By the time Tom Douglas opened his pasta house Cuoco four years ago, gluten-free dining had become enough of a thing that the chef decided to offer a gluten-free pasta substitution from a local outfit called Maninis. Since then Douglas has chuckled at the number of diners who will remain piously gluten free through dinner—then “cheat a little” with a slice of coconut cream pie for dessert.
Such is gluten-free in Seattle: the designation has come in some form to nearly every menu in town, but holds madly varying significance depending on the diner. What gluten free has to mean for a celiac, who suffers from the autoimmune disorder which makes a body attack its own intestine at the merest rumor of gluten, is almost molecularly strict: no breads or pastas or waffles, of course, but ketchup and soy sauce and salad dressing and soup can also cause problems. Gluten, it turns out, is in everything.
Celiacs aren’t the ones cheating with Douglas’s coconut-cream pie. Move up the spectrum to those who call themselves “gluten-intolerant,” however, and things get looser. Many in this group swear their gut problems improve when they eliminate or reduce gluten intake—never mind that the Australian gastroenterologist whose 2011 research proved the existence of “nonceliac gluten sensitivity” went back and retested his findings two years ago—and reversed them. Something is making these sensitives feel bad—it just may not be gluten.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those for whom that something might be what food writer Michael Pollan has called a “social contagion”: gluten freedom as a bona fide (air quotes) lifestyle choice, springing perhaps from a belief that gluten free will translate to increased health or slimness. Neither is true. But for these folks, gluten free has become a diet fad.
And so a quest was born: How deep must one dig into Seattle’s increasingly gluten-free menus to find something good to eat?
Walking into Flying Apron Bakery is like tumbling down a rabbit hole into the cheerfully tattered Fremont of hippy-dippy yore. Lined up along the entryway is an impossible variety of pastries—all not only gluten free, but vegan to boot. Making pastry without the aid of flour, butter, or eggs—well I bow before that formidable achievement, which, in 2002, these folks were the first retailers in Seattle to attempt. Taste the peanut butter–chocolate chip cookie and marvel at a flavor and texture nearly indistinguishable from its standard-bearer.
This is remarkable, since the first lesson one learns sampling gluten-free food is this: You have to radically alter your critical standards. Gluten is what lends food the chewy elasticity that makes pastries so appealingly mouthfilling; without gluten, those pastries tend to disperse to dry crumbs across the palate, not to mention taste like whatever flour replaced the wheat. This is true of Flying Apron’s dense pecan cinnamon roll—which to an omnivore will ring leaden, one note, dry. To the gluten deprived, however, it will satisfy carb cravings, thus transforming heavy into something more like heaven.
It is also true of the cinnamon roll at Nuflours, the new gluten-free bakery that opened in the erstwhile North Hill Bakery on Capitol Hill’s 15th Ave. (Note to entrepreneurs: Opening a gluten-free bakery in a space thousands of Seattle pavlovians associate with perfect coconut cake may not be wise.) The focaccia was hearty and texturally right, but the cinnamon roll—made with Nuflours’ own blend of millet, sorghum, tapioca, and potato flours—was chalky and flavorfully odd. Nuflours’ chocolate brownie bore the same feedbag character, in spite of its high-percentage-cocoa chocolate. Much better for a chocolate jones is Cupcake Royale’s gluten-free chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting: a thing of richness and beauty, densely chocolatey and improbably delicate of crumb.
Hence lesson two: Very often the few gluten-free items in a regular eatery will taste better than the stuff at a dedicated gluten-free restaurant. The latter must fill an entire gluten-free menu, after all, while the former has the luxury of adding only the really good stuff.
I’m thinking now of the addictive gluten-free tater tots at Blue Moon Burgers; they also have burger buns, but these have that airy, crumble-away texture and enclose lackluster burgers. Or the gluten-free Beecher’s mac and cheese at Liam’s, which on my visit was far and away the best thing on the dinner menu, gluten or otherwise. Or the genuinely ridiculous gluten-free French toast at Portage Bay Cafe, one of several items—including killer Swedish lingonberry pancakes—marked on the menu with the telltale “GF” sign increasingly spangling menus. The French toast is thick, moist, springy and somehow suffused with gluten’s trademark gluey mouthfeel, which you then heap with fresh berries and whipped cream. Maybe that’s why you don’t miss the gluten. Or maybe the kitchen has a pact with Satan.
So the omnivorous kitchen may be the superior kitchen, but lesson three is that the dedicated gluten-free kitchen is the only place to accommodate the strict abstinence celiacs require.
These are the folks who eventually find their way to Razzis Pizzeria, a former Romio’s on Greenwood which earned certification from the Gluten Intolerance Group for sustaining two entirely separate kitchens—one with a mile-long list of gluten-free pastas, pizzas, even decent garlic-buttered breadsticks. Pop in for takeout around 5pm on a Friday and the foot traffic in and out of this Greenwood throwback—fake grapevines, check; smokers huddled outside, check—reaches epic levels. Some 75 percent of which, one waiter estimated, is here because of what the place withholds. Taste the pizza and you’ll get why. Sure, if you focus on it, you’ll notice when the crust’s initial crackle gives way to that frustrating airy crumbliness. Like I said: different standards. But taken together with its generous toppings these pizza crusts really do approach the typical.
So imagine my astonishment when I found thriving in Seattle a couple of dedicated gluten-free eateries that in fact cleared typical, surpassed it altogether, breaking into the realm of the commendable to everyone.
Ergo, lesson four: Believe in gluten-free miracles.
Capitol Cider owns its patch of Pike/Pine corridor as if its connoisseur’s cider list and candlelit date-night vibe were its primary draws. In fact that distinction belongs to its 100-percent gluten-free menu, where naturally gluten-free dishes like salsa verde short ribs and fennel-pear salads share the spotlight with outright miracles like crispy battered fish-and-chips and almond-crusted buttermilk cheesecake. Cider, of course, is the gluten-free diner’s natural understudy for beer—every bit as varied and complex.
Achieving this level of mimicry requires a persistence laypeople may not fully appreciate. Baker Tonyia Smith recalls days of trial at Seattle Culinary Academy in 2008, when her class was tasked with creating gluten-free pastry. Even when her instructor told her not to work so hard, she was driven: “I don’t want to create something that’s awful!”
Thus was born Coffee and a Specialty Bakery, the unassuming, daytime, pastry-case-only stop at the Western Avenue edge of Pike Place Market. Smith, serene and omnivorous, has no skin in this game beyond that of a good cook who takes it as her calling to satisfy those she feeds.
That she does is, in fact, the understatement of the decade. All that trial and error paid off, with a flour blend and a ratio of butter (uh, lots) and sugar that resolves into crisp, biscuity tart shells she fills with vanilla cream; puff pastry as butter-flaky as standard, which she might make into a croissant or envelop a savory filling of cauliflower and sliced celeriac and Beecher’s cheddar. For lunch specials she’ll make a melting focaccia to top with vegetables or sausage and cheese; she even fries chicken in a gluten-free crust.
As for her cinnamon roll? Here at last was one I wanted to eat: dense and comfort-food lush, its coiled pastry held together with a sweet, sweet cinnamon glaze and served gooey warm. Demand, mostly grateful word-of-mouth, has exploded such that Smith is building a second outpost in Burien, where she’ll experiment with a flour blend kickstarted by local dietary celeb, Gluten-Free Girl’s Shauna Ahern.
Say what you will about gluten-free dining: It’s obviously a growth industry. Except maybe in my case. Not that you asked, but my week of gluten-free food left my gut of steel uncharacteristically challenged. Nothing major, but enough to make me run gratefully away from the gluten-free regimen.
Pretty sure I’m allergic.