I enjoy food -- all kinds of food -- for its sensual pleasures. I also understand that some foods are better for our bodies than others. But not until I read the recent series in the New York Times on obesity and diabetes did I fully realize the impact that our food choices can have on our lives. Obesity has become an epidemic in the industrialized world, and diabetes -- a debilitating and life-threatening loss of the body's ability to process sugar -- is following in lockstep.
Current science suggests that the quickest way to lose weight is through a restricted-carbohydrate diet, similar to that recommended for diabetics. In that respect, the hunger-free South Beach Diet and French Diet -- both of which allow some fat and ample protein and distinguish between "good" and "bad" carbs -- are likely to be the next big thing for today's bigger people. Unfortunately, sugar is the top taboo as the worst carb -- and it's the one that many of us crave most.
If this means you, then Indulgence Sugar-Free Bakery and Café may be the destination of your dreams. When Tom Reise, then dining-room manager at Terra Restaurant in Hillcrest, discovered that his partner, Fritz Katz, had developed type 2 diabetes, Reise started making sugar-free pastries for his sweet-toothed pal. Soon friends urged him to take his gift to the public -- and two years ago, he opened Indulgence Sugar-Free Bakery. "There's a tremendous growth of diabetes and obesity, and no one was really catering to that," Reise told the U-T. "From a business point of view, it was attractive, but from a human point of view, it's a tragedy."
At first, Indulgence concentrated on low-carb, sugar-free sweets, but within a few months, Reise decided to expand into serving three relatively healthy meals a day. He called on local cooking teacher/food historian Arlyn Hackett (who writes the "Slices of History" column in the U-T's Wednesday food section) to devise the recipes. Today, the kitchen's headed by Brian Kelly ("Don't call me a chef -- I'm not there yet. I'm humble"), who learned his chops at Barbarella in La Jolla, Parallel 33, and Bertrand at Mr. A's, among others.
The menu is based on the principle of glycemic indexes. (Hey, you, wake up and read this! It's -- probably -- good for you!) Simple carbohydrates (starches and sugars) that are easily converted by the body into glucose (the simplest, most digestible form of sugar) have a high glycemic index. After you eat them, the amount of sugar in your blood soars rapidly. Not only is this dangerous for diabetics, but it can lead to weight gain for anybody. An hour after the "sugar rush," you're hungry again -- the real Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, arising from downing all that white rice and cornstarch. Refined starches such as white flour and white rice, along with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (which is present in just about every packaged food at the supermarket, including whole-wheat bread), and, alas, potatoes and mangoes, raisins and fruit juices -- all these, and a pitiful lot more, fall into the category of high-glycemic-index foods, a.k.a. "bad carbs." Unrefined starches such as whole-wheat flour, brown rice, lentils, beans, and sweet potatoes, and raw fruits with high fiber content (e.g., unpeeled apples) convert to glucose slowly -- so they're "good carbs" when consumed in moderation.
At Indulgence, the cooking centers on "better carbs," suitable for slimmed-down diabetics and for the post--weight-loss "maintenance" phase of the South Beach and French Diets (but not, consistently, for their weight-loss phases). All bread products (including pizza, quiche, and pie crusts) are made of 100 percent whole-wheat flour. For sweetness, they use barley malt, fructose, fruit juices, and Splenda, an artificial sweetener. Most of the fats are heart-healthy (e.g., canola-olive oil blend), but dishes that call for cream or full-fat cheese do get them. Fats may play a part in plumping people up (without fat reserves, humans would have never survived the first famine or Ice Age), but they don't affect blood-sugar levels -- and in small amounts, they're valuable to dieters because they give a feeling of fullness that lasts much longer than a quick sugar fix. Of course, any sort of rabbit food (leafy vegetables, eggplant, summer squashes, peppers, unpeeled apples, etc.) is fine. Just about any weight-loss or "healthy" diet you try, you must eat shoots and leaves.
You're wondering, then, how does the food taste? (As Hamlet said, "Aye, there's the rub...") We called on our health-conscious buddy Hank to join us for dinner. Hank is watching his blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol -- doctor's orders. (Yes, this is the same Hank who eats with our Tin Fork.) First things to reach the table were sugar-free whole-wheat--sunflower-seed dinner rolls (which, like all the breads here, are made by Charlie's Best Bread in Pacific Beach). For health-food rolls, they were light and pleasing. They came with something I thought was butter. Now, since the age of five, I've known the difference between butter and margarine (these days usually labeled "spread"). Whenever somebody has tried to palm off a "spread," I've snarled, "I can't believe that you believe that I'll believe that horrible gunk is butter!" But this one actually fooled me. An organic, trans-fat-free vegan margarine sold under the Earth Balance label, it lacks that greasy off-taste of every other wannabe brand I've tasted. It passes the test -- at least when spread on whole wheat.
The menu lists all the items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner under a single jacket -- kinda like Denny's. There are no appetizers (just several side dishes), so we started by splitting a "Reduced-Carb Pizza" (ranging from 16 to 30 carb grams for the whole ten-inch pie). We chose the "spicy" model and loved the topping of caramelized onions, spicy chicken-apple sausage, roasted red bell pepper, sweet-tasting roasted veggie purée, and a generous pouf of genuine whole-milk mozzarella, as gooey and gushy as you could want. This was Hank's first pizza in over a year, and he was grateful for it -- but even he shunned the crust, which resembled a thin, tough health-food cracker. After a bite, we scooped up the topping with our forks. The quiches and pie-crusts are made in-house along the same model, stemming from the early '70s when hippies were turning from hashish to health food. Abounding in the "wheaty goodness" that builds strong muscles -- in one's jaws -- such crusts are best appreciated whilst in the throes of the Blind Munchies.