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RESTAURANTS : Eat to Your Heart's Content at Daily's

August 31, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition

"Low in fat" does not have to mean "low in flavor." Daily's Fit and Fresh, a San Diego-based chain with a new branch in Laguna Hills, makes this statement with an exclamation point.

Founder Pat Daily knows the importance of a low-fat diet--he is a cardiovascular surgeon. When he opened his first Daily's in 1991, his vision was a fast-service restaurant serving healthful, low-cost meals: entrees under $5 with a maximum of 20% of calories from fat in everything served.

With the aid of clinical dietitian Patti Milligan, Daily developed an attractive, intelligent menu. The response was encouraging. Soon there will be two more O.C. Daily's; a Laguna Niguel location is expected to open this fall, and a Tustin branch is expected to follow.

The chain's premise is to reduce fats greatly rather than eliminate them.

This distinguishes Daily's from certain "natural foods" restaurants (I won't name names) that, owing to a puritanical insistence on being fat-free, serve odd-textured, harsh-flavored, quite ghastly food. The daub of light tartar sauce on Daily's grilled fish pocket and the tangy south-of-the-border slaw that comes with it are what make the meal good. And the sandwich still conforms to high nutritional standards.

In case you're wondering, the numbers on this sandwich are a modest 5.3 grams of fat and 19% fat calories. The menu's back page gives a nutritional analysis of everything served in the restaurant, broken down in terms of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat percentage, fiber, sodium, cholesterol and dietary exchanges. Feel better? Hey, I do already.

Daily's Fit and Fresh is in the Oakbrook Village Shopping Center, a site possibly chosen because of its proximity to the huge Leisure World complex. Any time you stop in at this restaurant, expect to fall into line behind two or three health-conscious seniors, tanned, vigorous and looking very happy with these choices. As they should be. Daily's Fit and Fresh has an appealing menu, and an ultra-clean open kitchen, where foods are readied at high speed.

Most customers seat themselves on the outdoor patio, where they nibble under shady umbrellas. Inside, the decor is all blond wood and austere wooden booths. One evening, we sat inside under a color blowup of the restaurant's grilled catfish. Another, we sat outside, caressed by balmy South County breezes.

All the salads are delicious, in large part because of excellent, flavorful dressings such as balsamic vinaigrette and ginger sesame. Thai noodle salad has a tangy peanut citrus dressing (the salad is actually made with soba , those Japanese buckwheat noodles).

The Chinatown chicken salad is one of the few Chinese chicken salads in Orange County that isn't sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. The greens are fresh, the grilled chicken breast is nicely blackened, and the ginger sesame dressing is delightful. A punchy Caesar comes topped with grilled vegetables and oil-free sourdough croutons.

There are pizzas, too: round, puffy little pies (serving one or two people) with thick whole-wheat crusts. The menu lists two of them, coming in at just under 500 calories each. Spicy grilled chicken pizza is made with red onion, green pepper, spicy tomato marinade, skim-milk mozzarella and strips of grilled chicken. Fresh veggie pizza is a mass of diced mushroom, chopped red pepper and thin-sliced zucchini.

Most sandwiches and entrees have little touches that elevate them from the humdrum. Free-range turkey breast pocket, for instance, comes in whole-wheat pita bread with an unctuous side of buttermilk-based red onion sauce. I like the pepper crust around the edges of the turkey slices and the garnish of shredded romaine and carrot. Grilled eggplant and zucchini sandwich comes on a crusty French style baguette. In this case, it's a pungent roasted pepper spread that makes the sandwich interesting.

The pasta of the day is usually three-colored fusilli . I must say I was disappointed with mine. The "spicy seafood marinara" on the chewy pasta spirals was littered with bits of halibut and catfish, but the pungent tomato overwhelmed any trace of fish--no small feat.

The entree called Cajun catfish is delicious, though; it's a chunk of fresh fish flanked by a black-bean-and-corn salsa and a scoop of steamed brown rice. Here the fish has plenty of flavor, with a light spice coating clinging to the flesh for dear life.

Complex carbos surface in side dishes such as hearty stewed lentils with brown rice, a cumin-spiked three-bean-and-corn chili and the unexpected sweet potato with "maple cream." This last is almost a dessert, with none of the guilt. The "maple cream" is a thick topping with the texture of a buttermilk salad dressing, and it does taste like maple.

Daily's hasn't neglected the sweet tooth, really--only the fat tooth. A fine frozen nonfat yogurt sundae is made with chocolate-rich light fudge.

The oatmeal-raisin cookies that they occasionally hand out free are crunchy golf balls sweetened with fruit juice. They're far from being a gastronomic indulgence--these dry hard-balls remind me of the packaged cookies sold in health food stores.

Next time I'll pass on the free cookies.

Daily's Fit and Fresh is inexpensive. Starters are $1.09 to $2.45. Salads are $3.89 to $5.89. Sandwiches are $4.59 to $4.95. Entrees are $4.25 to $5.89.

* DAILY'S FIT AND FRESH

* 24351 Avenida de la Carlotta, Laguna Hills.

* (714) 472-0270.

* Open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

* Visa and MasterCard.

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