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The wood-grilled salmon at Prasino 

Lighten Up

by Lisa Shames | Courtesy Image | Men's Book Chicago magazine | November 18, 2013

In the not so distant past, dining out and eating healthfully were two very separate entities, half-hearted diet plates notwithstanding. But these days it’s a far different story, with Chicago hot spots increasingly offering superfood-fueled options that are both personal-trainer- and restaurant-critic approved.

“People often think ‘healthy’ means not tasty or big enough,” says Marc Jacobs, vice president and managing partner of Beatrix (519 N. Clark St., 312.284.1377). “We’re trying to prove them wrong.” At the recently opened River North restaurant, the proof is in the pudding. Its chia-seed pudding made with sweet almond milk takes dessert into new and delicious territory.

Chia seeds aren’t the only superfood on the menu here. Juice blends with names like Power Greens are squeezed fresh daily. Quinoa cakes are served at breakfast with poached eggs, and later in the day as an appetizer. Even Beatrix’s meatballs take a lighter approach. Made from all-natural Amish chicken, they’re steamed, then roasted. “Diners have become more sensitive to what they’re putting in their bodies,” says Jacobs.

Matt Matros, owner and creator of Protein Bar (multiple locations, is all too aware of the importance of paying attention to one’s diet. After struggling for years to lose weight, this self-confessed “fat kid” finally found an eating program that worked for him at age 22—and subsequently lost 50 pounds. When Matros couldn’t find any on-the-go spots that fit with his new healthy regimen, he created Protein Bar, a quick-serve breakfast, lunch and dinner spot that specializes in quinoa-based bowls and burritos, salads and smoothies.

It turns out that Matros wasn’t the only one looking to change his way of living: Since launching in 2009, Protein Bar has grown to 13 locations in Chicago, three in Washington, D.C., and will open in Denver later this year. “It’s one thing to speculate on something and put it on your menu and hope consumers will start eating that way,” he says. “But it’s a whole other thing to see that people have recognized and embraced it.”

Nellcôte (833 W. Randolph St., 312.432.0500) is well known for its pizzas and pastas made from milled-in-house flour, but chef Jared Van Camp’s new menu section showcasing local vegetables will likely earn a following of its own. For Van Camp the inspiration behind the addition was twofold. On one hand, he was responding to requests from customers: “People are demanding more vegetables, and they want to have options besides things that are deep-fried or starch on starch on starch,” he says. On the other, he needed to change his own diet due to Type 1 diabetes.

To create the nine or so seasonal vegetable dishes, such as sauteed heirloom Italian greens and kale carbonara, Van Camp takes a “get out of your own way” approach. “It’s about thinking, ‘What’s the best way to coax the flavor out of the vegetables?’” he says. “We’re not trying to earn any points for creativity here.”

Chef Jared Case at elegant Wicker Park restaurant Prasino (1846 W. Division St., 312.878.1212) also embraces the keep-it-simple approach. “My goal is to not overthink the food,” he says. “At the end, the meal ends up being really light and refreshing.” Having a wood-fired grill at his disposal helps create rich flavors in dishes such as wood-grilled halibut and salmon, as does using gastriques—a syrup reduction of caramelized organic sugar and vinegar. “Gastriques add bright, dynamic qualities without adding extra fat,” he says.

At Travelle (330 N. Wabash Ave., 312.923.7705), a healthcentric menu comes with the territory. “By virtue of being a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, a lot of our food is olive oil- and vegetable-based,” says chef Tim Graham. “It’s naturally a light food.”

That’s certainly the case with the restaurant’s popular fish en papillote, in which red snapper is cooked with fish stock, vegetables and olive oil in a parchment bag. Graham’s mashed potatoes substitute yogurt for butter and cream. And don’t expect to find any butter on the table, either. Instead, there’s an olive-oil gel to spread on the housemade bread. As opposed to overly relying on fats, Graham chooses to create his flavors with some 50 different varieties of spice stocked at the restaurant. “Generally, we take whole spices and grind them à la minute for freshness and flavor,” he says.

Spice is also the cornerstore to the aptly named Bombay Spice Grill (213 E. Ohio St., 312.828.0988). Every two weeks, the restaurant roasts in-house the various spices for its garam masala mixture. Diners won’t find any ghee, butter or cream in its home-style Indian cuisine, says chef Sunil Kumar. “The flavor comes from the spices,” he says. For those who need more proof that the samosas, chicken tikka and curry bowls are healthy, the restaurant prints each dish’s nutritional information on the back of its menu.

As a longtime chef, Steve Chiappetti knows firsthand the physical abuse of working in the food industry. “We eat stuff that isn’t good for us; we’re constantly indulging; and alcohol is readily available to taste,” he says. His wake-up call came earlier this year. After working with a personal trainer and making changes to his diet, he’s lost 40 pounds.

He sees that same consumption awareness among his clientele at J. Rocco Italian Table & Bar (749 N. Clark St., 312.475.0271). At the River North restaurant, Chiappetti has created a menu of smaller portion dishes that allow patrons to create their own mix-and-match meal, pairing, say, a starter of seared scallops and pesto with a side of garlic spinach. His housemade pastas are a healthy option, too, as they’re made mostly with protein-rich eggs, and little flour. “It’s not so much about what you need to omit in your diet, but finding a healthy balance,” says Chiappetti.