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There’s a time and a place for deep-fried concoctions.

But we can’t treat every meal like we are at a county fair. Our waistlines and our arteries wouldn’t be very appreciative if we did. It’s more appropriate to consume such things in moderation and shift toward regularly eating more fresh foods and increasing the healthier fare in our diets — especially when dining out.

If you are assuming that healthier translates into tasteless, slow down there. Slow way down.

While we’re coming off of a time when restaurant chains ruled while serving up frozen and canned foods and sauces and dressings out of jars, we are now setting off on a trend where independent spots that focus on fresh ingredients are on the upswing. Salads and vegetarian and vegan items are pushing more of the huge portions of fatty, meaty, fried servings off the menu. Dining out is getting much easier for those who enjoy lighter farm-to-fork-type fare in more reasonable portion sizes.

At Asparagus in Merrillville, you’ll find only fresh ingredients used in the Thai and Vietnamese selections. Everything is made to order and meats and vegetables are brought in fresh and cut in-house.

Banquet and events manager Kate Witte said all sauces are made fresh and many use freshly squeezed citrus juices. Most fish dishes are grilled or steamed with stir fried vegetables. Soups, which are made from scratch are very popular, especially the hot and sour soup and the traditional pho. A large selection of salads combine greens with seafood or meat and fresh dressings.

One of the most popular dishes is a sea bass that is served steamed with a light ginger sauce and fresh stir fry vegetables. Also a big hit are the avocado rolls with homemade guacamole wrapped in a spring roll wrapper that is slightly fried and served with a homemade sweet and sour sauce. You’ll also find a nice selection of vegan and gluten-free entrees.

The Farmhouse Restaurant opened at Fair Oaks Farms in July 2014 and the name could not be more fitting. Besides being situated among one of the country’s largest agricultural and farming attractions, many of its menu items include ingredients that are grown or raised just steps away.

“A big percentage of our produce is grown here. We have a garden about 100 yards from the restaurant and we grow tomatoes, blackberries, radishes, sweet potatoes, squash, zucchini,” said Rich Arthur, general manager. “We planted an apple grove this year that will start to produce in two years. On the meat side, most of the pork and beef is raised here, as well.”

Some of the most popular menu items include a ribeye burger made with prime ribeye produced at the farms and ground in-house. There's also a cut of the day on the daily menu.

“It could be a filet, it could be a 32-ounce cowboy ribeye. It’s all our beef and all dry aged at least 21 days,” Arthur said.

His personal favorite dish on the menu is an espresso-crusted pork ribeye.

The “chef’s vegetables” are a side item based on what’s available in the garden. Recently it has been a lot of squash and eggplant.

The grilled salmon salad features an atlantic salmon filet with field greens, some of which are harvested in their garden.

Arthur also recommends the pizza.

“I've been in the restaurant business for about 20 years and I spend a lot of time traveling around to restaurants, and I can say that our pizza is some of the best I’ve ever had. One version features vegetables from the garden.”

The secret, he said, is in the flour used in the crust that is imported from Italy.

LaVoute is new to the food scene in the south suburbs. It opened inside the new LaBanque boutique hotel in Homewood, just a half-block from the Metra station, in June. While French bistros often may be associated with heavy, calorie-laden dishes, that's not the case at LaVoute.

Using an abundance of fresh, local produce and cheeses from Wisconsin, utilizing the freshest of herbs and creating flavorful, yet lighter, sauces and glazes, the restaurant offers the best of French classics and some dishes with upscale American takes that you can enjoy without feeling guilty.

Right now, with an abundance of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers grown on the owner’s farm in northern Illinois, the gazpacho is a very popular menu item. Several salads and starters also feature fresh vegetables, most of which comes from local purveyors.

A popular entree that is light and fresh is the Idaho Lake Trout served with steamed potatoes and broccolini with a balsamic sauce that features a nutty tone.

Even traditionally heavy dishes are lightened up using alternative ingredients and altered cooking methods. Roasted chicken comes with a light honey glaze, rather than a heavy sauce. Crab cakes have just a light panko coating that are then saluted and finished in an oven.

The Valley in Valparaiso is a gem in the region that really takes the fresh/local concept to heart. Per its website, “Our beliefs are based on the principles that fresh, delicious food can create a healthier community while providing a greater return for the farmers that are a critical part of our livelihood.”

Possibly the first eatery in Northwest Indiana to join the growing uber-local, slow-food, farm-to-table movement, it offers wholesome food you can feel good about eating. Among the menu selections are white bean hummus, blackened tofu stir-fry and an Amish half-chicken served with late-summer succotash, kale, zipper peas and spiced honey cider.

If you’re looking for a grab-and-go meal that is fresh and healthy, the deli counter at Produce Depot in St. John is the perfect place to visit. Prepared with bread that is made fresh on-site daily, layered with high-quality meats and topped with very fresh veggies, you can get a quick meal in the time that you could grab a burger at a drive-thru. Be sure to try its signature seasoned tomatoes on a sandwich and check out the daily soup selections, which are also made from scratch on-site. You can also step on over to the other side of the store for premade salads and to do your produce shopping.


Features Editor