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The Capital of the World… the Gluten Free World: NYC

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Aboard the train, I wasn’t sure of what to expect from New York City. We had plans to visit several National Park Service sites including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Sounds like a typical weekend in NYC, doesn’t it? In a way, it kind of was, and in a way it wasn’t. I was eager to see what the city had to offer somebody with food allergies. I came armed with the February/March 2011 issue of Living Without (a food allergies magazine), which centered around… New York City! They had listed plenty of restaurants to choose from. I also had a few other places in mind, that I wanted to see. The Alice in the Wonderland statue in Central Park, and nearby was Cleopatra’s Needle, also known as the Obelisk (created in 1600 BC in Egypt!). And of course, I was excited to see our friends who graciously agreed to host us during our stay in the city (New York City is now one of my favorite places to visit, thanks to you two!).

As a back up, we also planned on going to Whole Foods close by the apartment so we could cook whatever we needed. I half expected to stay in every night, and MAYBE go out for lunch, considering that while eating gluten-free was common, but corn and soy on the top of that? I wasn’t planning on being THAT lucky. Little did I know what I had in store ahead of me!

The first morning, the city nudged me awake with the sunshine in my face. When I opened my eyes, I remembered where I was. I felt a bit like Alice tumbling down the tree, slowly realizing that I was no longer in a familiar place. Eager to start my adventure, we got ready with a breakfast place in mind, recommended by our knowledgeable host. We were off to Penelope!

An adorable cafe, my boyfriend and I were captivated by its trinkets they had around the place. While it wasn’t on my list of gluten-free restaurants to try out, I wasn’t worried since I knew I could always order eggs or something like that. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? When I looked at the menu, I decided to go the omelet route. Spinach, tomato and feta cheese for me, please! He got a blissful sounding waffle topped with toasted coconut flakes. I almost felt a twinge of jealousy, but I was too distracted by the allure of Penelope. Then our breakfasts arrived. On the side, I had blueberries, strawberries and honey-dew melon. We also decided to split his orange juice, that was freshly squeezed. Now, I have to admit that while I’m okay eating eggs, it’s not something I would typically WANT to order if I could have anything for breakfast. The first bite changed all of that.

Penelope's breakfast that introduced me to NYC

The delicateness of it all! It was so light, yet so filling. I knew this would sustain me until the next meal. Eggs often left me wanting more. But the combination I had ordered, including the fresh fruits, which was arranged separately, and the juice, was just exactly what I needed. Color is big for me. If a plate is filled with colors, it often meant I was getting the nutrition I needed. Also the server was wonderful, very attentive, and ensured that what I ate was safe for me.

Now I was ready to tackle the city! A few national parks, that is. Inspired by Penelope, and the kindness of the waitress in a city that I’ve heard was famed for rudeness, I practically skipped to my next destination.

After visiting the ominous African Burial Grounds, the bustling Federal Hall and the marvelous General Grant National Memorial, we were once again starving. Now we had snacks throughout the day, but we wanted a real meal. We wanted to sit down. We wanted to catch up with our friends. Most of all, we wanted to go over everything that we have seen that day.

Our friend took us to the Whole Foods close by, and of course we sampled as we searched the store for ideas. By the seafood section, an employee was cooking salmon with a Mediterranean rub. After trying a piece, I joked to my friends that we didn’t have to cook anything, that we could just stay by the display and fill ourselves on the delicious salmon. Then my boyfriend asked him how to make it. Our dinner was decided!

A busy market in NYC required a system that was efficient.... and it was!

After gathering other needed items, we were ready to go. Now, I come from a small town where I sometimes made conversations with the cashier about my purchases. It was basically on my own pace, if I was ready, I was ready, if I needed more time, I had it. Not here. They had a screen with color coded columns, matching the color marked lanes where people lined up. It was an extremely efficient system that helped keep the lines moving without complaints. It was both intriguing and fun to witness!

Now it was time for dinner. Not accustomed to cooking with bones in the fish, we both were a bit apprehensive about how to prepare the salmon. One thing at a time, we said. The man at Whole Foods said to cover the fish with the Mediterranean seasoning for 10-20 minutes. So we did that, and prepared green beans and brown rice to accompany the bony salmon. After twittering around about how long to fry it for, when to flip it, we finally decided it was ready when it was pink and slightly flaky. The first bite settled the matter for us. It was delicious! Strawberries for dessert was a bonus.

The next day was a huge day for us all, my boyfriend and our friends! We were about to visit Lady Liberty and her neighboring island, Ellis, that welcomed millions to America. It’s beauty, history and commanding presence filled us all with awe. Even if we’ve seen it before, or if it was our first time seeing it. We were also blessed with a sunny day to further enhance our experience on the islands of New York City Harbor. Beginning to feel weary as the historical travelers once did (okay, what we felt was NOTHING in comparison to their experiences!), my boyfriend and I were ready to hit up Central Park, knowing that once we saw our objectives, we could sit down and eat. I conversed with the Mad Hatter at the Alice in the Wonderland statue, and marveled at the Obelisk (I touched it! And it’s from 1600 BC in Egypt! Okay, maybe I wasn’t supposed to but… it was worth it). Sitting down on the bench, feeling rejuvenated by the obelisk, we looked at the Living Without magazine to see which restaurants were close by. Peter’s Restaurant, it was!

Now I have to say… this place opened a whole new world for me, or rather it brought me back to what I thought was gone to me. I had… (drum roll)… fried calamari. Yes, fried calamari. An appetizer I always ordered whenever I saw it on the menu, until I had to go off gluten four years ago. I constantly battled envy whenever I saw it on the menu, or on somebody else’s table, knowing I couldn’t have it. But at Peter’s Restaurant, I did! The waiter was extremely accommodating, understanding of my food allergies. The menu had an X next to whatever that could NOT be made gluten-free. Guess what? That was in the minority of the menu. Even their cheesecake could be made gluten-free! I swooned as I took the first bite, the second, the third . . . all the way to the last. Even though I was finished, I was delirious with joy that I had just eaten something once forbidden to me. Thank you, Peter. And a Greek frappe to top it off! Yum!

What was for dinner? By this point, we had ended up in SoHo. So my friend decided to Google for a restaurant with salads. One of the results led us to Cafe Select. We joked about how selective it must be, as we admired the neighborhood on our stroll there. Ushered to a table, our glasses were filled with water from a bottle that used to hold wine. The atmosphere made for a welcoming place that also kept us interested, with movie posters, red checkered napkins, a wall that was covered with a photograph of a bookshelf. I saw that our menus could be written on, so I wrote down that I cannot have gluten, corn or soy. She immediately took the menu to the back, where the chef circled the dishes that I could eat, including modifications if needed. When she brought it back, I was shocked to see it. Never had it been that clear for me! I had a huge selection, and I ended up ordering their special salad of the day. Arugula, red onions, pistachios, avocados, and a delicious dressing to top it off. We all also ordered drinks. That was another pro about New York City, everywhere we’ve went, they’ve had potato vodka so I could have a mixed drink. Chopin was often what I had, mixed with fresh lime juice and sugar. But anyways, back to the salad, it was PACKED with flavor! So light, so airy, I felt as if I was dancing with deities, taking in the nuttiness and creaminess of it all. I definitely slept well that night.

The ambrosial treats of Tu-Lu's Gluten-Free Bakery!

It was already my last day in the city! There was one last spot I had to visit, before I was ready to bid NYC farewell. Tu-Lu’s. A bakery entirely gluten-free. Yes, a such thing exist! It was a pleasant walk there, located in an appealing neighborhood, decorated with trees. Upon telling the baker about what I could not have, she immediately pointed out what I could eat or should avoid. She was immensely aware of where corn and soy were found. She asked me about xanthan gum. I said I could only have that in a very small amount. I chose a raspberry almond crumble cake. Sounds dreamy doesn’t it? My glutenous friends ordered cupcakes, their special of the day was hazelnut, a red velvet and vanilla. After thanking her, we walked out, ready to head on back. Then I took my first bite. I was stopped in my tracks, overwhelmed by the goodness of it all. It was absolutely exquisite, fit for a queen. The raspberry, almond and sweetness of it all melted in my mouth. I had to close my eyes, my other senses were temporarily useless, all of its energy focused on my taste buds. Then I looked at my friend who was standing next to me, and said “This is enough to make me come back to NYC.”

That dessert guaranteed a return to the city that never sleeps. So did Peter’s that served me my first fried calamari I had in years. The Greek frappes. The comfort I felt at Cafe Select. NYC was a safe haven, which allowed me to explore without constantly worrying about where to eat next. Instead, I was excited about the next meal. On the train back home, I told my boyfriend that I felt like I got to experience NYC the way everybody else had the luxury to, by sampling its diverse cuisine. And of course, my friends who opened their arms and made it a wonderful experience.

It wasn’t a good-bye NYC, but rather it was a see you later.


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