August 15, 1988 | Vintage Insatiable

How to Eat Healthy at New York’s Great Restaurants

          Long ago, when I dedicated myself to slow death by mayonnaise, it seemed a joyous vow. Alas, one can’t just skim through life on beurre blanc and then drop dead gracefully, as beautiful as Camille. Science has me finally convinced: Passionate excess can lead to ugliness and inconvenient disrepair, to a hasty and painful exit.

          This is not a primer on fitness or the definitive cholesterol cure. But if you’re tired of yo-yo poundage and ready to embrace medicine’s newfound low-fat religion, here’s help. Here’s how to do it in New York’s great restaurants.

          I love to eat. I love to drink. I love to sloth. But I’ve already modified my wanton lifestyle. Exercise is boring. I pretend I love it. I’m eating fatty fish, broccoli, and no-fat yogurt and alternating high-fiber cereal with oat-bran muffins (no fat, no sugar, 90 calories each from David’s Cookies). If a recipe calls for eggs, I don’t make it. If it specifies butter, I use olive oil. As a restaurant critic, I must taste everything, oh lucky me. And in the spirit of serious research, I’ll never stop nibbling foie gras and the greasiest spareribs and fried brains (at 1,700 milligrams of cholesterol per serving against 66 for skinned chicken breast). But when I’m eating strictly for fun, I split entrées or order two appetizers instead of a main course as a way of portion control, study the menu prudently, bombard the waiter with questions, test the flexibility of the kitchen with my demands.

          Sure, it would be easier if I were a masochist. I’d do it the Pritikin way -- most chefs today are ready to broil a fish dry and steam vegetables or rice. Stay out of restaurants, Nathan Pritikin urged, calling them “the enemy camp.” The Diet Center advises, “Do not read the menu, it is full of temptations.” I say make the enemy woo you. And do read the menu. It’s full of delicious possibilities.

          Today, it’s just a notion, a whim. Tomorrow, fitness eating could be an obsession. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute urges Americans to “Know Your Cholesterol.” And Robert Kowalski’s Eight-Week Cholesterol Cure is still No. 1 after 57 weeks on the best-seller list. The chef whose artistic vision won’t let you substitute the red-pepper vinaigrette from the swordfish for the rosemary-butter sauce on your grilled salmon will be trampled by stampeding hordes driven by our newest fixation. And now that the Surgeon General has gone on record against the excesses of fat, salt, and sugar in American diets, it’s official.

          The Four Seasons pioneered with its fat-free, low-salt Spa Cuisine -- wild mushroom wontons and swordfish with olives and scallions are tasty spa choices at lunch one noontime. Chez Louis does fat-free “club cuisine.” 540 Park at the Regency Hotel has “Fitness Center” options. Sweet Victory Café counts your calories for you. Chef-owner Abe de la Houssaye has added recipes from his health-savvy restaurant Savant to the menu at Texarkana. The new summer menu at Shun Lee Palace lists low-sodium, low-calorie Shun Lee Lites. And you’ll be surprised to see what New York’s most creative chefs will do to indulge you.

          Just to play it extra safe, I have typed my requirements on a piece of paper: no butter, no cream, minimal salt, no cheese, no caviar, no red meat, no more than two teaspoons of olive oil for the entire meal, no sugar. I am reading this dogma aloud to the beruffled, theatrical Gianni Garavelli at Bravo Gianni, where house pets never see a menu. They see a floor show, giant platters bearing a whole roast goat or baskets of wild mushrooms. An onslaught of deli hits our table – prosciutto, salami, bresaola, a mountain of Parmigiano. Gianni’s eyes glaze. His mouth drops. “Signora. You are going to lose weight? No! You spoil the dreams of an Italian guy. So okay. You come to the right place.”

          My companions are happily wallowing in a melt of cheese while I am tasting a dish Gianni forgot to remember from a visit to “the sister of my uncle’s brother -- nothing but shrimp and broth, garlic and water, I swear.” Peppery-hot and delicious. There are noodles, too, “no butter, no cream, just a little tomato” (I forgot to say “no egg noodles”), and “the royal dorade – it swims here from the sea of the Mediterranean” – in a tomato-touched broth with mussels and clams, and an offering of crisp raw fennel coated with herbed oil.

          I won’t fool myself. I have just confronted the equivalent of three diet dinners. I leave half of everything and am content to eat big ripe strawberries from a twisted-twig basket while my friends tie into tiramisu.

          It’s taken years for some doctors to get the cholesterol message, and the nasty news about eating fat grows crueler every few weeks. What you need to know: Beyond the demon cholesterol, there is the evil low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which delivers the harmful sludge, and the good, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which flushes it away. It’s the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL that counts. The American Heart Association recommends limiting cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams a day and making fat 30 percent or less of your daily calorie allowance. If you’re a man dieting on 1500 calories a day, that means 50 grams of fat.

          Nutritionists advise dividing those 50 grams among saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. All animal fats (meat, poultry, and fish), coconut and palm oils, and hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are saturated. Saturated fat may be more harmful than cholesterol, but fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which, in some people, lower cholesterol and boost HDL. Monounsaturated fats (olive, canola, and avocado oils and some nuts and nut oils) are high in calories but heroic, too -- tending to lower cholesterol while maintaining (and possibly raising) HDL levels in some people. Polyunsaturated fats (corn, cottonseed, safflower, sesame, soybean, and most other vegetable oils, walnuts and walnut oil) lower cholesterol and LDL but also may lower the food HDL. (Always check labels.) If you’re trying to cut down on sodium, too, life becomes infinitely more complicated.

          My friend -- I’ll call him Elton -- has been told by his internist that if he wants to live to see his grandchildren (his kids aren’t ten yet), he had better get his cholesterol down 100 points and shed one third of himself. Properly terrorized, Elton stays home, grilling fish and stewing beans without fat, downing his oat bran. Inevitably, the poor guy craves something luscious. “What have you got I can eat?” he challenges his favorite chefs. And he’s wowed by chef-owner Thomas Keller at Rakel.

          “Wow me, too,” I urge Keller.

          Rakel is a peaceful oasis at lunch, with its painted blue sky high above, its handsome old bar, and a level of uptown manners and cuisinary ambition rarely found downtown. In the beginning, I found the place a bit self-conscious and Keller inventive and accomplished but uneven, his most beautiful works sometimes flabby and dull. But he and Rakel seem to have hit a happily purposeful stride.

          We’re thrilled with his lobster in beet essence, a dazzling shock of silken texture and exotic taste. Elton’s moist poached chicken is a glorious gathering of piquant flavors -- lemony sorrel and the tang of no-fat fromage blanc tucked inside, as good as advertised. And rare-at-the-heart salmon heady with white truffle oil is sublime and -- with half as much oil -- exactly what the diet calls for.

          Rakel’s menu is studded with easily adaptable goodies. Order the California lettuces, or haricots verts and chicory (minus the bacon), or grilled-quail salad with beets and potatoes (hold the quail eggs). Ask for vinaigrette on the side, dip the tines of your fork in, and ration out a sprinkle. (Olive oil is healthful, yes, but fattening too.) Tuna niçoise with three peppers is good if you’re not avoiding salt -- if you are, ask for vinaigrette without anchovies. Salmon in a gazpacho pool is perfect, as is asparagus-cream soup with oysters (it’s only a tablespoon of cream, but Keller will hold it if you wish -- skip the roe). There’s no egg, cream, or milk in the Maryland crab cakes, but you may want to avoid them anyway since they’re deep-fried.

          Halibut with saffron-scented spring vegetables and the rare roasted tuna “au poivre” with spinach (request it butter-free) are other good options.

          Our Swiss waiter seems charged by the challenge of feeding me without butter, eggs, cream, caviar, red meat, and cheese. He is eager, informed, intelligent, a good little soldier dashing back and forth to the kitchen on a lazy day at Lafayette, before its elevation to four-stardom. I’m here for the lunchtime rotisserie special -- today, it’s capon and a tossed salad. But with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s fixation on vegetable juices and olive oil to the near-eclipse of butter and cream, I could run amok on the menu without jeopardizing my diet resolve. Leek-wrapped oysters in a clear beef broth are ethereal. Alas, the waiter has forgotten about the floaters of marrow -- so I scoop them out before the fat melts. My guest’s red snapper tartar with tuna roulade is perfect, once I push aside the few crisp-fried leeks.

          The capon sits in its own puddle of juice, and it has clearly been brushed with butter. (The waiter admits he forgot to head off the butter bath at the rotisserie.) Removing the skin helps save the day.

          The summer menu is a three-ring circus of possibilities for us. Who minds skipping air-dried duck breast and foie gras, or even cream-enriched littleneck soup and warm sea urchin in custard when there’s tuna tartar (its potato gaufrette is fried in olive oil) and egg and cream-free macaroni-and-crabmeat terrine with lemongrass? Salt-watchers should avoid the asparagus salad -- it’s perfumed with soy. But steamed shrimp with tomato bavarois, poached scallops in asparagus juice with pasta, and summer vegetable bouillon au pistou could have been custom-designed for a fitness diet. Best of the entrées: grilled rare tuna on a bed of tomato and fennel, and skate wing with mustard and capers (hold the peanuts). Salmon is layered with oil-fried leeks in a butter-free chervil sauce -- but if you’re slimming, you may not be able to allow fried anything. A few ounces of grilled squab breast with potato ravioli might fit your cholesterol budget; the sauce is vinegar and oil.

          I know there are highly sophisticated epicureans who think fresh berries are the only dessert. Not me. After weeks of tracking saturated fat and sugar, I hunger for a sauce -- or anything chocolate. My friend Elton insists he gets sensual fulfillment watching his friends devour mud pie or hot-fudge sundaes, especially if he can have one deep, intense inhale of each. I can’t imagine that trick.

          But pastry means butter, shortening, even lard. Except for angel food, cake needs eggs, sometimes cream, milk, or sour cream. Some innocents think anything lemon is food for Slenderella. Sorry…lemon curd is a swamp of egg yolks, as is lemon mousse with its heavy dosage of cream. Ice cream is animal fat, and even sherbet can be sabotaged with whole milk. But fruit ice, sorbet, and granité -- just fruit, sugar, and water or eau-de-vie -- are virtually fat-free, 110 to 1140 calories for four ounces. A teaspoon or two is no sin. (I’ll know my favorite restaurant has become as obsessed about calories as I can be when it offers sugar-free sorbet made with an amazing juice extractor called the Champion -- I have one at home.)

          “I’m sure it’s a lot of work, but do you think I could have strawberries in a coulis without sugar?” I ask. Our Swiss waiter looks a bit doubtful. It is an outrageous request: Coulis is puréed and sugared ahead. To do it without sugar means starting from scratch. Triumphant, he returns -- with my berries in sugarless sauce. What a joy.

          When Alfred Portale came to the kitchen of the Gotham Bar and Grill, fresh from the orbit of France’s brilliant chef Jacques Maximin, his idea of a sauce was buttered broth. Portale slithered through twenty pounds of butter a day. Then, gradually, he began to favor vinaigrettes and vegetable purées beaten into olive oil -- creamy emulsions without cream. Now he’s started to think about his own health, his family’s cholesterol history. And it’s easier than ever to diet at the Gotham.

          If you’re counting calories as well as fleeing from fat, an appetizer -- seafood salad, warm skate with capers and grilled red onion, or marinated mackerel -- plus garden salad and berries is dinner. (Ask for half the usual amount of vinaigrette on everything -- or do your fork routine.) The quail salad with roasted shiitake is sautéed to order -- specify olive oil. Pasta for a summer night is likely to be fresh tagliatelle with pesto. “Fresh” usually means there’s a bit of egg in the pasta, but Portale’s pesto is just olive oil, garlic, and basil -- no calories from pine nuts or cheese.

          If you’re avoiding fat -- perhaps limiting yourself to six ounces of animal protein a day -- you might split Portale’s halibut in cilantro vinaigrette or the gossamer grilled salmon à la  Grecque (with vegetables cooked in olive oil with garlic, tomato, and coriander). But don’t let their buttery sauces keep you from yellowfin tuna or black bass or even roast chicken: Have any fish you want à la Grecque or with cilantro vinaigrette. Forget about squab and spaetzle in mustard butter. Instead, ask for the rosemary-flecked free-range chicken “grilled with just a brushing of olive oil” and the baby vegetables steamed with lemon and garlic. Eat half or less. And pass the shoestrings to your companions.

          “I will do just about anything for anyone,” Portale promises.

          There’s not a lot of sugar in the champagne granite with berries. And not much more in the peach sorbet.

          If you ate like a Chinese peasant, you’d never have to battle the corruption of cholesterol.  A bit of slivered meat and a shower of vegetables crisped in a hot wok with a splatter of vegetable oil…what could be kinder to your arteries and your waistline?

          But swank midtown outposts of Chinese cooking scorn lowly vegetables, except perhaps for a flash of color. Huge chunks of meat are crisp-fried, as are dumplings and spring rolls. Ribs are ribboned with fat. The glory of lacquered Peking duck is its crackling skin -- a definite no for fatphobes. The peanut butter that flavors most sesame noodles and hacked chicken may not be animal, but it couldn’t be more fattening. “Pickled,” smoked,” and “MSG” are warning signals for salt-watchers. “Lobster sauce” means egg.

          Language barriers and culture gap can make getting a dish done your way impossible, and not just in Chinatown. Friends on a salt- and fat-free regimen say that Fu’s is especially gracious, eager to adapt and adjust. And with a finger on the city’s pulse, Michael Tong (a veteran of indulging Craig Claiborne’s salt-free needs) has introduced Shun Lee Lites.

          Giving up Shun Lee Palace’s Szechuan rack of lamb, Yunnan honey ham, crispy kumquat duck, and fillet of beef in coconut curry (beef and coconut is a double dose of saturated fat) is infinitely less painful with the promise of Hunan diced chicken, garlicky giant prawns, whole poached sea bass with ginger and scallion, or lobster in a gingered broth -- all designed for serious body-watchers.

          Arriving a few days before the new menu, we are attempting to spurn fat with Tong’s help--loving the kichen’s big black mushrooms steamed in broth with fresh water chestnuts; perfectly steamed fish that would be less bland with an accent of ginger or even black beans or hot peppers; wonderful cold noodles with scallions, bean sprouts, and fiery peppers; and fresh bean curd with a feisty salt-free garlic-ginger sauce.

          When Tong lets us order lobster and scallops in egg-thickened broth, I complain. “It’s just a little egg,” he says, making me realize that all this nutritional information -- which evolves with each month’s latest research -- is worthless if the kitchen doesn’t take you seriously.

          When Elton celebrated his birthday at David K’s Café, in the handsome, noisy space where Café Marimba used to be, his guests ate everything in sight, longevity be damned. But Elton had the tea-smoked chicken removing the skin) and shredded cabbage, passing the steamed peanuts to the far corner of his table. He’s not as strict about salt as about calories and fat.) Then he ate mu-shu chicken “without egg” stuffed into heavenly sesame pocket bread that’s baked, not fried, and made with just a touch of vegetable oil.

          I fell in love with string beans and water chestnuts in steamed dumplings, and again in pan stickers, only to discover the secret ingredient was egg. “Why couldn’t it be bean curd instead?” I asked. Next time I came, bean curd had replaced egg in both dumplings and in the steamed vegetable buns, too. And I discovered fresh, sweet little cubes of bean curd with pickled cabbage (I’m not a stickler about salt, either), plus luscious chicken-rice soup and the smoky wok perfume of shredded chicken with bean sprouts and snow peas.

          At first, the young women servers recruited from Chinatown, Flushing, and Japanese restaurants were shocked by the fussiness of customers here. But manager May Pang explained the obsessive ways of Manhattanites, and now if you ask for “no salt” or “less oil” or “sauce on the side” or “mu-shu without egg,” no one should bat an eye.

          Pretend you don’t notice honey-roast ribs, shrimp spring rolls, and skewered beef. Try flaky turnip pastries (just a touch of vegetable oil), cold sesame noodles (sauce on the side, used stingily), steamed shrimp-and-crabmeat dumplings, and delicious pear-rice-studded chicken dumplings. Share some brown wehoni rice and fresh fruit for dessert.

          The gang is ravenous for great beef, and only a classic steakhouse will do. Don’t panic. Yes, steakhouse portions are monolithic. Eat just half your broiled fish (ask the chef to brush it with olive oil, not butter) and half a baked potato (the kitchen won’t have yogurt to sub for sour cream: Elton douses his with Tabasco, insisting that you feel full when your throat and esophagus are burning).

          Although some shellfish (lobster, shrimp, and squid especially) are a bit higher in cholesterol than other animal products, they are low in total fat, saturated fat, and calories and rich in omega-3s, the fatty acids that may lower cholesterol. So most sea critters (but not with their roe) are better for your fitness plan than red meat. That doesn’t mean giving up meat forever, unless only a sixteen-ounce steak will put you in carnivore heaven.

          Look at a list of comparative food counts and choose three or four ounces of lean meat -- part of a veal paillard, preferably grilled with a brushing of olive oil, or one third of a typical filet mignon, or even carpaccio (drizzle the oil sparingly yourself).  Be sure the water understands that you will perish on the spot if the chef splashes anything on your plate with butter.

          Knowing all you know now, sticking to your diet is a cinch at Le Bernardin. About a year ago, Maguy and Gilbert LeCoze began to notice a surge of fatphobia. A sure sign of the Americanization of this brother-and-sister act from Brittany is that, instead of belittling the fitness obsession with haut Gallic disdain, Gilbert revised the menu.

          Start with oysters or raw sea urchin, raw salmon or black bass brushed with olive oil, the pounded tuna, marinated-fish salad, skate salad, truffle-and-sea scallop salad, black bass in coriander bouillon, or sea scallops in a chive-flecked nage -- a reduction of their poaching bath. Isn’t there butter in the nage? “No, no, no, no,” Gilbert cries. “If you tell us ‘No butter,’ there’ll be no butter.”

          Sea snapper is sautéed in just a bit of olive oil. My favorite halibut swims in vinaigrette -- ask for it on the side and eat just a little. Tell the waiter to hold the onion compote that comes with the roast halibut in onion juice and substitute something without butter. Try herb-crusted cod with tomato vinaigrette on the side. If salt is not a concern, order thick salmon cooked rare with coarse salt (specify “no cream”). And for no added fat at all: black bass stewed with zucchini, tomato, and basil, skate or lobster à la nage -- indeed, any fish à la nage will have more flavor than it would dry-broiled.

          “I understand,” Gilbert says. “If you want to eat foie gras once a month, you have to be careful the rest of the time.”

          Evergreen, what an appealing concept…never to wither, simply to grow greener and strong. So why am I alone in the Rainbow Complex’s Evergreen Room, a clever new kink for members of the Rockefeller Club? Click goes the computer calculating a low-calorie, low-cholesterol lunch tailored to my personal diet needs. Perhaps the stressed execs who gather in the club’s other canteens spend so much time dealing with millions, they don’t want to know that the caramelized onion pizza has only 193 calories, 45.2 milligrams of sodium, 3.2 milligrams of cholesterol. Too bad -- it’s luscious, and big enough for four to share as a starter.

          I like my private dining room with its pearl-gray linen and baby orchids. The city 65 stories below is gentled by a silken haze and trailing white smoke. The waiter sounds like Clint Eastwood. He sets linen-wrapped crackers beside my left elbow. “How many calories in a breadstick?” I ask. “Twenty-five,” he replies. For such stunted sticks? I’d rather crunch this dark-brown fiber slab at twelve calories, even if it tastes like cellulose.

          My companions arrive and the computer coughs up diet menus for each of them too. Mine suggests field-green salad (43.9 calories, 12.1 milligrams sodium, 4.8 milligrams cholesterol), duck stir-fry (320.83 calories, 71.27 milligrams of sodium, 0 cholesterol), and ice cream truffles on sliced strawberries (107 calories, 25.6 milligrams sodium, 5 milligrams cholesterol).

          There’s no salt on the table -- just some cracked pepper in a little dish -- but no one misses it. Everything is beautiful and vibrant with flavor -- hearty minestrone, a briny seafood broth, dapper sushi and sashimi, splendid tuna seared to a crust and rare inside. I’m happily devouring little nubbins of rare, beef-like duck when suddenly my brain wakes up. How could duck be “zero” on the cholesterol scale?

          General manager Alan Lewis offers to call “our laboratory.” “The breast is zero,” he reports, “but no one knows about the rest of the duck. Food for thought.”

          “Food for thought has no calories,” someone offers. I hope it wasn’t me.

          Evergreen is still a bit green. The lab is clearly not ready to deal with duck. But I’m willing to grant the computer a blip or two. After sharing our cholesterol-free orange-and-raspberry terrine, nibbling a truffle, and finding the poached pear in chocolate sauce unworthy of its 151 calories, we each receive a farewell token from the computer: an accounting of our lunch -- calories, fat, sodium, cholesterol, fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, carbohydrates, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, phosphorus, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and saturated fat.

          The future is here.

          If André Soltner stops by your table at Lutèce to make some suggestions for lunch, he’ll be impressed by your new-vowed prudence…especially if he’s watched your Lucullan binges over the years. He’s ready. Each day, he lightly smokes and roasts one or two sides of fresh salmon to slice and toss into a nest of salad greens (you may wish to ask for vinaigrette on the side).

          Order consommé with vegetable julienne, marinated raw salmon, artichoke with saffron-tinged mushrooms, or grilled trout (specify “no cream”), then roasted lobster (“only a drop of oil”). Soltner offers fresh Dover sole “sautéed with just a little oil and finished under the salamander” or poached in a fragrant nage and served with boiled potatoes, steamed vegetables, or wild mushrooms. His luscious poussin roti aux herbes can be done “without butter,” too. If you call ahead, he’ll do a savory chicken in the pot, with splendid root vegetables -- and the captain can skin your bird for you.

          Our gossip is so juicy, I don’t want to stop long enough to explore the lunch menu at Palio. Instead, I ask the waiter to choose something without butter, cream, eggs, red meat, caviar…I run through the litany. Then my friend and I resume our aerobic babble, nibbling herb-flecked breadsticks (no egg, no milk, just olive oil) and unable to resist the equally benign olive bread, to hell with the calories.

          The voluptuous eggplant under wonderful tuna carpaccio may have inhaled more than the two teaspoons of olive oil I specified for the entire meal. But my friend’s spaghettini with tomato and basil is a sage choice. Since I’m not being zealous about salt, the rollatine of salmon with black olives and sun-dried tomatoes requires just some portion restraint. I’ll eat half.

          Smoked roebuck is leaner than beef, but salty (insist on just a few drops of olive oil). Get the kitchen to hold the tuna roe on your swordfish carpaccio and put the saffron dressing in a separate dish. Hungry for pasta? Order fusilli with fava bean sauce and tomatoes, that simple spaghettini, or farfalle with zucchini and basil sauce -- all egg-free.

          Savvy entrées: steamed bass with assorted vegetables, grilled swordfish with olive oil, lemon, and herbs, mixed fish fillets or scallops with tomatoes, potatoes, and cauliflower, shrimp with peppers and tomatoes, cold-seafood platter, grilled rollatine of turkey with eggplant and mushrooms, roast Cornish hen, and the cold platter of quail, guinea hen, and rabbit marinated in olive oil. Tell the waiter every calorie counts and you want the tiniest amount of oil possible.

          Where the charming and elegant Brive now stands, there once reigned a restaurant known for its haughty, autocratic ways. The same Robert Pritsker still tends the stove -- “the Woody Allen of chefs for his intense obsession and clarity of vision,” his press agent writes. But today, he’s more flexible. “I might stop to think for a minute, but whatever a customer asks, I’ll do it.”

          There’s nothing to ask. As is, Pritsker’s asparagus in egg-white “cream,” the warm shellfish with vegetable “ices,” ballotine of chicken salad, and tian of sea bass and artichoke in pistou are a dieter’s dream. Ask for a timbale of tomato, olive oil, and fresh rosemary instead of buttery potato purée with your egg, butter, and cream-free boudin of soft-shell crab.

          Or try the summer specials: hot and raw sea scallops with three sauces -- a coulis of tomato, tuna-basil purée, and scallop cream (the last is not for you) -- or zucchini blossoms stuffed with diced squid and encircled by squid sautéed in olive oil. Let the chef sauté a citrus-marinated sole for you, to be served with a purée of coriander. Best forget the tuna -- Pritsker wraps it with fat to keep it moist and probably won’t sacrifice that just for you.

          Fresh fruit or a taste or two of sorbet are the only legal desserts.

          If you know all about Mexican food, you know that refried beans love lard. So does mole. And then there are those deep-fried flautas and tostadas and the homemade chorizo, the melted cheese, the unavoidable sour cream. I, for one, have a serious taco-chip habit. It almost seems easier to stay home and grill a fish.

          Don’t. Let Zarela grill a fish for you. It’s summertime, and there may be white gazpacho (make with nonfat yogurt). Avoid the seared tuna, since it has been marinated in lard-tinged mole. Ask for “very little oil” on everything. It’s not on the menu, but the kitchen will sauté red cabbage in olive oil or even steam greens for you to pep up with fresh salsa. While everyone else is wolfing down chips, sip a small margarita -- without salt, of course (some studies show that one and a half ounces of alcohol raises HDL cholesterol) -- and you won’t feel sad at all.

          Ask the kitchen to sauté shrimp for you in a spicy jalapeño-onion-and-cilantro sauce -- minus the coconut, using the least oil possible. Your grill-smoked salmon will taste vibrant with fresh salsa instead of chipotle mayonnaise. Summer specials like chipotle-barbecued prawns or scallops braised in fish stock are ideal.  And ask that the pollo borracho be cooked with vegetable oil instead of butter. Insist on vinaigrette on the side with the grilled chicken salad. Unlike the lethal refried beans, pintos seasoned with tomato, onion, pickled jalapeño, and beer have no oil at all.

          If your waiter doesn’t seem sufficiently serious about your diet needs, ask for Zarela herself. She’s lost and gained and lost as many pounds as we have, and she’ll be properly sympathetic.

          It’s difficult to imagine a captain actually focused on your diet fixation in the hubbub of Le Cirque. The house’s Parmesan toast, oozing butter, is already on the table when I spell out the specifics of my quest. Little canapés of caviar (a major no-no) and quail egg (yikes!) arrive, a conspiracy. And then chef Daniel Boulud’s special scallops in black tie on a puddle of truffle butter (I’m blotting it away).

          Just as we should be calling it a night, our dietetic fare arrives -- thin-as-chiffon raw red snapper on a hedge of greens. The waiter holding a bottle of olive oil.” Now this is up to you,” he says. Glazed scallops follow, with mâche and a spiky, weedy green, napped with a warm, intense tomato coulis; then pigeon and vegetables just off the grill, a bit greasy. A dazzling mosaic of fruit plus sorbets in Sirio’s outrageous new silver-mounted crystal is just the beginning of the usual dessert bombardment. What, no cookies? No truffles? No crème brûlée? Sirio’s heart is broken.

          Best call ahead, I decide. “Sirio, this is serious.” I give him the list of limitations. Tonight, the red snapper veils thin half dollars of truffle on an oil-brushed plate -- that earth scent intoxicating. The season’s first good tomatoes are layered with arugula, oregano, and basil in perhaps a bit too much olive oil, the strong savor of balsamic vinegar ringing through. Is it possible there’s no butter in the rich red-pepper sauce framing perfectly cooked lotte? I want to believe it.

          A carved cantaloupe half holds papaya, raspberries, kiwi -- fewer calories, pleasing tropical nuance. After resisting cookies again, I reach for a tiny silver of candied grapefruit peel. “Tsk, tsk,” says the waiter.

          I know there are dozens of possibilities hidden in Le Cirque’s encyclopedic menu. But if I look down at the menu, I’ll miss who-knows-what drama. Be firm with the captain. Then let him suggest. Or send a note to the chef. Tell him I sent you.

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