Healthy Holiday Dining Guide

By: Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RDN, Founder of Essence Nutrition

I’d like to clear up a fallacy: that dietitians only eat sprouted goji berries and maca powder all day. Nothing is further from the truth; we were born to DINE.

I've been fending off many assumptions from clients, friends, and the general public that dietitians are nutritionally pious and pure. Sure. In the way that strippers are pious and pure. Let's nip this myth in the kale bud right now: (most) DIETITIANS LOVE TO EAT. Why else would we have dedicated 2-3 years to a grueling Master's program and be forced to wear hairnets (YES, HAIRNETS I SAY) during our foodservice internship rotations and calculate the number of calories in 800 servings of beans? Right. We are dedicated to food.. Among all the fine ladies (and occasional man) with whom I went to grad school and with whom I work now and all the dietitians I've ever met, I've only met two who were creepily militant about their eating (like, one had Excel sheets with her carbohydrate intakes) and both were competitive athletes, who we know, are strange birds because ummm who wants to run 26 miles? Unless there are rabid bears afoot? Anyways, when us dietitians go out to eat, nothing is safe, and nothing is sacred. 

The following are the ways that you can indulge, festively, and mindfully this holiday season at some of Miami’s most delicious haunts. In general, one drink is fine - four is not. Don’t waste your caloric time on breadbaskets. Fill up on proteins, fats, and veggies. Anything fried means whatever is inside wasn’t good enough to not have to hide behind an oily mask. And have SOME dessert, not ALL of it.

Gables/Grove

Bombay Darbar

It may not have the same authentic feel (i.e., now they blast untz untz music inside) as the original clandestine locale, but the fare is still lusciously Indian. Skip the wine; there’s nothing exciting about ordering off a laminated wine menu; and it’s not worth the calories.

Everyone always overlooks the soup; but the fiber-rich beany Daal soup is way more filling and nutritious than the 8 pieces of Naan you usually shovel into your mouth. Naan is all white flour and ghee; skip it and save yourself for the entree.

Skip the rice; make your meal more flavorful with RAITA; a yogurt-based dip/sauce that has protein and probiotics (I am PRO both of these things!) and is rather carb-less; whereas you could easily eat your entire day’s worth of calories with the neverending rice.

The dietitian recommendation? Get ANY entree and add chicken; REAL Indians don’t eat beef since cows are sacred; and the fish there isn’t fabulous. The sauces are not cream-based (Indian cuisine uses ghee, i.e. clarified butter, which is actually dairy-free since the casein has been boiled off). I adore the Channa Masala + chicken or with a side of Tandoori chicken skewers (pure protein, pure flavor).

Bulla

The problem with tapas is that you think you’re just having ‘tastes’ of things until you take stock of everything you’ve eaten and realize you now resemble a Spanish bull (toro). KEEP TRACK of your intake with photos on your phone here; and you’ll be a portion control pro. I like to recommend building a plate of veggies (shishito peppers), proteins, and a modest starch (a few bites of Spanish omelette or some of the quinoa in the main entree). Don’t just pick at everything that’s served family style; stick to your guns and build your conceptual “plate.”

The Ensalada de Kale (not exactly authentic fare, but I’ll take it) is an easy choice; but that dressing is made with maple syrup aka SUGAR. I would actually go for Jamon Serrano + Sheep’s cheese; pure protein, calcium, and zinc (from the ham); just don’t tell my rabbi.

As for the tapas and mains; stick to PROTEIN to keep you full. You could eat 800 croquetas; but could you eat 800 Pintxo Morunos? Nah. The ensalada de pulpo is divine and filled with iodine (I purposely made that rhyme, thanks) as are the shrimp (gambas). Try to pick 2-3 of these (and obv the gazpacho, which is just chilled tomato soup without cream) and maybe some bites off the ‘main courses’ like the Oxtail - but skip that rice. The worst choice? Paella. All rice and butter; I end up fishing out (pun intended) the little calamaris for protein; otherwise it’s, again, “the neverending rice story.” Rice turns STRAIGHT to sugar in your body, which then turns to fat. No bueno.

I didn’t forget cocktails, mija. Skip the Mahou beer unless you want to channel your inner Santa belly, go for a full-bodied Spanish red.

Brickell/Downtown

Il Gabbiano

I may be anti-pasta, but I’m certain not anti antipasto. BADUMPSH. Again, fill up on PROTEIN here, NOT the bread basket (that will just spike your insulin levels and make you hungry. Restaurants serve you bread to placate your raucous hangry self… plus bread is cheap and easily microwaved). Major snaps for the grilled calamari, fresh shrimp, the burrata (cheese is #essenceapproved when it’s real, Italian, and ugly like Al Capone, it is NOT cool to eat a cheese stick and think that that is real cheese), or any of the tartares. Balance out your blood sugar with a protein-laden app before you order…

Okay. This is a big menu. I give you permission to choose any steak/veal/fish/seafood/or chicken (though you KNOW fish is best, right? Omega-3 fatty acids?) that is NOT breaded or fried, and that you reject the potato/rice/pasta that accompanies. Oh, and no creamy sauce, either. You sly one.

And don’t forget to complement your protein with their fabulous asparagus or broccoli on the side. 

I never forget dessert. You’ll likely need a little espresso (no sugar; be a man/woman!) to settle your stomach, and then share the chocolate mousse or some gelato; no starch...no problems. (Read: share with ME!)

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Komodo

I’m not sure why the beef would be “shaking” as an appetizer here, but I’m cool with it. This or the chicken salad; but for heaven’s sake pick off the refined flour bombs (flakes, wonton, crisps, etc.) with your chopsticks. Always look out for keywords like “sweet”, “caramelized”, “crispy”, and other hidden sugar / flour bombs like hoisin sauce, ponzu sauce, and eel sauce at Asian fare joints like this.

Dumplings are just protein in a refined flour (aka sugar) sleeping bag; skip these and get down on the beef jerky, curried shrimp, duck lettuce wraps, or edamame hummus for starters.

Skip all the lo mein/rice here; you’re paying good money for this food - let’s get meaty! The Lime Chicken, Branzino (hold the sugary ponzu sauce) or Wagyu beef are easy succulent choices for mains.

I’ll WOK your world here; wok-cooked things like the “Wokked Asian Vegetable” side tend to be light since they aren’t cooked in oil. Wok it to me. I’m also a friend of the Maike Mushrooms here - the cauliflower lends creaminess without the need for a grain.

I’d opt for a cocktail here rather than dessert since these folks know their way behind a bar. The #essenceapproved options? The cucumber basil martini or the Sake your eda ‘mame’ delight.

Wynwood/Design District/Midtown

Michael’s

My original Design District love that has stood the test of time! I love to start out with the Alaskan king crab (high in omega-3 fatty acids and selenium which is hard to get!); grouper / tuna are high mercury fish so small women / pregnant women may want to avoid those. For the veggie lovers; the heirloom carrots are paired with a stracciatella so pillowy you could sleep on it; which also lends some fat as an entry way for the Vitamin A to ACTUALLY be able to be absorbed in your body.

I often go for the mussels (sans brioche, but you knew that by now) for a light dinner, but if I’m a hungry hippo I’ll go for the NY Steak or have a burger without the bun and bacon (cured meats = carcinogens + they creep me out). If someone *else* is paying, I’ll have the snapper. Don’t forget to choose a veggie side (they’re all fine, but not the potato/fries). My regret for dinner here is they don’t serve the butter lettuce salad. If you are chronically early like gringa me, munch on the olives (heart healthy fat!), kimchi (probiotics!), or deviled eggs (Vitamin B12 + choline!) as a snack before your rude friends arrive.

Believe it or not, I actually craft my own cocktail here using their homemade SODA. This is a rare find in Miami; real pickled cherries + fresh rosemary.. I couldn’t help but develop this into my signature order here; I ask them to mix those herbs + club soda + a shot of gin. It’s refreshing, light, and does the tipsy trick. That said, I’m ALSO a sucker for dessert here (I usually recommend ordering a cocktail OR dessert); so split the Chocolate Cremoso here with a friend; ignore the white flour brioche.

KYU

Crunchy kale is so festive, you could basically dangle it over your boyfriend’s head as a stand-in for mistletoe. You’ll be scraping at the sides of the bowl soon; something about salty, hot, crispy vegetables makes them SO much more fun than raw. Oh, wait, raw veggies suck.

I could honestly make an entire meal of the snacks here (the cauliflower, the heirloom tomato, the cabbage, and the burrata) so it’s a good thing I don’t dine here alone. Pick some of those snacks, and then soldier on to the sliced hamachi/beef tartare (hello, heme iron!)

At this point, I’m always embarrassed to admit I’m already full, so I pick out the sake-braised white beans (fiber, B vitamins, and beta glucan fiber that balances cholesterol levels) and someone else’s ribs or fish. You can run into sugar trouble with ponzu sauce, soy sauce, etc. so be a weirdo like me and scrape off as much as you can. It’s definitely flavorful enough with it.

High recommendation for the Foo Kyu Julep minus the agave; and sometimes I have them add a splash of club soda for fizzy fun.

Since by this time you need a gastric bypass surgeon on speed dial, I recommend the lychee sorbet as a light, fruity finish.

Aventura/NMB/Bal Harbour

Makoto

I cannot come here and NOT have the crispy tuna rice; so go ahead and have one OR TWO; and that’s your starch for the meal! Split a small bottle of sake (I accidentally overindulged here on an anniversary dinner with my husband and we ended up singing to the koi fish outside) and a starter of edamame to start (no, you won’t get breast cancer; that’s a complete myth and in fact soy is cancer protective!) The watermelon ceviche is festive to death here; watermelon has a beautiful amount of citrulline (good for exercise + muscles) and lycopene (an antioxidant indicated in prostate health). The miso soup is also a favorite of mine here - fermented soy has probiotics.  

The octopus here is a winner, but let’s be frank…we’re here for the fish. Pair the branzino or miso seabass with a seaweed salad (no sugary soy sauce, please) and a choice of the cauliflower, beet salad, or eggplant. Seaweed is a fiber-rich, iodine-rich, Vitamin E laden, carb-less sea veggie and here it’s a serious upgrade from the usual boxed dry one you snack on.

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Houston’s

If you braved the one-two hour wait, half the battle is already won. After your glass of wine (the selection here is ace), banish the bread basket and dive into the chilled jumbo shrimp (no sauce - sugar bomb!), grilled artichokes, or the kale salad (reject their sugary vinaigrette; ask for lemon, EVOO and vinegar on the side). If you still want to go greek, the thai steak (or chicken) + noodle salad is a must, though again, you have to get creative with your own vinaigrette and toss the noodles. I know their burger is worth putting yourself on the ‘naughty’ list for; but go bunless; nobody needs a white flour snowball. The ahi tuna steak here is divine; and I’m even okay with cole slaw. The salmon isn’t wild caught which makes me as sad as Rudolph, but the chicken is cooked quite nicely and comes with tabbouleh (a whole wheat grain filled with fiber and B vitamins); though by now you know to forego the apricot (read: sugar) glaze.

The braised cabbage side is a hidden gem; cabbage is highly anti-cancer along with being a powerhouse of vitamin K, vitamin C and some B vitamins. Their mixed veggies are also nice; but stray from your usual path here and caress the cabbage.

I know; you’re stewing that I didn’t mention the spinach artichoke dip. Well, I just mentioned it. Grab a spoonful, but don’t you dare let me catch you with a tortilla chip in your finger. Literally, use a spoon.


Miami Beach

Cecconi’s

Soho House is the epicenter of the winter season in Miami, so you’ll likely find yourself here. It’s easy to follow the wafting smell of truffle pizza; but stick to your plan like sap on a Christmas tree.

The meatballs are a must and you’ll be surprised to know there are very little, if any, bread crumbs/fried situations in the eggplant parm; so I often like to share those two things + the cauliflower as an appetizer. You could also go for the hearty bean + kale soup; that’s a wonderful way to quell the hunger that usually has you reaching for the bread basket.

The halibut entree is remarkable here; and it’s a low mercury fish; so enjoy yourself heartily. The salads are all ravishing (And radish-ing, literally) and they’re pretty teeny; plus more vegetable variety = more antioxidant access; so order all three as sides, big spender. Ask for EVOO + vinegar on the side; skip whatever vinaigrette you don’t have dominion over.

The cocktails here are nothing but art, and the portions are thankfully, petite. Go for a club soda with muddled mint and some vodka or gin; the spices are anti-inflammatory and provide satiety via flavor, not sugar.

There is a vegan chocolate tart, though don’t be misguided and think ‘vegan’ = calorie free. Vegan treats can still be sugar-laden, but at least you’re missing the butter, eggs, and cream. The key to dessert? Portion control, aka the holiday gift of sharing it with others.

Byblos

When in the Middle East, eat HUMMUS. Chickpeas are fiberful, filling friends; it’s their frenemy white pita that will land you in Essence jail. The baked hummus here is a winner, but don’t go dipping.Shakshuka is a traditional Middle Eastern dish with poached eggs swimming in a tomato sauce and totally #essenceapproved! Skip it if you’re prone to foodborne illness, though, because the eggs can be almost raw. And no dunking any white bread in that tomato jacuzzi. I’m a HUGE (“yuge”) fan of their sujuk pideh, which is a dish based on Labneh, a cheese made from kefir (which means it’s full of probiotics with very little sugar). It tastes just like cream cheese, but is GOOD for you; just scoop it out of the buttery bread boat it lives in. Steer clear of the falafel. Falafel = fried; we like our beans RAW.  You’ll notice here that I’m hodgepodging appetizers; that’s because they are so succulent here that they eclipse the mains, though I’m a sucker for the local snapper here. Pair it with the red beet salad (beets are all sorts of good for your veinous system), but throw the bread it comes with to the Miami Beach birds and order the table some cauliflower (and yes, i approve the duck fat; it has every single fat-soluble vitamin around) but if you haven’t caught on by now, I’m VERY anti refined flour.

...Unless it’s a shared portion of the strawberry cheesecake qatayef. Hey, it’s strawberries. So it’s basically a fruit salad.

This is one of the only places I’ve seen besides Alinea in Chicago that has TEA COCKTAILS. Tea is a plant-based food, anti-inflammatory, soothing, and basically medicinal. Pair it with some Bombay sapphire and I’m as pleased as Santa on an Egyptian magic carpet ride.

Want me to peep the menu of your planned holiday haunt? Holler at me.

For more from Monica, visit http://essencenutritionmiami.com/ or check out @eatlikemonica on Instagram.