A clear diagnosis of celiac disease, finally made after years of indeterminate suffering, has brought me so much: fervent energy; an even mind; weight loss; a general feeling of exuberance; the cessation of pain. This website. All of you reading this right now. New friends. A return of my fascination with all things medical. A renewed passion for food. Dozens and dozens of new recipes. An entire shelf of suddenly vital cookbooks. Kitchen shelves. A daily photography habit. A seemingly inexhaustible topic of conversation with anyone who will listen. Exciting writing possibilities.
The whole wide world.
There is one experience this diagnosis did not give me: a plethora of restaurant visits.
Since my diagnosis in April, and the explosion of expertise that followed it, I’ve only eaten in restaurants about a dozen times. Maybe a few more, but that’s about it. Time was, I used to eat in fine dining establishments and corner delis for nearly every meal. When I lived in New York, I followed suit of everyone around me. I grabbed egg sandwiches at the Americana deli on 101st and Broadway, thrilled to the taste of a slice at Sal and Carmine’s, ate pancakes at Metro Diner on a Sunday morning, and could always snack on scones at the Starbucks when I sat there writing. And those were just the restaurants on my block. I loved the cannoli at Amsterdam, the saag paneer on 6th Street, the bagels on 79th, the curried egg sandwiches on 81st. The Ethiopian sandwiches just off Central Park, the fried chicken in Harlem, the pizza in Brooklyn, the quiche in the East Village, the pain au chocolat in Chelsea, the mapled French toast on the Upper West Side, the pastrami sandwiches on the lower East Side—god, I loved them all. Every social interaction seemed to center in restaurants, and I never ran out of new ones to try.
But now, that life has changed. It didn’t change when I moved to Seattle. We have a stunning number of devastatingly good restaurants in this fair city, and I was well on my way to trying them all. Slow-cooked eggplant at Green Papaya. Lemon meringue pie at the Dahlia Lounge. Buttermilk biscuits at Glo’s. And every baked good ever made at Macrina Bakery. I was making my way through the glories of this fabulous restaurant town, happily discovering more every time I turned a corner.
And then, not so much.
Now, after my celiac diagnosis, eating in a restaurant is always an endeavor fraught with awful possibilities. In some restaurants, it’s almost impossible to find a meal without breading, or a roll on the side. Most Asian restaurants, which would seem to be a safe haven, use soy sauce with amazing liberality. Even if I order a meal with no apparent bread or flour, how do I know that the line cook has washed the flour off his hands before he started making my meal? That someone hasn’t spilled flour in the salt shaker? Or that bread crumbs didn’t accidentally land in the sauce?
I don’t mean to sound paranoid. I’m not. These have all happened.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of eating with Matt Kantor, from Food Blog Central. He was in town for a weekend, and we’d been writing. So we went to Le Pichet, formerly one of my favorite places in town. It’s a little bistro on 1st Avenue, with a black-and-white-tiled floor, long windows above the seats, and a capacious bar where you can wait for your gorgeous roast chicken to finish. I’d been there a couple of times in years past, and many of my friends celebrate special days in its space. Since I’d been doing so much luscious cooking, night after night, I hadn’t step foot in a restaurant in weeks. More excited than I imagined, I waited for Matt. Before he arrived, I warned the waitress about my gluten intolerance, almost apologizing, but being firm. She sent the manager out, who looked scared. “How dangerous is this?” she said.
“Well, I’m not going to go to the emergency room if you mess up, but I’m going to be sick for two days,” I said.
She looked relieved. It was clear that she was more concerned about their liability than my health. And then she said: “You know, we’ll try our best. But you know, where we cut the bread is just above the silverware drawer. And you know, I go home just covered in bread crumbs every night.” She shrugged and raised her hands in the air, as though she had already quit. And then turned and walked away.
Does it surprise anyone to know that I left that night with a wretched headache, even though I had ordered a garlic pork sausage? Or that my stomach grumbled in knots for two days? Or that I was left feeling enervated, more susceptible to catching the flu that wove its way through the halls of my school?
At least it was great to meet Matt.
So when I find a restaurant where I can eat, with no fears of growing sick, I’m overjoyed. It felt almost impossible for awhile. In June, after four months of not eating anything outside of the house, my dear friend Meri took me to Cafe Flora for dinner. We sat in the back, near the large windows pouring forth the light of late spring. Outside, a little courtyard, with Tibetan prayer flags stretched between the trees, waving in the breeze. I had been there before, in years past, for family brunches, and the occasional lunch. It’s a vegetarian/vegan gourmet restaurant, with an open space for seating, including one large side room with a burbling fountain. I always liked the peaceful feeling of the place, but I mostly remembered eggs. Before, I had not thought of it when friends wanted suggestions as to where to eat.
But Meri had read somewhere that Cafe Flora was friendly to gluten-free diners, so she suggested we try it. She was about to leave for New York, and I was about to finish school for the year. Time for a celebration.
Our waiter came to the table with menus, filled our water glasses, and left. I opened my menu, then I nearly fainted. Behind the descriptions of nearly half the menu items, I saw this: (gluten-free). What? Oh my god. A restaurant where the waiters not only know what gluten is, but also care enough to label it for me? And the food isn’t merely a small salad with no dressing, and a piece of plain meat? I couldn’t believe my eyes. I really did start to cry, a little.
And then, when the meals arrived, I could only moan. Roasted polenta with spicy tomato sauce. Gorgeous cheeses. And a creme brulee creamy-crunchy-sweet enough to make me break down and weep. Truly great food, not rushed or thoughtless, not something I could have made myself, but truly great food, gluten-free, made for me.
And as an unexpected benefit, Meri treated me to the entire meal. What more could a gluten-free girl want? Cafe Flora instantly became my new favorite restaurant.
So this week, I was thrilled to make a return visit. Cafe Flora was celebrating the publication of its cookbook with a seven-course prix fixe menu. And 25% off the cookbook. How could I resist?
Happily, I met my friend Jan, who is the mother of one of my favorite former students. I love the unexpected ways that people enter my life. Jan is one of the most loving, deeply listening people I have ever met. Whenever I am with her, I just feel as though I’m breathing easier. We talked and talked, and talked so much that our waitress tried not to look harried. She wanted to bring us our next dish.
Each one was spectacular. Small saucers filled with wonderful little bites. Smooth hummus with flourishes of rice crackers. Chanterelle pizza, made on white corn tortillas for me. Crisp polenta with goat cheese and rosemary sprigs. And so on. In fact, if you want to see the menu, here it is, along with the page numbers where the recipes appear in the cookbook:
First Course (28)
White bean and roasted garlic puree with grilled eggplant and roasted red peppers.
Second Course (51):
Soup Shot: Curried Butternut Squash
Third Course (60)
Warm pear salad with orange vinaigrette and spiced walnuts.
Fourth Course (101):
Grilled polenta with fennel tomato sauce and Goat cheese.
Fifth Course (153):
Chanterelle and leek pizza with roasted garlic pecan pesto.
Sixth Course (125)
Roasted vegetable and wild rice roulade with parsnip puree.
Three small scoops of dulce de leche ice cream, with mint.
The place was filled with happy people, bathed in candlelight and talking. Everyone there to celebrate this marvelous place. Jan and I were basking in its warmth as well, enjoying the first chance we had found in months to see each other. As always, it’s food that brings us together.
At the end of the evening, the author of the cookbook and the head chef came over to see us, to assure me that everything had been gluten-free (I had trusted that. They came over on their own.). And they even asked me questions, about how best to look at a kitchen for gluten-free needs. I’ve never met such a great group of people. I knew they were interested in more than their own liability. I felt it in the way they talked to me, and especially in the way the food tasted: this place is built on love.
And to top it all off, without my knowing she had this planned, Jan treated me to the entire meal, and a copy of the cookbook. This gluten-free girl is dumbfounded at her generosity, of the generosity of everyone in that place. I’m still reeling.
So if you live in Seattle, or you’re planning to visit soon, you have to go to dinner at Cafe Flora. This is one of the best spots in Seattle. The food is fantastic. But even more inviting for those of us with food restrictions, Cafe Flora cares about what goes into your food and the way it is prepared. Are you vegetarian? Vegan? Gluten-free? No problem. In fact, they want to make sure you eat great food, and leave feeling happy, and well.
CAFE FLORA’S MARINATED GOAT CHEESE, from Cafe Flora Cookbook (7)
“One of Cafe Flora’s first dining room managers and our good friend, Linda Silberman, would bring this appetizer to dinner parties. It was always one of those dishes that guests seemed to hover around until it was all gone. Ultimately we adopted this dish on a larger scale as part of our repertoire of appetizers for catered events and fund-raisers.
Not only is it irresistibly delicious, but it’s easy to put together, which is especially important when you’re pressed for time and need to arrive at a party with a dish.…This simple hors d’oeuvre lookes and tastes like you put much more time into it than you did.”
4 large fresh basil leaves, plus a sprig for granish
4 Roma tomatoes, most of the seeds removed, diced
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained, OR
6 kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4-ounce log goat cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper
CUT THE BASIL IN A CHIFFONADE. Stack the basil leaves on top of each other. Roll them up tightly, starting at the stem, and slice thinly across the rolled-up leaves. This will give you long thin strips of basil.
MIX THE MARINADE. In a bowl, combine all the ingredients except the goat cheese, salt, and pepper. Put the log of goat cheese in the center of a shallow serving bowl, and pour the tomato mixture over it.
MARINATE THE GOAT CHEESE for about an hour. (If you’re going to marinate the cheese longer than that, refrigerate it and take it out half an hour or so before serving to return it to room temperature.)
SERVE THE GOAT CHEESE. Just before serving, taste it, add salt if you think it needs it, and grind pepper over it. Garnish with a sprig of basil. Serve with a knife to cut the cheese and a spoon to scoop up the flavorful tomato mixture.
[Gluten-free Girl’s notes: oh my goodness. This is luscious, decadent, and a definite repeater. My guests adored it. And I made a double batch, with capers and kalamata olives, and there was just enough left over the next day–that’s the picture above–to make the most woozily good gluten-free pasta I’ve had in a long time. Make this today.]