Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Our gluten free tour of Texas - Part 1

We had to attend a wedding in Dallas so I negotiated a trip to San Antonio before the wedding weekend. Our flight on Wednesday landed at 10 a.m. and after picking up the rental car we headed straight to the Little Aussie Bakery for an early lunch. It is the only 100% gluten free restaurant in San Antonio and it's in a little house, complete with a fireplace and a shower in the rest room...lol! It reminded me of a place that would have been in the Highlands here, before that area became so upscale. Upon entering the place I saw a dessert case, filled with six fancy looking cakes. They looked like cakes you'd find in a gluten bakery in NYC. It was hard to believe they were all gluten free but of course I knew they were. Our server Crystal actually apologized that the desserts didn't look that nice since their pastry chef was on vacation. I can't imagine how they could have looked any better that they did. Check it out....

After choosing a table by a window in the back we started reviewing the menu. It is not that extensive but includes varied sandwiches (made with on site baked bread), pizzas, soups, salads, lasagna, garlic bread and even a leg of lamb. To say it was overwhelming to stare at a menu that had nothing off limits to me is quite an understatement. I teared up just like I did at Risotteria in NYC (the first place I'd been able to have pizza out since my diagnosis). It sounds like a silly reaction to people that don't have any dietary restrictions and I'm not someone whose life was ever controlled by food even. But the reality is that in our world every social event, client lunch, company party, wedding, funeral, etc. is a mine field full of something that is poison to us. Most of the time I do fine but sometimes it gets old, especially when people don't get it. And most people don't get it, trust me. So at the LAB (as they refer to themselves) I got to do what most 'normal' people do. Walk into a restaurant, sit down, read the menu and order whatever the heck I wanted. And that felt like winning a million dollars to me! Or maybe better since money truly can not buy happiness. Shortly after we ordered, Crystal brought out some garlic bread. It was soft in the middle with a crunchy crust. It was unlike any gluten free bread I've had and I absolutely could have eaten my own weight in it....lol! Luckily for me (if not my waistline), even more bread was served with my meal.
The lasagna of the day was chicken (with bechamel sauce) which I'd already heard was excellent so I had no problem making my choice. My husband finally settled on a pepperoni pizza but I have no idea why since Pizza Fusion is opening here next month. Whatever - it was his lunch but at least I got to taste it. The pizza was very good but did not compare to my lasagna which was excellent. The side salad served with had an interesting sweet citrus dressing. The lasagna was not a large portion so I had plenty of room for dessert. And since we could not decide on anything we wanted to share, we each got our own dessert.
Choosing which of the six desserts to have was quite challenging. I wanted a tiny piece of everything but they use a cake cutting tool to cut huge slices so that wasn't possible. I'd have to order six huge desserts to taste it all. Finally I settled on the passion fruit sponge cake since I'd never had gluten free sponge cake before. My husband chose the lemon cake with lemon icing. He loved his cake and I thought it was excellent but the sponge cake made me fantasize about playing (and winning) the lottery so I could fly to San Antonio any time I wanted. Shipping it frosted would not work well and the frosting was almost outstanding as the cake itself! I can not accurately describe how great this cake was except to say is was without a doubt the BEST gluten free cake I've had to date and after many cakes later on this trip, it still ranks on top! It was also the best sponge cake I've ever had, regardless of ingredients. Below is the lemon cake with lemon icing (not frosting which is fluffier) and under that is the my sponge cake - both side and back views. Isn't is gorgeous? It's hard to believe that it tasted even better than it looked!

After a somewhat surreal lunch experience, Crystal told us how to get to the Riverwalk (she even wrote directions for us!) where there was a mall. I'd left my dress for the wedding in Atlanta so I needed to buy something - anything - to wear on Saturday night. We had couple of hours to kill before checking in to the B&B so it was all good. Well, except for the spending money on a dress that looked quite similar to the dress left in Atlanta part...lol! But the dress I found was on sale for $79 and it even came with a jacket I can wear later. My own black sparkly bolero style cover up (that I didn't forget to pack) worked fine with the new dress. So less than thirty minutes after walking into Macy's, we walked out with what we needed and the damage was not as bad as I was expecting. The husband was happy and we headed back to the parking garage to head to Chicken Paradise. More about that coming soon but just know that if you live anywhere near San Antonio you need to treat yourself to a stay there. A better lodging value you will NOT find in the state of Texas, whether you're gluten free or not!

Below is the cupcake display on the dessert counter and the Australian flag flies outside the restaurant, next to the USA flag. My only regret about our visit to LAB is that Rita (the owner) was on her way out when we got there. I didn't know who she was until she was gone. Thanks Rita, for giving gluten free people there a place to call home!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Beleza - an almost gluten free restaurant in Atlanta

Beleza opened quite a while ago in downtown Atlanta. Their concept was unique to say the least. They don't have an oven and don't use processed sugar and had only one item that contains gluten. You would think I would have been their first customer but my husband is not really into Tapas and that's what this place offers. They offer the best quality ingredients of any such place around to be sure, but still they are Tapas - or small plates. Either term fits and hence my problem with the husband. I even read a Trip Advisor review that said 'the only problem with this place is that men won't like it'. Great.

Finally last weekend, over a year after they opened, I made it to Beleza. They are on their second Chef but they are still not using sugar or an oven and the only gluten dish is a side of Farro which is an ancient form of wheat. We made it a girls night out (if one can call a 6 pm dinner on a Saturday night that) and headed down from the burbs for a gourmet gluten free meal. Two in our party were even glutenoids so props to them for agreeing to join our gluten free adventure!

On arrival I realized that employees outnumbered the customers but I get the feeling that Beleza doesn't even pretend to get cranking until after 9 pm. The menu has more drinks listed than food selections. I ordered a cocktail I thought I'd enjoy and loved it. It tasted like tequila to me but was supposed to be infused rum...whatever. For only $8 it's the best deal on a cocktail I've had downtown in a while. Not everyone in our party liked their drink choices but they were able to swap drinks with each other and live with them.

Since the glutenoids in our party didn't care about having Farro, we were all able to share everything we ordered with each other. We had the lobster salad, shrimp and scallop Ceviche and the dip appetizer to start. Two of the three dips were good enough make me feel like not sharing but I was nice and of course shared with the other ladies. The term onion dip seems boring but this one was far from it. The cheese dip was killer as well. The one thing I tried only one bite of and thought it didn't live up to everything else was the black eyed pea dip. Two of us agreed on this and the other two loved it. One criticism of this appetizer was that we had to ask for extra Cassava chips and celery sticks to scoop the dips with. Clearly a place like this knows we are going to share with each other and the table next to us got a lot more 'dippers' than we did for the same dish.

For my entree I had the Lobster Salad (shown below the dip plate) as did another in our party. Others tried a fish of the day (above top) and the cooked shrimp (in the bowl). Both loved their selections, though the fish special actually needed salt. To be honest, I'm not sure I've ever had such fresh tasting ingredients at any restaurant in Atlanta. One would think the lobster traps were pulled out of the water a few feet from the place. The fruit that is part of this dish seemed as if someone pulled it off a tree or off a stalk that day.

When you are gluten free, you're used to leaving without dessert when dining out. Personally, I can take only so much creme brulee or chocolate mousse and I don't care for ice cream. I could have left without dessert at Beleza and been totally satisfied. But a dinner club member told me about the chocolate tart there - she is gluten free, dairy free, soy free and even more things free. She can almost never have dessert when dining out. When she described this decadent treat to me I knew I could not pass it up. The chocolate tart is a small slice of chocolate something with pink rock salt on top. It really doesn't look remarkable at all, though the flower adorning the plate made for a nice presentation. But the taste was not to be believed. I don't think I can accurately describe it because I've never had anything remotely like it. The pink rock salt took it over the top for me - a 'salt-aholic' who shockingly did not add any salt to my dishes at Beleza.

The carmelized banana and coconut milk chocolate sorbet was nothing special according to the ladies that ordered it but I actually took some of my dessert home and savored it for four days. The only way I can explain how I was able to do this is that when something is that amazing, you don't truly need that much of it to be satisfied. And that is what the owner of Beleza is trying to accomplish with this resaurant. In an interview I read shortly after the restaurant opened he said something to the effect of 'people think they need to feel uncomfortably full when they leave a restaurant and that is very bad for their health'. He has a point and that is why many nutitionists suggest we eat six small meals a day instead of three larger ones. I did leave Beleza feeling full but not in an uncomfortable way.

The decor at Beleza might remind you of LA, as will the slight attitude of the staff. But I find the latter is true at some places here that offer mediocre food at best. At least Beleza has earned their attitude. Now I just have to figure out how to get my husband down there with me. Once you try Beleza you'll have to go back if you really appreciate the 'best of the best' ingredients prepared in most unexpected ways. When I asked the server how they made the chocolate tart without an oven she said it was magic - and that's exactly what it tasted like to me!

Gluten-free in a pandemic? No problem!

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