Getting Away From It All in Chile

Taking a vacation used to be about getting away from it all. Now, it feels like wherever people go, we’re plugged in almost as well as we are at the office and at home. Most of the travel that I do is for work, so I lug along my laptop, hunt down WiFi hotspots, and respond to e-mails as if I were at my desk. The problem is, I’m just as much of an e-mail addict when I’m traveling for pleasure.

Maybe that’s why I appreciated Hacienda los Andes, a small outdoor lodge in Chile, so much. Getting there was an adventure in itself — the property is roughly a two-hour drive from the city of La Serena — through terrain that ranges from scenic olive groves to dramatic cliffs and valleys (the Hacienda is also accessible from Vicuña and Ovalle; its staff will arrange transfers for visitors from any of those three towns). It had been some time since I’d found myself in a place where my cell phone didn’t get a signal, and that was a good reminder to put away the tech toys.

The Hacienda los Andes is spread over a thousand acres, stretching from the Rio Hurtado to the top of the Cerro Gigante mountain. On the site is an old gold mine, which my husband and I hiked to on our first day there. There’s also a serene courtyard, a series of hammocks strung up around the casa and its terraces, a sauna and a Jacuzzi. The biggest attraction is horseback riding: the Hacienda’s German-Austrian owners, Clark Stede and Manuela Paradeiser, lead incredible tours on horseback that can be tailored even for those who haven’t ridden before. There’s also mountain-biking and Jeep tours of the foothills of the Andes. At night, the view of the southern sky is breathtaking.

What I loved best about the Hacienda was its kitchen. Only a small part of the acreage at the property is cultivated for growing; most of the produce comes from the small farms of the Rio Hurtado Valley. This turned out to be heaven for a celiac: because everything was made from scratch in the Hacienda’s own kitchen and the nearby village, there was no problem with mysterious sauces or ingredients. The staff was incredibly considerate of my dietary restrictions, and they also went the extra distance for me; for example, by baking a gluten-free corn bread for me to have with my breakfast (the results were a little crumbly but still delicious). The staff was equally considerate of my husband’s request for vegetarian dishes and another guest’s lactose-free diet. While I didn’t find any nuggets at the abandoned mine, I did feel as if I’d struck gold in the Andes.

Hacienda los Andes [address] Rio Hurtado, Hurtado, Chile [tel] +54 53-691-822 [web] www.haciendalosandes.com

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] www.sickkids.on.ca/specialtyfoodshop

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.

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] www.pala-ny.com

Just How Strict Is That Gluten-Free Diet?

While I was consistently impressed with the willingness and ability of San Francisco restaurants to accommodate my gluten-free diet, there was one strange issue that came up during my stay. At several spots, including Millennium, a vegan restaurant located in the Hotel California, the staff asked me how much tolerance I had for gluten. “I have celiac disease — that means I can’t have any gluten at all,” I explained (I didn’t get into a discussion of the European Union’s standard for gluten-free products, or the proposed standard that is currently under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration). The staff said that they just wanted to be sure, since some diners have told them that they’re on a gluten-free diet, but when they’re informed that there’s a little soy sauce in the dish they want to order, they claim that isn’t a problem for them.

My husband and I debated what this meant. Doesn’t everyone diagnosed with celiac disease know that they can’t have any gluten at all? But a post I recently read on another blog helped give me some perspective. On Gluten-Free NYC, David Marc Fischer wrote about an article, “The Top 10 Functional Food Trends,” published by Food Technology, a publication of the Institute of Food Technologists. The article discusses how the market for products catering to food allergies and intolerances continues to grow, disproportionate to their true medical base. It’s a depressing story to read, because while the demand for gluten-free products is growing, it isn’t driven by a sudden upward spike in the rate of celiac diagnosis. As the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness points out, 97 percent of people with celiac disease in the US have no idea they have it. A lot of people consuming gluten-free foods are doing so for reasons unrelated to celiac disease. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s terrible to give restaurants the impression that the gluten-free diet is just another lifestyle choice, rather than a medical necessity for 1 in every 133 people.

At Millennium, I ended up having a long conversation about safe and unsafe ingredients with the staff. (Couscous? Definitely not. Spelt? Fine for those with a wheat allergy but dangerous for celiacs). I started with the red quinoa timbale, which is constructed of toasted pine nuts, pickled clamshell mushrooms, peas, and avocado. I followed up with the Injera Crepe, made of chickpea flour and filled with Savoy cabbage, English peas, and pea shoots, and served with a carrot chutney. Millennium also offers some very fine cocktails, including the sweet Tamarind-Grapefruit Margarita and the unusually spicy Fire & Ice. In addition to an excellent meal, I got a reminder of why it’s important to be well-informed about the fine print of the gluten-free diet.

Millennium [address] 580 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94102 [tel] 415-345-3900 [web] www.millenniumrestaurant.com

Stalking Jamie Kennedy

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I’m a groupie. Not for rock stars or actors or even authors (well, maybe for Ken Bruen and Joyce Carol Oates and the Hard Case Crime writers), but for chefs. Toronto’s Jamie Kennedy is one I’ve been stalking for years. He’s a co-founder of the local chapter of the Slow Food movement, and his commitment to environmental issues, organic agriculture, and local producers is legendary. A decade ago, when I had a steady gig reviewing restaurants for Toronto Life magazine, Kennedy owned the sublime JK ROM, the restaurant at the Royal Ontario Museum. After that well-loved spot became a casualty of the museum’s ambitious renovation plan, the chef opened a new spot downtown.

The Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar is a perfect tapas restaurant. It’s only slightly larger than a cubbyhole, with tables for two lit by candles and barstool perches for those too tired (or hungry) to wait for a table. If you’re not familiar with Ontario vintages, this is one of the finest places to get an education: wines are available in half-size glasses, all the better for sampling. Ask the staff what distinguishes an Ontario Riesling from an Alsatian one, and you’re likely to get a taste of each along with an explanation.

When I told the server that I had celiac disease, she disappeared with my menu. A few minutes later she returned and handed it back to me. I opened the folded page and saw that the entire thing had been annotated in ballpoint pen. Dishes that were not available in a gluten-free version were crossed out, while potential modifications to others were written in. The server went over the menu with me in detail, pointing out potential problems with cross-contamination. I ended up with tapas-sized plates of asparagus with poached egg and pine nuts, tender duck confit, mushroom ragout, and blackberry sorbet.

I’ve been back to the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar several times, and have had a menu annotated for me on each visit. I’ve also been to the restaurant with friends who suffer from lactose intolerance and food allergies, and have seen the staff lavish the same care that they do with celiacs.

Sorry, Chef Kennedy – you can’t shake this groupie.

Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar [address] 9 Church Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada [tel] 416-362-1957 [web] www.jkkitchens.com