Upstairs, Downstairs

I’ve been a fan of the Toronto restaurant Far Niente for years. Located in the heart of the Financial District, it’s changed a lot over the past decade, morphing from a fairly casual California-winery-style open dining space with simple wooden tables and chairs into a sleek and expensive restaurant with leather banquettes and sultry lighting. The food has been excellent throughout, and when I was re-reviewing it recently, I found that the staff and the kitchen were considerate and informed about the gluten-free diet.

Still, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that a new, moderately priced restaurant had recently opened in Far Niente’s basement, where there used to be a bar. The restaurant, Four, was one of my favorite finds on my latest visit to Toronto. Four advertises itself as having a “balanced approach to guilt-free dining,” and while I’m forever skeptical about health food, it turns out that good-for-you can mean delicious. Every dish on the menu is less than 650 calories. That’s not such a feat with a starter salad like the beet-and-pear with goat cheese, but it’s pretty impressive with main courses like the delicious ocean trout with beluga lentils and sherry-mustard-dressed greens.

Four isn’t such a health-oriented place that they neglect the cocktail list: it’s particularly lengthy (locals still come here just to schmooze around the bar), and the pernod-chambord-raspberry cocktail is lovely. Service at Four is friendly and helpful, and the staff is well-versed in the gluten-free diet. At lunch, they offer sandwiches on gluten-free bread, and at both lunch and dinner there are pasta dishes made with buckwheat noodles (there’s also a spelt fusilli as another option for those allergic to wheat, though it’s not celiac-safe).

My dining companion, a friend who doesn’t have celiac disease, was just as thrilled with Four as I was. We’re both planning to go back soon… I just need to wait for my next visit to Toronto.

Far Niente [address] 187 Bay St. (at Wellington St.), Toronto, Ontario, Canada [tel] 416-214-9922 [web]

Four [address] 187 Bay St. (lower level) [tel] 416-368-1444 [web]

My Tried-and-True Toronto Spot

I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails from readers asking me for Italian restaurants with gluten-free menus in different neighborhoods around Toronto. Oddly enough, my answer has been the same each time: Il Fornello. This small Toronto chain has become an institution with nine outposts in and around the city. There’s one across from Roy Thomson Hall (with easy access to the Theatre District), another at Queen’s Quay by the waterfront, and still another in the middle of Greektown on the Danforth. It feels as if Il Fornello is never far away, wherever you are in the city.

That’s a good thing because all Il Fornello restaurants offer celiac-safe options. They always stock rice pasta (which can be substituted in most pasta dishes for an additional $1.75) and gluten-free Quejos pizza crust (for an additional $3.75). The pasta is always a good bet, and I’m particularly fond of the Pollo e Pesto dish (an excellent combination of chicken, pesto, plum tomatoes, and pine nuts). The pizza, in my experience, is a tougher proposition — literally. The Danforth location consistently gets it right, and options like the Fig Pizza (think mascarpone, prosciutto, grana padano, honeyed arugula, and figs) are heavenly. The downside of the Quejos crust is that if it’s overcooked, it becomes rock-hard, a fact I’ve discovered much to my chagrin at some of the other locations. Il Fornello also offers excellent salads (the naturally gluten-free Roma salad is a mix of greens, goat cheese, walnuts, and roasted peppers), and a reasonably priced list of wines by the glass, including several from Ontario wineries.

I recently discovered that the Zagat guides named Il Fornello as one of Toronto’s top ten restaurants. Initially, I was shocked. Toronto is foodie heaven, with chefs like Jamie Kennedy, Mark McEwan, Marc Thuet, Greg Couillard, Chris McDonald, and Susur Lee (for now — Mr. Lee is heading to New York to open a new restaurant). Putting Il Fornello on that list seemed like a stretch. But in all honesty, Il Fornello is a place I hit at least once (more often twice) when I visit Toronto. It’s not glamorous, but it offers good value for the money, and peace of mind for gluten-intolerant diners.

Il Fornello [web]; nine locations in Toronto, including:

In the Theatre District [address] 214 King Street West (west of University Avenue) [tel] 416-977-2855

On the Danforth [address] 576 Danforth Avenue (west of Pape Avenue) [tel] 416-466-2931

At Queen’s Quay [address] 207 Queen’s Quay West [tel] 416-861-1028

North of Rosedale [address] 1560 Yonge Street (north of St. Clair Avenue) [tel] 416-920-7347

A Special Dinner Series in Toronto

What could be better than having a talented chef cook dinner? How about having five talented chefs prepare a five-course dinner? That’s exactly what I enjoyed at the first Cross Town Kitchens dinner in Toronto on June 2nd, when chefs from local restaurants Amuse-Bouche, C5, Marben, Perigee, and Torito cooked up a storm to raise money for charity. (The second dinner in the series will take place on July 28, 2008.)

When I first heard about the Cross Town Kitchens event, I doubted that I’d be able to go. While I’m always up for the challenge of dining in a new restaurant, I’ve had difficulties finding celiac-safe food at events. Hors d’oeuvres are something I steer clear of, since they’re usually set atop brioche, nested in a pastry shell, or treated with gluten in some other way. And I’ve learned from experience that it can be hard to get a kitchen to modify a set menu.

However, the five restaurants participating in the Cross Town Kitchens dinner couldn’t have been more accommodating. Not only was I treated to custom-made hors d’oeuvres (and let me say that a slice of cucumber is a fine substitute for brioche), but they managed to ensure that all five of my courses were gluten-free. Sometimes this involved reinventing a dish, so that while my fellow diners tasted a pappardelle pasta dish with morel mushrooms, fava beans, and duck prosciutto, I was tucking into a salad with identical accompaniments. Some of the dishes, including the pan-seared langoustines and the venison main course, were already gluten-free and needed no modifications.

Need another inducement? Proceeds from the dinners are donated to The Stop Community Food Centre. After the next dinner on July 28, 2008, there will be one in September 2008, another in February 2009, and the fifth (and hopefully not final) one in April 2009. If you’ll be in Toronto on one of the dates, I’d encourage you to check it out (and be sure to confirm that they will be able to accommodate your gluten-free diet when you make your reservation). The $95 per person charge is expensive, but this is a rare opportunity to have five chefs cooking for you — and raising money for a great cause at the same time. Bon appetit!

Good News for Canadian Pizza Fans

When the Canadian chain Pizza Pizza announced in March that they were introducing gluten-free pizza dough in a pilot program at 50 of their locations around Toronto, people took notice. Not only did the news hit the blogosphere — on Toronto Celiac and other websites — but the Toronto Star reported the story as well.

Here’s an update: the response to the gluten-free pizzas was so overwhelmingly positive that Pizza Pizza has expanded the program. All 531 of the company’s locations in Quebec and Ontario now offer gluten-free crusts. I’ve finally tasted the pizza for myself, I can understand why it’s become so popular. Made from rice flour, potato starch, water, non-hydrogenated canola oil, sugar, salt, methylcellouse, yeast, and monoglyerides, it’s crispy, it’s delicious, and it holds up well even when reheated.

There are a couple of things to watch for when ordering this pizza. The most important is that not all of the toppings are gluten-free. Want pepperoni with it? Then ask for the New York-style pepperoni, which is celiac-safe, instead of the standard “classic” pepperoni, which contains wheat. The gluten-free crust is currently available only in a medium pizza, which will feed two people, and there’s an additional $3.25 charge for it. But this is a great option for pizza-lovers on a gluten-free diet — and the ready-in-20-minutes-or-it’s-free rule still applies.

UPDATE (06/16/08): This post originally stated that gluten-free pizza crusts are available in all Pizza Pizza outlets across Canada. While this is true of the outlets run under the name Pizza Pizza, it is not true of the Pizza 73 outlets the company owns in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

Dining in Toronto’s Distillery District

One of Toronto’s newest attractions is actually one of its oldest: the buildings of the Distillery Historic District have stood since 1832, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the complex was reinvented as a historic center. This 45-building site was once the home of the Gooderham & Worts Distillery, Canada’s largest distilling company in the 19th century. For much of the 20th century, the buildings sat in ruined splendor, put to use occasionally as a site for film shoots. More recently, the district was restored to its Victorian red-brick glory, and now it contains art galleries, shops, theaters, and restaurants.

I’ve written already about SOMA Chocolatemaker, a particularly delicious chocolate shop in the Distillery Historic District. Other notable spots include the Corkin Gallery, the Sandra Ainsley Gallery, the Deaf Culture Centre, Bergo Designs (cutting-edge housewares), Lileo (clothing for men, women, and children), and Corktown Designs (jewelry). And then there is Perigee.

When I think of places I’ve dined since being diagnosed with celiac disease, few have inspired such confidence as Perigee. This could be because the staff is incredibly well-versed in the gluten-free diet (and considerate of food allergies as well). I didn’t need to explain that not only wheat, barley, and rye were off my particular menu, but so are kamut, semolina, bulgur, and couscous (I have, on several occasions, had well-meaning waiters tell me that couscous is “like rice”; for some reason, it’s commonly mistaken for a gluten-free food). Another part of Perigee’s appeal is the glass-walled kitchen, which sits in the middle of the dining room, allowing diners to watch the chefs at work.

This is an expensive place to dine, but whenever I’ve splurged it’s been worth it. The cooking is classical French with a twist, since ingredients from South America and Asia spice up the plates, too. The restaurant offers several prix fixe menus: one for theater-goers (a great bet if you’re seeing Native Earth Performing Arts or Soulpepper that evening), one for vegetarians, and an extravagant nine-course omakase tasting menu, in which you advise the chef of your dietary issues and food preferences, and put yourself in his capable hands. Of course, you can order à la carte as well, which means you can enjoy grilled yellowfin tuna paired with Japanese diver scallops in a mild green curry sauce, or venison with a leek-and-fennel sauce (but minus the phyllo-wrapped greens that usually accompany it).

Perigee [address] Distillery Historic District, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada [tel] 416-364-1397 [web]

Gluten-Free Pizza Perfection in New York

I’m on the road right now, researching my next edition of Frommer’s Toronto. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be reporting on some of my finds in Toronto and southwestern Ontario. But right now, I want to let you know about a restaurant I visited for the first time this past weekend. Palà Pizza Romana is on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and I first heard about it through a post by Kelly on Celiac Chicks.

On Saturday, Kelly organized a tasting event with Palà’s owners, to get the word out about the restaurant’s incredible gluten-free pizza. The crust is a blend of several flours — including garbanzo bean, white sorghum, tapioca, and fava bean — and the results are amazing. My favorite slice was the Zucca, which blends pumpkin puree, mozzarella, pancetta, smoked scamorza cheese, and parsley. But I can also recommend the Arrabbiata (fresh cherry tomatoes, hot pepper, and garlic), the Mediolanum (gorgonzola, asparagus, mozzarella, and tomato sauce), and the Zucchina (zucchini, goat cheese, cherry tomato sauce, mozzarella, and rosemary).

Since the gluten-free pizza dough is made in small batches — and with different equipment than what’s used for regular dough — Palà‘s owners suggest diners pre-order by 6pm to ensure that the restaurant doesn’t run out on a busy night. For the lactose intolerant, Palà also offers soy mozzarella, available in regular (2% casein), and vegan (casein-free) versions.

If you’re looking for great gluten-free pizza in New York, Palà is worth checking out.

Palà Pizza Romana [address] 198 Allen Street, New York, NY 10002 [tel] 212-614-7252 [web]