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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Five healthy meals
How to pick from menus wisely when your friends are... not
on
At the Greenbush Bar, skip the meatballs and choose the Sicilian salad, with kalamata olives, feta cheese and roasted bell peppers.
Credit:Emily Denaro

If you're the one person among your weekend dinner crowd who's looking for a healthy meal, you've probably faced your share of condescension, derision, even cynicism over your preferred places to dine. Perhaps your buddies want a big, high-calorie reward after slogging through another week of wage slavery, or maybe you've just dragged them to the same Asian restaurant a few times too many, or whined a little too loudly over the onion blossom, the fatty meats, and the giant portions of pasta in cream sauce.

It's difficult, these days, to define what makes up a healthy meal - it can be anything from a steak and salad, to Asian, to Mediterranean, to "slow" food, to vegan entrees. As someone who's experimented with scores of approaches to healthy and weight-conscious eating, I've finally reached the point where I don't want to think about it too hard anymore. I want my guidelines simple and to the point. I like food journalist Michael Pollan's recent dictum: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

That motto is good news. With that idea in mind, I've staked out five healthy (and delicious!) meals to order at the sorts of restaurants that might not automatically pop into your mind as health-food joints, and that your friends will love eating in, too.

The Old Fashioned must be one of the most successful restaurants in town, judging by the crowds that stand two- and three-deep at the bar, waiting for a table to open. It serves the very best comfort food Wisconsin has to offer - the sausages, the cheese trays, the fried fish, the burgers. This list would, at first glance, seem to knock the Old Fashioned out of contention as a place to go for a healthy meal. But it's always at the top of the list among my acquaintances for a weekend lunch or supper.

When Pollan says "Eat food," he means eat real food - fresh, as unprocessed as possible, in-season and locally grown whenever possible. These are all qualities the Old Fashioned takes seriously.

For the healthy eater, I recommend No. 35 on the menu, a sandwich of grilled portobello mushroom, eggplant, red bell pepper and zucchini on grilled slices of country bread spread with goat cheese and tapenade. Choose the side salad, a nice portion of mixed spring greens tossed in vinaigrette, instead of the fries. The combination of flavors and textures - warm goat cheese, crusty bread, buttery veggies and cool, fresh salad - is thoroughly satisfying and, at $8, a real deal. I won't complain that the sandwich is too large to quite fit the rule about "not too much," and suggest that you eat half and bring the other half home for tomorrow.

Sushi Muramoto might seem an obvious choice for the healthy eater, since nori rolls, sushi and sashimi are generally thought to be right up that alley. Sadly, no matter how many rolls I order, they never seem like complete meals to me, even with the obligatory miso soup. They don't seem to deliver enough vegetables. Still, this is a restaurant that has something to please every palate. I like to start with the seaweed salad ($7), a variety of mineral-rich seaweeds over spring greens. It's tossed with a ginger soy vinaigrette that tastes fresh and light, mitigating perfectly the stronger flavors of the seaweed.

Much local press has been devoted already to chef Muramoto's miso black cod ($18), yet no one's pointed out that it constitutes one delightfully healthy entrée. The black cod is marinated in miso, broiled, and presented over a generous serving of sautéed bok choy and Japanese eggplant. The flavors are rich and the proportions exactly right. A cup of white rice seems like the perfect finish, practically dessert by the time you get around to it.

For special occasions, indulge in one of Muramoto's signature martinis, garnished with two fat green olives (olives are vegetables, are they not?) stuffed with pungent wasabi paste ($6).

If restaurants were your only exposure to Italian cuisine, you might be baffled to hear many health professionals recommending the Mediterranean diet. You'd be right in assuming these professionals are not referring to hefty plates full of pasta smothered in cream sauce and quattro fromaggi. (Eat a lot of baked ziti and you end up looking like Tony Soprano.)

Still, Italian restaurants are favorites among many people, so I've been moved to dig out the healthy eating in several - most often among the salads and antipasti (e.g., check out the succulent barbecued octopus at Lombardino's).

Greenbush Bar specializes in Sicilian and southern Italian dishes, with more emphasis on seafood, Mediterranean vegetables and olive oil than butter, cream sauce and heavy cheese. Your buddies can still get their meatballs, sausage and truly excellent pizza. For healthy eaters, I recommend the picchi pacchi (pronounced picky pocky). Calamari rings are sautéed in olive oil, onion, garlic, red pepper and crushed tomatoes, served over rigatoni pasta, and garnished with chopped fresh basil ($9). The sauce is light, well balanced by the fresh basil, and the calamari comes out tender, never tough or chewy. The portion is generous, but not exceedingly so.

You'll have room to start with either the Sicilian salad of kalamata olives, tomato, red onion, roasted red bell pepper and feta cheese tossed with olive oil, vinegar and oregano, or Greenbush's Caesar salad (both are $6.50 for the side portion), with a more authentic, less mayonnaise-y dressing than most local restaurants seem to offer, complete with anchovies, which you may decline.

Chautara expands on the Nepalese repertoire of its neighbor, the health-minded Himal Chuli - offering many more dishes with fish, chicken, beef, even goat, along with richer sauces and Western-style salads. It's the perfect compromise restaurant for you and your flesh-eating friends. While they're putting away their meaty stews, you can enjoy bhat tarkari ($13), a savory, satisfying vegetable stew, spiced (but never overpoweringly) with turmeric, coriander, ginger, cumin and fresh garlic, and served with a beautiful mound of jasmine rice (bhat). Two varieties of bhat tarkari, featuring different vegetable combinations, are offered daily. If you ask nicely, your server might be willing to hop down the street to Himal Chuli for brown rice to substitute for the jasmine bhat. The meal includes your choice of either bean soup (dal) or a salad of mixed greens. If you're extra hungry, substitute whole-wheat roti (grilled flat bread) for the rice. Everyone goes home full and happy.

Noodles & Company has become our default restaurant when we want something cheap, quick and still quite edible. A nice thing about Noodles is that it serves the gamut, from healthy to comfort food, in two portion sizes. My favorite in the healthy vein is the whole-grain Tuscan linguine, a sauté of linguine, broccoli, mushrooms, red onion, red bell pepper and garlic, sauced with a bit of white wine, balsamic vinegar and a touch of cream. I order it in the Trio combination ($7), with shrimp or a piece of seared chicken breast and a small Caesar salad. The chicken is marinated in salt, pepper, soybean oil and garlic, which renders it juicy and tender. The Caesar is slightly overdressed but flavorful, and the pasta usually al dente, as it should be. I like the crisp, fresh vegetables in a sauce that doesn't overwhelm, but can stand up to the stronger flavor and texture of whole-grain pasta. The Tuscan linguine can be ordered alone in a larger portion ($7 with the chicken), or as a smaller plate ($6 with chicken). You can also customize your order - no cream, hold the onions, whatever makes it work best for your particular healthy needs.

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