It was a whirlwind trip to Orlando for a conference. The Marriott World Center is a city unto itself -- one of those places where one can have a completely encapsulated stay and never set foot off the property, which I didn't.
In the shadows of the Disney empire, I'm sure they can't help but get swept up in the swirling vortex of epic customer service provided by the happiest place on earth. This was to my extreme advantage. I called the day I was to arrive to see what they could do about a safe gluten-free vegetarian box lunch the next day. I was connected with Senior Catering Manager Chris Greer, who was funny and engaging and assured me that they are seasoned pros at accommodating requests such as mine.
First though I needed to navigate Friday dinner. There are, like, four restaurants at this place, plus a food court. The sports bar, called High Velocity, was the only one that didn't have a significant wait time. I was skeptical but knew that I had food I'd brought from home in the fridge in my room if it got too dicy. It turned out to be no problem. I had the veggie wrap fillings on gluten-free bread, which might have been Rudi's or Udi's, which aren't the best with moist fillings. The combo was a little bit of a miss and I wish I'd gone with a salad. The server was very knowledgable and volunteered that fries were safe -- dedicated fryer! -- so I had some. It's been awhile since I had real fries, so that was a treat. and made up for the sandwich.
Breakfast was comprised of food I'd packed in -- deviled eggs and roasted beets, Brussels sprouts, winter squash, broccoli, cauliflower, and potatoes. Yum.
Then the real test: Conference boxed lunch. Aside from labeling my meal "Chair" instead of Claire, which I thought was pretty funny, I was not dissappointed. I had a veggie wrap -- my guess is that it was a Rudi's GF tortilla, but can't be sure. This worked much better than the sandwich the night before. Apple, Lay's Potato Chips and a pack of Enjoy Life double chocolate cookies. Nothing to not like.
Then Saturday dinner. We'd made reservations at Mikado Japanese Restaurant. This is one of those places where the chef cooks at your table, flipping and juggling spatulas, knives, shrimp tails, whatever. the place was awash in soy sauce. Frankly, it didn't look promising. I did my usual patter with our server: "I have celiac disease, and I need a super strict gluten-free diet or I will get very ill. Do you have a gluten-free menu?" Like the sports bar, they don't have a dedicated gluten-free menu, but she assured me they could handle my needs.
Next thing I know, Chef Jason was at my elbow, talking me through it, Noting their use of tamari sauce and offering to prepare my tofu, veggies & fried rice in the kitchen away from the sea of soy sauce at the table. I said yes.
Like the other guests in my party, I appreciated the show provided by the chef at our table. He made an impressive-looking volcano out of onions stacked conically. He bantered. He flipped his utensils. He served everyone. My food arrived a little after. I used the wait time to educate my dining companions about celiac disease. My dinner arrived and was hot, tasty and filling. I couldn't have asked for better.
Overall, I felt well taken care of and was impressed by the overall knowledge that the food service staff possessed. I have no hesitation recommending the Marriott World Center to gluten-free travelers.
My family has a new restaurant to enjoy together. I'm sure I have mentioned that my two boys, ages 10 and 12, are big fans of Olive Garden because of the unlimited bread sticks. I appreciate that Olive Garden offers a gluten-free menu, but honestly? Their gluten-free pasta is just so boring. I hate torturing the kids with my pick of restaurants, but sometimes it's got to be about me, right?
Last week was my 50th birthday. Jenn took me for an awesome and auspicious dinner at Alma de Cuba. The joys of Alma would definitely be lost on the kids, and sooo not worth the money to take them there. Our challenge then was to pick a restaurant for a different birthday dinner that would be birthday-worthy and please the entire family, bread sticks not withstanding. Enter the chain restaurant, California Pizza Kitchen.
As noted in this news story about gluten-free offerings on menus, CPK had a bit of a misstep in their original foray into the gluten-free market. Their toppings on their gluten-free crust weren't necessarily gluten-free, and the possibility of cross-contamination with wheat flour was high. They pulled the gluten-free options for over a year and worked with the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America to overhaul their gluten-free menu and gluten-free food handling procedures. New protocols include managerial oversight of preparation in a designated gluten-free area of the kitchen; packaged, sealed gluten-free crusts; clear labeling of utensils and ingredient bins that are strictly for gluten-free sauce and toppings; and a really big thing: Using rice flour to dust the regular crust so that the flour in the air doesn't cross-contaminate the gluten-free food.
CPK offers a designated gluten-free menu and I've had and very much enjoyed the Margherita Pizza and the White Corn and Guacamole and Chips. Good stuff! The pizza is definitely in the running for my "Best Gluten-Free Pizza Crust from a Chain Restaurant" award.
Rant Warning: But CPK also puts an amusing? disconcerting? note on their small plates menu, with a heading "Stuff Our Lawyers Make Us Say," which says (right above the gluten free symbol of GIG) that they might accidentally poison me with gluten: "'Gluten-free' designations are based on information provided by our ingredient suppliers. Warning: normal kitchen operations involve shared cooking and preparation areas. We are therefore unable to guarantee that any menu item is free from gluten or any other allergen, and we assume no responsibility for guests with food allergies or sensitivities." CPK, I do believe that your lawyers encourage you say that, but for heavens sakes, who's really in charge there? Stand behind your obvious extensive efforts to make your restaurant safe for me to eat! End of rant.
And yes, I've eaten at my local CPK twice, had a great experience, and will go there again. So there.
So the restaurant Alma de Cuba (or just "Alma", as the waitstaff call it), is packed with ambiance, and I wouldn't dream of using flash photography in a swanky place like this, so my apologies for not being able to convey a better pic of the yummy gluten-free dinner I had in celebration of my 50th birthday. I've wanted to eat at Alma since I met one of the chefs at the 2012 Appetite for Awareness event put on by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Alma is a Stephen Starr restaurant, and all of the Stephen Starr restaurants offer gluten-free options and have a solid knowledge of safe gluten-free handling procedures. It is so nice going to a place in which I can have complete confidence that the food I order will be delicious AND I will feel fine afterwards.
[Last year I opted to not blog about the aftermath of the dinner I had in a Midtown NY restaurant for my 49th birthday celebration. Suffice to say that despite my rigors in identifying a restaurant that could accommodate my gluten-free needs and my due diligence with the restaurant staff, I enjoyed the majority of a Broadway production afterwards from the bathroom and the lobby. Not pretty. At least I got a pretty good story out of the experience. Always gotta find the bright side, right?]
So, the quick Alma facts:
1. They have a gluten-free menu, though this link is a bit dated and not all of these items were on our gluten-free menu last week.
2. They bring gluten-free rolls (croquettas de arroz, actually) to the table, just like it's a regular thing. Love that!
3. The staff is friendly and not pretentious, which is always my worry in a restaurant where the entrees top $20. Our server was so charming as she waxed poetic about the chocolate flourless cake that we almost invited her to join us for dessert!
Jenn and I both had Gloria's Black Bean Soup to start, because really, can you go to a Cuban restaurant for the first time and not get the black bean soup? We also both had the spicy Crisp Rice and Black Lentil Cake with curried vegetable stew, carrot chimichuri, and chayote squash salad, with an additional side of carrots. For dessert we split the flourless chocolate cake and I had a Cafe Havana, a sweetened coffee with coconut milk. I loved the food! I ate it all! I was so full! And happy! I wouldn't have minded having a deeper selection of vegetarian options, but for y'all omnivores, there is a wide selection of yummy-sounding food. And when I go back, I'll feel a little more adventurous in ordering off the menu. Or as Jenn suggested, maybe we'll go back for dessert and coffee only -- a great way to get that Alma ambiance without dropping a full purse for the experience.
This was definitely a restaurant worthy of a 50th birthday celebration. Thanks Jenn! Thanks Alma de Cuba!
In the science of happiness, it has been demonstrated that creating enjoyable and memorable experiences keeps us happy into our old age way better than spending money on stuff. I'm all about creating excellent experiences. Jenn and I went to Paris last October and the boys stayed with their aunt and uncle at home. Summer is our time for all of us, and when it's a family vacation, we gear activities toward what we think our 9 and 11 year old sons will enjoy. That leaves out a lot of stuff -- most museums, lots of walking in hot cities. Come to think of it, my tastes tend to skew the same way. They also aren't keen on taking many hours to get there, wherever there is.
To maximize everyone's potential for a good time, we decided to stay sort-of local for our vacation this year. We are less than 2 hours from home, but other than the travel time being brief, we might as well be a thousand miles away from our suburban Philadelphia home. Our vacation strategy? Go far enough away that we don't have to call it a "stay-cation," skip the plane fare for a family of four, go during the week to avoid the crowds, and stay away from checking work email at least 90% of the time.
Our destination? Jim Thorpe, PA, population 4,774. Why? Rafting, biking on converted railways, excellent state parks, caverns an hour away (in case it rains), and a waterpark not too far to cap off the trip.
As always, we are staying at a place with at least minimal food storage and prep facilities. We nearly rented a house through VRBO.com, but because of an iffy forecast, we decided instead on a Hampton Suites because of the indoor pool in case we get rained in. I packed accordingly and, at least until the refrigerator got overly excited and froze all my vegetables, I was in pretty good shape. Breakfast is included with the hotel, so when I don't want to have my protein shake in the blender I brought, I am enjoying fruit and individually packaged yogurts. I packed lunches for our two day-long outings so far: Salad during our rafting lunch stop, PB&J on an Udi's bagel for our 15 mile bike ride. I have plenty of snacks on hand too -- homemade oaty protein bars, granola circles, gf Oreos from Trader Joe's, Xocai healthy dark chocolate, veggies and hummus, raisins, trail mix, etc. A couple of shops in town have boasted gluten-free ice cream and desserts. We have spotted a couple of places in town through Urban Spoon that sound like they can accommodate a gluten free dinner, but so far we've not had a big dinner out. Jenn and the boys have been happy with pizza or sandwiches by the pool while I have eaten provisions I brought. Maybe we'll venture out for dinner tomorrow. Maybe not. Doesn't matter really.
It doesn't matter because I didn't come to Jim Thorpe for the food. My main goal is to stay healthy and unglutened so that I can enjoy the journey of making happy memories. We chose to stay in this small town in Pennsylvania for the opportunities for family fun and adventure. So far, so good. I know that the memories of our excursions together will far outlast any recollection of meals eaten or not eaten, as the case may be.
Mixed Vegetable Panang Curry with Tofu from Bangkok Cuisine
I recently attended a four-day Xocai Healthy Dark Chocolate convention at the Atlantis Resort and Casino in Reno, NV. Before heading there, I introduced myself over the phone to chefs Bob and Dennis, who gave me tips in navigating the conference culinary offerings, and where I would have the best chance for success in the half dozen or so restaurants that are part of the casino. They were both very nice, and I did enjoy a nice conference salad one day. However, I mostly relied on provisions of apples, oranges, bananas and raisins as well as carrots and hummus from the grocery store across the street, and the powdered peanut butter and gf amaranth rolls I brought from home. And let's not forget the Xocai protein shake! One of my roommates brought her bullet blender, so breakfast was a snap.
But of course there were opportunities to eat out. One evening we wanted to eat al fresco -- a natural result of having been inside a casino meeting room all day when the weather outside was sunny and 80. We lucked into the Great Basin Brewing Company, having picked it on the basis that they had outdoor seating. It was a short cab ride from the resort and they had a fairly well-endowed gluten-free menu (though I thought it strange that they didn't appear to carry any gf beers.) I enjoyed the La Flaca Rice Bowl sans chips, which was essentially rice and beans with a spicy salsa, topped with avocado. It was just what I needed and it really hit the spot! The service was a bit on the slow side, but we WERE a party of eight, so I will not judge them on their usual service time based on our experience. Our server was delightful, attentive and very helpful. Sadly, I've forgotten her name.
The next night we decided to eat out again, and so I set out to find something interesting that could meet the needs of our group. Usiing UrbanSpoon.com, I spotted Bangkok Cuisine, which was also a short cab ride from the Atlantis. I called in advance and learned that they didn't have a gluten-free menu but that they could easily and safely accommodate me. When we arrived, Veronica our server was super helpful and guided me through their extensive menu. Our group of eight decided to do a family-style meal sharing, but I kept mine separate until I'd filled my plate then put it on the go-around with the other dishes. I had the mixed vegetable coconut soup -- spicy, light and refreshing -- and the mixed vegetable panang curry over rice. No problem with the service here -- the food came out quite fast. There is nothing like fresh and authentic Thai food to really buoy my spirits, not that they were low, but I just hadn't had Thai food other than Pei Wei (a chain restaurant that is owned by the same people who run PF Chang's) since my celiac diagnosis. Who knew Reno would be the place for reintroducing me to excellent Thai food?
I do want to note that before I went I identified a couple of places to eat that were an easy walk from the casino that looked promising. Zpizza offers a gluten-free crust and delivery, so I would probably have ordered in if I hadn't been traveling with a posse. The Aroma Club also had some possibilities, though their hours didn't match well with my free time from the conference.
All in all, I had a great trip and was really pleased with my dining out experiences. Thanks, Reno!