Exotic berries rich in both color and nutrients give dishes, drinks a healthy glow

Natural beauty: exotic berries rich in both color and nutrients give dishes, drinks a healthy glow

Lisa Jennings

When Dr. Howard Murad, skincare advisor to the stars, hosted a dinner at La Cachette in Los Angeles recently, chef-owner Jean Francois Meteigner decided to apply the dermatologist’s dietary advice to his high-end French menu.

Meteigner developed several dishes using goji berries, an exotic fruit from Tibet touted by herbalists and dermatologists for its healthful, anti-aging benefits. Murad developed a skincare product line using the berries as an ingredient. Meteigner used the mildly sweet, dried version of the fruit, which now is commonly available.

The dishes were such a hit that Meteigner decided to add them to his summer menu. A pale-pink vodka martini enlivened with pureed goji berries is a signature drink at the bar. A rhubarb-and-goji-berry jam serves as a foil for his duck foie gras terrine, and the tiny red berries topa creme brulee, offering just the right fruity bite–and an air of virtue–to the classic dessert.

Goji is not the only exotic berry being embraced for having extra-healthful properties. In the smoothie world, juice from the acai berry, plucked from the Brazilian rainforest, is all the rage at both large chains such as Jamba Juice and small independent juice bars.

And some restaurants, such as the new solar Harvest in Beverly Hills, Calif., are using more traditional berries in new ways to boost the nutritional value of menu items.

Goji berries often are confused with Chinese wolfberries, which are similar in taste and health properties. Both are in the Lycium family and are said to be rich in beta carotene, vitamins B and C, and essential minerals as well as fiber. Research in China has reportedly found that lycium has demonstrated anti-cancer and antioxidant activity. But Dr. Andrew Well, a leading author on integrated medicine, notes on his website that there are no U.S. studies proving any specific health benefits from goji berries.

Still, notes Amy Schnabel, manager of the Clinical Nutrition program at UCLA Medical Center, “Antioxidants hands down are good. If the berries have been analyzed as high in antioxidants, they’re probably good for you.”

At La Cachette, the goji berry dishes are not presented as offering any miracle cure, but the marketing advantages are clear: Goji berries are getting mentions in national style magazines, and people are talking about them. What could be better than taking your vitamins with foie gras?

Typically found dried, goji berries are the size of large raisins, but are pink. Their flavor is mild, falling somewhere between a cranberry and a cherry.

Goji berries have been on the menu at the exclusive Kinara Spa Cafe in Los Angeles since it opened three years ago. Co-owned by Christine Splichal, wife of Patina Group founder Joachim Splichal, the cafe is attributed with spreading the word about the anti-aging effects of goji berries among the Hollywood elite.

The concept’s signature dish is a grilled salmon salad with goji berries, walnuts, sliced apples and marinated red onion over arugula with Champagne vinaigrette for $17.

“I soak them in warm water a little to soften them,” says Janet Batalla, chef de cuisine. The dried berries are typically a bit tough without some moisture.

Kinara also offers a trail mix with goji berries, available in 4-ounce bags.

While only a handful of distributors offered the berries until recently, now goji can be found at Whole Foods in 8-ounce packages for $12.99.

At San Francisco-based Jamba Juice, which operates or franchises more than 500 units across the country, the berry star of the season is the acai.

A line of new energy drinks were launched in March including the Acai Supercharger, an exclusive juice blend with guarana–a source of caffeine–soymilk, blueberries, strawberries and raspberry sherbet.

According to Jamba Juice’s nutritional analysis, the drink provides three servings of fruit, 40 grams of caffeine and about 680 percent of the daily value of Vitamin C as well as fiber, calcium and 570 calories in a 24-ounce serving. Prices range from $3.45 for a 16-ounce to $5.25 for a “power size.”

Acai are small purple berries that contain anthocyanin–which is what gives blueberries their dark purple color–an antioxidant that has been proven to be beneficial in scientific studies, said UCLA’s Schnabel.

According to Jamba Juice officials, acai juice also contains Omega-6 and Omega-9 fatty acids, which can help control blood pressure and boost immunity.

“We’ve had great success with it and consumers are giving us great feedback,” says Elsa Butler, Jamba Juice spokesman.

Other operators have also realized the appeal of high-antioxidant berries. Elissa Meadows, a former investment banker, this week is scheduled to open a new restaurant concept in Beverly Hills, called solar Harvest, which will offer healthful and balanced dishes with a unique menu system.

Menu items are separated into categories based on dietary or lifestyle choices. The “colorful palates” options, for example, are vegetarian; “endurance specials” offer extra complex carbohydrates; “lean, mean” items are higher in low-fat protein; “protein hungry” dishes offer extra protein; “perfect blend” aims for balance between carbs and protein; and “comfort foods” offer the occasional indulgence.

Not wanting to start out too exotic, Meadows decided to go with more traditional berries to appeal to antioxidant seekers. A signature dish is the burger, made with beef or bison meat. Meadows purees fresh blueberries with spices and mixes them into the meat.

“It adds juiciness and flavor to the burger, but it also reduces the saturated fat” and adds fiber and antioxidants, notes Meadows. “Everyone who tastes it thinks it’s amazing, and no one can taste what it is.”

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