Surprises on the Road in New Brunswick

One of the reasons I love to travel is that I want to be surprised. When I walked into the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, I was stunned to find Salvador Dali’s massive masterpiece, Santiago El Grande. The gallery was founded in 1959 by the Canadian media baron Max Aitken, who had received the title of Lord Beaverbrook in 1917. Fortunately, Beaverbrook didn’t forget his roots, endowing his home province with this gallery and many other treasures. The collection at the Beaverbrook is astounding for a gallery of its size. In addition to the Dali, the collection includes J.M.W. Turner’s The Fountain of Indolence, Botticelli’s The Resurrection, Lucien Freud’s Hotel Bedroom, and Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia. (There is an ongoing legal dispute between the gallery and a UK-based foundation also established by Beaverbrook about the ownership of many of the most famous works; the gallery won a 2007 decision, but that decision is currently under appeal.)

Another surprise for me in Fredericton was a downtown restaurant called the The Blue Door. I was lured by its reputation for fusion-style cooking; its kitchen is well-known for blending Asian spices with Atlantic Canadian seafood. It wasn’t until I arrived there that I discovered the menu is annotated with celiacs in mind. Every appetizer and entrée that is gluten-free is highlighted with a crossed-out wheat sheaf (similar to the symbol that so many celiac societies in Europe use). Vegetarian offerings are also clearly highlighted. There is plenty of choice: the gluten-free appetizers include a house-smoked duck breast with arugula laced with a ginger-pomegranate-watermelon dressing (yum), and Prince Edward Island mussels dressed with sake and mango (which I almost ordered). The main-course choices range from a black-pepper-seared tuna steak with local potatoes and a mango salsa, to a plate of coconut-, pistachio-, and chipotle-pepper-flavored scallops.

The Blue Door is both a restaurant and a cocktail lounge, so it’s no surprise that the drinks are excellent. (I can recommend the Red Velvet, a mix of raspberry, cranberry, and lime with vodka.)

The Blue Door [address] 100 Regent Street, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada [tel] 506-455-2583 [fax] 506-455-2589 [web]

Fine Gluten-Free Dining in Lima

My trip to Peru last fall wasn’t planned as a gastronomic tour, but that’s what it turned into. From Cusco to Arequipa to Lima, some of the best meals I’ve tasted were on that trip. Peru’s culinary scene is a true melting pot of cultures, and that rich heritage is enhanced by the fact that almost any ingredient you could want grows in this country.

There was one foodie destination on my trip checklist, though: I wanted to dine at Astrid y Gaston. I’d first heard of chef Gastón Acurio on a prior trip to South America, and I’d read a lot about him. In addition to his restaurants in Lima, Bogota, Caracas, Panama, Quito, Santiago and Madrid, Acurio has his own cooking show and is a popular media personality. I expected to be impressed with his restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, in the elegant Miraflores neighborhood, and it lived up to its advance billing. Located on a tiny street that runs off the crowded Parque Miraflores (where there are frequent open-air concerts, and where the beautiful church Parroquia la Virgen Milagrosa sits on the eastern edge), Astrid y Gaston was an intriguing combination of formality and irreverence. The setting — an old colonial mansion — is stunning, the service is impeccable, and the atmosphere is lively and warm.

The waiter who served my table spoke fluent English, but using a Spanish-language celiac card made it easier to explain my dietary restrictions. After a conference in the kitchen, I was told that about half the items on the relatively long menu were naturally gluten-free, and that several others could be modified to be so. I started with ceviche, the classic Peruvian dish of raw seafood marinated in lime juice. I’d been trepidatious about trying this dish earlier on my trip — eating uncooked seafood is normally too big a risk when you want to stay healthy — but the dish I had at Astrid y Gaston was perfect (and perfectly healthy). My main course — a spicy tuna steak with a hint of sweetness mixed in — was just as satisfying.

I don’t know if the other outposts of Gaston y Astrid are as celiac-friendly as the one in Lima, and I’d love to hear from readers who have tried them. This month, Gastón Acurio is opening a restaurant in San Francisco — La Mar Cebicheria Peruana at the Embarcadero’s Pier 1.5 — and I can’t wait to try it on my next visit.

Astrid y Gaston [address] Calle Cantuarias 175, Miraflores (Lima), Peru [tel] 01/444-1496 [web]

Toronto’s Great Gluten-Free Store

On recent trips to Toronto, I’ve discovered that gluten-free grocery-store choices have multiplied. There’s Whole Foods in Hazelton Lanes (though its Gluten-Free Bakehouse options are more limited than what I encounter in the chain’s New York branches). Grocery giant Loblaws now has a specialty-food aisle in its shops that includes celiac-safe options. There’s also Noah’s Natural Foods, a small, health-oriented local chain, and Ambrosia Natural Foods just north of Toronto in Thornhill. However, my favorite in the city — the Specialty Food Shop — is located downtown at the southeast corner of University Avenue and Gerrard Street.

If you know Toronto at all, that location might have sent up a red flag. Right now, you’re asking yourself, Isn’t that where the Hospital for Sick Children is? Yes, and that’s exactly where the Specialty Food Shop is. I know that going into a hospital to shop for food isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but if you can get past that obstacle, this is a real find. There are aisles filled with gluten-free treats — cookies of all descriptions, ice-cream cones, snack bars — as well as aisles filled with healthier fare, including pastas, cereals, breads, soup bases and mixes, baking products, and frozen dinners.

The Specialty Food Shop carries brands many North American celiacs know, including Glutino, Mi-Del, and Enjoy Life, but there are some surprises, too. Who knew that there’s a fantastic Swiss-style dedicated gluten-free bakery called El Peto in Ontario that makes divine butter tarts and pecan tarts? An Alberta company, Kinnikinnick, produces Oreo-like cookies called K-Toos. There are also international brands such as Australia’s Orgran (which makes buckwheat pasta) and Germany’s Glutano.

The store isn’t just for celiacs, and not all of its products are gluten-free. There are also groceries for the lactose-intolerant and the food-allergic, people on low-protein diets, and people with cystic fibrosis. If you live in Canada but can’t make it to the store in person, you can place your order online or by phone instead (shipping is not available to the U.S.). If you do have the opportunity to visit, enter the building through the Elizabeth Street entrance (the Hospital for Sick Children is a massive complex; this offers the clearest route to the store). The store is open seven days a week; check the website for the most up-to-date hours. Its website also features extensive nutritional information and gluten-free recipes.

The Specialty Food Shop [address] At the Hospital for Sick Children (main floor), 555 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada [tel] 1-800-737-7976 or 416-813-5294 [web]

A Tale of Two Newfoundland Inns

Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John’s, is a place with a rich sense of history: European fishermen started fishing from its harbor in the 1500s, and its famous downtown route, Water Street, is the oldest street in North America. It’s also a city that’s changing fast: there’s construction all over town, new attractions have opened up in the past few years (such as The Rooms, which contains a museum, art gallery, and archives), and it’s got a thriving nightlife and live-music scene. The accommodations I found in St. John’s were as eclectic as the city itself.

The Park House Inn is a bed-and-breakfast on a quiet residential street that’s a short walk from downtown. The Second Empire-style mansion was built in 1870, and its sweeping spiral staircase, towering ceilings and elegant antique and reproduction furnishings make for a grand setting. While I loved my suite (which boasted a Jacuzzi tub), I was most impressed by the kitchen. I’ve encountered bed-and-breakfasts that consider “breakfast” to mean a couple of slices of toast with jam. At the Park House Inn, breakfast is made to order for each guest, and the staff is familiar with celiac disease. The cook carefully prepared cheese-and-vegetable-filled omelettes for me, serving them with seasoned potatoes and fresh fruit. I spent three nights at the Park House Inn and enjoyed every minute.

My trip was planned so that I would see different sides of St. John’s, so I transferred to Blue on Water for the next three nights of my stay there. Blue on Water is a boutique hotel that faces Water Street, and all you have to do to get to the heart of the action in St. John’s is step outside (George Street, the main pub-and-club thoroughfare in the city, is steps away). The hotel is luxuriously modern, and its stylish design is complemented by amenities like wireless Net access and CD/DVD players. Best of all was the ground floor restaurant, also called Blue on Water, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Again, the staff was familiar with celiac disease, and prepared excellent gluten-free breakfasts (and one outstanding gluten-free dinner) for me.

Staying at a classic bed-and-breakfast or a modern boutique hotel is a matter of individual preference — but I was glad to discover that both properties are skilled at taking care of gluten-free guests.

Park House Inn [address] 112 Military Road, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada [tel] 866-303-0565 or 709-576-2265 [web]

Blue on Water [address] 319 Water Street, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada [tel] 877-431-2583 or 709-754-2583 [web]