Oh waiter, there's a carb on my plate

Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2004

When going out to a nice restaurant, that's the time to put the diet on hold.

Well, that was in the old days.

In these days of low-carb consciousness, the urge to splurge has been purged.

At restaurants routinely serving meals that usually come in at between $90 to $130 per couple, chefs are finding a way to accommodate. Enter fine dining with a low-carb theme.

Last week, Tom Gray, chef at Bistro Aix, introduced a new menu where familiar items were given a low-carb twist. At Marker 32, sous chef Stephen Carmines was busy working on including low-carb options when I called.

Dwight DeLude, chef and owner of Dwight's, knows firsthand that people are avoiding the carbohydrates at his place. Dishes are being returned with the made-on-premises ravioli, a signature item, untouched.

"I make my own bread," he said. "While my business is up, I'm not making any more bread than (I was) before."

DeLude's appetizer menu has had a low-carb quality even before the craze hit. It features seared tuna, crab cakes with very little filler and portobello mushrooms. He has added another using buffalo burger.

Even if the menu changes aren't listed on the menu, Eric Fritsche, co-owner and chef at Pastiche, tells customers most chefs can accommodate diets. People with eating restrictions ask for special items all the time, and he is more than happy to oblige.

And the substitution for potatoes need not always be steamed broccoli. Gray uses brussels sprouts, green beans, artichokes in sauces and more exotic items like mizuno (similar to a mustard green).

It seems that the Atkins Diet and its offshoot eating plans are going from a fad to a lifestyle. But restaurant owners needn't throw out their bread baskets just yet. Experienced ones have seen this sort of thing before.

We are still in the New Year's resolution phase of this diet. People who began four weeks ago are still in the euphoric stage of having dropped considerable weight in a short amount of time. It is still new, and friends' compliments are still coming. But once the pounds start to trickle off and the boredom factor of the plan sets in, people will start modifying the plan to meet their own needs.

I'm a prime example. Shortly after getting married and starting this job, my weight ballooned. A doctor prescribed a plan to control my high cholesterol. I went on it and lost about 20 pounds and my cholesterol dropped. However, after a few months I was tired of being handcuffed by the diet. I craved pasta and good bread. Mashed potatoes called out to me.

I went off the diet and gained back half the weight I lost. But, I learned something about eating moderation. I can't eat my meal and the half my wife doesn't eat of hers. Instead of big piles of mashed potatoes, I have just a few tablespoons. Bread is a once a day thing. Fries (my kryptonite) are replaced with salads half the time. Heavy stout and porter beers are ordered only in restaurants.

I'm not unusual, Gray said.

"My instinct with all dietary fads and trends is that people don't stick to them in their entirety. But if a trend teaches you how to be aware of what you eat and you have a balance in your diet, that's a good thing."

Dan Macdonald is a columnist for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla.

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