By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
As a matter of principle, we are committed to finding food with ample fat, from marbled steaks to chocolate cakes, but even we sometimes yearn for light fare. On our beat, finding it isn’t easy. In some cafés, “diet plates” are not-so-dietetic bunless burgers with creamy cottage cheese and Jell-O. Salad bars offer macaroni with marshmallows and slaws gobbed with mayo. On the other hand, too many “health food” restaurants are leftovers from the Age of Aquarius: In head-shop surroundings, they serve grub with the savor of burlap. These are reasons we treasure our little black book of places where elevated nutritional consciousness inspires the best kind of creativity—the kind that tastes good.
There is just such a find in Woodbury, Connecticut, a few yards up Route 6 from Phillips Restaurant (home of the finest cinnamon doughnuts on earth…but that’s another story). This virtuous outpost is called CAROLE PECK’S GOOD NEWS CAFE; and although Carole is revered by prodigal appetites for wickedly rich desserts—devil’s food cupcakes and celestial triple layer coconut cake, for instance—she also happens to be a hero among fat-frowners for dishes of which Nathan Pritikin would have approved, including Mediterranean seafood salads and vegan “steaks” made of tofu and legumes. The menu’s scope was a godsend for a small family we watched one weekend. Dad tucked into a double-cut pork chop with white bean and pumpkin stew; Mom had wok-fried rice with gingered vegetables; and their Growing Boy ingested a brace of slab-bacon BLTs accompanied by a crisp fried-onion bundle as big as a football.
Like the menu, the café’s patrons are flagrantly eclectic. Serious foodies flock to the place, as do antiques-hunters browsing their way up Route 6 and secretaries on quick lunch-hours. Proper ladies with matching shoes and handbags sip Rob Roys at tables adjacent to booths of artists in spattered overalls; pinstriped businessmen make deals over pasta and Pellegrino; and horsey types in boots and breeches sit for hours, quaffing Port in the afterglow of a ride. The boisterous dining rooms have sophisticated art exhibits on the walls, and the menu brims with Carole’s personal enthusiasms—the poached egg atop a salad of spinach and roasted Portobello mushroom is described as “delicious local fresh,” and an “Aztec” platter of spiced black beans, brown rice, lentils, goat cheese, stuffed pepper, and grilled vegetables is “in a Southwest groove.” And a merry little valentine illustrates the grilled hearts of lettuce and Vidalia onion salad.
Choices always include what Carole calls “the perfect food”—potatoes. She bakes them and fills them with vegetables at lunch and uses them to make mushroom hash to accompany grilled fish at dinner. Her everyday mashed potatoes are a dieter’s dream, made without butter or cream but—honest to Pete—as rich as the best fattening spuds in any Kansas City fried-chicken joint. They are Yukon Golds, blended with nothing but thick buttermilk, and they are grand on the side of roasted free-range chicken. You can have them as the star of a “smashed potato” lunch, combined with French blue cheese on a bed of greens.
“For me, wholesome food is not a trend,” Carole Peck says. But neither is it a killjoy compulsion, which is why her café is the happiest place in New England to eat righteously or, if you prefer, to eat gorgeous layer cakes.
On the window and menu of CAFE BRENDA in Minneapolis is a logo that reads NATURAL RESTAURANT EXTRAORDINAIRE. It is an extraordinary restaurant, set at street level in the warehouse district, where espresso bars, galleries, and other signs of urbane life occupy sturdy stone and brick buildings. The towering windows give the dining room theatrical panache, but there’s a measure of serenity, too, thanks to a thick carpet and framed botanical prints on clean, pale pastel walls.
This is not the kind of city café that attracts noisy birthday parties or visiting firemen. The tactful austerity of the decor signals a reverent attitude toward food. White-aproned waiters volunteer mouth-watering descriptions of peppery harissa sauce drizzled over saffron-rich Moroccan vegetable couscous or spicy ginger-tahini dressing on soba noodle salad. Tables are set far enough apart to make meals feel like private parties; we saw a nutritionally compatible foursome toasting one another with glasses of micro-brewed beer, then sharing shrimp satay and grain-and-bean croquettes.
Chef Brenda Langton’s macrobiotic sozai (Japanese for “today’s meal”) is a feast as colorful as an artist’s palette. It includes cooked red beans, mixed with maple and ginger, that give minimal tooth resistance before they virtually melt on the tongue. They are placed next to a drift of puréed baked yams possessing an earthy sweetness shockingly different from that of the beans. Across the plate are pickled white Napa cabbage and red cabbage. Frail black arame (a seaweed) is an exquisite sight beside a stalk of green steamed broccoli. In the center of the medley is a tile of marinated tofu—an amazing piece of food that is baked crisp and golden, with an interior that feels as rich as sweetbreads.
Brenda recalls that when she started cooking in a Saint Paul restaurant in 1976, “healthful ingredients took precedence over flavor.” Twenty years have passed, and the meals she serves now are healthful but uncompromised in taste. In this café, flavor prevails.
TUTTAPOSTO, a playfully decorated brick-walled restaurant in an arty Chicago neighborhood, has a wood-burning oven, a staff of lively twenty and thirty somethings, and a menu of dishes that can range from Tunisian chicken wings to seared salmon with horseradish potatoes. Inscribed on a chalkboard near the entryway are the words, “A balanced diet based on Mediterranean traditions is the best way to a healthy heart.” Next to it is a drawing of the “Mediterranean pyramid,” with red meat at the tiny top and grains and legumes occupying a broad space at the bottom.
Another chalkboard advises that “Garlic is the ketchup of intellectuals.” You sniff garlic even before you walk in; and woe to those who come without reservations on a crowded night, for they must bide time in the bar area while that come-hither aroma drives their appetites into a frenzy. When a vegetable pizza gets carried from the flurry of the open kitchen, waiting heads turn in unison to watch it disappear into the dining room and noses lustily inhale the perfume of caramelized garlic cloves strewn across it. Garlic also infuses neevik, a salubrious Armenian appetizer of sautéed spinach with lemon, tahini, and chick-peas. Capellini dal pescatore—an Italian dish of shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, scallops, lobster tail, and chunks of fish atop thin noodles—is garlicky, too, but what’s really bewitching about it is the peppery heat of the tomato broth.
Couscous is a featured attraction. It is accented with lemon to accompany wood-roasted quail and is the foundation of a splendid “couscous royale” of squab and skewers of tahini-marinated chicken, lamb, and merguez sausage. There is even couscous for dessert. If you can avoid such naughty splurges as vanilla-chocolate checkerboard bread pudding and the chocolate praline pyramid, we recommend the couscous “tower”—honeyed grain adorned with fresh fruit and fruit sauces. Eating healthy was never so sweet.
Chicago’s FOODLIFE is no ordinary mall food court. Armed with plastic debit cards that are descendants of the punch cards used at vintage delicatessen counters, grazers in this vast culinary theme park select what they want from thirteen kiosks, each with a different theme. Choices include Mexican burritos and fajitas, seafood, and an array of pastas. The system is simple once you get the hang of it but is still so new that a member of the staff is stationed at the entrance to guide everyone who walks in. Even so, some wanderers are so dazzled by the beauty and variety of the food that they simply cannot choose. They drift among the counters with glazed eyes, unable to decide between thick-crust pizza or mix-it-yourself Mongolian stir-fry.
It is a mesmerizing place. No assembly-line franchised food here: All is fresh and appealing, and you can eat wholesome fare everywhere you turn. Stuff a potato with al dente steamed broccoli or low-fat yogurt; enjoy luxurious but egg-free Caesar salad dressing; plow into a casserole of grains and roasted vegetables. There are many devilishly rich things to eat (baby back ribs, hefty burgers, flourless chocolate cake), but vegetarians, dieters, and anyone in search of a fast, fit meal will have a field day.
Two giant artichoke sculptures mark the entrance of NATURA CAFE in Dallas; inside, ten-foot effigies of asparagus stalks lead toward the dining room. The to-go menu has a tagline—”New American Taste Indulgence With No Regrets”—and both it and the regular menu come supplemented by a breakdown of calories, fat, protein, cholesterol, and carbohydrates in every dish served, as well as a promise that the air in the restaurant is “filtered, ozonated, and constantly circulated.” Conspicuous health policies in no way inhibit Natura’s high spirits. In the clamorous bar up front, hip urbanites with baseball caps facing forward and back accompany vegetable tamales and venison quesadillas with fruit smoothies or fresh-squeezed six-vegetable juice. In the dining room, newspapers are hung on a rack for singles and those couples who are bored with one another. We marveled at the harmony of a different pair, looking deep into each other’s eyes and oblivious to all around them: He drank carrot juice, she knocked back a straight-up Martini (impeccable in its long-stemmed glass with three Texas-size pimiento-stuffed olives).
Bread isn’t served unless you ask for it. It is curious: rectangles of fresh, rosemary-flavored loaf reminiscent of focaccia, but softer—as if the traditional Italian flatbread had been crossed with the billowy white loaves that go with local barbecue. Natura’s pizzas, on the other hand, are more Old World than Texan. Their herbed crusts are crisp and cracker-thin; toppings include radicchio, grilled vegetables, and oven-dried tomatoes.
Natura’s square meals are exemplary: lean meat loaf (300 calories) with scallion and rosemary flavored mashed potatoes (a mere 160 calories); slow-roasted chicken with herbed potatoes (953 calories); and tacos loaded with succulent chunks of red snapper (598 calories) and accompanied by a peppery corn and tomato relish and black beans. Sandwiches include three kinds of burger: lean beef, bison, or tuna, all served on fresh onion rolls.
Every plate of food is sprinkled on the edges with black pepper or flecks of green parsley or cilantro. In this merry place, it looks like healthful confetti.
Cafe Brenda (permanently closed)
300 1st Avenue North
Carole Peck’s Good News Café
835 North Michigan Avenue (in the Water Tower Building)
Natura Cafe (permanently closed)
2909 McKinney Avenue
Tuttaposto (permanently closed)
646 North Franklin Street