On the Road With Vanessa Maltin

Vanessa Maltin is an inspiring person to talk to. She’s the Director of Programming and Communications at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and also the author of Beyond Rice Cakes: A Young Person’s Guide to Cooking, Eating & Living Gluten-Free. She is currently at work on a second book, which explores how to cook Latin, Italian, and Asian cuisines for a gluten-free diet. Take a look at Vanessa’s blog, Beyond Rice Cakes, for more information (the book will be published by Wiley in the fall of 2009). Diagnosed with celiac disease in 2003, Vanessa has plenty of practice traveling gluten-free, and she shared her experiences and advice with me in an interview last week.

How often do you travel? I travel for work at least once a month, and usually a lot more. I just got back from Bentonville, in northwest Arkansas, which was great. They had all of the chains with gluten-free menus there, like Red Robin, P.F. Chang’s, and Mama Fu’s.

Where have you traveled since being diagnosed with celiac disease? I’ve been all over the country. So far this year I’ve been to New York, San Francisco, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia, Hagerstown, MD, Lynchburg, VA, and Florida. Internationally, since I was diagnosed, I’ve been to Ireland, Italy, and Prague — all places where I ate like a queen!

What foods or snacks do you pack when traveling? I always bring bags of nuts with me. I also take Pure Fit bars and Zone bars — most of them are gluten-free. Sometimes I’ll bring gluten-free Thai Kitchen soup mixes, or small packets of peanut butter, which I’ll eat with an apple.

What other things do you bring with you? My iPod and my laptop! I also take Triumph Dining cards with me wherever I go.

How do you prepare for a trip? Since most of my travel is for work, I try to get a really detailed itinerary, because you have to plan ahead. It’s not like I can stop and grab a Big Mac. Sometimes I’ll look at the local celiac support groups and see what they recommend. Normally, when traveling for work, I’m eating with non-celiacs, so I tell people I’m meeting what I can and can’t eat. I have a lot of meetings where an office provides a catered meal, so it’s really important to let them know in advance that they need to have gluten-free options.

Any favorite restaurants? I absolutely love Bistango in New York City. In D.C., my favorites are Café Atlántico, where I helped the chef develop the Latin-fusion gluten-free menu, and Zaytinya, a Mediterranean restaurant. In San Francisco, I go to Max’s Opera Café, which doesn’t have a gluten-free menu but is very accommodating. I love Brick and Solstice, which are both in San Francisco, too. In Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, I like the Yard House, and I just went to a place called Pizza Fusion, which has gourmet gluten-free pizzas. My standby place, wherever I go across the country, is Chipotle.

Any favorite hotels? The Hyatt hotels are amazing.

What’s the most memorable city you’ve visited? Bruges in Belgium. Every other store there was a chocolate shop. I had a shrimp and goat cheese salad there that I’m still craving. It was such an incredible place, and the only thing I couldn’t eat there were the croissants.

What’s your dream destination? The Amalfi Coast in Italy. I’ve read about cooking trips there where you stay in a villa for seven days and just cook every day. I’d love that.

Do you have any other advice for gluten-intolerant travelers? Keep an open mind about traveling, because it really can be done!

Photograph provided courtesy of Vanessa Maltin.

In the Shadow of the Prado

If my trips to Madrid have been notable for one thing, it would be overindulgence. It’s not just the food, but the art. After all, Madrid has the Prado, which houses one of the world’s most exquisite collections of European paintings. As if that weren’t enough, the city also has the massive Reina Sofia museum of modern art (home to Picasso’s most famous painting, Guernica), and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, a once-private art collection that spans the history of Western art from the Middle Ages to the modern era.

Before my most recent trip to Madrid, I searched for some celiac-friendly restaurants. The Asociación de Celíacos de Madrid has an excellent website, with information available in Spanish and English; the association maintains a gluten-free restaurant list, and it offers some general guidelines about ordering in Spanish restaurants as well. The restaurants on its list include spots such as No Sólo Pasta, which may be the most famous gluten-free restaurant in Madrid, and Madrid 20. However, there was no mention of my favorite restaurant from my first trip to Madrid, before I was diagnosed with celiac disease.

Once in Madrid, I decided to give El Cenador del Prado a try anyway. Located close to the Prado, the restaurant recreates the elegant world depicted in some of the museum’s 18th- and 19th-century paintings. Located in a dramatic, antique-filled building, El Cenador is filled with gilded mirrors and trompe l’oeil paintings. Its most beautiful dining room has trellis lattices and flowers painted on all four walls, creating the impression of being seated in an opulent gazebo on a sunny day.

I remembered from my previous visit that the restaurant’s service was just as luxurious as the surroundings, and I wasn’t disappointed the second time around. Much to my surprise — and delight — my waiter knew exactly what celiac disease was. He then proceeded to call over the other servers and have them read my Spanish celiac translation card, so that there would be no confusion about what would be served to me. My waiter consulted with the chef and described to me, in a mix of Spanish and English, what my options were. I ended up having a creamy mushroom soup followed by grilled cod with potatoes and leeks. Dinner was accompanied by a selection from El Cenador’s excellent — and affordable — list of Spanish wines. For dessert, I had Spanish cheeses and fruit, which made me feel, as indulgent as I was that evening, almost virtuous.

El Cenador del Prado [address] Calle del Prado, 4, Madrid 28014, Spain [tel] 91 429-15-61 or 91 429-15-49 [web] www.elcenadordelprado.com

Seven Random Things About Me

I’ve been tagged by one of my favorite bloggers — Allergic Girl, who pens Please Don’t Pass the Nuts. Who can resist a game of blog tag? Here are the rules:

1. Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
2. Share seven random and/or weird things about yourself.
3. Tag seven people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
4. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

And so, here are seven random things about me.

1. I bring home a small statuette from wherever I travel. So far the collection includes replicas of an Easter Island moai, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of the statues from Gaudi’s La Pedrera in Barcelona, and a carved stone llama from Pisac in Peru. When no statuette is available (say, in Bermuda or Chile), a fridge magnet will do. You can’t even see my fridge anymore.

2. I write crime fiction that terrifies some of my friends (my other friends refuse to read it anymore). The first short story I published was in Thuglit, which should tell you something. It’s called “Anniversary” and it’s included in the new anthology A Prisoner of Memory and 24 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories. Want to read my latest published story? It’s called “Son of So Many Tears” and it’s in the latest Thuglit (click here to read it online). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

3. I interned at Harper’s Magazine in the fall of 1995, and by some bizarre twist of fate, my face ended up on the cover of the February 1996 issue.

4. I’ve been involved in martial arts since I was eight years old. My training is mostly in karate (chito-ryu style), but lately I’ve been dabbling with krav maga and loving it.

5. My husband laughs at my taste in music, but I refuse to believe that disco is dead. Long live Donna Summer!

6. I once ghostwrote a nonfiction book for a very famous novelist. She was a delight to work with, but the overall experience with the book packager who put the deal together convinced me never to ghostwrite anything again.

7. I’m passionate about travel because it has transformed my life. I met my husband while on vacation in Italy, decided to quit my day job and become a full-time writer while visiting Thailand, and only worked up the nerve to start writing fiction after a trip to Prague.

Now here’s who I’m tagging:

Alison Stein Wellner at A Curious Mind
Claire Walter at Travel Babel
Ginger Warder at Traveling Food
Susan at Simply Gluten-Free
Rob and Diana at Celiac Food Reviews
Ann Douglas at The Mother of All Blogs
MotherSister Brooklyn
Crime writer Greg Bardsley at Chimichangas at Sunset

Yes, I know that’s more than seven, but they’re all good reads…

Chocolate Heaven for Celiacs in Toronto

When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, one of the thoughts I consoled myself with was that at least I could still have chocolate. I was only partially right: chocolate is naturally gluten-free, but some companies add wheat or malt for flavoring or consistency. It turned out that some of my favorite treats contained gluten, including Lindt milk chocolate truffles, and Smarties, a British analog to M&Ms (I grew up in Canada, so this was a much loved childhood candy).

I have a sweet tooth, so finding delicious gluten-free chocolates has become an ongoing quest for me. That’s why I was delighted to discover SOMA Chocolatemaker in Toronto. The shop is located in the city’s Distillery Historic District, a network of restaurants and boutiques housed in Victorian red-brick factory buildings that once contained the largest alcohol distillery in the British Empire. Depending on when you visit, you might catch the chocolate-makers at work behind the clear glass wall. Chocolates made in-house are displayed with signs alerting visitors to the presence of gluten or common allergens. There are several gluten-free bars to choose from, but my favorite is the elegantly uncomplicated blend of milk chocolate and dried cherries. SOMA’s truffles are expensive, but they pack such punch (think aromatic bergamot with bittersweet chocolate, or caramel inside dark Venezuelan chocolate dotted with fleur de sel) that having just one is supremely satisfying.

SOMA also makes ice cream and sorbet on-site as well. While the waffle cones aren’t gluten-free, you can get the frozen treats in a dish. Choices vary with the season, but the ones I’ve enjoyed include the lemon sour cream, the exceptionally rich Venezuelan vanilla, and the Ontario blueberry sorbet. Since SOMA produces its products in small batches, not all flavors are available on every visit — but that’s just more incentive to drop in on a regular basis.

SOMA Chocolatemaker [address] Distillery Historic District, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada [tel] 416-815-7662 [email] info@somachocolate.com [web] www.somachocolate.com

Dinner by the Danube

Travel writers are supposed to avoid tourist traps. Our job is to help travelers discover the heart of a place (though those recent tell-all books by travel journalists Chuck Thompson and Thomas Kohnstamm make you wonder), and a tourist trap offers the opposite of the authentic experience most people want. I follow some basic guidelines for identifying a tourist trap. The first is by location: is the restaurant located in the main tourist thoroughfare of a city, or alongside a major attraction? Possibly a tourist trap. Another giveaway is the menu: is it available in four or more languages? Tourist trap. Is anyone eating at the restaurant a local? If not… it’s a tourist trap. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but they’re reliable.

I normally try to sample local dishes wherever I go, but in Budapest this was almost impossible. Traditional Hungarian cuisine — including goulash (a stew to which many restaurants add starch), galuska (wheat-based dumplings), and töltött káposzta (cabbage rolls filled with barley) — seems designed to taunt the gluten-intolerant. So I turned to other cuisines. One Greek restaurant I found, Taverna Dionysos, fit my description of a tourist trap. It was on the edge of the Danube, with a prime view of the Buda hills and the lights that cover Budapest’s bridges and give the river a glittering sheen every evening till midnight. The menu was printed in multiple languages, and no one eating there seemed to be a local.

That should have been three strikes, but Taverna Dionysos wasn’t out by a long shot. The white-painted space was open and airy, and the staff was warm and friendly. I had a card describing celiac disease in Hungarian, but found that a couple of servers spoke English, so describing what I needed wasn’t hard. My meal was standard fare — a Greek salad with black olives and feta, followed by roasted chicken, rice, and grilled peppers — but the food was delicious and satisfying. And the spectacular view of the Danube was hard to resist (in warmer weather, Taverna Dionysos has alfresco tables, for which it’s absolutely necessary to make a reservation).

One note: there is a Hungarian Celiac Society, but its pages are only in Hungarian, which Google doesn’t translate. Any Hungarian speakers out there?

Taverna Dionysos [address] District V, Belgrad Rakpart 16, Budapest, Hungary [tel] 01 318-1222

Reader Report: Gluten-Free Buenos Aires

Gluten-Free Guidebook will be one month old on April 15th, and I’ve already received dozens of e-mails from readers around the world. Some have wanted to share their own experiences of traveling with celiac disease, while others have made specific recommendations about where to eat in a particular city. Thank you for all of your messages.

One incredibly thoughtful reader, Silvia Basualdo Róvere in Buenos Aires, sent me a list of local restaurants willing to prepare gluten-free meals. Silvia has celiac disease and is a member of Ley Celíaca (Celiac Law), an organization working to promote the welfare of Argentina’s 400,000 celiacs. She invites Gluten-Free Guidebook readers to visit the group’s website at www.ley-celíaca.com.ar; Ley Celiaca also has an online forum. The site and forum are in Spanish and can also be read via Google.

Argentina — and particularly Buenos Aires — is a destination that I’m longing to visit, and after reading Silvia’s list, I’m even more intrigued. Silvia has also graciously allowed me to include her e-mail address here (sbasualdo2002@yahoo.com.ar), so that readers can contact her directly. Below is Silvia’s list. You can find more details about these restaurants on Oleo, a Buenos Aires restaurant guide that is available in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. (By the way, Oleo also allows you to search for more eateries that serve “celiac food,” a feature I’d love to find on Open Table).

Thanks so much to Silvia for providing this list.

Boomerang RestoBar [address] Montañeses 2814, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4782.2688 [email] boomerang2814@yahoo.com.ar

Casimiro [address] Av. Rivadavia al 6075, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4634-3333 [web] www.lawebdecasimiro.com — Silvia notes that this is a family-friendly restaurant with a playroom for children; there are five locations in and around Buenos Aires

Celigourmet [address] Charcas 4784, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4776 5448 [email] celigourmet@hotmail.com [web] www.celigourmet.com.ar

Comer en Compañia [address] San Martín 951, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4312-3433

El Patio del Farol [address] Alvarado 2296 (esq. Corrientes), Ciudad de Mar del Plata [tel] 0223-494-5125 or 0223-155-285985 [email] reservas@elpatiodelfarol.com.ar [web] www.elpatiodelfarol.com.ar

La Angostura [address] Urquiza 5020 casi Juan B. Justo, Ciudad de Mar del Plata [tel] 0223-480 5528

Mezzo & Mezzo [address] Chile 362, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4300-9419

Mole Tacos Fonda Mexicana [address] Av. Cabildo 1368, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4896-0803 [email] contactanos@moletacos.com.ar [web] www.moletacos.com.ar

Pepino [address] Del Libertador, Av. 14475, Ciudad Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4792-2570 or 54-11 4733-4460 — Silvia says they serve burgers with gluten-free bread

Sensu (Japanese “fast food”), eight locations in Buenos Aires, at shopping centers including Abasto Shopping, Galerias Pacifico, and Solar de la Abadía; [tel] 081077-73678

Sette Bacco [address] Aguero 2157, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4808-0021

Simona Ristorante (Italian cuisine) [address] Humbold 1551, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4772-2008 [email] info@simonaristorante.com.ar [web] www.simonaristorante.com.ar

Tablas de Buenos Aires [address] Perón 7819 Ituzaingó, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4621-7081 [email] tablasbsas@yahoo.com.ar

Tea Connection (café) [address] Uriburu 1597, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4805-0616 (second location at O. Cossettini 1545, Loft 3, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4312-7315) [web] www.teaconnection.com.ar

Zona Natural [address] Tucumán 433, Ciudad de Buenos Aires [tel] 54-11 4312-9333 [email] zonanatural@uolsinectis.com.ar

Rice for Brunch

If you’ve ever read New York magazine’s “21 Questions” interview, you might be under the impression that the city’s residents want to abolish brunch. Fashion designer Todd Oldham referred to brunch as “Sunday-morning prison with a big bill at the end.” Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief and mystery novelist Kate White announced that “Brunch should be abolished.” Perhaps the most cutting remarks came from Brian Williams, anchor of the NBC Nightly News. “Brunch is an unnatural event, invented by the restaurant industry,” he said. “Life is about hard choices. Before noon on weekends, it’s called breakfast. After that, it’s lunch. Pick one.”

Ouch. Perhaps I should be ashamed to say this, but I love going out for brunch with friends. Now I’m wondering if my affection for the meal has more to do with the place that serves it. My favorite brunch spot in New York right now is Rice, a small, local chain specializing in pan-Asian cooking. It has two outlets in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn; the one I know best is the Murray Hill location, which is a tiny space at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 28th Street. In spite of its diminutive size, it feels spacious thanks to the high ceilings and pots of greenery on the tables. The design is casual, with sacks of –- what else? –- rice tucked under the rafters and small burlap rice bags serving as light shades.

Gluten-free meals are available here at lunch and dinner, but you can’t beat the weekend brunch. If you’re dining gluten-free, you’ll need to ask for the special menu, because servers don’t automatically bring it to the table. The $12 special (which applies to both regular and gluten-free brunches) buys you a main course, side dish, coffee/tea, and juice (for an extra $5, you can throw in unlimited mimosas, too). The gluten-free menu is extensive, yet I keep returning to the frittata with sautéed greens and manchego in a hot but sweet chili sauce, with the side dish of crispy rice-and-grit cakes with jalapeño and parmesan.

Brunch-hating New Yorkers, here’s a challenge: try brunch at Rice, and then decide whether the meal needs to be abolished.

Rice in Murray Hill [address] 115 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY [tel] 212-686-5400

Rice in Nolita [address] 292 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY [tel] 212-226-5775

Rice in DUMBO [address] 81 Washington Street, Brooklyn, NY [tel] 718-222-9880

Rice in Fort Greene [address] 166 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY [tel] 718-858-2700

All locations [website] www.riceny.com

UPDATE 01/24/2010: Rice has closed its Lexington Avenue location. The other three outposts remain open.

Celiac Disease in Translation

In the four years since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I’ve traveled to six countries where I didn’t speak the language. Asking the right questions about food preparation when you, your server and your chef all speak the same tongue can be challenging. When you’re dealing with translation issues, it makes the entire process that much tougher. Eating at a restaurant is always an exercise in trust; for the gluten-intolerant, it feels especially risky. I plan ahead by printing celiac disease translation cards before leaving home. Here’s how to do it — for free.

  1. Start by checking for free celiac information cards from national or regional associations. Both the Czech Coeliac Society and the Swiss Celiac Society offer such cards online. For other countries, take a look at the “International Celiac Societies” listed on the Resources page at Celiac Handbook. Only a few of them provide a card, but hopefully the number will increase. Print several copies so you won’t mind if a card gets damaged in a restaurant kitchen.
  2. The Celiac Travel website provides an impressive selection of cards in many languages (currently there are 38, including Arabic, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Urdu). I’ve used both the Hungarian and Spanish cards from this site and found that they worked extremely well. Given that several companies are charging money for celiac translation cards, I have to tip my hat to Roger and Lyndsay, who run this site, because they’re providing these detailed cards for free (a small donation is requested but not required).
  3. Gluten-Free Passport provides free cards online in French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. I like these because you have the English and the translated language side by side, though of course that makes these cards larger to print.
  4. There are several sites, including Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site and the Finnish Celiac Society, that provide or link to free information about celiac disease in different languages. These descriptions aren’t detailed, but they certainly get the point across in languages including Polish and Thai.
  5. If possible, learn a few words or phrases in the local language before you go on your trip. Knowing how to say “Tengo la enfermedad celiaca; No puedo comer harina o trigo” (I have celiac disease; I can’t eat flour or wheat) made my travels to Spain and Chile easier, because awareness of celiac disease was widespread. But I have to admit that I never managed this in Hungarian.

Has anyone bought the celiac translation cards from Triumph Dining, or paid for gluten intolerance or food allergy translation at Allergy Translation? I haven’t tried either of these options, but I’d love to hear your comments about them.

Home Away From Home in Cusco

When you have celiac disease, one of the toughest things about travel is finding the stamina to dine out day after day. At home, going to a restaurant can feel like a luxury, particularly when you’re confident that the staff will take care of your needs. It’s tough to find places like that when you’re on the road and you need to explain your dietary restrictions before every breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Before I went to Peru last fall I spent hours researching restaurants that could prepare gluten-free meals. I couldn’t find a single place mentioned in a guidebook or online. When I got on my flight to Peru (which you can read about here), I was nervous about what I would be surviving on for the next three weeks.

It turned out that I had nothing to worry about. This was partly because the traditional Andean diet is based on three staples — corn, potatoes, and quinoa — that are all celiac-safe. More importantly, I found that the Peruvian people were incredibly kind and took painstaking care of me, sometimes checking ingredients three or four times before bringing my main course to the table.

This wasn’t only true of the more expensive restaurants, but in the most casual eateries. A perfect example of this is the Moni Café-Restaurant in Cusco, the city that every traveler passes through on the way to Machu Picchu. Moni is an unpretentious, inexpensive spot that’s well away from the tourist crowds in the historic Plaza de Armas, and its specialty is vegetarian cooking. The recipes are very simple (my starter was a pumpkin soup made only with pumpkin, garlic, and cream) but the food is incredibly delicious. My main course involved all of the Andean staples: called the Sacred Valley Curry, it was a combination of giant-sized corn kernels with potato and quinoa in a tomato-and-onion sauce.

The staff was incredibly kind and helpful… so much so that I went back for another meal later in the week. That’s the thing about finding a restaurant you feel confident about while you’re on the road — it makes you feel right at home.

Moni Café-Restaurant [address] San Agustin 311, Cusco, Peru [tel] 51-84-231-029 [web] www.moni-cusco.com