living gluten-free: dining at senza

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Dining out gluten-free can be a pain.  Since being diagnosed with Celiac about a year ago we’ve established a pretty good base of good restaurants with gluten-free options in the neighborhood, places where I could eat and not worry about anything being contaminated or accidentally prepared with gluten.  And I can almost always relax at those placed and generally enjoy eating out.  But there’s still the bread basket I can’t eat, the fact that I have to say “no, I can’t” when someone offers that I try their delicious dish (which is inevitably pasta or breaded or dredged in flour or marinated in soy sauce or the bacon crumbles on the top are fried in a deep fryer that also fries breaded items…).  I can’t try any of the fancy locally brewed beers and I worry about ordering cocktails.  In the end, it’s not so bad that I have to stick to wine and whatever gluten-free meat/veggie option there it, but mostly I just don’t like being the annoying person at the table.

So, as part of our birthday celebration this year, I booked a table at Senza, a restaurant I’ve heard about from many people whenever the fact that I have Celiac comes up (and it always comes up 😉 ).  The restaurant is entirely gluten-free but it doesn’t advertise itself as such.  Instead, the experience at Senza centers around Executive Chef Noah Sandoval’s unique take on new American cuisine, focusing on fresh, local ingredients and a blend of modern and classic techniques.”  He just happens to not use gluten in anything.

It was a truly wonderful experience and a really great birthday present for me.  I started the evening with an amazing cocktail that included a combination of tequila, mole and rosemary.  Since there were two of us, we opted for the four course menu and decided to taste a bit of what each other ordered.  I wouldn’t be able to describe each course in detail, but can say that the experience overall was so delicious and so much fun.  The service was absolutely incredible and each course brought out to us was fun, creative and deliciously complex in flavor and texture.  And for those that are wondering – there was bread served – and it was really good – a small loaf for the two of use to share, sliced and grilled just for a moment to warm it.  But the best part of the whole experience – even if you take out the delicious food – was the fact that I didn’t feel different and I didn’t have to ask for anything special.  I just sat – and drank & ate & enjoyed a fancy dinner out without a worry in my mind.

If you’re in the Chicago area, gluten-free or not, Senza is a restaurant worth trying.

living gluten-free: dining out

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Dining out gluten-free can be difficult.  Not only do you have to trust that you food will be prepared gluten-free by someone else, you also end up being that person who has to have her food prepared just so.  Some restaurants are great about having gluten-free menus, which can make you feel more normal (“I’ll have the salmon from this menu, thank you”).  Some are not, which makes you feel annoying (“I have a wheat allergy so can I please just have the salad without dressing and without crutons and if it’s a pre-mix then no salad, just a side of the roasted vegetables with just salt and pepper and no sauces, thank you” and then you eat a larabar in the taxi on your way home).  In my few months of being gluten-free, here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way that have made dining out a little easier, a little less stress-provoking and a lot more enjoyable:

If you can, pick the restaurant.  I know this can be hard, especially if you’re visiting people in another city you don’t know, if you’re having dinner with clients for work or your friend invites you to their birthday party at their favorite restaurant (which only serves pizza & pasta & beer, oy).  Of the few restaurants I’ve eaten in Chicago since being gluten-free, I’ve really enjoyed these: Bountiful Eatery (everything on the menu is gluten-free), Fiorentino’s (the owner’s husband is Celiac and they have legit good gluten-free pasta) and Mon Ami Gabi (thank goodness steak frites and wine are naturally gluten-free).  Stay tuned for my own series of restaurant reviews 🙂

If you can’t pick the restaurant, at least check it out online before you go.  Almost all restaurants have online menus, which makes looking it up ahead of time easier.  See if there’s a gluten-free menu (lots of places have them now) and pick out what you’ll have ahead of time.  If there’s not a gluten-free menu, see if there’s anything you might be able to have from the regular menu.  Be wary of anything that might be marinated, breaded or might be dredged in flour prior to sauteing.  Salad dressings can also have gluten, and soups may be thickened with flour.

If you can, call ahead and talk to someone at the restaurant.  You can let them know you’re coming in, that you have a gluten allergy and you are wondering if they have a special menu (in case you couldn’t find it online) and if they don’t, ask them how certain things are prepared (again, so you don’t have to be that person when everyone is ordering and you’re asking the server a thousand questions – “what exactly is in the vinaigrette?” – and they’re running back to ask the chef…you get the point).  If you can, pick out what you’ll have, find out how it’s prepared and let them know you’ll be coming in at 8 with the party of 5…

When ordering, tell the waiter or waitress that you are gluten-free.  It’s not fun announcing you’re gluten-free every time you order something, but the servers need to know so the chef can know.  When you’re ordering from the gluten-free menu, make sure they know you are.  Often times, restaurants have overlap between the menus – they are the same dish, just prepared differently – so the server needs to know which one you’re ordering.

If you can’t control anything, at least pack snacks.  When I first met with the nutritionist, she told me that wherever I go, I should always carry a gluten-free snack with me.  Larabars and kindbars are gluten-free, have some nutritional value and can fit in somethint as small as a clutch.  The last thing you want is to end up at a restaurant eating olives and drinking wine all night because those are the only things you know are gluten-free.

Do you have any tips for dining out with food allergies?  What are your stratigies for making it a stress-free, enjoyable event?