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As a celiac, you have to acknowledge there’s always a risk in eating out, both with friends and family and at restaurants. You never really know what’s going on in the kitchen unless you’re there yourself. Over the 13 or so years I’ve been gluten free, I’ve been “glutened” dozens of times. It’s never fun. For years, getting glutened meant horrible cramps & diarrhea for 4-6 hours from even minor cross contamination (crumbs, shared cooking oil, wheat as minor ingredients etc) In the last couple of years my symptoms have moderated somewhat. I now seem  to avoid those “classic” issues and have bloating, gas,  what feels like heart palpitations, dry mouth shortness of breath, restlessness, extreme fatigue; in short I feel like I have ingested poison. Which, for my body, I really have.  I don’t really know why the change (perhaps my gut is healed?) and I am thankful to not have to endure the digestive troubles I used to but feeling like I do as I write this, (almost 20 hours later) is no picnic either.

If you’ve read any of the restaurant reviews I’ve posted since starting this a couple of months ago, you’ll know that I have been visiting restaurants in Edmonton that specifically offer either gluten free menus or gluten free options.  If I eat at a restaurant that doesn’t “do” gluten free specifically, I’ll talk to the server, talk to the manager or best of all talk to the chef. Ultimately though, if I get sick, I can’t really blame them. They don’t claim to cater to me, may have no clue what I’m talking about and it’s my “risk”.

However, one assumes if the place has gone to the trouble of developing a gluten free or celiac friendly menu or even just select gf dishes, that they will have some knowledge of what exactly that means, and more importantly, will have trained their staff as to what exactly that means.

So just what happened last night? Well, to quote the old game Clue, it was Colonel Mustard in the Dining Room with Poison.

The Setup

July 21 was my 46th birthday (gah) and on a Wednesday, which is “date night” for Kim & I. So we decided to head out for a special evening at one of the higher end restaurants in town. We’ve been to La Ronde, Normands, Ruths Chris and a few others but we thought we’d try Lux Steakhouse.

Exhibit One

The lead up to the crime.

I’ve been following a few local chefs on Twitter and last week I was able to ask if Lux could do GF. I was assured that Lux not only can do GF, but that they actually have a separate GF menu. Ok then. We’re going. Next I make a reservation on OpenTable.com and highlight that I will be needing the GF menu, mentioning that I had spoken to the chef. I tweet to chef and receive reply “I’ll make sure it is awesome” (irony now apparent) Excitement builds. We’re set.

Exhibit Two

Arrival.

We arrive just after 6 and are seated immediately with the hostess saying she has a note that we need a GF menu. Score. Kim usually orders off the GF menu on date night so we can share (she’s nice that way) so we both took the GF menu. We did not mention that she doesn’t have to be GF (although she feels better when she is).  The bar is quite full but the restaurant is almost empty. Only 3 tables plus ours. This is a good sign, a really busy kitchen can make plating mistakes. We should be easy to deal with.

Exhibit Three

The menu.

We order a bottle of Wyndham Reserve Cab Merlot and have a look at the one page menus handed to us by our server. Doesn’t mention gluten free but it is a different menu than the regular one and it does say something to the effect of “we take your allergies seriously…blah blah” OK. It’s a pretty good looking menu with lots of choices which is something  not all gf menus offer. Let’s order.

Exhibit Four

Ordering.

Our server arrived and let us know the soup of the day, oops, not sure it’s gf so back to the kitchen. Point for server. Things looking good. Back to tell us that no, it’s not ok, but the organic tenderloin and organic ribeye both were. And they have some nice Malpeque oysters. We look at the menu and Kim spies her 2 favourite things, Ahi Tuna appetizer and roast chicken. I had my first oysters on our recent trip to Vancouver and discovered I really like them, so oysters for me and the organic tenderloin, medium rare. Oh and truffle bacon cream corn, just because (it’s my birthday right?!)

Exhibit Five

The scene of thecrime.

Our wine arrives and is poured into a decanter. Nice touch found in most of the better restaurants. Our appetizers arrive. Oysters look, well disgusting, but that’s an oyster for you. But oh, they were tasty with a pinch of salt, dash of lime and a drop of hot sauce. Kim’s Ahi arrives (cue Twilight Zone music..duh dee duh da, duh dee duh da).

Being in oyster induced bliss, I’m not really paying much attention but the the Ahi is served much like poke, one of our favourite Hawaiian tuna preparations, chopped raw ahi, sesame oil and in this case some mild hot sauce. The dish was garnished with shredded deep fried daikon (we think) and some chip looking things. Kim thought they might be potato, or perhaps even taro as that would be a natural thing to have with poke. She said they were pretty bland but tasty with the ahi. My gf-dar started pinging a bit at the sight of the chip things, but gluten free menu, talked with the chef via twitter twice, hostess & server comments, slow kitchen. They must be ok right? I broke the first rule of celiac and tried one, without double checking. In this case, it was more like checking for the 7th time but I should have waited. Silly of me really. As I’m thinking about what I just did, I’m thinking more and more that there’s no way those chips were GF. I told Kim this and she went through the same thoughts, we’d checked and checked and they -couldn’t- have made such an obvious mistake…could they?

They don’t come from the WontonTree…

Exhibit Six

Shock and Awe

Our server returns to clear the appetizers and asks how the appetizers were.

“Good, but are you sure that those chips thingies were GF?”

“Oh, yes, I remember them at the gf  menu tasting we did…mmbbmllee..I think.”

(Uh Oh.)

“Can you go check?”

“Ok, be right back.”

(cue 3 minutes of no, they couldn’t have, I’m sure it’s ok?, hmmm)

“They are wonton wrappers”

(cue red flashing lights & sirens)

“Wonton wrappers? There are no GF wonton wrappers that I know of.”

“Oh yes, we get them in specially”

(cough bullsh*t)

“Ok we’ll need to see the package because 1) we don’t think you are correct and 2) if you are we’d like to buy some because it’s something that we have never seen before.”

“OK, I’ll be right back”

(cue 10 minutes of waiting with no update, basically confirming what we already knew)

Out comes server with our main courses, placing them on the table he says “um yes sorry they do have some wheat in them (cough bullsh*t – they are 100% wheat)”

“Alright then. We have to leave right now. I may be violently ill within the next hour.”

(Remember that my experience with gluten reactions has been limited to cross contamination incidents. This is the first time in 13 years I’ve actually ate a large amount of gluten. I and most celiacs react to parts per millions of gluten; I had just eaten -grams- of the stuff. I had no idea what I was facing.)

“Ok well, I can take care of the meals for you (restaurant speak for free) but you’ll have to pay for the wine”

(internal dialog – Huh? You just poisoned me and you want to charge me for half a bottle of wine we had time to drink?)

External dialog “Really? You can’t be serious”

“Yes, I can only take care of the food. You’ll have to pay for the wine. I’ll be right back with the bill. If you like I can wrap up the food for you to go? No charge of course”

I paid my $63 for a bottle of half finished wine (which we did take with us) and left, drove home and proceeded to deal with now 22 hours of feeling like crap.

So.  There it is.

Exhibit 7

The cover up.

This is what really gets me. Now it’s impossible to know what went on in the kitchen between the server and the chef other than a gradual realization that they had seriously screwed up. My imagination sees something like this.

“Um you know that Ahi for table 16, that’s all GF right?

“Of course, it’s on the GF menu right?”

“They’re concerned about the chips.”

“The chips? They’re just chips. How could wonton have gluten in them? Tell them they’re fine” (cue internal dialog ” They’re like made of won? ton? is there a wonton bush?..hmmm. what are they made of”)

“Dude,  they say they want to see the package.”

” Ok, I’ll go look in the freezer. (rustle rustle oh sh*t) Um. Houston we have a problem. Ok, you have to go out and tell them.”

“No way man. I just serve the stuff.”

“Hey I outrank you. Go tell them. But I have an idea. wait until their mains are done, serve them, tell them about the wheat and offer to comp the meal. Maybe when they see the food they’ll not be so picky. Oh, and make sure they pay for the wine.”

Exhibit 8

Evasion tactics.

Is that what went on in the kitchen? I suspect something very much like it did. But I’ll not know. The chef did not come out to explain (well, really there is no excuse/explanation) or apologize. To me that is the thing that really upsets me the most. I expect much, much more from an expensive (50 bucks a steak) restaurant. On a slow night the chef or a manager should come out a visit all tables. It’s just good restauranting. (last date night we went to Joey South Edmonton, a much less expensive place and 2 managers stopped at our table to make sure our gf meals were good) And if you seriously screw up like last night, the chef, manager or both should have been there immediately. I might have felt sorry for our server for being the bearer of the news except for the “get them in special” comment and the thing with the wine.

Aftermath

So did I get as sick as I thought I might? No. Does it matter if I got a little or a lot sick? No. I still was up all night and have missed a day of work . I still feel lousy.

Apparently, while the chef didn’t want to come out and speak with me, he/she apparaently got on the phone right away to my Twitter contact from the restaurant who had sent me a direct message almost by the time I got home wondering if he could make it up to me by personally preparing a meal for me.

At this point, I’m inclined to say no way. I’m not writing this for free anything. It’s not as if there was a fly in my soup. That may be a “ok, you can make it up to me” offense, but this was in another league altogether. To have taken all the steps to create a GF menu and then have such a basic failure in the kitchen really brings into question whether they have any idea what it means to really offer a safe place for celiacs to eat. Were those shredded potatoey looking things next to my untasted steak deep fried in a dedicated frier? If not they aren’t safe. Dozens of questions. A gluten free menu you can’t trust is far worse than a menu with no options at all. And let’s not forget that this kind of mistake has killed people. Literally. There was a recent civil court case in the US that awarded millions of dollars to the family of someone who died as a result of being served shellfish in restaurant after alerting staff to his allergy. I’m not anaphylactic, but -I could have been-. Instead of sticking me with the bill for the wine (have you noticed that I haven’t quite got over that yet?), they could have been ushering me out of the restaurant in an ambulance.

What I’m hoping Lux will do

Realize the seriousness of the error and how they made things worse by not owning up to it.

Retrain kitchen and wait staff

Review all ingredients and procedures to make sure that they really know what they are doing.

Things I’m going to do.

Hit the Publish button on this post

Write a letter to management of Lux

Update this with anything I  hear from Lux

Wait a few days until I feel better, and see if a follow up post is warranted. I’ll see if I think this is a bit too snarky. Right now it feels just about right. I’m feeling lousy, my birthday was ruined (and then there’s that thing with the wine)

I’d really like Lux to post this in their kitchen as a reminder that they are serving people and not tables.

In the end, I have to take some responsibility for this. I ate the damn chip. But it should have never been on my plate in the first place.

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I’ve been putting this off for a couple of weeks because I wasn’t sure I was going to even write this. That and a trip to Vancouver which I’ll be writing about soon. The reason I’ve been reluctant? It will be my first bad review. (well I hope the -review- isn’t bad).

Kim and I stopped by The Dish Bistro on 124st and Stony Plain road on a Wednesday a couple of weeks ago on the way to our Wednesday night thing. I’d seen online that they have a gluten free menu and cater to allergies so that’s always large determining factor as to where we are going to eat. We arrived at 5:30 and on entering we were seated immediately, there being only one other table occupied at the time. The place has an OK ambiance but on close inspection, it’s looking a bit tired. Our server was prompt and brought us the GF menu right away. We ordered a 1/2 litre of the Torconal CabMerlot which is an alright wine selection for a house wine. Nothing special but when you don’t want a whole bottle, it is just fine.

Before you read further, here’s two things to keep in mind. I’m not a huge fan of vinegar and this experience could be a result of ordering off the gluten free menu. We were a bit rushed for time as is often the case on Wednesdays and were looking for a lighter meal in any case so we decided to have an appetizer to share and a couple of salads. We agreed that the Risotto Cakes sounded tasty. According to the menu, these are

Asiago and spinach risotto cakes stuffed with goat cheese and served on a fresh tomato salad

The cakes are served on a bed of lettuce with a thick slice of tomato chopped into pieces with some large slices of purple onion.  I guess this qualifies as a fresh tomato salad but I thought it would be more tomato-ey. The tomato itself was rather tasteless, looking like a food service, it’ll ripen eventually tomato. The cakes themselves were alright. They were creamy and rich. It had mostly goat cheese notes, but I would have liked to have had a more prominent asiago flavour. And to be honest, I didn’t even notice there was spinach in the cake. However, what I liked about these cakes was completely drowned in balsamic vinegar. You can see from the picture that the straight balsamic was just poured over the cakes, soaking in and completely overpowering the flavour of the risotto. We ate around the vinegar. The greens also had quite a bit of balsamic. I am -not- a fan of straight balsamic poured on salads. Perhaps this is a personal quirk of mine but I believe a vinaigrette needs to be something more than just vinegar. I was also a bit surprised as the menu didn’t even mention a vinaigrette. I suppose they felt it needed something. It may have but I don’t believe it was 1/4 cup of vinegar.

For our mains Kim ordered the Dijon Chicken on Greens

Dijon marinated breast of chicken on mixed greens with tomatoes, carrots, Spanish onions, artichoke hearts and a roasted red pepper dressing

Kim’s salad arrived looking reasonably tasty.  The chicken is served cold which was a bit of a disappointment. I’d expect cold, premade chicken in a salad from a chain restaurant (on the lower end of things). I can handle cold chicken, but cold, dry and tasteless is another thing. If there was a trace of dijon flavour we certainly couldn’t find it. The chicken itself had an almost pasty coating on it which gave it an unpleasant mouth-feel. Fortunately, the red pepper sauce was pretty good [EDIT: Apparently a couple of weeks has clouded my memory. Kim just informed me she thought the red pepper sauce was/tasted like thousand island dressing) and dipping helped mask the problems with the chicken.  However, there wasn’t near enough sauce for the chicken. The artichoke hearts appeared to be pickled artichoke hearts from a bottle.

I ordered the Spicy Beef on Greens

Chili and garlic marinated beef flank steak on mixed greens with tomatoes, carrots, Spanish onions, artichoke hearts and a fresh herb citrus vinaigrette.

Flank steak can be a difficult thing to prepare due to its toughness. Marinating and/or braising is usually used to help break down the muscle fibres and produce a more tender end result. In the case of my dish, neither seemed to have worked. The steak was tough. Really tough. Almost beef jerky tough. The flavour? Spicy? Chili? Garlic? I could not detect any hint of heat, garlic or chili in any piece I tried. Now there may be a reason for this. The entire dish was absolutely soaked in balsamic vinegar. Fresh herb citrus? No idea. All I could taste was balsamic.  Not vinaigrette. Balsamic. Vinegar. The greens were even worse than the beef. Drowning in the stuff. Completely inedible. I ended up eating the rest of Kim’s chicken, which by this time was not as bad as I originally thought. At least it didn’t make my mouth burn. And burn. Two hours later my mouth was still feeling the effects of my vinegar soaked meal.

Now with this bad of an experience, you may be wondering why we didn’t send the food back. Firstly, we had to be somewhere and didn’t really have time to wait. But mostly, I’m not sure what difference it would have made. It’s not as if we were served an under or over done piece of meat. This is apparently how these dishes are served. And to be honest, I’m someone who almost never sends anything back. I’m working on it. I’d be interested in hearing from others to find out if this was a bad gluten free dining experience or simply a bad dining experience.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I really debated whether I should even write this. But I decided that if I’m going to write reviews, I’ve got to write about bad experiences as well as good. So here it is.

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Chianti Cafe & Restaurant has been a fixture on Whyte Avenue since slightly after the last ice age ended. Or was it since the Oilers were a good team? I don’t really remember.  I do know the last time I was there was sometime in the early naughts (2001 perhaps). At that time, we went because I’d been given a gift certificate by the Edmonton Celiac Association in appreciation for work I’d done on the Cycling for Celiacs website. That year, Chianti was a sponsor of the ride and they had donated some gift certificates.

Almost 10 years is a long time in the restaurant business, so prior to arriving, I checked the Chianti website to verify they were still offering gluten free options and they are:

Casual, bustling, Italian, we’re a “from scratch” restaurant so all our dishes are made fresh to order. Thus, we’re happy to accommodate dietary concerns. For example, we have gluten free brown rice pasta for customers on gluten free diets and half portions are available on most menu items.

One thing on the website that had me mildly concerned was the references to past awards, without dates. I tried to look up the references but didn’t find anything. Perhaps they were pre-internet? This kind of thing always worries me. What have you done -lately- is what I want to know.

We arrived at about 5:30 on Wednesday and were immediately seated. The restaurant was about 1/4 full.  While I’m not sure how a place can be a restaurant -and- cafe at the same time, the first thing we noticed about the place is that it is very much more Cafe than Restaurant. The place is showing its age; the ambiance is, well, clunky. The wine glasses sum up the atmosphere of the place. Short, faux cut crystal, thick with mould lines visible. You know. The kind you buy at Canadian Tire. That you can drop and they usually just bounce. Those ones.

Our very young server was at our table quickly and took our drink order; a 1/2 litre of the House Red, which according to the menu is  “Specially bottled for Chianti Cafe by one of Italy’s best known producers.” It was a passable chianti, a bit thin, but we’re shiraz drinkers so all chiantis seem a bit thin.

As usual, I let our server know I needed gluten free and it was obvious from the server’s reaction that this is something they get asked a fair amount. No look of “huh?” Good start.

Kim is an artichoke junkie so for antipasti, we ordered the Asparagi & Carcofi Salad which is “Asparagus and Artichokes in our Homemade Italian Dressing”. For our mains, Kim ordered Pollo Boscaiola (Chicken with Mushrooms, Onions, Parsley, Wine, Olive Oil and Garlic. Served with Fettuccini Solario) and I ordered Fettuccine Chianti (Prosciutto Ham, Mushrooms and Cheese Sauce). Kim ordered hers GF even though she doesn’t have to so I could taste (she’s very sweet ;))

While we waited for our order, we watched the restaurant rapidly fill up. A few minutes later, our server came out to inform us that the antipasti we ordered was not GF as there was gluten in the dressing. I thought this was a bit odd as Italian dressing (especially “home made”) is usually GF. Oil, vinegar and spices right? Apparently not. It was a bit disappointing but I commend the staff for knowing. As we were a bit pressed for time, we decided not to try and order anything else.

Our mains arrived within 15 minutes. The first thing I noticed was that both the dishes which were supposed to be fettuccine were penne. I suppose as a GF customer in a pasta restaurant, you can’t be too picky but how hard is it to carry a couple of different varieties of GF pasta? They all cost the same. On the plus side, the pasta on both dishes was cooked nicely and was not in the least bit mushy. Given my experience with GF pastas, I’d guess they were using Tinkyada brown rice pasta. It’s the best out there for not turning to paste. My dish was creamy, with a smoky flavour. (hmm that was prosciutto and not bacon, right Chianti?) In any case, it was very tasty.

Kim’s main was a mixed bag. The pasta Solario was very good. Light and full of flavour although we both agreed it could have had a bit more garlic. Kim was a bit disappointed with the chicken part of the dish. She thought it was a bit bland and that the chicken should have been grilled. It had the pale, unappetizing look of steamed bird. Since we’ve not seen how the dish is prepared normally, it’s possible that it was steamed to keep the chicken off a contaminated grill. In that case, all is forgiven 🙂 Despite the look, the chicken was moist and had a nice flavour. Kim didn’t finish it all, so I used it to mop up the rest of my cream sauce (no bread on -our- table)

We didn’t have time or room for dessert and I didn’t look too closely at the dessert menu but there were a few things that looked like I could have.

By the time we left at about 6:40, there was a line up of about 20 people waiting to be seated. I don’t know if they accept reservations, as it doesn’t say on their website. If they do and you plan on visiting after 6pm (even on a Wednesday), I’d recommend a reservation. There’s $2 for 2 hour parking in a lot behind the restaurant.

This has been a bit of a strange review to write as I seem to have been doing a lot of complaining and yet, the thing is, we really quite enjoyed ourselves. The service was quick and competent, if not very friendly and the food was plentiful, tasty and safe, if not very “pretty”. To be able to eat GF at a pasta restaurant is a treat. And then there was the price. We don’t usually pay much attention to the price of things when we order. If we’re out, we get what we want. But when the bill arrived, I actually did a double take.  Less than $50 for dinner for two – with wine? Granted, it would have been a bit more if we’d been able to eat the appetizer we ordered but still. $50! I’ve eaten a lot worse meals for $50 a -person- at some unnamed -restaurants- here in town.

Chianti -Cafe- is just fine by us. We’ll be back. And it won’t take us 10 years this time.

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We had heard on glutenfreeedmonton that Sukothai on 104 ave and 116 street in Edmonton was a Celiac & allergen friendly restaurant so we decide to drop by last night.  We arrived around 5pm and  we were the first ones there. The back page of the menu says Celiac and Allergen Friendly, which is a great way start to a meal.  I told our server I was Celiac and he immediately showed me the things I could –not- have, which was easier than what I could have because almost everything on the menu was GF or was easily made GF. How often does -that- happen. All he asked was that I remind him when I placed the order so he could get it right.

There are no appetizers on the menu that are GF as they are all deep fried but he told us for long time customers and Celiacs, there was an off menu item which they could do. This was a rice wrap stuffed with shrimp, mint, cilantro, lettuce and something I couldn’t quite figure out. It came with a mild peanut chili sauce. This was one of the better rice wraps I have ever tried. I asked why it wasn’t on the regular menu and was told that they were often too popular and they take a lot of time to prepare. I can vouch for this as I make them at home. If it’s busy they might not be able to make them for you.

The main course was out right when we were finished the wraps. Our mains were the Green Chicken Curry & Lemongrass noodles with a side of coconut rice. The curry was mild and rich with great flavours of kaffir lime and Thai basil. I assume it was Thai basil. It could have been regular fresh basil but it is a Thai restaurant 🙂 I make green curry all the time but I’ve not used basil in it. I will be using it from now on. I loved it. The lemon grass noodles were my favourite. Lots of crisp stir fried veggies, (I hate soggy veggies in stir fry), shrimp, thick rice noodles, a mildly spiced sauce, well balanced with lemon grass. Often lemon grass is overpowering, but this got it just right. Both the mains were a bit on the mild side for our tastes but we’ll ask for extra heat next time we go.

The coconut rice was a nice side but we found it a bit too sweet but we -are- brown rice eaters so we find even plain white rice sweet. We ordered the small and that was a lot of rice for 2 people.

Everything was prepared and presented very nicely.

Sukothai obviously knows how to deal with people with food allergies & intolerances. Of the 4 tables that were seated, there was one table with Celiac, one with a peanut allergy and one with a shellfish allergy. I’m amazed that a restaurant serving Asian cuisine could (or would) accommodate those two allergies. The server was well informed and simply said “sure we can do that” (but not in a scary-I-don’t-understand-what-that-means-but-it’s-no-big-deal way)

The wine list is pretty basic but they do have one of our favourites, Wyndham 555 Shiraz by the bottle. We chose the house red which is the Mission Hill Merlot from B.C. They have a Mission Hill white as well but I don’t remember what it is. Only house wines are available by the glass or ½ litre. Beer selection is poor but we’re GF so that’s not a big deal right?

Dinner for 2 was around $80 with wine and a nice tip for the great –safe- service.  Reservations weren’t required.

Well done Sukothai.

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