Travels in Ferryland

Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula is a magical place. In 1621, George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, founded his Colony of Avalon here, a place that offered a utopian vision of religious freedom. Baltimore is far more famous for his time in the colony of Maryland, but the Newfoundland site, now known as Ferryland, continues to be a rich and revealing one for archaeologists. It’s an hour’s drive from Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John’s, and the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve — which has North America’s largest puffin colony — is on the route, making it a perfect day trip.

The tricky thing, when traveling with celiac disease, is figuring out where to eat on a day trip like that, especially when the number of options isn’t large. That was why I was so glad to discover Lighthouse Picnics while I was in Newfoundland. The business was created by local talents Jill Curran and Sonia O’Keefe. Curran is the great-granddaughter of the onetime keeper of the 1869 lighthouse, and O’Keefe is a chef who trained with the legendary Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. (That’s the same Darina Allen who co-authored a cookbook called Healthy Gluten-Free Cooking with Rosemary Kearney in 2005.) The pair have created a vibrant tourist site by renting the scenic red metal Ferryland Head Lighthouse every summer since 2002. They create gourmet picnic lunches for visitors to enjoy al fresco while whale-watching from the grounds (there’s also indoor seating for rainy-day lunches).

The spicy curried chicken they made for me was incredible, as was the simple green salad that blended different lettuces with herbs and nuts, and the Strawberry Fool, a rich dessert of fruit and rich cream. Even the delicious lemonade was made on-site. Because the owners prepare every picnic themselves, using produce from local farmers, they are able to create gluten-free dishes; advance reservations are strongly recommended for everyone, but they’re essential for anyone with a food intolerance or allergy.

Lighthouse Picnics also hosts great events. In the past these have included readings by Michael Crummey (author of River Thieves and The Wreckage), and performances by Encuentro Flamenco, a local dance troupe. If you’re visiting Newfoundland in summer, make sure that a picnic at Ferryland is on your itinerary.

Lighthouse Picnics [address] Ferryland, Newfoundland, Canada [tel] 709-363-7456 [web]

The Return of Bistango

When visiting New York, there are certain sights that should be on every traveler’s checklist: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, the Frick Collection, and Century 21 (come on, who doesn’t want great discounts on designer clothing?). For gluten-intolerant visitors, that list should also include Bistango.

Haven’t heard of Bistango? The restaurant is located in Murray Hill, and it’s been in business for 15 years. There was an interruption of service this spring, when Bistango closed for renovations. The original plan called for it to be closed for only a month, but as the timeline stretched on and on, I started to worry whether it would return.

Happily, Bistango is back. If you’ve been there before, you’ll notice that the bar is shorter (making more room for tables), and that the brick walls have given way to red-painted plaster (with stylized portraits of the owner’s three daughters on the walls). What hasn’t changed is the restaurant’s commitment to its gluten-intolerant diners. The first sign is when bread is brought to the table: I love the warm slices of gluten-free bread — baked by Everybody Eats in Brooklyn — and the individual bowls of oil and garlic for dipping (that way, there’s no cross-contamination).

Almost every item on Bistango’s menu, with the exception of a couple of stuffed pastas (such as the ravioli), can be prepared in a gluten-free version. (Many dishes are naturally gluten-free, and all of the sauces are.) Celiac-safe starters run the gamut from the Bistango salad (a mix of mesclun, sliced apples, goat cheese, and pine nuts), to the plate of prosciutto and Gorgonzola with fig compote. Main-course dishes include rack of lamb in a rich cognac sauce, and chicken breast topped with spinach and mozzarella in a marinara sauce. There’s also gluten-free pizza and pasta to choose from.

While the food is consistently excellent, what really makes a meal at Bistango stand out is the graciousness of its staff. The owner, Anthony, goes back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen, talking to everyone and making sure that diners are comfortable. The servers are just as thoughtful, making Bistango a rare find.

Bistango [address] 415 Third Avenue (at the corner of East 29th St.), New York, NY 10016 [tel] 212-725-8484 [web]

Roundup: North American Gluten-Free News

I love it when people tell me about their great gluten-free dining experiences. One reader, whose husband has celiac disease, contacted me about their dinner at Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo restaurant in Chicago. They were deeply impressed by the thoughtfulness of the staff. It was clear from the start of their meal, when the restaurant’s manager came to their table to talk, that the restaurant took gluten-free dining seriously. Because the chef was concerned about cross-contamination (apparently the chilies in some sauces were flash-fried in a deep fryer, and could have been exposed to gluten particles), the two gluten-free dishes that made their way to the table were variations of menu items. Topolobampo’s sommelier also did a fine job pairing wines with the special dishes. The reader wrote:

We travel and eat out extensively and have never come across this level of dedication and exemplary service. The manager kept apologizing that our meal was going to take a little longer than normal. It was unreal and did not break the bank either…

Another reader wrote to tell me about Leaf Cuisine, a Los Angeles restaurant that is virtually the only place where she will dine out (in addition to being gluten intolerant, she has allergies to casein and corn). Leaf Cuisine is a raw-food restaurant, meaning that none of the food is heated above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. All of the menu items are vegan and reasonably priced. The restaurant also sells some of its creations in local stores (including several Whole Foods outlets in Los Angeles) and offers courses in raw-food preparation.

One reader told me about a website created by her daughter. It’s a wonderful resource called Gluten-Free Ontario, and if you’re traveling anywhere in the province, take a look at it. The long list of cities represented includes Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Barrie, London, and Sault Sainte Marie. A lot of work has gone into the site, and the results will help many people make decisions about dining out.

Finally, I wanted to alert U.S. readers that a couple of medical centers are offering free screening for celiac disease. This past Saturday, the West Virginia Gluten Intolerance Group and the Department of Pediatrics at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University worked with the Cabell-Huntington Hospital to provide free blood screening (I wish I’d heard about it earlier, and I hope that they will repeat this event in future). The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center offers an annual day of free screening; the next one will be on October 18, 2008. That may sound like a long way off, but participants need to pre-register by calling [tel] 773-702-7593 after August 15, 2008. For a calendar of events of interest to the gluten-intolerant, including free blood screenings, check out the calendar at Gluten-Free Forum. For a list of the Gluten Intolerance Group’s branches and partner offices, click here.

Barcelona’s Casa Calvet

Barcelona is a city that I find more beautiful the closer I get to it. There’s nothing particularly striking about its skyline when viewed from a plane or train. Even from Montjuïc, one of Barcelona’s two mountains, the view is more impressive for what it captures of the Mediterranean than for what you can see of the city itself (see photo above). But once you start walking through its streets, Barcelona becomes so stunning that it’s almost impossible to believe. Up close, Barcelona’s charms are irresistible.

Part of the city’s attraction is its unusual layout and architecture. For starters, once you’ve seen octagonal intersections, you wonder why anyone would plan them any other way. Then there’s the work of extraordinary architects, such as Antoni Gaudí. His inspiring Sagrada Familia, psychedelic Park Güell, and various otherworldly visions are an essential part of what makes Barcelona so dramatic and unique.

Casa Calvet is considered the most conventional of Gaudí’s buildings. Located in the Eixample district, it was built for a textile manufacturer in 1898. While the exterior is far more conventional than a typical Gaudí project, its interior is striking. Better yet, a restaurant (also called Casa Calvet) has been open on the premises since 1994, making fine use of the ground-floor rooms with their soaring, undulating ceilings. But this isn’t a dining spot that gets by on its good looks. While the menu at Casa Calvet changes frequently, I was impressed by the duck-breast salad I had as a starter, and the main-course grilled hake (a salt-water fish that’s similar to cod); both were already gluten-free and required no modification to make them safe for me. Almost everything was made from scratch on the premises (always a help when you need to identify every ingredient in a dish), except the rice cakes that were served to me in lieu of bread. Familiar with celiac disease and the gluten-free diet, the thoughtful restaurant staff made the evening extraordinary. I’ve learned not to expect anything less from Barcelona.

Casa Calvet [address] Carrer Casp 48, Barcelona, Spain [tel] 93-412-40-12 [web]

Last Supper in Cusco

Just after I arrived in Cusco — Peru’s third-largest city, and the jumping-off point for any trip to Machu Picchu — I toured the city’s massive cathedral. It’s not only a religious institution; it’s also a fine museum that showcases some 300 paintings. The works are mostly by the Cusco School (or Cuzco School) of the 17th and 18th centuries, which had European painters come to Cusco — once the capital of the Inca Empire — to teach local artists to paint in the European style. The results were beautiful, beatific, and occasionally bizarre. The indigenous artists converted to Catholicism, but they retained certain Inca ideas. For example, depicting Jesus in a loincloth was profoundly disrespectful in their eyes, so Jesus wears the knee-length linen skirt of the Inca nobility in scenes of the crucifixion. But the most famous departure from European tradition is in the rendering of the Last Supper. Forget Leonardo da Vinci: this version depicts Jesus and his disciples gathered around a table to enjoy a last supper of… guinea pig.

If you haven’t visited South America, it may come as a shock that a mammal North Americans take for a family pet is considered a delicacy (it’s called cuy in these parts). By the end of my week in Cusco, I was ready to give it a try. I finally had it at the MAP Café, the restaurant at Cusco’s Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (an offshoot of the renowned Larco Museum in Lima). The restaurant is one of the most extravagant and exceptional in the city, and its setting is unique — it’s essentially a glass box in an interior courtyard, surrounded by archways through which diners can catch glimpses of ancient art.

What impressed me most about the MAP Café was the service. When I showed the waiter my Spanish celiac disease card, he got the other staff members together so that everyone who would be working with my table would be aware of my gluten-free diet. The kitchen had a few questions about ingredients that weren’t mentioned on the card, including quinoa. I started with a dish that paired thinly sliced grilled alpaca with anchovies, followed by cuy confit with peanut-and-panca-flavored potatoes (panca is a type of Peruvian pepper, not to be confused with panko — Japanese breadcrumbs — which aren’t gluten-free). Cuy turned out to be an incredibly rich, strongly flavored meat (it doesn’t taste anything like chicken). For dessert, I had sautéed strawberries in a purple corn sauce, served with a corn-infused ice cream. It was an incredible gluten-free meal from start to finish, and while it was expensive compared to my other meals in Cusco, the three-course prix fixe menu included a glass of wine and cost only $35. Best of all, I had a fine introduction to just how appealing cuy could be.

MAP Café [address] In the Museo de Arte Precolombino, Plaza Nazarenas 231, Cusco, Peru [tel] 084-242-476 [website]

An Amuse-ing Evening in Toronto

I’ve been working on the Frommer’s Toronto 2009 guidebook for the past several weeks, and one thing that has impressed me is the continuing strength of the city’s restaurant scene. Being a travel writer who has celiac disease has its drawbacks, but it does give me a unique perspective when evaluating a restaurant. I can’t sample certain dishes on the menu anymore, but I have a better perspective on how accommodating a restaurant is willing to be and how helpful the staff is.

Every year I have to compile a list of Toronto’s “Unforgettable Dining Experiences” for the book. In the new edition, the restaurant at the top of my list is Amuse-Bouche. Located on a mostly residential, quiet downtown street, it’s a cozy bistro with a charming patio out front. I decided to review it after sampling some of the chef’s work at the first Cross Town Kitchens dinner. When I called Amuse-Bouche to make a reservation, I mentioned that I have celiac disease, and I was assured it wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Imagine my surprise when I got to the restaurant, identified myself, and had a plate of warm bread set in front of me. “We’ve been baking all afternoon,” the waiter announced with a smile. “Gluten-free bread!” A couple of other staff members joined him and described the process and the several gluten-free flours they’d mixed to create a delicious (albeit slightly crumbly) bread. It was delicious and when I’d finished it all off they asked if they could bring out more. How could I say no? (I do lose control in the presence of really good gluten-free bread.)

The meal I had that evening was excellent. An amuse bouche is technically a small taste at the beginning of a meal that showcases the chef’s creativity and whets your appetite for more. Even after all that bread, I found room for dishes like the black cod ceviche with pink grapefruit and pineapple caipirinha sorbet. It was unusual to have so many strong flavors on a plate at once, but to have them come together harmoniously was a great achievement. And the excellent service I experienced at the restaurant made a lasting impression. (Before you ask, no, the restaurant staff had no idea I was reviewing it.)

Amuse-Bouche [address] 96 Tecumseth St. (one block north of King Street West), Toronto, Ontario, Canada [tel] 416-913-5830 [web]

UPDATE 08/19/2010: Amuse-Bouche has been permanently closed.