The Pickle Barrel Gets Healthy

pbroseWhen we started this site some six months ago, we determined that our mandate was to cover anything and everything to do with food in Toronto. It’s easy to fall into the foodie trap of focusing on either cutting-edge and high end places, or hole-in-the-wall spots serving “authentic” cuisine from various cultures and completely ignoring a whole cross-section of stuff in the middle – which just happens to be where most people eat.

I was reminded of this recently when I received a press release inviting me to a tasting at The Pickle Barrel. The restaurant, which opened its first location in 1971 serving corn beef sandwiches and coleslaw, had recently undergone a make-over. The décor in most of the locations has been updated to a sleek and modern new look with cosy booths and tiled pillars. More importantly, the menu has been updated from its humble beginnings of deli meat sandwiches to a more cosmopolitan selection. The old favourites are now complimented by a variety of healthy options created by cookbook author and healthy living expert Rose Reisman. There is even a newly added menu of options that all come in at under 500 calories.

Go ahead and scoff, all you food snobs – the stuff is fantastic.

pbmushroomWe meet with Reisman at the Atrium Pickle Barrel location one sweltering afternoon. She is a tiny dynamo dressed all in white, looking every inch the picture of the healthy living she espouses. She runs a busy catering business, writes cookbooks and books on healthy eating, consults with a number of companies, does a weekly radio show and is often a featured guest speaker on the subject of health and nutrition, both on television and at various engagements. She’s also the mother of four children and has two dogs that she walks daily. That she has time to sit and have lunch with us is astonishing. Yet Reisman in one of the most engaging people I’ve ever met. Throughout the meal she gives us her full attention, and is bright, witty and truly genuine.

If I could have half as much energy as her by eating her dishes and following her recipes, I’d switch my lifestyle in a heartbeat.

pbsteakReisman originally signed on to work with the Pickle Barrel three years ago with her Art of Living Well Selections – healthier versions of old favourites. These became so popular that Pickle Barrel president Peter Higley asked her to create a menu of dishes under 500 calories for customers looking for even healthier options.

She rose to the challenge and came up with four appetizers, four mains and two desserts. With an emphasis on small amounts of lean protein and a balance of ingredients from all four food groups to encourage fullness and satisfaction, the dishes are comparable in looks and flavour to anything you’d find in a more upscale establishment.

All are artfully plated, and are remarkably bigger in size than expected. It turns out 500 calories worth of food can easily fill a plate – if it’s the right food. In fact, while Reisman indicates that she wants customers to realize that this is what 500 calories can look like, the dishes could also be misleading. That same dish cooked in oil or with slightly different ingredients could send the calories, fat and carbohydrates soaring.

pbsalmonReisman keeps this in check by visiting the restaurants regularly and making note of anything that is not as it should be. Chef Stokely Wilson offers a quick response to Reisman’s suggestions and she feels confident that her dishes are being made as she intended.

The new 500 calorie menu is only a few weeks old, but the reaction so far has been extremely positive. The plan is to continue to expand it to all Pickle Barrel locations and to have the selections change with the seasons.

We were well impressed with the dishes we tried at our lunch with Reisman. The black bean soup was flavourful and hearty, and we really loved the portobello mushroom filled with sundried tomatoes and topped with fontina cheese. For mains we tried the soy-glazed salmon on a bed of edamame salad, the sundried tomato burger with smashed potatoes and the sirloin steak with the edamame salad again. All were elegantly plated, and were very visually appealing. The salad adds a lot of colour to the two dishes, and the edamame is a bright, fresh way to add carbohydrates. I’m not a big meat eater so my favourite was definitely the salmon, but the burger won lots of points as well.

pbchoccakeDessert options are made off-site by Reisman’s catering staff and include a New York style lemon cheesecake or a chocolate mud pie, both of which are definitely swoon-worthy, especially when you realize they clock in at 214 and 294 calories respectively. The serving size on these is slightly smaller than that of a massive hunk of cake, but it’s just exactly the right amount to satisfy the dessert craving and make the meal feel complete.

Reisman’s 500-calorie menu for the Pickle Barrel shattered a whole lot of expectations and misconceptions. First that great food was not to be had at a mid-range chain restaurant, and secondly that a low-cal meal has to be short on quantity, style or flavour. Low-cal food absolutely can be delectable, and those mid-range restaurants that regular non-food-snob folks flock to can actually serve up some pretty impressive meals. I, for one, am a convert.