Year-end rant: Be an annoying (and healthy) foodie in 2009

Trends of the last year?

Slow-roasted meats. More tapas. Local produce. Organic meat. Fancy burgers. Gastropubs. Fixed-price menus. Chocolate. Mainstreaming of molecular cuisine. Yummy scrap meat. Gluten-free dining. Tea. Chef-driven steak houses.

And then, looking ahead: poverty and bad health. No, they're not exactly dining trends but they're certainly beginning to play a significant role in our food life.

This hit home with me recently, when Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, appeared on the PBS program "Bill Moyers' Journal."

"People with more money generally have healthier diets," he said, "but affluent people who don't cook are not as healthy in their eating as poor people who still cook. ... If you don't have pots and pans, get them."

Pollan, whose research is first-rate, didn't cite a source for the statement, but as someone who has eaten out most days of the week for more than 20 years, the space where my gall bladder used to be certainly intuits the truth of his statement. Fast food like McDonald's is just about universally recognized as unhealthy. (See the film Super Size Me.) But we increasingly learn that what passes for fine dining may be anything but fine from our health's perspective.

This isn't just a matter of vanity and obesity. The new normality of chubbiness is coupled with a nearly epidemic increase in diabetes and heart disease. Children being born now are the first ever predicted to have a shorter life span than their parents. And bad food is the reason.

With expectations that the economy is going to continue its downward spiral well into 2009, with the middle class already swamping food banks, we may well see some radical changes in the nation's dining habits and diet.

At one point in his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama made much of the need to change the U.S. Department of Agriculture's symbiotic relationship with agribusiness. Instead of subsidizing the production and widespread use of high-fructose corn syrup, he said, by example, the USDA should be promoting healthy eating. Skyrocketing fuel costs at the same time demonstrated the financial wisdom of local food production. But Obama quickly retracted his position after the enormously powerful agribusiness lobby raised its eyebrow.

We're already seeing a substantial drop in fine dining, while fast food vendors remain stable by offering specials that often seem less costly than cooking at home. My guess is that the deepening recession will increase fast food's share of the dining market, meaning a further increase in health problems. Indeed, McDonald's, after posting a slump early in the year, has reported significant sales increases recently. I have several friends who claim they live on less than $5 a day of fast food – and have gained more than 20 pounds in a few months.

Pollan made the point in his interview with Moyers that indulging in unhealthy but tasty food is a human tradition but usually reserved for special occasions. What has happened in America, he says, is that we've come to believe we should be able to eat special occasion food every day.

So if you're poorer and want to dine out without wrecking your health and sacrificing good taste, where can you go? Here are some newcomers:

I always point people who want inexpensive, delicious food to ethnic cuisine – especially ultra-healthy Vietnamese. Com (4005 Buford Highway, 404-320-0405) continues to be my favorite, but the new Chateau Saigon (4300 Buford Highway, 404-929-0034), is also excellent if a bit more expensive.

Look to neighborhood restaurants that accent comfort food. Noni's (357 Edgewood Ave., 404-343-1808) features New York-style Italian food, which of course can be monstrously fatty. But a simple bowl of noodles with a homemade sauce and an arugula salad here isn't going to sting your wallet or your gut.

For purely healthy vegetarian fare, nothing comes close to the year-old Dynamic Dish (427 Edgewood Ave., 404-688-4344). It's easy to spend a lot here, so if you're looking to save money, resolve only to order a salad or a soup. Tip: I've usually found the restaurant agreeable to split single orders into two portions.

For good, but not quite as healthy vegetarian cuisine, go Indian. Madras Saravana Bhavan (2179 Lawrenceville Highway, 404-636-4400) is still my favorite. It's cheap, cheap, cheap.

Don't get suckered by the average tapas joint. You'll end up spending a fortune on "small plates." The new Eros World Tapas Bar (2160 Monroe Drive, 404-549-2433), in the retro building Piebar occupied, surprised me with its low prices and very high-quality, very generous not-so-small plates from a range of cultures.

Do your research and look for specials. The Standard (327 Memorial Drive, 404-681-3344), for example, is a pub that does a special Indian curry every Monday night. It is without fail delicious and costs no more than $10. I can't say it's terribly healthy, but it's not gonna poison you.

On the other hand, don't be suckered by prix-fixe menus. Many of them simply tack on a free dessert to the normal cost of an entree and appetizer. You don't need the dessert. I won't list the offenders because there are so many.

Little drives up the cost of a dinner out as much as alcohol. In fact, many restaurants mainly depend on alcohol sales to make a profit. You don't have to drink, really. I know that wine is essential to many diners' enjoyment, but this is truly an example of something that can be reserved for a special occasion.

Get over the drama. Are you looking for dinner or a role in grand opera? Ambiance is certainly part of any restaurant experience, but it's not necessarily indicative of the kitchen's quality. In an economy whose failure has been measured in part by tales of breathtaking excess by thieving Wall Street zillionaires, understatement suddenly looks ethical.

La Pietra Cucina (1545 Peachtree St., 404-888-8709), a cubby hole of a dining room, perfectly expresses the current state of high culinary art. It is in my opinion the best restaurant in the city right now but its blah dining room adjoins the cavernous space of the abandoned MidCity Cuisine, one of those big-ticket restaurants that went bust. La Pietra isn't cheap, but it's not terribly expensive, either. The food is a healthy, mainly organic, often local riff on classic Italian cuisine. The kitchen, like Dynamic Dish, will split plates for you and do its best not to impoverish you. It would make Pollan weep for joy.

Here's my main advice: Complain. I mean it. Demand quality ingredients, demand to know what's in the food you're eating. Demand healthy choices on the menu that don't taste like crap. Make it your New Year's resolution to become a whining foodie but one who is concerned about health as well as taste.

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