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Lazy Dog lightens up

With the launch of its "Nutritious & Delicious" menu this summer, Lazy Dog Café got off the couch. The Southern California casual dining concept created a slimmed-down roster featuring 10 items, all 650 calories or less. "We have lots of regulars who love coming here but were asking for lighter, healthier choices—especially during the week," says Lazy Dog founder and CEO Chris Simms.

1. Starting from flavor
That said, "health food" was not an option. "Our chef [Gabriel Caliendo] made sure the lower calorie items didn't taste low cal," Simms adds. He became educated about nutrition, then dug into his bag of tricks, pumping up flavor with spices and creative ingredient combos, adding substance to dishes with beans and veggies and using diverse cooking techniques, like pickling and roasting. "Our goal was to excite the palate without using any artificial flavor enhancers; to keep it all natural," Simms stresses.

2. A taste of the tropics
A vacation in Belize inspired Chef Caliendo to create a "Nutritious & Delicious" fish entrée keyed into the flavors of the Yucatan. The result is Lazy Dog's pan-roasted Barramundi Fish ($14.95), featuring black beans, sautéed zucchini and roasted red peppers, topped off with cilantro pesto and a pickled orange, onion and carrot salad. "The cilantro pesto provides an herbaceous flavor profile that kicks up the mild fish, and the pickled red onions and oranges add a welcome pop of acidity," explains Simms. "Acidity really enhances lower calorie dishes."

3. Hooking the right fish
Barramundi—also known as Australian perch—was chosen for its body and mild flavor. Sourced frozen, it offers good quality and value for the price. Lazy Dog's seafood supplier helped zero in on this species. "It wasn't as recognizable to our guests, and that was a challenge," Simms admits. "But we were willing to take the risk. Momentum gradually built and guests are now reacting very favorably to the fish."

Lazy Dog likes to push the envelope a bit, but the menu always features comforting selections too, such as a Carolina Pulled Pork Sandwich and a variety of pizzas, pastas and burgers. Everything is made from scratch at each of the 10 locations.

4. Tossed back into the sea
Barramundi was one of four fish that tried out for this dish. Also in the running were mahi mahi, ono and swordfish, "but the barramundi won hands down with this flavor profile," Simms reports.

5. Into the future
Next up in the "Nutritious & Delicious" lineup: an expansion of healthy desserts for weekday diners. Weekends, guests have no problem indulging in sundaes, cobblers and cakes on the regular dessert list. "We also want to broaden our bar program, incorporating more fruit and fresh herbs," says Simms.