In these dog days of summer, it seems everyone is moving a little slower, staying inside longer, and eating lighter, both at home and while dining out.
In the past, consuming fewer calories almost exclusively meant a steady diet of salads, vegetables and seafood, often with equal amounts of less fat and less flavor. But times have changed, and these days restaurants work hard to give diners healthier choices that are still loaded with flavor.
I confirmed that trend at four local eateries, but my selections could have included dozens. In fact, a quick online search netted a plethora of articles on tips for healthy choices when dining out from Reader’s Digest to The Daily Beast and everything in between. I drew my Kansas City examples from an equally varied selection of restaurants — an expanding locally based group of restaurants (Blue Moose), a popular local watering hole (The Well), a gourmet barbecue joint (Q39), and a Kansas City-based chain (Houlihan’s).
Of the four, the Blue Moose offers the widest variety of healthy options. In a Lighter Side section of the menu, diners will find five dishes, each under 600 calories. There’s both a kale and a curry chicken salad, a honey-glazed salmon option, and two other entrees that surprised me a bit — a wood-grilled petite fillet mignon and a chicken puttanesca with angel hair pasta. Those were the two choices my wife and I opted for, and they were lovely — packed with flavor and just the right size to fill you up but not stuff you. The fact that they’re both less than 600 calories is both a surprise and a bonus!
Most folks head to the Well in Waldo for drinks on the rooftop, especially when the weather cools and the fire pits are cranking. But having dined there on multiple occasions, I have to say the culinary options are pretty darned good, too, though not necessarily what I think of when it comes to healthier choices. The Well has several lower cal, lower fat picks that caught my eye, including a new coconut curry stir fry. This baby explodes on the palate with fresh kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, baby kale, carrots, mushrooms and cabbage in red Thai coconut curry sauce with rice pilaf. You can add shrimp, pork, or beef for an upcharge, but, this dish is plenty flavorful on its own.
The Well also dishes up a brand new quinoa cranberry salad, which features a chilled blend of quinoa, couscous, dried cranberries and mint served over fresh baby kale mix with cucumber, red onion, fresh strawberries and feta cheese tossed in creamy honey citrus dressing. And lastly, there’s a fresh catch of the day that is flown in daily. You obviously don’t have to go the route of stir fry, salad or seafood, but it’s sure nice to know that you can while saving some calories.
Houlihan’s healthier options come on the heels on an “inspiralized” menu, one that replaced carbs and sugars in pasta with spiralized vegetables. Houlihan’s says the menu was a hit, so much so that two of the items from the limited menu made it onto the everyday menu. The first is a spiralized Thai noodle salad that features sriracha Thai peanut sauce tossed with spiralized fresh zucchini, mango, red peppers, snow peas, tri-colored quinoa, basil, mint and almonds. Diners can add grilled chicken or grilled salmon for a few extra bucks. The second holdover dish is spiralized butternut squash and sausage lasagne: spiralized butternut squash, herbed ricotta, Italian sausage, sautéed organic kale-spinach-chard blend, marinara and mozzarella. I’m not much on chains, but I gotta give it to Houlihan’s. They do some interesting things.
Lastly, there is Q39. A barbecue restaurant is not the typical source for healthy dining picks; the Judges’ Platter with three meats and two sides definitely does not qualify! However, Q39 is not your average barbecue restaurant. Chef-owner Rob Magee is an accomplished competition pit master and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.
I’m never surprised by the depth and creativity of menu items Magee creates. While I personally might opt for the smoked and grilled pork belly served over cassoulet (neither low calorie nor low fat), you might be tempted by the salmon filet. The salmon is grilled and served with jalapeno-cilantro slaw, seasonal veggies and drizzled with a chipotle barbecue glaze. Q39 also features a wood-fired grilled salmon salad with bib lettuce, strawberries, toasted almonds, pickled onions, balsamic vinaigrette and an oak-grilled salmon filet.
I gotta tell you, I’m not sure these healthy items are ever gonna get me away from the pork belly or burnt end burger at Q39, but it’s nice to know I can bring my wife along for a meal even if she’s not feeling like a dose of upscale Kansas City barbecue.
There you have it, four restaurants, ten when you consider there are six Houlihan’s in the metro, and nearly a dozen healthier choices to get us through the summer and beyond. Happy/healthy eating!
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.