Monday, July 20, 2015

The Blue Lagoon at Disneyland Paris

I was really excited to eat at The Blue Lagoon in Disneyland Paris, as I love it's counterpart in Anaheim -- The Blue Bayou.  Both restaurants sit inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Unfortunately, the experience was sorely lacking.  Although the atmosphere was wonderful, the food was not.  Gluten free options were naked fish or naked steak.  I went with naked steak, which was ALMOST as good as the steak I had for 10 Euros at a sidewalk cafe near Notre Dame.  If I'd paid 10 Euros at Blue Lagoon, I would have been fine with it.  For 30 Euros?  No way!

The problem wasn't only with the GF meals either.  No one in our group had a memorable meal.  The presentation was lovely, but the food was both bland and mushy, and the waitstaff were both slow and indifferent.

This meal cost the same amount as our dinner at Auberge Nicolas Flamel, which was a spectacular meal with impeccable service, in a unique setting.

I really expected better from Disney.

Lunch at the Blue Lagoon in Disneyland Paris


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Auberge Nicolas Flamel in Paris

When I asked the kids what they wanted to do while we were in France, they said "eat French food!"  So I wanted to make sure we had at least one meal in a fancy French restaurant.  However, my niece Lani (age 12) was with us, and she is not as adventurous an eater as my kids.  In addition, none of the three are really suited for the lengthy three-to-four hour dinners customary in France.  They are well behaved kids, but they are still kids.

I researched a lot of places looking for something that could meet all our needs: gluten free options, kid friendly options, service that isn't terribly slow.  I was losing heart until I stumbled upon Auberge Nicolas Flamel!

Nicolas Flamel was a fourteenth century alchemist whose home (which is now a restaurant) is the oldest stone house in Paris.  He was also a character in the Harry Potter books.

The latter reason is why I knew the children would be terribly excited to eat there.  In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Nicolas Flamel is still alive, having invented the Elixir of Life, which he used to make a stone that would keep him and his wife Perenelle immortal.  (The real Nicolas Flamel did have a wife name Perenelle and there is a street named after her in Paris.)  In the book, the evil Voldemort tries to steal the stone to gain immortality, and Flamel decides to destroy the stone and accept his (and his wife's) death as the price that must be paid to keep the stone out of Voldemort's hands.

When I told Colin we would eat at Nicolas Flamel's house he joked "will he be there?"  I reminded him that Flamel died in 1992 (publication date of the Harry Potter book) and therefore couldn't be there.  Duh!

The house of Nicolas Flamel in Paris

Auberge Nicolas Flamel turned out to be the perfect choice.  Not only were the kids reeled in by the Harry Potter connection, but they also loved the food.  For Lani, who likes her food to be relatively plain, they made her a "Harry Potter Special," explaining that the chef would prepare something suitable just for her.  They brought her a chicken breast served on a bed of pureed sweet potato, which she pronounced delicious.  Somehow they made her feel really special at getting a custom meal instead of being made to feel like she was being difficult.  I thought that was awesome.

Dining at Auberge Nicolas Flamel

I was able to have most of what was on the set menu, with only a few substitutions.  They brought out an amuse bouche served on a slab of slate.  It had three components: a chestnut foam (insanely good), pistachio goat cheese, and a cube of "smoked" salmon with mustard sauce.  I have "smoked" in quotes because it was a hair's breath away from raw.  I am not normally a fan of sushi, but it was pretty darn good.  The fish was actually a substitution.  The rest of the family had a croquet of fish (not salmon, but I don't remember what kind) which my son has put on his list of Most Delicious Things He Has Ever Eaten.  (#3 behind Veal Cordon Bleu in Switzerland and Kalua Pig in Hawaii.)

The appetizer course was a poached egg with asparagus.  So simple and yet so so good.

The entree was chicken stuffed with goat cheese, served with a demi-glace and sweet potato puree.

Our dessert was a both visual and gustatory triumph.  They brought us each a bowl with a chocolate sphere, sprinkled with gold dust.  (Alchemists turn things into gold, including desserts!)  Then, in front of us, they poured a pitcher of chocolate sauce over the sphere, melting the top of the chocolate away to reveal the treats inside: a layer of pistachio ice-cream, raspberry sherbet, vanilla ice cream, berries, and caramel.  Wow!  It truly was magic!


Yummy Waffle in Paris

Oh, Yummy Waffle!  How I love thee!

I struck out for dinner at Creperie Beauborg by the Stravinsky Fountain.  They were rumored on the internet to have gluten free gaulettes (buckwheat crepes), but when I talked to our server she told me that their gaulettes have a mixture of wheat and buckwheat.  Sadly this seemed to be the case most places we went.  (We did find one place that advertised gluten free gaulettes, but it was a little shop run by one little old lady trying to make crepes and gaulettes one at a time on her two little griddles.  Tasty, but highly inefficient.)

After my disappointment at the creperie, I was determined to find something tasty for dinner.  Using my Find Me Gluten Free app, I found Yummy Waffle.  The actual name of the place in French is "Bar A Gaufres: Yummy and Guilt-Free."  Gaufres is French for waffle.

Although it wasn't far from our hotel, it was a little difficult to find.  It is tucked inside a shopping area (like a food court) located outside of a department store, but you can't see either from the street!  You have to venture down an alley off the Rue de Temple, between Creperie Cat Man and BHV Marais.  We walked past the alley twice before we found it, but it was totally worth the effort.  Their waffles are large and served on a stick, sort of like a corn dog except much much yummier.  I had both a savory and sweet waffle.  The savory was a Croque Monsieur -- little rosettes of bechamel sauce piped onto each indentation on the waffle, then sprinkled with ham and cheese.  Oh my God!  It was so delicious and so welcome after eating nothing but salads for a couple days.  The chocolate waffle was also divine, but oh, that Croque Monsieur!

The courtyard was loud and crowded and seemed to be attractive to 20-somethings who smoke, and the seating was very limited, but I don't care.  Yummy Yummy Waffle!


GF on Eurostar

For the second leg of our European Vacation, we took the Eurostar Train through the Chunnel from London to Paris.  We bought tickets in Premium Class, which includes larger seats, power outlets, and a meal compared to seats in "Standard."  As near as I can tell, Business Class is really only worth the money if you need to be flexible about your departure time.

I pre-ordered a GF meal, which was effortless, and they brought it to me without needing to be reminded.  They gave me a nice chicken breast with some cold vinegar rice (I'm pretty sure it was meant to be served cold, as the chicken was hot).  I also got some GF bread and a seed cake for dessert.  Hubby liked the seed cake more than I did, and I let him steal it off my plate.  They also gave us some nice wine (it's France, after all!) and the kids got sodas.

We really enjoyed the whole experience on the train through the Chunnel.  We talked it up to the kids so they understood the engineering feat involved in building the Chunnel and how cool it is that we can take a train to cross a body of water.

GF meal on the Eurostar train to Paris

Kids enjoying the chance to charge devices on the train.

Sandy on the Eurostar train from London to Paris


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Gluten Free in Cardiff

"What about me? I saw the Fall of Troy, World War V. I pushed boxes at the Boston Tea Party. Now I'm gonna die in a dungeon. In Cardiff! "-- Doctor Who , The Unquiet Dead (2005)

Cardiff would never have been on our vacation itinerary if it weren't for Doctor Who.  The Doctor Who Experience, a semi-permanent museum based on the popular tv show, is located in Cardiff.  At this time, the intention is to keep it there until 2017.

It's a disservice to the city of Cardiff that fans show up, visit the museum, and then leave Wales immediately.  Unfortunately, we did much the same, though we had a very good time wandering through Mermaid Quay and the Cardiff Bay Waterfront, walking distance from the museum.

We had lunch at Terra Nova, which had a nice selection of gluten free options clearly marked on the main menu, including several desserts.  I am very sorry I didn't get to try the chocolate orange brownie, but my risotto was really good and I ate too much to even consider dessert.   
Gluten Free Risotto at Terra Nova

I also had a perfectly prepared Mojito! 

We had a lot of fun walking around the area, seeing Roald Dahl Plass (and looking for the secret entrance to Torchwood).  If I had to do it again, I think I would take one of the boat tours being offered from the pier.  It looked like a lot of fun.  

The kids on the carousel at Mermaid Quay

Roald Dahl Plass
I wanted to go to St Fagans National History Museum, an outdoor museum about Welsh history, but it was a hard sell with the kids who wanted to go back to the hotel and chill, so we didn't get to see much of Cardiff.  Still, it's more than we would have seen if the Doctor Who museum wasn't there!


Cote Bistro in Guildford

Guildford, located 30 miles southwest of London, was a pilgrimage site for me, as the final resting place of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.

Lewis Carroll Grave in Guildford, UK

After paying my respects to my literary idol, we went to the Guildford Castle, a very old (William the Conqueror Era) keep with lovely gardens, including a striking Alice in Wonderland statue.
Alice Going Through the Looking Glass
 Steps away from the castle and it's Alice Garden was Cote Bistro.  They have a dedicated GF menu, and seemed to "get" what gluten free means.  They are an upscale chain with numerous locations throughout the UK.

Cute water bottles on the table at Cote Bistro
 I had a delicious asparagus risotto with goat cheese, and for dessert I ordered a Chocolate Pot with Creme Fraiche.  Oh, so so good!  (Strangely, this dessert ONLY appeared on the gluten free menu, and was not listed on the regular menu.  More for us, I guess!)

Chocolate Pot with Creme Fraiche at Cote Bistro
Cote Bistro was affordable, delicious, and very convenient if you are visiting Guildford Castle, and they have many other locations as well.


GF Brunch at The Pump Room

"Every morning now brought its regular duties – shops were to be visited; some new part of the town to be looked at; and the pump-room to be attended, where they paraded up and down for an hour, looking at everybody and speaking to no one." -- Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

The Pump Room is a restaurant in a historic building, built in the late eighteenth century, in Bath.  It is directly next door to the entrance to the ruins of the Roman Baths.  

Roman Baths

 The baths themselves are utterly astounding, but we found ourselves far more charmed than expected by the Pump Room, with its soaring ceiling, Corinthian columns, and elegant chandeliers.  The service was impeccable, and there was live music filling the air with the sound of violins.  It was easy to get carried away to the Jane Austen world of romance and Landed Gentry.  
The Pump Room in Bath

I knew they had gluten free options, but I was blown away by the choices available, and sad that I had but one stomach to give to the cause.  I had two kinds of gluten free scones -- sweet and savory, and both were incredible.  And the butter -- oh my!  And the jam -- I don't have the adjectives to do it justice.  Suffice it to say that when I finished my sweet scone, I proceeded to put jam on the savory scone as well, it was just that good.

Gluten Free Scones at The Pump Room
Poached egg and gluten free toast at The Pump Room

I also had a poached egg and a pot of tea, both prepared perfectly.  I really wished I had room for their gf carrot cake, but sadly I was stuffed beyond hope.

In Jane Austen's time, the water from the springs was believed to have healing properties and was drunk as a tonic.  If you wish to "take the waters," The Pump Room has a table set up with safe water from the spring.  (The water in the Roman ruins is contaminated with bacteria, but they are able to obtain drinkable water from a different spot along the natural spring.)  It tastes like a combination of tonic water (quinine) and copper pennies.  Yuck.
Drinking Fountain at The Pump Room 
It was a great meal in a beautiful restaurant, and definitely an experience not to be missed.  

(It was reasonably priced as well.  Our breakfast for 5 was $87 US, a bargain for that quality.)


GF in the Village of Wick

There are a number of unrelated Rose and Crown pubs, including one in Epcot, but the one we ate at happened to be in the village of Wick in Bristol.

We chose to stay at the Toghill House Farm, a great Bed & Breakfast in Wick (read: the middle of nowhere), as it gave us a good launching point for both Cardiff (to the west) and Bath (to the south).  The children loved the farm with its chickens, sheep, and horses, as well as lots of friendly dogs, but your dining choices are somewhat limited in Wick.  Fortunately, we had two great meals at the Rose and Crown pub just a few miles down the road from the farm.  Amazingly, they had numerous gluten free options.

The first night I had a hamburger on a gluten free bun.  The burger was overcooked for my tastes, but the chips (steak cut french fries) were excellent. There were a number of gluten free dessert choices as well and I tried the apple blackberry crumble, which was very good.

The second night was Sunday, and they were serving the traditional Sunday Roast.  The Rose and Crown in Wick was a rarity, in that they offered a gluten free Yorkshire pudding.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I had roast beef, with gravy and Yorkshire pudding in a real English pub and it was gluten free.  Amazing!  The meat was tender and delicious, and the gravy was excellent.  Sadly the Yorkshire pudding was overcooked and dry, but MAJOR brownie points for the effort, guys!  
Sunday Roast at the Rose and Crown Pub

For dessert I had Eton Mess, a jumble of fresh strawberries, whipped cream, pieces of meringue, and a raspberry coulis.  Wow!  This is my new favorite dessert and I plan on making it often.

While in Wick, we also stopped for ice cream at Marshfield Farms, purveyors of fine ice cream.  There were some unique flavors to choose from, and I had Cherry and White Chocolate Chunk in a gluten free waffle cone!

Gluten Free Ice Cream and Cone

Cow Bench at Marshfield Farms


Disappointing Lunch at Harrods

Harrod's department store in London is nothing short of amazing.  From the grandiose Egyptian Escalator to the glittering jewels and haute fashions (4000 British Pounds for a hat!), the place is practically a museum in and of itself.  Up to 300,000 people visit the store on peak days.  Fortunately for me, our visit was NOT on one of the peak days.

Egyptian Theming at Harrod's Department Store

There are a number of restaurants inside Harrod's, as well as a "food hall" selling gourmet cheeses, pastries, caviar, and charcuterie (but the food hall is primarily designed for take-away, with no seating available.) Restaurants include a Disney restaurant for kids, a steakhouse, pizza, Chinese, a burger joint aimed at teens, and sushi.
Food Hall goodies.  NOT gluten free.  Sigh.

Despite the variety, I hadn't planned on eating at Harrod's, as my internet research only turned up one thing known to be gluten free -- Afternoon Tea at The Georgian, one of Harrod's most elegant restaurants.  So I planned our Harrod's excursion to happen away from meal times.

Life gets in the way, however, and when the book store near the British Museum proved a disappointment to the kids, they begged to be taken back to Harrod's to peruse the bookstore there.  That took us in the opposite direction from where we planned to eat lunch, and thus we ended up hungry at Harrod's.

The Terrace Restaurant was near where we happened to be standing when our stomachs made themselves known, and I asked the maitre d' if they had any gluten free selections.  He asked the chef, and came back to tell me that the steak and fish were both GF as is, and that he could work with me if I was interested in something else.  So I sat down, and a waitress took my order; and here is where I made my big mistake.  I DIDN'T mention that I was GF when I told her my order (though a few minutes later, my husband said I was GF and asked if there was GF bread -- there was! --  so she did know I was gluten intolerant.)

A little while later, the steak arrives with little fried crispies on top.  I ask the waitress to double check for me that these really are gluten free.  She assures me that it's "just potatoes."  I insist again that she double check with the chef.

Sure enough, they have to remake my steak and again I end up getting my meal just as everyone else is finishing up.  On the plus side, the lemon, mint, and cucumber drink I ordered was fantastic.

The terrace, at The Terrace, is beautiful.  Unfortunately we sat inside.  There was plenty of seating on the terrace, but the children were whiny and wanted to eat inside, even though the interior seating was rather boring.  All in all, I found the menu to be limited, the gluten free awareness shaky, and the price too expensive.  The price for the five of us came to $239 American dollars.  Yikes.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Mad Hatter's Tea Party, Gluten Free Style

Nothing could compare to the experience at Claridge's for Afternoon Tea, in my mind, but my 16 year old daughter actually preferred our tea at the Sanderson Hotel, a funky West End hotel with eclectic and whimsical decor.

Funky seating in the Lobby at the Sanderson Hotel

The day couldn't have been better for sitting outside on their lovely garden terrace.  Their Afternoon Tea is advertised as a "Mad Hatter's Tea Party," and there are lots of playful touches: the sugar cubes come inside a ballerina music box; the menu is inside a book; the treats included little brown bottles marked "Drink Me" (filled with a passion fruit smoothie) and chocolate tea cups, filled with mousse, with a Queen of Hearts card made of white chocolate on top.

Outdoor Terrace at Sanderson's Hotel

The experience wasn't perfect.  They lost our reservation (which was held with a credit card!), so it took forever to get a table, then another eternity to actually get served.  Then the waiter forgot I had said I needed a GF meal, so he had to go back and order it, so everyone was nearly done by the time I got started.  Additionally, my sandwiches were served plain on uninspired white gf bread.  They were edible, but just barely.  They didn't have any of the condiments that were on the "regular" sandwiches -- they were just meat and bread.  Fortunately, that is exactly what the 12-year-old likes to eat, so I passed them to her.  The scones were tasty, but fell apart in your hands.  Desserts, however, were better than Claridge's!  

Samples on the table so you can smell their custom blends before ordering.

Queen of Hearts Teapot (at the Sanderson)

Gluten Free scones and desserts at the Sanderson

Marshmallow Mushrooms

Passion fruit smoothie

Boring gluten free sandwiches at the Sanderson

Regular (gluten filled) sandwiches looked much better

Despite these problems, Caroline liked The Sanderson better than Claridge's for both food and ambiance.  (My foodie Colin still preferred Claridge's).  The desserts were particularly yummy, especially their little raspberry cake, which came in a gf and non-gf version.  My husband tasted both and thought it was actually better than the non-gf version.  

For the 5 of us, it was $100 cheaper than Claridge's (though still pricey at $340 US dollars).  


GF Breakfasts in England

England did not have a lot of specialty gluten free products (breads, crackers, etc.) but they had simple, unprocessed breakfast foods, which made eating breakfast relatively easy in England.

The Serpentine Bar and Kitchen in Hyde Park had poached eggs with avocado and tomato (I asked for no bread), with a pot of tea and fresh squeezed orange juice, and a table looking out over the lake.  Not too shabby.
The Serpentine 

Everywhere I went, I was amazed at the orange egg yolks, which were a rich orange color very unlike the eggs I get at home.

Our hotel (the Ascot Mayfair) had a breakfast (not included in the price of the room) that was fairly typical of European hotels.  There was a buffet with deli meat, cheese, yogurt, fruit, and of course, little packets of Nutella, that sweet goodness that is ubiquitous in Europe and rare in the US.  They would also boil you an egg, hard or soft.

Hotel breakfast at the Mitre Carlton (directly across the street from Hampton Court -- great location) was similar, but with eggs any style (I had poached).  Amusingly, the room service menu at the Mitre Carlton said that gluten free items are marked "GF," but not a single item was, in fact, marked "GF"!


Gluten Free Tea at Claridges

What could be more quintessentially British than Afternoon Tea?  I was worried that I would finally get to visit London, only to find that I couldn't partake of this delightful ritual.  Not so!  There are a significant number of establishments (mostly hotels) that offer a gluten free Afternoon Tea.

One of the most well-known is at Claridge's, a five star hotel in the Mayfair district, which is apparently visited regularly by members of the royal family.  We found it to be suitably posh, with a gorgeous art deco theme crowned by a white-frosted Chihuly chandelier.  (I often find his work to be too garish, but the pearly white color makes this one very elegant.)
Claridge's Hotel in London

We had three children with us, ages 12, 13, and 16, and they were warned ahead of time that this was Best Behavior Time.  They enjoyed getting dressed up and going out to dine "like the royals."  When we arrived, we were seated on little settees, with a low table.  I had mentioned that I was gluten free when I made the reservation, and they were prepared for me with no explanations needed.
The kids sat on a sofa
The Afternoon Tea is a set menu with a variety of sandwiches, scones, and pastries, all served on bone china and real silverware.  My daughter's recollection later was that it was all "really shiny!"  Each person got their own tray, but we traded around as we figured out which sandwiches each person liked best.  Colin (age 13) got all the salmon sandwiches, and was over the moon about them. My husband liked the chicken sandwiches best, and my 16 year old daughter liked the ham sandwiches.  They were also kind enough to provide some plain ham sandwiches for the youngest, who was not excited about the version that comes with watercress and tomato chutney.   My sandwiches were on gluten free bread, but like the standard version, it had several different varieties of bread, and it was so good I had one of those panic moments where I worried that it wasn't really gluten free!  Not to worry, it was gf and it was delicious.  My favorite was the duck egg.
Sandy at Claridge's Foyer for Afternoon Tea

The GF scones were incredible (one was plain and the other raisin) and they were served with clotted cream and jam.  For the pastries, I got a slightly different version than the others.  They substituted a tapioca pudding with tropical fruit, a coconut pound cake, and chocolate with fruit, and all were delicious.  The raspberry macaroon was the same on both trays and was already gluten free.

This was my gluten free version, with slightly different desserts. 

I would be remiss if I did not mention the tea itself.  Claridge's actually has a tea sommelier!  I had Claridge's Blend, which is a traditional English Breakfast style tea.  My 13 year old had a cup of Second Flush Muscatel Darjeeling after interrogating the waitress about his options.  Like most waitstaff we encounter, she was unable to hide her amusement at the contrast between Colin's sophisticated palate and his tiny size. He pronounced it "amazing."  In the meantime the girls (12 and 16) were asking for hot chocolate instead of tea (which they provided).  The hot chocolate came in two pitchers -- one of chocolate sauce and the other steamed milk, which they poured together at the table to make your drink.  It even had a cute toasted marshmallow on a stick!  The 16 year old thought it was divine.  The 12 year old added sugar.  (It was definitely a bittersweet chocolate, but I only had a lick, as I wasn't sure if it was GF, and it seemed impolite to ask, as it wasn't even my drink.)

The total bill for 5 people with tip came to $440 in US dollars.  That was the most expensive meal we ate in Europe by far, but it was a once in a lifetime experience, and my son counts it as one of the best parts of the trip.