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!