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Fresher, fitter fare at chain restaurants

Party in your mouth: One of the new

Party in your mouth: One of the new items on Chili's Guiltless Grill menu is this margarita grilled chicken. Photo Credit: Chili's

Hello, Ruby Tuesday.

How well I remember when all I could say was goodbye. Especially after a lunch I once had that tasted pre-frozen and was loaded with preservatives.

Fast-forward to a recent dinner. Same chain, but oh, what a difference - one house-made dish after another made with quality ingredients. I mean, mac and cheese with truffle oil? Fresh salmon cakes with bright grilled asparagus?

Checking out a few other chains, I found lots more change afoot. It makes sense, with a dining public tuned into calorie counts and chef-centered food TV.

Bottom line: The smarter chains are revamping their menus in epicurean style. Health and fitness factor in, too. Survival is on the line.

True, not every chain is totally on board. But former bastions of boredom are falling all over themselves to showcase America's hottest food trends.

Eating around the Long Island chain scene, here's what we found:

SIZE MATTERS

These days, little is big, so be on the lookout for small plates (nobody calls them tapas anymore), which can be ordered in any combination, as well as mini desserts, sometimes served in shot glasses - a sweet hit for a small expenditure of money and calories.

HEALTHY CHOICES

Dietary concerns are being addressed, especially since a new (and soon to be enforced) FDA labeling rule requires restaurants with more than 20 branches to clearly post calorie counts.

Several chains already have designated certain dishes as totaling below 550 to 700 calories. A few places offer gluten-free menus, as well.

OUTSIDE INFLUENCES

Southeast Asian street food is a major force on the chain scene. Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Chinese or Korean-inspired items may bring to mind such chefs as David Chang (Momofuku Ssäm Bar) and Jean Georges Vongerichten (Spice Market). Chains are pulling from everywhere on the food scene, so don't be surprised if a burger or salad evokes an Iron Chef or two.

UPGRADES, PLEASE

It's an ongoing process for some chains, which are moving away from previously frozen ingredients in favor of fresh, from-scratch preparations and luxe fillips.

DIGITAL AGE

Order, make reservations, purchase gifts using your PC or handheld device. You can even become a restaurant's mayor on foursquare.com.

MEAL DEALS

Prix-fixe options are reeling in those looking to simultaneously save and savor.

Want the particulars on individual chains? Here's a rundown of changes at a few we've checked out.

 Chili's

THE CHANGES While this is a chain that seems pretty stuck in old ways, some of those ways (such as designating dishes less than 700 calories as "guiltless grill" items) are in sync with today. New on the low-cal roster is a zingy chicken & green chile soup laced with fresh cilantro and avocado and filled with lots of white-meat chicken and rice. The classic Margarita grilled chicken is a citrusy dish that's served with rice, black beans, tortilla strips and house-made pico de gallo - flavorful, if a bit soupy.

What's brand new is a price-fixed $20-for-two dinner that includes a shared appetizer (nothing healthy on that roster, which starts with fried cheese) and two entrees.

 Cheesecake Factory

THE CHANGES Last year, Cheesecake Factory introduced its "small plates and snacks" menu. Recent additions reflect the Asian street food phenomenon. The Saigon chicken sandwich (a take on Vietnamese banh mi made with lemongrass-grilled chicken, vegetables and shallot mayo) came off, recently, as a bit dry. Much more appealing was the new Vietnamese taco, a mix of juicy pork, bright slivers of cucumber, carrot, red onion, chiles and cilantro heaped atop a flat, round steamed bun (a bit too thick) to be eaten out of your hands.

On the other end of the spectrum are "glamburgers." The double crunch burger, made with potato chips, is a ringer for a Bobby Flay creation. A scandalous (but delectable) indulgence is the farmhouse cheeseburger, a beefy wonder topped with Cheddar, onions, pork belly and - yes - a fried egg.

 Ruby Tuesday

THE CHANGES An overall brand transformation, entitled "Fresh Taste, Fresh Place," began in 2005 and continues. Upgrades include such luxe dishes as lobster mac and cheese and an excellent lump crab cake that weighs in at 451 calories. That qualifies it for inclusion in the new "fit and trim" designation. Also low calorie, a nicely grilled slab of salmon with surprisingly fine white Cheddar mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus, adding up to a grand total of 532 calories.

Another addition, gratis garlic cheese biscuits made from scratch. They're a trifle on the sweet side.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro

THE CHANGES So clever, P.F. Chang's new happy hour menu in which small plates and drinks, ranging from $3 to $6, are served between 3 and 6 p.m. At 3:30 p.m. on a recent Sunday - a quiet hour at most restaurants - the place was packed. Best are the chicken lettuce wraps (nice interplay of cool and fresh with warm and smoky), pork dumplings and barbecue ribs. Sichuan chicken flatbread, though, is a quesadilla that took a wrong turn.

For $2, a layered chocolate mousse (gluten-free, no less) in a shot glass is a big kick.

And, yes, the place also offers a comprehensive gluten-free menu.

Another enticement a $39.95 dinner for two that includes a shared appetizer, two soups, two entrees and two mini desserts.

Soon to come (according to chief operating officer Rick Tasman) is more Asian street fair food. Watch for the return of bao (steamed pork buns) and Shanghai street dumplings and the addition of Korean bulgoki, now being test-marketed.

 Applebee's

THE CHANGES A new list of five entrees, all less than 550 calories, takes this chain up a notch. A pleasant surprise is the tender 7-ounce asiago and peppercorn-crusted steak, served with crisp steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes. Spicy shrimp diavolo, another satisfying low-cal dish, features chile-fired shrimp tossed with diced vegetables over whole-wheat penne pasta topped with a spicy tomato sauce and shredded Parmesan. Dessert "shooters" - hot fudge sundae and strawberry cheesecake - aren't bad (nor are they great).

Also new "Realburgers" (not previously frozen) as well as a prix-fixe dinner for two at $20 that includes a shared appetizer and two entrees. On a cyber note, digital gift cards may now be bought and sent online via Applebees.com and Applebee's Facebook Fan Club.

 California Pizza Kitchen

THE CHANGES It's been a long time since CPK was only about designer pizzas. The latest change to shake things up is a new "small cravings" list. Mix and match at will.

A colorful panzanella salad and the zesty Korean barbecue steak tacos (which taste surprisingly Mexican and, at the same time, Korean) are just two items. CPK co-founder and CEO Larry Flax sees the list as offering more choi-ces at lower prices during hard economic times. Curiously, there are no plans for mini desserts. People usually split regular desserts, he said.

 Houlihan's

THE CHANGES Four years ago, this reconceptualized chain went over entirely to fresh and from-scratch preparations. The local franchisee, A.C.E. Houlihan's, is gradually rolling out a small plates menu (currently only featured at the Ramsey, N.J., branch). According to vice president of marketing Steve Pettinella, that menu will debut on Long Island in a few months and will include such items as grilled naked Chinese dumpling kebab, (i.e., Asian meatballs), Vietnamese spring rolls, grilled asparagus salad and a Thai noodle bowl.

Currently, the place offers miniature desserts - among them crème brûlée and a mini pecan pie.

 Red Lobster

THE CHANGES The chain's "LightHouse" menu, which debuted in 2004, features dishes with fewer than 500 calories. In 2006, a fresh (as opposed to frozen) fish menu was launched. Then, in 2008, Red Lobster added wood-fire grill cooking as an option. A new menu, to debut Nov. 16, will put a regional American spin on several dishes. Many of the Red Lobster branches will also get a physical makeover.

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