Glutie Foodie

Adventures of a Gluten-Free Gal Dining Out


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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

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A Fishy Birthday

BlackSalt Restaurant     Spoons_FOUR

Growing up in New England, the fish market was a regular stop on our way home from school. Pungent aromas from cod or haddock often wafted through our kitchen, and italian seasoned bread crumbs were a staple in the cabinet. It was not until I moved to New York for college that I realized how spoiled my childhood had been. I now know that it costs a pretty penny to prepare the freshest seafood, and unfortunately my well trained, discriminating taste gravitates toward the freshest.

BlackSalt Restaurant in the Palisades neighborhood of DC conjures fond memories of my younger years. I knew it was the perfect location to celebrate Ma Glutie Foodie’s birthday during Ma and Pa’s recent visit to DC. Owners Jeff and Barbara Black are dedicated to providing sustainable fish and seafood from around the world in all of the Black Restaurant Group locations. BlackSalt patrons enter through the fish market, passing by ice beds of shimmering fins and protruding heads. Sister Seitan averted her eyes and held her breath, and Mr. Green Bean scrunched his nose and gave me the “look”. But this night was about Ma and she was going to love it.

It was love at first sight as we were seated in the causal yet elegant dining room and opened our menus to reveal “Happy Birthday” typed across the night’s specials. We popped the prosecco and cozied into our kitchen-view table. Perfect for the mermaid in me, the menu is entirely seafood based, with the exception of one ribeye steak and a vegetarian option upon request. Market features change daily, and additional “just in” catches are announced as if the boat’s just out back. I knew we were in luck when our server mentioned crab cakes and Mr. Green Bean softened his “look”.

As we reviewed the menu’s many extraordinary items with our server, he assured me that any dish that is not already gluten-free can be adapted. He also encouraged me to allow chef Thomas Leonard to prepare something special with my gluten allergy in mind. We started simple with a few table pleasers such as the BlackSalt Ceasar and the chef’s vegetarian appetizer for my gluten-eating family. (Note to all gluten-eating readers: the bread alone is apparently worth the visit. Even my sympathetic family couldn’t silence their exclamations). I lusted over the Atlantic Day Boat Scallops, the Panamonian Cobia Sashimi and the Wild Atlantic Black Sea Bass starters. However, I settled on good ol’ shrimp cocktail, one of the only seafood dishes Mr. Green Bean and I can share. Though expectedly uninspired, the shrimps were cooked just right and the housemade cocktail sauce—with sweet and spicy chunks of fresh tomato—was good enough to eat with a spoon.

Shrimp Cocktail

Shrimp Cocktail

For my main entree I gambled on a chef’s choice preparation of sea scallops. As the dish was placed before me and described by the restaurant manager, I grinned at my winnings. Four golden-top, pan seared scallops sat on a bed of julienned carrots and cabbage, sliced confit potato, white bean puree and a sprinkling of pesto. The carrot and cabbage saute was packed with garlic—a favorable ingredient that overstayed it’s welcome the next morning…and the morning after that. I would have appreciated more than the mere smear of white bean puree, and less of the potato that overwhelmed the dish. But the scallops themselves were sublime.

Pan Seared Scallops with sauteed carrots and cabbage, confit potato, white bean puree and pesto garnish.

Pan Seared Scallops with sauteed carrots and cabbage, confit potato, white bean puree and pesto garnish.

I reached my fork across the table to taste Pa Glutie Foodie’s gluten-free Virginia Rockfish with wild mushrooms, spinach, pearl onion jus and the same confit potato used in my dish. The skin-on filet was meaty and mild. The caramelized mushrooms and pearl onion jus made the dish with slightly sweet hints of maple flavor.

Rockfish with confit potato, wild mushroom, spinach and pearl onion jus

Virginia Rockfish with confit potato, wild mushroom, spinach and pearl onion jus.

Mr. Green Bean described his two large pan fried crab cakes as “very good, not the best” (after years in Baltimore, this boy is a tough crab when it comes to his cakes). He seemed more excited about the accompanying sauteed green beans. We had a close call when the server initially assured me the crab cakes were 100% gluten-free. Knowing how unusual that would be, Mr. GB and I encouraged the waiter to double check with the chef. Lo and behold, “they just changed the recipe and they are actually not gluten-free”. Nice save. I treaded carefully after that and didn’t dare try Sister Seitan’s mystery veggie bowl. The abundance of greens and absence of any starch got to her mid-way through. She ordered a side of gnocchi and smiled as they arrived fried and crispy.

Any misgivings about dinner were quickly forgotten with the first taste of dessert. The gluten-free Chocolate Chambord Truffle Cake was delivered with a candle and a chocolate drizzle reading “Happy Birthday”. Two triangles of heavenly, fudgey chocolate were balanced with tart raspberry compote and whipped cream. As if that wasn’t enough of a treat, the Trio of Creme Brulee included milk chocolate-hazelnut, white chocolate-raspberry, and butterscotch. The chocolate-hazelnut’s mild sweetness and nutty profile stood out, but all three dishes were licked clean.

Chocolate Chambord Truffle Cake with raspberry compote and whipped cream.

Chocolate Chambord Truffle Cake with raspberry compote and whipped cream.

Trio of Creme Brulee: butterscotch, white chocolate-raspberry, and milk chocolate-hazelnut.

Trio of Creme Brulee: butterscotch, white chocolate-raspberry, and milk chocolate-hazelnut.

Overall BlackSalt Restaurant is a superior establishment in regards to it’s A+ service and availability of the widest variety of fresh catches in the District. I am reminded by our experience to always double check for gluten, even when the server’s confidence encourages my trust. I am also left to wonder how the menu’s pricey figures are determined. While I understand paying top dollar for seafood flown in from halfway around the world, $38 for crab cakes and green beans, and $30 for Sister Seitan’s heap of veggies seems excessive.

BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant, 4883 MacArthur Blvd., Washington DC


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Remember the Thai-tan

Rice     Spoons_FOUR

There is a small, inconspicuous Thai restaurant on 14th street that quietly chugs along while outside a tornado of new development and future competition engulfs the neighborhood. A product of Logan Circle’s first revival wave, Rice has been consistently cooking up high quality contemporary Thai cuisine for nearly a decade. The comfortable interior is chic and minimalist, with exposed brick and dark wood surfaces acting as a neutral backdrop for the colorful dishes prepared by Chef Lekki.

Lekki’s innovative menu distinguishes Rice from the monotony of Americanized Asian cuisine. She offers dishes in three categories: authentic Thai staples, lighter vegetarian medleys, and unusual specialties that flaunt her creative muscle. On my most recent trip to Rice, I was thrilled to discover that a new category has recently been implemented due to customer demand. Rice has composed a gluten-free menu with a generous sampling of soups, appetizers and entrees adapted from the regular menu. While Rice has been more versed in the gluten allergy than most Asian restaurants I frequent, the designated menu confirms their commitment to providing safe and delicious food free of soy sauce and other wheat products.

I eagerly scanned the many tempting offerings on the new g-free menu, items such as curries and soups that have been off-limits for years. Most Asian restaurants that accommodate gluten-free eating merely omit harmful ingredients, resulting in bland, sauteed whatevers. Rice goes well beyond the norm by preparing special sauces and dressings kept aside for us gluties.

I was excited to order Tom Yum Goong, shrimp lemongrass soup. The sizable bowl of broth with bobbing mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, parsley and large steamed shrimp was heavily seasoned with a day’s worth of salt and an abundance of lemon juice. It was fresh and satisfying nonetheless.

Tom Yum Goong (Shrimp Lemongrass Soup)

Tom Yum Goong (Shrimp Lemongrass Soup)

My soup was balanced with Rice’s famed brussels sprout salad, with spinach, walnuts and citrus soy dressing. Crispy brussels sprouts sit atop a bed of spinach, lightly dressed and sprinkled with slightly candied walnuts. Beet shreds and crispy rice flakes adorn the dish, adding a burst of color and crunch.

Brussels Sprout Salad

Brussels Sprout Salad

Rice’s pad thai puts all others’ to shame. The piping hot heap of noodles engulfs an abundance of tofu, chicken or shrimp, blanketed by a delicate sheet of egg and topped with sprouts, scallions and crushed peanuts. Each chewy bite delights the taste buds with a nutty, salty, sweet combination that makes this dish so universally loved.

Pad Thai with Tofu

Pad Thai with Tofu

Rice exceles not only in food quality, but in presentation as well, proving the kitchen’s attention to detail from start to finish. I often find myself peering at other diners’ selections, taking notes for next time. In a neighborhood of new and exciting distractions, Rice knows the value of keeping its patrons wanting more.

Rice, 1608 14th Street NW, Washington DC


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Buzzzzzzz…

Redwood     Spoons_TWO

When Saturday night sneaks up on me and Mr. Green Bean, and we’re in need of a quality restaurant that takes last-minute reservations, Bethesda, MD, comes in handy. It’s an especially useful location to meet up with Silver Spring residents, Irish Coffee and the Oreos, as we did a few Saturdays ago. Redwood Restaurant and Bar sits in the middle of Bethesda Lane, the pedestrian walk at the heart of a quant downtown with bustling shops and eateries. For years Redwood has been our practical pick, favorable because of its prime location, lively atmosphere, decent food, and table availability. However, my last experience at the modern-American restaurant left me questioning what Redwood is doing behind their kitchen doors.

Redwood owner Jared Rager has contributed to the local food scene with his early pioneering of wine-bar culture and sourcing of local seasonal ingredients. Despite this, his successes have fallen short with the selling of Mendocino Grill (now closed), and the closing of Blue Ridge Restaurant. Redwood seems steady, anchoring the streets of downtown Bethesda with it’s sleek interior, spacious bar area, and abundant outdoor patio seating. Thus it pains me that their seemingly harmless menu is so dredged in flour.

During our most recent visit to Redwood, the server’s patience was tried as he reviewed nearly every item on the menu, identifying glutenous items. After running back and forth to the kitchen several times to double check with the chef, we finally narrowed down my options to a depressing few. Gluten was a surprising player in almost all of the seafood dishes—typically the section that I gravitate towards—most of the meat plates and all three of the entree sized salads (although, that depends on which side you take in the blue cheese debate). In my amateur opinion, it seemed these recipes could have avoided gluten with a little extra creative effort. I can’t help but think of added flour as a cop-out to patch up a dish that should really be prepared another way.

While I found myself bewildered, the server calmed my anxiety by suggesting the chef prepare my choice of seafood grilled with any vegetable side. I was comforted by that offer and appreciated the flexibility. However, I dine out to enjoy the unique compositions of trained chefs, not for a meal I could have made at home. I opted for the shockingly soy-sauce free and gluten-free yellowfin tuna tartare starter, with asian pear, edamame, yuzu dressing, pine nuts, sesame seeds and corn tortillas. The dish rocked salty and sweet and was laden with interesting textures between the silky tuna, creamy sauce, and crunchy fuit, soybeans and pine nuts. A side of garlicky braised greens rounded out my meal, leaving me quite satisfied.

Left: Yellowfin Tuna Tartare; Right: Braised Greens

Left: Yellowfin Tuna Tartare; Right: Braised Greens

Will I return to Redwood? I will, not only because it’s first on our speed dial when we’re in a pinch, but because the seasonally changing menu is worth another try. And I have no problem buzzing in their ears and pushing my agenda for a gluten-free friendlier environment and consequently a healthier dining experience for all.

Redwood, 7121 Bethesda Lane, Bethesda, MD


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Grape Explorations

The Curious Grape     Spoons_FOUR

Wine? Check. Dine? Check. Shop? Check. The Curious Grape in Shirlington, VA, is like a playground for foodies and winos, which is why it came highly recommended by our dear friend, Princess of Pinot. Mr. Green Bean and I treat trips to Virginia like expeditions, even though it can take half as long to get from our Cleveland Park apartment to Arlington as it does Bethesda. We are beginning to appreciate this foreign land west of the Potomac and Princess of Pinot is the perfect guide.

The Curious Grape, which opened as a friendly, unpretentious wine shop in 2001, recently expanded to include a cafe with house-made pastries and quality cheeses, a bar with a well curated wine list, and a fine-dining restaurant serving dinner and Sunday brunch. In the restaurant, Executive Chef Eric McKamey creates a seasonal fleet of intriguing dishes. The dinner menu is cleverly designed with a wine key to guide diners toward appropriate pairings. The menu also marks dishes that do not contain gluten-ingredients and adds a disclaimer that reads, “Please note that we are not an allergen-free facility.  All dishes are prepared in a kitchen that uses wheat, dairy, shellfish, nuts, and peanuts.” The statement is refreshingly honest, as this is the reality in most restaurants, but few rarely admit it forwardly.

We met Princess of Pinot at The Curious Grape on a recent Friday night and were promptly seated at a comfortable table in the dining room. The back dining space is separated just enough from the shop and cafe to transition into fine-dining while still keeping it casual. Like many restaurants that pride themselves on being gourmet and laid back, our waitress teetered on the line of over-sharing menu details and took her time finding our bottle of Côtes du Rhône. But the wine was chilled to near perfect drinking temperature and decanted through an aerator so that even the tasting sip was lip-smacking.

My challenge of the night was choosing from a handful of unusual options that all sounded wonderful. Lucky for me Princess of Pinot has a sophisticated palette. We shared a couple of starters while Mr. Green Bean picked at the parts he could tolerate. The brussels sprout salad with crispy pork belly, apple cider gastrique and candied walnuts had a pleasant salty/sweet balance. The rich pork belly paired well with the light and fresh brussels sprouts and crisp apple pieces. The evening’s special starter was a lobster salad with fresh lobster meat, beets, blood oranges, avocado, fennel and curry vinaigrette. The plate of ingredients cut into bite-sized chunks resembled an Italian antipasto with independent components offering a variety of flavors.

Brussel Sprout and Lobster Salads.

Left: Brussel Sprout and Pork Belly Salad; Right: Special Lobster Salad.

For my main entree, I could not resist the special Pacific cod fricasse that the waitress exclaimed was one of the best things she’s ever tasted. Rarely served in east coast restaurants, the white fish from the West was superbly flaky and mild in flavor. The French fricassee cooking process involves first sautéing without browning and then adding liquid in which the fish can simmer. The filet was served with roasted fennel, drizzled with earthy fennel oil and topped with black caviar, all over a generous portion of creamy pureed yukon potatoes. I will admit that the dish was also one of the best I have ever had. The fish was perfectly cooked and subtly spiced, allowing the natural flavors to come forward. The fennel offered a hint of licorice without overpowering the cod. The oil drizzle and potatoes added richness, rounding off a near perfect plate. Under normal circumstances, Mr. Green Bean’s gluten-free grenache-braised beef short rib with glazed root vegetables, rosemary and pearl onions would have wowed me. But my dish was so satiating, I didn’t even pick at his leftover unwanted veggies!

Pacific Cod Fricasse Special.

Pacific Cod Fricasse Special.

To top off a quality meal, I ordered a hazelnut fudge brownie from the pastry display case, and three forks. To gluten-consuming Mr. Green Bean and Princess of Pinot, the brownie was decent. To Glutie Foodie, now two-plus years off the sauce, the brownie was pretty darn delicious. The thick square was fudgey in the middle, with a flaky layer on top. Let’s just say my fork worked overtime.

Chocolate Hazelnut Brownie.

Chocolate Hazelnut Brownie.

We finished our visit with a trip through the wine shop, perusing the unusual stock at a range of reasonable prices. Princess of Pinot introduced us to a couple of new red grapes that we look forward to trying. They are chilling to the suggested 57 degrees as we speak.

The Curious Grape, 2900 S Quincy St, Arlington, VA


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Melting-Bowl

ShopHouse     Spoons_THREE_76x25

Just when I was critical of Washington DC being steps behind New York in terms of  gluten-free innovations (see Time to BisTANGO), I found myself at ShopHouse Southeastern Asian Kitchen. The Dupont Circle location that opened in 2011 is the Chipotle chain’s first venture into eastern cuisine. They have plans to grow this year with new locations in Georgetown and Santa Monica, CA, but not yet New York. Culinary Manager, Nate Appleman, and Director of Concept Development, Tim Wildin, felt that opening first in NYC “would have been too easy”. To succeed in a market such as DC is a truer measure of success. I typically shy away from fast food vendors due to the fact that “fast” rarely co-exists with patience and care. But a rumor that turned out to be true brought me into ShopHouse: The entire menu is gluten-free! As the news settled in, aromas of crushed spices, coconut milk and jasmine rice filled my senses and I surveyed an open field of options.

ShopHouse is inspired by the multi-use buildings that line the streets of Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, with street-level restaurants and upstairs living quarters. Meals based in fresh vegetables, noodles, rice and spices are whipped up in minutes and served piping hot to hungry mouths. ShopHouse is far too American to resemble authentic Southeast Asian kitchens. Yet, the melding of various Asian flavors under one roof echos the multicultural cuisine in Singapore that has resulted from a melting pot of Southeast Asian settlers.

Diners start by picking the base for their bowl, either brown rice, jasmine rice, chilled rice noodles, or napa cabbage. Next one selects a protein: grilled chicken satay, pork and chicken meatballs, grilled steak laab, or Tofu. One vegetable is included with the bowl: broccoli, charred corn, eggplant or green beans. The dish is topped with a choice of green papaya slaw, pickles or fresh herbs, then one of three sauces categorized by heat levels, and finished with a sprinkle of toasted rice, crushed peanuts, or crispy garlic.

Assembly line at ShopHouse

Assembly line at ShopHouse

Each component is packed with flavor, making it easy to build combinations that confuse with too many leading ladies. Diners should resist the urge to pile on everything and try to keep it simple. As a first timer, with pressures from my server and the line forming behind me, I made some snap decisions that I might rethink next time, like adding both papaya slaw and pickles atop my eggplant and chicken lettuce bowl.

Salad bowl with chicken, eggplant, green papaya slaw, pickles, crushed peanuts, and green curry.

Salad bowl with chicken, eggplant, green papaya slaw, pickles, crushed peanuts, and green curry.

Mild palettes should beware. While the restaurant tweaked its ingredients to make the food less spicy, heat still abounds (in other words, Mr. Green Bean will never see the inside of ShopHouse). I do recommend getting your sauce on the side, as most dishes wont even need the extra flavor or the calories. This might be a practice makes perfect situation, but I would appreciate a bit more direction from the servers to strike it right every time.

Unusual for a restaurant of this genre, everything is made in-house, from intricate spice blends to complex curries. While management admits the food is hardly traditional Southeast Asian cuisine, recipes flirt with authenticity by using rice, as opposed to wheat, as the main grain for items like the meatballs and noodles. I admit that I feel a certain affinity for cultures whose cooking is based in grains like rice or corn, as if my DNA is more closely linked to those ethnicities. When I traveled throughout Southeast Asia years ago, I had no idea the cuisine suited me so well. Perhaps another voyage to across the globe post celiac diagnosis is in order.

ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, 1516 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC


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Fresh Catch at Kushi

Kushi     Spoons_THREE_76x25

Japanese restaurants in Washington DC tend to offer quiet spaces with modest interiors for enjoying mediocre raw fish rolled with overly sticky rice. Most often I get my sushi to go, passing on the humdrum atmosphere for the comfort of my sunken spot on the couch and the DVR. Kushi, a modern Japanese izakaya in Mt. Vernon Square, defies the norm and breaths new energy into the DC sushi scene. The restaurant honors the spirit of a traditional izakaya, a place to share food, enjoy drinks, be social and stay awhile. That is just what Mr. Green Bean, Mr. and Mrs. Muffin and I intended to do on a recent Friday night.

Entering Kushi is itself a transformative experience. After a set of doors, guests pass through a thick dark drape into a sleek, modern, upscale Asian tavern with an open grilling station in the center, a sushi bar and beverage bar to one side, and a casual dining room to the other side. The Aromas and heat from the grill envelope the rather spacious interior. Stools surrounding the grill offer an entertaining seating option for a party of two. But the Muffins are our entertainment for the evening and a four-top in the dining room served us well. A carafe of sake was soon on the table as I selected a porcelain cup from the basketful. Transport to a Japanese watering hole was now complete.

Kushi’s menu utilizes seasonal ingredients in a selection of small plates that change daily based on fresh offerings. I scanned through the listing of raw bar items, charcoal grilled skewers, wood grilled plates, and sushi to find many mouth watering options. The modern take on traditional Japanese cuisine lends itself to simple protein or vegetable based dishes, a la carte style. Yet, marinades and accouterments are still suspect for the glutie diner. Luckily, the servers at Kushi are prepared. Our energetic server couldn’t wait to bring me gluten-free tamari sauce. In broken up English he answered some of my questions and ran back and forth to the chef to double check several unknowns. A few of the menu items are gluten-free as they come, such as the Peel n Eat Shichimi Blue Shrimp, the Japanese Eggplant, and of course much of the sushi. Most of the other dishes, like the meat and seafood skewers, can be made sans-sauce. The tough part is deciding which dishes are the tastiest naked, and Kushi staff will tell you honestly.

We started with the Peel n Eat Shrimp dredged in spicy shichimi spices that get under your fingernails as you strip the sizable pink meat from its shell. Wet towels are provided to wipe away the mess, making these flavorful critters worth the fuss.

Peel n Eat Shichimi Blue Shrimp

Peel n Eat Shichimi Blue Shrimp

I ordered the Eringi Mushrooms, which, if I understood my waiter’s accent, are prepared normally without gluten. I love my mushrooms, especially when they’re wood grilled. However, the dish screamed for some seasoning, perhaps just a pinch of salt and garlic would have done it. What did benefit from mild flavor was the buttery salmon sashimi, three generous pieces to a plate and all superb quality.

Skuna Bay Prime Salmon Sashimi

Skuna Bay Prime Salmon Sashimi

My Spicy California roll with fresh lump crab meat & jalapeño was just as pleasing. I appreciated the use of actual crab meat (as opposed to gluten-containing fake crab) and jalapeño for the kick (rather than ambiguous “spicy sauce”). The server had the chef hold the tobiko for fear of some gluten containing marinade. Kushi’s rolls are perfectly bite-sized, not puffed-up with too much rice that falls apart at the touch of the chopsticks!

Spicy California with Fresh Lump Crab Meat & Jalapeño

Spicy California with Fresh Lump Crab Meat & Jalapeño

Mr. and Mrs. Muffin enjoyed sashimi-style cobb salads that would have been my pick were it not for the glutenous dressing. The men ordered some simply cooked chicken skewers. Mrs. Muffin and Mr. Green Bean both tried the Chicken Teriyaki roll with avocado mayo. Due to his hatred of avocado, Mr. GB ordered the roll without the necessary mayo which resulted in it being bland and dry (Aside: Sometimes I really think I should just feed my husband blindfolded and tell him what he’s eating later). I benefitted from Mr. Muffin’s over ordering and enjoyed most of his Japanese Wood Grilled Eggplant topped with a sweet plum sauce that was surprisingly gluten-free. Between the melt-in-your-mouth eggplant and the sugary sauce, the dish qualified as dessert.

Japanese Eggplant

Japanese Eggplant

Over another carafe of sake I concluded that the experience at Kushi is always a pleasant journey. The restaurant’s unique menu, high standards for quality ingredients and helpful service make up for some preparation missteps.

Kushi, 465 K Street NW, Washington DC