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A Triangle guide to diet-friendly dining

Gourmet without gorging

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I write about food for a living. But after dining out approximately 120 times this year, my winter clothes are feeling a bit snug.

I may need to go on disability.

Never one to diet without a fight, I went on a mission: find the tastiest meals for the fewest calories. And because I know Indy readers will have varied dining needs throughout the next month of excessive holiday frivolity, we've profiled a range of restaurants, many of which aren't necessarily known for caloric restraint.

Click for larger image • Bonne Soiree's foie gras entree. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Here you'll find gastropubs where your sloppy brother-in-law can gorge on bacon-cheddar fries and a pint of stout while you achieve near-equal nirvana with a tomato-avocado sandwich and glass of shiraz. Here are sushi bars where you can mollify your colleagues with a tower of tempura as you smile virtuously down at your bento box. And here too is fine dining, where your dad in his cheerful candy-cane tie can indulge in seared foie gras just as easily as you can in poisson en papillote. You can eat well and be well, this month in the Triangle.

Small plates = small portions

For decades now, diet programs like Weight Watchers have preached portion control, a concept that is beautifully and conveniently mirrored in the current burst of tapas options around town.

Humble Pie and Tasca Brava in Raleigh are very much worth a visit, as we expect Six Plates (opening any day now in Durham's Erwin Terrace) will be. But one small-plates restaurant that really stands out is Underground, on Morgan Street in Raleigh. The menu changes daily, with dishes ranging from $3 to $11. A recent menu the week of Thanksgiving offered many savory bets for gourmet dieters. To tame your hunger, start with the small bowl of olives and almonds, both of which have "good" fats. If you have a packed table, perhaps share a starter of grilled flatbread with hummus and olive pesto. The flatbread is highly preferable to puffy high-carb breads, and the flavor is so rich from the grill that you'll feel as though you indulged more than you did. Which is, after all, our goal.

You can continue eating well at Underground with a beet salad in mustard vinaigrette (mustard being a dieter's friend: flavorful but not caloric) or a grilled heart of romaine, with a light lemon-Parmesan dressing. It feels like a Caesar but doesn't blow your dinner ration like one.

Click for larger image • Underground's snapper and broccoli rabe entrée and mango sorbet dessert are two healthy options in Raleigh. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Then try any of the seared fish. Both a red snapper with broccoli rabe in chili and garlic oil and a salmon with shallots and fingerling potatoes were superb; chef Daniel Taylor does very well getting just the right crisp on a skinless fish, and his 4-ounce portions are perfect. Less is more, Taylor believes: "Most restaurants cut them 7 or 8 ounces. Your body can't really metabolize that much protein in one sitting," he says. "We're giving you an impeccably made product that is exactly the right amount."

Furthermore, like many chefs these days, Taylor uses only extra-virgin olive oil as often as possible, and rarely ventures into the heavy sauces. "Typically, when you do any kind of roasted meat, it practically sauces itself, especially when you let it rest for a little bit. It has some of its natural fat and its own natural juice. Really, you don't have to do much else to it, maybe throw some parsley at it." For him, "it all comes down to technique."

International flair

This Christmas, why not fly south for the winter? (So to speak.) Both Margaret's Cantina in Chapel Hill and Dos Taquitos in Raleigh are inspired by Southern Hemisphere cuisine and use lots of fresh, healthy produce. At Margaret's you might first start with the inventive shrimp cocktail, a far cry from the bland steakhouse standby: They sauté the shrimp with fresh lime juice and garlic, then chill and serve with cocktail sauce, fresh orange and avocado. Margaret's is also famous for its use of low-fat, high-protein tempeh (fermented soy cakes); infused with flavor from marinating and grilling, they perform beautifully in enchiladas and burritos.

Dos Taquitos serves Mexican and Latin American food at two locations, the original in North Raleigh on Creedmoor Road, and the other (the new Dos Taquitos Centro) downtown on Wilmington Street. First, forgo the margarita so you can steal a few dollops of the house guacamole. The menu will tempt a carnivorous spouse with such mouthwatering plates as mango-steak empanadas and enchiladas puebla, but you'll be equally enticed by the spicy chicken soup (sopa azteca) with chunks of avocado floating on top. If they happen to be offering the special of poblanos in tamarind sauce stuffed with shrimp and cheese, order them and take a few dozen to go (they're so good you could scalp them, like basketball tickets).

Or you could always go east—Far East. Japanese restaurants are beacons for gourmet dieting, if you avoid the tempura and heavily mayonnaised sushi rolls. Obviously, sashimi, being all fish and no rice, carries a great bang for the buck, protein-wise. But it's expensive: If you're watching your bucks, try eating creatively.

Kurama Sushi and Noodle Express on Columbia Street in Chapel Hill features a clever "sushi train," which carries freshly made dishes on a conveyor belt past every diner's seat. While you miss out on the allure and personal touch of the sushi bar, the inexpensive train allows you to monitor your hunger and eat as you go, so you don't over-order (and over-indulge).

Another creative method of portion control is ordering a bento box, a nutritious and relatively affordable option (for lunch, usually $10-$15). A traditional lacquered box, the bento has compartments containing small, neatly placed servings of favorites like seaweed salad, pickled octopus, sashimi and one or two sushi rolls. The fixed size limits your intake, and besides, there's something peaceful and aesthetic about eating from a work of art. It makes you stop and think about your food. In Chapel Hill, try the bento at Sushi-Yoshi or Lantern; in Raleigh, try Mura.

A chicken entree is plated in the Bonne Soiree kitchen. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

If you want to squeeze into your new holiday toga, you could always go Greek. Mythos Mediterranean Bistro recently opened at the intersection of Tryon Road and Cary Parkway. It's colorful and lively, but not too loud, and the food is fresh and healthy—as long as you stay away from the decadent lamb shank and the desserts in phyllo. Everything is cooked in heart-happy extra-virgin olive oil (evoo) imported directly from chef Pete Dalitsouris's family grove in Greece. Starters include grilled steamed mussels in citrus ouzo; octopus marinated in aged balsamic and evoo over red beet salad; and shrimp sautéed with evoo, shitake mushroom, roasted tomato, garlic, aromatic herbs and feta. (If you feel bold, try a glass of retsina with the octopus.) The grilled chicken and grilled salmon salads make fine entrées, though you could also stay on the wagon with a house special called the Youvetsi: roasted chicken, mild andouille, roasted tomatoes, shallots, garlic and peppers tossed with orzo and grated pecorino. Ask to leave off the sausage and you're good to go.

The gastropub: When your buddies insist on bar food

The great everyman Homer Simpson would be picketing the streets if he were, well, human ... for the era of the gastropub is upon us. That is, the bar that is clearly a bar—no longer smoky perhaps, even in the heart of tobaccoland, but dark and edgy and maybe a bit grimy on the floor—with an inspired kitchen and even more inspiring menu.

The granddaddy of these is Durham's beloved Federal. Originally helmed by Andy Magowan, now of Piedmont, Federal has many diners loyal to its hummus plate, cheddar-avocado grilled cheese and fish specials. If you need to calm the masses, the menu also has pork carnitas and "burger au poivre" with fresh-cut fries, not to mention a very fine draft beer list.

(A tip: If the tables are packed at Federal, head next door to the James Joyce, where your mates can douse killer fish 'n' chips in malt vinegar while you dine on a very respectable grilled tomato-cheese on wheat.)

If you're in Raleigh when the pub-grub bug strikes, head to Raleigh Times on Hargett Street, which was, like Federal, founded by an acclaimed chef, Ashley Christensen of Enoteca Vin. Raleigh Times has a popular chop salad and nice chunky guacamole—if you can limit your chip intake. Again, snooty burger and beer available. Don't remind me.

Finally, Acme, on Main Street in Carrboro, has a longer menu than some in the gastropub family, but the late-night bar scene qualifies it. Though the steak frites is an evil plot to distract you, focus all your positive energy on the Elysian Fields spaghetti squash with roasted golden beets, goat cheese and arugula pesto. It looks like a good bet, as does the blackened wild salmon with mirliton squash and black beans, if you can donate to someone in greater need the accompanying two-hour cheese grits.

Drinks and dessert

Please realize, you can be as virtuous as a daisy in your main course, but if you chug down three gin-and-tonics over the course of the evening, you've blown 600 calories before your food even digests.

When my table is lining up the lagers and my lemon water is looking a little tired, I pull an old pregnancy trick: order a bitters-and-soda. I've got a solid drink in hand, but I head home 500 calories slimmer, which is coincidentally just the amount most nutritionists recommend to be on par for a weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week.

If you must drink alcohol, best make it wine only, which has only 100 calories per 5-ounce serving, compared to 150 for a 12-ounce beer and 200 for liquor-based drinks. It's worth noting that though a 2-ounce Cosmo or dirty martini is only 120 calories, it is only 2 ounces of liquid. A 6-ounce margarita approaches 350, depending on the recipe, and how often do you stop with one? Get something that lends itself to sipping, like wine, and you'll be less likely to gulp it down.

Fortunately, small pours of wine are, like small plates, catching on. In Raleigh, Enoteca Vin offers 1.5-, 3- and 5-ounce options, as does West End Wine Bar in Chapel Hill (though it doesn't offer the deep food menu of Vin). If you simply can't envision a night out without wine, ask whether your restaurant will agree to half-pours with each course, from the by-the-glass menu, of course. A taste or two will go a long way. (This is much easier to accomplish at a fine-dining establishment with a sommelier to guide you. Some will allow half-glass, half-price wine flights, such as the Fearrington House Restaurant, and if you ask in advance, Underground and Bonne Soiree may consider it.)

The dessert menu, or worse, the dessert cart, is terribly deceptive. Though many people plan their meal around anticipation of that chocolate pot de crème, once it's on the table before you, either you're full or it simply seems superfluous after two courses and a tipple of merlot. (My longtime friend who is a celebrated pastry chef in New Orleans would beg to differ.) But for the gourmet dieter, nothing good will come of dessert ... unless it's having a taste of something benign like, say, sorbet, to satiate you and stop late-night cravings. Daniel Taylor at Underground, who makes the purest-tasting mango sorbet on the planet, shares his ingredients with us (but of course not his method): "All it is is pureed mango and a little bit of sugar syrup, [sometimes] a bit of lemon juice, nothing else."

Clearly, sorbets have matured since your mother tried to make you eat them in the '80s. No longer ruled by the simple berry, they are appearing in such elegant attire as lemon verbena (Enoteca Vin), Muscadine grape and champagne (Underground), and a trio of lulo, boysenberry and soursop (Dos Taquitos). With that, my sweet, you have closure.

Fine dining

Many classical cooking techniques—those canonized more than a century ago by legendary French chefs Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier, and later popularized by Julia Child—rely on butter, egg yolks, meat juices and cream to round out the taste of a dish. Is there any way to classically cook low-fat? Are we out of luck on true fine dining?

Thankfully, Chip Smith, chef of Bonne Soiree in Chapel Hill (in January 2007 named "Restaurant of the Year" by The News & Observer), assures us that new methods are en vogue, both here and abroad. "The generation now is a little more aware ... the modern-type French cuisine, it's much lighter. There's not as much flour, like making a roux to thicken the sauces, and not so much cream, and there is less butter, and we don't use egg yolks to thicken sauces anymore."

Click for larger image • Bonne Soiree chef and co-owner Chip Smith prepares a veal entree at his Chapel Hill restaurant. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Is it rude for a dieter to try to customize a painstakingly considered four-star meal? "You can ask for a smaller portion of something," says Smith. "If there's a tasting menu available, you can do very well with that as well. Of course, rather than getting the foie gras, get a composed salad. You don't have to get the duck confit, the duck cooked in duck fat. . . . I try to always have a fish on the menu that is brothy. Yes, the broth may have a little butter in it, but it's not necessarily a heavy, reduced butter-thickened sauce."

The occasional diner, though, will still request a salad dressing on the side. "It's kind of a joke in the kitchen," Smith says. "It's funny, when you get dressing on the side, our hardest thing—and we're continuing to figure it out—is finding the perfect little vessel. Usually when you get dressing on the side, it's either way too little or six times too much."

So let the kitchen toss it for you (with Bonne Soiree's simple yet brilliant salade aux herbes, you won't be sorry), and if a particular salad seems heavier than you'd like, "opt for the vinaigrette," advises Smith. "All restaurants of a certain caliber have a good house vinaigrette."

After a bit of prodding, Smith admits that Bonne Soiree's most renowned dishes are a dieter's nightmare—that aforementioned duck confit for example, or any of the mind-blowing savory tarts: "We do call ourselves the Den of Sin." But perhaps a restaurant of the year is worth splurging on. "If you're going to Hardee's [that week], maybe don't get that triple-decker," he suggests. "Blow it at my restaurant instead."


Rules for gourmet dieting

  • Olive oil, nuts and avocado are good fats; butter, cream and animal fats are not. Keep milk products low-fat or skim. (Fortunately, you're not likely to encounter many trans fats, those partially hydrogenated processed fats, in fresh restaurant foods.)

  • Red meat is out, chicken allowed (if skinless white meat). Go fish!

  • No consuming calories within two hours of bedtime. Start early.

  • Order a side of veggies. Filling yourself up with vegetables prevents you from filling yourself up with crème brulee.

  • Rice, couscous, etc., in moderation. No potatoes other than sweet potatoes, and very little bread. Eat an apple in the car so you're not tempted by the bread basket.

  • No alcohol, if possible. Drink lots of water; slices of lemon or lime make it festive. Or order a bottle of sparkling water and ask if they'll put it in a wine chiller for panache.

This report was compiled using no scientific method, employing only tastebuds and common sense as a scale, and is utterly without empirical proof. Guides to nutrition included the two top-rated diet books in Consumer Reports' diet issue, June 2007: Volumetrics by Barbara Rolls and The Best Life Diet by Bob Greene. —Jane Hobson Snyder

Wait staff take house caesar salads out to the table at Bonne Soiree. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

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