Glutie Foodie

Adventures of a Gluten-Free Gal Dining Out


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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


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Hummus Holiday

A Gluten-free Exploration of Israel

I begin with an apology for my silence over the past few weeks. I have a good excuse: Mr. Green Bean and I have just returned from a trip to Israel and are processing our 10 days filled with the sights, smells and tastes of this magical Middle Eastern nation. You can be sure I ate my way through our journey in order to report back to you on the status of Israel’s gluten-free awareness. I was aided tremendously by my hard-working Israeli correspondent who spent days preparing for my visit, as much for my comfort and health as to be awarded a spot on this blog. Aunt Fudgie deserves major recognition for the information I am about to divulge. I consider Aunt Fudgie now a top resource for gluten-free dining in Israel, and I personally volunteer her consulting services and delicious home-cooked meals to any glutie traveling through Tel Aviv. (you can thank me later, Aunt Fudgie.)

In planning this trip, I was comforted by the fact that Israeli cuisine is fairly gluten-free friendly. The country’s Middle Eastern fare, influenced by numerous cultural migrations over centuries, tends to be free of unnecessary wheat. Rye is hardly ever used and barley, cracked wheat and couscous show up only in obvious places. In all my restaurant experiences, whether a top-rated foodie destination or a casual Druze village restaurant, I found gluten-free (or “l’lo gluten” in Hebrew) to be a familiar phrase. Servers were often prepared to guide me through menus and answer my questions confidently. (I pause to make the first of a few generalization about Israelis, all meant to be non-offensive observations. Sabras have a tendency to talk with confidence, even when they are not completely sure. Gluten-free travelers should be persistent and emphasize the severity of their “allergy”.)

Fresh off the plane and hazy with jetlag, Aunt Fudgie took us for our first dinner to Gehalim, a typical Middle Eastern, family style restaurant. Dozens of salads and dips accompanied by warm fluffy pitas were sprawled across the table as the server took our order for meat skewers to round off the meal. Israelis love to break and swipe pieces of pita through plates of hummus (chickpea spread), baba ganoush (pureed eggplant), and labneh (soft strained cheese), leaving traces of flour on table tops and in shared spreads. Gluten-free diners can advocate for serving spoons. But as habits are tough to break (and Israelis are a stubborn bunch—generalization #2), I reached for the spreads first and served myself a sampling before the rest started dipping.

First Course at Gahalim, Tel Aviv

Salad Course, Gehalim Restaurant, Tel Aviv

Our introduction to Israeli dining revealed some trends we would encounter throughout our trip. Salads and spreads are usually prepared without added gluten. However, be cautious of  fried vegetable purees cooked in contaminated oils and the very rare addition of wheat to spreads like hummus. Grilled meats, such as chicken hearts, chicken livers, chicken thighs, and lamb, are most often simply grilled with olive oil and pure spices.

Gluten-free breads are occasionally available at restaurants, and can be found in many grocery store freezers. Aunt Fudgie was well stocked with g-free pita, challah, and bagels. Pita pockets by GreenLite—an Israeli gluten-free bakery with fresh and frozen products available in major cities throughout the country—were particularly satisfying, tasting quite like their glutenous counterpart. I always kept a piece close at hand as some restaurants, like Gehalim, are agreeable to bringing your own bread.

GreenLite Gluten-free Pita Bread and Other Products

GreenLite Gluten-free Pita Bread and Other Products

Tasting the diverse flavors of Israel in the crowded and colorful shuks (markets) is an experience that should not be missed. However, gluties beware: Vendors often add flour to their nuts in the roasting process, arguably to increase the weight of their goods and make some extra shekels. Make sure to ask first, or be safe and purchase packaged domestic nuts from the grocery store.
Machane Yehuda Shuk

Machane Yehuda Shuk

Falafel, those scrumptious deep-fried chickpea balls available at every street corner, whether it be in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv or ancient and mystical Tsfat, is the bane of a gluties Israeli food journey. Pitas stuffed with falafel, Israeli salad, spicy skhug, hummus, tahini, and chips (french fries) are the go-to quick meal or snack. Falafel’s sensuous aroma wafts from the tiny stands that each claim to serve “the best in Israel”. Unfortunately most of their falafel recipes include pesky wheat. But ask around and you will find that there are a token few that make their mixtures purely from chickpeas. One such gluten-free (and organic) falafel establishment is Hippo Falafel, with two locations in Tel Aviv. Named for the vegetarian animal, Hippo offers a slightly more nutritious version of this indulgent treat, with a healthier frying method and no added wheat fillers in their falafel, spreads or salads. The restaurant tried their hand at gluten-free pitas as well, but failed to develop a pocket that could bear the weight of its fillings. I enjoyed every bite of the hot crispy fritters on a plate surrounded by fresh salads. Picky Mr. Green Bean and his discerning Israeli cousin both gave the thumbs up (a challenge while holding onto a bursting pita pocket).

Falafel Plate, Hippo Falafel, Tel Aviv

Falafel Plate, Hippo Falafel, Tel Aviv

When a gluten-free falafel stand isn’t close nearby, an Aroma Cafe probably is. This popular Israeli coffee shop is accustomed to handling gluten-free diners. They offer a number of hearty salad options and a safely packaged gluten-free roll that is airy in consistency and mild in flavor. Portions are huge, as is the case in most restaurants (Like your typical Jewish mother, Israelis never want guests to walk away hungry—generalization #3). But the profusion of bright, fresh vegetables served with every meal leaves one feeling healthfully stuffed.

Salad with Tofu and Gluten-free Roll, Aroma Cafe, Jerusalem

Salad with Tofu and Gluten-free Roll, Aroma Cafe, Jerusalem

For some finer dining, a couple of restaurants are worth noting both for their superior food and service. In Jerusalem we were generously hosted by our good DC pal, Lox, who spends a few months each year working out of her Jerusalem office. She had been waiting for an occasion to try out Machneyuda, a modern Mediterranean, upscale establishment with a lively and homey vibe. The menu changes daily and all ingredients are sourced from the local Machane Yehuda market, for which the restaurant is named. Dishes like fish tartar with watermelon soup, creamy polenta with mushrooms and parmesan, and risotto ragu cooked with soft sour cheese delighted our senses. The surprisingly patient staff  (Israelis tend to be short fused—generalization #4) took their time to parse nearly every dish in search of hidden gluten ingredients.

Machneyuda Restaurant, Jerusalem

Machneyuda Restaurant, Jerusalem

At northern Rosh Pina’s Mizpe Hayamim Hotel and Spa, Muscat offers an elegant dining experience with a breathtaking view of the mountainous Golan Heights. Highly regarded chef Haim Tibi gathers fresh produce from the hotel’s farm to cook up French influenced Mediterranean cuisine. Aunt Fudgie mentioned my “allergy” when making the reservation and our server was prepared with two freshly baked gluten-free rolls, served with a dish of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a poached tomato slice that melted at the touch. My snapper fish was served over creamed cauliflower, with a bouquet of beautifully arranged vegetables. Our halva and pistachio semifredo dessert was the best sweet treat of the trip, with a chocolate crunch and creamy, subtle sesame flavor that wowed both me, a halva fan, and Mr. Green Bean, not such a halva fan.

Housemade Gluten-free Rolls, Muscat Restaurant, Rosh Pina

Housemade Gluten-free Rolls, Muscat Restaurant, Rosh Pina

I end by thanking Aunt Fudgie, the Fudgie family, Lox, and my patient partner, Mr. Green Bean, for their attention to my dietary needs throughout our travels. While our dining experiences were fantastic, it deserves to be said that Aunt Fudgie’s home cooked meals were some of my favorites. She outdid herself with quinoa and cabbage salads, eggplant and squash purees, stuffed chicken, roast beef, turkey legs, chopped liver and more, combining Israeli, American and Persian flavors into festive meals. My gratitude goes to Aunt Fudgie for transforming her home into a gluten-free friendly zone. Even if you don’t have your own Aunt Fudgie, I am happy to report that Israel is with, if not ahead, of the times when it comes to gluten-free awareness.

Picking Mishmish (apricots) in the Golan Heights

Picking Mishmish (apricots) in the Golan Heights