Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ninety-Nine Restaurant, New England

The last day of my eight day outdoor adventure tour of New England brought me to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the northern Berkshires. (I was backcountry skiing nearby on Mt. Greylock, Massachusetts' tallest peak.) I did a quick Internet search for restaurants in and around Pittsfield, and then scanned the list for restaurants that might have a gluten-free menu. I hit the jackpot with Ninety-Nine Restaurant, which has locations spanning from Maine to Pennsylvania.

As I walked through the front door and requested a seat for one, the hostess reached for the standard menus. "May I have your gluten-free menu, please?" I asked. "The what?" she responded. "I've never heard of it." I politely explained that their website had a gluten-free menu, and that I hoped this location did, too. The hostess disappeared and came back with a GF menu, having talked to the bartender, who was in the know on such matters. All's well that ends well, I suppose, but let's just say the dinner didn't start off on the right foot.

Ninety-Nine's GF menu resembles that of Outback Steakhouse, in the sense that it lists menu items that are naturally gluten-free, or includes instructions for how to order a menu item so that it will be prepared as such (i.e. order the hamburger without the bun, or the salad sans croutons). This approach to a GF menu puts the onus on the restaurant patron to order the meal appropriately, and hinges on that meal being prepared according to your specifications. This differs from the GF menu of a place such as P.F. Chang's, in which you can simply say, "I'll have the gluten-free Chang's spicy chicken," rather than having to say, "I'll have the Chang's spicy chicken, but make the sauce with tamari wheat-free soy sauce instead of regular soy sauce, and dredge the chicken in potato starch instead of wheat flour."

At Ninety-Nine, I opted for the burger and fries straight up. In hindsight, this was a poor choice. The phenomenal hamburger and fries I ate at Larkburger in Edwards, Colorado was still too recent in my memory, and any burger following that act was almost sure to disappoint. Indeed, my Ninety-Nine burger and fries left something to be desired. The burger - which Ninety-Nine's menu describes as being made from ground steak - proved to be overly greasy in practice. The fries tended toward the soggy side, as if they'd been sitting out too long under a heat lamp, or had been fried at too low a temperature, so that they absorbed some of the frying oil. When my meal was finished, its enduring legacy was not much more than a craving for a stick of wintergreen gum, so that I could cleanse my palette and freshen my mouth.

To be fair, this was the first and only time I've eaten at a Ninety-Nine Restaurant, and a sample size of one hardly constitutes a fully vetted restaurant review. And of course, Ninety-Nine does offer a GF menu, and I did eat dinner without getting sick. By that measure, dinner was a success.

- Pete

Monday, February 23, 2009

Flatbread Company, New England

As I continued my travels throughout New England, I stopped in for dinner at the Flatbread Company in North Conway, New Hampshire. Founded in 1998 in Amesbury, Massachusetts, Flatbread now has seven locations, ranging from MA to NH to ME. Rumor had it that they now serve a gluten-free pizza, and I couldn't resist checking it out, all in the name of research, of course!

Happily, the rumors are true - all locations serve gluten-free pizza, thanks to the GF pizza crusts of Nancy Plante-Bushey, the NH-based woman behind the Mommy's Muffins vegan, gluten-free bakery. The base for her pizza crust includes brown rice flour, garbanzo bean flour, arrowroot flour, and tapioca flour, plus a few other ingredients (like yeast and vinegar).

Any of Flatbread's pizzas can be prepared gluten-free, topped with your choice of delicious edibles, including organic vegetables and housemade, nitrate-free pepperoni. I opted for a GF wood-fired pizza topped with pepperoni, fresh basil, whole milk mozarella, and the house tomato sauce. My first bites of the pizza revealed a soft, spongy crust. It had nice flavor. Some bites tended to be a little mealy, and had a mild aftertaste. But overall, I rated the crust "very good" (though, admittedly, the more I ate the pizza, the more the crust shifted toward "average" in my personal hierarchy).

As for the toppings, the only thing worthy of special note here is that the housemade, nitrate-free pepperoni has a mild flavor, and tastes more like a sausage than a traditional pepperoni. Even so, it's very good.

In the end, it was wonderful to plunk my tired body down into a seat at Flatbread and unabashedly devour a full GF pizza all for myself (it was the end of the my 6th consecutive day of major activity, after all!). If you're traveling through New England, and have a craving for pizza, don't hesitate to stop in at Flatbread.

- Pete

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Margarita Grill, Glen, NH

I haven't blogged nearly as much as I would have liked to lately, largely because I've been buried by my recent travel schedule. At the moment I'm in Intervale, New Hampshire, and I've been traveling throughout NY, VT, NH and MA for eight consecutive days of backcountry skiing and ice climbing on assignment for a few magazines. Thankfully, my travels have been filled with wonderful gluten-free surprises, including dinner last night.

After a day of backcountry skiing near Franconia Notch and the Cannon Mountain ski area in northern New Hampshire, I found myself rolling into North Conway with a serious craving for Mexican. Picking up a free tourist map of the Mount Washington Valley, I set my sights on Margarita Grill, which is located on Route 302 in Glen, a short way north of North Conway.

Margarita Grill is a second-generation, family-owned place in the heart of New Hampshire ski country. It's not Mexican like you'll find in San Antonio or Albuquerque, mind you, but they serve up some pretty tasty food (especially after a day of strenuous outdoor activity!).

While MG didn't have a gluten-free menu, the hostess was very knowledgeable, guiding me through the "safe" options as we made our way to the table. My server double checked the menu items with the chef and confirmed what could and could not be prepared gluten-free. I settled on the tacos, which are served in large hard corn tortillas. These are jumbo tacos, and two was enough for me for dinner - one each of ground beef and shredded chicken, both topped with onions, lettuce and tomato. (The fajitas are NOT gluten-free. In my experience, fajitas are usually a safe route to go. Not so in this case.)

The meal was quite tasty, and I left feeling satisfied and healthy. A wonderful combination.

- Pete

Monday, February 9, 2009

Larkburger, Edwards, CO

For much of last week, Kelli, Marin and I were in Vail, Colorado, where friends of ours from Washington were in town for a ski vacation. Needing to satisfy a lunchtime hunger craving one day, we debated where to eat. Vail certainly has no shortage of high-end, white tablecloth (expensive) restaurants, including Larkspur, which is the brainchild of renowned Vail Valley chef Thomas Salamunovich.

Salamunovich has proven himself a gifted and visionary restaurateur, so we decided to check out one of his other Vail Valley offerings - Larkburger, in nearby Edwards. In addition to being gentle on the wallet, Larkburger serves up exactly what we were craving: burgers and fries, but executed to perfection.

The entire menu is gluten-free, with the exception of the buns, which are kept separate and added only at the end of the cooking process. The hamburgers are made from Coleman natural Angus beef, and are cooked to order according to your specifications. Standard fixings are organic tomato and red onion, plus a housemade special sauce, and the gluten-free burgers are served wrapped in green leaf lettuce.

The fries (hand-cut Russets) are cooked in trans-fat free canola oil. They're shoestring thin, and perfectly salted.

Other menu items include a tuna burger with wasabi ginger sauce and cilantro, and an organic field green salad served with your choice of tamari-ginger, ranch or truffle dressing. Getting the picture that this isn't your typical burger joint?
In a word, the food was Dee-licious. In fact, I named Larkburger to my personal list of Top 5 Hamburgers I've ever had. We returned a second time to confirm our opinion. Kelli thought the tuna burger was divine, and my second Larkburger was just as good as the first.
What's more, as if the food didn't give you enough to love about Larkburger, consider these facts: The kitchen uses energy efficient appliances to reduce consumption. All the food is served in biodegradable, recyclable, and/or compostable containers, including Spudware (cups and utensils made from corn or potato). The oil used to make the french fries is turned into biodiesel at the end of its cooking lifespan. And the wood paneling is all reclaimed timber.
In the end, we give Larkburger an enthusiastic two thumbs up. If you're ever swinging through the Vail Valley, don't hesitate to stop in and get one of the best hamburgers (gluten-free!) this side of the Mississippi.
- Pete

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A False Sense of Security

Here's an admission: those of us in the Celiac/gluten-free community can, at times, be a paranoid group. We worry (obsessively) about gluten contamination in our food, usually because we've had an experience (or several) that has shaken our confidence in what we can eat where. Regaining that confidence is a difficult process - it can take time, if it happens at all.

It's not a bad thing to be cautious. It is what keeps us healthy in what otherwise might be unsafe situations for eating. As awareness about gluten continues to grow, and products and restaurants are more clearly labeling what is and isn't in their food, it has become easier to safely negotiate the gauntlet of gastronomy, and to perhaps even regain some of that confidence lost.

But I've recently discovered that sometimes, a little information about gluten is more dangerous than none at all. Here's the story:

Back in late October, I blogged about Boar's Head meats and cheeses, which are gluten-free. Not to worry...they remain gluten-free, but read on, for this is a cautionary tale. About one month ago, I got sick twice within two days, both very much in line with how my body responds to gluten cross-contamination. I was initially puzzled, since we have a gluten-free kitchen. The only common denominator between the two meals was one thing: Boar's Head Black Forest Ham. Funny, since it's gluten-free.

I went back to the source of my ham: the deli counter at my local King Soopers supermarket, which is part of the Kroger family of stores. Over the course of the last year, the supermarket completed a full renovation, including the deli counter, which now serves only meats and cheeses cut fresh to order. And they only serve two brands: Boar's Head, and Private Selection, which is Kroger's in-house brand.

The deli counter proudly displays a sign heralding the gluten-free status of Boar's Head. But what if the Private Selection meats weren't gluten-free? They're cut on the same slicers as the Boar's Head, and could easily cross-contaminate. This is a perfect example of a time where a little information about gluten is worse than none at all. Whereas I might otherwise have steered away from deli meats for fear of gluten, the sign at the deli gave me a false sense of security that, yes, I could safely order and eat the meat.

Of course, this is all predicated on gluten in the Private Selection meats in the first place. So, I followed the trail farther up the food chain and contacted Kroger customer service. Getting a definitive answer has thusfar proven elusive. The company sent me a PDF document of all Kroger-brand (including Private Selection meats from the deli) products that are in theory gluten-free. Yet, in the very same document, they also state that they don't guarantee that any of their deli meats or cheeses are gluten-free. What's more, in the wake of my initial communication with Kroger, my local King Soopers added a new sign to the deli counter, proclaiming "no gluten" in the Private Selection meats and cheeses.

Is your head spinning yet? Because mine sure is. My "case" has now been referred to the manager of my local King Soopers, who I have yet to hear from. In the meantime, I'm left with a questionable situation with regards to my deli meats and cheeses. And even if the Private Selection meats and cheeses turn out to be gluten-free, the Kroger parent company still says you risk cross-contamination from other parts of the deli counter. But if that's true, isn't it disingenuous to promote gluten-free meats and cheeses that you can't guarantee are gluten-free? And what would the folks at Boar's Head think about this?

I'm not suggesting any deliberate mal-intent on the part of King Soopers and Krogers. But I am suggesting that a little gluten awareness mixed with a little gluten ignorance is a dangerous combination. My sense of security has faltered. And paranoia returns (to a degree).

- Pete