Gluten-free Dining in San Francisco Part 1: The Plant

October 26th, 2010 yum Posted in California, Fellow Food Bloggers, Gluten Free Blogs, Gluten Free On the Road, Restaurant Review, San Francisco 6 Comments »

It has been a long time since I could eat anything interesting in a restaurant on my allergen/everything-free diet undertaken for love of Baby Yum. You might have noticed that restaurant reviews dropped dramatically here at the Book of Yum. Instead of “what epicurean delight can I experience today” it became “what the heck can I eat today?” as I struggled to find breads and other starchy staples to keep myself going. I guess it just shows that a mother’s love is one of the strongest forces out there- and the force behind many a gluten-free blog! Fortuitously for me, shortly before the Blogher Food 2010 conference, it became clear that Baby Yum had outgrown her protein intolerance issues, and I could start partaking in some of those long-forbidden top-eight allergens. Oh how I had missed them! But, most importantly, I missed the freedom of eating out. It is hard enough to eat out gluten-free, but tack on “dairy, nut, soy, corn, rice” free – and preferably vegetarian- and the choice becomes lettuce, lettuce, or lettuce. Granted, I was a bit hardcore about it and didn’t even eat soy lecithin or soybean oil, both of which generally do not provoke an allergic response. That took out a lot of restaurant dishes. I remember a particularly bleak meal at Claim Jumper where they couldn’t decide if the potato was gluten-free and the roasted veggies were basted in soybean oil. I can’t remember what I ate, but it certainly wasn’t blog-post inspiring. (They seem to have figured out some things since then- here is their gluten-free menu listing both potato and sweet potato as gluten-free.

Anyway. On to happier times. Fast forward to Blogher Food 2010, where I impulsively got a ticket and then found myself surrounded by my gluten-free people. It is nice when you are used to being the only weird “special diet” person to suddenly find yourself surrounded by others with your same concerns. To make it even better, our intrepid Gluten-free scout Mother, Diane of the W.H.O.L.E. Gang, had made special plans for us gluten-free folks both before and after the event.

Left (front to back): Wendy, Shirley, Nancy, Diane, Alisa*, Tia
Center: Lael of The Educated Palate*
Right (front to back):Ali, Me, Amber of Blue Bonnets and Brownies*, Lauren, Kim
*Not gluten-free bloggers
Thursday Night Out with the Gluten-free Girls
The Plant
Pier 3, The Embarcadero
Diane made reservations at a very special organic restaurant in the Ferry Building called The Plant. This place has gorgeous food, warm, welcoming and courteous staff, and clearly labeled gluten-free food on their menu. The DH dropped me off early, so I had some time to kill. My policy as a transplanted Seattlite; When in doubt, drink coffee. The Plant has two sides. One, a chill cafe with a small bakery case full of both gluten and gluten-free desserts. Many of the desserts were raw desserts and so naturally gluten-free and vegan but not nut-free. The (non-raw) Mocha roulade made me weak at the knees just from reading the dessert title. I ordered a simple but lovely organic soy latte and sat in front of the window to wait for my party to arrive.

Before long, they arrived and we filed into the crowded but chic restaurant to find a long table waiting for us. The menu inspired. There was an extensive wine list and clever fresh non-alcoholic drinks. I couldn’t resist the napa cabbage salad with sesame lime dressing (sans peanuts). I found it very flavorful, refreshing and delicately balanced. Hungry after her plane ride, Ali of Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen got some coconut yams as a side dish and I was in serious side-envy. They looked so creamy and sweet! And then it came time for the main dishes. I was torn between the Spicy Green Curry or the Ginger Miso Quinoa. I loved the fact that they had main dishes with quinoa instead of the typical rice as the side starch. Green Curry is one of my favorites, but the helpful waiter said that it is not actually very spicy, and the lemongrass is somewhat fibrous. He recommended the Ginger Miso Quinoa. I was relieved to have such a difficult decision made, and tucked into my meal with gusto. It was full of umami, with a lovely blend of vegetables and (optional) fried tofu. This all was nicely contrasted by the crunchy sprouts. I was enjoying my meal when it came out that Ali hadn’t thought that dish was gluten-free, and so hadn’t ordered it for that reason. Have you had this happen? My heart dropped into my shoes. After all this time being so careful, had I poisoned myself with gluten and possibly set myself up to “poison” my breastfeeding baby with sick Celiac mama milk? Of course the menu was gone at that point, so I couldn’t easily verify. I asked the waiter, and he reassured me that it was ok, but that little worrywart voice in my head just wouldn’t be quiet. So, I sidled over to the reception desk to peruse the menu for myself. And, there it was, in discreet lowercase letters, my favorite abbreviation of all. (gf). The waiter noticed my sidled dance with my own neurosis and came over. Not as I thought in my paranoid little brain, to mock me, but to kindly reassure me once more that the dish was ok. It is amazingly nice when waiters take the time to provide peace of mind as well as a plate of food, and in that moment the Plant scored big with me. I could only eat part of my meal, perhaps due to that filling coffee beverage I started with, so I had to take the rest to go. I think it was Nancy who ordered some decadent looking eggplant with mushrooms that gave me plate envy. I love a restaurant that has so many gluten-free options I can’t order everything I want to try! Many of the others ordered yummy desserts, but I abstained. I could not refrain from taking a tiny taste of Shirley’s mocha roulade. One bite had me wishing I’d ordered my own, but that heavenly dip made up for quite a few months of restraint, let me tell you. To conclude, the Plant is a great hip restaurant in a beautiful location (step out the door and have a great view of the bay) with an amazing vegetarian-friendly, gluten-free menu. I wasn’t ordering especially allergen-free (I did skip the peanuts) but they were very flexible about that modification, and many at our table had additional restrictions and seemed very happy. Health aficionados, vegans, and gluten-free diners (or even those who are all three) are well served by The Plant. I’d go there again in a heartbeat. In fact, I just suggested it to the DH as our next “special-celebratory-night-out” restaurant choice. If you have eaten there, share your experience in the comments! If you haven’t, why not try it, and tell me about it!

Definitely last but not least, won’t you meet my gluten-free friends? I’d like to introduce you to the people that made this meal such a pleasure.

The warm and lovely Shirley of the site Gluten-free Easily brightened the day with her gracious Southern charm.

The vibrant and beautiful Kim of Cook it Allergy Free has a lot to offer the gluten-free community, not the least of which is her charming personality.

The striking and dynamic Tia of Glugle Gluten-free has burst upon the gluten-free blogging scene recently with a witty and attractive blog.

I felt that thoughtful and passionate published cookbook author Alisa of the wonderfully informative Go Dairy Free site and personal cooking blog, One Frugal Foodie (*not gluten-free but useful for anyone on a restricted, especially dairy-free diet) was a kindred spirit, and am thrilled to find she’s practically local!

I enjoyed getting to know the radiantly healthy and down-to-earth Ali of The Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen blog and author of The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook better, and felt that we had a lot in common. Her husband was also a charming lunch companion the next day!

Intelligent, genuine and thought-provoking blogger mom Wendy of Celiacs in the House has been a faithful participant in Adopt a Gluten-free Blogger and a good online friend.

The extremely nice and friendly Nancy of The Sensitive Pantry was a lovely dinner companion.

Diane Eblin is great fun and pure dynamite; a force to be reckoned with both in person and in her blog the WHOLE Gang, and she has brought all of the gluten-free participants together time and again at conferences. Thank you, Diane!

I first noticed the very impressive Lauren, the Celiac Teen, through her valiant participation in Daring Bakers. This very genuine, sweet, and remarkable teen is a delight both online and in person. I can’t wait to see what great things the future has in store for her!

This is the end of this first post on my BlogHer Gluten-free Dining Experience. Stay Tuned for a review of Pica Pica!

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Gluten-Free Friendly Restaurants in the South Bay: Oaxacan Kitchen in Palo Alto, California

July 28th, 2009 yum Posted in Bay Area, Ca, California, Gluten Free Dining, Mexican, Palo Alto, Restaurant Review 3 Comments »

oaxacankitchenbOaxacan Kitchen
2323 Birch Street • Palo Alto • California
Just off California Avenue!

*Their restaurant location has closed, but you can still get their food at farmer’s markets and on a new mobile truck that will be traveling around the Bay area! See their web page and Facebook page for details.

Some time ago I heard about an amazing Oaxacan restaurant in Palo Alto that offered a wide variety of naturally gluten-free fare, with only a few gluten dishes. How rare is that? Some local Bay area Celiacs had discovered this restaurant and were very impressed by the owners’ careful attention to detail and ingredients. They enjoyed the freshly made corn tortillas, made from their most basic components with no wheat tortillas on the premesis, and wonderful naturally gluten-free chocolate dessert. The DH and I wanted to go check it out as soon as we heard about it, but they have rather specific hours and open days (being closed on Saturdays for lunch and Sunday and Monday for both lunch and dinner) and we didn’t manage to make it in at the right time.

However, this Thursday was my birthday. I had initially thought of going to the vegetarian restaurant Millennium in San Francisco, but as a work weekday, it wasn’t a good time for the DH. I got the idea that maybe this would be a good day to check out the Oaxacan Kitchen, and when I checked their website I found that they were back from vacation and open for business. We walked into a cozy, warm place painted cheerfully with a good number of customers without being excessively crowded. When you first walk in, you can see the tortillas being shaped right there- and I was nervous when I noticed white powder on the trays. My Celiac contacts had said the tortillas were safe, but what could that substance be besides flour? I was nervous, but stuck around to ask the waitress about it and other gluten-free offerings. Happily, it turned out the white powder was cal, a mineral used to make corn more digestible, so those luscious tortillas were completely safe.


We ordered a variety of appetizers because I wanted to try as many things as possible. I was assured that all the ones I ordered were gluten-free- in fact, few dishes actually contained gluten. Also, they told us that a new menu was in the works with gluten-free dishes clearly marked. Great news! I’m looking forward to the next visit.

oaxacanstarter Our meal started with lightly seasoned pumpkin seeds, toasted with salt and citrus zest. While ordinarily I’m not a huge fan of pulpy pumpkin seeds, these were refreshing and tasty and I gobbled them up.

oaxacandishes4 On our server’s recommendation, I ordered Memelas – Vegetariana. On the menu they are described as “two thick handmade soft corn tortillas, crispy on the bottom and then topped with black beans, mole negro, queso fresco, cabbage, guacamole, and salsa.” These small, round disks of corn reminded me of a cross between tortillas and arepas, but instead of being filled, they were topped like a tostada. The corn base was a little dry but the topping was tasty and I enjoyed them.

oaxacandishes3 Next I had to order their unusual Empanadas Con Champiñones, described as “two fresh corn tortillas folded and stuffed with mole amarillo, quesillo, and epazote, with sautéed mushrooms with garlic.” It is very rare that empanadas be made from a gluten-free base, and I was very excited to try them. Unfortunately, although their fresh corn tortillas were soft and flavorful, the mushroom filling was somehow not terribly appealing to me- and I couldn’t really taste the garlic. This dish was probably my least favorite of the things I ordered and I wouldn’t order it again. Another filling might be more appealing, but I believe mushroom was the only vegetarian option.

oaxquesadilla Finally, on the DH’s request, I ordered Quesadillas Vegetariana, described as “Two fresh corn tortilla folded and stuffed with quesillo, and epazote.” I hadn’t really heard of quesillo before, but apparently it is a special salted cheese used in the region for dishes like quesadillas. The tortillas were soft and heavenly, with a distinctive and unique flavor of minerals and corn that comes with a truly fresh and traditionally made tortilla- a world away from those nasty preservative laden things in the grocery store. The cheese melted in the mouth and was pleasant, but the overall flavor of the dish was very mild and needed the accompanying salsa. This was probably the DH’s favorite dish. I enjoyed it but might have liked the oomph of more ingredients in the filling.
pescatarianmainFinally, for his dish the DH ordered a pescatarian non-vegetarian dish, Camarones con chipotle, described as “pan-seared fresh Gulf shrimp with spicy chipotle sauce. Served with rice, black beans and market fresh vegetable of the day.” As you may know, I occasionally venture into pescatarianism, and so I did try a bite of the shrimp. One thing I enjoyed about this restaurant was the purity of the ingredients. Most restaurants make me very uneasy when I’m eating their food for the first time because there are so many odd flavors and ingredients that could contain gluten- but the food here all tasted pure and fresh, and I felt like I could taste each and every ingredient and it was made with real food. That being said- the shrimp wasn’t very exciting in flavor, so I left it to the DH. However, the traditional black beans on the side were prepared perfectly and melted in the mouth like butter. The real star was the fresh vegetable of the day- which turned out to be lightly seasoned caramelized sweet veggies including carrots and I believe parsnips. There was a faint flavor of cinnamon and some other spices I couldn’t identify- but whatever they were seasoned with, they were just perfect and I’m afraid I stole quite a few from the DH’s plate. If only I could order a whole plate of them! Yummy.

We closed the meal with a delicious cup of traditional hot chocolate and Oaxacan coffee. The latter was just okay, but the hot chocolate was wonderful with a unique corn flavor that really grew on us. Do be careful though as some Oaxacan hot chocolates can be made with gluten grains- luckily this restaurant’s was safe and absolutely delightful. After eating so many savory dishes, we had no room for more dessert, but I have heard reports that their chocolate experience 3 part dessert may be gluten-free. Please confirm with staff and/or owner before ordering.

This meal was a lovely birthday treat. Once I quizzed the wait staff I felt very comfortable about the gluten-free status of their dishes and I enjoyed the purity of ingredients and flavors. While I may not have identified my favorite dishes to order the first time around, there are so many options that I’m sure I’ll be able to find things that are perfect for my palate over subsequent visits.

I think it is wonderful that this very specialized international restaurant has started catering to the gluten-free community. According to the owners’ educational web page, they will even be offering a class on “Mexican Fiesta -Gluten-free Dinner on September 28, 2009 6:30 – 8:30 PM.” It would be great to see more local restaurants turning their attention to gluten-free diners. Let’s make sure to respond to the efforts at the Oaxacan Kitchen with our business!

Just so you know…
Service is somewhat slow and relaxed. Prepare for a relaxing dining experience and not fast food.
Prices are a bit high thanks no doubt to Palo Alto rents. I hear their farmer’s market offerings are tasty and inexpensive (but haven’t researched their gluten-free status yet).
We didn’t find it a problem on a Thursday night, but they are reported to be busy and crowded some nights.
Gluten churros are fried in the oil so deep fried dishes are out. Chilies rellanos are also said to contain gluten.

Review of more Oaxacan Kitchen dishes and article on their presence at the Sunnyvale farmer’s market – Sep 2009

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