The Lite That Failed

Welcome to the New Times Cafe swimsuit issue.
Unfortunately, the editors have nixed my suggestion to run a photo spread of me and several models lolling on a breezy, sun-dappled tropical-island paradise, cavorting in designer bathing suits. How could they be so shortsighted?

Right about now, most of us start to get concerned about how we're going to look poolside during the summer-swimming season. The problem is, while we long to be fit, sleek and trim, we want to skip the debilitating diet and exercise steps that are required to make our dreams come true.

Admiring my well-proportioned figure, people marvel at how I manage to keep my height/weight ratio in such perfect balance, eating out as often as I do. Well, it's easy--I've opted to get taller.

But what works for me may not necessarily work for you. Or so I hear from readers who love to eat out, but who don't want the fat grams and calories that usually go along with restaurant dining. Is it possible, they ask, to lose weight and still eat out several nights a week?

Intuitively, it seems a ridiculous idea. After all, it makes as much sense for the weight-challenged to try to shed pounds by going to a restaurant as it does for gamblers to try to give up blackjack by heading for Las Vegas. What's more, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that good-for-you eating doesn't really lengthen your life, either. Your life just seems longer.

Still, the notion intrigued me, so I hatched a plan. My wife and I went to four of Phoenix's finest restaurants. At each place, we informed the server that we wanted a full three-course meal, but one that featured low-calorie, low-fat fare. What, we wondered, could the chef do for us?

First stop, Christopher's Bistro (2398 East Camelback, 957-3214). Going to Christopher's Bistro to avoid calories is like going to Sodom and Gomorrah to avoid sin. It's possible, but you can't escape the feeling that you're missing out on something.

Initially, it's the fresh, warm, crusty dinner rolls. Unless your resolve is particularly strong, I advise you to ask the server to remove them.

Our waiter listened to our healthful-meal request with admirable professional equanimity, although, for the briefest moment, a shadow crossed his face. Perhaps, he thought, we were also going to ask him what time the next spaceship left for Hale-Bopp.

For an appetizer, he directed us to share one of the salads, fashioned from roma tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, enlivened with arugula and a yummy red pepper sauce. After a few bites, I thought I could detect the pounds beginning to drip off me. (At $11.95--$9.95 plus a two-buck splitting charge--I could also feel my wallet losing weight.)

Main dishes were a bit more problematic. I made the kitchen's life easy by choosing the grilled mahimahi platter from the menu. My wife, however, played the fussy, hard-to-please role to the hilt. Nothing on the menu, she told the server, appealed to her. In fact, she was feeling vegetarian. What could the chef whip up?

Well, he whipped up a bowl of roasted veggies--eggplant, squash, red pepper and artichoke, moistened with a bit of vegetable stock. It was tasty enough, all things considered. But my wife was so hungry afterward I feared she might start chewing on her cloth napkin. My small portion of mahimahi, served in a mustard sauce with spinach (and nothing else), had a bit more oomph. But its appeal also seems limited to calorie counters.

Dessert here will test your will power, especially if you have to watch nearby tables feasting on the chocolate tower, profiteroles and souffles. Still, although you can't have your cake and eat it, you can do pretty well. The sorbets--orange, raspberry and green apple--are wonderfully fruity. And the off-the-menu bowl of berries brought some dazzlingly good fruit.

One final temptation comes with the check--complimentary truffles and a taste of Christopher's fabulous warm, runny chocolate cake. We devoured them. After all, you can only do so much play-acting.

Second stop, Vincent Guerithault on Camelback (3930 East Camelback, 224-0225). At first glance, Vincent seems to cater to diners interested in a low-calorie, low-fat experience. But I'm not too sure whether some of those heart-starred menu items ("Approved by the Arizona Heart Institute") are reliable.

The only starred appetizers are salads. The mesclun and radicchio model, though, gets the meal off to a bumpy start--the bitter, almond-tossed greens don't mesh very well with the tart citrus vinaigrette. Fortunately, that evening the kitchen offered an appetizer special that fit our purpose. Belon oysters, farmed in Washington State, are my favorite variety. I could have slurped all night. Still, I couldn't help dreaming about Vincent's magnificent signature appetizers, like the smoked salmon quesadilla and duck tamale. It's also torture to contemplate the great breadbasket, filled with olive bread, blue corn muffins and little croissants.

The main-dish list offered four heart-smart options. But I had to scratch my head when one of them, the grilled Cornish hen, arrived. It's got the skin on, brushed with olive oil. Since I was only pretending to diet, I ate it with full enjoyment. But I could see how the bird might torment someone who was really working at fitting into a bathing suit.

For those truly serious about their regimen, I'd suggest the steamed sea scallops and shrimp entree, lovely critters touched up with ginger, lime, cilantro and bit of chile, accompanied by a flour tortilla and some baby vegetables.

Vincent can work on your sweet tooth without working on your waistline. The sorbets we tried--champagne, kiwi, raspberry--are incredibly intense. There's a fruit bowl as well. However, like Christopher's Bistro, Vincent tempts you with freebie sweets at check time. I can report that the truffles, chocolate-dipped strawberries and minipalmiers will undo all the good you've tried to accomplish over the previous three courses.

Third stop, RoxSand (Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, 381-0444), one of my favorite restaurants. But this is not the place you want to do your calorie counting, unless you don't mind counting fairly high.

It's hard to pass by appetizers like the superb b'stilla, braised curried chicken in phyllo, or the gorgeous tempura squid in a zesty olive, caper and anchovy sauce, even if you are watching your waistline. Your best diet bet? It's the baby spinach salad, lovely organic greens teamed with hard-boiled egg and tomato. But make sure you ask for it without the sinful maple-bacon dressing, or you'll hate yourself in the morning.

Our perplexed waiter furrowed his brow when we inquired about low-cal entrees. He steered us to RoxSand's vegetarian dishes. I guess he didn't realize that "vegetarian" is not necessarily synonymous with "low calorie." That's certainly the case here. After all, if mushroom risotto and deep-fried falafel with curried eggplant were diet food, the whole world would be slim. The Egg Noodle platter seemed like the least-caloric meatless option: noodles tossed with Asian veggies, lychee nuts, a few cashews and wilted organic dandelion and turnip greens.

One major drawback, however, is the wickedly luscious Evil Jungle Prince sauce that freshens the dish. It's prepared with coconut milk, which dieters need about as much as Superman needs kryptonite. But the chef accommodated us by leaving off the sauce and serving it on the side.

The waiter also recommended the monkfish. I'm not too sure about the low-cal properties of its zesty oil, lemon and garlic marinade, but I am sure it's a splendid piece of fish.

It's easy for dieters to get shipwrecked on RoxSand's desserts. Even the sorbet is a bit over the top, five enormous fruit-flavored scoops served with wonderful cookies. And when we requested a bowl of berries, the kitchen simply turned us down. At RoxSand, it's tough maintaining your caloric virtue.

That was the story, too, at our final stop, Razz's Restaurant and Bar (10321 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 905-1308).

Most of the 20 starters here haven't been designed to make you look good in fashionable swimwear. The heart-stopping gnocchi verde certainly haven't--four plump dumplings filled with potato, spinach and chicken, smoothed with a creamy Parmesan-cheese sauce.

But there are a couple of calorie-friendly alternatives. The mixed seafood ceviche is outstanding, put together with shrimp, scallop, octopus and fish. Oysters on the half-shell, gilded with a lip-smacking balsamic cherry-pepper vinaigrette, are to die for.

Despite our whining, Razz's wasn't willing or able to do anything off-the-menu to satisfy our healthful-dining entree request. Our waiter did say the chef could accommodate our meatless whim by leaving out the animal protein of the restaurant's signature Bah Mie Goreng platter. Now, this excellent dish features spicy Indonesian noodles tossed with chicken, pork and shrimp, zipped up with fried plantains and dried cranberries. Asking for a vegetarian version, it seemed to me, makes as much sense as asking for a vegetarian Big Mac.

So we turned to seafood. After much deliberation, the waiter suggested the Pacific Sand Dabs. I guess he didn't remember the rich lemon thyme sauce or the thick mashed potatoes topped with strips of fried onion. This plate is wonderful, but it's not going to get anyone in shape for a Calvin Klein underwear modeling gig.

The bouillabaisse is a better alternative, a seafood stew of mussels, cockles, shrimp, scallops and fish in a tomato broth.

Desserts offer calorie counters several options. The Haagen-Dazs sorbets won't throw your diet completely out of whack, but they won't help. The kitchen did agree to assemble a bowl of mixed berries. And the wine-poached pear ends the meal on a calorie-friendly note.

So--can you eat out at the Valley's finest restaurants and lose weight at the same time? Well, perhaps. But just to make sure, I'd suggest leaving your car at home, and running to and from the restaurants.

Christopher's Bistro:
Vegetable plate
Bowl of berries

Vincent Guerithault on Camelback:
Grilled Cornish hen

Spinach salad

Razz's Restaurant:
Wine-poached pear


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