A while back, we brought you a first look at Clean Plates: A Guide to the Healthiest, Tastiest Restaurants in Manhattan, which recommends vegan and vegetarian restaurants as well as eateries that serve mostly grass-fed, organic, free-range, sustainably raised meats from local farms. Now that its for sale (mobile app and everything!), we asked the authors nutritionist Jared Koch and newly appointed Slashfood editor Alex Van Buren to take us through the selection process, so we could understand why Dirty Bird To-Go made the healthy, tasty cut while places like Union Square Cafe and Craft didnt.
What were you asking restaurants in order to determine whether they fit your health criteria? What was the most important factor?
Jared: We had quite an extensive list, covering everything from the quality of sourcing of the animal products to cooking methods to quality of the oils used, the type of sweeteners, if they filtered their water. The biggest deal-breaker was the quality of the animal products. If the animals werent at a minimum hormone- and antibiotic-free, that was a deal-breaker.
Did you have to tweak your standards at any point, because you realized they just werent realistic?
Jared: Going in, I wanted to focus more on places not using refined sugar, and I just realized theres only a small percentage of people really doing it. I still dont recommend eating refined sugar (or if you do, you should eat it in moderation), but I ran into the reality that most restaurants arent there at this point.
Werent you suspicious that some places might be pulling the wool over your eyes? Were some places more secretive or clueless about their methods and sourcing than others?
Jared: I would really push I would sometimes say I have a company coming in from out of town, or I have someone with allergies. And wed also re-ask the questions when we were visiting the places (you dont always get the same answers). Then after we fact-checked with owners, managers, chefs
Alex: If you use the word allergy, thats a good way to get the most clear response.
How do you counter people who say this approach is more of an environmentally conscious or political one, rather than a healthy one? Arent a lot of the dishes at these restaurants full of fattening creams, starches
Jared: The underlying philosophy that I adhered to from a nutrition standpoint is bio-individuality. Its based on the ideal of eating a primarily plant-based diet and then if you are going to add animal product, eat ones that are antibiotic free, grass fed, raised in the most natural environment. Not every restaurant is perfect there are things on every menu that arent healthy. Everyone has to know their own body.
Youre not a big fan of salt. How were you able to gauge the degree to which unhealthy ingredients went into a dish?
Jared: In our research and fact-checking, one of our questions was about salt on the menu and the quality of the salt theres a big difference if theyre using processed table salt versus a good-quality sea salt. And when you eat at the places you get a sense of whether people are oversalting their meals or whatnot.
A lot of your picks ended up being New Americantype cuisine, or Italian. Is there a reason ethnic food like Chinese isnt all that heavily represented?
Alex: There are places like HanGawi, which is Korean vegetarian, and Le Miu [now closed], which is sushi. Le Miu did a nice job of sourcing its animal products. It was really tasty.
What surprised you about the vegetarian places? Was there one place in particular that struck you as not necessarily healthy despite its reputation?
Jared: A lot of the places we found use a lot of fake soy products or seitan. Or the cooking methods use a lot of frying. One place like that is Red Bamboo a lot of their menu is fried food and mock soy thats true of a lot of the Asian places that are vegetarian.
Surprisingly, some temples of cuisine dont make the healthy cut. Per Se, for instance?
Jared: Their menu is prix fixe and when I looked at the menu, it didnt give you the ability to eat in a very healthy way. They do a very good job sourcing, but they had stuff like foie gras something I couldnt really endorse. Animals being raised in a natural environment thats ultimately whats healthiest for us as humans. With foie gras, theyre fatting the liver of the animal, intentionally overfeeding it, which means an unhealthy liver.
One of the big surprises: Craft didnt make the list of healthy restaurants?
Jared: A good portion of the animal products they serve werent hormone or antibiotic free. When we called them they told us they were, but when we were actually at the restaurant, they admitted most of them werent, and said to us, "if thats what youre interested in, you should try Craftsteak," which is in the book.
Lever House, which just closed, was deemed healthy but didnt cut it from a critical standpoint.
Alex: The food was just not that good at all and it was very expensive for what we got. We were both unimpressed.
And Union Square Cafe?
Alex: That one surprised me, honestly. We were on the fence on that one, for sure, because we loved one dish but out of the eight or nine we tried, a lot of them let us down.
Dirty Bird To-Go is another surprising pick. Sure, they use organic chicken, etc., but isnt fried chicken just plain unhealthy?
Jared: I dont think everybody is going to agree with every selection, but I think relatively speaking, for a fast-food option In the review we guide people toward the roast chicken option, and they also offer sides like a locally grown kale, where most people dont.
Alex: If youre going to go bad and get fried chicken, why not get the best fried chicken thats out there?
What about Chipotle?
Alex: I feel totally okay with that sometimes their beans are undercooked, but Ive been to seven around the city and Im a fan. And in todays economy, we need to give people options that arent all chemicals and hormones.