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Check, Please: When the menu is a minefield

By Paula Whyman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; E01

One in an occasional series of rants about dining out.

Got PB&J? Check.

Twizzlers? Check.

It might sound like I'm heading out on a picnic with the kids, but no. I'm heading to Citronelle for dinner.

A year ago, I had to give up all dairy products, along with some other foods, to keep from getting sick. Now, I approach dining out like I'm about to be dropped by helicopter into a desolate wilderness and forced to survive on my own wits. And Twizzlers.

Instead of Man vs. Wild, it's Man (er, Woman) vs. Menu.

Every day, more adults learn they have food sensitivities that, while not necessarily life-threatening, can have debilitating consequences. It's hard to alter lifelong eating habits. Before, I rarely gave a thought to the laundry list of possible ingredients in restaurant food. I found picky eaters annoying. Now, I'm one of them. A killjoy.

My goal seems humble: to dine out without relying on the squished sandwich hidden in my coat pocket. If I can do it, there's hope for the many sandwich smugglers among us.

The best servers pretend to be patient with my 20 questions, while my dining companions take on that long-suffering look. After much trial and error, I've learned that I can reduce the risk, and place fewer special orders, if I limit myself to the three S's: steak, salad, sushi. How doggedly I pursue a greater variety of options depends on how tired I am of eating mesclun. And let me be clear: I am tired of eating mesclun.

I try not to ask the kitchen to make a dish that should be dairy into something that isn't. I imagine my waiter dodging a flying whisk hurled by an angry chef. "Leave the butter out of my bearnaise? Is she mad? I will personally feed her a stick of butter to see her writhe in agony."

Granted, that's an extreme example. But should a diner avoid ordering something that needs to be modified? Chef Nicholas Sharpe of Sonoma is understanding. "What if that's what you really want?" he says. While such requests are "not awesome," they're also "not necessarily a bad thing," Sharpe says, and in his kitchen, he tries hard to please everyone.

But requests can be taken too far. Don't ask for bearnaise made without butter, and don't try to pass off what Sharpe calls "food aversions" as food allergies. If you don't like beets, don't order the beet salad.

Often, what's not mentioned on the menu is the problem. Hidden ingredients can carry the most risk and asking the right questions won't guarantee safety. Even when the kitchen has the best of intentions, Sharpe admits, "some things get by us."

By the time I finish deconstructing a menu, I might lose my appetite. Restaurants that provide the information I need upfront help reduce the Russian-roulette aspect of ordering. Chef Terri Cutrino at Cafe Atlantico says the restaurant's seven "allergy menus," available on request, help "alleviate anxiety." At Teaism, a chart indicates which dishes are vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free, and which can be made safe through modifications. But there's no listing for dairy, and when I asked at lunch whether the dipping sauce for their popular shrimp rolls was safe for me, the staff didn't know the answer. (It is.)

When I asked for dairy-free options at Lebanese Taverna's Woodley Park location, the waitress offered to bring me a prepared list of dishes that contain allergens, but she couldn't find it. On a subsequent visit, the list was found, but not only did it read like a government org-chart, it conflicted with the menu. Such lists are a good place to start but seldom are the final word.

I'm often safe if I stick to the basics, but what if I don't? At a recent dinner at Cafe Atlantico, I was served a preset tasting menu. I had called ahead to brief them, but I still arrived with PB&J in my purse, ready to weigh the ick factor of eating in the ladies room vs. the rudeness of sneaking bites at the table. So many dishes landed in front of me, I was sure one would be the ticking bomb that went off in my stomach later.

The manager assured me they were used to handling diets like mine. The waiter knew where I was sitting, and he served me reassurance with each course: no cream cheese with the salmon roe; no butter in the banana bread that came with the seared foie gras. I couldn't eat the quail egg, but I hadn't specified no eggs, so it wasn't their fault. The real coup occurred when they surprised me with grilled octopus and sobrasada in place of a dish that contained butter. Cutrino says that if omitting a restricted food makes a dish unsatisfactory, they'll replace it with another they hope the guest will enjoy. Good move. The octopus ended up being one of my favorites. Finally, some variety: no steak. No mesclun. And no PB&J.

Calling ahead doesn't always ensure success. Before attending a private dinner at Citronelle, I spoke with the restaurant's planning staff to find out which fixed-menu items would be safe for me to eat. I thought I was covered, but I arrived to find all the hors d'oeuvres a no-go, and for the first and second courses, I was limited to the ubiquitous field greens salad and filet. While I would have loved to try the risotto and warm chocolate cake, sometimes it's just about getting through a meal unscathed rather than having options that particularly appeal to you. But attentive service can make all the difference. My waiter made sure I had extra wild mushrooms with my steak, in place of the off-limits side dish. And I lucked out: The mushrooms were the standout of the meal.

Later came the true test: dinner with a gluten-intolerant friend, making us a restaurant kitchen's nightmare duo. After we had spent a week eliminating options, including sushi, which my friend doesn't like, we were down to -- you guessed it -- steak. We wound up at Cafe Milano in Georgetown on a Saturday night, without a reservation. We were sure they'd turn us away. But not only was a table available, the maitre d' insisted they could accommodate our idiosyncratic diets. No cheese? No pasta? No problem. And you know what? They did it. The service was attentive, and they seemed eager to please. My friend ordered fish, and I went with the New York strip. It was served with . . . mesclun salad . . . but I could hardly complain. The steak was perfect.

Most restaurants do their best to accommodate me. Sharpe says, "We're in the hospitality business, not the 'feed-you' business." They want guests -- even troublesome ones like me -- to come back for more. If I'm careful, I won't need my secret sandwich, but there are almost no desserts on any menu that are safe for me. If anyone knows where to find a dairy-free tarte tatin, please write. Until then, I've got Twizzlers.

Whyman is a writer living in Bethesda. She can be reached through her Web site, www.paulawhyman.com.

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