California Pizza Kitchen rolls out low-cal items that deserve high praise

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While I f*cking love California Pizza Kitchen, I generally don't like low-calorie dishes, and I really, really can't stand quinoa. And don't get me started on malls, where all of metro Denver's five CPK outposts are located. So I was a little wary of embarking on last night's adventure: the "New Adventure" menu rollout at the CPK in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center. Lucky for me, the CPK in Cherry Creek opens up to its own parking lot, so I didn't have to inhale the toxic per-fumes coming out of Nordstrom on my way into the restaurant. When I arrived a few minutes before 5 p.m. last evening, I was taken to a mostly quiet section of the restaurant (meaning only a few screaming kids) and immediately plied with wine, good conversation and small plates of the new, low-cal eats that CPK is featuring. The five "New Adventure" entrees are all 740 calories or less. The adventures? A fire-roasted chile relleno, cedar-plank salmon, quinoa and arugula salad, shrimp scampi zucchini fettuccine and grilled chicken chimichurri.

I tried the chile relleno first. I'm a fan of the breaded, deep-fried, cheese-crammed version of this dish, which you have to eat fast lest the sauce turn your relleno into a damp carpet roll. CPK's relleno is not breaded: It's a char-grilled whole poblano pepper stuffed with diced grilled chicken, cheese, sweet corn and black beans, wild mushrooms, spinach and eggplant, served over a pool of tortilla soup and laced with a bright-green avocado-and-cilantro salsa. And it's very nice, if far healthier than my favorite preparation. The relleno was seriously flavorful and filling, and had a mild-to-medium heat kick perfect for not pissing off the mall crowd.

The cedar-plank salmon was a filet coated with smoked paprika and baked in CPK's brick pizza oven. Good call -- that preparation created a meltingly delicious fish with a super-moist middle. And the side of white corn and spinach succotash sprinkled with feta had a great twist of flavors and textures, especially with a half-lime squeezed over the top.

Quinoa and I have a long, sordid history. But I now think this may have something to do with my bad preparation techniques, as well as other people's/restaurants' equally lousy prep. Because CPK's expertly prepared quinoa and arugula salad turned me around. The thin, lacy leaves were slightly wilted, studded with bits of sun-dried tomatoes and toasted pine nuts, asparagus cuts and feta cheese, and the quinoa was boiled, chilled and bathed in champagne vinaigrette that made it dramatically better-seasoned than any quinoa I've tried before. This salad was so good I decided I'd rip off the idea and implement it at home -- and pretend I discovered it myself.

The shrimp scampi zucchini fettuccine was another surprise, because I'd figured from the dish's title that the fettuccine noodles would be made from zucchini ribbons. Instead, the entrée included both regular pasta and zucc-ribbons as well as medium-sized shrimp, all very mildly seasoned with a smidge of white wine, parsley and Parmesan cheese. A shot of roasted, minced garlic would have perked this dish up nicely. But there was no lack of flavor in the grilled chicken chimichurri -- thanks to a screaming-green, tangy, Argentinean-style sauce that was so good it would transform any plate of grilled chicken breasts and sautéed vegetables (hell, an empty plate itself) into something worthy of praise. Chimichurri sauce is traditionally made from parsley, oregano, garlic, olive oil and vinegar, and will transform the most boring food into something splendid. CPK was smart to tap into this resource.

After all this healthy eating, I needed some fat and sugar. So I gobbed down a dish of CPK's heavenly butter cake garnished with whipped topping. The butter cake isn't a new menu item -- the chain has a new strawberry shortcake dessert for summer -- but it's too rich and calorie-laden to pass up, ever.

Healthy food that tastes good? Quinoa that's a real revelation? Thank you, California Pizza Kitchen -- I f*cking love you more than ever.

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