When I was in the East Village last week, walking up 1st Avenue from Monica’s apartment on 5th Street to Danal on 10th street, I counted twenty-two restaurants in five blocks. I’m sure I missed some, too. (Sadly, Danal wasn’t open for breakfast on a weekday morning, which is just one more reason to go back to New York soon.) And the array of choices: Peruvian, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, Indian, Venetian, Moroccan, pizza galore, hippie organic fare, and a restaurant devoted only to desserts. (Ah, I tried to make into Chikalicious, on Shuna’s recommendation, but no go. One of my friends said that she has tried three times, but no room. I’m determined. So is she. We’re going to make it in some day.) That’s one of the parts about New York I love most — the sense that the world is hunched on one city block, vying with each other for money, but somehow managing to exist together. Also, as a foodie, I’m dazzled. Much as I love Seattle, we don’t have any Ukranian diners open all night.
When I was staying with Gabe in Brooklyn, I was knocked out by the choices in his neighborhood: between Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, a few blocks down from Carroll Gardens; mostly, it’s the Bergen stop on the F train. Lower to the ground than Manhattan, and filled with so many independent filmmakers and struggling musicians you could have hit them with a stick as you walked down the sidewalk, this neighborhood offered such a pleasing spread of eating choices that I grew a bit dizzy. We had a fabulous late breakfast — with a bowl full of crispy thin French fries to accompany it — at Cafe Luluc one day. It resonated with my taste buds for so long that I was tempted to just go back the next day, but Gabe insisted we stroll. Ack! The choices. I knew that I had really lost my mind to food blogging when I almost insisted that we eat at a corner restaurant with windows on three sides because the light would be ideal for photographing the food. When Gabe told me the food actually tasted better in the dark, funky place, I reluctantly agreed. He was right. Those chicken sausages with carmelized apples were fantastic.
When I was in the Upper West Side — my old familiar home — I could barely see sometimes for the food memories rising up before my eyes. Rotisserie chicken from Flor de Mayo, where the Cuban half of the menu is much better than the Chinese side, even though all the cooks and waiters are Chinese. Turkey burgers and giant green salads with thick balsamic vinaigrette from Metro Diner on 100th Street. Barney Greengrass for bagels and lox. Sal and Carmine’s for a slice. Le Pain Quotidien for crusty breads and bowls of cafe au lait. When I met Carlos for brunch the first morning I was in the city last week, I was almost happy that Isabella’s was packed, as usual, and we had to try somewhere new. With so many choices, I wanted a new food memory from this trip. We both relished the well-spiced Spanish omelettes at Cafe Frida — and the bottomless cup of coffee, since I had not slept on the plane — and as a whim, we ordered guacamole made fresh at the table with hot, homemade corn chips. Ah, I was back home.
With all these choices, unexpectedly, I found myself feeling grateful that I cannot eat gluten. At least that narrowed down the possibilities a bit. There were no H&H bagels — and yes, I will admit to feeling a certain amount of nostalgia when I walked by the store on 79th and took in a whiff of that ineffable bagel smell. But that’s where it ended — nostalgia. Thick slices of cheese pizza, folded over once; crispy potato knishes from Zabar’s; pasta puttanesca in Little Italy — they were now invisible to me. Instead, I focused on small restaurants that served food in season, ones that felt relaxed instead of rushed, restaurants with a definite sense of place. How did it work out? Beautiful.
I ate a wonderfully spicy Thai meal at a place called Seeda Thai, somehwere in Long Island, just off the E train at Jamaica Station. Actually, I couldn’t tell you where it is exactly, because Cindy drove me there, and even she needed the GPS system attached to her dashboard to navigate us there. But we walked in toward the end of the evening, grateful to leave the bitter-cold air, and found an entire Thai family spread out among three tables, eating their own dinners after an evening of making them for other. Our waitress listened carefully when I told them what I had to avoid (watch out for soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, or Maggi seasoning), and fifteen minutes later these generously sized plates of spicy seafood and jasmine rice arrived at the table. My first night in New York, and I was warm, full, and healthy.
Monica and I stopped for lunch at Cafe Mogodoro on St. Mark’s Place, where I ate the most tender, lovely lamb tagine I have ever eaten. Slightly sweet with golden raisins, with a touch of chewiness from the slow-cooked chickpeas, this lamb tagine was easily my favorite gluten-free dish in a traditional restaurant that I ate all week.
My friend Jackie and I wandered up Amsterdam, talking fast and trying to catch up on a year’s worth of stories. Without hesitation, I was heading us toward Genarro, my favorite tiny Italian place on the Upper West Side. I remember spending many a night in line, in the cold, waiting for the appetizer platter to appear on my table. When we arrived, I was shocked to find that the sliver of a place had become a solid chunk, now three times its size. Luckily, the food still smelled rich with garlic, prosciutto, and parmesan. And it didn’t disappoint. We shared a good bottle of wine, and I ate sauteed chicken breasts stuffed with provolone cheese and oven-roasted tomatoes. Wen I showed the photo of this restaurant to my three-year-old nephew today, he said, “That was good food you ate, wasn’t it?” I’m training him well. Yes, it was.
Still, as well as I ate in places that don’t advertise gluten-free food, nothing could compare to eating at the three restaurants in Manhattan where I was handed gluten-free menus before I could think about ordering anything.
There’s simply no expressing the glee I feel when I walk into a restaurant and see gf all down the menu. I know that there is no way to express it, because Monica and I spent nearly our entire meal at Risotteria blathering to Gabe how great it was to be in this extraordinary place. The other part of the meal we spent exulting and exclaiming. Gluten-free breadsticks! Gluten-free beer! (A honey beer from upstate New York, slightly carbonated, which was disconcerting. It didn’t taste anything like the thick IPAs I used to drink or micro-brews I loved. But it was beer, and I was drinking it.) Gluten-free pizza! Risotteria is what it sounds like: a risotto restaurant. And much more.
Slim in size, so that you have to sidle to your table, this restaurant had every table filled, with people waiting three deep, the night I went to visit. And every table had at least one gluten-free customer, beaming, savoring her meal even more because she knew she was going to be well by the end of it. The women who had the table before us were in their 60s, two of them gluten-free, and all of them celebrating. “You won’t believe how good it is,” one of them said, as they passed us. “It’s my birthday, and I knew this was the only place I wanted to go.” We three wished her a happy birthday, then dove for the corner table they had just left. And then, something transpired that hasn’t happened to me in a long time in a restaurant: I had to look at the menu for five minutes before I knew what I wanted. Not because I couldn’t find anything that could be gluten-free, but because I had such a plethora of choices. Did I want a pesto-mozzarella panini on rice-flour bread? A pizza with anchovies? A spinach salad with goat cheese? Risotto with porcini mushrooms and gruyere?
In the end, we ordered a pizza, a pesto risotto, and a spinach salad for the table, and split them three ways. Gabe thought the food tasted fine — then again, his parents had been in town for the week and had taken him places like Prune for dinner every night, so his taste buds were elevated — but he clearly didn’t quite understand why we were so excited. We didn’t need him to understand, Monica and I. We were in gluten-free heaven. And then we had the carrot cake, which made us rise even higher.
A few years ago, I stumbled onto Gobo, in the Village, on the recommendation of a British friend. He had an impeccable food sense (read: really picky) and a strong stubborn streak for fiercely independent places. He was right, in this case. Gobo has a meticulously beautiful aesthetic, with warm lighting, long tables, and Buddha statues interspersed throughout the dining room. I enjoyed that dinner more than any other in New York during that visit three years ago. This time, now that I have to find gluten-free food, I assumed they might be able to help me, given their vegetarian mission.
So my friend Kari and I sat down for lunch. After she took off her coat, I asked her where she had found her elegant scarf. “France,” she said, surely referring to one of the many trips she makes to France with her fiance.
“Ah, of course,” I said, already laughing. “Those French. They do everything well.“
At this moment, our tall, blond waiter approached the table and leaned down toward us obsequiously, and said, in an outrageous French accent, “‘ello. My name is Matthew. I will be your waiter.…” Before we could unfreeze our faces, he broke back into his flat American twang. “Nah, I’m just kidding.”
I knew we’d be okay.
Much of the menu, as I scanned it, seemed possible. They serve organic, vegetarian food in small plates, from a variety of cuisines around the world. It’s not quite raw cuisine, but it’s close. After all, they call themselves “Food for the Five Senses,” and that’s not an exaggeration. More is at play at Gobo than simply serving customers meals, fast. There are organic juice cocktails, Vietnamese spring rolls, slow-cooked Malaysian curry stews, and desserts bereft of refined white sugar. I thought I would be fine.
But still, I had to ask. So I went into my typical spiel, a little obsequious myself, but firm. Before I reached the point where I have to explain what the heck gluten is, Matthew looked over my head to the hostess and said, “Honey, can I have the gluten-free menu?”
Oh my. I never knew how happy this would make me, before I stopped eating gluten. To have a restaurant that truly cares about food care enough to know the meals that I can eat? Well, let’s just say I’m a generous tipper.
Better yet, when I asked the waiter if I could take pictures — explaining about my website and why I write about this — Matthew said, “Wait, what’s the name of the site?” I gave him this address, and he said: “Oh, my best friend can’t eat gluten. She’s on your site all the time.”
Now that was exhilarating.
And the food? Superb. We lingered for a long time, with avocado tartare, rice-pasta lasagna in a dark red sauce, and pineapple soaked in rum caramel and topped with vanilla ice cream.
This is not deprivation.
I don’t have any photographs from my meal at Rice, because the lighting is moody dark with little candles, the tables shoved in close together, and the entire place smaller than my apartment. No matter. Can a good meal exist even if I couldn’t document it. You bet. Gabe suggested this place, for a dinner with our friend Yael and her boyfriend, Adam. He didn’t know if I could find a gluten-free entree, but I assumed that with a name like Rice, I’d probably be fine.
Turns out I was right.
This lovely little restaurant is based on different kinds of rice: basmati, thai black, lebanese, and bhutanese red, to name a few. There are more than a dozen pan-Asian dishes, like chicken satay, Thai coconut curry, and even jerk chicken wings. I felt a little dizzy with possibilities when I read the menu, but I knew better than to decide anything before I asked.
The hip, sly waitress — Rice is in Nolita, a small area of relentless trendiness that tries to act nonchalant — looked at me through her tiny, black glasses when I started to explain gluten, then said: “Hold on a minute.” When she came back, she handed me a small menu. I nearly cried when I saw what was written on the front: “Gluten-free Menu for Celiacs.” Wow.
I was suprised to see that I couldn’t order the Indian chicken curry with mango, bananas, and yogurt. What could be in there? But she explained that they used just a touch of flour to thicken the sauce. Thank goodness I asked. And for those of you reading who can eat gluten, imagine having to investigate every mouthful of food you eat. If you can imagine it, you’ll understand why I felt in such safe hands at this place.
I ordered a thick corncake with queso cheese and spicy tomatoes. Instantly, I felt fine. The spices burst forth with bold intensity, each of them singular, all them working together. The warm lentil stew arrived on top of “green rice,” which is rice infused with cilantro, parsley, and spinach. Wash it all down with a good bottle of spicy red wine and the laughter of close friends, and you have a damned fine meal.
Ah. Great meals in my favorite big city, all of them created by people who love food, people who wanted to make sure I enjoyed the tastes without spending the next days feeling ill. This gluten-free girl is feeling buoyantly grateful.
There are more places, of course. New York is an enormous city, so it contains a higher number of places that serve gluten-free food than almost any other city in the US. If these places don’t work for you, try Sambuca, on West 72nd, which readers and fellow foodies recommended to me heartily. Next time. There is also Peter’s Diner on the Upper East Side, which has an entirely gluten-free breakfast menu. The apparently fabulous Bistango has a gluten-free menu. Swanky Asia de Cuba on Madison Avenue caters to gluten-free customers as well.
And I’m certain I will find even more choices the next time I return to New York.
270 Bleeker Street
401 Avenue of the Americas (we all know that’s 6th Avenue)
(there’s also another one on the Upper East Side now)
227 Mott Street
(plus, three more locations)