Eating Healthy in Restaurants - Wine & Dine

Hartford Magazine - 2006


Eating Healthy in Restaurants – Myth or Reality?

Healthy eating is becoming popular with the nation. When fast food culinary institutions like McDonalds and Taco Bell offer so-called healthy, low-calorie and low-fat meals including, god forbid, salads, then surely the gastronomic landscape of America is changing. The website of the famed Golden Arches proclaim they “serve a range of high quality foods that can easily fit into a balanced diet,” and the site is crammed with nutritional and information on calories. As well as these mega fast food joints getting in on the act, family chains and casual diners are making customers aware of their calorific intake. Applebees got together with Weightwatchers to create a Weightwatcher menu with ten items using fresh ingredients including salsas and cilantro inspired dishes.

Goodbye To Artery Blocking Hedonism?

Obesity and certain types of diabetes have reached frightening, almost epidemic levels in America, and heart disease, the result of artery blocking eating habits is one of the leading causes of death in the USA.  The pressure is now on to change our eating habits. When a couple eat at their favorite restaurant, are they looking for a healthy experience? Or are they going out to celebrate, whatever the calories and intake of glorious richness! With restaurant eating can there be a middle ground between hedonism and health awareness?

In order to confirm, or prove otherwise, we spoke with several fine dining establishments.

Two Types of Diners

All the restaurateurs we consulted observed there are two types of diners. There are those that eat at their restaurant on a regular basis, or those that dine out only for special occasions. These two types of diners are as different as chalk and cheese and fine dining establishments have learned to cater to both. Regulars tend to skip dessert and share a dish or two, while the special occasion diner throws caution to the wind!

It’s Quality, not Quantity

It isn’t only about what you eat, it’s also about how much you eat. Quantity affects our waistlines and health. All the chefs we spoke to have downsized protein and carb portions, and upped the fresh vegetables for their restaurant dishes.

Presenting smaller portions is easy at restaurants specializing in Spanish style tapas dishes. Small appetizer size plates of food are growing in popularity. Spanish restaurants already know the pleasure of exciting the palette with small tastes of varying foods, instead of one larger portion. This is a major reason why Costa del Sol in South Hartford is one of our favorite haunts as well as Barcelona in West Hartford.

So when did fine dining chefs cut back on quantity, and start fine-tuning the quality of their dishes? Sean Dutson, executive chef of Vivo in the Hartford Marriott has worked the full spectrum from classical French restaurants to contemporary Italian. He remembers in the early 80’s that if diners didn’t get a half a pound of food on their plate or the riot act would be read!  Sean says that “it wasn’t until the late 80’s and early 90’s that lighter fare emerged. Even classic French cuisine began to lighten up. It wasn’t necessarily the health aspect that drove the change, but a preference for something different.” At Vivos, Sean employs healthful cuisine without really trying. He uses fresh unprocessed ingredients in artful presentations letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Sean says his Pan Seared Snapper with saffron broth, clam juice with little neck clams, and Romesco Sauce is the kind of dish you could eat all the time and not feel guilty about.

A restaurant that has refused to extinguish the menu that put its name on the culinary map 65 years ago is Carbones in South Hartford. Vinny Carbone once tried offering a light menu within his regular menu of classic rich Italian dishes in the 1980’s but it just didn’t fly. Now, Vinny offers a smaller version on his Café menu. There’s a 4 ounce veal portion instead of the usual 6-7 ounces. Even now, with health conscious diners, his classic Northern Italian dishes with cream are every bit as popular although he has cut back the amount of butter used. Ten years ago Vinny would have finished a sauce with 1 tablespoon of butter.  Now he used only 1 teaspoon! Instead he concentrates on heightened flavor, and incorporating more intricate vegetables, and cutting down on the amount of pasta. He’s also added more contemporary dishes to the menu that he would feel comfortable eating on a regular basis, such as the Pan seared tuna with pickled ginger aioli over wilted baby spinach. Vinny reflected ”The culinary landscape has definitely changed. There is no way this dish would have sold 10 years ago!”

Mediterranean Fare

So if the amount of butter and cream is reduced in many dishes, where do chefs get much of their healthy inspiration? The Mediterranean diet has long been hailed as healthy and today’s chefs garner ideas from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Omega-6 fatty acids are good for you, and they’re present in whole grains and plant-based oils that epitomize the Mediterranean. A restaurant like Mediza in West Hartford is just the sort of place where dining out regularly doesn’t compromise your health. Mediza’s reasonably priced menu oozes healthy east Mediterranean fare with olive oil, tahini made from sesame seeds and humus, made from chickpeas. Sure, there’s the hanger steak and pork chop dishes, but these, as well as fresh fish, are served with such healthy additions such as lentils, onion fondue, citrus fennel salad, shallot vinaigrette, wild mushroom ragout marinated artichokes and plenty of fresh vegetables.

Ocean Fare Rules OK

Fish and seafood is definitely in. Recent reports suggest that we should eat at least 3 portions of fish a week. It’s the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon that are recognized as the golden bullet for health. As a result Sushi bars are becoming increasingly popular, and restaurants specializing in fish and seafood – we’re not talking the deep fried kind - have found devoted devotees.  Menus at restaurants like Acqua Oyster Bar  & Grill in Vernon, fresh fish and seafood accounts for 75% of their menu offerings. Executive chef Leo Bushy says, “It’s not necessary to point out which dishes are heart-healthy anymore. The public is much more educated when it come to healthy food choices now. Our menu also describes exactly what is in each dish so if you want a fish dish that is olive oil and Mediterranean based it’s easily found on the menu.” We asked if his restaurant diners were choosing lighter fare now. He said it was 50/50. Their two best sellers are polar opposites. The marinated and grilled swordfish is Mediterranean based with capers, tomatoes, herbs, garlic, lemon and white wine. While the scallop dish is heavy in cream, eggs, ham, bacon and butter! Both sell equally well.

The Times, They Are A’Changin’

Restaurant-wise we’ve experienced a culinary whirlwind over the past few years.  We’ve had the pasta craze, the low fat diet and the Akins diet. These trends have been reflected in the menus of fine dining establishments. Today’s fine dining establishments are excelling at providing  a balanced diet of unprocessed, seasonally fresh food, presented in sensible amounts, with clean flavors without relying on saturated fats. Although every restaurant we interviewed claimed healthy choices on their menu, when it came right down to it, the best sellers are still the rich ones!

Mike Moreau, owner of Simmer in Canton and Azul in West Hartford summed it up best. “Even with all the lighter healthier dishes on our menu, the best seller is still the Lobster Mac and Cheese! “


(Sidebar) Healthy Wine

Producing wines using organic techniques is a trend that’s gaining ground. There are even wines being made that have reduced Carbs. It’s a conscious trend towards making healthier wine – but that doesn’t mean removing alcohol! In increasing numbers vineyards are employing sustainable farming husbandry using organic techniques which means using no insecticides or herbicides in the vineyard, and reducing sulphites in the winemaking process. Here’s a couple of wines from organic vineyards to look out for.

Morgan Winery’s Double L Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County, California is the only certified organic vineyard in the region. To feed his vines, owner Dan Lee uses concoctions such as a ‘compost tea, by steeping compost in a vat of water. It’s an unappetizing brew rich in micro-nutrients that I also use for my roses in my garden! Comparative tastings indicate that the resulting wines have more detailed fruit expression, better structure, and better aroma.

Morgan 2004 Double L Pinot Noir – my favorite kind of Pinot Noir. Uses twelve different clones of Pinot this is Burgundian in style. Elegant and silky with ripe spicy black cherry flavors and a subtle minerality. - $39

Lolonis Vineyards has been committed to organic farming since the 1950's. Ladybugs are released every year into the vineyards to control pests instead of chemicals. The Ladybug is now an intrical part of the Lolonis persona.

Lolonis Vineyards Red Cuvée V Ladybug Old Vines - a full bodied deeply colored blend of Zinfandel, Carignane, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Soft in texture this has plenty of rich blackberry fruit - $15