Eating out but not without

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YOU ARE CRUISING fullsteam ahead on a low-carb diet and don’t want to blow it when you go out to eat. What are the options, besides having a steak at the Outback? Speaking with chefs about catering to fad diets unleashes a variety of responses. After all, chefs pride themselves on the delicate construction of their menu items. Flavors and sensations are balanced with careful proportions of proteins, vegetables and starches in a manner that reflects their take on cuisine. Can the guest ask for a substitution of ingredients? Is tinkering with the dish considered heresy?

At most restaurants, if you look carefully, you will be able to find a low-carb menu item. The best place to look is often the appetizer or starter menu. The roasted quail or mussels in cream sauce will often fill the bill and your appetite, too. If you inform your server that you are looking for a low-carb meal, they can make a recommendation and offer a substitution for the offending starch.

Chef Nathan Baldwin, of Baldwin’s On Elm in Manchester (622-5975), suggests a celery root purée. The high-fiber vegetable is lower in carbs than potatoes, but the smooth, neutral flavor of the purée gives the same sensation as the high-carb white potato. One of his entrées, like the scallops, is usually accompanied with the purée. Baldwin admits the low-carb phenomenon has affected his restaurant. On a recent evening, every meal that went out was modi- fied per request.

The Mediterranean cuisine adapts well to the low-carb regime. Chef Luca Paris, of Luca’s Mediterranean Café (358-3335) in Keene, trained his staff to alert customers to the fact the entire menu is flexible when it comes to dietary needs. You can request a low-carb or gluten-free version of most of his menu items.

Well, all, except pasta dishes. If fact, if you call ahead, he may be able to prepare just about anything you wish in his signature style.

Talk to Chef Duncan Boyd, of Victory 96 State Street in Portsmouth (766-0960), and he unleashes a litany of nutritional laments that starts with poor school lunch programs and a lack of nutritional education to the public. The American public’s eating habits, especially the super-size mentality, are “atrocious,” says Boyd. Not into what he calls “fad diets,” Boyd is more concerned with a balanced plate: The protein is surrounded with vegetable and carbohydrate garnishes. His serving sizes are not huge, reflecting his philosophy of moderation.

“If everyone ate a balanced diet 340 days a year, we wouldn’t need fad diets,” he says.

Again, all it takes is some common sense and a little restraint. If you go overboard one night, have a salad the next. He recommends salads and leafy green vegetable as part of a meal since the roughage in the cellular structure aids digestion by helping to break down the carbohydrates. His dishes are often complemented with sautéed spinach, kale or chard.

An advocate of sustainable agriculture, Boyd is working toward a full menu that uses locally produced ingredients. Right now, he imports sustainably raised salmon from Ireland. His menus are seasonally inspired, so spring and summer menus will be lighter by their nature and hence have fewer carbohydrates — probably less fat, too. There are several low-carb items on the menu now, like the duck breast, but that wasn’t by demand in the latest diet rage.

Over at the Wellington Room on Bow Street in Portsmouth (431-2989), Chef David Robinson is fully aware of the Atkins diet. He was an acquaintance of Atkin’s, and about ready to work with him on menu items for his Bow Street restaurant just before Atkins’ untimely death. Robinson says it is fairly easy to swap out the starch on his menus for another vegetable.

He also points out that his sauces are sugar-free reductions not thickened with flour. He agrees moderation is important, saying an unbalanced diet is “dangerous stuff.” Are Italian restaurants the last place to head for low-carb foods? Not so, according to Rosa Paolini, co-owner of Piccola Italia (606-5100). Sure, they offer pasta dishes, but there are also protein dishes, with pasta served as a side dish. Paolini recommends their Steak Piccola Italia, which is a strip steak garnished with gorgonzola cheese and just a few sun-dried tomatoes for flavor.

Rosa’s husband, Chef Johnny Paolini, is amazed by the number of steak dishes being ordered.

At restaurants that feature Northern Italian cuisine, you can find protein dishes that are not breaded, or fish or shellfish in savory sauces laced with butter or olive oil. Usually, the alcohol in wine sauces is reduced in cooking, as are some of the carbohydrates.

Where are the offending carbs usually hidden? Barb Trono, owner of Low Carb Heaven, says besides the obvious refined flours in pastas and breads, sugars are lurking in sauces, marinades and condiments. Ketchup has four to six grams of carbohydrates in just one tablespoon, so watch out for the barbequed ribs. Trono’s two stores, in Amherst and Manchester, offer alternative candies, low-carb pastas and bread mixes, in addition to low-carb ketchups and marinades. Most of these products are sweetened with Splenda (sucralose).

Trono says the biggest fallacy about the Atkins diet is that you eat cheese and drink cream all day. You eat protein when you are hungry, she says, but three cups of salad vegetables are recommended, too. She has lost more than 70 pounds on the diet and maintains a low-carb regimen to keep her insulin resistance in check.

Trono opened the store in Amherst about three years ago because it was hard to find products that would give her a variety of foods to eat. “Low-carbing” needs to be a lifestyle with enough variety that she and other advocates can stick with. She now carries pancake mixes, breads and treats made with soy flours and isolated wheat protein that significantly reduce carb intake. High-fiber content in foods helps reduce the net carb total, too.

How to limit the carbs in home-cooked breaded foods? Trono suggests using the special pancake mixes, nuts, or even crumbled- up pork rinds. At restaurants, she recommends asking the server how a dish is prepared. She suggests, if you need to be strict, skip the sauce. A rule of thumb is: If it grows out of the ground, it is going to have some carbohydrate. She recommends asparagus and mushrooms for low-carb vegetables. Hankering for pancakes? She recommends the pastry product, Low-Carb Chef, a nice treat with a thick syrup made with the low-carb sweetener, maltitol.

What did she order on her last time at a restaurant? An omelet with cheese and mushrooms — “I brought along a low-carb candy bar for dessert.” Trono, and others who find the low-carb dieting works for them, need to carefully consider each food. More advice from Trono: Look for sodas that use Splenda, such as Waist Watchers, Diet Rite and now Hansen’s diet soda. And experiment with a combination of sweeteners. “Using a little Stevia (a liquid plant extract) and a little Splenda seems to have a synergistic effect,” she says. Erythritol is a new sweeter that may be better tolerated (less laxative) than maltitol. Look for it in meal replacement bars and candies.

It seems you can have your cake and eat it, too. If chemical facsimilies are not to your liking, let moderation, balance and good old common sense lead you to a healthy diet. Yup, that means eat your vegetables.