Saturday, 4 June 2011

Beijing, China

So, I only spent 1 night on a layover in Beijing.  However, I had such a good experience with the restaurant I ate at that I wanted to give them a feature.  I admit that when we arrived in China I was a little intimidated with the language barrier and the unfamiliar cuisine.  So, being that it was just one night, I decided to stick with a touristy locale.

Lao She Teahouse
We arrived in the late afternoon and wanted to see Tienanmen Square before dinner.  We asked the hotel to recommend a place for dinner where someone might speak enough English to negotiate a healthy gluten-free meal.  The concierge assured us that any place around the Imperial Palace would be accustomed to foreigners.  So after wandering around as tourists and taking all the necessary pictures to prove we were in fact in Beijing, we started looking for a dining option.

Lao She Teahouse is an icon in Beijing.  We didn't know that when we haphazardly stumbled across it.  I learned this as we were exploring the balcony seating area that includes photos of Henry Kissinger enjoying a sip of tea upon a visit in 1992.

Before ordering our meal, our drink order was taken.  Since we found ourselves in a teahouse, it made sense to partake.  The tea menu was presented on a wooden mat with each slat representing a tea variety available for purchase.  I chose the Mother's Tea and my travel companion chose a different one whose name I can't remember.  When my tea arrived to the table, it was served in a clear glass of steaming hot water.  The tea leaves themselves were bundled and woven with flower petals into a ball that expands as it seeps.  The ball slowly blooms into an expanded decoration in the glass.  It was both delicious and beautiful!

My companion's tea however was served as free tea leaves in a small empty ceramic cup accompanied by a teapot of hot water.  She poured the water into the cup and allowed the tea to seep.  When it was ready to drink she was stuck with a dilemma of how to drink the tea from the cup without ingesting the floating tea leaves.  Clearly we needed some kind of instructions or tutorial.  It made us appreciate those little mesh tea balls we have at home to alleviate said issue.

After the tea was served, our order was taken.  Initially we ordered the Peking Duck to share.  But shortly after our server left with our order, he retuned to apologetically inform me that our choice was not gluten-free, per consultation with the chef.  He instead suggested a veggie dish that contained asparagus and some other chinese vegetables.  My friend, not saddled with dietary issues, stuck with her initial choice of the duck.  I, knowing little of chinese cuisine, followed the suggestion of the restaurant staff.

While we waited for our food to be served, we were provided with entertainment by the teahouse.  The building has a stage at the front of the building and the tables are arranged to maximize viewing.  There were women playing traditional instruments and singing ballads in Chinese.  These performances alternated with traditional shadow puppet shows featuring large water fowl in silhouette.  Our view from the balcony was perfect.  The din from the other patrons was muffled down on the main floor and the acoustics for the entertainment was ideal.  I highly suggested asking for balcony seating.

Our food was served in a reasonable timeframe.  The duck looked beautiful and my friend said over and over, "This is so delicious.  I wish you could taste it!"  My veggie dish was also tasty and satisfying.  It was served with a cup of steamed white rice.  I'm not certain what the vegetable dish was called, unfortunately, and I forgot to ask.  But the key was that the server and the kitchen staff were clearly vigilant in taking my situation seriously.  I never felt that they were unconcerned.

It took a while to track someone down to give us our bill.  And the bill came with a quick sales pitch to get us to purchase some dry tea as gifts for friends and family.  I honestly would have considered purchasing the Mother's Tea as a gift for my own mom, but I wasn't prepared to make any significant purchases.

The story would seem to end there, however a I have noteworthy post script.  After leaving the restaurant, the server gave us the suggestion of walking around the 100 Years Market complete with walking directions.  Having no true agenda, we decided to follow his suggestion.  After a few hours of walking around, the sun had set and the night had descended.  It was time to get back to the hotel for bed, as the next day we had an early morning flight.  Apparently, Saturday nights in Beijing are not the best for hailing a taxi.  We searched and searched for an empty taxi around Teinanmen Square to no avail for over an hour!  As a last resort, we wandered back to the Lao She Teahouse to find the english speaking waiter.  He had coincidentally just finished his shift and was kindly willing to help us hail a cab.

After much disappointment and many taxis passing by full of people, our new Chinese friend suggested the metro subway train instead. Our panic in navigating a subway system bereft of Chinese language knowledge was clear.  In response, he made the unexpected decision to go above and beyond any standard decorum of hospitality and well above the role of restaurant server: he rode the metro train with us to our hotel!  It took him 20 minutes outside of his way and he was friendly and joyful the whole way.  He was our lifesaver that night.  I wish I could remember his name to give him personal props!

Check out my travel photography here:

Monday, 3 January 2011

Naples, Italy

My posting for Naples will be controversial. My cousin, who just returned from an Italian vacation, assured me that she, a celiac, had no problem eating the semolina pasta and the pizza dough in Italy. She spent the first few days being cautious, but after much prompting from Italian family that the wheat products in Italy are safe, she opted to be adventurous. For me, the wheat products in Naples were hit or miss. Since Naples is known as the birthplace of the Pizza Margarita, I was very interested in sampling a slice or two. I found, for me, the pizza was delicious and harmless. Later in my stay I branched out and had a plate of pasta that was wretched on my stomach. So, eater beware! Different levels of gluten affect different people very differently.

My review will focus specifically on gluten free eating.

For those spending time in Naples with cooking facilities, you can get gluten-free pasta! You can scour the grocery stores and never find a thing. But don’t lose heart. The gluten-free bread and pasta products are sold at the Pharmacia. Since it’s a medical issue, specialized foods are relegated to the back shelves of the local pharmacy/druggist. The selection I found was pretty good. Lots of different pasta styles, although almost all of it was corn pasta. I personally didn’t find much rice pasta, if that’s what you prefer.

The Hotel Excelsior
I stayed at the Hotel Excelsior and I knew there was going to be a broad buffet of culinary breakfast options. Much to my delight, I found that they actually had gluten-free biscuits that I had not requested. (sometimes I call ahead to a hotel and ask them to be aware of my dining limitations) They also had hard boiled eggs, bacon, yogurt, wonderful cappuccino

Antonio & Antonio
Via Partenope, 24/27, Via Crispi, 89, Naples, Italy 
Tel: +39 0812451987

There’s a great restaurant along the seaside that’s nestled amongst many other probably equally good restaurants. I found the wait staff to be friendly and comfortable with English. They have a wonderful array of salads. I often feel that choosing a salad from a dinner menu is “defeat” mainly because I want a warm comforting meal. However, I will assure you that the salads at Antonio & Antonio are delicious, hardy, and satisfying. They are served with lemon juice and olive oil as the dressing. It’s a lovely tangy flavor. The photo I have is of a salad I took as “take away.” Picture in your mind’s eye the salad beautifully served on some decorative china. The photo just doesn’t do it justice.

Ristorante Rosati
This restaurant is situated on the first floor of a restored palace overlooking Piazza Plebiscito, Teatro San Carloand Palazzo Reale. This area is the historic centre of Naples. Although this restaurant can be popular with tour groups, I found it to be quaint and charming. We all like to eat at cute little undiscovered bistros, but the big benefit of a tried and true tourist spot for a Celiac is disease recognition! Every waitstaff at Rosati was aware of gluten dietary restrictions and could direct me to the best menu options without hesitation. I liked it so much I went twice.

The first time I had a lemon and shrimp risotto. At first I was hesitant due to prior risotto dishes at other Naples establishments that were underwhelming. But this dish was tasty, tangy, and not mushy.

The second time I branched out to a prawn dish. I had expected it to come with some kind of vegetable or side dish as an accompaniment, however it did not. It was just a bunch of well seasoned prawns on plate. My immediate thought was, “will this fill me up or will I still be starving?” There was no need to worry. It was plenty of food.

I ate at a few other places here and there. They were not noteworthy. If you have any experience with eating either gluten-free in Naples, please share your experiences. Have you been able to eat wheat products in Southern Italy with no ill effects? Thoughts?

Check out my travel photography prints here:

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Bern, Switzerland

I had the distinct pleasure of spending 2 weeks in beautiful Bern, Switzerland.  What an amazingly picturesque place!  The adorable little cobblestone streets flanked by swanky upscale shops with the occasional majestic belltower were right up my alley, so to speak.  However, traveller beware!  The prices are not for the faint of heart nor the light in the pocketbook.  An average meal will easily run you $40-$50 without extra courses like appetizer or dessert.  It may be cost prohibitive if you have a penchant for backpacking.

I stayed at the Best Western Bristol, not to be confused with the Best Western Baern which is right next door.  Their rooms are small, but quaint and perfectly adequate.  If you get a room on a higher floor, it may have a little balcony perfect for people-watching on early autumn afternoons.  The hotel has a breakfast buffet that is European continental: meats, cheeses, fruit, soft boiled eggs, and of course lots of breads.  I specifically wrote the hotel in advance and asked for my dietary needs to be accommodated.  Sure enough, they had a plate of three slices of gluten-free bread carefully wrapped in plastic wrap waiting for me every morning.

As I began to tackle the task of feeding myself, I found that many traditionally swiss restaurants will encourage you to choose a salad.  Most salads come with a few forms of sauerkraut mixed in with the greens, olives, tomatoes, and cheese.  The tangy accent made salad dressing peripheral if not unnecessary.  But if wetting your salad is a must, all restaurants will have oil and vinegar at the ready.  Honestly, the salads were so fresh, crisp, and flavorful, that it took a few days for me to seek out alternatives.

da Bucolo Ristorante
Amthausgasse  10
3011 Bern

In the first few days I had heard whisperings of a pizzeria that was fabled to sell gluten-free pies.  I renewed my quest for Celiac friendly offerings and sought out the 'da Bucolo' Ristorante.  It's a quaint little shop with a bright red facade and a warm yellow glow from the large picture window.  I found it like a beacon in the dark evening.  We entered full of anticipation!  The aroma of warm baked bread and Italian herbs filled the small gust of air displaced by our arrival.  But our gastronomic desires would quickly be denied, as all gluten-free pizza is by reservation 24 hours prior to dining time.  We, of course, made a reservation for the next night and moved on to another establishment.

The time finally came for us to enjoy the offerings of 'da Bucolo'.  This time when we walked in, our table was ready for us and the dough for my pizza had been prepared.  I was given an abbreviated gluten-free pizza menu with the choices that are celiac safe.  Apparently many of the meats in Switzerland are somehow considered off-limits for folks who are wheat sensitive.  So, the toppings for the pies are different combinations on the gluten-free menu than on the standard one.  Regardless, there was a reasonable selection of about 12 different choices.

I chose a pizza consisting of prosciutto, tomatoes, cheese, and spinach.  As with every meal I had in Bern, the ingredients were fresh and the flavors intense.  The dough was a good consistency and was moist and mildly stretchy; one of the best gluten-free pies I've had!  This place is a must-see when making your way through the capital city.  If for any reason you miss the bright red window and door, you're sure to notice the chalkboard A-frame sidewalk sign advertising their gluten-free option.  But don't forget in all of your excitement to make a reservation in advanced. It's a great disappointment to be turned away at the door.

China Imperial
Bärenplatz 21
3011 Bern, Switzerland
031 312 54 00  

Another restaurant that I found through trial and error was the China Imperial.  It's a unique dining style that consists of a self-serve bar of dozens of uncooked meats and vegetables.  For 20 Francs you can pile as many items on a single plate as you can balance and bring them to the open grill for stir-frying.  The options are endless...chicken, beef, pork, lamb, shrimp, tuna, squid, lettuce, carrots, onions, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and surely many other items I can't remember.  Once your plate is full, you choose the cooking oils in which the plate contents will be fried.  There's ginger oil, pepper oil, and sesame oil.  Mix and match at will.  You then hand over your oily uncooked concoction to the grill master who then stir-fries it up for you.  BEWARE:  The same grill surface is used for everyone and adding wheat noodles to the dish is an option.  Although they scrape the grill surface between dishes, there's a huge possibility for cross-contamination.  I'm not that sensitive to CC, so I experienced no problems.  There are also a bunch of sauces that can be added after-the-fact.  I chose to stay away from the sauces, as I was unsure which were safe and which contained soy sauce or some other hidden contaminant.  Since I wasn't getting noodles, I took advantage of the two large pots of rice: fried and white.  Of course I was limited to the white rice, but a perfect healthy complement to my heaping stirfry.  I ate here twice during my two weeks and was completely satisfied every time.  I found it refreshing to have control over which exact ingredients were going on my plate, ultimately prepared by me.

Jungfraujoch - Mönchsjoch Hut
When the weekend came, we escaped the capital and ascended to the highest train stop in Europe: Jungfraujoch - Top of Europe.  It take about 3 hours from Bern to reach the summit and you have to change trains 3 or 4 times.  Once you reach the top, you'll find yourself in a large complex of pathways.  My coworker and I decided to walk from the main complex through the snow trail to the Mönchsjoch Hut to get lunch.  It was advertised as a 30 minute walk.  Apparently the Swiss are much more acclimated to the altitude, wind, and temperature than we were.  It took us upwards of an hour to finally reach our destination.  By this time we were starving, exhausted, and thrilled to sit down.  

The small hut on the mountain side offers traditional Swiss fare.  When I produced my food restriction card, the two proprietors sadly told me that the beef broth soup was all I could have.  Luckily, they also had some impulse buy candy bars displayed, and Snickers was available.  So alas, after some serious hiking for my pathetic out-of-shape self, all I was rewarded with was a bowl of broth and candy bar.  I don't post this because I regret the experience, but merely as a head's up that if you're planning lunch here, bring your own snacks to supplement your meal of broth.

Loeb Department Store
When I began to feel that I was going bankrupt by the ridiculously expensive salads I was eating, I began seeking more frugal alternatives.  Across the street from my hotel was a grocery mart run by the Loeb Department Store.  With zero knowledge of Swiss German, I poked through the aisles and shelves to see what kind of meal I could procure for myself.  

There was a premade salad selection that included an Insalada Caprese...basically tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella.  I found a Fage Total yogurt with honey, Tyrrell's salt and vinegar potato chips.  These items made for a very filling and fairly healthy meal for a good price.  Way less than if I had gone out to a restaurant.  I added some gluten-free chocolate chip cookies provided to me by a Swiss friend, and the meal was complete.  The package of cookies didn't seem to have a brand name on them, so I've included them in the photo so that maybe someone can identify them.

I hope this inspires everyone to go to Switzerland!  It was fantastic!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA

I spent a week in beautiful Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  This is apparently a Gluten-Free Mecca!  I was amazed at all the Celiac safe options that abound in this adorable little town.  Perfect for a romantic weekend getaway!

Three noteworthy restaurants:

Blue Mermaid Island Grill
This place is hip, funky, and earthy.  It has a bit of an artistic flare.  The first floor is a pub atmosphere and they often have performers strumming a guitar or a rousing game of trivia.  The second floor is a more traditional dining ambiance with small tables, little candles, and colorful tablecloths.  The place has lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch menus.  They all indicate which items are vegetarian (but no indication for vegan) with an icon of a carrot and which items are gluten-free with a little (g) next to the description of each dish on the menu.

While waiting for our orders, the server gave us a dish of corn chips and some fresh salsa.  It was complementary and gluten-free.  We ate them all and asked for more!  I started my meal with the Sweet Potato Coconut Curry Soup.  It was quite delicious and well flavored.  Soups are often hard to come by in the Gluten-free world, so I was psyched to try it.  I was not disappointed.  For dinner I ordered one of their daily specials, consisting of Salmon on a bed of wild rice with a mango chutney.  Although odd to be eating Caribbean inspired food in NH, it brought out the best of the fresh fish that the coast has to offer.

Cava Tapas and Wine Bar
Cava is out of the way on small side walking path off of the main Market Street called Commercial Alley.  It doesn't have street traffic, so it can be easy to drive by without noticing it.  They serve Spanish Tapas a-la-carte or bundled into pre-determined sets called Tasting Menus.

I went with 2 of my colleagues and we got thChef's Tasting Menu consisting of 8 different dishes for only $29 per person.  Be forewarned that the set menu begins with dark chocolate, sea salt & pistachio oil served on bread.  This is a no-go!  So, the server was happy to substitute with a double order on the 2nd dish for me.  So I only got to try 7 items instead of the 8, but it was all amazing.  Didn't upset me at all!

The only other moment of difficulty was with the Scallops.  They arrived with a cracker product on the side of the dish and I had to ask the server to have the kitchen prepare me a new one sans cracker.  She was a little unconcerned for my linking and asked if I could just "move it aside?"  But I stood my ground and she acquiesced.  I'm so grateful too, because the Scallops with the very best dish of them all!!

The tasting menu changes based on availability of ingredients, but each and every dish held its own.  We were "mmmmmm"ing over one after the other.  Highly recommended!

The Friendly Toast
I never considered going into a restaurant called "Friendly Toast" because that seemed like Gluten HELL.  But one of my colleague went there for brunch and noticed that they offered gluten-free pancakes.  She immediately texted me to express her discovery.  

So, of course, off I went to give it a try.  The gluten-free pancakes are actually quite good.  They don't have that dry, dense, or spongy consistency of many poorly configured gluten-free baked goods.  Honestly, it was hard to tell they weren't the honest-to-goodness wheaty original, especially once I doused them with butter and syrup.  The portions were immense and as much as I tried, I could not finish a 3 stack.  It's not super cheap and many reviewers claim it's just a tourist trap.  But I'm willing to pay little more for the opportunity to go out for pancakes with family and friends.

So, there you have it!  Portsmouth is a Gluten-Free haven.  I was only there for 5 days...there may be much more to discover.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Day 1:
I arrived on Sunday evening to the aftermath of a rainstorm.  Gutters and drains being nonexistent in the infrastructure, many of the streets were flooded.  Thankfully our hosts had provided transportation in an SUV with a high carriage.  Many of the intersections had water levels well above the curb for the sidewalk.  Unlike the poor guy beside our vehicle on a motor scooter, we remained dry all the way to our lodging. 

At this point, we were starving and headed over to the Mexican restaurant, Barrigas, next door.  I produced my card from Select Wisely that contains a Spanish translation of the laundry list of gluten prohibitions.  The waiter read the card intently and showed immediate concern mixed with mild frenzy.  He began discussing the card with another waiter and the staff immediately retired to the kitchen for a 20 minute consultation with the cook.   My poor colleagues were waiting at various levels of patience for a chance to place a drink order. 

We finally flagged down another waiter and ordered some libations.  I stuck with Margaritas on the rocks, with salt, of course.  I'm in Mexico for goodness sake!  Finally our drinks came and my coworkers were feeling more contented and a little less frustrated with my apparent hijacking of the waitstaff.  When the waiter came back to the table with my food allergy card in hand, he informed me that the one safe food item would be the salad with grilled chicken.  I admit that I felt a level of disappointment...I wanted Mexican food...not salad.  But he was adamant that this is what I should order.  I'm pretty sure he thought I could keel over and die right there at the table.  I wouldn't have been surprised if there had been an ambulance on speed-dial.

My meal arrived and was a fresh beautiful salad with moist tender chicken pieces.  No salad I grabbed the pico de gallo meant for the flour tortilla chips at the center of the table and distributed it generously over my salad.  It was actually quite delicious.  When it came time for desert, I was stuffed and chose to abstain until later in the week.

Day 2:
Breakfast buffet at the hotel had yogurt and papaya.  Yum!  This coupled with my orange juice with a tablespoon of psyillium husks (brought from home) provided me with a perfect start to the day.

For lunch I packed instant oatmeal, a spoonful of flax seeds, and a bag of Cheetos with the assumption that the office cafeteria would not be forthcoming in fresh gluten-free food.  Much to my delight, the lunch line had a fresh cactus salad with tomatoes and onions, grilled chicken, and rice.  So, the oatmeal remained on standby for tomorrow.

Dinner was a bit of a welcome reception for us, back at the same restaurant as the night prior.  This time I waited for the table to order drinks first...learned my lesson from the night before.  When the waiter came over, I again produced my food allergy card and this time was prepared to negotiate for an enchilada.  The server was hesitant and had a bit of a worried look, but eventually acquiesced.  The plate came with 3 corn tortillas wrapped around shredded chicken and topped with cheese served next to refried beans and spanish rice.  (I'm lactose intolerant, too, but there's only so much negotiation I'm willing to go through.)

Good conversation and 2 margaritas made dinner a great experience.  I was almost certain that I had successfully ordered a gluten-free Mexican meal all on my own.  But, as we retired back to the hotel, it was quickly apparent that my stomach was expanding inch by uncomfortable inch.  This is my tell-tale sign of being glutened.  The negotiation continues...

As my 3 week trip continued, the folks at Barriga's began to truly understand what I could eat and what I couldn't.  Many Mexican restaurants will add wheat flour to their corn tortillas for flexibility.  Do not assume that all corn tortillas are safe!  

But I feel confident now that any Celiac can dine at Barriga's Restaurant in Ciudad Jaurez and get great service.  I have truly broken them in!  They will give you rice, beans, chicken, steak, salad, and excellent salsa.  And if you bring your own tortilla chips, they will be completely understanding.  And definitely drink some Margaritas...they were invented in CJ and are just delicious!