Adventures in Gluten (and Sugar) Freedom from a southern blogger chick!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Breaking bread, or how to really peeve a gluten-free diner

I admit this up front: this post is a rant about the lack of gluten-free bread available in restaurants.  It started on Sunday when I had the mother of all meltdowns in my favorite Tampa restaurant, Lee Roy Selmon's, which professes to have a gluten free menu but basically would prefer the gluten free just go away.  Their menu is unchanged in almost four years.  I find this problematic at an epic level.  I had water for dinner after a server told me, "You can't have that."


So let's talk about gluten-free bread.

The list of providers of GF bread is a long one -- and after perusing many of them at the 2011 GIG Conference, I can't for the life of me figure out why a place that says it accommodates the gluten free CAN'T FIND GF BREAD.

And so, I am now going to say mean things about a four-star restaurant in Sarasota, Florida.  And a local favorite in Sarasota, Florida.  And two local places that get it.

When I made my reservations at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota (seriously, it was a killer deal, and we had a wonderful time in general. Beautiful grounds, service, room. Don't judge). But I specifically told the reservation agent I was gluten free, since two days of breakfasts were included in the package. I also told them it was Randy's birthday. Now, I have no expectations any more that I'll get bread at a restaurant with a GF menu.  But after some of our awesome dining experiences during GIG 2011 (especially at Cat Cora's Kouzzina in Disney Boardwalk) I guess I let my guard down.  I mean, it was a RITZ CARLTON. And it was four star.

When we arrived at 3 p.m., we made dinner reservations for four and a half hours later.  I asked the Concierge if the restaurant could handle a gluten-free diner.  I was told "of course," though they had no reference to my mention of this on making the reservation. They knew it was Randy's birthday.  OK, so he got strawberries in tuxedos delivered to the room (with cookie crumbs on the platter). I knew I was in trouble at that moment.

So imagine my feelings when we sat down, four hours later, when I was told by our server, "we really need some advance notice to prepare for a gluten-free diner."  What, three weeks isn't notice enough?  There's a Whole Foods five minutes away.  She proceeded to tell me what I couldn't have (and I hate that, I really do). I was unusually kind (I'm usually not, I admit it),  And I didn't have the second mother of all breakdowns that week, but I sure could have.

The amuse bouche came out -- a beautiful ham croquette.  The assistant server gave Randy his, but when I asked if it was breaded or fried, she said, "A little."  Our server swooped in and said, "the chef is making you a gluten-free special."  Guess what it was?  Half a cherry tomato with a mandarin orange in balsamic vinegar.  Seriously? I could think of 40 things in a four-star kitchen that would be a little more, what, amusing to my bouche? I am not a chef.  I could do better than that.

I felt like I was argued with upon every course -- When Randy asked that his appetizer have the gluten separated from it, he got a frown. They didn't want to leave the bread out of his risotto (which was gluten-free and delicious.  And my scallops were also delicious).

And as it was his birthday, Randy got two desserts -- thank GOODNESS they were willing to bring me fruit or ice cream. But they sure wouldn't take the cookies out of the creme brulee.

Sitting next to us was a table full of four chefs.  They were discussing "what did Sarasota need in its dining experiences"?  Hello, I wanted to say, how about an acknowledgment of equity for gluten-free diners.  Let me say that again:  gluten-free diners who pay $150 for dinner should not have to be treated as second-class citizens. There should be equity for gluten-free diners, or you shouldn't profess to have a gluten-free menu at all.  Of course it wasn't their problem, now was it? They had the profiteroles with peppermint ice cream and fudge sauce....)

(BTW, I wouldn't be surprised if several people took the time to spit in my food before I got it.  And imagine, a six year old boy was sitting next to us with his parents and sister -- it was his birthday.  He had a custom cake shaped like a Lego.

I was so -- demoralized is the word, I guess --  I asked the valet to bring up our car, and I sent two mini packaged of Pamela's Products individual brownie mix to the chef.  I said, "I'd hate some child to have to watch his family enjoy dessert with there are gluten-free options so readily available." I reminded the maitre'd that I mean NO OFFENSE to the chef -- I respect chefs.  I really, really do!

But I felt gypped. And that feeling didn't go away the whole time.

The next morning, they had bread -- Udi's, I suspected, and it was browned on top and totally white on the bottom, so I'm pretty sure they didn't put it in a toaster. Note that I didn't ask for it -- I asked if the Hollandaise had wheat in it, and our server came back and said there was bread for me. Bonus point.  And the next day, I got the rest of the Udi's in French toast. Our server was totally delightful.  I thanked him and tipped big.

But still....

I also was disappointed at The Columbia in St. Armand's Circle, a childhood favorite.  They have an expansive gluten-free menu, which they profess on their website and even told me was available when I called for a reservation more than 24 hours in advance.  But again, no bread.  So while my friends had crunchy Cuban bread, I had....crickets chirping. crickets chirping.

Now, here's the irony of this whole Sarasota experience: I would have to say that Sarasota has the potential to be an outstanding place for a gluten-free person to vacation. Every GF chain (again, no bread) is there at the least.

but there are two shining stars:

First, we went to Yoder's , which has been on Man vs. Food, for lunch.  They know what is in EVERY SINGLE THING on their menu.  And as I'd seen they made their cream pies with cornstarch, I asked out server if they could make a bowl of their legendary Peanut Butter custard and cream topping (you know, pie without crust).  She came back with this luscious pie, made of their homemade pudding and crumbs made of peanut butter and sugar. It never touched a crust.

They can do it.  Why can't the Ritz do that?

Second major irony.  For years, I've heard of the Island Gluten Free Bakery on Siesta Key.  We went in, and they have crusty bread for sale.  LIKE THE COLUMBIA SERVES? Yeah. Like that.  Karen, one of the lovely owners, said they'd approached a number of restaurants (including The Columbia) and the chef said he didn't think bread was really important to gluten-free diners.

Has he asked one?  No one seemed to ask when I was there. I totally get that, but I swear I will never accept it or understand.

To its credit, the Island Bakery is a local/regional jewel with a national following from gluten-free diners.  They are generous in their sharing with gluten-free support groups. I had some great Key Lime Pie.  Their white sandwich bread made a great sandwich.  The muffin (I had zucchini) was awesome.  Butter cookies with frosting made me tear up just a little bit.  And when my blood sugar came down, I enjoyed some strawberry rhubarb pie.  (PS, Karen, thank you for slipping the extras into the bag.  I know I didn't order those cookies or the brownie that Randy ate!)

There is a feeling among many gluten-free people (including Atlanta GF Examiner Jennifer Harris, who said this same exact thing today on Twitter) it's a sham (and a shame) if you say you have a gluten-free menu and all you do is take off the glutenous bread to make it "safe for us."

I've ranted about this before, as have ALL my gluten-free friends. I'm sure I'll do it again.

So now, what's the point of this post.  Yeah, I know.  I'm pretty sure I'm the only one still reading.

Well, I feel a little better since I got to sing praises of two GF friendly places in Sarasota.  I love Sarasota, for the record. It's probably my favorite city in Florida and was my childhood vacation haunt.

But maybe, just maybe, like the little Whos that Horton Heard, someone will hear us when we scream, "WE WANT BREAD!  AND REAL DESSERT!

It ain't so freaking hard. Because no matter how lovely the Ritz was, all I will remember is that I was still a second-class citizen in their four-star restaurant. And I'm frankly a little too ashamed to go back, because I don't want to be known as that bitchy gluten-free guest. (Hey I didn't say a word about the 2 a.m. false alarm fire drill....)

But it continued to nettle me.

Much love to Yoder's, Karen, and Island GF Bakery....



Christi said...

The phrase that goes through my mind is "separate but equal." I know that this is in no way as bad as the racial issue was during that time but still . . . .

It is like restaurants are saying "you have your safe food, what are you b*tching about now" much like "why are you complaining? You have a school!" Anyone with a brain cell knows that the schools for blacks were not as good as the schools for whites, just like a burger without a bun and no fries does not make a meal.

Karen Russell said...

Umm, I was still reading. Big losers. Apparently they're the Elizabeth kind of GF people--just for appearances.

Lost and Wandering said...

I love Island Bakery. I usually take a cooler and drive down there. I can't believe you went to Yoders. I have always been afraid to try that. You are my hero. What else did you eat at Yoders? I want to go. cork

Tiffany said...

Ginger - I'm sorry that happened at the Ritz, but none of their locations seem to have the commitment to gluten-free diners that the Four Seasons does. It's ridiculous that a place like that can't do something totally wonderful for a gluten-free diner, especially when you made reservations weeks in advance and noted your gluten-free needs. DUH!

As you know, there are many places in the ATL with gluten-free menus and many of them don't have bread or a dessert worth having. It's beyond me why the heck they have the menu in the first place. I tend to boycott such places at this point.

And about Sarasota....don't you just love the gals at the Island Gluten-Free Bakery?!!! I did a little work for them after I met them in 2009 while on vacation. I still have their small French bread baguettes in the freezer and their cinnamon raisin bread is the best around!

Another place down there is Vertori's Pizza in and fried cheese to die for! Defintely check it out the next time you're down there ;)

Patricia said...

I loved this post mostly because I feel the exact same way whenever I go out to eat almost anywhere! All they do to make it gluten-free is remove the gluten from the regular item leaving you with dry lettuce and random veggies in a bowl for $9. What the hell is that supposed to do for me besides piss me off? Or the burger comes out with a bun when you requested no bun only for it to reappear suspiciously fifteen seconds after you send it back with a serious explanation of how sick it can make you. There are a few places that get it, and I love them and they get my business when I can give it to them, but I've mostly gone to packing my food with me on a vacation (lame!) or when I go out to eat with a group (lame!).