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 it’s 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 didn’t.
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 weren’t 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 weren’t realistic?
Jared: Going in, I wanted to focus more on places not using refined sugar, and I just realized there’s only a small percentage of people really doing it. I still don’t recommend eating refined sugar (or if you do, you should eat it in moderation), but I ran into the reality that most restaurants aren’t there at this point.
Weren’t 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 we’d also re-ask the questions when we were visiting the places (you don’t always get the same answers). Then after we fact-checked with owners, managers, chefs …
Alex: If you use the word “allergy,” that’s 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? Aren’t 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. It’s 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 aren’t “healthy.” Everyone has to know their own body.
You’re 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 — there’s a big difference if they’re 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 American–type cuisine, or Italian. Is there a reason ethnic food like Chinese isn’t 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 — that’s true of a lot of the Asian places that are vegetarian.
Surprisingly, some temples of cuisine don’t make the healthy cut. Per Se, for instance?
Jared: Their menu is prix fixe and when I looked at the menu, it didn’t 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 couldn’t really endorse. Animals being raised in a natural environment — that’s ultimately what’s healthiest for us as humans. With foie gras, they’re fatting the liver of the animal, intentionally overfeeding it, which means an unhealthy liver.
One of the big surprises: Craft didn’t make the list of healthy restaurants?
Jared: A good portion of the animal products they serve weren’t 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 weren’t, and said to us, "if that’s what you’re interested in, you should try Craftsteak," which is in the book.
Lever House, which just closed, was deemed healthy but didn’t 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 isn’t fried chicken just plain unhealthy?
Jared: I don’t 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 don’t.
Alex: If you’re going to go “bad” and get fried chicken, why not get the best fried chicken that’s out there?
What about Chipotle?
Alex: I feel totally okay with that — sometimes their beans are undercooked, but I’ve been to seven around the city and I’m a fan. And in today’s economy, we need to give people options that aren’t all chemicals and hormones.