Perhaps the most dramatic dining day of my life happened in 1999. I was living with the CFP in London, and I was in traveling mode. Most every other weekend, I took a train or plane to somewhere new: Florence one weekend; Dublin the next. (These are the truffle-oil days, when I was better paid than ever before, or after, probably.) All of Europe — and its restaurants — lay before me.
One weekend, my friend Stephanie arrived to whisk me off to Prague. Three days there grounded me and left a sunburn on my shoulders. Stephanie and I had wonderful talks, and she helped me to see that I really wanted to leave the CFP. I knew she was right.
Because Stephanie had met us in Paris (where I was staying with the CFP in the penthouse suite of some ridiculous hotel, halfway between the Tour Eiffel and the Arc de Triomphe), we had to stop there on our way back to London.
This is how I came to eat breakfast in Prague, lunch in Paris, and dinner in London.
(But I was eating gluten, then, and I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have. It was toast and eggs for breakfast, a sandwich at the Louvre in Paris, and fish and chips with malt vinegar in London. No wonder I was so tired.)
In spite of the bitter taste those days left in my mouth, I have always been amazed at that day’s dining. Nothing could top it.
What I ate last week came pretty close.
On the plane to New York, I ate some Pierre Robert triple cream cheese, a handful of Marcona almonds, and fresh apricots, tinged with a tiny blush. That was breakfast.
For lunch? I ate at Gotham Bar and Grill.
Now, this was no random occurrence. For weeks, I had been anticipating this lunch. You see, I was meeting my editor at Wiley, and the person in charge of marketing for my book. For days, I had been saying with a straight face, “Oh, I’ll be in Manhattn, meeting my editor and marketing person.” It didn’t take me long to start giggling. How is this my life?
My wonderful editor and I have been talking for nearly a year, laughing on the phone about food and cultural mishaps. Most of the time, we’re eagerly tumbling our words over the other’s, connecting and agreeing, ready with another story. Most of the time, we weren’t even talking about the book. We just talked. I remember the moment I knew I liked her, in the first conversation we had back in the fall. When I commented on how much I liked the sound of her ebullient voice, she said, “You know, I’m just a happy person. People keep waiting for me to be jaded or angry, but I’m just happy.”
I love my editor.
When I told her I was going to be in New York for part of the day, she asked me where I wanted to have lunch. Within a minute or two, I knew. Gotham Bar and Grill. The Chef and I love Alfred Portale’s approach to food: seasonal, fresh, and always surprising. When I met the Chef, I also inherited two of Portale’s books. I’ve been inspired by those books more times than I can say. I knew it, instantly: Gotham Bar and Grill.
The Chef was so jealous.
After the suitcase story and the subway ride laughing, I walked down 12th Street toward the restaurant. Everything looked familiar. There’s a funny thing about New York: no matter how long I have been gone, as soon as I set foot on the sidewalks of that city, I am home. There was the Jewish temple where I volunteered every Saturday morning, feeding people who needed a meal. Over there the Quad Cinema, where I stood in line with friends to watch documentaries. And there was Gotham Bar and Grill, which I walked past countless times before I knew how tremendous it was.
Plus, they have a coat check where a lovely girl let me keep my bag for the duration of lunch.
And when I first saw my editor, we both squealed a little, and gave each other a big hug.
The lunch felt like it lasted minutes, instead of three hours. Jen, the wonderful woman in charge of marketing for my book, felt like a friend within four minutes. We talked about my book, eventually, but mostly we three talked about food, farmers’ markets, Michael Pollan, the confusions of the label “organic,” fresh fruit, and everything to do with food. (Oh, and dating and the weird vagaries of working for the overly rich.) They made me laugh and they gave me hope.
They also really like my book.
And if the conversation didn’t do it, we certainly bonded over the food. Asparagus salad with a poached egg. Black bass ceviche with chiles and avocado. Roasted duck breast with fermented plums, port sauce, and fava beans. Spinach custard with baby carrots. Everything gorgeous, and everything presented beautifully on enormous plates.
(Sadly, the photos I tried to take were simply too dark to post up here. I won’t do the place injustice by putting up ugly photos!)
That meal made me miss the Chef.
My editor had called ahead to ensure that I could eat gluten-free. And as I suspected, they took care of me, just fine. This is one of the rules I have learned throughout this journey: if you choose the restaurant where they truly care about food, you can eat gluten-free. Our wonderful waiter — half obsequious, half sarcastic — walked me through the menu to inform me of what I could eat.
However, I was surprised to find that a meticulous staff in one of the best restaurants in the city still didn’t understand the gluten issue. When the waiter gestured toward what I could not eat, he said, “Of course, you cannot have the risotto.”
Surprised, I asked him, “Do you use flour in your risotto?”
He looked just as surprised and said, “Can you eat rice?”
Later, toward the end of the meal, I was thrilled to find that Gotham has a warm chocolate cake, completely flourless. And it was served with lemon thyme ice cream! Of course, I wanted that.
“Well,” said the waiter, “the kitchen says you cannot have the lemon thyme ice cream. We can offer you cherry sorbet.”
I love the tang and soft surprise of lemon thyme. Wait, why? Do they put flour in their ice cream? Don’t tell me that they use commercially produced ice cream at Gotham Bar and Grill.
Curious, I asked the waiter, “Okay. But just for curiosity’s sake, could you ask your chef what it is in the ice cream that prevents me from eating it?”
When he returned, he said, “The ice cream has glucose in it.”
Glucose. Gluten. Same thing, right?
The good news is — I ate at Gotham Bar and Grill without a snitch of sickness. No gluten in me during that meal.
Life was good.
And for dinner? A Southern comfort restaurant I stumbled on, in Richmond, Virginia, unexpectedly.
After my rapid-fire visit to Manhattan, I flew to Richmond to prepare for the Gluten Intolerance Group’s annual conference. Exhausted from all the traveling, I thought of just eating the energy bars in my bag and crashing in my hotel room. But downtown Richmond called.
My lovely hotel — formerly a row house from the 1820s, with a courtyard and rocking chairs on the porches — was in the dilapidated area of downtown Richmond. Most stores were closed, or going out of business. But the streets had character, and the stores that were open convinced me at one glance that I was in the South. Humid air and vivid colors, people congregating on the street in chattering clutches, and movie theatres from the 20s — Richmond called me out of my room.
Lunch had been eight hours before, and even though that meal at Gotham had been one of the best I had ever eaten, the stomach still grows hungry. The guy at the front desk of the hotel recommended some restaurants. Everything he recommended sounded cheesy, and meant for tourists. No thanks. “There is this place called Comfort,” he drawled, a little reluctant to tell me. “It’s Southern food.”
I was out the door.
Wherever I go, I like to eat the food of that culture. There’s something inherently depressing about going to a chain restaurant and having the food taste exactly the same as it does 2400 miles away. And whenever I travel, it seems, the best restaurants are the ones that hotel folks are a little reluctant to recommend.
When I walked into Comfort, I felt right at home. High ceilings, cool colors, ivy growing up a wall of windows — this place exuded cool. I sat at the bar and smiled at the bartender.
These days, I don’t have much chance to walk into a restaurant by myself, particularly one where I don’t know anyone. At one point in my life, I felt prickly with nervousness at being alone in a public place. Now, I revel in it.
The bartender made me a Manhattan, after I asked him what was his favorite drink to make at the moment. He was right. It was spectacular.
When I asked the bartender about the gluten issue, he asked for help. The owner — wonderfully friendly and eager to please — came over to ask me how he could help. I walked him through everything. He went back to the kitchen to check. He came back to tell me about the cornmeal they use, stone ground in a mill only a few towns away. One more check, and we had a plan. (That’s what I love about the best restaurants — they make me feel like I’m a guest, and they are thrilled to serve me.) What was for dinner?
Barbecued pulled pork, fried okra, and cheddar cheese grits.
Hello, I’m in the South.
I called the Chef to share it with him. When I told him the meal that was coming, he said, “That’s my girl.”
Everything was heaven. My mouth still waters at the thought of that pulled pork — spicy, but not enough to emblazon my mouth; slightly sweet; subtle in the layering — clearly made slowly, with love. And those cheddar cheese grits? Oh my goodness, how have I never made grits? Time to rectify that. Okra? I had never eaten it. But okra fried in cornmeal? I’ll be eating that again.
(Here I must leave an important note. A wonderful woman I met at the conference the next day emailed me a few days later. She said she had been to Comfort, on my recommendation, the next day. The waitress that night informed her that the cornmeal in the fried okra is mixed with a little wheat flour. The owner swore to me that wasn’t true. Who to believe? I didn’t feel sick immediately after my meal, as I always do when I get gluten by mistake. The next day I felt a little off, with some familiar intestinal troubles, but I thought that was the airport food, which is a story for a few days from now. If you go to Comfort, ask carefully, and make your own judgments.)
Within a few moments, people to my left and right spotted my camera, and my pen. They asked me I was doing a review. Of a sorts. And within ten minutes, we were all chattering away, talking about food and love. By the end of the meal, I had made new friends.
A fabulous dinner, a decadent cocktail, and conversations with everyone around me? That’s my idea of comfort.
Sure, the day I ate breakfast in Prague, lunch in Paris, and dinner in London was far more dramatic. But this day, last Thursday, with a breakfast from the Chef, lunch with my lovely editor and the head of my marketing campaign at Gotham Bar and Grill, and a comforting dinner in Richmond, Virginia, by myself (but surrounded by people)? That was a damned fine dining day.
And to think that people believe that eating gluten-free is deprivation.
Gotham Bar and Grill
12 E. 12th Street
New York, NY 10003
200 West Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23220