When it comes to taking dining risks, I'm a big rubbery wimp. I waited five long gluten-free years before I even dared to consider eating out. The dangers of cross contamination scare the living daylights out of me. Why?
Back in my more innocent g-free newbie days I got sick at a friend's house. She was hosting a dinner party. Thinking I'd play it safe, I brought a pot of my homemade pumpkin soup. She thanked me, then stirred it with her ancient wooden spoon. Misery ensued.
But this winter I decided to be bold.
After all, I miss eating out. I miss the romance of it. The conviviality, the atmosphere, the luxury of not having to cook every single bite I nibble on. And besides, we were traveling. Nothing like being on the road- far away from your own pots and pans- to make you feel ravenous.
In February we visited Los Angeles and I ate at two different restaurants. And the food was fabulous. First we ate at Real Food Daily in West Hollywood. I felt totally safe. The food was fresh, seasonal and delicious. So good, in fact, we went back twice, once for lunch, and once for dinner. The staff was obviously trained to accommodate food sensitivities. No eye rolling- a good sign. I felt right at home, in fact. Maybe vegans just understand. They endure their own culinary challenges and jaded waitstaff eating out.
Our second dining adventure was at The Border Grill in Santa Monica (owned by the famous Too Hot Tamales). Chef Ishmael came out of the kitchen and spoke to me directly with kindness and attention, even returning mid-meal to ask how the meal was- and- to suggest a dessert (a flourless Aztec chocolate cake that was melt-in-your-mouth chocolate sexy explosion). The food was not just gluten-free, it was one of the best meals I have ever eaten out. Bold, intensely flavorful, and drop dead gorgeous. We went back to the Grill again, in fact, and enjoyed another fabulous meal three nights later.
So score big for Los Angeles.
The third restaurant experience took place in Moab, Utah. We had driven north from New Mexico to catch up with The Canyon crew again at a new location. Being the worrying type, I e-mailed the restaurant ahead of time and requested two gluten-free meals. I received a quick, positive response from one of the owner-chefs. Doable.
Audible sigh of relief. Piece of cake.
We drove all day to get to Utah and arrived in town hungry and dog tired- an hour and a half before our dinner reservation (and by the way, this was a quiet Monday night- not a Friday or a Saturday). We stopped in a locals hang-out for a quick decaf cappuccino, then decided we'd scope out the restaurant and possibly talk to the Chef just to be sure we were all set for dinner. Good thinking, right?
The young hostess was neo-hippie congenial and unaware of our on-line reservation with the gluten-free request. The reservation- somehow- had not been written down. No problem, she assured us, waving her bangle abundant arm- there were plenty of tables. She then suggested we speak with the manager regarding our gluten-free request and left to fetch her.
The manager approached us, paper menu in hand, pen poised, circling the items, she stated, without smiling, "You can order."
First one circled was crab cakes (insert sinking tiny girl heart).
"Crab cakes?" I asked her, dubious...but eternally hopeful. "Are you sure? Crab cakes are usually made with bread crumbs, but..." I hastened to add, "...if these are not - I'd be thrilled."
My questioning of her crab cake expertise did not a happy manager make. She spun on her ballet flats and disappeared into the kitchen, padding back to us with an inked X over the crab cake entre. No further explanation.
This is when your humble gluten-free goddess starts twitching inside.
Although she was technically polite as she stood there neat as a pin, centered in a golden shaft of early evening sunlight, it became ridiculously clear to anyone within screaming distance I was rapidly becoming A Problem.
Summoning my best imitation of neurotypical mirroring, I scanned the menu quickly. There was little on it I was even interested in (at that point, I must explain, I did not know about my additional food allergies and I was mostly vegetarian, technically, an ovo-lacto-pescatarian) so mentally setting aside the six or so pork and beef dishes, the two possible choices were a single salmon dish and the X'ed crab cakes. According to the menu, the salmon had a "spice rub".
I swallowed hard.
"I wonder about the spice rub- do you know, by any chance, if it's gluten and wheat free?"
She rotated on her paper thin heel and off she went again, returning in five minutes to tell me, "It's fine." I thanked her politely and we left to go freshen up at our hotel.
Loyal Reader, I'm the first to confess I was silently stewing and wishing we had a plan B for dinner. But I was determined to appear brave and not insanely paranoid, you know, for Steve's sake.
When we arrived at the cafe an hour later, it was still not busy. Only three tables were occupied. We were led to a charming patio by our new pal the bangled young hostess, who urged us, "Remind your server of your gluten-free request."
Then we met our server. The Crab Cake X Woman. Shit.
She betrayed absolutely no indication she recognized us at all, launching swiftly into, "How are you this evening? Our specials tonight are..."
I felt a distinct, sharp sensation in the center of my hollow stomach.
Okay. I exhale. I try not to jump out of my skin. I bang the toes of my shoes against the red brick floor to the beat of a Feist song. This is when a truly self-actualized person would slide back her chair and elegantly suggest to her kind and patient husband that they take their culinary chances somewhere else. But no.
After Ms X's dry recitation of the evening specials, I glanced up from the menu, and softly, slowly- in my most delicate please-don't-make-me-beg voice- I said, "As I mentioned earlier, I have celiac disease and need to eat gluten-free..."
Her ball point pen remained unmoved. Her technically professional gaze glazed over into something I can only describe as an early frost. It was icy clear to anyone within her precisely drawn radius of power she regarded me as High Maintenance and unworthy of her attention or compassion.
I quickly thought, so this is our romantic evening in Moab, Utah? Images of flickering candles illuminating wine filled glasses suddenly evaporated.
After deciding on a salad (the caprese sounded inherently safe) I ended up asking for a piece of plain salmon, grilled on a clean piece of foil. I (most gently, I assure you) told Ms Crab Cake X that I'd prefer to forgo the (scary) "spice rub" if she could (Please?) ask the Chef to use olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper.
Then I sat on my restless hands and tried to relax. The die was cast. At least the wine was passable. The caprese, however, was a major disappointment. For a $14 salad, one expects a tad more than two anemic tomatoes (heirloom schmeirloom) with some shockingly tasteless buffalo mozzarella (how can you mess up mozzarella?) and five dots- yes, dots- of balsamic vinegar. Maybe I'm wrong, but if your tomatoes are not dead ripe, why offer them on the menu? And as caprese? What's the point?
Then- I shudder just remembering the talentless presentation of it- I was served a naked piece of a poachy-looking salmon with an unidentified sauce in a metal dressing cup on the side. No lemon. Just an ice cream scoop of everyday plain white rice and a handful of undercooked unseasoned green beans. No salt and pepper (not even on the table). And no information was offered on what the mystery sauce was.
I felt like I was being punished.
Rather than wait until our server reappeared and enduring the indignity of having to ask her just what, exactly, was in the metal cup (Steve tasted it and declared it non-identifiable) I ignored the mystery sauce and half-heartedly ate a few bites of the flabby thirty dollar slab of salmon, totally deflated, feeling I was cast in a stage play as the Difficult One. The Problem. Le Bitch. (Am I naive? In an industry based upon service, not to mention pleasure, is this how a paying customer should be made to feel?)
Here's the thing.
I love to cook and I love to cook for others. And I don't understand why an individual's dietary restrictions are such a problem. As a cook, I find it challenging. It's fun to problem solve, to be creative. To come up with something new and delicious. I've served the public. I know what it's like. I had my own little vegetarian catering gig called A Painter's Kitchen while I was in my twenties. And in my home I've cooked vegan, purine-free, salt-free, milk-free, nut-free, soy-free and sugar-free to accommodate guests without a moment's hesitation.
Cooking for someone is a privilege.
I'm realistic. I don't expect chain restaurants to care- but a chef-owned restaurant? Why wouldn't they thrive on the challenge of creating a delicious meal for a client with a special request? I can understand it may be added pressure on a busy lunch hour or a hectic date night, but we chose an early seating. On a Monday. He could have come out from behind his sacred glass partition and spoken to us. He just didn't care.
Obviously, some chefs and owners do care, like Real Food Daily in West Hollywood, and The Border Grill in Santa Monica, California. Both eateries served up delicious gluten-free meals, from appetizers to dessert. I only wish there were more chefs interested in providing a dining experience that is not only safe and gluten-free but artful and delicious.