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Three top chefs take a healthful test

Restaurant diners are accountable for what they put in their mouths. Fried chicken too fattening? Order a salad and ask for the dressing on the side. Giant potato with mushroom gravy fit to see you through a marathon? Skip it and get the steamed artichoke with vinaigrette.

But what if chefs helped us out — and lowered the fat and calories in their favorite dishes by as much as 25% while preserving the deliciousness?

Photos: Dining out the smart way

That’s the experiment we did with chefs at three high-end restaurants in L.A. Each made a dish on their menu two ways: the usual way and then with calories, fat and sodium content trimmed to an extent they thought customers wouldn’t notice. Diners did a side-by-side blind tasting.

Then we shipped the food off to a lab to be tested for fat, calorie and sodium content.

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The idea for the experiment came from a 2010 study in the journal Obesity in which researchers asked 432 chefs from around the U.S. if they could reduce the calories in their menu items by 10% to 25% without customers noticing. A whopping 93% of the chefs thought it would be possible; most said they’d do it by changing out ingredients rather than shrinking portions. (In America, we like our portions big.)

Since Americans eat out an average of four to five times a week, the calorie savings could be sizable, says study lead author Julie Obbagy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who conducted the research while a graduate student at Penn State in University Park.

Cream, butter, oil, sugar, salt: Chefs know what items get our taste buds going, and some load up on the stuff to make lower-quality ingredients taste better. But many are also adept at subbing in lower-calorie items without compromising flavor, using lower-fat proteins, skinnier sauces, herbs to give zest and vegetable purees as a stand-in for the rich mouth-feel of fat.

But was 25% truly achievable with ease — without provoking diner complaints?

Three noted chefs agreed to be part of our challenge: Susan Feniger of Susan Feniger’s Street restaurant in Los Angeles, Josiah Citrin of Mélisse in Santa Monica and Daniel Mattern of Ammo in Los Angeles. They’re all known for using high-quality fresh produce, often from local farmers markets, as well as top-notch ingredients overall. When they use butter, oil and cream, they do so sparingly instead of drowning food in fatty sauces.

Read on to see how they did (some numbers have been rounded).

Street

Feniger and Kajsa Alger (executive chef and Feniger’s partner in the restaurant) cooked a dish called mabo tofu at Feniger’s home. Two neighbors were invited over for the taste test.

Feniger used ground marinated pork and baked tofu for the regular recipe. She used ground chicken for the lower-calorie version — without marinade, to reduce the sodium — and a less-dense tofu with less fat and fewer calories.

“This is a really fantastic tofu, and we use it all the time,” Alger says. “I’ve never looked at the calories, because tofu is healthy.” The calorie difference is appreciable, though — 130 calories per 3 ounces versus 70 calories.

Both dishes included chopped yu choy greens (a vegetable with green stalks and supple leaves often used in Asian cooking), a little olive oil and mabo sauce (three kinds of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, fermented soy beans, bean paste and chile flakes).

As Feniger sizzles the chicken in a large saute pan and adds the lighter tofu, she notices that without much fat the dish is steaming more than browning. “It’s sure going to be a fresher dish, right?” she says. Adding the mabo sauce renders both recipes almost identical in appearance, and that is part of her plan to disguise the differences. Also, ground pork and ground chicken are hard to tell apart when cooked.

Neighbors Jack and Laila Nilles, retirees and avid foodies, sit at Feniger’s backyard table in the middle of a warm, sunny afternoon and take several bites of each dish. “They’re both good,” Laila says. “This one is spicier,” she adds, pointing to the chicken, “but wonderful.”

“I’d be hard put to say which one I liked better,” Jack says. “I’d get them both.”

After the reveal, the diners are surprised; neither had an inkling that one dish was made with pork and the other with chicken. “I never would have guessed it,” Laila says.

The lab results: The pork version of the 12-ounce dish had 559 calories, 10 grams of saturated fat and 2,078 milligrams of sodium. The chicken version had 322 calories, 3 grams of saturated fat and 1,831 milligrams of sodium.

That’s a 42% drop in calories and a slight drop in sodium (though still more than the government’s recommended daily maximum for most of 1,500 milligrams).

Mélisse

This restaurant serving French-influenced contemporary American food that has received two Michelin stars is helmed by chef-owner Josiah Citrin. We met him at the restaurant on a weekday evening as the staff gathered prior to the arrival of guests. Backstage in the bustling kitchen, Citrin and his chefs are preparing Copper River wild king salmon with chanterelle mushrooms, courgettes (zucchini) and lemon basil-infused tomato emulsion. The small dish is part of a multi-course tasting menu.

Both 3-ounce portions of salmon are cooked sous-vide (sealed in a water-tight bag in a water bath), but then the paths diverge. One salmon gets finished under the broiler with a little oil brushed on top, and the other goes into a pan to be cooked with stock and butter. The sauce for the lower-fat salmon has no butter; instead, Citrin adds soy lecithin, an emulsifier that lends low-calorie creaminess. For the original recipe, the zucchini and mushrooms are cooked in a little butter and oil; for the lower-calorie version, they are poached. The mushroom puree is made with butter or without.

Citrin isn’t sure if the diners will be able to notice the differences between the dishes — and he knows that most people who come to his restaurant don’t particularly care. (Rarely do patrons ask for butterless dishes or anything like that.) “People come here for anniversaries, they’re coming for a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he says. “You come here because you want to be blown away.”

Artfully arranged on large, pristine-white plates, the dishes look almost identical. Citrin has asked two loyal patrons to taste the food in the restaurant’s private dining room; one is Laura Vasin, a massage therapist from Santa Monica, who eagerly tucks in to the salmon.

After a few considered bites and many “mmmmms,” Vasin says, “This one seems to have a little bit more flavor and richness.” She has identified the dish higher in calories. “But,” she adds, “the difference is so subtle.”

“This one melts in your mouth,” says Larry Picard, a dentist who lives in Sherman Oaks — again, of the fattier dish. “I taste the difference in the mushroom puree.” The one with butter is smooth, he says, and the butterless version tastes slightly bitter. Even so, he adds, “if this one were put in front of me, I’d be very happy.”

“I wouldn’t be disappointed with either,” Vasin says.

The lab results: Vasin might not be disappointed with the calorie savings either. The higher-fat version of the 7-ounce dish came in at 276 calories, with 8 grams of saturated fat and 698 milligrams of sodium. The lighter version had 200 calories, 3 grams of saturated fat and a slight uptick in the sodium at 738 milligrams.

Calories were reduced 28%.

Ammo

Chef Daniel Mattern’s new American menu changes according to availability of local produce and quality meat, poultry and seafood. Today he’s cooking a baked summer vegetable gratin two ways: one with crème fraîche and fontina cheese, the other a lower-fat and lower-calorie version with yogurt and ricotta cheese. The lamb that accompanies both is served with a stock and wine-based sauce finished with or without a bit of butter. Rounding out the plate is arugula tossed with vinaigrette.

Diners Anthony James and Matt Carpenter both prefer the higher-fat version overall; Carpenter finds the meat more flavorful and James finds the dish “more comforting and richer.”

Carpenter actually favors the lower-fat gratin: He likes the hit of ricotta.

Both say they probably wouldn’t notice any difference if they got the higher-calorie version one week and the lower-calorie the next. “I wouldn’t complain,” says James, who has to eat out often for his job in entertainment marketing.

Carpenter, a TV producer, concurs: “I think I have a pretty good sense of what’s a ridiculously high-calorie meal, and I’m fine doing that every now and then. But I eat at places like this a lot for business, and if I knew a menu item had 10% fewer calories, I’d think that’s great.”

Mattern understands when his customers occasionally ask for his dishes without cheese or butter — he himself shed 40 pounds through lots of effort, calorie-counting and exercise. “It’s a constant battle when you’re around food all day and you have to taste it,” he says. But he’d prefer diners save their calorie cutbacks for other meals. “I try not to have too many limitations when I go out to eat,” he says.

The lab results: The original recipe had 864 calories in 18 ounces, 29 grams of saturated fat and 1,414 milligrams of sodium. The revised version had 674 calories, 14 grams of saturated fat and 1,018 milligrams of sodium.

Calories dropped 22%.

And so we had our answer: With just a few tweaks to their recipes, all chefs cut significant calories. And yet, when asked, only Mattern said he’d be moved to serve such modified recipes to his diners. “To a degree, I would change some of the stuff I do a little,” he says."I’d still finish the [lamb] sauce with butter, but I might make the low-fat version of the gratin.”

Feniger’s take: “Restaurants are there to create a great environment and great dishes. Unless you’re a restaurant that’s really focused on calories, I don’t see that as being the restaurant’s role.” If a diner asks, she will substitute proteins or make the dish vegetarian, but, she says, a line has to be drawn somewhere. “Our goal is always to offer people as many options as possible without having the dish be compromised.”

Citrin concurs. “Even at Cheesecake Factory there are [lower-calorie] things you can order. And you don’t even have to go there. There are 100 other choices — or you can eat at home.”

Nutrition labeling is now required by law for chain restaurants in some states, counties and cities, and will be mandated nationally in 2012. But that still exempts most restaurants from such rules. Obbagy’s 2010 survey — and our experiment — revealed that chefs don’t think it’s hard to shave off calories from their dishes but also that many aren’t sure their customers will want that. In fact, 38% of chefs in the survey said they thought the greatest barrier to reduced-calorie items on their menus was “low consumer demand.”

Photos: Dining out the smart way

If diners want changes, they will need to vote with their mouths, Obbagy says. “People need to order these items when they’re available and prove to these establishments that there’s a market.”

Either that or appreciate that blow-out meals — be they at high-end restaurants or chains — are meant to be occasional indulgences.

jeannine.stein@latimes.com


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