Choose the venue carefully: restaurants that focus on natural produce may be better choices.
However, this isn’t a guarantee, you may still need to be on your guard. The Hong Kong eatery, Fish and Meat prides itself on serving good fresh food, but a simple chicken salad may have been contaminated by the dressing.
Make friends with the waiter:
He is normally your only link to the chef who cooks your meal out of sight. You are relying on him to know or at least find out what ingredients are used and how a dish is cooked. The quality of the interaction between you can be crucial. At the Singapore restaurant Brasserie Gavroche, good communication between the waiter and the kitchen meant that the fish that the restaurant would normally dip in seasoned flour was simply cooked in butter, avoiding what would otherwise be a problem. On the other hand at Ivy, the waiter was outstanding but this didn’t save us from the hazards of the buffet table. Also we are a little wary of establishments where there isn’t a dedicated person serving a table; in our experience this is often where mistakes are made. At Fortnum and Mason for instance, although we were assured items could be removed to make the dish gluten-free this didn’t happen which meant that it needed to be sent back to the kitchen: a disappointment as this is usually a great place for those avoiding gluten to eat.
Expect to find differing levels of knowledge:
Be prepared to explain to your waiter that you need to avoid gluten for medical reasons and if they don’t know anything about gluten describe where it is found or what ingredients might potentially contain it: you will find there are wildly differing levels of knowledge, interest and care, but most want to do their best to help. In Asia it seems to be a fairly common misconception that gluten is contained in milk. Staff on both Singapore Airlines and at The White Rabbit thought milk is suspect. At Clifford Pier, the waiter thought gluten was to be found in potatoes and other starchy vegetables, others have felt the need to check whether rice is a problem. Many people are not aware that nuts, soy sauce and artificial flavourings are not necessarily gluten-free and that anything containing barley is off-limits to anyone with gluten sensitivities. Other caterers, like the chef at The French Window, are not aware that chocolate can contain gluten.
The reality of living a gluten-free life is that in the majority of restaurants you aren’t going to be able to have everything on the menu: in some cases the choice on offer may be seriously limited. That said, we are pleased when there are at least a couple of dishes to choose between on any menu. At some restaurants such as Oxwells in Singapore nearly everything is capable of being served gluten-free which, as the food has been outstanding each time we have dined there, makes it a great draw to return to.
Think about how food might be cooked:
You also need to help yourself by reading menus carefully and thinking about how the food might be cooked, recognising that some dishes are inherently more problematic than others. More obvious items on a menu such as chips or other fried foods may suffer cross-contamination if the same oil is used to cook conventionally battered or breaded food. If you are craving a serving of chips it may be worth asking whether a restaurant has a dedicated deep fryer as some do. Also, as we found at Brasserie Gavroche, beware of fish coated in flour before it is cooked, or meat stewed in a stock that may not be gluten-free or may be thickened with flour, rather than cornflour, or contains regular soy sauce as an ingredient. We recently discovered at Bistonomique that reconstituted potatoes may be used in a restaurant instead of freshly cooked ones – although it is difficult to see how we would have known this from reading the menu.
Beware of garnishes, condiments, sauces and beverages containing colourings and flavourings:
Croutons or bread spread with rouille on bouillabaisse, as at Ivy, are obvious examples which you can ask to be removed. Others you might find more difficult to anticipate: Lupa offered an ice cream that they confirmed was gluten-free, only to put the dollop of ice-cream on a biscuit which was itself made with flour. Added ingredients such as nuts can also be a problem: working through the suspects, pine nuts may have tainted the cauliflower dish at The BellBrook. If dishes are to be shared it might be possible to ask for one element to be served separately; at Jim Thompson for instance nuts normally mixed into the pineapple rice were served separately so that others in the party could still enjoy them. Unless you know sauces or beverages are made from scratch on the premises by a chef who knows whether he has added anything glutenous, they may be best avoided: the calamansi sauce at The Glasshouse may have had this issue.
Avoid establishments where you think cross-contamination might be an issue:
Although a restaurant like that in the bakery chain Paul’s may have dishes on their lunch menu that would be fine, the chances of cross-contamination are likely to be higher because there are so many breads and products containing wheat nearby. That said, not all chains suffer in this way: Carluccio’s in London, for instance, has dedicated areas in their kitchens specifically to ensure gluten-free food doesn’t suffer cross-contamination. Pizza Express staff also normally ask whether gluten is being avoided for medical reasons and, if so, take care to prepare their food with cross-contamination issues in mind. Bravo to both restaurants: this requires organisation, thought and space. In some restaurants this really would be next to impossible: given the ridiculously small size of the kitchen at Yardbird in Hong Kong this is unrealistic, even though they hold themselves out as being capable of serving gluten-free food. It may be worth asking if you can’t see the kitchen or are otherwise in doubt.
Check the menu online: this allows you to narrow down the choices:
Usually you can get an idea from the menu whether the restaurant has thought about catering for people with a gluten intolerance or other food allergies. You can be misled this way though. Yardbird stated on their menu that they had dishes for people eating gluten-free but only a single salad and a dish of rice with mushrooms was safely gluten-free, giving considerably less choice than Enoteca for instance who didn’t hold itself out as offering food specifically for those avoiding gluten or Mama San who have a separate gluten-free menu but make no mention of this on their website. At other restaurants imaginative substitutions can be made. The legendary Singaporean restaurant Jaan, was one of those where a suitable replacement was made in each course, giving the impression that alternatives were thought of when the menu was designed. In others, such as Caffe Breviamo, potentially gluten-containing items are simply omitted.
Phone in advance or register your needs online: it can help to alert the kitchen:
That said, The Pawn ignored a note to this effect on the online booking system they use. At other restaurants, such as Grassroots Pantry who cater spectacularly well for the constrained, there is no need to phone in advance. At others you may find that even a note on their website wouldn’t be enough. Au Petit Salut, warned us in the strongest terms not to try to attempt to book through their website – even if we phoned in advance at this establishment, they would not be able to cater for us. Also, don’t be too daunted by the occasional cold shower: in other locations and without booking in advance, you may find yourself surprised on the up-side. At a tiny back-street restaurant in Florence a lovely light gluten-free ciabatta bread was produced even although we had just walked in off the street. We also spent a whole week in Myanmar mostly eating Thai/Burmese cuisine, just asking to avoid wheat wherever we ate, and weren’t glutened once.
Look out for reviews of a restaurants online:
More reviews of restaurants catering for people who need to avoid gluten are likely to be posted online, which will help others. If you are travelling, check out whether any websites in the place you are visiting give details of restaurants offering gluten-free options.Coeliac NSW (nswact.coeliac.org.au/directory/) is an outstanding resource if you are travelling in Australia. Whilst it is careful not to guarantee such establishments, it lists restaurants by keyword and by cuisine. If you are looking for Australian cuisine in Sydney for instance, it brings up a list of matches where gluten-free options are offered. Although it now needs registration to access this list, it is thoroughly recommended as a helpful website.
Restaurants who are able to cater gluten-free:
Preparing gluten-free food isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does require thought. However, establishments who clear away the landmines and make eating out a relaxing experience for those who need to avoid gluten are likely to be rewarded with loyalty, not only from gluten sensitive people themselves but also from their family and friends who understand the consequences first hand and don’t want to see their loved ones suffer. Those restaurants who manage the business of catering well for coeliacs deserve to be recognised. For this reason we are including a ‘best of the best’ list on this website, and would appreciate any suggestions of additions to this list that readers may have.