Raw Food Bliss in San Diego

There are several ways that restaurant reviewers, for better or worse, judge a restaurant before they taste even a morsel of food. The most obvious step is to evaluate the location and the décor. A more subtle way is looking around at who is dining there (and if there’s no one else in sight, that’s considered a bad sign). Naturally service is considered, too: does a staff member greet you and seat you upon arrival, or are you left to languish by the door?

However, this set of criteria can be trumped by a truly excellent meal, as it was at Cilantro Live in Carlsbad, California. The restaurant was recommended by Gluten Free in SD, a must-read website for any celiac living in or visiting the San Diego area. However, I didn’t fall in love with Cilantro Live on sight: located in an unremarkable mall, the restaurant proved tricky to find inside the complex. Its décor was utilitarian, to put it kindly, and the restaurant was empty when I arrived and stayed that way until a few minutes before I left, when a couple wandered in. And while the service during the meal was good, there wasn’t a staff member in sight to greet me when I first arrived. In spite of these faults, the quality of the food was outstanding, so much so that I ended up eating two meals from the restaurant (one at the restaurant, one takeout).

The cosmetic problems may go a long way to explaining why the small Cilantro Live chain, with its three San Diego-area locations, closed earlier this year. The good news is that the Carlsbad location is open again, under a new name: Blissfull Living Food & Juice. The new eatery’s menu is much shorter than its predecessor’s, but it’s continuing to serve up raw food cuisine and it’s still celiac-friendly. While some of the dishes are similar to offerings at Cilantro Live, they’re not identical (let me just note that Cilantro Live did an amazing “burger,” and I’m glad to see there’s one on Blissfull’s menu; ditto for the Caesar salad). I hope that the reinvented Blissfull is able to fix the small but noticeable problems that plagued the other, because the delicious vegan dishes should be appreciated for their fine quality.

Blissfull Living Food & Juice [address] 300 Carlsbad Village Drive, Suite 106 (lower level), Carlsbad, CA 92008 [tel] 760-730-9782 [fax] 760-730-9868 [web] www.blissfullfood.com

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] www.thebluedoor.ca

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] www.perigeerestaurant.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

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

Pure Bliss


In my restaurant-reviewing days, I had a bias against virtuous food, which I defined as anything you ate because it was supposed to be good for you, rather than because it satisfied your taste buds. I have nothing against broccoli (it tastes good to me, at least when paired with hummus or tzatziki), but I gravitate towards creamy cheeses, gamey meats, and dreamy desserts. When I first read about the raw food movement, I was horrified. I considered low-fat mozzarella an abomination; what could I say about a cuisine that made “cheese” out of nuts?

Silly me. One of my favorite restaurants in New York has turned out to be a raw food spot. Pure Food and Wine is just south of Gramercy Park (see photo above) on Irving Place. My husband suggested it just after my celiac diagnosis, when we were casting about for a romantic spot to celebrate our anniversary. At that point, I was nervous at the thought of eating anywhere but my own home. My husband and I called Pure Food, asking question after question to establish the staff’s ability — and willingness — to prepare a gluten-free meal. Finally I decided to give it a try.

The restaurant was a surprise: the long, lean room mixed natural woods that echoed the restaurant’s earthy mantra with bordello-red walls that reflected a distinctly sexy aura. The server was well-informed and helpful, pointing out the few items I wouldn’t be able to order on Pure Food’s extensive menu. It was a moment of pure bliss: I was just getting accustomed to the idea that there were so many things I couldn’t have that being offered so many choices felt like freedom. When the food arrived, I was pleasantly surprised: a Caesar salad with pine nut “parmesan” and nori doesn’t sound decadent, but it turns out it is. And the zucchini and roma tomato lasagna was better than any wheat-noodle version I could remember. Dessert was even more satisfying: not only could I order my own, but I could steal what my husband had ordered.

Like I said, pure bliss.

Pure Food and Wine [address] 54 Irving Place, New York, NY [tel] 212-477-1010 [email] purefoodandwine@gmail.com [web] www.purefoodandwine.com