Obesity in America, like an elastic waistband, is ever-expanding. Recently, though, Long Islanders gained an edge in the struggle to slim down: a new breed of restaurants where calorie control is built into menus that stress quality and freshness.
One such place is Seasons 52, a Florida-based chain that opened in Roosevelt Field in March. In sophisticated surroundings, you'll find a seasonal New American repertoire -- grilled lamb T-bone chops with roasted asparagus and truffled mashed potatoes -- wherein no dish totals more than 475 calories. Then, there's Energy Kitchen, a franchise born in Manhattan, which debuted this past winter in Syosset with a roster of burgers, wraps, salads, sides and shakes, each less than 500 calories, everything grilled, baked or steamed. Skinny Pizza, another such place, hit Roslyn Heights last year and will shortly launch a Roosevelt Field branch. Here, a list of thin-crust pies, available whole or by the slice, allows diners to make informed choices ranging from a Margherita slice, at 253 calories, to a 453-calorie Buffalo chicken slice. Low calorie wraps and salads round out the menu.
There's more. In 2011, The Cheesecake Factory, known for large portions of house-made fare, came out with a separate SkinnyLicious menu of about 50 dishes, none exceeding 590 calories. And then there are such mass-market chains as Applebee's and Red Lobster, both offering less-than-500-calorie menus, although not quite at the same quality level.
No question, putting menus on a diet is an idea whose time has come. Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for the NPD group based in Port Washington, said that a recent survey revealed that about 9 percent of consumers, out of a dining population making 61 billion restaurant visits a year, have voiced a preference for "healthier or lighter fare." This, Riggs added, doesn't mean Spartan fat-free, ultra- low-cal dishes. In the past, she said, "We put those things on the menu, they didn't taste good ... and they didn't sell." Today's demand is for quality food, fresh ingredients and smaller portions, she said.
Interestingly, that's what the market research revealed back in the mid-'90s, when Clifford Pleau, senior director of culinary and beverage for Seasons 52, started work on the restaurant's creation. "We noticed things like gym memberships, 5k races ... an interest in living well," Pleau said. Seasonality, he said, went hand-in-hand with that. Intentionally, the Seasons 52 team steered clear of a "preachy" tack. Rather than remove salt and sugar from dishes, it decided to focus on calorie count. A typical Seasons 52 meal, Pleau said, might consist of an appetizer, at around 300 calories, a main course for 450 calories and a "mini indulgence" dessert at around 300 calories or less. That, plus a 100-calorie glass of wine, comes to 1,150 calories, which Pleau sees as about a third of a day's intake.
If the math doesn't compute -- the USDA's recommendation for an entire day's caloric load is about 2,400 a day for men and about 2,000 for women -- Pleau says that's because appetizers, such as flatbreads, are designed for sharing and one doesn't have to "use up the calories in every dish."
This kind of thinking is what New York- and California-based food consultant Clark Wolf calls "the Chipotle factor," alluding to the Tex-Mex chain's posting of a range of calories rather than an exact number, the total dependent on consumer choices. Even with a calorie-controlled menu, Wolf says, "it's your responsibility" to do your own calculations and eat mindfully.
Keeping calories down can be somewhat easier at lunch, when a single item, like a burger or wrap, often suffices. It was the "tasty and satisfying" 397-calorie chicken club wrap that drew Cara Lowenstein of Jericho to Energy Kitchen for a post-workout meal. "It's a no-brainer here in terms of calories," Lowenstein said. But it's not just women en route to or from the gym who are drawn to such places. Shaun Jackson of Rockville Centre, who works as a portfolio analyst in Jericho, was lunching on a 206-calorie chopped salad with a 274-calorie protein shake, having recently decided to change his eating habits and lose weight. "This is an alternative to what else is around for lunch," Jackson said, "and even though it's costly, it's still worth the cost."
Part of what drives the price of eating at these places is that the food must be calorically analyzed regularly. Even so, nutritionist Marion Nestle, co-author of "Why Calories Count," wonders: "Are they telling the truth?" Who doesn't recall the "Seinfeld" episode in which everybody gained weight eating supposedly low-calorie frozen yogurt?
In response, Randy Schecter, co-founder and vice president of Energy Kitchen, avers that every dish is tested three times a year by a government-certified food laboratory, backed up by a computer program as well as a third-party auditing company to "make sure the consistencies are there."
So far, it's been chains, rather than privately owned single spots, doing this kind of testing. "Not everybody is going to invest $5,000 to $10,000 for a lab analysis," said Joe Vetrano, co-owner and founder of Skinny Pizza.
Provided there's truth in their calorie counts, these restaurants represent a "giant stride forward," says Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. "When you think that a typical restaurant appetizer, entree and dessert are weighing in at around 1,000 calories each these days," Hurley said, these menus amount to a calorie "bargain."
SkinnyLicious menu: shrimp Creole (550 calories), bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich (530 calories)
Supreme sirloin burger topped with low-fat American cheese (463 calories), Thai chicken wrap (414 calories), seared tuna salad (276 calories), protein smoothie (225 calories)
Entree lemongrass salmon salad with organic field lettuce, grape tomatoes, edamame and white wine balsamic vinaigrette (4460 calories); oak-grilled filet mignon with Yukon gold garlic mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables and roasted mushrooms (470 calories); mini-indulgence chocolate peanut butter mousse (220 calories)
14-ounce serving farfalle primavera (340 calories), 12-ounce serving Tuscan vegetable soup with meatballs (180 calories), whole wheat grilled Bell & Evans chicken wrap (440 calories)