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The No-Sugar Shack

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.

Dinner entrées come with a cup of soup or a house tossed salad. One of the day's soups was a chili-bean beef, and it was super, thick with veggies, pinto and black beans and, best of all, honest diced beef (not hamburger meat), just like real Texas chili. The seasoning was good, too. A bowl at lunchtime could be...lunch. Another soup du jour was cream of mushroom. It was soothing and pleasant and included the needed splash of cream. The salad (red-leaf lettuce, cuke, tomato) came with a balsamic vinaigrette of a grayish cast, thanks to apple juice and Dijon mustard. To my palate (I want nothing sweet on my raw rabbit food), the apple juice spoiled it. But if you ask, they'll bring you straight vinegar and olive oil to make your own mixture.

My partner's entrée, a pasta-free vegetable lasagna, turned out terrific. Layers of eggplant, zucchini, tomato, yellow squash, onion, mushroom, and roasted garlic were topped with Parmesan, provolone cheese, and pesto cream sauce -- a fluffy emulsion of cream, basil, and oil. Light on the garlic, it was still delicious -- although it lost its looks as it cooled, when the oil separated out from the sauce. But we enjoyed the veggies' lush textures, the tickling froth of pesto, and the varying flavors of the cheeses. It ain't mamma mia's, but it'll do just fine.

Barbecue sauce is usually a no-no on restricted-carb diets. Most versions include ketchup -- verboten because it's loaded with high-fructose corn syrup. Not Smokin' Joe Jones's sugar-free sauce, served here with your choice of house-cooked chicken or salmon, or sandwiches of Joe's own smoked beef brisket or pulled pork. The sauce, surprisingly pleasant, is light-textured, smooth, and smoky and noticeably less cloying than supermarket brands. The pulled pork isn't actually pulled but sliced, and it's a little fatty -- as it should be. (That's the haps with pork shoulder butt, any good barbecuer's favorite piece of pig.) The sandwich is served open-faced, with meat on one half of a hamburger bun, lettuce and tomato on the other, and a side of coleslaw to spoon on -- all pure Memphis-style. What kept me from making a sandwich of it was the whole- wheat--sunflower seed hamburger bun -- as dry and chewy as hardtack. That's a carb I'll gladly skip. The sour coleslaw (vinegar, sesame oil, and caraway seed) is sweetened with fructose, but I'd prefer the shredded raw carrots I've enjoyed in Memphis -- sweeter and more interesting. ('Course, many Memphis cooks put raisins in, too -- banned from low-glycemic diets.) Also along were a heap of baked sweet potato "fries."

Hank, ever virtuous, went for the curried steamed/wokked veggies, to which you can add grilled chicken breast, tofu, or salmon for a few extra dollars. Hank chose salmon. A scoop of brown rice pilaf sits in the middle of the plate, to mix in or shun as your diet indicates. The sauce is a stab at Thai-style green curry, which the menu calls "medium" and I call "where's the curry?" I wasn't impressed by the farm-raised salmon either. Hank sorta-kinda liked it, but I found the flavors over-sweet and muddy -- bad old days' hippie chow.

Soon after this first visit, my partner and I popped in for a late lunch. I was tempted by a breakfast called "Create Your Own Eggs," which offers three scrambled eggs (or whites or Egg Beaters) with your choice of one protein, two veggies, a cheese, and a bread. Instead, I chose chicken satay -- two skewers of breast, not overcooked (thank you!), and glazed with a smooth, spicy peanut sauce. The chicken is served alongside a sparkling salad of red bell pepper, cuke, and cilantro. The brown rice pilaf works well in this faux Southeast Asian context -- its chewy texture recalls the sticky rice of northern Thailand.

My partner got the "Bistro steak" sandwich -- Meyers Angus Prime roasted tri-tip, sliced thin and reheated on the grill (so you can't get it rare). A little dry solo, it's moistened by sweet caramelized onions, melted provolone, chopped lettuce, and diced tomato. Wary of the bread, we chose a reduced-carb tortilla wrap -- way to go! The thin, high-quality whole-wheat flour tortilla has a richer flavor than the more common white-flour types.

But dessert, above all, is what you come here for. Indulgence bakes a full range of chiffon cakes (low-flour soufflé cakes raised by beaten egg whites), pies, cookies, muffins, bars, brownies, and cobblers. Almost every item in the bakery case is annotated by a small card giving complete nutritional information. Despite their lowered carbs, most sweets here are high in calories -- they're treats, not daily sustenance.

I was knocked out by the virtuous Key lime bar -- an alluring fluff of citrus curd atop a soft, toothsome whole-wheat cookie. (With only 8 carb grams and about 200 calories -- like buttered whole-wheat toast -- it'd be a dynamite breakfast for dieters dying for a Danish.) I liked it much better than its cousin, Key lime pie, which had that hippie-dippie crust and was further besmirched by a pouf of dead-bland unsweetened meringue. A fudge brownie (low-carb but 400 calories) was dry but had a decent chocolate flavor. The chocolate chiffon cake, too, proved dry and grainy with whole-wheat flour. I took home a rightly named "tower" of Atkins-friendly cheesecake, with just one carb gram but an ungodly amount of fat and 500 calories. The crumbly texture resembles a New York Jewish cheesecake with a tang of sour cream. Barely sweet, it's topped with whipped cream and set atop a ground-walnut crust. At second bite, I feared instant addiction, but a single portion stretched into three days' breakfasts -- you fill up fast on fat.

One of the hardest losses for dieters is chocolate. But it turns out that a little dark chocolate is actually good for you -- it's just the sugar in it that piles on the pounds. Indulgence's outsourced sugar-free chocolate truffles are the chocoholic's relief, at just 15 calories and 1.5 carb grams each. They'd be fantastic if only their chocolate were better. It's dark enough, but not a premium growth: The quality resembles See's, hinting of gums or waxes. The blending of flavors is masterful, though, and I was taken with the mocha version. If you're more chocolate addict than snob, you'll love these confections.

The café is plain but pleasant, with modern canvases by local artists hanging on the walls (each with price tag attached, like Nashville comedienne Minnie Pearl's hats). The bakery case runs nearly the length of one side. Near the back, there's a set of pantry shelves where you can pick up whole-wheat pastas, flaxseed granola and crackers, Torani syrups, sugar-free condiments, and low-everything cinnamon twists to dunk guilt-free in your morning java.

A restaurant like this can't be rated with stars. But at the end of our dinner, Hank had the final verdict. "I'd definitely come back here," he said. "I can eat most of this food without worrying -- and the prices are right so that I can eat here as often as I like. Anybody want that last bite of brownie?"

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