At Fuel, every dish is under 500 calories & under $10

Chef Rocco Cima (left) opened the restaurant about a year ago. Sweet Pea Wonton (below) has a vibrant color dotted with sun-dried tomatoes.
Chef Rocco Cima (left) opened the restaurant about a year ago. Sweet Pea Wonton (below) has a vibrant color dotted with sun-dried tomatoes.
Posted: September 10, 2010

IF YOU ARE like me, the new labeling requiring fast-food operations to post nutrition information has been an eye-opener.

A Taco Bell Chicken Ranch salad comes in at 980 calories; Dunkin' Donuts Sausage Supreme Cheese Omelet on a bagel has 690 calories plus almost a day's worth of sodium; and that fast-food milk shake is nearly an entire day's worth of calories.

It remains to be seen if this labeling will help us make better choices, but Chef Rocco Cima thinks it ought to be easier to eat better.

About a year ago, he opened Fuel on Passyunk Avenue. The concept is every dish is under 500 calories (without bread) and less than $10.

While it is a serious concept, I like that Cima doesn't take himself too seriously. There's a nod to MTV's "Jersey Shore" as the servers wear T-shirts with the tag "Gym, Tan, Fuel."

Despite the club thumping music, customers come from all walks of life. Yes, there were the hipsters just waking up from last night, but a few boomers and older came in to take advantage of the Weight-Watchers point count on many items.

If you want to start the day off with a protein kick, go for the Breakfast Burrito ($9.95), which was a substantial portion of seasoned turkey and egg white omelet in a wrap.

What really made the dish was the grilled lime as garnish and the bright, clean flavors of the tomato relish.

I also like that the menu offers satisfying dips to snack on, with an eye to the calorie count and fat.

My favorite was the Sweet Pea Wonton ($5.95 small with 140 calories; 6 grams protein). It looks terrific with a vibrant color dotted with sun-dried tomatoes. The dip is full-bodied and slightly sweet from the peas. The accompanying chips are grilled wontons. Dippers are where the fat often hides and so many low-fat chips are like cardboard. These had a nice char that went well with the sweetness of the dip.

I would have liked a hint of smoked paprika on my wonton chips and, to his credit, Cima was very gracious when I proffered that suggestion. And be careful here, the dip is for two and the calorie count is per portion.

The Charred Corn Guacamole ($6.95 for 350 calories; 7 grams protein) was fairly standard and I liked the texture but would have liked a little lime to squeeze on the side. In hindsight, I am also wondering if the calorie count included the tortilla chips.

My one disappointment was the Tomato Basil Soup ($3.95). It was flat and much too salty. The soups of the day might offer more, although the menu needs a little spell-checking.

The Roasted Portabella and Eggplant Salad ($7.95 for 250 calories; 9 grams protein) was a nice mix of greens and the mushroom was grilled to a juicy meaty texture. The eggplant was a little off-putting, something my tasters and I couldn't quite get a handle on. I think eggplant is difficult to pull off, especially when you are cutting down on the oil. The olive tapenade helped by infusing some flavor.

A favorite was the T.B.M. Pesto ($6.95 with 400 calories and 12 g protein). This is chef's pesto formula with fresh mozzarella and tomato slices. Be sure to order this on the whole-wheat bread. Cima developed the bread recipe and has it made by the bakery down the street. It's delicious and you won't miss the white stuff.

Another favorite dish was the Thai Chicken ($7.95; 375 calories, 32 grams protein). Cima shows his training here with a good balance of texture and flavor. He adds just a few Chinese noodles in place of the potato chips he used to put on his sandwich as a kid. Cucumber slices and greens also add to the crunch factor while the spicy peanut sauce adds interest. Cima lightens his satay sauce to keep the calorie count down, but it still has a satisfying body.

Desserts with restraint means you don't have to go away without satisfying the sweet tooth.

The banana whip ($3) is just that - banana passed through a juicer to make a creamy frozen treat. Doesn't get much healthier than that.

The chocolate mousse cake ($4.50) layers a light mousse on a dark chocolate cake. Portion control is key here and the serving size would make Goldilocks happy. It's not too skimpy, nor overwhelming, but just right.

Even better, Cima doesn't use artificial sweeteners - just a judicious use of sugar and a little agave natural sweetener.

There's also a fresh juice bar and the carrot orange juice and ginger ($3) was refreshing. However, it needs to be served with a larger straw as the ginger pulp was too large.

Service is a tad slow, but the dishes are made to order. On both my visits I found people-watching a good pastime while I waited.

The best scene, though, was when the chef turned to the waitresses and said, "You girls should stop running your mouths and start running food."

Seriously. It was a situation.

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