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Some Like It Hot

31 May

Last weekend, my husband and I attended a business dinner at Manresa Restaurant, in Los Gatos. Here are some things David Kinch, Manresa’s adorable chef (see right), would like you to know about his place:manresa chef

1. It has two Michelin stars. There are only 17 restaurants in all of America with two Michelin stars (and 11 with 3 stars, but I haven’t been to any of them).  So… wow!

2. This May, Bon Appetit Magazine voted it the fifth most important restaurant in America. Which conflicts with the folks over at Michelin, but who’s arguing?

3.  The menu offers two prix fixe options — that’s it.  As I am sure you can appreciate, that means there is no classic celiac “would it be possible for me to have the starter salad, no dressing, with grilled chicken, no sauce, on the side?” negotiation table-side.  In fact, when you get the menu all it does it offer you an imaginative vision of what six or eight courses you may be getting — your server doesn’t actually tell what each dish contains until it arrives, in all its beautiful glory,  at the table.

We had an amazing meal.  It was delicious, and creative, and inspirational, and long (unless six hours doesn’t seem long to you).  So I want to be clear — I’m not complaining.  I’m just observing.  And here is what I’m seeing, from my little gluten-free seat at the fifth best restaurant in America:

1.  When I call ahead to say I’m gluten-free, and to ask if that’s a problem, and the lovely lady at the desk tells me “absolutely not”, I would rather not have my (otherwise charming) server ask me, in front of my husband’s four colleagues, whether I really mean I’m gluten-free.  “A bit of soy would be okay, right?” he inquired with a hopeful smile.

I ask you, what would you have done, at a celebratory meal that was not about you, not at all?  Wouldn’t you have asked yourself,

“How likely is it that David Kinch is splashing Kikkoman Soy Sauce into his squab marinade?”

I thought about how each course is about the size of a marshmallow, displayed artfully on a brilliant white plate the size of a hub cap.  I thought about how, just for tonight, I didn’t want to be high maintenance. Then I smiled, agreed, and ordered a cocktail.  This one, to be specific.  manresa cocktailIt’s made with Lillet (which our loyal readers will recall was one of my early celiac management strategies). And lemon.  It was definitely gluten-free and it tasted terrific.  But even a lemon drink in a beautiful glass could not alleviate the pathos of what happened next.

2.  They brought a basket of gorgeous, artisanal oven-hot breads to the table, for everyone who was not me.  And they brought me a basket of gluten-free rolls, which were cold.  Okay, room temperature.  But you and I know that once a gf baked good has left the Land of Warm, quibbling over its exact temperature is beside the point.

If there is one thing — and only one thing — I have learned about gluten-free baking, it is this: serve it hot.  Anything you bake without wheat will already be challenged.  It will not be fluffy, or stretchy, or crunchy (although it may be crumbly, but that is different).  If you pop it in your mouth the minute it comes out of the oven, though, maybe that gf muffin, cookie, or cupcake (well, okay, not the cupcake) will vaguely remind you of the glorious baked goods of your pre-celiac life.  But let it get cold, and you are screwed.  Screwed.

Why, oh why, has the undoubtedly clever and inspired bread chef at Manresa not learned that lesson?  Or, if s/he has, why was my gf roll served cold?

Don’t get me wrong.  That room temp bread did not ruin my meal.  I had a great dinner, we had a wonderful time, all was good.  But for $180 per person, and after I called ahead and gave them loads of notice, I would have loved a hot bun.

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I’m sorry, did you say “farinata”?

10 May

I know I haven’t written lately.  I’ve been busy complaining to people IN PERSON about how being gluten-free doesn’t get easier, or more fun, over time.  But Sarah and I love the comments that have been flowing in (okay, trickling — but still!),  so here I am, back again, with a whole new commitment to bitching out loud.

I’m going to start with a story about last week.  It is all about hope, and dashed hopes, and wine on an empty stomach.

My wine glass. Empty, for the second time.

My wine glass. Empty, for the second time.

But it starts a while ago, so I have to open with a little flashback:

Last fall, a cool new restaurant opened in town.  Even though Santa Cruz is (1) in Northern California, (2) a hip college town,     (3) relatively upper middle class, and (4) supposedly a coastal food mecca known (by a hopeful few) as “Berkeley on the Bay”,  good restaurants are few and far between.  Especially when you (by which I mean me) are a little high maintenance.  So we went.  Immediately.

The minute James and I walked in the door I was excited.  Bantam (note hip, bird-related name) had industrial metal windows and  funky light fixtures with Edison bulbs.  It had concrete floors and a bar made out of reclaimed lumber with flakes of paint still left all over it .  Most important, it had a fiery brick pizza oven out of which emerged, every minute or so, a crispy pie covered with fennel or heirloom tomatoes or fresh-pulled mozzarella.

I was sure they would offer a gluten-free pizza crust.

They did not.  They had “farinata”, topped with stinging nettles, and that was the sum total of their gluten-free offerings.   A farinata is a pancake-like thing made out of chickpea flour.  “Kind of like a fried polenta,” the waitress said, and then she told me, twice, that it would NOT be coming out of the pizza oven.  Apparently they prefer to cook their pancake-like things on the stove.

So, what did I do? I ordered the farinata (rhymes with intifada).  I ordered it even though (1) I do not like fried polenta, (2) I was a little nervous about the stinging nettles, and (3) the only reason I was there was for that rocking hot pizza oven.  But I am gluten-free and that means sometimes you have to be flexible.

James had the pizza, which arrived burned (hot HOT pizza oven) but still delicious, he says.

The farinata was hideous.  It tasted beany and it was soggy and, amazingly, the stinging nettles did nothing to redeem it.  I ate one bite.  But I had hedged my bets with a little salad and that was good, so my emotional take on Bantam was, overall, positive.  Not positive enough to warrant an immediate return trip, but good enough to file Bantam in my “sure, I’d go there” file.

Which brings me to last weekend.  James and I were trying to decide where to go to dinner and I (yes – this is my fault) suggested we give Bantam another try.  Surely by now they would have expanded their gluten-free options.  Surely by now  they would have gluten-free pizza crust.  I mean… Domino’s has gf crust (not that I go there, but I’ve seen the ads).

They did not.  The menu, amazingly, was exactly the same as six months ago, except for they had deleted the lovely salad and added pickled vegetables.

Our pickled turnips were not pink. They were white and sad.

Our pickled turnips were not pink. They were white and sad.

And this is why, last Saturday, my entire dinner consisted of a bowl of olives, a dish of pickled turnips, and two glasses of wine.

Also, our bowl of olives was a LOT smaller than this one.  And there was no flower.

Also, our bowl of olives was a LOT smaller than this one. And there was no flower.

What do you get when you take eight ounces of vino and a handful of  nibbles and add that to one hungry woman with a really crabby attitude?  A very short dinner, followed by a stop at 7-Eleven so she can buy herself a fistful of chocolate in a desperate attempt to salvage date night.

Oh, and a husband who suddenly remembered this really important work he had to do on his laptop right when we got home.

I suppose you could say that the point of this story is that, most of the time, I can find something delicious and gluten-free to eat.  And that would be true.

But last Saturday, all I could do was look at those cool Edison bulb chandeliers and the general Brooklyn-based decor, and say to myself, “We are never, ever, EVER coming back to Bantam.”

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