The health food prophets who tell us not to eat sugar, salt or fat make it sound as if that's a simple matter of giving up burgers and doughnuts and so on. Their examples make me suspect that they are not personally renouncing a whole lot--they've just never been exposed to really serious temptation. Anyway, I never hear them talk with easy heartiness about giving up mousse de foie gras or creme bavaroise.
Those of us who have experienced some of the more humbling culinary temptations are likely to feel grateful for a restaurant like Carbo's. It is rigorously health-minded--no fat, no sugar, minimum salt, moderate protein, lots of complex carbohydrates--and even looks it, with a decor based mostly on sticking Reeboks and racing bikes on the walls (watch out when you stand up fast or you'll get tread marks on the scalp).
It is so seriously health-minded, in fact, as to be a little scary; one of the owners is the author of "The Winning Edge: Nutrition in Fitness and Competition." But good news, the chef is no training camp chuck wagon cook but a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, that hotbed of highly skilled avant-gardism.
I made a point of taking some of the healthiest people I know to Carbo's: an Irvine team captain, a lifeguard dispatcher and their glowing like. They were generally enthusiastic, as people tend to be when they find palatable health food. So was I, generally. Carbo's is an honest and surprisingly creative attempt to take the dreariness out of healthful dining (not that a guy whose digestive tract gets the brutal daily workout mine does needs to think twice about nutrition).
But there's no point in claiming that the food at Carbo's is as tasty as French food dripping with butter. Anybody who's ever had to cut down on salt knows that salt is not so much a flavor as a chemical that brings other flavors out. Rather than accept the idea that low-sodium food has to be bland, Carbo's adds flavor with such harmless ingredients as spices, yogurt and lemon. It's a solution, but not a perfect one.
Unfortunately, these are harsh flavors, and many healthful, complex hydrocarbon-rich ingredients (the wholesome lentil, the blameless bean) themselves have a bitter flavor as well. And the health food program outlaws the traditional way of mellowing rough flavors: the use of sugar and fats. The problem with the food at Carbo's, when there is a problem, is not usually dullness but harshness.
Fortunately most things are surprisingly good. The "stir-fried" vegetables are "fried" in water rather than oil, making them somewhat crisper than steamed vegetables and remarkably full of flavor. The pasta dishes with low-sodium ricotta filling, especially the canneloni appetizer, can be every bit as tasty as you would find in an Italian place. Fish is kindly treated, as in an intriguing Oriental stew with Italian-style noodles and a bit of soy and ginger. Swordfish is cooked a point, tender and juicy, with a flashy bit of roasted sesame on top.
The Cajun dishes--red snapper and beefsteak (the only beef on the menu) both get blackened here, and there's a Cajun chicken in a hot paprika sauce--are lively but good examples of the danger of harsh, bitter spices when there's no sinful unctuosity in the sauce. The only Cajun dish that really bothers me, though, is a jambalaya heavy on the rice (that dreaded brown health food rice whose flavor truly goes with nothing). This is no jambalaya but a chewy pilaf with a faint Cajun motif, and not even the most high-minded of my body-as-temple dinner partners would take more than a couple of bites.
I could ordinarily get through a meal here with no complaints if I avoided that rice, the bitterish bean soup and non-fried refried beans, and stuck with the vegetables, the pastas and the salads (surprise: the oil-less salad dressings work rather well). The pasta, incidentally, is low in cholesterol. The proportion of egg in the recipe has been reduced by a third. A lot of things apart from pasta come with a good fresh marinara sauce, including bread. You get marinara with your rolls instead of the villain butter.
And everything is forgiven by dessert time because the desserts are terrific: fruit-flavored cheesecakes, Heidi's frozen yogurt and a chocolate mousse cake that is so rich-tasting it's almost impossible to believe that it has no more than 150 calories. The soup section of the menu lists a chilled fruit soup, made with a bit of yogurt, honey and lime juice, that makes sense as a soup on a hot day, maybe, but excellent sense as a dessert anytime. Good coffee here, too.
Prices are yuppie-reasonable. Lunch appetizers run $2.25 to $4.50, entrees $4.95 to $7.95. The dinner range is $3.25 to $4.50 and $6.95 to $16.95. On "carbo-loading" nights (Friday, Saturday and Monday) there's a special $6.95 dinner of salad and all the pasta you can eat.
CARBO'S RESTAURANT 1000 Bristol St., Newport Beach
Open for lunch and dinner daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.