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16 June 2007

a dreamy day of dining

cheddar cheese grits and pulled pork

Perhaps the most dramatic dining day of my life happened in 1999. I was living with the CFP in London, and I was in traveling mode. Most every other weekend, I took a train or plane to somewhere new: Florence one weekend; Dublin the next. (These are the truffle-oil days, when I was better paid than ever before, or after, probably.) All of Europe — and its restaurants — lay before me.

One weekend, my friend Stephanie arrived to whisk me off to Prague. Three days there grounded me and left a sunburn on my shoulders. Stephanie and I had wonderful talks, and she helped me to see that I really wanted to leave the CFP. I knew she was right.

Because Stephanie had met us in Paris (where I was staying with the CFP in the penthouse suite of some ridiculous hotel, halfway between the Tour Eiffel and the Arc de Triomphe), we had to stop there on our way back to London.

This is how I came to eat breakfast in Prague, lunch in Paris, and dinner in London.

(But I was eating gluten, then, and I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have. It was toast and eggs for breakfast, a sandwich at the Louvre in Paris, and fish and chips with malt vinegar in London. No wonder I was so tired.)

In spite of the bitter taste those days left in my mouth, I have always been amazed at that day’s dining. Nothing could top it.

What I ate last week came pretty close.

On the plane to New York, I ate some Pierre Robert triple cream cheese, a handful of Marcona almonds, and fresh apricots, tinged with a tiny blush. That was breakfast.

For lunch? I ate at Gotham Bar and Grill.

Now, this was no random occurrence. For weeks, I had been anticipating this lunch. You see, I was meeting my editor at Wiley, and the person in charge of marketing for my book. For days, I had been saying with a straight face, “Oh, I’ll be in Manhattn, meeting my editor and marketing person.” It didn’t take me long to start giggling. How is this my life?

My wonderful editor and I have been talking for nearly a year, laughing on the phone about food and cultural mishaps. Most of the time, we’re eagerly tumbling our words over the other’s, connecting and agreeing, ready with another story. Most of the time, we weren’t even talking about the book. We just talked. I remember the moment I knew I liked her, in the first conversation we had back in the fall. When I commented on how much I liked the sound of her ebullient voice, she said, “You know, I’m just a happy person. People keep waiting for me to be jaded or angry, but I’m just happy.”

I love my editor.

When I told her I was going to be in New York for part of the day, she asked me where I wanted to have lunch. Within a minute or two, I knew. Gotham Bar and Grill. The Chef and I love Alfred Portale’s approach to food: seasonal, fresh, and always surprising. When I met the Chef, I also inherited two of Portale’s books. I’ve been inspired by those books more times than I can say. I knew it, instantly: Gotham Bar and Grill.

The Chef was so jealous.

After the suitcase story and the subway ride laughing, I walked down 12th Street toward the restaurant. Everything looked familiar. There’s a funny thing about New York: no matter how long I have been gone, as soon as I set foot on the sidewalks of that city, I am home. There was the Jewish temple where I volunteered every Saturday morning, feeding people who needed a meal. Over there the Quad Cinema, where I stood in line with friends to watch documentaries. And there was Gotham Bar and Grill, which I walked past countless times before I knew how tremendous it was.

Plus, they have a coat check where a lovely girl let me keep my bag for the duration of lunch.

And when I first saw my editor, we both squealed a little, and gave each other a big hug.

The lunch felt like it lasted minutes, instead of three hours. Jen, the wonderful woman in charge of marketing for my book, felt like a friend within four minutes. We talked about my book, eventually, but mostly we three talked about food, farmers’ markets, Michael Pollan, the confusions of the label “organic,” fresh fruit, and everything to do with food. (Oh, and dating and the weird vagaries of working for the overly rich.) They made me laugh and they gave me hope.

They also really like my book.

And if the conversation didn’t do it, we certainly bonded over the food. Asparagus salad with a poached egg. Black bass ceviche with chiles and avocado. Roasted duck breast with fermented plums, port sauce, and fava beans. Spinach custard with baby carrots. Everything gorgeous, and everything presented beautifully on enormous plates.

(Sadly, the photos I tried to take were simply too dark to post up here. I won’t do the place injustice by putting up ugly photos!)

That meal made me miss the Chef.

My editor had called ahead to ensure that I could eat gluten-free. And as I suspected, they took care of me, just fine. This is one of the rules I have learned throughout this journey: if you choose the restaurant where they truly care about food, you can eat gluten-free. Our wonderful waiter — half obsequious, half sarcastic — walked me through the menu to inform me of what I could eat.

However, I was surprised to find that a meticulous staff in one of the best restaurants in the city still didn’t understand the gluten issue. When the waiter gestured toward what I could not eat, he said, “Of course, you cannot have the risotto.”
Surprised, I asked him, “Do you use flour in your risotto?”
He looked just as surprised and said, “Can you eat rice?”

Later, toward the end of the meal, I was thrilled to find that Gotham has a warm chocolate cake, completely flourless. And it was served with lemon thyme ice cream! Of course, I wanted that.

“Well,” said the waiter, “the kitchen says you cannot have the lemon thyme ice cream. We can offer you cherry sorbet.”

I love the tang and soft surprise of lemon thyme. Wait, why? Do they put flour in their ice cream? Don’t tell me that they use commercially produced ice cream at Gotham Bar and Grill.

Curious, I asked the waiter, “Okay. But just for curiosity’s sake, could you ask your chef what it is in the ice cream that prevents me from eating it?”

When he returned, he said, “The ice cream has glucose in it.”

Glucose. Gluten. Same thing, right?

The good news is — I ate at Gotham Bar and Grill without a snitch of sickness. No gluten in me during that meal.

Life was good.

the perfect Manhattan (in Richmond)

And for dinner? A Southern comfort restaurant I stumbled on, in Richmond, Virginia, unexpectedly.

After my rapid-fire visit to Manhattan, I flew to Richmond to prepare for the Gluten Intolerance Group’s annual conference. Exhausted from all the traveling, I thought of just eating the energy bars in my bag and crashing in my hotel room. But downtown Richmond called.

My lovely hotel — formerly a row house from the 1820s, with a courtyard and rocking chairs on the porches — was in the dilapidated area of downtown Richmond. Most stores were closed, or going out of business. But the streets had character, and the stores that were open convinced me at one glance that I was in the South. Humid air and vivid colors, people congregating on the street in chattering clutches, and movie theatres from the 20s — Richmond called me out of my room.

Lunch had been eight hours before, and even though that meal at Gotham had been one of the best I had ever eaten, the stomach still grows hungry. The guy at the front desk of the hotel recommended some restaurants. Everything he recommended sounded cheesy, and meant for tourists. No thanks. “There is this place called Comfort,” he drawled, a little reluctant to tell me. “It’s Southern food.”

I was out the door.

Wherever I go, I like to eat the food of that culture. There’s something inherently depressing about going to a chain restaurant and having the food taste exactly the same as it does 2400 miles away. And whenever I travel, it seems, the best restaurants are the ones that hotel folks are a little reluctant to recommend.

When I walked into Comfort, I felt right at home. High ceilings, cool colors, ivy growing up a wall of windows — this place exuded cool. I sat at the bar and smiled at the bartender.

These days, I don’t have much chance to walk into a restaurant by myself, particularly one where I don’t know anyone. At one point in my life, I felt prickly with nervousness at being alone in a public place. Now, I revel in it.

The bartender made me a Manhattan, after I asked him what was his favorite drink to make at the moment. He was right. It was spectacular.

When I asked the bartender about the gluten issue, he asked for help. The owner — wonderfully friendly and eager to please — came over to ask me how he could help. I walked him through everything. He went back to the kitchen to check. He came back to tell me about the cornmeal they use, stone ground in a mill only a few towns away. One more check, and we had a plan. (That’s what I love about the best restaurants — they make me feel like I’m a guest, and they are thrilled to serve me.) What was for dinner?

Barbecued pulled pork, fried okra, and cheddar cheese grits.

Hello, I’m in the South.

I called the Chef to share it with him. When I told him the meal that was coming, he said, “That’s my girl.”

Everything was heaven. My mouth still waters at the thought of that pulled pork — spicy, but not enough to emblazon my mouth; slightly sweet; subtle in the layering — clearly made slowly, with love. And those cheddar cheese grits? Oh my goodness, how have I never made grits? Time to rectify that. Okra? I had never eaten it. But okra fried in cornmeal? I’ll be eating that again.

(Here I must leave an important note. A wonderful woman I met at the conference the next day emailed me a few days later. She said she had been to Comfort, on my recommendation, the next day. The waitress that night informed her that the cornmeal in the fried okra is mixed with a little wheat flour. The owner swore to me that wasn’t true. Who to believe? I didn’t feel sick immediately after my meal, as I always do when I get gluten by mistake. The next day I felt a little off, with some familiar intestinal troubles, but I thought that was the airport food, which is a story for a few days from now. If you go to Comfort, ask carefully, and make your own judgments.)

Within a few moments, people to my left and right spotted my camera, and my pen. They asked me I was doing a review. Of a sorts. And within ten minutes, we were all chattering away, talking about food and love. By the end of the meal, I had made new friends.

A fabulous dinner, a decadent cocktail, and conversations with everyone around me? That’s my idea of comfort.

Sure, the day I ate breakfast in Prague, lunch in Paris, and dinner in London was far more dramatic. But this day, last Thursday, with a breakfast from the Chef, lunch with my lovely editor and the head of my marketing campaign at Gotham Bar and Grill, and a comforting dinner in Richmond, Virginia, by myself (but surrounded by people)? That was a damned fine dining day.

And to think that people believe that eating gluten-free is deprivation.

Gotham Bar and Grill
12 E. 12th Street
New York, NY 10003
212.620.4020

Comfort
200 West Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23220
804.780.0004

22 Comments:

At 5:15 AM, Blogger Deborah Dowd said...

I am only an long hour away from Richmond, and it sounds worth my while to take a leisurely drive and check out Comfort! Thanks for the tip! And for giving Virginia some air time (even though we are not NY or SF!) There is great food to be had here!

 
At 8:25 AM, Blogger Kimberly said...

Oh, Shauna, what a perfectly wonderful dining day! Marvelous food in the company of people you enjoy; what could be better?

Cheese grits and fried okra are two of my favorite comfort foods; there are few others that say "home" (read Texas) to me as strongly. I think you may have given me the answer to the question of what to bring to a certain July potluck.

 
At 9:10 AM, Blogger Dianne said...

Wow! That sounds like one incredible day!

:)

 
At 3:14 PM, Blogger Claire said...

My grandfather made the best fried okra and he used seasoned cornmeal! The stuff you can buy frozen and then fry is basically fake stuff to me. After you've had the homedone cornmeal version, nothing is better!

 
At 7:14 PM, Blogger Jean Layton-GF Momma said...

Shauna,
You make me want to hop on a plane and visit these restaurants right NOW! I wish I could but I am happy to vicariously live through you.
Enjoy

 
At 11:09 PM, Blogger Food Allergy Queen said...

Love Gotham...last time I was there I was with two wine afficionados/foodies. We must've spent three hours on the most luxurious lunch there. Sounds like you had a wonderful time as well.

I have an unexplainable love for southern food since I'm a Chinese girl from California... your description of pulled pork and fried okra in the same post as Gotham had my mouth watering. I make my okra with stone-ground cornmeal and add bacon fat to the frying oil...yeehaw.

I just finished reading Omnivore's Dilemma as well...Michael Pollan is a true genius. He's scary yet gentle and hopeful at the same time. It's the beginning of a food revolution!

 
At 11:37 PM, Blogger evil cake lady said...

this is so lovely; and southern food is some of my most favorite!

the joy you live every day spills forth from your writing of it--i always feel so alive after visiting your page...can't wait for your book!

 
At 3:42 AM, Blogger Lia Halsall said...

Hi Shauna, I've just stumbled across your blog and am very impressed. You write so well. I'm in the process of removing all gluten and wheat from my diet as I have been having some health issues and unfortunately the medical profession can't get an accurate diagnosis so I'm doing my own little experiement. Your blog and many of your links will definitely come in handy, so thanks! :o)

 
At 6:01 AM, Blogger Jodi said...

Hi Shauna, I think that the latter version of travel food sounds so much more pleasurable. What a lucky girl you are. Thanks for sharing with so many great details.
I had a similar food story regarding who is telling the truth. My son's girl friend has celiac, so I found a local restaurant with a gf menu. One thing not on the menu was their amazing bruscetta because it is served with bread. I asked if we could substitute the bread with corn tortilla chips. They were very happy to comply. I did ask for confirmation that there was no wheat in the chips. A few weeks later my husband and I went back in and suggested that they put the bruschetta on the gf menu with the corn chips. The manager blanched and said that they served chips with wheat not corn. Jaime never told me she was ill, so I can only hope that the chips we got that night were miraculously gf. Who knows, but next time I'll bring my own corn tortilla chips for the bruschetta.

 
At 10:14 AM, Blogger Leanne said...

I am going to a wedding in Richmond in August and can't wait to eat at comfort (cheese grits are my fave comfort food). I was wondering though ... what is the name of the hotel where you stayed? It sounds perfect - thanks!

 
At 4:43 PM, Blogger jasmine said...

ooh -- Comfort! I ate there about a year ago when I was in Richmond for work and thought the food was fabulous. Glad they were able to treat you so well and I will have to make a point to make it back down there.

 
At 5:52 AM, Blogger stacy said...

I would be afraid the issue with deep-fried anything would be if they previously used the oil to cook any gluten-containing foods. My husband and kids will eat anything that is either deep fried or covered in gravy, so those were the first two gluten-free kinds of foods I learned to cook!

I've always had a gluteny type reaction every time I eat grits possibly from cross-contamination. We used to eat lots of grits, especially when my kids were babies, and it is something I miss terribly. You can mix just about anything in them, doesn't have to be cheese. Fresh peaches are particularly yummy with grits.

 
At 7:14 AM, Blogger Melissa said...

Hi Shauna,
I'm not stalking you, I promise. This is just a backup post to the email I sent you (just in case it fell victim to a cyber vaporization). I'm the nutrition therapist (among other assorted professional diversions) from Colorado. We had lunch together in the famed Marriott dining hall. Check your gmail for details about connecting with the culinary lifestyle in Denver.
Take care,
Melissa

 
At 8:46 AM, Blogger Kristel said...

Shauna,

As usual, your post brightened my day. My mother is from Alabama, and her fried okra is one of my favorite childhood food memories. I always liked to sprinkle a bit of hot sauce over the plate just before serving -- the vinegary tang really cuts through the rich cornmeal crust and adds another layer of flavor to an already wonderful dish.

And my most dramatic food day?

Breakfast in Venice (toast, fresh jam, and watermelon), Lunch in Rome (tomato pie, salad, and Orangina), dinner in London (curried chicken, naan, and sweet wine). :)

 
At 2:08 PM, Blogger Gluten - Free Granny said...

Wow! The Gotham sounds amazing! And what a treat to know of a "safe" place to eat in the city!

 
At 9:30 AM, Blogger Krys72599 said...

I'm a new reader, and I must confess, I just spent three hours catching up on your blogposts! I work for the same company your editor does and that's how I found your site. I'm hooked! You write so well, and have inspired me to go back and record some of the wonder I felt when meeting my husband and falling in love with him. I'm a scrapbooker and have always felt that my storytelling left a bit to be desired. Now I'm going to try to put down in writing the joy he has brought into my life. Thanks! I'll be a regular reader from now on!

 
At 3:21 AM, Blogger Emilie said...

You have inspired me to try and make my own lemon-thyme ice cream. I think it sounds wonderful.
Love your blog. Keep up the good work.

 
At 7:43 AM, Blogger Fiacha said...

I bet you stayed at the Linden Row Inn didn't you? When I stayed a few years ago they had an amazing continental breakfast - fresh fruit, warm grits, and though you can't have them they had some wonderful pastries too. I'm away from Richmond for the summer, but I'll be visiting in a few weeks with a friend who has celiac, so I'm definitely going to suggest that we eat at Comfort!

 
At 3:24 AM, Blogger Mademoiselle French Chic said...

Hi Shauna! I'm Mademoiselle French Chic, direct from Paris-France! Hey! I just love your blog page! the pictures are just a-ma-zing and I just adore this Cosmopolitan-kind-of picture!! Just reminds me Sex & the City, you know. I gonna have a great look on your beautiful blog and I invite you to visit my page frenchchicet moi.blogspot.com all about French Chic and full of news and good site to go when you're in town! (Maybe the beginning of a French Chic friendship??) And I let you know that i'm going to add your name on my French Chic links,my favorites blogs cause yours is very nice as I like!! Here we go...! Hope to hear from you soon Shauna! Peace & continue...
Mademoiselle French Chic (aka Suzy...) Ps: my page is French-English as well! xxxMFC

 
At 9:30 PM, Blogger Shauna said...

Deborah,

Oh, and Comfort is definitely worth the trip. I loved Richmond. If I reach more of the South, I'll be happy to promote that food.

Kimberly,

Oh yes. That certain July potluck would certainly be enlivened by our cheese grits and fried okra, my dear.

Dianne,

Wow is the right word for it, believe me.

Claire,

Believe me, I'll be working on my own recipe of it soon.

Jean,

Thank you. Sometimes, I miss New York badly. Every visit back there fills me up for months, no matter how brief it is.

Food Allergy Queen,

Oh yes. Southern food. That is one great big yes from me.

Evil Cake Lady,

Thank you. Thank you.

Lia,

I'm so glad you find this helpful. Good luck with the gluten removal!

Jodi,

I hope those chips were gluten-free as well! At least you got the good end of the story, eh?

Leanne,

As someone correctly guessed, it was the Linden Row hotel. I totally recommend it. Wonderfully shabby and comforting. Good location, too.

Jasmine,

Yay! I'm glad someone else had a great food experience there too. I'd hate to think that mine was an anomaly.

Stacy,

I agree with you, completely. I am meticulous when it comes to eating cross-contaminated foods, so I never get to eat fries in restaurants! But the owner assured me that they only fried in cornmeal, so I believed him. Like I said, I didn't get sick. But maybe I was just lucky.

Melissa!

I know you're not stalking me. You're that wonderful woman. And the granola! Oh god, that granola.

Kristel,

That sounds like a damned fine dining day you had as well. I'd be happy eating in those three places.

Gluten-free Granny,

Oh yes. Gotham is spectacular. They'll treat you well.

krys72599,

Welcome! Oh goodness that's a lot of reading. Thank you for hanging in there. Please, tell your stories. We all need to tell our stories. As Joan Didion wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." I believe that. And that company you work for? Aces. Thanks for coming by.

Emilie,

Oh yes! It was tremendous. We'll be working on it too. Let me know what you concoct.

Fiacha,

You got it! I woke up too late for the continental breakfast, but now I'm kicking myself! Have a great time at Comfort.

Mademoiselle French Chic,

Well, with a name like that, it has to be good. Thanks for coming by.

 
At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Waitress said...

Hey--I just randomly found your blog. I've worked at comfort for 4+ years, and just wanted to clarify the prep. Normally, the fried green tomoatoes and okra ARE prepared with a flour/corn meal mixture....UNLESS you specify a gluten issue, which you did, and then they are happily prepared with only corn meal. We have gluten -intolerant regulars who have it that way all the time. Above all, Jason and Chris want people to be happy with the food. Glad you enjoyed your meal, come back soon!

 
At 1:28 PM, Blogger sfalls said...

while I love Comfort, they do go back and forth on the gluten thing depending on the waiter you get, so they are not gluten free or even that knowledgeable about celiac/intolerance sadly. I've had similar experiences with the cornmeal issue and wound up sick. That said, stick with the pork and the greens are to die for. I always hit the cheese grits too, and all is well.

 

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