A Guide to Where You Can Eat to Your Heart's Content

Times Staff Writer

The second edition of one of Southern California's most exclusive restaurant guides has appeared--notable as much for trendy, pricey eateries that did not make it as for establishments that did.

Spago, Chasen's, Rebecca's, Le Dome, the West Beach Cafe, 72 Market Street, Scratch, Silvio's and the City Restaurant were omitted, for instance, but Cutter's, Le St. Germain and Panache are among the anointed, along with area Sheraton, Ritz Carlton and Fairmont hotels.

So, for that matter, are the entire Denny's chain, American Airlines and Bullock's department store restaurants in Santa Ana, Lakewood and San Diego. The dining rooms at the Bel Age and Bel-Air hotels made it, along with L'Ermitage Hotel. The restaurant of the same name was omitted but a chain of four chicken fast-food outlets called Cluck in a Bucket was enthusiastically endorsed.

Clearly, this listing has as much relevance to identifying the hippest restaurants in the region as the Michelin Guide has to do with tires, but that, in a sense, is the point. The publisher is the American Heart Assn. and the guide's listings note restaurants and other food servers whose menus include what the association calls "heart healthy" selections and where diners may obtain skinned chicken and low-fat milk or margarine instead of butter without fear of maitre d' ispleasure .

To meet standards for inclusion in the directory, restaurants must agree to offer menu items (often identified by a red heart symbol on the menu) that are low in both total fat and cholesterol and are generally lower in calories than other selections. Sodium content is also taken into account. To be certified, for instance, meat, fish and poultry items can't have more than 15% total fat.

In all, counting outlets of restaurants and hotel chains, the guide includes 350 restaurants that agreed to restrict portion sizes and to prepare dishes with reduced cholesterol and salt content. The restaurants also observe practices ranging from reducing deep frying and selecting the healthful cooking oil (safflower instead of palm, for instance) to stripping skin from chicken before cooking.

The new second edition of the heart association guide--"Dine to Your Heart's Content"--appeared last week. (Copies can be obtained by sending 39 cents in postage for each booklet to American Heart Assn., Greater Los Angeles Affiliate, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., fifth floor, Los Angeles, Calif. 90010.) It is similar, said heart association national officials in Dallas, to publications by chapters in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Atlanta and Miami.

At first glance, it would seem that restaurants left out of the Los Angeles guide appeared to make up a more accurate listing of the region's best known than those that were included. But the Heart Assn. emphasized that many establishments not included in the list have items on their menus every bit as healthful as eateries that were. The appearance of spa cuisine , the heart association noted, has brought a broader restaurant health consciousness than the new guide may recognize.

That's because, speculated Denise Rector, the heart association nutritionist who runs the certification program, while some trendy places like Cutter's use compliance as a marketing tool, business considerations still don't make public declaration of health essential. Restaurants Unlimited, the Seattle-based firm that owns Cutter's, has aggressively courted heart association programs nationwide, using compliance as a marketing tool.

"I think there is probably a greater consciousness of health right now," said John Theisen, general manager of Cutter's, "and, therefore, we have put these items on the menu."

Of restaurants that haven't joined the heart association program, "perhaps it's because many of these (spiffy) restaurants are so renowned that they don't need this added factor," Rector said. "Others see it as a benefit. At a place like Spago, for instance, you would find this type of (standard-meeting) cuisine. I'm sure they (Spago and its sister restaurant, Chinois) probably would qualify or qualify with really minor modifications."

Spago's general manager Tom Kaplan agreed. He said chef/owner Wolfgang Puck is ideologically attuned to Heart Assn. goals, even if Spago and Chinois have not sought certification. "I think some of our items do meet the standards, and even exceed them," he said. "But others don't and Wolfgang, interpreting his type of cuisine, recognizes that, inevitably, you might have some need for butter or cream."

At the City Restaurant, partner Susan Feninger at first expressed confusion at the establishment's omission. But she thought about it for a second and concluded, "maybe it's the (American) Cancer Society that approves us."

Feninger said City's culinary philosophy, which emphasizes use of strong-tasting natural herbs and flavorings like cilantro, ginger, cumin, cardamom and brown rice vinegar at the expense of salt, came into form without any deliberate thought to health effects.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Cluck in a Bucket president Garth Hintz noted that the Montrose-based chain of four chicken outlets got its start after owners failed to get a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. But the firm went into business, anyway, Hintz said, reasoning that the time for skinless, healthfully cooked fast food had arrived.

Cluck in a Bucket is one of three chicken fast-food chains--the others, El Pollo Loco and Chicken Natural, are also comparatively small--with Heart Assn. approval. Cluck in a Bucket skins its chicken and pressure cooks many of its dishes, filling out its menu with three salads and a chicken chili.

"The other day, a young man came into one of our places," Hintz said. "He was a weightlifter and he said he had only 2% body fat. He looked it. He really grilled our counter person on the contents of our food and was very pleased to find the skin gone and that we use pure vegetable (soybean) oil."

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