Tuesday 26 February 2013

The Modern Pantry: innovative and surprising gf friendly cuisine

I do love The Modern Pantry.  I don't know quite why everything tastes good and why the very surprising flavour combinations work. What I do know is that my plate always ends up empty.

Reading the ever-changing menu can be a tad perplexing. You seriously have to think about all of these, often unusual, ingredients together, and it's usually that it isn't until the dish arrives and you are tasting it that you "get" it.  I mean here's an example:  a pomegranate molasses and tonka bean roast pear, golden beetroot, Stichleton, bull’s blood and sorrel salad with spiced pecans and verjus dressing. What is that going to taste like? And there's the excitement to it. It's great foodie fun.

It's a fresh, clean and contemporary dining space in Clerkenwell. The staff are friendly and accommodating, especially with allergies. The New Zealand chef Anna Hansen is well versed in gluten-free, as the antipodeans do always seem to be.

I had scallops with a carrot puree, carrot crisps and a lime marshmallow. Zingy and sweet, with a delicately salted scallop, it was not only a taste sensation but a tasty sensation, if you catch my drift.

For mains I had a coffee dusted venison loin with pickled rhubarb, greens, venison jus, chestnut puree and liquorice. There was a different party in my mouth with each bite. The venison was perfectly cooked and still pink in the middle and the tart rhubarb cut through its richness, while the warm nutty chestnut puree bear-hugged the whole lot.

The cocktails are fabulous though we were in the mood for some red wine on the freezing February night we were there. In a place like this try the House: they've picked it for a reason and it was delicious and didn't break the bank.

We were too stuffed for desserts, though the cinder toffee ice cream and the passionfruit and yuzu sorbet both caught my eye. Or perhaps you fancy the chestnut, red currant & wattleseed meringue roulade with a pecan & orange praline and ginger beer sorbet?

Brunch is also very popular here - I have friends who rave about it but have yet to try it out myself and check out the gluten free options. But a kitchen that likes to play with gluten free ingredients such as chickpea flour, amaranth and polenta rather than using boring old wheat flour - that's always a positive sign in my book.

Afterwards do nip next door to one of my favourite haunts - The Zetter Townhouse - for a cheeky after dinner cocktail concoction - my favourites are the Koln Martini or the absinthe tinged Les Fleurs de Mal.

Gluten Free Knowledge: ★★★★
Gluten Free Range: ★★★
Taste: ★★★★
Atmosphere: ★★★★

Verdict: A must for adventurous foodies who want to have a meal that you will really remember. 
Square Meal

Eating out Gluten Free - Emma McDaid interview with The Gluten Free Foodie

A lovely journalism student Emma McDaid contacted me recently for an interview. She is writing a piece for her portfolio about coeliac disease and gluten free diets. 

Here it is: 
What inspired you to start your own blog on gluten-free dining?
I was very frustrated as there was no information out there. I was tired of going to really disappointing places but more importantly I wanted to share the really fabulous gluten free friendly places I had found.  
In your blog, you search for good gluten-free food when dining out. Have you found that the amount of restaurants offering gluten-free meals have risen in recent years or not?
Certain trends have changed quite a lot and have helped those with gluten free diets. For example, lunches have changed from stodgy carb based italian foods such as pastas and paninis, or sandwiches in general to healthier fresh food served by places like Leon, Pret, Itsu, Cruush and Pod. So lunch has gotten a lot easier. 

The general trend for healthier food and for locally sourced food that is cooked fresh has made a big difference. Before restaurants often used packet ingredients such as sauces that already contained gluten and couldn't be changed. Take gravy for example - ten years ago I couldn't find a single pub that had gluten free gravy with the roast - they were all using packet mixes. Today I know lots of gastropubs that pride themselves on having homemade gravy without any flour. 

Awareness has gotten better, and chains are finally jumping on the gluten free bandwagon - such as Pizza Hut, Prezzo, Bella Italia and Dominos doing a gluten free pizza. 
What’s the most common problem you encounter when eating out with coeliac disease?
Staff ignorance and cross contamination I would say. And both of those are about trust. 

You almost have to be like a poker player reading staff's faces to see if there is real understanding and knowledge there or if they are just bluffing you. So many times a very blase response of "so the pasta will be fine but you can't have rice though, right?" It's a lot of misinformation, often fed back to you as fact. I once had an argument with a very self assured waiter that semolina is gluten free, until I got on the internet on my phone to double check. 

With cross contamination, short of going into the kitchen yourself (which I have sometimes been known to do - for the blog of course!), it's once again about communicating your needs to the staff and choosing an establishment that will take those needs seriously.  
Have you found that fine-dining restaurants tend to be more likely to offer gluten-free food than more casual restaurants or vice versa?
Certainly. They have a much larger factual knowledge of food and have been through rigorous training to get to that level - that's both the staff in and out of the kitchen. They know what gluten is and if they want to strive to gain an accolade such as a Michelin star they are required to cater for food allergies.  (If the michelin team need anyone to join them to test gluten free meals, I am available!)

Because fine dining food is guaranteed to be made fresh on the premises they can always cater and adapt dishes for you. My favourite thing to hear from a chef is that they can make anything on the menu for me gluten free if I'm willing some minor substitutions. 

I wish I could say it's the same with more casual restaurants but it's not often the case. There's a difference between those working as wait staff during their summer break or for a few years out of university and those who are doing it for a life-long career. 
What’s your favourite gluten-free alternative food?
In restaurants I'd say it's the simple substitution of gluten free flour instead of plain - it opens up so many dishes on the menu. 

I love buckwheat - it's great for pancakes and pasta. 

I'm also partial to the occasional Dietary Specials frozen pizza, but that's a naughty treat. 

Do you think there has been an increase in awareness of coeliac disease recently, and an increase in the availability of gluten-free food products? If not, what measures do you think should be taken to increase awareness?
There definitely has. It's partly the supermarkets catching on and seeing the demand for the products in plain facts and figures - something that restaurants can't quantify as easily. 

I've seen brands such as Genius try and raise awareness through their ad campaigns. 

Certainly high profile sporting figures such as Novak Djokovic talking about his gluten free diet has brought it into the mainstream consciousness lately. 

In terms of increasing awareness I think the best solution to several large problems including the under-diagnosing of the disease is to do what the Italians do. They test every child for coeliac automatically at the age of five. This serves two purposes - firstly finding the one in a hundred children who have the disease, while also educating the parents in the society as to its existence. If you say "me sono celiaco" (I am a coeliac) in Italy it will get you a response of recognition 90% of the time. 
When eating out on holiday, do language barriers cause problems when ordering food? How do you get around it to ensure you don't eat any gluten?
I always have a translation on my phone in the notes section. That way I can hand it to the waiter whether I'm somewhere that uses our alphabet, like Spain, or not, such as Indonesia. 

I get the text from the hugely helpful Celiac Travel http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/ 
What is the main advice you would give to others when eating out with coeliac disease?
Always trust yourself and your instincts above a staff member's. If that sauce looks thickened, ask a question. Don't be afraid to ask, ask and ask again. You are the paying customer and you have a serious medical condition. It's not worth getting sick for the sake of trying to be an easy customer. Always be polite and just explain the severity of the situation and how sick you will become. And lots of thank you's go down well too. So does the slight technical white lie of a word "Allergy". I use it. I suggest other coeliacs do too!

Don't be afraid to call ahead either- especially if you are going to a place picked by someone else that might not be as accommodating - such as an office Christmas dinner. Ask what you can have and indeed, what you can bring. I've taken gluten free pasta with me to a restaurant before.  
If you could offer one piece of advice on how to stay healthy and well-nourished on a gluten-free diet, what would it be?
Don't eat too many of the gluten free substitutes for glutenous things.  They are often high in fat and sugar. You need to find naturally gluten free alternatives that have high fibre content and that will replace the nutrition you are missing from not having wheat products in your diet. 

 Dreaming of gluten free beer
Flaxseed, buckwheat, amaranth, teff flour, quinoa - all these are interesting and healthy substitutes that you can include in your diet, either in your breakfast with a cereal like Mesa Sunrise, or at lunch with flaxseeds on your salad.  

Learning to cook a few simple recipes at home with plenty of vegetables and these interesting ingredients will keep you healthy and happy and often people discover a love for cooking that they didn't have before. I adore the Hare's Moor D.I.Y curry kits for example - I now make a homemade curry from scratch at least once a week!

I would say embrace being gluten free, it shouldn't feel like a life of substitutes  And as I always say, the best things in life are gluten free. Don't take away wine, chocolate or cheese and all will be right with the world. 

Flat Iron: 99% gluten free menu, 100% carniverous delight

Soho's Flat Iron serves one thing: Flat iron steak.

This is great if you like steak. If you don't, go elsewhere, because it only serves steak (see above). And what is magnificent for us gluten free folks? The limited menu means that there isn't any gluten in this place (apart from one dish but let's pretend it doesn't exist for the sake of that sentence).

The menu (hanging on the wall, of course)
I've been speaking about the trend for restaurants that only serve one or two things (See: Burger and Lobster) and how helpful they can be for gluten free diets. The limited range of menu items means that normal cross contamination issues such as shared friers and flour in the kitchen disappear.

I had a good chat with the chef at Flat Iron. They have unintentionally created an almost entirely gluten free restaurant. Only one dish on the menu - the aubergine side - has gluten in it. And that is from a pre-bought bechamel sauce which is poured on the top, which isn't made in their kitchen and goes straight from packet onto the aubergines and nowhere else. Hence, this is a kitchen where you don't have to worry about cross contamination. In fact the chef told me that when they first opened (just a couple of months ago) they had a bag of flour in the kitchen along with other pantry staples. They just assumed they would need it at some point. They soon realised that they weren't using it for anything so it went in the bin.

Now that the boring bit is out of the way, let's talk about the food.

Steak - awesome. Soft like a filet, cooked just the way you like it, perfect every time (I've been four times now, you know, just to check for consistency and stuff for you guys. The hardships I go through for you readers... ) It's served on a wooden board with an inlaid piece of warm iron that keeps the steak at a good temperature the whole time you take to eat it. It's served with a dainty little salad on the side.

Fries - homemade, fried in beef dripping. Naughty, but oh so nice.

Sauces - all gluten free and homemade, I am a horseradish fan so the freshly grated horseradish cream was the winner for me. The bĂ©arnaise and peppercorn I have yet to try, but I eavesdropped on the people next to me and they seemed very happy with theirs. Fred's sauce - also yet to try this but one of you can do the honours, right?

Sides - creamed spinach, yum. Market greens, moorish with just the right teasing of butter and salt. The Sophie's salad sounds great too - blue cheese, candied pecans and lemon dressing.

Perfect medium rare for me
The venue itself is stripped-back minimalist-loft cool. Is that a thing? Let's go with it, it's a fairly accurate description. Wine is in carafes and is poured into beakers. Free beef dripping popcorn is served when you arrive with a metal jug of tap water. The miniature steak-axe (did I make that up too? Okay, fine I guess it is a cleaver. So boring. I'm sticking with steak-axe) is ace, though you don't really need it, as the steak is pre-cut.

It's another Soho no-reservations place so get ready for a little queuing or to eat like an early bird or a night owl. It's worth it though. If you can't be bothered with queuing but really want to try it I would suggest Sunday lunchtime - there's no queue as all the Londoners are near their houses having a roast and the tourists don't know about it.

Oh, and I forgot to mention one thing. How much will this amazing steak set you back? £10. Yup, that's right, £10. Now you see why I keep going back?

Happy steak munching everyone.

Gluten Free Knowledge: ★★★★
Gluten Free Range: ★★★★
Taste: ★★★★
Atmosphere: ★★★★

Verdict: a perfect steak in a gf restaurant? For £10? The only place to be getting a steak right now.