Regional Dining Guide

Local Restaurants Present Healthful Options

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Healthy eaters can breathe a sigh of relief, as local restaurants are catching on to the latest eating trends. Meet four local chefs who are helping a fitness center to take up the charge, with some delightful new dishes.

Greek Pork Chop, The Olympic Tavern: A single or twin 5-ounce pork chop is grilled and topped with olive tapenade, feta cheese, roasted red pepper coulis and sauteed spinach. “To add flavor, I add olive oil, fresh herb capers and anchovies,” says Chef Jerry Frystak. “There’s no sauce or cream, just red pepper sauce that is mildly sweet and spicy at the same time, which enhances the flavor. It’s topped off with a little feta cheese to deepen the experience and give your palate a little run-around.” (Tom Holoubek photo)

Mary Ann Suprenant enjoys dining out, but she does so on her own terms. The Rockford resident grew up eating meat, starches and vegetables. Little by little, she’s changed her eating habits and now prefers a more vegetarian lifestyle. She eats beef twice a year, chicken occasionally, and has cut pork and shrimp from her diet. She eats plenty of nutritious soups and salads.

“You can go anywhere and still eat healthy,” Suprenant says. “One way is ordering from the a la carte menu. Even at a steakhouse, I can eat healthier by ordering a dinner salad, a baked sweet potato and a side of steamed veggies. If I order a sweet potato, it has to be plain. If they slather it in butter, that defeats the purpose. At a local restaurant, you can order everything that comes with a chicken dinner except the chicken. I feel healthier, have more energy and feel less sluggish.”

Plenty of folks are thinking about healthful eating this time of year. Some are afraid to dine out, however, because they don’t know if they really can eat well at a restaurant.

According to studies conducted by the National Restaurant Association, today’s diners want healthier menu options and more information to help them make smart choices, from counting calories to finding fresh, local produce.

According to the study, 71 percent of adults are trying to eat better at restaurants than they did two years ago. Restaurant owners are paying attention, by adding more healthful dishes to their menus.

According to the Association’s 2013 Restaurant Industry Forecast, top culinary concerns include children’s nutrition, gluten-free cuisine, and health and nutrition. Other menu trends focus on local sourcing of ingredients, and the addition of whole-grain, lower-sodium and lower-calorie items, and smaller (or half) portions for a lower price.

“You have to take care of all your guests at a restaurant,” says Zak Rotello, food and beverage director at The Olympic Tavern, 2327 N. Main St., Rockford. “From vegetarians to meat eaters who come for the prime rib, the hospitality industry is all about appealing to a wide audience, while still maintaining our own sense of identity. You’ll always find burgers and fish on our menu, but one of the fun things about going to a restaurant is trying new things and getting away from the same old rut. We’re offering that by presenting healthier options.”

Curry Salmon, Octane InterLounge: This is one of the most popular items on Octane’s menu. In fact, the first day Chef Pat Alberto introduced it to a lunchtime crowd, it sold out in one hour. The dish consists of wild salmon atop jasmine rice, topped with coconut red curry sauce, ginger and scallions, served with a side of asparagus. “People like it, and when they find out it’s healthy, that’s a bonus,” Alberto says. “It offers portion control, good ingredients, and it’s simple to do. The salmon is sauteed for 30 seconds and vegetables are not overcooked. It’s high in protein, low in sugar and full of flavor.” (Tom Holoubek photo)

Greg Georgis knows firsthand how proper food choices can impact your life. Georgis, owner of health club FitMeWellness, 2595 N. Mulford Road, Rockford, is taking his message to the restaurant community.

Georgis says he once weighed 240 pounds, mostly because he couldn’t control his portion sizes. When he started making sensible eating decisions and incorporating exercise into his daily routine, he dropped 50 pounds over the course of a year. Now, he describes himself as a “healthy 190.”

“I love to eat,” says Georgis, who opened FitMeWellness in 2011. “I’m Greek, and my wife, Marifran, is Italian. Our lives centered on food.”

Georgis wants to share with others the same advice that helped him to get healthy. To that end, his fitness club partners with three local restaurants: Octane InterLounge, 124 N. Main St.; Franchesco’s, 7128 Spring Creek Road; and The Olympic Tavern. Alchemy, 610 N. Bell School Road, will be on board later this year.

Georgis met with restaurant staff members to take a closer look at their menu options. Together, they sampled a variety of dishes. Next, a FitMe nutritionist analyzed each dish in detail. From that work, FitMe created a menu that’s available at each restaurant, featuring items that are low in calories, sodium and fat, and high in protein and fiber.

“We’re trying to help educate our members and the public on eating better and moving more,” Georgis says. “I know chefs are educated on how to create delicious food, and we just need to help them create some healthy alternatives for their clients, as well as for our members.

“Rockford is experiencing a food renaissance,” he adds. “Restaurants like Franchesco’s, The Olympic and Octane have trained chefs who prepare meals from raw ingredients. You’re seeing a newer generation of chefs and owners saying the old way of serving mediocre food is not good enough anymore. We’re creating a larger community of like-minded people.”

Georgis’ efforts have been deliciously received. Octane came up with a FitMe menu that consists of four items – two fish dishes, one vegetarian dish and a beef slider entree – ranging in price from $7.99 to $13.99.

“I was on board immediately,” says Pat Alberto, executive chef at Octane. “It’s smart for a health club to venture outside of its facility to promote health and wellness. It was really the first time that I’ve counted calories. I always made food based purely on taste and texture, never thinking about calories. This is a good way to educate myself. It’s not that difficult to make food taste good and be healthy at the same time.”

Yellowfin Seared Tuna, Abreo: This is one of two dishes that have been on the menu since the restaurant opened nine years ago. “We tried to change the ingredients a few times, and customers let us know about it,” says owner Paul Sletten. It’s an all-raw dish, except that it’s seared in a pan for 5 seconds. The tuna is marinated with ginger, onion, garlic and sesame oil, and served with a salad that includes raw jicama, cucumbers and a light dressing of lemon juice, salt, pepper and sesame oil. “It’s simple and delicious,” Sletten says. (Tom Holoubek photo)

Franchesco’s was ready to try something new with its menu. “Being an Italian restaurant, we have a reputation for only offering heavy comfort food,” says owner Benny Salamone. “When you think pasta, you think carbs. But we’ve made changes over the years, such as adding gluten-free options and whole-wheat pasta. There is such a demand right now, especially with New Year’s resolutions. People are trying to keep the pounds off. We welcomed FitMe’s suggestions to create some light, heart-healthy dishes that maybe we didn’t currently offer on our menu. It’s the push that we needed.”

FitMe isn’t alone in its efforts to promote healthy eating. The Coronary/Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP) is a wellness program that teaches people how to make better lifestyle choices that can help people to lose weight and slow down, stop or reverse chronic conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and Type II diabetes.

CHIP was launched in Rockford about 10 years ago, and now offers heart-healthy menu items that can be found at locally owned restaurants including Mary’s Market, Ciao Bella, Kuma’s, Beefaroo and Lino’s.

The education is sorely needed. According to a study performed two years ago by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rockford ranked No. 4 among the most obese cities; 35.5 percent of Rockford residents are obese, which adds up to $179.4 million in annual obesity-related costs.

“Just telling people what to do is a recipe for failure – education is the key component,” says Jody Perrecone, area developer and certified facilitator for CHIP. “So many people go out to dinner, now, that it’s imperative we partner with restaurants. Our program has entrees that are lower in fat and calories, and contain much more fiber. These are menu items that people can feel comfortable with.”

Jeanie Burke, a registered dietitian, is a leading local expert on eating well. For the past 27 years, she’s been working throughout the community, teaching businesses, nonprofits and individuals the finer points of healthful eating, through classes, grocery store tours and media appearances.

“We’re seeing a large movement of consumers who are concerned about the chemicals that are in our food,” Burke says. “Consumers are now choosing restaurants that will fill their plate with vibrant colors from fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and foods free of chemical additives.

Chilean Sea Bass, Franchesco’s: Giacomo Parisi, Chef of Cuisine, has been doing healthier food for most of his four decades as a chef. He strives to create a menu with fresh ingredients that are low in calories, dairy and sugar. One of his favorite dishes is Chilean sea bass. “I recommend fish every day,” he says. “I’ve found that some of the most delicious food is often the simplest.” Parisi pan sears an 8-ounce sea bass for five minutes. He adds a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, lightly salts the fish on both sides, and adds a splash of wine, along with garlic, tomato and parsley to a water-based sauce. “I sear it from start to finish, in order to seal the juice, so that it doesn’t dry out. It’s flaky and tasty to eat.” The sea bass comes with a potato, but Parisi recommends an even healthier option of zucchini or broccoli. (Tom Holoubek photo)

“The body isn’t getting enough nutrients for optimal health when food choices are highly processed, refined and contain high sodium, fat and sugar levels,” she adds. “Vegetables flavored with spices and herbs are much better for you than those flavored with sour cream and butter. When you eat a healthy meal, you feel much more satisfied. Our plates need to be 50 percent fruits and vegetables. Studies show that populations with a high intake of foods from the plant kingdom live much longer.”

Burke recommends opting for menu items like wild-caught fish, hormone-free poultry and lean cuts of meat, when dining out. She also emphasizes portion control.

“You have to be proactive,” she says. “Tell the server exactly what you want and ask questions about the menu and ingredients. We’re fortunate to have many restaurants that are now offering vegetarian dishes, gluten-sensitive meals and organic ingredients, and I give them high kudos.”

Education starts with restaurant staff members. Every morning at The Olympic, Rotello and executive chef Jerry Frystak hold a pre-shift staff meeting to discuss daily specials and customer concerns, such as allergies to certain foods or ingredients. All staff members sample newer menu items, so they can better explain them to customers.

Many Olympic employees live near the restaurant’s North End neighborhood restaurant. Rotello encourages them to bike to work, when possible, to increase their fitness. He even replaced a parking space with a bike rack.

“Good health is an important factor in any business, whether you own a bike shop or a restaurant,” Rotello says. “Customers want to know about our cooking processes, so we need to become more plainspoken about what we’re doing, and education starts with our own staff.”

Other local restaurants are integrating healthy dining options, too. Paul Sletten, owner of Abreo, 515 E. State St., and Social Urban Bar and Restaurant, 509 E. State St., is responding to a different type of trend.

“I see more people simply trying to eliminate the negatives from their food,” he says. “They’re avoiding certain things like gluten and dairy. They’re not looking for sprouts. Many people have legitimate reasons for removing gluten from their diet, which has led to the trend of other people trying it, too. That’s why it’s important for us to educate our staff about gluten allergies, so that we can accommodate our guests.”

The Abreo menu features light, medium and heavy dishes rather than appetizers, salads and entrees. “It’s all about balance and quality,” Sletten says. “We offer small plates of food. The series is based on progression. You don’t want to sit down and eat macaroni and cheese first, and then a salad. Finding balance is important to enjoying the full experience of dining out.”

Georgis agrees. “It’s easy to go out and enjoy a meal with family and friends and still maintain your health goals,” he says. “This renaissance isn’t about dieting. It’s about a lifestyle. If you’re moving, move a little more. If you’re eating healthy, eat a little healthier. It all makes a difference.”

Many local folks are trying to make a positive impact.

“We all have the same goals in mind,” says CHIP’s Perrecone. “We need to improve a culture of wellness in our community, and we can do that through restaurants, health clubs, bike paths, walking paths and corporate wellness programs. A healthy community is vital.”

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