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Number Crunching

Ignore the calorie listings on Soma's menu and just eat the good food, already.
Jackie Mercandetti

My brain hurts. I've been trying to figure out what to have for dinner. Normally, such a decision would be no big deal: I've always been a carefree grazer, eating whatever I want whenever I want, virtually never falling into a three-squares-a-day routine. I snack on small bits of this when I crave it, tiny bits of that when it looks good, nibbling constantly depending on how hungry I am and when I happen to be awake. Calories, nutrition, middle of the day feasting, middle of the night snacking, who cares, so long as my belly is full and I'm happy?

Since visiting Soma, though, I can't stop obsessing about food. I can't relax; all I can think about it what's for my next breakfast, lunch and dinner. Worse, my noggin is clicking like a calculator, totaling every meal's content of protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber and calories. It's getting in the way of my chewing pleasure.

Soma, see, is a restaurant that serves top quality, tasty fast food. Its menu is designed by one of the Valley's most celebrated chefs, James McDevitt (former owner of Restaurant Hapa, current owner of Mika, and owner of the future Budo in Napa Valley). Soma looks just like another upscale bistro, complete with a full-service coffee bar and wine or beer selections. We can get fashionable noshes like mahi mahi tacos with ginger carrot vinaigrette, sake glazed chicken with jasmine rice and spinach, pork tenderloin with ginger plum barbecue sauce, or crepes stuffed with apple-cranberry tart. Yet Soma not only seeks to serve us our suppers, but to enhance our lives with health, fitness and nutrition. The stylish cafe opened just before Christmas last year, in a strip mall appropriately anchored by Whole Foods, next door to Just for Feet sportswear shop, and down the street from an L.A. Fitness club. The restaurant is weirdly sponsored by Reebok, and uses phrases like "engineered nutrition science," with recipes based on "data from the fields of clinical nutrition, exercise physiology and medicine." While we're told fine taste is paramount, everything on the menu is broken down by how it can fit into a perfectly balanced achievement of our personal dietary goals, whatever they may be.

Which is why, trying to figure out what to eat now, I'm so frazzled. Because instead of random compulsive feeding like I usually do, I'm following a carefully plotted methodology. I figure that if the smiling diners around me at Soma have greater plans than just grabbing a nice meal when they order cold chicken peanut soba or grilled salmon on whole-wheat flatbread, I can, too.

I've quickly figured out I'm too dense to plot my course on today's popular diets (Atkins, with its massive protein binges and no more than 40 grams of carbs daily; Pritikin, with its high fruit, vegetable and grain plan and less than 10 percent fat daily; or the I Luv My Colon Diet, with a name I made up but which does exist as high fiber loading. I can't even begin to consider Weight Watchers, which ascribes "points" to food so each bite must be tracked on an abacus and meals rotated like a Rubik's cube).

Instead, calorie counting is the only diet rule I've ever understood. So I approach my Soma trial from two opposite extremes. I try a low calorie diet, in case I want to lose weight. This isn't difficult: portions of exotic stuff like Soma's banana leaf-wrapped grilled salmon tend to be tiny. Then, I experiment with a high calorie schedule, pretending I'm in training for a triathlon. This is more difficult. Surviving on Soma could put me in the poor house, with a petite plate of steak costing $16.50, and two pancakes commanding $5.75.

The results? I like Soma a lot, from its elegant ambiance to its fare -- much more flavorful and satisfying than I would have imagined. (Who'd have thought steak and eggs could be healthy, but it is here, with thin slices of lean tenderloin tossed with non-fat mozzarella and scallions, at just 297 calories. Even a simple grilled tofu sandwich is enticing, thanks to a slick of tangy hummus, for 375 calories). But for me, number crunching isn't going to cut it. Some may be at Soma for its health aspects; I'll be here just to eat and enjoy.

I should weigh somewhere between 120 and 150 pounds, I find out. That's according to the "healthy weight for height" chart as calculated by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans committee. I learn that the government has decided it takes about 2,000 calories a day for a typical gal like me to maintain my figure. But if I need to lose weight, it's recommended I limit myself to 1,200 calories. Or, if I'm highly active (part Jack Russell terrier, for example), or need to gain weight, I can gorge on up to 2,800 calories.

 

I start my Soma diet in pursuit of losing weight, selecting from the cafe's lowest calorie choices. Breakfast is the Garden Scramble, clocking in at 159 calories for a 50/50 mix of egg whites and yolk littered with bits of green and red bell pepper, onion, broccoli floret, mushroom and scallions. It's a little dry, a little bland, but really not bad. I add on French toast (226 calories), which is hardly real French toast, given its two slices of skinny wheat bread dipped with a trace of buttermilk, some egg whites, a sprinkling of cinnamon and bits of dried apple. Still, it's not a bad start, paired with cups of good strong Seattle-based gourmet Tully's coffee.

Lunch brings lettuce wraps (153 calories), three bundles of moist chicken chunk breast, a thimbleful of sliced toasted almonds, string-thin carrots and bean sprouts. It's delightful if not entirely filling; a side of another entire chicken breast rounds it out (78 calories). A can of Piranha "Phunky" fruit punch Energy Drink tastes sweet enough to be dessert, yet it's sugar- and calorie-free.

When dinner rolls around, I'm ravenous. Vegetarian lasagna (266 calories) is delicious with zucchini, squash, eggplant, mushrooms, Parmesan and ricotta, but is appetizer portioned. I add in another entire entree -- tender charred filet of top sirloin in a pleasing soy-garlic marinade (350 calories), and though it puts me 32 calories over my limit for the day, my rumbling stomach doesn't care. Tall glasses of Keemun oolong, black tea from The Republic of Tea, fill some belly room with its robust flavor and sweet aroma.

I like the Gaining Weight plan much better. Breakfast starts in high gear with 721 calories of high protein oatmeal, steel cut for extra chewiness and infused with 20 grams of soy isolate protein. (Even better is the oatmeal layered with homemade granola and a sweet brulee cap, but the big bowl is only 690 calories, and I need each calorie I can get). I add in an oat-flaxseed pancake, fluffy and dotted with rounds of caramelized banana (255 calories).

At lunch, I'm hungry, but not hysterical. I've been looking forward to my coconut chicken and udon noodles (701 calories), and am not disappointed by the hearty bowl of soup with scallions, cilantro, garlic and coconut milk. It holds me pretty well until dinner, when I tuck into a Chinese mustard pork chop (798 calories), a pretty plate of two center cut chops with Chinese mustard apple sauce, sweet potatoes, spinach and caramelized onions. So far, everything tastes like real food, not health stuff, and I'm quite content with this whole Soma thing.

But then I do the math, and here's why panic sets in. I've still got 325 calories left to "spend" today. I'm not sure if I'm still hungry. I'm not sure what exactly I'm craving. But I know I'm not letting that 325 go -- no way, no how.

I really like the turkey, apple-sage-sausage and scrambled egg pita (263 calories), but that's a breakfast dish. The turkey burger is quite delicious, seasoned with peppers on a multi-grain bun, but that's a lunch offering, and it's too much at 415 calories. I could get the entrée of grilled fish with jasmine rice and spinach, except that when I venture up to the order counter to give it a try, the server admits that the fish variety changes regularly, and there's no guarantee that tonight's catch is actually exactly 247 calories as printed.

It's then that I realize: there's no way for me to win at this game anyway. For all its detailed nutritional information, Soma makes it far too easy to cheat. Breakfast, for example, comes with a choice of toast or turkey bacon. Lunches include crispy baked French fries or nutty-flavored 4-grain rice. Dinners include mixed green salad with a wide choice of dressings. The hamburger and veggie burgers come with or without avocado; French toast and pancakes arrive with syrup, honey and jam, while oatmeal is served with skim or whole milk. And none of these goodies are factored in to the entrée's nutritional equations.

Besides . . . Soma, Soma. It sounds so familiar. And then I remember. That's the name of the drug that Alduous Huxley predicted we'd all be taking in Brave New World, an opiate for the masses to keep us all content. He never could have predicted that instead, we'd be too obsessive about our diets to foment rebellion.

I doubt Soma's owners had that in mind. But in the end, all of the numbers are just too much for me. Forget the protein and carbs. Who cares about fat, fiber, or calories. Diet, schmiet; I'll be going to Soma strictly for the healthiest reason I can think of: because I like the food, and I want to eat it. Now that makes my brain very content indeed.


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