Tuesday, December 22, 2015

No Salt Added at The Annex Bar and Grille

I must have driven by The Annex Bar & Grille on Pettibone Road in Solon several dozen times over the last number of years. Friend and fellow food blogger Nancy lives close by The Annex and every time I would drive to or from her house, I'd pass by the small structure. I never even gave it a second thought until recently when Nancy contacted me to tell me that two old friends, Walter Hyde and Scott Slagle (of Fat Casual fame) were now working certain shifts behind the bar and the grill. Not only that, but apparently they were doing some low/no sodium items on the menu for lunch.

After doing some initial research with Walter, I met up with Nancy and her husband for lunch just a few weeks ago to check things out. It turns out that The Annex has a policy of not salting anything on the menu. Here I was all prepared to say, "no salt, please" to everything I ordered, but as it turns out, there was no need to. Now, that being said, there are still only a couple of menu items that can be done low/no sodium successfully because much of the food is traditional bar food -- highly processed frozen items that can be quickly cooked or deep fried during service. These items (and there are many of them) can't be done without salt because they are seasoned even before they are cooked.

The first item I tried was the burger. The burgers come in two sizes, a one-third pound patty and a two-third pound patty. I was feeling particularly hungry that day, so I went with a two-third pound burger, medium rare with just some lettuce and tomato on a toasted (but not buttered) bun. While The Annex doesn't use salt, it does use butter, so if you want a toasted butter-free bun, make sure to order it that way. Paired with my burger was an order of their fresh-cut fries, also completely salt-free:

I have to say, for a measly $8 for this combination, this was a pretty damn good burger! Now, of course, there was some natural sodium in the beef and the bun was just a regular hamburger bun (so probably around 200-250mg of sodium), but for around 300-350mg of total sodium, this was a great way to kill the craving for a burger and fries. And at two-thirds of a pound of ground beef, it was VERY filling.

On every table (and presumably the bar), there was a container with standard condiments. Since I knew I wanted some ketchup and mustard with my meal and knowing that regular ketchup and mustard pack a large sodium wallop, I brought my own. I've done that twice now and nobody seems to care, so if you want sodium-free condiments, do what I did and bring your own. To be fair, malt vinegar was available for your French Fries, but I kind of prefer ketchup.

It was also during my first visit that Walter informed me that the chicken breast wasn't brined and would therefore be a good choice, too. I decided to take him up on that bit of information and several weeks after my first visit returned to order the grilled chicken sandwich with a side of the same fresh-cut fries:

In the second image you can see my sodium-free ketchup and mustard in the background. Heinz makes a nearly sodium-free ketchup that you can find in most regular grocery stores. Unfortunately, the downside to this ketchup is that it uses high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as the sweetener. It turns out that you can't have your (condiment) cake and eat it, too. Either you get the "natural" ketchup with real sugar that has salt or you get the no salt added ketchup that has no added salt but HFCS. I figure that as rarely as I eat this ketchup, having it twice in six months was acceptable. The sodium free mustard I used was one from Westbrae and is available at Mustard Seed Market (the one in Fairlawn) for about $3 per jar. It comes both in organic and non-organic varieties (and the price varies accordingly). I've found this to be an excellent mustard that I can use liberally since it has 0mg of sodium per serving.

But I digress; back to my chicken sandwich. Based on how the menu reads, the chicken sandwich normally comes between two slices of bread. Figuring a hamburger bun would be slightly lower in sodium than two pieces of sandwich bread (200-250mg vs. 300-350mg), the only change I made was to ask for it on the hamburger bun, again without butter. While it was nice to have the option of either the grilled chicken or the burger, were I to do it again, I'd probably stick with the burger. In the end, it was just the better tasting of the two. The fresh-cut fries, however, were great both times.

The only other option you really have if you're not in the mood for a sandwich is to order a house salad with grilled chicken on top. The only problem is that while they have malt vinegar to dress your salad, I don't know that they have oil to go along with it (you might just want to bring your own).

Will I go back to The Annex? Absolutely. For $8(ish) for either a healthy-sized burger or chicken sandwich with fresh-cut fries, it's a great deal. Is it the best burger I've ever had (price aside)? No, but it's pretty darn good and I wouldn't hesitate recommending it to others, especially if they're looking for low sodium options.

The Annex Bar & Grille is located at 36200 Pettibone Road, Solon, OH 44139 and can be reached at 440-248-5725. Hours listed on their website indicate they are open Monday through Saturday from 10am-2:30am (kitchen 10am-10pm) and on Sunday from 12pm-12am (kitchen 12pm-10pm). That being said, I know they recently added breakfast hours on Saturday mornings.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Low Sodium Fast Food Compendium

It would seem, at least at first, that the notion of eating a very low salt, no butter, no cheese diet would be at complete odds with the current state of the fast food industry. And to a large extent, you would be correct. However, in the vast sea of salt, fat, and sugar that comprises most of the fast food industry's offerings, there are a few nuggets of goodness that you can cling to when you are looking for a quick fix or are traveling and haven't had time to research local restaurants.

Having combed through more than a dozen published nutritional guides on the Internet, I've come to a few conclusions:

1) Many fast food restaurants offer some type of "garden salad" which is usually okay. Almost all only offer salted dressings, although as you'll see, some dressings are better than others.

2) Of those that offer garden salads, that's usually all they can offer that would be acceptably low sodium.

3) There are some fast food chains that offer nothing acceptably low sodium.

4) Grilled chicken breast is often as salty or saltier than beef (thanks to brining).

So, how do I differentiate between fast food and fast casual? I know it isn't a completely cut and dry set of rules, but in general, if the restaurant has a drive thru, I'd consider it fast food and not fast casual. That being said, I consider Subway to be fast food although I've seen very few Subway locations with a drive thru.

And with that distinction out of the way, here are the only fast food restaurants at which I've had any success.


While none of the proteins (chicken, beef, or fish) at Wendy's would even remotely qualify as low sodium, the one thing that Wendy's has on their menu that I find appealing is the presence of a baked potato. Now, of course, when you load up that baked potato with cheese, bacon, and sour cream, it is no longer low sodium, but according to their published nutrition information, a plain baked potato by itself has almost no sodium and if you decide to splurge and add chives and sour cream (just one container of sour cream), you top out at 35mg of sodium.

And while the garden salad has nothing particularly salty on it, you do have to be careful of the dressings. Your two best choices are the pomegranate vinaigrette (150mg of sodium for the entire packet) or the ranch dressing (170mg of sodium for the entire packet). Since I tend to not like overdressed salads, I usually use only half of the packet. Thus, for about 100-110mg of sodium, you can walk away with a baked potato with sour cream and chives and a garden salad with half a packet of pomegranate vinaigrette. Not bad.


Just like Wendy's, every single protein and cheese option is out at Subway if you are considering a sub sandwich. Which means that the only real choice you have if you want a sub sandwich is a 6" Veggie Delite on either 9-grain wheat, Italian, honey oat, or multigrain flatbread. Each of these types of bread has between 280mg and 290mg of sodium for the 6" version. Skip the cheese and load up on non-salty vegetables (lettuce, tomato, red onion, spinach, cucumber, green peppers, etc.). Fortunately, Subway is one of the few (maybe only?) fast food restaurants to offer plain old oil and vinegar as a dressing. Other non-salty toppers include ground pepper and dried thyme. Pair that with a package of apple slices from the kids menu and you've got a decent meal with about 300mg of sodium total.

If you're wanting to go more of the salad route, you can certainly go with the Veggie Delite option at 75mg of sodium or, the one protein-based salad that seems acceptable to me is the oven-roasted chicken salad at 280mg of sodium. Again, dressing will be limited to oil and vinegar. A possible third option is the Monterrey chicken melt salad, but it clocks in at 360mg of sodium. Plus, with the addition of cheese, you up the fat and saturated fat by a couple of grams each. Nothing heart-seizing, mind you, but the first two salads are the healthier options.

Steak 'n Shake

As you've seen so far, fast food proteins and low sodium don't mix. However, at Steak 'n Shake, you can get either the single steakburger (310mg sodium) or the double steakburger (330mg sodium) if what you crave can only be satiated by beef. Of course, realize that cheese is out, as are all forms of condiments. The standard burger toppings of lettuce, tomato, and onion will be okay additions.

For sides, you could go with applesauce (0mg), apples and caramel (75mg), small French fries (80mg), regular French fries (140mg), small garden salad (105mg), or a cup of Mandarin oranges (15mg). I'm guessing by the fact that the garden salad has 105mg of sodium that it probably has cheese or croutons, which you can either pick off yourself or ask for it to be served without, which would substantially lower the sodium content. While I don't see oil and vinegar as an option from the salad dressings portion of the nutritional spreadsheet, one ounce of the honey mustard dressing does clock in at only 115mg of sodium. As with Wendy's, a light touch with the dressing can reduce that number by half.

If breakfast is what you are after at Steak 'n Shake, you also have a couple of options from that menu, too. Two eggs, any style, will set you back 140mg of sodium. Other choices include a cup of Mandarin oranges (15mg), the parfait (95mg), oatmeal (260mg), or hash browns (300mg). While the combination of eggs and hash browns is a bit high for my liking (440mg for both), combining two eggs with a parfait seems like a perfectly reasonable amount of sodium (235mg for both) when eating out at a fast food restaurant and getting something that is nutritious and filling.

So, there you have it -- three recommendations for those looking to both maintain a low salt lifestyle and still be able to occasionally stop in for a quick meal at a fast food restaurant. Are there others out there that might qualify? Of course, I'm sure there are. I really only researched fast food chains that are common to the northeast Ohio area. And for those that hoped Swenson's might make the list, even though it is a local chain here in northeast Ohio, unfortunately, they haven't published any nutritional information about their food, so I ruled them out.

Please feel free, gentle reader, to suggest other fast food chains (and more specifically, menu items) that might make the cut.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Return Visit To Flury's Cafe

As any long-time reader of Exploring Food knows, I've reviewed Flury's Cafe several times before on this blog. And I've been enjoying owner Kimberly White's food from my very first visit many, many years ago. I find it ironic when I reread my previous reviews that I occasionally ding'ed particular items she made for having too little (or no) salt, such as her hashed browns or eggs. Interestingly, it is exactly that feature that now draws me in on a regular basis for breakfast or lunch.

I was quite surprised when I first approached Kim with my new diet that she was able to point to quite a few items on her current menu that would be appropriate for me. I also learned that she shares my philosophy that there is way more salt in our food than is necessary. When possible, she would rather make dishes lower in sodium and allow the guest to add salt where he or she thinks it appropriate.

While there are certainly items on the menu where salt is inherently built in (anything with cheese, sausage gravy, fried sides such as French fries or onion rings), I thought I would point out a few of the items on the menu that I've been able to order off of the menu without too many substantial changes (other than my usual request for "no salt, butter, or cheese").

Let's start with the potato pancakes, scrambled eggs, and a small cup of sour cream, all lightly dusted with paprika:

The difference between the potato pancakes and the regular hashed browns is the addition of onions and eggs to the potato pancakes. Cooked in a combination of canola and olive oil, the potato pancakes are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The majority of salt on this plate comes from the scrambled eggs, about 120mg of sodium for two eggs. The sour cream, interestingly, does have sodium, but at only 10mg of sodium per tablespoon, it is an acceptable amount and adds a nice acidity and richness to the pancakes.

Next up is my standard breakfast order, the vegetarian omelet with hashed browns. Occasionally Kim makes awesome homemade jam, and if it is available, I may also get a slice of dry wheat or rye toast as a vehicle for jam delivery*:

* The omelet comes with hashed browns and toast, I sometimes just omit the toast.

Kim uses regular sandwich bread for her toast (which can have anywhere from 150 to 200mg of sodium per slice). Considering that the only other sodium in the dish is the 120mg in the eggs for the omelet, having a single slice of toast is an acceptable amount. The omelet is filled and topped with sauteed spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, and red bell peppers. Both the original Tabasco sauce (the red one) as well as the jalapeno-based sauce (the green one) are available if you like things a little spicy. The green one is completely out (150mg of sodium per teaspoon), but every now and again I'll shake on a bit of the red one (35mg of sodium per teaspoon).

While regular sandwich bread is used for toast, Kim bakes her own buns for sandwiches and revealed to me that each bun only has about 150mg of sodium. Paired with a single or double burger or the grilled chicken breast, it makes for a delicious sandwich that can be kept under 300mg of sodium:

Of course, you have to forgo any condiments or the delicious housemade pesto (which I adore, but can't have due to the presence of cheese in the pesto), but you still get a juicy burger or chicken sandwich with lettuce and tomato that's also filling. Unusually, Kim uses chicken that isn't brined before grilling, so the chicken is 100% okay to order at Flury's.

As I mentioned before, none of the usual sandwich sides like French fries or onion rings are on the low sodium list, so whenever I get a sandwich, I usually order the spinach salad minus the bacon and substitute the housemade balsamic vinaigrette for the warm bacon dressing:

The vinaigrette isn't necessarily low sodium, but if I just use a very small amount to lightly dress my salad, I'm not too concerned about it.

Kim always has some kind of baked good to tempt you with at the end of your meal. In the past I've normally said no to these (even when I was eating salt). However, in the past couple of months, she has also had fresh fruit available to be eaten at the restaurant or to go. I almost always say yes to an orange, apple, or banana, even if I don't intend to eat it at that very moment.

Normally I hit up Flury's Cafe for breakfast on days that I don't walk in the early mornings, so maybe once a week. But Kim and Flury's Cafe has been on my no-salt radar since I first realized I had to change my diet. Whenever I'm craving breakfast food, this is the first place that pops into my head. Most breakfast/diner places can offer you eggs without salt, but Flury's appeal is that you have additional options, too.

One thing to note about Flury's Cafe is that they recently moved from their old location on Sackett Avenue in Cuyahoga Falls to their new location on the corner of Front Street and Portage Trail, also in Cuyahoga Falls. Free parking is available in one of the two parking garages just north or south of the restaurant. They are open Monday through Saturday for breakfast and lunch and can be reached at 330-929-1315.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Cornocopia Of Choices At 111 Bistro

Fair warning -- I cannot give you an unbiased review of the food at 111 Bistro. Perhaps this surprises you, gentle reader, given the myriad of reviews on this blog where I assert that very quality, an unbiased attempt at describing to you what the average consumer can expect in terms of food and service when dining at an establishment.

In fact, my relationship with 111 Bistro has always had a personal quality to it. The original sous chef invited me to the "friends and family" night prior to the restaurant's actual opening back in June 2014. I had first learned of the restaurant's planned existence earlier in 2014 when the chef, Anthony Scolaro, and sous chef, Joe Holmes, each hosted a course at a Dinner In The Dark event at Crave in Akron. And, of course, at the friends and family event, I first met Anthony in person.

Is the food fantastic? Yes. Is the service great? Yes, with the caveat that I almost always sit at the bar, so I tend to be waited on by the same bartenders/servers over and over again. Have I ever had to send food back to the kitchen? Once, because of a mix-up with how my order was entered into the system. The kitchen made my entree with salt because they didn't realize it was for me. However, one of the line cooks saw that I had received the salted entree and immediately flagged me down. Grateful for the assist, I sent the plate of food back to the kitchen and they re-fired the entree, this time sans salt.

So what value can I add without this sounding like an (unpaid) advertisement for 111 Bistro? What I like about the menu at 111 Bistro is that not only does Anthony draw elements from other ethnic cuisines (although the menu is billed as "modern American", Japanese, Thai, Indian, French, and Italian all play a role), but dishes for diners with more common dietary restrictions are already represented on the menu, everything from vegetarian to vegan to gluten-free. And as I've already mentioned, when it comes to salt and seasoning, restaurants come in two varieties: those that season during prep and those that don't. 111 Bistro, more or less, comes squarely in the second camp.

That doesn't mean that the entire menu is fair game. Some elements are seasoned during prep because there is a marinade or brine involved; some of the confit preparations involve the traditional use of salt to bring out moisture from the protein. However, where I can normally expect maybe one thing on the menu to be low-salt/salt-free, at 111 Bistro, at any given moment, there will be a dozen items that I can order. They also run seafood specials quite often and many times, those dishes can be made salt-free.

Think I'm exaggerating? Let's take a look at their current menu (Fall/Winter 2015). Here are the items I can order and know that the kitchen can reasonably accommodate me:
  • 111 "Poutine" (minus the cheese)
  • 111 Fries (plain with the house made salt-free ketchup)
  • Pork Belly Steam Buns (minus the sambal mayo)
  • Shrimp Fried Rice (minus the soy)
  • Greens Salad (as is)
  • Greens Salad add-on proteins -- chicken, salmon, tuna, or shrimp
  • 111 Burger (no cheese, bun has a very low amount of salt)
  • Smoked Bison Meatloaf (subbing roasted potatoes for potato gratin)
  • Faroe Island Salmon (minus bacon)
  • Lake Erie Walleye (as is)
  • Brussels-bacon-onion (minus bacon)
  • Roasted carrots (as is)
  • Fingerling potatoes (as is)
You can also usually add the weekly seafood special to this list. Here is a picture of last night's seafood special, a pan-seared barramundi over coconut curry rice and roasted heirloom carrots with a piquillo pepper puree:

Or, how about last weekend's seafood special, a pan-seared black sea bass over chanterelle and porcini farro, truffle honey drizzle, and micro greens:

Seafood isn't your only option -- I tend to have the 111 Burger about once a week with either unseasoned French fries or a side of fresh fruit:

This particular burger had the optional fried egg on it.

It's hard to believe, but all of these entrees are no salt added, no butter, and no cheese. That's not to say they are salt-free (as in 0mg sodium), but I'd venture to guess that any one of these three entrees probably has under 300mg of sodium for the entire plate of food (the burger with egg on it probably having the most natural sodium). For those who are managing their salt intake, the menu and the preparations at 111 Bistro are truly a godsend. The fact that they are utilizing quality ingredients and preparing them correctly just makes it an even more attractive package.

I do occasionally indulge in dessert. While there is at least one item on the dessert menu that is 100% off-limits -- salted caramel cheesecake, I'm looking at you -- the seasonal creme brulee or just a scoop of the vanilla bean ice cream (occasionally with a freshly brewed espresso poured over it, affogato-style) is sometimes all I want.

I will say that the dessert menu has become less adventurous over time (and not necessarily in a bad way). When the restaurant opened, Joe Holmes (mentioned earlier) was both the sous chef and the pastry chef. When Joe and 111 Bistro parted ways mid-summer 2015, Anthony decided to not only scale back the desserts (smaller portions and simpler desserts), but the prices as well. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss some of Joe's desserts, but at the end of the meal, often times you just want a small taste of something sweet, not another full-blown course.

I'm in a unique position in that I've had the opportunity to try 111's food both as a salt-eater and now as a salt-free eater. As a salt-eater, one of the qualities that always stood out for me was Anthony's philosophy on salt -- add just enough to enhance the flavor of the food, but never enough to make the salt noticed. As a salt-free eater, now I can completely appreciate the food on an entirely different level, both the high quality of the ingredients and the creative use of elements on the plate to balance savory, sweet, bitter, and spicy.

As you can imagine, I really highly recommend you give 111 Bistro a try, and not just because I eat there multiple times a week. Co-owners Anthony Scolaro and Meghan Pender (Meghan manages the front of the house) want you to have a fantastic experience and in my opinion they take that goal very seriously. They have been open to constructive feedback (and I've given them both positive and negative feedback over the last eighteen months) and I can't stress enough how much I appreciate the kitchen's flexibility in being able to provide the myriad of no-salt-added choices on the menu.

If you're interested in seeing more of my images from 111 Bistro (and trust me, there are nearly 300 to look through currently), feel free to visit my Flickr album.

111 Bistro is located at 2736 Medina Road, Medina, OH 44256 (it's in the same building as the new location for the Medina On Tap Bar and Grill) and can be reached at 330-952-1122. They are open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner and Sunday for brunch. Reservations are accepted and based on what I've seen, I'd encourage them for the weekends.

If you do decide to go, look for the guy sitting at the end of the bar with the large camera. Chances are, it'll be me.
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