The Lite Brigade

Reviews of Tamarind Tree Express and Stone Soup Cafe

Typical restaurant fare is not exactly on the light side: platefuls of stuffed ravioli, drenched in Alfredo sauce; mountainous racks of lamb lavished with brown gravy and baskets of bread accompanied by tiny cups of herbed butter; au gratin seafood so rich, your thighs automatically tack on pounds just from the wafting scent.

Some of the calorific desserts I've tasted recently are way up there on the No No scale for the weight conscious — chocolate toffee mousse tarts, great wedges of carrot cake (which, FYI, usually pack jumbo calories, even though healthful carrots are a main ingredient) or those popular "big wheel" cookies served with double dips of fancy ice cream.

Delicious, delectable, scrumptious, all. But such delights, if eaten consistently over time, will lead to extra pounds too, unless you're a professional athlete or dancer, someone who is 14 or a person with "dream" metabolism who never gains weight.

Those of us who do not meet the aforementioned parameters can still have our cake and eat it too; however, we can patronize "healthful fare" restaurants that dot the bay area. Such restaurants specialize in simple, straightforward food, with a good selection of meat and vegetarian dishes but all tending toward the "light side" and made from the freshest produce.

Because menu items tend to be made from whole-grain, high fiber and low-calorie ingredients, diners can actually eat more at such places than elsewhere — and not gain weight. And, the meal tends to stay with you longer, so you don't get hungry again for hours.

If you're actively trying to shed pounds, such restaurants can provide the equivalent of a "free" meal — extra room to order, less vigilance required when you're counting calories. Serious dieters still might want to skip the muffin or avoid dessert, but they will find plenty they can eat with a clear conscience.

Here are a couple of restaurants that are exemplary:

Tamarind Tree Express This restaurant was previously located on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, in a light-filled, modern space, and its assortment of soups, salads and sandwiches easily met my stringent taste tests, even though many of its dishes were vegetarian, low-calorie, high-fiber — or all of the above.

In December, the downtown cafe lost its lease and closed, and its owners, Marie Lambert and John Villano, reopened in the Carillon office complex, the address of big firms like Raymond James and Catalina.

The new place serves take-out breakfast and lunch only, rather than offering table service, but the fare remains high quality and low calorie. It sits on a second floor breezeway, tables set along an open balcony overlooking the verdant Carillon campus on one side and an ugly parking lot on the other. (You can turn your chairs to face the pretty side.)

My dining companion was Marty Martindale, a local writer whose foodie passion finds a creative outlet via her fun Web site, www.foodsiteoftheday.com. An accomplished cook and a predictably enthusiastic eater, she aided in my exploration of the restaurant's fare, starting with tabouli salad ($3.89).

When she opened the clear plastic container, it triggered involuntary "oohs" because it was so vivid: dots of bulghur wheat among forest-green parsley; guarded by quarters of fragrant tomato as red as the Buckingham Palace uniform; plus feta cheese, celery and carrot sticks, cucumber slices and pita bread.

I was torn between the spinach roll ($4.89), spinach baked with feta cheese in phyllo dough — the cafe's version made without butter — and a gourmet turkey sandwich ($4.69) but chose the latter. It was made from high-grade sliced, roasted turkey set on stone-ground wheat bread, garnished with tomato, lettuce and alfalfa sprouts and a golden slather of tangy, homemade honey-mustard dressing.

Plain potato chips sat on the side, but in the spirit of the place, I tasted just one, to insure it really crunched, then left the rest to posterity, thinking of my posterior. But I entertained myself with a vibrant papaya chill smoothie ($2.50) that slid down cool, a refreshing counter to midsummer's heat. We passed on the cafe's commercially made cookies.

Overall, the place does a nice mix of simple dishes drawn from a variety of cuisines, everything from freshly ground, American-style peanut butter to a wrap featuring (Danish) Havarti cheese, Mediterranean-style hummus and low-fat honey mustard dressing, wrapped in a Mexican-style tortilla. What's pleasing is its fetish with fresh.

Stone Soup Cafe A spit-shine black-and-white tile floor and lace curtains welcome the cafe's crowd of regulars, who sit at simple wooden tables, quietly chatting and enjoying the low-key atmosphere at this neighborhood favorite, just reaching 10 years at the same location. It is owned and operated by Kristy Hubert.

On the menu are soups, sandwiches and salads, along with handmade muffins and a variety of side dishes, like pasta salad, dill pickle and cottage cheese. There's a "make your own" sandwich section, raspberry iced tea, sodas and smoothies.

On our visit, the "stone soup of the day" ($2.50), was a big bowl of vegetarian vegetable soup. It consisted of a substantial broth loaded with summer squash, zucchini, onion, carrot, green beans, spinach and peas. I managed to eat only half and was pretty well stuffed but wanted to test the fruit salad ($5.75) too.

The salad tasted just as delicious as it looked: a fan of banana, orange, apple, cantaloupe, honeydew melon and grapes around a scoop of cottage cheese crowned with ripe strawberries. The fruit was sprinkled with sunflower seeds, raisins and cinnamon, and drizzled with honey. Its simplicity was what I found attractive, a plate of primo fruit, cut for beauty and easy eating.

What looked at first like a big brown toadstool turned out to be a fat, cinnamon muffin. It was a tender surprise, its texture inside soft and wispy, and its topknot carrying a lovely crust of nuts, brown sugar and cinnamon. I always sample the bread and pastry at health food restaurants because well-meaning chefs often trim sugar and fat so drastically, the baked goods lose their requisite chemical balance and become stiff, tasteless or tough.

The chef at the Stone Soup Cafe made no such miscalculation. The restaurant's carrot cake with cream cheese frosting ($2.75), turned out to be a dense, chewy-textured piece of mildly sweet cake, swathed in a snowdrift of fluffy frosting — better than some I have tasted at regular restaurants, where the goal is not necessarily to provide healthful cuisine.

The restaurant's brownie ($1.25) was equally impressive, just enough butter and chocolate to satisfy my admittedly jaded taste buds, but not so ridiculously gooey that I felt I had to resist it as bona fide "junk food."

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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