Being a food enthusiast with a curiosity about all cuisines, I came to terms with my recent diagnosis of celiac disease pretty quickly.
I was less prepared for the constant dialogue required when eating out.
Not a picky eater, I was accustomed to ordering whatever sounded tasty without playing 20 questions. Now every meal is prefaced by a dietary warning to the server, and questions about ingredients and kitchen procedures. At least most servers today have a general understanding that wheat allergies exist. A friend of mine, diagnosed with celiac disease in the 1970s when it was virtually unknown, assured me that we live in the golden age of gluten-free dining.
I am not so sure. Thanks to a barrage of media reports about gluten-free diets, awareness has risen, but offerings and service in local restaurants are hit or miss. Looking back on my experiences, one thing is clear: Those who truly care about making people happy by creating great food are the ones that shine.
I had been to Woodman’s (121 Main St., Essex) many times over the years and never realized that most of their menu is gluten-free, as they use cornmeal to coat their fried seafood rather than flour. In recent years, due to customer requests, they have reconfigured their kitchen, added fryers dedicated for cooking gluten-free items, and trained their staff in allergy sensitivity. For a restaurant that often has more diners than they can serve, the owners display an admirable dedication to pleasing diners.
Tony Bettencourt, chef and owner of 62 Restaurant (62 Wharf St., Salem), is another perfect example. Known for the beautiful handmade pasta featured in his modern Italian dishes, Bettencourt told me he had long considered adding a gluten-free version to his menu, but not if it meant buying a product off the shelf.
Instead, he started his own voyage, researching flours, testing proportions, and tweaking endless test batches until he came up with a pasta that he felt lived up to his original concept.
In gluten-free cooking, no single alternative can substitute directly for wheat flour, so bakers and chefs combine various flours and starches to achieve the texture and taste needed.
Bettencourt said he found that using Cup4Cup, a combination created by Thomas Keller and Lena Kwak of the renowned French Laundry restaurant in California, worked the best in his pasta recipe.
I can attest that his tagliatelle has the perfect texture and mouth feel, and is virtually indistinguishable from wheat-based pasta. It is lush and addictive.
Chris DeWolf’s mother was diagnosed with celiac disease about five years ago, so when he and his wife, Alicia, opened Mamie’s Kitchen (65 Pleasant St., Gloucester) in July 2011, they knew from the start they would offer nonwheat alternatives.
This unassuming restaurant on a side street near downtown has become a breakfast favorite among the gluten-free crowd. Alicia and Chris make sure their sausages and linguiça have no hidden gluten, shred their own hash browns, and keep gluten-free bread on hand for toast or sandwiches. The most popular breakfast choice is the gluten-free waffles, made on a dedicated waffle iron.
I caught up with Chris while enjoying my waffles and linguica, and his enthusiasm was infectious. He truly enjoys chatting with everyone who sits at the counter and is committed to feeding everyone a great meal.
The same sentiment was clear when I spoke with chef Diane Wolfe about her new restaurant, the Ugly Mug Diner (122 Washington St., Salem), which opened last week.
“It has always been our philosophy that everyone should be able to eat delicious food, regardless of dietary restrictions,'' Wolfe said. “As a chef, I love the challenge of creating meals without using traditional ingredients because nothing pleases me more than the smiles of happy guests.”
Ugly Mug plans to offer gluten-free pastries from Jodi Bee Bakes, a Salem-based ecotarian/vegetarian bakery; corn-based johnnycakes (naturally gluten-free); and grits as an option in place of toast.
What these experiences have in common is not the food, but the chefs and restaurateurs who make an effort to connect with customers, and who view alternative offerings not as an imposition, but an opportunity to make diners feel welcome.
After several uncomfortable meals (being treated rudely by servers, mistakenly being served the wrong thing, etc.), I began to eat out less often simply to avoid the hassle. Some old favorites were crossed off the list because I just couldn’t bear to go. No Dube’s fried shrimp? No baguette from A&J King? No Kane’s doughnuts?
I found my fabulous world of food on the North Shore, which I had consciously worked to widen and promote, getting smaller and smaller. Finally realizing this is a ridiculous way to live, I decided that I just needed to toughen up, regain my spirit of adventure, and get out there to find new foods and places to eat.