Stick with what you know?

I like to eat out. Obviously. If I didn’t, this blog would’ve been a very ill-planned venture. But, perhaps more importantly, I like to eat out at new places. I get stuck in ruts like everyone else, depending on what’s cheap, easy, convenient, safe, etc etc…but I still make a concerted effort to try out new restaurants, venture into unexplored neighborhoods, and sample different cuisines (on that last one – only if I’m feeling brave). That’s why it saddens me to know that many individuals with dietary restrictions rarely eat out, or only dine at their “comfort zone” establishments.

For many people, especially those with complex or multiple restrictions, finding a restaurant that can accommodate their needs is tough, especially if you don’t have the luxury of living in a city with a myriad of dining options. When you do find one, you hold on tight. It becomes a safe haven, where the stress and worry dissipate, and you can simply sit down at a table and enjoy a meal. I get that. But I also want more places to become safe havens for people with dietary restrictions, and that can only happen if individuals continue to try new venues and demand that their needs be met.

I’ve come to embrace my never-ending spiel, “I’m allergic to peanuts, and I am intolerant of soy and corn. Oh, and I don’t really eat legumes. Okay?” I say a variation of it again and again – it’s the leitmotif of my dining experience. It does take effort to ensure that my food is safe, and that the staff truly understand the seriousness of the issue. I could settle for places where I know that everything will be fine. I could order every Persnickety-friendly dish on the menu. That would be far less risky. But I hate the thought that I would be missing out on two things: 1) experiencing new cuisines, dishes and concoctions, and 2) promoting the message that restaurants can and should provide a safe and accommodating environment for patrons with dietary restrictions.

So I’ll keep repeating myself everywhere I go. And I’ll talk to staff and chefs. I’ll get disappointed when my questions result in “maybe you just shouldn’t come here” (this actually happened!), but I’ll also be elated when presented with a personalized menu that caters to my particular restrictions. I hope you all have found some safe havens. I’ll do my best to find more of them.

Jersey Shore

Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about Snooki. Jersey Shore, on this occasion, refers to a pizza you can find at Mike Isabella’s (of Top Chef fame) first DC restaurant, Graffiato. Good old Mike has actually just published his first cookbook, Crazy Good Italian, so it seemed timely to do a roundup of my dining experiences at Graffiato. And when I say dining experiences, I mean 6 or 7 trips (thank goodness I work only 2 blocks away!) of awesomeness.

Although the menu varies with the seasons, as all good menus should, I’m doing my best to tick off some of his classic dishes each time I visit. Being a small plate kind of a joint, Graffiato enables you to try at least 4 or 5 dishes per meal, so the variety (and my list) is quite respectable. So far, I’ve sampled:

  • Broccolini | spicy pepper relish, walnut, feta
  • Baby Beets | house ricotta, orange
  • Roasted Cauliflower | pecorino, mint
  • Marinated Olives | citrus, chili, herbs
  • Greens | pickles, radish, mint, ricotta, salata
  • Gnocchi | butternut squash
  • Hand Cut Spaghetti | olive oil poached cherry tomatoes, thai basil
  • Citrus Cured Striped Bass | peppers, fennel, saffron
  • Classic Pizza | melted cherry tomatoes, sicilian oregano, garlic
  • Papa Smurf Pizza | speck, gorgonzola, caramelized onions and potato
  • Jersey Shore Pizza | fried calamari, tomato, provolone, cherry pepper aioli
  • Flatbread with Pepperoni sauce (recipe is rumored to be in the new cookbook!)
  • Brussels Sprouts | maple, egg,  pancetta

I will admit that I keep checking the online menu to see if it’s brussels sprouts time again. Longing might be the right word for how I feel about those brussels sprouts. On my most recent visit, I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the gloriously lovely roasted cauliflower dish, which was, by far, the winning dish of the lot. Also gracing our table was the broccolini (served cold with a great crunch to balance the creaminess of the feta and relish), an herbed pasta dish with crab that deceptively appears to be gnocchi, and, of course, the inimitable Jersey Shore pizza topped with calamari. The aioli has a kick that’s just right, bleeding into the chewy, slightly charred crust.

Once you find a place that’s great about accommodating your particular dietary restrictions, chances are you’ll keep on coming back. Just so for Graffiato. On my first visit, I learned that the restaurant GM actually has a peanut allergy, so they rarely have peanuts on the menu (you’ll find some in the desserts occasionally), and they’re exceedingly understanding and careful about cross contamination in the kitchen. On my latest visit, after looking over the special $20 lunch menu (awesome deal!), we asked for a recommendation on a pasta dish, and the first words out of our server’s mouth was, “Oh, the corn agnolotti…” Unfortunately  I had to stop him right there and explain my corn intolerance, to which he gave me a sympathetic smile and suggested the crab pasta instead. People seem to melt at the very mention of the acclaimed corn agnolotti; a particularly eloquent Yelp Reviewer described the dish as “amazingly light handmade(?) pasta wrapped around a homemade sweet corn mash that hit me with a wave of fields, summer, and memories of eating corn on the cob all at once.” What imagery! If you don’t happen to be corn-intolerant, order it while it’s still on the menu!

Ultimately, I keep going back to Graffiato for their incredible food, very attentive service, and the knowledge that the peanut-allergic GM is keeping his staff accountable and the kitchen safe for me.

Graffiato | 707 6th St NW Washington, DC 20001 (202) 289-3600

Don’t Spill the Honey Wine

On Sunday evening, I was finally able to put down my Kindle, having completed Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It was a beautiful read, though I think the editor could have been a bit more heavy-handed. Set in Addis Ababa, the arc follows two boys–orphaned twins–who are growing up under the parentage of two physicians in a local hospital. Verghese writes about Ethiopia with a loving hand, and it was fitting that the night after finishing the book,  I had a few friends join me for an Ethiopian dinner in the U Street neighborhood of DC.

DC is literally awash with Ethiopian cuisine, and you’ll find loyal followers of almost any of the local Ethiopian restaurants. Our choice for the evening was Etete, an intimate spot slightly sequestered from the vibrant U Street scene. Along with Ethiopic on H Street (another fantastic spot, and one I frequented often when I lived closeby), Etete is held in high regard amongst local food critics. The Washingtonian has consistently rated it highly over the past few years, and even on a Monday night, it was a lively and bustling place to eat.

Although I have eaten Ethiopian food on a number of previous occasions, I wanted to make sure that I voiced my food allergy concerns before ordering, both for my benefit and for that of one of my dining companions who happened to have a tree nut allergy to complement my peanut allergy. I’ll say now that if you have a nut allergy, and haven’t yet tried Ethiopian food, you must go at once! There are no nuts on the menu, period. As for corn, not a chance. Soy? All set.

That said, I would like to offer a word of caution for those with serious food allergies. When we tried communicating the allergies to our server, it took about five minutes of pointing, exaggerated enunciation and repetition to make sure it had sunk in. The language barrier, particularly for our server, was quite strong, and it was difficult to ensure that she understood the severity of the issue. It was only because there were no nuts listed on the menu, and the fact that I had eaten there safely in the past that we felt comfortable in ordering.

It’s always a bit of a guessing game for Ethiopian portions, especially when you’re with a group. Our group of four ended up ordering a vegetarian platter and added Yebeg Wat (a lamb dish with crushed red pepper and special butter sauce), Derek Tibs (beef sautéed until crisp in onion, chili, tomato) and Tekil Gomen (fresh cabbage and carrot cooked in oil with onion, fresh garlic, jalapeno). Each pile of food had a unique, tangy and spicy flavor which bled into the injera “plate.” For the uninitiated among you, you might be surprised to hear that Ethiopian food is never eaten with utensils; instead, everything is scooped up by hand with the injera, a spongy pancake-type bread that is served with every dish. I was a bit miffed to find that Etete’s injera is served cool or at room temperature; I prefer mine to be served warm.

I discovered tonight, as I had hoped, that the grain injera is made from, tef, is actually gluten-free! Apart from language barrier issues, Ethiopian food can be a fantastic option for people with restricted diets. Vegetarians would rejoice here, as about 1/3 of the extensive menu is all vegetarian. Gluten-free or people with celiac could enjoy the injera without worry, and there are very few dairy products to be found, so casein allergies or lactose intolerance would also be easy to handle!

While I love the food at Ethiopic, I do not love the service. Walking in, I found the two head waitresses squatting on the staircase engaged in intense conversation. It took a moment for them to acknowledge me, and it was with great annoyance that they paused their gab to seat me and bring me a glass of tea. The food definitely makes up for the less-than-ideal customer service though, and I would gladly go back anytime. Be careful of Etete’s signature honey wine though. Unless you truly enjoy apple cider vinegar, this might not be the right drink for you. (Un)fortunately, the arrival of our last dining companion and subsequent swaying of the table meant that the honey wine, in all its cloudy yellow glory, was sacrificed to the floor.

Etete | 1942 9th St NW (between N T St & N Florida Ave) Washington, DC 20001  (202) 232-7600