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6 whole food hangouts in Madison: Where eating healthy is a pleasure

Credit:Nolan Pelletier

While there continues to be plenty of confusion when the subject of diet and healthy eating comes up, I would argue that most everyone can agree on a few principles. First, that the food we eat, whether meat, grain or vegetable, should be actual food. That is, as unprocessed as possible and without chemical additives. Second, that we should be eating a variety of vegetables and fruit every day. And third, that we should be moderate with our portion size.

Beyond that, it's all a big conversation, and one that changes almost weekly as conflicting new studies arrive concerning fats and salt, carbohydrates and sugars, caffeine, alcohol and every other aspect of diet there is to think (or not think) about.

Dining out can often be where I simply stop thinking about such things. After all, in restaurants you have little control over the portions served. And even the food-conscious among us may choose not to question too closely all the ingredients that went into making that delectable dish in front of us. So, when the goal is healthy restaurant eating, it helps to have a stable of restaurants and dishes you can rely on to meet those basic principles.

Otto's Restaurant and Bar has become one of my favorite places to find food that is as beautifully prepared as it is healthy and satisfying. Main courses emphasize Mediterranean-style grilled seafood and meats that are served with generous portions of sautéed fresh vegetables. Specialty favorites include grilled salmon in grape leaves and a lemon-currant vinaigrette with sautéed spinach and roasted potatoes; grilled New Zealand lamb chops with roasted red potatoes, French green beans and an almond-mint pesto; and a spinach-artichoke pasta with fresh spinach, roasted sweet red peppers, mushrooms, artichokes and feta cheese in a light lemony cream sauce.

Also outstanding are Otto's entree salads that pull together fresh berries, shaved vegetables and mixed greens, with Greek or Italian cheeses and grilled meat or seafood, all tossed in a variety of unique house-prepared vinaigrettes. The warm farmhouse atmosphere, linen tablecloths and excellent service justify the prices, which run from $13 to $33 for an entrée course. Or try chef Karl Granburg's tasting menu that provides three courses ($25/$35 with wine pairings) built on the same Mediterranean flavors as the regular menu but changes regularly with what the market and season have to offer.

A rarely discussed principle of healthy eating concerns the attitude of the cook. Those who ascribe to it believe that a peaceful kitchen, in which the food is prepared with love and intention, imparts greater health and enjoyment to those who eat it. Two small Madison restaurants certainly hold to that principle, which may go some way to account for their many years serving State Street diners.

At Himal Chuli, a mood of calm emanates from the open kitchen where daily Himalayan specialties are prepared. There are certainly dishes for the meat eaters, in which lamb, beef or chicken has been simmered to tenderness in various delicately spiced sauces. But when I'm thinking Himal Chuli, I'm craving any of their daily tarkaris: stews of vegetables and legumes, fragrant with turmeric, coriander, fresh garlic and ginger. Two freshly made tarkaris are offered each day, served with a choice jasmine or brown rice - or the Nepalese flatbread called roti - for $7.79. Add a cup of dal (a thin, tasty bean soup) for an additional $1.20. I always leave feeling nourished on every level.

By contrast, Mediterranean Café, just down the street, is a cheerfully noisy place that has become a Madison institution. Lines at lunch often stream out the door, where owner and chef Fayal Belakhdar, with a crew of devoted workers, takes the orders himself (counter service only) from an array of specials that derive from the cuisines of North Africa, Greece, Italy and southern France. Belakhdar prides himself on providing lovingly prepared meals with high-quality ingredients at low prices.

I never feel as if I've eaten unhealthily at Med Café, but my staple is the spinach pie, a generous slice thick with spinach and feta cheese, served with a refreshingly crisp and tart Greek salad and rice pilaf ($7.75). Another great health-conscious choice is Zidane's couscous, a stew of thick-cut vegetables and chickpeas served over whole-wheat couscous ($7.25). Although it's fully satisfying as a vegetarian dish, you can add chunks of white-meat chicken or slices of rotisserie-style lamb and beef for a little extra. Also available are outstanding freshly prepared soups, two selections each day, one vegetarian and one chicken based.

One great quality of the Chinese cuisines for healthy dining is that most dishes are made with plenty of vegetables. A problem at Chinese restaurants, if you don't choose carefully, can be that many dishes are cooked with a lot of starch or oil. For that reason, I've come to appreciate Chinese noodle soups, prepared with a chicken broth, vegetables, small amounts of meat and, of course, yummy noodles.

My current favorite is the wonton and fish meatball noodle soup ($7.45) at Hong Kong Wok, located inside Hilldale Mall. A good portion of broccoli flowerets and bok choy join the pork wontons and tasty little balls of pressed white-flesh fish in a broth that is clean, flavorful and garnished with fresh chopped scallion for a hint of pungency. Choose from egg noodles, bean thread, ho fun or rice noodle, depending on your taste or dietary needs. If you're not a fan of the fish meatball, you can get just the wontons in soup with vegetables and noodle for $6.45.

My macrobiotic days are far behind me, but sometimes I still crave the clean, simple flavors of the basic macrobiotic plate: brown rice, beans, steamed greens and, if you're lucky, a little seaweed and some winter squash. There was a bit of a dry spell, after the late great Willy Street vegetarian restaurant Savory Thymes closed its doors. But we once again have a decent basic plate at the Green Owl Café. This version shows up with nicely seasoned beans, steamed greens and brown rice, all drizzled with a delicious lemon-miso-tahini sauce. The Green Owl offers a choice of soup or salad - the salads are excellent - with the Basics Plate for $11.

Finally, Monty's Blue Plate Diner wins my vote as the most vegan/vegetarian place the whole family can enjoy. Which is to say that Monty's is not strictly a vegan or even a vegetarian restaurant. Burgers, chicken, chili and all varieties of egg dishes appear on the menu, not to mention a rockin' assortment of home-baked desserts.

But Monty's also offers a variety of appealing vegan options to satisfy healthy dining principles. At breakfast, try the homemade granola served with almond milk and bananas, or the tofu scrambler ($7.50) that includes spinach, mushrooms, onions and celery, along with a dusting of turmeric and cumin. At lunch or dinner, you can substitute a tasty, rich walnut burger for any style of the meaty variety on the menu. Or try the Heathen Vegan Shoplifter's Delight ($8.60), a sandwich on sourdough French bread of portobello mushrooms, fried tempeh, red onion and avocado in a lemon-tahini sauce.

Monty's is a crowd-pleaser for every possible palate and persuasion about food, its primary concern in making sure what comes out of its kitchen is nothing less than delicious. As my favorite (and not entirely healthy) celebrity chef Ina Garten would say, "How bad can that be?"

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