U-M Cardiovascular Cafe reviewed
by M.B. Lewis
My dad had three heart attacks, starting when I hit my teens. I saw him change from a larger-than-life 300-pounder to the trim but anxious nursing home resident he is today. We still share a fondness for good food and family meals. But lately, when I help him fill a plate at the buffet and he tells me to pile on the carrots because "bright-colored vegetables are best for you," it's a bittersweet reminder that the sooner any of us learns about smart food choices, the more we can benefit.
The U-M Health System's Cardiovascular Center (CVC) cafe is a great place for a crash course in Healthy Eating 101. Chefs and registered dieticians have designed the food here to be good for you--and much of it actually tastes good, too. Creamy yogurt parfaits with berries, Asian salads, and raw and grilled veggies line up colorfully in a cold case, packed in plastic so that docs in scrubs, patients in wheelchairs, and anyone else can grab and go. The sandwiches show a frill of lettuce between thin slices of multigrain bread. Meat mainly checks in as chicken or turkey, although salmon and tuna make frequent appearances. In fact, the most refreshing warm-weather sandwich I know is the CVC cafe's barely dressed tuna salad, wrapped in a fresh, chewy lavash with slices of crisp Granny Smith apples and layers of shredded carrots and lettuce. Contrasting flavors and textures bring out the best in both fish and fruit, supporting the cafe's goal of "low-fat high-flavor selections in healthy proportions."
Nearly all the offerings at the CVC cafe meet the U-M's MHealthy dietary guidelines, meaning they're low in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugar, yet high in dietary fiber. (Peanut-butter sandwiches are a rare exception). You can also find MHealthy-labeled "Good Choices" at dozens of venues around town--even the fast-food counters in the Michigan Union. But it's the CVC cafe (officially the Atrium Healthy Heart Cafe, although no one calls it
that) that is the high temple of the MHealthy faith. Makes sense in a place where heart patients are being treated just above where you're eating. I consider quick light meals from the CVC cafe a way to pay forward credits for indulgent feasts to come.
The setting is lush--the atrium is a glass-walled, five-story, rain-forest theme park--but the cafe is a relatively inexpensive and surprisingly satisfying place to eat. If you're already a convert, perhaps it's because one cold morning you happened upon the steaming cauldron of oatmeal and self-serve toppings of brown sugar, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, and blanched almonds. (No one will complain if you add enough crunchy almonds to bust the low-fat guidelines.)
Or maybe you got hooked on the soups that come midday, two at a time in rotation. Fiesta-bean chili is heartiest, and potato-leek more flavorful than it looks. Tuscan vegetable is generally appealing, though latecomers may get bottom-of-the-pot tomato broth with little else than onion slivers and a lonely wedge of squash. Yellow lentil soup has plenty of carrots, onions, celery, potatoes, and some complex spices--thyme, surely, and maybe mustard? At 472 milligrams of sodium in an 8.75-ounce serving, the lentil soup comes closest to hitting its 480-milligram MHealthy ceiling--but it's only half as salty as many canned varieties. The only soup I disliked was ginger carrot, which had a mucky tan color and a chalky garlic aftertaste. It could have been just a bad day--mega-corporation Aramark manages the cafe, along with many other U-M food outlets, and quality can drift. One day I had a California roll (cucumber here, not avocado) compromised by stale rice and a weird tang to the filling.
Salads and sides can be really fun at the CVC. Red beet and citrus salad is simple but sweet with a sharp vinegar smack. Grab it as an accompaniment for the ubiquitous poultry offerings, and it sets you back all of $1.39. Where else can you get real food for that price? Because they're light on fat and salt and thus need to work harder to please, several MHealthy salads (apple raisin slaw, for instance) are surprisingly sweet. Others (Mexican black beans!) pack peppery heat.
Among desserts, I like the carrot cake even though it's so moist that it oozes a syrup that tastes like pineapple. The chocolate walnut cupcakes are wonderfully brownie-like but harbor distracting chunks of mystery fruit.
The CVC's coffee drinks and icy creations seem more indulgent than its desserts. The fruit smoothies are quite popular, judging from the constant whir of blenders. The hot Mayan Mocha shames Starbucks' gummy-sweet coffees, with just enough spice to make the dark chocolate flavor even more luxurious. If this is healthy food, sign me up.
Low-fat, low-salt cuisine is not what I grew up with, but maybe it can be for others. Late is better than never for learning how delicious healthy food can be.
Atrium Healthy Heart Cafe
(inside U-M Cardiovascular Center)
East Ann and Observatory
Daily 6:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Soups, salads, and sides $1-$5, sandwiches and entrees $4-$9, desserts $1-$4
[Originally published in June, 2010.]