Is 'good for you' ever good?

We've been infiltrated by lifestyle Nazis who want nothing but the best for us. They're everywhere, scrutinizing every cranny of our lives, browbeating us to be socially responsible and globally aware. These goose-steppers specialize in making mindless fun taboo.

Look at how stupid they have made life. We need lawyers to flirt. Speech codes to communicate. Sensitivity-trained pinheads to write our jokes. The federal government advises us on how to eat our way to healthy regularity, then regulates how much water our toilets flush so that our regularity becomes a regular fixture in the tidy bowl.

And how well does all this high-minded busybody-ness work? No one admits to owning the dreaded sport utility vehicle. But you see them every day, viciously cutting off smoke-belching, pre-Columbian Volvos with "Earth First" bumper stickers. And if smokers are modern lepers, how is it that you can't turn around in this town without catching cold from a cigar humidor?

This drive to stamp out vice is turning us into blithering idiots. Human needs and desires are being transformed into altruistic missions. It's not enough to clog your arteries with Ben & Jerry's ice cream, they have to make sure that 1 percent of the profits from every fat-filled spoonful goes to world peace.

Fortunately, while most of us talk the talk, we don't walk the walk. While we'll tell anyone who asks that we exercise like caged gerbils and eat like them too, save for an occasional bowl of fat-free yogurt, in reality our fingertips are stained Chee-tos day-glo orange.

Though we talk healthy, we put any restaurant that tries to hold us to it out of business. Witness Eureka!, NorthSouth, and Bless Your Heart. We're too busy spending our time in the chips aisle to be bothered with skinless chicken breast that tastes like a hot water bottle boiled in bouillon.

Which is why when I asked Preston's Restaurant & Bar general manager Randall Gattenby if this were a low-fat, health-food spot, he became a little defensive. "We are not a low-fat restaurant," he stressed. "We are about eating great food, in a better way." I don't blame him for setting me straight. Building a restaurant on stuff that's good for you seems more dangerous than arteriosclerosis.

He calls Preston's grub "clean food," which may be even worse. He defines the menu as munchies unfortified with preservatives, artificial ingredients, or other additives. As far as fat goes, Preston's seeks ways to reduce or eliminate the stuff, but not at the expense of flavor. "There is no substitute for the taste of butter," Gattenby declares reassuringly. Good thing too. More than a couple of restaurants in town have gone down choking on butter buds.

Open for some nine months now, Preston's is a personal mission of sorts for co-owner Daniel Deakins, who averted serious health problems by changing his diet. Hence the drive for clean food.

But I don't know. I always get nervous when menus--or anything else for that matter--turn into an agenda, and it's hard to think of a term more burdened with earnestness than "clean food." Or with odd images. An entree getting run through a commercial dishwasher is what immediately popped into my mind.

Which, unfortunately, is what some of it tasted like. The "better than cheesecake," a dessert made with low-fat cheese, was fluffy but soggy. Plopped in a puddle of raspberry sauce, it lacked the dense firmness of cheesecake and a decent graham cracker crust, making it a bland-o-rama dessert.

Crawfish-stuffed portobello, a grilled mushroom stuffed with crawfish, onions, and corn bound with a basmati rice substance, was gooey, mushy, and maybe a little soapy on the finish. Plus, the thing was swamped with a thick balsamic reduction that overwhelmed it with a tart potency and made the whole thing clumsy on the palate.

Garbanzo beans serve as the foundation for Preston's hummus dip, a rather hard, pasty substance without any discernible hint of lemon or garlic, though the crispy baked tomato-basil tortilla chips were hearty, thick, and flavorful. Unfortunately, trying to work them into that hummus was rather like probing day-old bathtub caulk with a twig.

High, clean notes were hit with mom's oven-roasted chicken--a roasted half chicken in its own juices bolstered with a special herb-spice mix. Easily one of the best roasted birds I've ever sampled, the flesh was moist, juicy, and dripping with clean flavors.

Though exquisitely steamed with just the right amount of resilience, a side of broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower was sacked with an out-of-context sourness from a balsamic glaze. It made me want to wash the stuff off. That clean theme keeps coming back. A request for Greek salad brought a Greco-Caesar hybrid: crouton-pummeled greens with Parmesan, kalamatas, and tomato.

My Preston's dining experience brought me face-to-face with my first "clean" steak--meat from a cow that lived a good life free from hormones and feeds with artificial ingredients. Scattered with a house blend of seasonings and prepared to perfect medium rare, the New York strip was a little mealy, but the flavor was broad and rich while the price-to-flavor ratio ($15.25) leaned heavily in the diner's favor. The salad had too much crouton rubble, however, and the raspberry vinaigrette, oddly, was sweet, orange, and thick--a little like bottled French--instead of clean and lively. A baked potato side was overcooked and arid.

One offering that gave me as much pause as the clean-food theme was the Li'l Tex BBQ chicken pizza baked in Preston's bright red tiled brick oven. It's prepared with house-made barbecue sauce instead of tomato sauce, something that sounded unappealing but proved otherwise. Caramelized red onions, bacon, scallions, and a generous helping of chicken grilled and sliced thin atop fat-free mozzarella, regular mozzarella, Parmesan, and provolone cheeses rounded the thing out. While the chicken was a little dry, the crust was thin, flaky, and consistently textured. The sauce had a layer of smoky sweetness that was deftly kept in check by a saucy tang.

The seafood pasta bowl, however, was nasty. It wasn't the seafood that was at fault. Pieces of salmon, shrimp, and crawfish were moist, rich, and sweet. Leeks, tomatoes, and delicate threads of arame, a seaweed, added visual as well as flavor interest. Even the black pepper linguine was done just right. It's the sauce--a basil-puree and olive oil in lemon and white wine--that killed it. It was less a culinary ingredient than it was a thick layer of protective slime, which made it nearly inedible. Someone must have crashed the recipe on this batch, because everything else seemed so right.

Finishing off with granny's apple pie didn't help. The pasty pie crust tasted as if it hadn't been baked all the way through, and the apples were mealy and swamped with cinnamon. A scoop of "clean" ice cream had little flavor or creaminess.

The wine list, a small collection of mostly pedestrian bottlings, boasts wines made from wineries that add no sulfites and subscribe to low-impact, sustainable agriculture. But there's no such thing as a sulfite-free wine, as the substance is a natural by-product of fermentation. Unless one is hypersensitive to sulfites, it's not really an issue.

Clean food is coupled with clean decor at Preston's. An open kitchen; simple, comfortable booths; stained cement floors; and open-beamed ceilings combine to make it an easy spot to relax and eat. And each day the restaurant selects at random a 30-minute segment during lunch and dinner where all diners in the restaurant during the magic moments get their meal gratis. Clean food is good. But free food is better. You don't need a lifestyle Nazi to tell you that.

Preston's Restaurant & Bar. 5920 Belt Line Road, (972) 503-7999. Open daily for lunch and dinner. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$


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