Glutie Foodie

Adventures of a Gluten-Free Gal Dining Out


2 Comments

Mexican Dating Game

El Centro D.F.     Spoons_THREE_76x25

Growing up, taco night was my favorite night. Ma and Pa Glutie Foodie would have to cut me off after a messy 5 or 6 Old El Paso shells filled with ground beef or beans and cheese. Mexican cuisine is still one of my most beloved. Give me spicy salsa, fresh avocado, and crispy tortillas and I’m a happy glutie. There are plenty of mediocre Mexican offerings in the DC area; but following a trip to Richard Sandoval’s El Centro D.F., I thought I had met my Mexican soulmate.

El Centro and I met a few years back, when my good friend Lox (of Bagel and Lox) and I stopped in for nourishment after an evening of art reception hopping. We sat on two stools in the casual taqueria’s open seating area and were helped by a jovial server who informed me that the menu is nearly completely gluten-free. We gulped down house margaritas made with fresh lime and agave nectar (as apposed to sugar filled, artificially flavored and potentially gluten-containing mix), and I enjoyed every bite of my Chipotle Shrimp, served with black bean puree, market vegetables and white rice. El Centro offers delicious corn based, authentic Mexican comfort food in a hip, upscale environment, at more reasonable prices than many of its 14th street neighbors. I enthusiastically introduced El Centro to Mr. Green Bean. And Mr. GB and I returned with Sister Seitan, The Muffins, Souper Girl, Irish Coffee, Breakfast Blend… We met friends for frozen drinks on the lively rooftop bar and for more formal dining in the dark and sexy basement tequileria. It was a blissful time.

Guacamole prepared tableside

Guacamole prepared tableside

Then came the visit that left me wary. Miss Zin and I were excited to gorge on guacamole mashed table-side and perfectly salted tortilla chips fried in gluten-free oil. I began to explain my gluten “allergy” to the server as I always do, and instead of the usual rap, “just avoid the empanadas and dessert”, he started to scrunch his nose, wrinkle his forehead and pierce his lips. “Hmmmm, you can not eat anything”, was more or less his unapologetic response. He had to be kidding. You mean, the Mushroom Huarache (flatbread) I ordered last time has flour in the dough they swore was gluten-free? And the soft taco tortillas I’ve now eaten on multiple occasions are not 100% corn? He double checked with the kitchen and returned with more bad news. I could eat the ceviche. That was it. Feeling nauseous just thinking about all the gluten I had consumed over the past months, raw fish in an acid bath was the last thing I wanted. Miss Zin felt terrible and I was embarrassed. Was it possible my Mexican crush was breaking up with me?

But alas, on this very evening, the manager was making the rounds and stopped by our table to ask how everything (my ceviche) was. “Actually…”, and I told her my tale. Shocked, she apologized and rescinded the server’s misinformation. El Centro’s menu has always been nearly 80% gluten-free. So why the server’s certainty of quite the opposite? Was it a language barrier? This is not the first time I have had major confusion in a Mexican restaurant. But I never expected it from mi amore. The manager treated me to the Grilled Skirt Steak Huaraches I would have ordered had this alarming experience not occurred, and I ate it tentatively. We exchanged few words with our server after that.

I have since returned to El Centro and learned how to trust again. Just last week Miss Lox and I shared another indulgent dinner after burning all our energy at a schmoozy networking reception. After we were seated, I glanced at the menu, slightly modified since my last visit, and quizzed a clearly new employee, waiting for another alarming incident to begin. But to my relief, he understood my food restriction and was confident that the crispy shrimp tacos were safe for me to eat. Lightly fried baby shrimps are stuffed into three soft, 100% corn shells and served with aji amarillo aioli, pickled jalapeño, roasted corn and mexican rice. My usual favorite, the baja fish tacos, now have major competition.

Crispy Shrimp tacos with aji amarillo aioli, pickled jalapeno, roasted corn, and mexican rice

Crispy Shrimp tacos with aji amarillo aioli, pickled jalapeño, roasted corn, and mexican rice

Baja tacos with grilled market fish, Mexican slaw, tomato, corn, avocado and chipotle aioli

Baja tacos with grilled market fish, Mexican slaw, tomato, corn, avocado and chipotle aioli

Despite it’s imperfections, El Centro has a magnetic pull. And with his new location in Georgetown, it will be even more difficult to stay away. Though I try to play hard to get, he remains a strong favorite in my restaurant rotation. Oh, El Centro, cómo te quiero.

Chips, salsa and guacamole

Chips, salsa and guacamole

El Centro D.F., 1819 14th Street NW, Washington DC
El Centro D.F. Georgetown, 1218 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington DC

Advertisements


Leave a comment

City of Gluten-Free Love

Mrs. Refined Sugar and I have been friends for a long time, back when we were both unrefined. We shared some strange food adventures in our younger years, the details of which I will spare you, except to divulge that we chewed paper and analyzed various pulp qualities. Besides a few odd adolescent experiments, we ate very well between our two houses and experimented with our own cooking once we could be trusted. Now grown and living a few cities apart, we support each other’s independent culinary explorations, her’s being the highly successful ice cream blog, 365 Scoops. It was a true feat to steal away Mrs. Refined Sugar from her eight month old baby, Sugar in the Raw, to meet for a day in one of East Coast’s most advanced gluten-free foodie cities, Philadelphia.  For weeks we looked forward to indulging our now more sophisticated palettes with some quality grub. Between Refined Sugar’s vegetarian habits and my gluten-free demands, we narrowed down our options to a few recommended locations. I knew we were on the same page when we arrived wearing the same black, elastic waistband leggings: make room for food!

HipCityVeg      Spoons_FOUR
We started our eating tour with a light lunch at HipCityVeg, a locally sourced, environmentally friendly, vegan sandwich and salad joint. This fast-food spot has just one location off of Rittenhouse Square. I imagine the concept would make for a highly successful chain. The menu airs on the healthy side with a few treats mixed in, such as sweet potato fries and a few desserts. There are a number of gluten-free options and the staff is extremely versed in parsing ingredient lists to help navigate allergen-free choices, refreshing for a fast-food establishment. Mrs. Refined Sugar and I both ordered the Bistro Bella sandwich, mine deconstructed on a pile of arugula instead of the bun. The salad contained herb glazed portobello mushrooms, olive tapenade, tomato, artichokes and red onion, a unique alternative to my tired salad repertoire. With fuel to burn we were off to shop, what else?

HipCityVeg (image courtesy of hipcityveg.com)

HipCityVeg (image courtesy of hipcityveg.com)

Sweet Freedom Bakery      Spoons_FOUR
By late afternoon we were ready to recharge at Sweet Freedom, Philadelphia’s only bakery free of (long inhale) gluten, dairy, egg, corn, soy, peanut, casein and refined sugar (no offense to my companion of the same name). As we entered this sweet treat mecca, I checked my gluten-guard at the door and surveyed the cupcakes, donuts, cookies, brownies, oat crumbles, cake balls, etc. Mrs. Refined Sugar left the ordering to me, a weighty task. The friendly associate recommended the strawberry shortcake cupcake, yes please, and I couldn’t resist the chocolate salted caramel cupcake. Our fruity pick was a creative combination of classic shortcake and trendy cupcake. The dense, vanilla flavored, scone-like cake was layered with dairy-free cream, fresh strawberries and just a touch of strawberry syrup. This not-too-sweet delectable paired nicely with the rich and chocolaty cupcake, oozing gooey caramel from its center. A fudgy chocolate frosting was sprinkled with flakes of sea salt, rounding out a most stimulating feast for the taste buds.

Strawberry shortcake cupcake

Strawberry shortcake cupcake

Chocolate salted caramel cupcake

Chocolate salted caramel cupcake

Before leaving we felt it our duty to sample the newly released bread loaf that Sweet Freedom has worked diligently to perfect. Toasted with a smear of apricot jam, it was quite satiating. However standing alone, the slice was slightly too dense and bitter in flavor for my taste. Not bad for a first run, but perhaps in need of some more fine tuning.

Sweet Freedom's new loaf of bread with apricot jam

Sweet Freedom’s new loaf of bread with apricot jam

Zahav      Spoons_FOUR
After a quick visit to The Barnes Foundation’s world-famous art collection in its new Philadelphia home, we rushed to make our dinner reservation. The final stop of the day was Zahav, a gem tucked away on quiet St. James Place. Chef and owner Michael Solomonov was born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. At the age of 19 he returned to Israel, fell into the culinary world, and later returned to work in the restaurant industry in Philadelphia. The death of his brother in the Israeli army clarified for Solomonov his mission to share the flavors of his native land, and Zahav was born.

Stepping into the airy, limestone laden dining space and peering into the open kitchen, Mrs. Refined Sugar and I both had the same first impression: We’ve just entered Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem cookbook. Yet Zahav offers its own interpretation of the the little country’s big flavors. We were greeted by an enthusiastic server who was unperturbed by our many dietary restrictions. She grabbed a pen and swiftly lined through items to avoid on each of our paper menus. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Refined Sugar’s vegetarian sheet was more marked up than mine. The server then explained the restaurant’s sharing style and pointed out the tempting $39 Tayim tasting menu, which offers a generous sampling from each section of the menu. We weighed our should’s and could’s over a Lemonnana cocktail and Israeli Salad Martini and decided the day called for an indulgent finale.

Our tasting menu began with half a dozen fresh salatim (salads), hummus, freshly baked pita for Mrs. Refined Sugar, and cucumber slices for me. Small bowls filled with beets in house-made tahini, pureed eggplant, sliced fennel, spicy green beans, chopped cucumber, and creamy hummus were all gluten-free. I avoided the tabouli salad, a cracked wheat based dish. The first course alone would have left us buzzing about Zahav. But there was much more to come.

Salatim

Salatim

Aware of our limited time, our server kept the food rolling with a second set of dishes: the watermelon salad with marinated cobia, israeli olives and smoked honey; the roasted zucchini with bulgarian feta, hazelnuts and zucchini babaganoush; and the heirloom tomato salad with matbucha (roasted tomatoes) and house-made ricotta. We ferociously tasted each plate’s complex combination of flavors and textures. A symphony of “mmmm’s” hummed from our table.

Watermelon salad, roasted zucchini and heirloom tomato salad

Watermelon salad, roasted zucchini and heirloom tomato salad

The Al Ha’esh (grilled over coals) course followed with spiced eggplant, prepared with harissa, black lentils and garlic tehina, and the highly recommended hanger steak with babaganoush, mushrooms and spicy schoug. (I channeled Mr. Green Bean for my one meaty choice.) Our server graciously treated us to the trumpet mushrooms, which we had been eyeing, served with shakshuka, fried egg and legumes. A dozen or so dishes now crowded our little table, and we attempted to take it all in (figuratively of course, we couldn’t possibly clean our plates).

Spiced eggplant, accompanied by harissa, black lentils and garlic tehina

Spiced eggplant with harissa, black lentils and garlic tehina

Hanger steak with with babaganoush, mushrooms and spicy schoug

Hanger steak with babaganoush, mushrooms and spicy schoug

With our elastic waistbands fully extended we made room for just a few bites of dessert. I ordered the tahini semifreddo, a rich and creamy mousse with hints of nutty sesame flavor, accented by sweet cherry compote topping. I melted over a couple of spoonfuls and still regret not taking the rest home.

Tahini semifreddo with a cherry compote

Tahini semifreddo with a cherry compote

Overall, elaborate preparations and beautiful presentations of fresh produce, hearty grains and quality proteins resulted in an impressive representation of the melting pot of Israeli cuisine. I am critical of the kitchen’s heavy hand with salt and weak pour for expensive cocktails, small crimes for an otherwise first-rate meal.

Although the establishments we visited offered some pretty delicious items, credit must be given as well to Mrs. Refined Sugar. Some dining partners just make food taste a little sweeter and a little richer. Before we parted ways, we made plans for a reprise rendezvous in The City of Brotherly (and gluten-free) Love.

HipCityVeg, 127 S 18th Street, Philadelphia, PA
Sweet Freedom Bakery, 1424 South Street, Philadelphia, PA
Zahav, 237 St. James Place, Philadelphia, PA


Leave a comment

A Duck Worth the Buck

Blue Duck Tavern     Spoons_FIVE

I must be a masochist. I gripe about spending too much money at restaurants that hardly live up to their price tags in quality or service, while I reserve restaurants that are worth the extra buck for the occasional celebratory meal. I suppose the torment makes those few special experiences that much tastier.

Mr. Green Bean and I have now commemorated two wedding anniversaries at Blue Duck Tavern in the Park Hyatt Washington. This West End establishment has been an award winning beacon since its opening in 2006. Executive Chef Sebastien Archambault and Chef de Cuisine John Melfi create refined American food using traditional cooking methods and fresh local ingredients. The restaurant’s sleek, clean design and bright, airy atmosphere is sophisticated, yet casual and comfortable. An open kitchen and bakery energize the space and titillate the palette. Add to all of that their friendly and informative staff and Blue Duck Tavern qualifies as a triple-threat, excelling in the arenas of food, atmosphere, and service.

The Blue Duck Tavern menu is divided into starters, entrées and sides and sub-categorized by vegetables, seafood, poultry and meat. Though the menu changes seasonally, our servers on both occasions were able to confidently highlight the many gluten-free offerings. Mr. GB and I both grinned when the server on our first visit confirmed that the Hand Cut BDT Triple Fries are fried in gluten-free duck fat. We placed an order before she even finished her sentence. These massive potato sticks served piping hot with homemade aioli and ketchup are a must.

Hand Cut BDT Triple Fries with homemade aioli and ketchup

Hand Cut BDT Triple Fries with homemade aioli and ketchup

On our more recent visit last month, I informed our server of my gluten “allergy”, and he appeared soon after with several slices of gluten-free bread. I could have toasted better Udi’s at home, but the gesture was thoughtful. We snacked on our much anticipated order of BDT Fries (just as amazing as I had remembered), while I struggled to make a decision on my main course. I had the seared scallops last year and, though the preparation had changed, was tempted to order them again. I opted instead for the market fish of the day, a monkfish with a red wine jus, bacon and foie gras bits, and a green bean salad (yes, I promised Mr. GB he could have some veggies).

Gluten-free toast

Gluten-free toast

A fleet of hands cleared our appetizer plates (they didn’t dare remove the last remaining fries from my watchful eye), and reset the silverware for our main courses. Monkfish, also known as the sea-devil, is one scary looking species with a body that’s mostly mouth. The meat of the fish comes from its tail and has a lobster-like toughness. Blue Duck Tavern prepared the ugly creature beautifully. Large pieces of meat were seared golden. The mild fish was complimented by the bold flavors of the jus, foie gras and bacon. Slices of crunchy bean pods added texture and respite from the other rich accompaniments.

Monkfish with red wine jus, foie gras, bacon and green bean salad

Market fish of the day: Monkfish with red wine jus, foie gras, bacon and green bean salad

Though portions are sizable, the many intriguing menu items make it impossible to resist add-ons.  We tried the side of sugar snap peas with radishes, farm butter and herbs.  The brilliant red skin and white flesh of the radishes accented the bright green shells and cut the peas’ sweetness with a slightly bitter crunch.

Sugar snap peas with radishes, farm butter and herbs

Sugar snap peas with radishes, farm butter and herbs

Blue Duck Tavern is known for their incredible desserts. The flaky pastry crusts are difficult to ignore en route to the bathroom through the dolce kitchen. But a main feature of the menu is the selection of gluten-free, homemade ice creams and sorbets with chocolate, caramel or raspberry toppings a la carte. Having experienced the ice cream and caramel sauce on our first visit, Mr. GB and I determined to skip dessert this time around. Then our server arrived with the dessert menus and two glasses of a sweet, sparkling red wine in honor of our anniversary (one year prior we were served two glasses of bubbly upon our arrival). How could we say no to dessert now! We succumbed to scoops of the honey vanilla ice cream, candied violet frozen yogurt, and cherry blossom sorbet. Our server surprised us with a jar of the chocolate sauce, with his personal congratulations. How could I have skipped this chocolate, I thought as I began bypassing the frozen treats and spooning dark brown gooey heaven into my mouth.

Honey vanilla ice cream, candied violet frozen yogurt and cherry blossom sorbet with a side of chocolate sauce

Honey vanilla ice cream, candied violet frozen yogurt and cherry blossom sorbet with a side of chocolate sauce

Very few restaurants can truly make an occasion feel special. I hand it to BDT for not merely relaying on outstanding food in a stunningly designed space. The attentive and gracious service sets Blue Duck Tavern apart, making any diner’s experience worth the price tag.

Blue Duck Tavern, 1201 24th Street NW, Washington DC


Leave a comment

Not So Wild Child

Wildwood Kitchen      Spoons_FOUR

Chef and restauranteur Robert Weidmaier is a family man. He named his first restaurant, the highly acclaimed Marcel’s, after his first-born and the ever-popular Brasserie Beck after his second son. His restaurant progeny is treated with the same diplomatic paternalism. Over the past 14 years, Weidmaier has indiscriminately set roots in Washington DC (the above mentioned restaurants), Alexandria, VA (Brabo and Brabo Tasting Room), and Bethesda, MD (Mussel Bar & Grill, with a rebellious second location in Atlantic City). Six rocking establishments all serve up expertly executed cuisine inspired by Weidmaier’s German/French upbringing.

The chef’s latest creation, Wildwood Kitchen, exposes Weidmaier’s quieter side.  The restaurant is a neighborhood gem, a casual go-to spot for well-to-do Bethesda dwellers, with a menu offering healthy Mediterranean inspired food, far lighter than Weidmaier’s typical fare. Dying to try the place, Mr. Green Bean and I dragged Ma and Pa Green Bean and Sister Seitan from all the fabulous dining options in DC, up the long stretch of Old Georgetown Road.

The space, modestly tucked into the Shops at Wildwood in North Bethesda, is surprisingly bright and airy for its small size. High ceilings cut down on noise, a much appreciated feature for this slightly older crowd (I’m being kind). A “woodsy” theme abounds with exposed beams, natural wood tables and a trim of wallpaper featuring a glowing forest of plush trees.  We were seated and soon greeted by our server sporting a custom-made plaid button-down uniform.

The menu is small, yet offers a wide variety of appetizers and entrées featuring fresh seasonal vegetables, seafood, and white and red meats. As we looked over our options, we were served a basket of crusty french bread with a side of fresh tuna salad in a bowl of olive oil, sprinkled with fresh peppers and spices. While my table mates reached for the gluten, I was the only one enjoying the far more noteworthy condiment (which I’m sure would have tasted even grander spread on that bread).

Tuna salad with olive oil and spices.

Tuna salad with olive oil and spices

I started in with my waiter to size up Wildwood’s gluten-free consciousness. The restaurant proved to be one of my favorite types: predominantly gluten-free or happy to adapt with staff that is sincerely concerned but not alarmed by the allergy. At restaurants like this, there is no need for a gluten-free menu or gluten-free indicators, as the chef will make sure to customize whatever you’re craving. I decided to start with the gazpacho, a predictable summer starter that I usually refuse to order in protest of its unoriginality. However, this one was unique with its yellow tomatoes pureed to a translucent broth, poured table-side over finely diced watermelon and one tiny shrimp packed with a salty ocean punch. The bowl was perfectly balanced between its acidic, salty and sweet components.

Yellow Gazpacho with watermelon, shrimp and sweetie drop peppers

Yellow gazpacho with watermelon, shrimp and sweetie drop peppers

For my main course, I opted for the night’s special: skin on fillet of trout, simply grilled with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lime. The fish was topped with roasted tomatoes, green Mexican chickpeas, olives, sesame seeds, and a light pesto vinaigrette. Trout itself is not the most spectacular of fishes. But it acts nicely as a neutral platform from which scrumptious sauces and toppings can be laid. The dish was light, fresh, and perfectly portioned with a variety of textures and flavors. I actually felt healthier after cleaning my plate.

Evening Special: Grilled tilapia with Mexican chickpeas, roasted tomatoes, olives, sesame seeds, and a pesto vinaigrette

Evening Special: Grilled trout with roasted tomatoes, Mexican chickpeas, olives, sesame seeds, and a pesto vinaigrette

To my dismay the other plates ordered at the table were off-limits for my wandering fork. But the Pan-Seared Salmon, Grilled Farmhouse Chicken, and Braised Short Ribs all received fine marks. Sister Seitan had the chef cook up a vegetarian option, making sure it included something starchy (flashback to BlackSalt where the chef concocted a $28 plate of vegetables). She was pleased with her mystery dish, featuring her most favorite food group, pasta, and cashing in at an appropriate $18. With the menu as versatile and health conscious as it is, I’m baffled that Wildwood does not have a vegetarian item listed with its entrées. It’s amazingly true that being vegetarian is often more limiting than being gluten-free.

The dessert menu is a bit disappointing for us gluties with only sorbet and ice cream as options. We decided to pass, or so we thought. As we were celebrating the occasions of Mr. Green Bean’s birthday and our wedding anniversary, the obligatory sweet treat was served, accompanied by our family’s first-rate singing. How can I resist a bright yellow scoop of mango sorbet sprinkled with….I stopped as soon as I noticed suspicious chocolate balls adorning the bowl. The dish was whisked away (though it was a shame to waste and should have been left for others to enjoy), and a gluten-free, ball-less bowl was soon presented. Though not the most original dessert, it was some of the best mango sorbet I have tasted—sweet, tangy and creamy beyond what I thought a mango was capable of.

Mango sorbet with fresh mint

Mango sorbet with fresh mint

Overall, our experience was relaxing and delicious. I have some scruples about slightly overpriced appetizers, such as the night’s special tomato salad, featuring a meager amount of heirlooms and not much else, priced at $12, and the absence of a veggie main dish on the menu. However, of all the Weidmaier enterprises I’ve tried, Wildwood is my favorite child.

Wildwood Kitchen, 10223 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, MD


4 Comments

Night Crawling

As an epicurean with celiac, I’m like the kid left out of the sandbox when it comes to culinary adventures. I dream to participate in chef tastings, secret supper clubs and the newest trend, underground restaurants with no menu, all challenging experiences when one has a severe “allergy”. But one foodie venture is capitalizing on the rise of celiac and gluten-sensitive diners by offering a gluten-free experience not to be missed. Dishcrawl was founded in 2010 in San Jose, CA, and now has chapters in numerous cities throughout the country. It hosts ticketed progressive dinners that take participants to four restaurants for four different dishes over a three hour period. The DC chapter, led by ambassador Qui-Juan Jones, organizes themed crawls in various neighborhoods around the District and surrounding areas, to acquaint a group of strangers both to each other and to the many sides of DC’s gourmet kitchens. Last week’s first ever gluten-free DC Dishcrawl in Barracks Row attracted 17 hungry individuals on all spectrums of the gluten-free diet (strict observers, occasional subscribers, and loyal supporters). I couldn’t wait to mingle with fellow gluties on a mystery food tour of Capital Hill.

The Chesapeake Room     Spoons_THREE_76x25
We began our journey at the The Chesapeake Room, a small, casual restaurant with an interior dominated by a long narrow bar, a couple of horseshoe leather booths, and a few high tops. A large outdoor patio offers more seating, but certainly not on this scorching hot DC summer evening. The bar brought in a selection of Omission Beers and Angry Orchard Cider just for the occasion and are considering keeping one gluten-free bottle option on the menu. We were served our first dish by the executive chef who explained that their American/French/Italian fusion menu offers several gluten-free options. Our plates, winning for best presentation of the night, included a trio of tastings starting with a seared scallop over a fava bean and mushroom risotto. While the scallop was over-salted it was nicely seared to produce a caramelized surface while retaining its soft interior. In the middle of the plate was a scoop of crab salad on a slice of raw tomato with an avocado dressing (adapted from the menu’s fried-green tomato version). A sprinkling of greens added texture to the mayo-heavy yet fresh tasting crab. The final element was a watermelon gazpacho, a refreshing choice for the heatwave we were in. The addition of orange juice to the recipe pushed the chilled soup too far on the sweet spectrum. But overall the variety of flavors between all three items and the well portioned plate made for a successful first stop.

The Chesapeake Room: Seared scallops over mushroom risotto, crab stack, and watermelon gazpacho

The Chesapeake Room: Seared scallops over fava bean and mushroom risotto, crab stack, and watermelon gazpacho


Pacifico Cantina
     Spoons_THREE_76x25
For our next dish, the group crossed 8th Street SE to Pacifico Cantina for some Tex-Mex flare. We were greeted by festive Mexican decor and music and servers ready to take our margarita and mojito orders. Fresh guacamole was served family style at our table, accompanied by salsa and corn tortilla chips fried separately from anything glutenous. The guac was heavy on the salt, but the salsa had just my speed of heat. We were then served a cup of shrimp ceviche with jicama, corn, tomato, cilantro and cucumber over a touch of spring greens served with a few chips (not a regular menu item). Around me my fellow diners started reaching for liquid relief from the spice. I seemed to get a mild batch that was well balanced and tasty. Our plates were cleared and we prepared to move on when surprisingly another fleet of dishes headed our way…then turned on its heels and disappeared. The manager embarrassingly explained that the kitchen accidentally prepared a chicken taco on a flour tortilla, this after his speech on how gluten-free friendly Pacifico Cantina is. The staff quickly rebounded and soon delivered a soft corn tortilla topped with chopped chicken, pico de gallo, salsa verde and cilantro. The double layered tortilla was crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and folded nicely over the slightly overcooked yet flavorful chicken. We walked away stuffed after that plentiful sampling of average tasting Tex-Mex. Overall, Pacifico Cantina is a fun spot to sip on sweet drinks and nosh on addictive tortilla chips.

Pacifico Cantina: Chips and guacamole, shrimp ceviche, and chicken taco

Pacifico Cantina: Chips and guacamole, shrimp ceviche, and chicken taco


Cafe 8
     Spoons_THREE_76x25
We hobbled just a couple of doors down from Pacifico Cantina to our third location, Cafe 8, which offers unpretentious Turkish/Greek cuisine in an authentic, Mediterranean atmosphere. Unfortunately the air conditioner was having technical difficulties, but we filed into the bar area and were served cold water on the spot. Plates soon arrived with plentiful helpings of shaved doner meat over white long grain rice, covered with tomato sauce. The meat heavy dish made up for its unrefined appearance with its rich, salty flavor (notice a trend?) and tender consistency. The kebab is made in-house with 80% lean beef and 20% lamb that marinates for days in milk and spices before being pitched on the spit. The dish was a crowd pleaser, even given our full stomachs. I forced myself to stop after a few bites for fear of impending button popping. Cafe 8 offers a number of gluten-free options, as is often the case with Mediterranean menus. The quaint restaurant’s low key, eccentric vibe and quality, reasonably priced food tempts me to return for another try on a cooler night. Pleasing carnivorous Mr. Green Bean will be the true test.

Cafe 8: Doner kebab over rice

Cafe 8: Doner kebab over rice


Pitango Gelato
      Spoons_FIVE
We had one more stop to go and luckily it was dessert. After all that high sodium food, I relished the thought of something sweet. We walked toward Eastern Market to bombard the tiny storefront of Pitango Gelato. A young, spirited associate was prepared to manage our group and pitch us the spiel about Pitango’s direct line to fresh milk from Mennonite farmers, pistachios sourced from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in Italy, and nuts roasted with infrared light for the most natural flavor possible. Pitango now has five locations in DC, Maryland and Virginia, all serving the highest quality, seasonally changing gelato and sorbet. We were thrilled to learn that everything in the store is gluten-free accept for the cones. But the tiny colorful spoons are so fun, who wants a cone anyway? Our server’s patience astounded me as she allowed each of us to try multiple flavors before ordering. I am a frequenter of this gelato joint and can vouch for every flavor I’ve tried, which is many. The classic Pistachio di Bronte is nutty bliss, the Green Tea is subtly herbalicious, and the Chocolate with Chips is born-again classic. The vegan sorbets taste nearly as creamy as their dairy counterparts. Nothing compares to the mango, which you’ll swear is packed with fat. When the rush to order was over, we passed around cups and swapped spoons. Gelato has a way of making even strangers fast friends.

Pitango Gelato: White grapefruit and rhubarb sorbets

Pitango Gelato: White grapefruit and rhubarb sorbets

On that sweet note, I solicited some reflections on the night and received overall positive responses. While the food was not the finest Barracks Row has to offer, it is a challenge to find committed and enthusiastic restaurants given the size of the group, our food limitations, and the logistics of the program. Thanks is due to Qui-Juan Jones, Dishcrawl DC, and the participating restaurants for providing us gluties the opportunity to let down our guard and dine out free of the usual hassle and stress. It should be mentioned that these pre-set, traveling dinners may still be a challenge for those who are less adventurous or more limited in their eating habits. While Dishcrawl makes every effort to take into account food restrictions, the substitutions seemed lacking (in other words, had Mr. Green Bean accompanied me, he may not have gotten his money’s worth). But for someone like Glutie Foodie who will eat anything (gluten-free), I enjoyed myself immensely knowing that our Dishcrawl ambassador had done all the work, asked all the tough questions, and cleared a safe and healthy path for a night of culinary indulgence.

The Chesapeake Room, 501 8th Street SE, Washington DC
Pacifico Cantina, 514 8th Street SE, Washington DC
Cafe 8, 424 8th Street SE, Washington DC
Pitango Gelato, 660 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington, DC


Leave a comment

Too B or not Too B

B Too      Spoons_THREE_76x25

There is a distinct difference between the smokey scents of a July Fourth BBQ and an indoor kitchen’s charcoal oven. The later aroma conjures the vibe of an old, cozy tavern on a cold winter’s night. Yet, B Too was bustling on a recent sticky summer evening, and the state of the art Josper oven, the only of its kind used in DC, was firing away. Mr. Green Bean and I met our favorite Sicilian-Italian couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sfingi, at this new edition to 14th Street for a much needed grown-up evening (albeit complete with smart phone documentation of their adorable 14 month old daughter).

B Too is the second location for Belga Café creator and chef Bart Vandaele. The award winning chef prides himself for bringing traditional, high quality, Belgian cuisine and brews to Washington DC. B Too certainly looks the part. Surfaces covered in dark wood, chestnut leather, exposed brick and animal hide create a rustic, huntsman vibe. The decor stimulates a craving for beer, and luckily there are three gluten-free options amidst the pages of IPA’s, pilsners and ales. Cocktails and an extensive wine list also fill the pages of the beverage binder, which we nearly finished perusing after a few visits from our server.

The food menu requires time to contemplate as well. Each of the cold starters, hot starters, soups, sides, mussels, entrees, and casseroles is described with a list of ingredients that intrigue and confuse, leaving the diner to wonder how the dish is actually prepared. I commend our server’s patience as my usual line of questioning was made more extensive due to general befuddlement and curiosity. What was very clear was that we would be starting with the evening’s special appetizer, prosciutto with goat cheese stuffed grilled figs, frisée salad, and balsamic reduction. The sweet, creamy figs melted in the mouth, the winning feature of this dish that could have used more prosciutto and less greenery (it’s not often I say that).

Prosciutto and grilled fig special

Prosciutto and grilled fig special

We also started with a pot of the mussels marinière, one of the few mussel preparations that does not use beer. The white wine based broth was bursting with flavor and contained large slices of shallots, garlic and parsley to slurp down with the mussel meat. The aromas wafting from the pot were tempting enough to get Mr. Green Bean to try his very first mussel. “Not bad,” he shrugged, a far better response than I feared. Baby steps, baby steps.

Mussels mariniere

Mussels Marinière

Already full, I braced for my main course, concocted, as is often my habit, from a starter and a side. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the server confused which of the two shrimp dishes I ordered and I ended up with both. I had meant to order the Tomaat Met Noordzee Garnalen, baby shrimp prepared two ways, after the server gave the thumbs up on the accompanying krupuk (prawn crackers). The dish arrived without the krupuk, apparently not really gluten-free, leaving three hefty heaps of tiny grey shrimps separated by grape tomatoes and frisee salad. One stack of shrimp was mixed with a creamy aioli, resembling shrimp salad you might find at that July Fourth BBQ. The other two heaps seemed like the same recipe, minus the dressing, leaving me to wonder if something was missing. The abundance of shrimp became monotonous after the first few bites, and the accompanying salad offered little versatility.

Tomaat Met Noordzee Garnalen,tiny grey shrimp with tomato confit and basil

Tomaat Met Noordzee Garnalen, tiny grey shrimp with tomato confit and basil

What I should have ordered from the beginning was the Gamba “M’as Tu Vue” dish that they let me feast on while my correct order was being made. Huge pieces of shrimp (two shrimps totaling 0.25 lbs) were perfectly cooked and served chilled with chopped and separated egg white and yolk, and a small lettuce and tomato salad drizzled with a creamy dressing. Dollops of what I can best describe as American French Dressing decorated the plate. The menu lists a Belgian whiskey sauce that I couldn’t decipher in the dish iteself (perhaps an imperceptible ingredient or omitted in the kitchen due to my allergy). But caution if you avoid grain-based alcohols.

Big Shrimp

Gamba “M’as Tu Vue”, Giant shrimp “Belle-Vue”, Belgian whiskey sauce, lettuce, tomato and farm egg

To accompany my plethora of shrimp, I ordered a side of the Josper cooked root vegetables with black garlic dressing. Brussels sprouts, carrots, and other more unusual root vegetables were heavily oiled and packed with delicious salty, smokey, garlicky flavor.

Josper cooked root vegetables

Josper cooked root vegetables

Mrs. Sfingi ordered the Josper roasted lobster, which unfortunately is baked with breadcrumbs. Mr. Sfingi and Mr. Green Bean of course ordered the Belgian steak, served with a side salad and cone of frites. After some mixed responses, I finally confirmed that the frites are fried in shared glutenous oil. I did, however, taste the thick, generous portion of gluten-free steak, cooked perfectly, slightly smokey and well seasoned. I could tell it won Mr. Green Bean’s favor.

Le Vrai Steak Belge Met Frietjes, Belgian steak and salad

Le Vrai Steak Belge Met Frietjes, Belgian steak and salad

We skipped on dessert, ice cream being the only option for gluten-free diners, and opted for a short walk to nearby gelato. Overall, B Too is still finding its gluten-free legs, but the staff is helpful in navigating past the many tempting and off-limit options. Well portioned dishes are heavy and rich, with a price tag to match. While the freshly baked bread served out of a paper bag was easy enough to ignore, B Too brunch featuring sweet, buttery Belgian waffles would be a real test of willpower for us Glutie Foodies. I will be back for dinner I’m sure. But it may not be until winter approaches and a heavy meal is needed to warm the bones.

B Too, 1324 14th Street NW, Washington DC


3 Comments

Bienvenue à Washington

Le Diplomate     Spoons_FOUR

I walk past the northeast corner of 14th and Q streets five days a week. Of all the construction projects in Logan Circle, this corner has been particularly fascinating. Over many months, a long-abandoned laundromat building was slowly gutted and reborn into the dazzling French bistro that now stands pompously as the new emperor of 14th. Starr Restaurants’ Le Diplomate has been bursting with activity from the second it openend. Mr. Green Bean and I wanted to see for ourselves what the buzz was about and were happy to find an open reservation on a recent Friday night.

Entrance to Le Diplomate

Entrance to Le Diplomate

If you can elbow your way through the crowd at the entrance of Le Diplomate, you will find yourself transported to something between an elegant Parisian brasserie and a casual French cafe. A central bar is flanked by expansive, split level dining spaces packed with simple cafe chairs and tables lined with white paper. A handfull of burgundy leather booths accent the dark woodwork and salt-and-pepper tiled floor. Murky mirrors reflect the globe lighting fixtures hanging from high ceilings. A green tiled garden room off to the side transitions into a spacious outdoor patio filled with bright yellow folding chairs. Too hungry to wait for an outdoor seat, we opted for a cozy two-top by the window. Yet the interior space is so alluring, even the finest of days may not draw me outside. We settled in and perused the menu.

I began composing  questions for our server, planning to challenge the new restaurant’s gluten-free preparedness and bracing myself for an arduous process. To my amazement, our server didn’t blink an eye as I waited for his reaction to my “I’m a special diner” introduction. “Have you had many gluten-free customers yet?” I prodded further. “Of Course! No problem.” was his response (in a French accent) as he took me through the menu. I was stunned that flour is not a key thickening agent in items such as Friday’s special, Bouillabaisse, and that the Frites are fried separately from glutenous ingredients.

Tempting hors d’oeuvres, such as the Steak Tartare and Tuna Carpaccio, are free of gluten. All four starter salads are either gluten-free or easily adaptable. Entrees offer a number of options in steak, chicken, veal, lamb, skate, scallops, etc. I was repeatedly distracted by the towering platters of raw seafood whizzing by, as our server continued to list dishes I could eat. Mr. Green Bean’s meal decision was easy. When in Rome (or Paris, rather)…it would be the Steak Frites for him. I followed his lead and ordered another French staple, the Moules Frites. G-free frites are impossible to pass up.

To start, Mr. Green Bean and I shared the Salade Verte with haricots verts, radishes and red wine vinaigrette. Large, crisp bibb lettuce leaves were sprinkled with Mr. Green Bean’s favorite veggie and thin slices of magenta radishes. The dish was light and fresh, a welcome beginning to the richness that lay ahead.

Salade Verte with haricots verts, radishes and red wine vinaigrette

Salade Verte with haricots verts, radishes and red wine vinaigrette

Mr. GB’s Steak Frites arrived as requested, without the wad of maître d’ butter on top. The thick, generous, cut of hanger steak is smothered in butter before pan roasting and needed not a bit more. He sliced me a piece to taste (the dish is g-free). The beef was cooked to a perfect medium (although Mr. GB thought slightly too pink), with a crisp exterior sealing in all the juices and flavor. I later went back for second and third bites.

Steak Frites

Steak Frites

The moules are prepared marinière style, which I learned at Le Diplomate means white wine, fresh herbs, and plenty of butter. The sauce was aromatic and well balanced with the subtle flavor of the mussels. While not a huge serving, the dozen or so mussels were each plump, flavorful, and situated loosely in open shells. There was not a bad egg in the bunch. I paired my meal with a glass of the house’s unusually yellow-toned rosé, light and refreshing.

Moules marinière style

Moules marinière style

The frites were everything I hoped they would be: double fried for an extra crispy shell, and just thick enough to maintain a soft potato interior. I alternated dips between the creamy mussel broth and the accompanying mayonnaise sauce (I can only stomach mayo when it is house-made French style and not squeezed from a plastic bottle). The serving was huge, surely I would not eat them all. Somehow, 30 minutes later, I reached back in the cup and found only crumbs.

Frites!

Frites!

Both of our meals left Mr. Green Bean and I little room for something sweet. However, it should be noted that astonishingly more than half of Le Diplomate’s desserts are gluten-free, or can be with slight modifications. That isn’t even counting cheeses and dessert wines. From what I hear the desserts are belt-loosening worth it and I will definitely be back to try the Milk Chocolate Pot de Crème and Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée.

Le Diplomate has done everything right. Executive chef Adam Schop’s solid food is almost besides the point when considering how seamlessly this zoo is managed. I was impressed with the service from the on-her-toes hostess, to our confident and knowledgeable server, to the sommelier hand delivering my  wine, to the general manager’s visit to check on our experience. The authentic French ambience allows diners an opportunity to escape, relax and enjoy good food and drink in Parisian fashion. Bienvenue à Washington, Le Diplomate.

Le Diplomate, 1601 14th Street NW, Washington DC