry or seafood. His desserts rank among the best in Chicago, including rhubarb tart with a cornmeal crust, lemon confit and sour cream sorbet; or a spiced ginger baba cake with roasted banana ice cream and fresh coconut.
So don’t go on a diet this year. You know you’ll only go off it. Instead, go out to eat and dine well among the many creative, lighter choices to be found in good restaurants everywhere. You’ll feel all the better for it and set the year off to a great start.
* Dévi image by Ben Fink
(Updated 09/22/10 NW)