Friday, April 8, 2011


       You’ve just been diagnosed with food allergies.  Whether it is gluten, dairy, soy or all three like me, you are convinced that you are now chained to your kitchen and shall never venture forth again.  In your kitchen, you can control what you purchase and how you prepare it and there is no embarrassment over having a long and detailed conversation with the wait staff, manager or god forbid  "le chef."
       I was cautious at first as to how to approach the restaurants I frequented or those in my furure but decided to just go for it.  Being a foodie, a solid cook and one who enjoys dining out, I have tried not to let my culinary dining habits alter.  I have been going through this for 4 1/2 years, so please benefit from my successful and failed experiences.              
        When I was first diagnosed in 2006, I had by chance recently heard that Wheatfields  Restaurant (downtown Saratoga Springs in upstate New York) had gluten-free pasta and headed on over to partake and support their offerings.   All I had to do was ask about their gluten free pasta, they told me what type of pasta was available and I was able to choose my topping from the menu.  Naturally, due to my dairy allergy, I was limited to certain toppings, but I found them accommodating to substitute a garlic sauce for a cream sauce.   Due to the fact that restaurants need to have a separate pot of boiling water for the gluten-free pasta, they usually offer only one type of pasta per day.  That was easy – a little too easy leading me to think that dining out with my allergies would be worry free.
           Feeling emboldened, I visited other restaurants in downtown Saratoga and at that time (2006), no one else had gluten-free pasta, but with a little ingenuity and a few questions, I could pick other menu items that worked for me.  Generally, I could eat any meats, poultry, fish or pork but had to find one without  breading or a cream sauce.  I can eat all vegetables, fruits, potatoes, rice and all herbs.  So - it is frequently possible to find something and work it out.
           Here's how I order at a sit down restaurant.  When the server first greets us, I ask politely if they have gluten-free pasta.  If they do, great, now I know my options have opened up.  I peruse the menu, find a couple of things that are either perfect for me or could be with a little tweaking.  When the server returns and it is my turn to order I ask the server to come a little closer to discuss my food allergies.  For some reason, some people are uncomfortable to overhear the discussion and don't really believe I have them, so I keep it discreet but not a secret.  I tell them my allergies to gluten, dairy and soy and if I am not ordering a pasta, I will ask for a certain dish and ask if there is any of those ingredients.  If not- good - our order is finished.  If the dish includes dairy, I either move onto a second choice or ask if they can alter the dish a bit and still keep the essence of the dish.  Many times they will say, let me check with the kitchen and then they come back with an answer.  Sometimes there is a little back and forth before we settle on a meal.
           Do I order something, I am not in the mood for just because it is allergy free for me?  For the most part NO!  If I am polite and gently assertive, I can usually get a great meal.  You have to get a sense of the restaurants knowledge of food allergies and their level of accommodation.   Some of them just want to give you a chicken breast over salad and call it a day but I persevere unless.......I am up against overwhelming odds and lack of knowledge. 
            Generally, a more expensive restaurant really has a grip on their ingredients, may have less additives and filler in ingredients they purchase and show more flexibility.   However, a year ago we were having dinner at a wonderful Italian restaurant deep in the heart of Brooklyn and I met some challenges.  I truly enjoy going to really authentic restaurants and this special place had been in the same elegant building for seventy years.  Upon entering, you could feel the history.
              When I asked the waiter if they had gluten-free pasta, he looked at me blankly and then repeated the word incorrectly back to me.  I tried again with no success.  Gluten free was not in his vocabulary, not on the restaurants radar and frankly he didn't seem to care.  I mean wasn't I there to eat his fabulous food as it was. 
               It soon became clear that this was a no go; no one knew what I was talking about and no one wanted to find out.  I have to say that I was at first miffed and put out and looked across the table at my normally supportive husband who was now smirking.  So -  we all had to laugh at the man's apparent lack of interest in anything remotely gluten.  I buckled and ordered chicken cacciatore which worked out just fine, but wasn't what I really wanted.
                Recently though at another restaurant, I did push them closer to the edge because I sensed an in.  Again we were at a very established Italian restaurant in my hometown of Saratoga and at first glance, the menu offered me very little choice.  They did not have gluten-free pasta, so I moved on to the meat, poultry, pork and fish dishes.  Most of them were breaded or had a cream sauce and then of course there is my mood.  What do I feel like having?  I found a broiled halibut with a fun sauce that suited my mood and diet and came with vegetables and potatoes.  The waiter and I settled on the fish but they only choice for starch that evening was mashed potatoes with milk.  There was no rice, fries or baked potato.  I asked the waiter what my options are and he disappeared into the kitchen.  He emerges with a double vegetable offering instead of a starch and asked if that would be okay.  I respond as charmingly as I can,  "That's nice but I'll be unhappy with no potato.  You see, I can't eat the bread either."  A look of realization appeared on his face.  I suggest, "Couldn't they boil a potato with herbs and olive oil."  He said sincerely, that he would check and disappeared again into the kitchen.  He returned with an exciting solution, yes they could do the potatoes.  I thanked him profusely and there is a palpable sense of relief over the entire table.
            What do I do on the way out;  after all, I am a food allergy ambassador.  I thank the waiter again and as I head out the door ask to see the manager.  I am directed to the man behind the bar who also manages and I thank him for accommodating my food allergies.  I mention that it was a little difficult to arrive at a solution, but that I really appreciated their efforts.   He smiled, said it was his pleasure and I felt I had made somewhat of an impression. 
             Did they boil that potato just to shut me up or were they delighted to please me.  I believe that it was a combination of achieving silence on table 9 and a willingness to learn more about customers with food allergies.  That was initially a tough one, but in the end a gratifying meal and experience.  I shall press on.
             In a couple of entries, I shall address eating out at more casual establishments.  Gluten Gal does McDonalds.
(please note, this is not meant as a definitive list; simply the establishments that I frequent in Saratoga Springs)
Wheatfields Restaurant -440 Broadway, Saratoga Springs,NY
Ironically with a name like Wheatfield’s, this restaurant  has been on the cutting edge of offering gluten-free pastas for at least 5 years.  6 months ago they added gluten-free pizzas.
Fifty South –2128 Doubleday Avenue, Route 50, Ballston Spa –
Featuring  gluten-free pasta, bread, hamburger rolls, pancakes and desserts.  They live and breathe organic food for all tastes and can make a gluten gal feel normal.
Mamma Mia’s Pizza/Cafe -185 Ballston Avenue, Saratoga, NY–
In addition to great Italian food, this restaurant offers gluten-free pastas and gluten-free pizzas.
Sperry’s -30 ½ Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, NY –
Normally, I cannot partake of the pre-dinner  bread, but Sperry’s offers gluten-free popovers.  A fun surprise. 

Enjoy and let me know your favorite local places that offer gluten-free menus.
Gluten Gal (Diane Lachtrupp Martinez)        

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