Glutie Foodie

Adventures of a Gluten-Free Gal Dining Out

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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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Petit Fources

The Happy Tart      

As a health conscious eater, I have mixed feelings about the improvement of gluten-free ingredients and recipes for sweets and savories. I think back to pre-g-free meals, more like battles between me and the bread basket, reserve forces called in to fight dessert. Dining has actually become far more peaceful in the past couple of years! But now my new enemies are growing strong in number and  temptations are lurking.

I am especially conflicted when it comes to The Happy Tart Gluten-Free Pâtisserie in the Del Ray neighborhood of Virginia. This entirely gluten-free bakery that opened in January of 2012 makes products that are so tasty, I wonder if the world even needs gluten anymore! Chef and owner, Emma Cech, discovered her gluten-intolerance while enrolled in the Professional Pastry Arts program at L’Academie de Cuisine. Her mission soon became perfecting gluten-free French pastries, and she has returned to Virginia armed and ready.

I was intrigued when I learned about the bakery and their supply of fresh breads, pizza crusts, cakes, cookies, and fancy schmancy European delicacies. Now that I have an obligation to my blog followers to seek the best of the best, a visit was imminent, and I knew just the companion to bring along. She’s got a sweet tooth the size of Texas, an insatiable appetite, high standards for quality treats, and, though blood related, is a huge fan of gluten. Ladies and gentleman, I introduce to you Sister Seitan (pronounced “sey-tan”, as in the wheat-gluten meat substitute common in vegetarian dishes. It is, however, deliberately mispronounced “satan” by vegetarian celiacs.)

As we entered the bakery and deliberated over our selections, our eyes widened and mouths watered. A must-have for me was the Sunday special: sweet, gooey, sticky buns. The doughy layers doused in cinnamon syrup and covered with sugared walnuts satisfied every craving I’ve been having for the past couple of years. Sister Seitan, and later Mr. Green Bean who accompanied me on a return visit, concurred that the sticky buns are a hit and undetectably gluten-free. Sister and I also shared an apple turnover, as I never say “no” to an apple dessert. The Happy Tart crust used for the turnover, as well as all of their pies, holds together beautifully, with a light, buttery crumb and just a hint of sweetness, leaving the sugar to the filling. We also munched on crispy baguette chips in cinnamon/raisin/pecan and parmesan/garlic varieties. Though the Happy Tart is not technically a dine-in establishment, they offer coffee and tea, and Adirondack chairs just outside for those customers who can’t wait to dig in. That is where you could find me and Sister Seitan on that sunny afternoon, licking our lips, and the plates, in disbelief at how delicious everything was.

Apple Turnover, Baguette Chips, and Sticky Bun

I recently had another opportunity to taste a variety of The Happy Tart’s delectables. Emma Cech graciously provided some of her petit fours and tartlets for the Glutie Foodie launch party last week. The launch, held at my second home, Hemphill Fine Arts, celebrated not only the beginning of my blog, but also a new business venture by Josh Goldman, DJ G Events. DJ G provided the tunes while guests sipped wine, admired the work of Artist Linling Lu, and praised The Happy Tart products. For the sake of research, of course, I took bites from others’ plates and stashed a couple of treats away to make sure to try them all. The rich Chocolate Raspberry and five layer Chocolate Decadence petit fours are moist on the inside, with chocolate shell armors that crack easily with the invitation of a fork. My favorite was the Tea Time petit four, made with joconde almond cake, layered with apricot jam and earl grey tea mousse, and dipped in white chocolate. The subtle almond and earl gray undertones offer a unique flavor, sweetened by the apricot and white chocolate. For sweet and sour fans, the lemon meringue and lime curd tartlets are bursts of flavor, not to be underestimated for their small size.

I reserve judgment on The Happy Tart’s selection of breads. Ready-made pizza crusts are waiting in my freezer, and one of these weekends I’ll rush over to snag a fresh bagel before they’re gone. But if the crowds that flock to this tiny storefront are any indication, I’m sure the breads will not disappoint.

So, I surrender to The Happy Tart, a force much more powerful than my will. I admit that I am grateful for Cech’s contributions to gluten-free baking and have even tried my hand at her crostata recipe, using the rice flour blend sold in the bakery. Her crust recipe alone is enough to crumble my defenses. And when my Thanksgiving table tries the apple pie I plan to bring, it might just turn them all into gluties.

Happy Tart Gluten-Free Pâtisserie, 2307A Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA