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.

Universal Studio's Fast Dining

The next day, we went to the usual Universal Studios, featuring (slightly outdated) film-based attractions like ET, Revenge of the Mummy, and Men in Black. The Back to the Future ride used to be here, but was replaced by the Simpson's Ride, a shoddy substitute if you ask me.

They still had Doc's car for photos! Here's me with the flying Delorean:
1.21 gigawatts!

The "Blues Brothers" performing a Christmas show. Gettin the band back together.

We only had a short time for lunch, so I had to get something quick. We ate at the "World Expo Restaurant", a food court style eatery. I didn't expect to find much, but the manager was extremely helpful and interested in giving me a great experience. She went and checked labels, asked the cooks, and made sure that my meal was gluten free.
I had roast chicken, fries cooked in a dedicated fryer, and corn on the cob. Quick, sufficient, and seriously GF.

Good to know that Universal has options that range from sit-down to on the go. We ate quickly, as we had to catch a scenic boat tour around a quaint little shorefront called Amity Island.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Universal Studio's Mythos Restaurant

We took a break from Disney madness to catch up on the Universal Studios' madness a few miles away. We chose Islands of Adventure for our first day, the park filled more with roller coasters and excitement rides, as well as the (then-future) Harry Potter World, Marvel Comic World, and Jurassic Park World.
Instead of trying to find something fast to eat, my family chose to dine at Mythos, the full-service restaurant in "The Lost Continent". It's actually rated the World's #1 Theme Park restaurant, a surprising fact considering that Disney is usually thought to be the white glove.
The restaurant is actually located inside that big rock. I guess that's Zeus' face carved outside? We sat in that little gazebo-esque structure on the left. There were great views of park from that height, and a lovely sunset on the man-made lake in the center of the attractions. The inside of the restaurant is also beautiful, seemingly carved out of the stone, with intricate rock and water formations and light patterns made by all of the hidden windows.

When we were seated, we informed our server of the gluten situation, and were immediately greeted by the chef, who went through the entire menu with us and detailed our choices.
To start, we had cream of mushroom soup, made with a gluten free full-cream base. Honestly, it was a little thin, and the chunks of mushroom left something to be desired, but it was warm and filling.

For a main course, guess what is actually gluten free? Pad thai! It was a big portion of sticky rice noodles in peanut sauce, with my favorite Asian vegetable, bean sprouts, and thick shrimp.
It was surprising to find this dish as gluten free, because usually rice noodles served in restaurants aren't completely rice based.
Other GF options included salmon, chicken, and risotto. There weren't a ton of choices, but certainly enough to satisfy.
Enjoy Mythos at Universal. Stop over here after you inevitably spend the day at Hogwarts, then go grab a butterbeer in Hogsmeade for dessert.

my brother and I on the Hulk coaster. our 6th trip!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Orlando's Carrabba's Italian Grill

In lieu of glamorous New Year's Eve plans, my family went out to dinner at Carrabba's Italian Grill. The descriptor "Italian Grill", combined with the fact that Carrabba's is in fact a chain restaurant would seem to portend bad gluten free circumstances, but they actually have a thorough GF menu and the staff is well educated.
A link to their gluten free menu (PDF):

To start, we ordered the Insalata Johnny Rocco, a salad filled with grilled shrimp and scallops. As a recent seafood convert and diehard salad-ophile, this was revolutionary.
The only change that had to be made was to request the seafood be grilled without baste, but the quality was so high, the food was so fresh, and there were so many other flavors in the salad that it didn't matter at all that there wasn't a marinade.

For dinner, I ordered the Pollo Rosa Maria with mashed potatoes. A huge double portion!
The sauce was creamy, along with the garlic-y potatoes. Salty prosciutto and pungent fontina cheese was melted throughout the chicken breast. It's unusual to find stuffed poultry that is gluten free, so this was a nice surprise and a definitely delicious dinner.

Overall, Carrabba's is a good choice for a nice dinner out. It's pricy, but you are getting big portions and great quality for your money, as well as wide gluten free selection. As well, Carrabba's is a national chain, so there's probably one near to you.
Ciao bella!
my cousin AJ and I

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Disney's Hollywood & Vine

Hi all,
After a long hiatus, I'm finishing my reporting on being gluten free in Disney, based on my vacation earlier in the year.

Tower of Terror

For lunch one fine day, my family decided to try Hollywood & Vine, a buffet style restaurant in Disney's Hollywood Studios park (formerly MGM). Part of this decision was swayed by the fact that dining there secures a special pass to sit in a reserved section of the bleachers for the amazing lights and water show Fantasmic.

a float from the show Fantastmic

Usually buffets are a hotbed of problems for a Celiac, but this is Disney we're talking about. After letting the server know about our intolerance (we also made a note of it when making our reservation), a chef came through to lead my GF mom and I through the line, pointing out all of the gluten free options along the way.
We made up a plate together to share:

If I recall correctly, this consisted of chicken, mashed potatoes, rice, various bean salads, and veggies. A pretty wide variety of choices, and there was even more that we didn't try.

As well, the chef sent out a tray of gluten free tapioca rolls. I wasn't a fan of them. A little too hard and tasteless (reminiscent of the very early days of gluten free bread when I was diagnosed 10 years ago) but it was still a great gesture.

Hollywood & Vine is a nice choice for lunch if stopping through Hollywood Studios, as its dinner prices are a little expensive, especially if you're feeding a family. Definitely make a reservation (even with one, we waited about 20 minutes for our table). It's also a good spot for young kids, as there are appearances made by characters from Playhouse Disney shows throughout the meal.
Another great Disney experience!