Spa Food. Pritikin. Carbo loading. Rotation diets. Americans are worrying more about what we put in our mouths than we ever have before. This week L.N. Halliburton begins a new kind of restaurant review: She will look for restaurants that specialize in health foods.
Let's call it 1977 BCC (Before California Cuisine). That's the year Woody Allen ate mashed sprouts in "Annie Hall." I am convinced that eating healthfully doesn't mean wearing an edible hair shirt, that there is a range of food that can nourish both body and soul. While there are a great many splinter sects that veto oil, sugar, caffeine, meat, eating fruits and vegetables at the same meal, I think there is a way to be fit and still have an occasional slice of tarte tatin . What I'm seeking is a lifelong, moderate--and yes, pleasurable--regime. I am not convinced that the route to fitness is paved with only broiled-fish-no-sauce-and-baked-potato, dry.
In reading numerous volumes and guidelines from the American Heart Assn. and Pritikin (and nearly everything else one finds), it's apparent that it's important to cut down on fats and increase complex carbohydrates and vegetables. How about trying a vegetarian restaurant for a change? We went to the Golden Temple, one of the oldest in town.
Despite a couple of pretty stained-glass pieces, a trompe l'oeil mural and various painted images of swamis and saints, the decor is rather nondescript. Daytime, sunlight attractively floods in, while at night the lighting is so poor the menu is hard to read. The atmosphere, on the other hand, is serene. The "vibes" are good--just make sure they aren't drowned out: Try not to sit under the noisy cooling system. We sat there at lunch one day and felt we were waiting for a train to depart.
Wonderful soup took our mind off the low-grade sound. Don't miss their yellow lima bean soup packed with onions, carrots and celery. My friend thought it needed a wallop of cayenne--we both found it comforting pottage. It was particularly wonderful with the Golden Temple's corn bread, which I think is some of the best I've ever had. Texture, which is always important, becomes even more so when you begin cutting rich things out. This golden corn bread, studded with millet, has a serious crust--and looks as good, in its fat rectangle, as a picture of Betty Crocker's gingerbread. The homemade whole wheat bread is also fragrant, yeasty and light.
Two interesting appetizers included mushroom-walnut pate and potato skins with shiitake mushrooms. Vegetarian cooking doesn't necessarily mean low-calorie cooking, especially in those dishes using oil and cheese: so caveat emptor. At lunchtime the shiitake mushrooms--fat, black and heavenly--were as "meaty" as mushrooms can get, well couched in hot potato skins, crisp and oily at the same time. I took a thimbleful of the homemade sour cream--it was exceedingly light. The pate , with its good dose of cumin, was as roughly textured as a rich country terrine.
A warm Oriental salad (red and napa cabbage, carrots, snow peas, tofu and two kinds of mushrooms) was intriguingly woodsy. The sauted mushrooms and tofu were full of oil--yet still fewer calories than an equal portion of meat would be. The brown rice salad with vegetables and hiziki in a miso dressing looked promising on the menu but was awful--the vegetables dry, sauce too sour-sweet. The Punjabi vegetable curry was respectable, perfumed with spices and punctuated with good yogurt, and my friend loved the Santa Fe enchilada with its zippy red chili sauce.
I was reminded how important it is to consult one's waiter on ingredients when the Marrekesh Kabob was served. "Broiled eggplant, mushroom and peppers, how caloric could that be?" I thought (even as it was being served, on a bed of couscous with walnuts and raisins). I hadn't anticipated the flood of tomato-based, sweet Golden Temple Moroccan sauce. (Don't be afraid to ask your waiter exactly what's in the food.) The service at the Golden Temple is very kind but we found that the waiters really had no idea what was in the food and though they agreed to go to the kitchen to ask, the messages seemed less than exacting on their return.
What else? Fresh juices are really fresh, there's a lovely mixture of apple cider and red zinger tea and a lemonade blended with raspberries and a spicy Yogi tea. Forget about the non-alcoholic wine, at least "Carl Jung Rose," the one we tried: It tasted like a juice that had merely turned.
There are numerous sweets, baked on the premises with maple sugar and honey rather than refined sugar, if that matters to you, but no fruit desserts at all. (It's so easy to bake an apple or a pear!)
Woody Allen was wrong about those mashed sprouts, as well as those right turns on red lights. Los Angeles has grown a lot since 1977 (BCC). But, other than that splendid little lunch of lima bean soup and crusty corn bread, I'm still on the lookout for perfectly sublime vegetarian cuisine.
Golden Temple, 7910 West 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 655-1891. Monday s -Friday s , 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. Closed Sundays. MasterCard and Visa. Parking behind restaurant. Dinner for two (food only), $17-$35.