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Truth in restaurant menus, one way or another

The LA Times has this to say about restaurant nutrition today–seems like restaurant chains are starting to wake up to the embarrassment of their menu offerings now that California, New York City, Philadelphia and a few other governments have made nutrition info mandatory. The FDA is slated to make restaurant nutrition labeling and disclosure apply across the nation sometime in the coming months–the proposed regulation was released for public comment in April and the comment period has been extended to July 5th, and the finalized regulation is supposed to take effect 6 months after publication.

So chains like Panera, Applebee’s, California Pizza Kitchen and IHOP are hustling to look a little less awful before the big wave hits.

About time, too: the other night my husband rented “Super Size Me” (we’re always more than a little behind the times) and I could only stand to watch about five minutes of it. Somehow, between putting the dishes away and getting a few of my own chores done, I managed to catch the movie’s key scenes–I see a glimpse of director Morgan Spurlock doing pushups and then getting his abdominal fat measured at the doctor’s with a caliper before launching the month of MacDonald’s. A minute or so later I see him eating the first of many supersized burger-and-fries meals while narrating the experience from the driver’s seat of his parked car. He’s burping and starting to sweat about a third of the way through. I was horrified–Spurlock is obviously suffering but he keeps pushing himself anyway (chorus: because he’s a boy). Back to the kitchen and my husband is laughing uncontrollably (chorus: because he’s also a boy). Suddenly the inevitable (and highly appropriate) happens–Spurlock excuses himself, opens the door just in time, and starts vomiting onto the pavement. I just left my husband to it at that point. I think he was starting to weep.

The next day, though, he gave me the upshot of what I’d missed. Despite the hilarity of it all, the outcome was pretty sobering–in about 3 weeks of the Mac-only diet, Spurlock has gained 24 pounds that will take him months to work back off with 4 pounds extra that just don’t want to come off at all, and his cholesterol has shot up from enviable (<180 mg/dL, I think) to borderline high. Do the MacDiet for more than a month–for a whole year, say–and you might be looking at the crossover from fit to overweight to actually obese. So, as much as I make fun of them, sometimes boys can pay attention once they get over the thrill of a good grossout.

But back to the restaurant menu scramble.

Some of the chains’ solutions look reasonable–offering half-sandwiches with a salad or soup, paring down the calories and fat in the salads and soups, for that matter, and–gee, how ever did they come up with this miracle answer?–taking some of the cheese (or “cheez”, depending on the caliber of restaurant) back off everything, or at least going to part-skim.

The half-sandwich thing is a bit of a cop-out, but given how big standard sandwich portions have gotten over the past twenty years, it’s definitely a step back from linebacker troughing.

On the other hand, some of the chains really aren’t working hard enough to make a real change. Personally, I hate any form of plopped scoops of straight grease added purposely as a garnish and I always have, so the move to lower-cal mayo doesn’t impress me, nor does the new-improved strategy of not dolloping whipped cream onto every dessert. Ditto the menu recommendation at IHOP that you don’t have to add pats of butter to your stack of pancakes if you don’t want to. (Whew! Finally!)

I know that in fact these are going to be important steps back to sanity for some people, but tell me the truth, here: does a 120-calorie tablespoon serving of fat make the real difference in an 1100-calorie supersized sandwich with a deep-fried filling and cheese on top? Or a stack of pancakes the size of your plate and the height of your head and loaded with enough gooey canned topping to frost a cake?

For chain restaurants, the real problem here is the serving size–they’ve been working way too hard to keep up with the Joneses because serving bigger is impressive, you can charge more, and it’s almost as cheap wholesale as a proper-sized serving. P.F. Chang’s pasta dishes also currently run something like 1100 calories a plate, and no wonder–each of the bowls holds enough pasta to feed three or four normal adults if they were eating at home and had a salad to go with it.

These restaurants are at least doing something in the right direction (or stopping doing everything in the wrong direction, anyway). But upscale restaurants don’t have the government pressure to change and they’re less likely to look–at first glance–as though they’re overfeeding you for the money. Tiny chic portions, right? Check again, because here’s the other kicker in the LA Times this morning:

Pizzeria Ortica’s budino di cioccolato

This one is actually in the Food section, a “Culinary SOS” request for a layered chocolate and caramel pudding. I’m only linking to the 2nd page of the recipe–so scroll down to the bottom and check out the nutrition on it. If the poor lady who requested the recipe has already seen it, she’s probably cringeing.

Each—that’s EACH–small, elegantly served glass of pudding runs 840 calories. 55 grams of fat, 33 of them saturated, and 73 grams of carbohydrate. More than the pizza, I’d bet. Hell, you could eat half a drum of Dreyer’s in one sitting and not match that.

Surely there are some better ways to make a good, creamy, sophisticated dessert–the article mentioned orange flavoring in the chocolate layer and rum in the caramel. Easy enough to manage with something lower-cal, lower-fat, lower-carb.

I took a quick look at the ingredients–heavy cream, okay, not entirely necessary to a custard if you don’t want it ultrarich. But the real culprit, I think, is the inclusion of 12 ounces of milk chocolate in only 4 servings of pudding. That’s not a ton of flavor for all the excess fat. It’s basically a chocolate bar per person. In fact, it reminds me heavily of a scarily popular dessert we used to serve at the one and only restaurant I ever worked at (I did vegetables and pantry, so don’t hold me responsible). The dessert was “Chocolate Almond Pie”–a commercial graham cracker crust filled with a mixture of melted Hershey almond bars and Cool Whip. This budino ain’t much better.

I think you could do better using cocoa powder or a combination of cocoa powder and dark chocolate to cut the fat and sugar and boost the chocolate flavor power. You could make a less-rich custard using whole milk alone or milk plus half-and-half. Less sweet also makes sense to me–less-sweet custards in both layers, or less in the chocolate and just a thinner layer of caramel as-is, would give a more interesting contrast and boost the accent flavorings better.

If the chocolate and caramel flavors are there, complex and interesting, you probably wouldn’t feel anything was missing just because you weren’t using heavy cream or a ton of sugar. And it would still be pretty rich and custardy, just not excessive enough to make you start gasping halfway through.

One version that might be worth a whirl is Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse. The version at Food&Wine (2002)  includes a cup of heavy cream and cocoa nibs for a flavored whipped cream topping, but if you leave that out, the ingredients come down to half a pound of dark chocolate, half a cup of milk, a quarter-cup of sugar, 4 eggs, a spoonful of brandy, and some boiling water. And that makes 8 small, intensely chocolate servings at maybe as much as 250 calories apiece without whipped cream. Pair it with fresh fruit and you have something memorable for only a few calories more and no extra fat. You could go lower-fat too: another of Medrich’s recipes, one for a chocolate soufflé cake called “Bittersweet Deception” uses cocoa powder and boiling water in combination with chopped chocolate to lower the calorie count but keep the intensity.

If you’re not interested in or good at tinkering with recipes and you still want to experience something like the Pizzeria Ortica’s budino at home without it being such a calorie bomb, the simplest thing is to do what the chain restaurants are doing now. Serve eight small portions instead of four big ones, and skip the dollop of whipped cream. Go for tart fresh berries, slices of pear, or small cups of espresso on the side instead–any of these would be more interesting, highlight the flavor, and cut the richness a little.

You don’t want to commit the Spurlock Hurl in a fancy restaurant, after all.

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