Monday, September 19, 2011

Cafe Lalo

Originally written for my school's newspaper.
Cafe Lalo
201 W. 85th and Amsterdam

Paris, 1905. The scene, an alluring wood-paneled cafe lined with twinkling lights and glass panels of freshly baked tarts, rugelach, and so many cheesecakes, like a vision from a Van Gogh. Actually, it’s Cafe Lalo, a scenic walk away from Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side and home to the best brunch I’ve had in New York City.

One crisp, clear, sweater-and-a-latte fall Sunday, I happened upon Cafe Lalo and was drawn in by its anomalous windowfront and bright blue flag, with a Lautrec-style dancing woman gracing the front. While the cafe was a little crowded on such a lovely morning, I was able to be seated almost right away in a spot right next to the open windows. In classic New York style, I was practically bumping elbows with my neighbor, but this element just seemed to add to its charm. The restaurant is bright and cheery, with walls covered in colorful 20s-style posters and filled with flowers and painted tile. The menu is quite extensive, with a full selection of espresso-laden coffee drinks and as many brunch choices you could ever imagine. Not your typical diner food, however-Cafe Lalo instead lives up to its unique European style and offers quiches to cheese plates to fresh organic salads and panini.

I decided I would begin with a skim cappuccino, which arrived hot and steaming with a thick layer of creamy foam on top, just how a great cappuccino should. I was pleasantly surprised to find a tiny Toblerone candy on my saucer, which was a sweet treat with the slightly bitter espresso.

For my brunch, I chose a plate of steamed eggs, something I’ve never seen on a menu before, with goat cheese, oregano, tomatoes, and basil. The eggs came with a side of roasted fingerling potatoes and a small “Mediterranean” salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, pine nuts, and cilantro. The steamed eggs, I found out, are prepared without butter or oil, a nice change from the greasy eggs usually found in breakfast places. I couldn’t taste a difference, however-in fact, these eggs were absolutely delicious, a perfect balance of two complex spices balanced out with the rich goat cheese, which came in a heaping scoop underneath the eggs. The potatoes were obviously freshly sliced and were fabulous with a little bit of sea salt on top, as was the side salad. The cilantro was an interesting choice and a bit overpowering, but when combined with the pine nuts, I greatly enjoyed it as a balancing act to the supremely indulgent eggs. I had to stop myself from scraping the plate clean by the time I was done.

On top of the delicious meals, there is a huge glass showcase absolutely packed with freshly baked desserts that one would be supremely hard-pressed to ignore, particularly when combined with the constant sweet scents wafting from behind the counter and the stacks of cheesecake practically staring you in the face from across the room. The dessert menu is almost longer than the food, from a full list of after-dinner drinks to fondues to unbelievable chocolate-laden creations. While I was far too stuffed to sample any of the desserts in the cafe, I took home a thick slice of decadent cappuccino cheesecake, which I slowly savored over several days.

I spent several hours in Cafe Lalo studying and people-watching from the window, slowly sipping my cappuccino and reveling in the flawless atmosphere, feeling as though I had completely escaped the city, but at the same time, knowing that that kind of moment was the quintessence of the New York experience. I highly recommend Cafe Lalo for a lazy weekend brunch, a romantic after-dinner dessert, or a tranquil coffee to take a step back for a few hours and just watch the world go by.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gluten Free Mascarpone & Sweet Cream Cheesecake

Hi all,
I've received a few requests for this recipe, which I adapted from one I saw on epicurious a few months back. I LOVE this cheesecake and always have people ask me how I make it. It's a little bit ingredient intensive and does require some patience in terms of cooling and etc, but it's really not difficult to make. It doesn't even need a crust (although if you want to add one, by all means, I'm sure a buttery gf graham cracker crust would be delicious with this one!)

cheesecake in its primitive form.

(this recipe makes 2 thin, 9 inch cheesecakes.)
Ingredients for Layer One:
-16 oz. (2-3 packages) cream cheese, softened
-8 oz. mascarpone cheese
-3 large eggs
-about 1 cup sugar
-splash of vanilla
-splash of lemon juice

Ingredients for Layer Two:
-16 oz. sour cream (Daisy brand is gf)
-about 3/4 cup sugar
-splash of vanilla
-splash of lemon juice

1. Beat softened cream cheese, mascarpone, and sugar in a large bowl until well mixed. I hate using an electric mixer, but you really can't do it by hand and get the right consistency for a smooth cheesecake without one.
cheesecake goo.

2. Add in the eggs one at a time and be careful not to splash runny egg yolk cheesecake goo all over the kitchen like someone that perhaps I know.
3. Dash in the lemon juice and vanilla. I never measure so just eyeball it.
4. Pour the mixture into a lightly buttered pie dish, and bake for about a half hour on 350 until the edges are springy. You'll know when. Let the pies cool and prepare the second layer.
What the pies will look like, mostly cooled down.
What I did during the time I had to be patient: photobooth, of course!

5. Beat the sour cream, sugar, vanilla, and lemon juice together. This takes all of 30 seconds. When the pies are cooled, spread this layer on top of each.
The second layer spread on top, pre-final baking.

6. Bake again for about 15-20 minutes until they're well set, aren't too mushy, and the edges are golden brown. The two layers should bake together until you can't tell they were ever separate.
7. Refrigerate until you want to serve, and prepare to be lauded for your baking genius.

The final version.

Enjoy! Happy Thanksgiving :)

(the card says..."If you asked a turkey what it thought about Thanksgiving, know what it would say? Probably something fowl!")

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mon Ami Gabi et Les Cubs

I flew home to Chicago one sunny May weekend for my brother's high school graduation. My whole family was so proud of him.
the nice picture...

and the fake tattoo sleeve. my family is awesome.

One of my absolute favorite parts of summer is going to baseball games at Wrigley Field. Something about that old park makes you feel like it's 1928, and given that the Cubs haven't won the World Series in over a hundred years, it may as well be. But no matter, the Friendly Confines are a great home to a great team of lovable losers, and some of the best fans the game has to offer. Me being one of them.

yours truly!

about to win the game. no, really!

After the game, we went out for a nice dinner at Mon Ami Gabi, the French extension of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant corporation, located in the beautiful Belden Stratford Hotel. It has several incarnations in other major cities as well. The restaurant itself is charming, with a classic French decor and crisp white linen. Plus, they have a specifically gluten free menu, one that is très magnifique.

As if that weren't enough, they start the table with a loaf of freshly baked gluten free French baguette. That's right, you read me correctly. Gluten free baguette. Thick and chewy, you'd think it was just biked in from an enlightened bakery on the Seine.

My mama swears by their gluten free French Onion soup. Indeed, it was a very filling starter to the meal, especially when paired with the bread. It was very well done, not too salty, and the melted cheese just gooey enough to slurp down with the broth and sweet onions.

For a main course, I'm a sucker for sea scallops, so after seeing them featured on the GF menu, I naturally had to order them. They came with a garlic butter cream...sauce? I'm not sure what to call it. It was thicker than marinade or sauce, but thinner than a dip. Either way, it was the perfect complement to the soft, rotund, perfectly broiled scallops. The side of leafy spinach was also a nice addition to the meal.

As if that weren't enough of a meal to last for days, my family and I split a piece of the gluten free molten chocolate cake. Now this was an intense end to the already rich meal. Densely chocolately, the cake had enough of an airy feel to not taste exactly like fudge, but it was close.

Needless to say, I was absolutely STUFFED after this amazing 4 course French meal. We took a lovely sunset walk around Lake Michigan's museum campus afterwards to walk off the post-meal snooziness we're all prone to having.

Moi et ma mère après dîner

If you want a modern French feel in Old Chicago, look no further than Mon Ami Gabi. Because being gluten free, c'est la vie!

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Look at the Whole Foods GF Bakehouse

Let me begin by saying that I am obviously in no position to be offering professional business advice to Whole Foods, and that these observations merely come from many years of experience in the gluten free world, both online and in reality. As well, I love shopping at Whole Foods. I have had nothing but great experiences with their company, products, and shopping environment as a whole. They stock many gluten free products that I cannot find anywhere else, and some locations even offer local support groups for Celiacs. I have happily spent a small fortune in their stores, and will continue to do so. With that being said, I believe that Whole Foods' Gluten Free Bakehouse products need a drastic overhaul.
The bakehouse operation is incredible. Their website ( details the attention to detail and just how intensely they value creating a safe and tested gluten free product. A separate bakery, an onsite testing lab, and protective gear for employees all protect their products from cross-contamination, which is a level of dedication not found in many companies. Despite this level of care, I feel that their product is outdated in the current state of the gluten free market.

In 1996, when the product line was first developed, there was very little available for Celiacs. Gluten free products were few and far between, and when they were found, they crumbled in your hands. They had to be stored in the freezer. They tasted like cardboard (the foundation for all of the "gluten free, not taste free!" style advertisements out there).
This was 14 years ago. Even within the past five years, the gluten free market has exploded. Having witnessed the dramatic transformation in availability, quality, and commonality firsthand, I can vouch for just how much has changed. What was a revolutionary product then has the potential to become archaic. Sadly, this is what has happened to Whole Foods' bakehouse products. I am not critiquing the taste or quality of most of the bakehouse products, as both are fantastic. There are also a wide variety of products available, from pie shells to muffins to croutons.

However, much about the product could use revamping.

For one, all are sold from frozen. With many new gluten free brands (including cult favorite Udi's) being sold as a regular on-the-shelf bread, it is strange to see that their breads must still be stored frozen. Even muffins and cookies are sold from the freezer. It makes their home storage and usage more difficult, and there's the potential for freezer burn, as well as crystallization of the bread, and disruption of taste and texture. If other companies can manufacture bread products and distribute them without freezing, there must be a way for Whole Foods to do so as well.

The products are also heavy in carbohydrates, calories, and sodium. They are notably dense in texture. Other brands make a lighter product that is easier on the gut to digest, easier to cook with, and better on the waistline.

Products are expensive, and sometimes, the cost is not justified by the portions. Frozen products just will not fare better than their non-frozen counterparts, especially if they are overpriced as well.

As well, their products are unable to be shipped directly to customers' homes. This should be an obvious given in the digital age, when everything is readily available online and can be there within days. Instead, customers must travel to a Whole Foods location and make their purchases there. I would imagine this has something to do with the fact that the products are sold frozen, as well as a way to draw more customers into the store (and create a higher sale).

Times are changing, and if you're eating gluten free, this is great news. Better products on the market are making our lives much easier and much more normalized. If Whole Foods wants its specialized line to remain relevant to the GF scene, it will want to make some serious changes to its product, specifically selling fresh, not frozen, and reworking some of its recipes to reflect the new market.

That being said, thanks for being there, Whole Foods! You provided for a community when no one else was interested in the market. Now please keep up; we don't want to see you go!

note: all photos taken from the Whole Foods Market site.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Brooklyn Bliss

A close friend coast hopped from DC to NY for a visit one unseasonably bright spring weekend a few months ago. Nora being a theater major and Broadway buff, most of our time was spent in the Times Square and 42nd street area, but we decided that we wanted to get off the beaten path and spent a day in New York's most bespectacled borough, Brooklyn. Specifically, the epicenter of hipsterdom, Williamsburg. We spent a long time choosing our outfits, which probably made us fit in more than anything we wore.

Christopher Walken signing playbills after our showing of "A Behanding in Spokane."

Most of our day was spent poking around the Bedford Ave neighborhoods and boutiques.

Eventually we did want to find somewhere to grab a bite to eat. We figured that Nora's vegetarianism wouldn't be a problem, given the eccentric and youthful vibe in the area, and we were right. We stumbled upon Bliss, a small, brightly painted, and dedicated vegetarian hole in the wall. As is usual with independent cafes, they knew all about gluten, and were able to give me immediate information about their menu, despite not having clear notation about choices.
I decided to go with the server's recommendation and order the house specialty, the Bliss Bowl, a plate full of fresh kale, carrots, broccoli, tofu, and sweet potatoes. Any more of it and my system would have been in shock from such an abundance of neatly packaged vitamins.
The food wasn't particularly flavorful, but it wasn't bad. Nora loved that all of the dishes were vegetarian or vegan, and there were other gluten free choices as well. Not a bad pick for a veg/vegan Celiac, and I'd probably come back if in the area again, although I can only handle that much hipster in small doses.

Cinderella's Royal Table

The epitome of Disney. The apex of the trip. The highlight of my Christmas vacation.
Breakfast in Cinderella's castle.
With princesses.
Ever since I was young, I've wanted to eat in Cinderella's castle, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have breakfast with Walt's leading ladies themselves on my last morning in Disney.
Me, excited to have been cordially invited by Cinderella. Expensively invited, but invited.

A chef came to speak with me as soon as we were seated, letting me know about their gluten free breakfast options. There really wasn't much of a choice, and he seemed a little tired and annoyed to be discussing it, but at least he was polite, and assured me that I would have a great breakfast. I did.

Morning Florida light streaming in from all directions, Disney began to make its magic.
A beautiful fruit cup replaced the pastry tray to start the breakfast, as well as fresh squeezed orange juice and plentifully flowing coffee.

Soon after, I was face to pale face with Snow White.

My breakfast was a small vegetable quiche, spicy potatoes, and a pile of sausage and bacon.
I really liked the quiche. It was light and fluffy, and nice for breakfast. The rest of the meal was standard breakfast fare, although it was good. The food being tasty was just a perk, though. If you're going to Cinderella's Castle for a 5 star breakfast, you're doing it wrong.

I met Jasmine....


And Belle.

In all honesty, I'm not delusional. This was a breakfast for children, as evidenced by the entire rest of the room.

But this wasn't about acting like an adult, this was about spending a few hours in a different reality. This was about wish fulfillment. And what better place for wish fulfillment than Disney World, where all of your dreams can come true?
"They will remember that special moment for the rest of their lives." How right you are, Cindy.

This concludes both my Disney trip, and my series on eating gluten free in Orlando. Thanks for tagging along on my days in the House of Mouse.
Happy travels!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville

Wasting away again in Margaritaville.
Actually, it was my first time eating at the tropical themed restaurant, complete with servers on stilts handing out leis and a big stuffed parrot next to the hostess stand. I had heard great things about Jimmy's, a chain with several high-volume tourist locations, and was not disappointed in my experience.
Our waitress knew right away to get us a gluten free menu, one of the most kitschy that I've ever seen. Their effort to amuse me with theme incorporation did not go unappreciated.

I also noticed that their regular menu had this notation:
Very cool.

Let me start by saying that their gluten free menu is HUGE. Very extensive. It's also awesome that such a "get in-get out", high-volume chain would take the time to have a dedicated GF fryer.

They also serve Redbridge! One of the few restaurants to actually have this GF inclusionary staple on their roster.

For dinner, I went with the Caribbean jerk chicken, recommended by the server. The sauce was delicious. The chicken itself wasn't anything special; ditto for the rice.

My mom's dinner, however, was tremendous. She chose the guava barbecue ribs, a full slab of perfectly cooked baby back ribs slathered in that nommy sauce. Her dinner came with fries, an unexpected treat in a restaurant where you'd expect cross contamination to run deep.

This place was a fun last night's dinner in Orlando! Cute for kids and appreciable by adults. The same soundtrack played about 10 times throughout our meal, but because the namesake song is just so darn catchy, you won't go crazy. The servers, on the other hand...

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm searching for my lost shaker of salt.