Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Vidalia - Washington, DC

Vidalia offered more gluten-free choices for me than they did vegetarian options for two of my dining companions during Washington, DC Winter Restaurant Week, January 17-23, 2011. Restaurant Week is an annual event in which establishments offer 3-course prix-fixe meals at lunch, dinner, or both. It’s a great way to sample great food at reasonable prices.

With 11:30 lunch reservations for a party of five, we were the first customers of the day. When I reminded the hostess that a gluten-free meal had been requested with the reservation, she replied that the chef knew I was there and that our server could assist me with the menu. What we’d forgotten to do when we made reservations, however, was to mention that in addition to me being gluten-free, two others in our group ate vegetarian.

Fortunately for us, our server was adept with the menu and quickly pointed out gluten-free options, noting modifications that needed to be made. They do not have a Gluten-Free Menu. From the special Restaurant Week Menu, I had a choice of three appetizers and three entrées, but sadly only one dessert. My vegetarian friends were more restricted with their appetizers and entrees, but had unlimited access to the dessert menu.

Of my appetizer choices, the Seasonal Lettuce Salad seems to be a menu standard. The winter version consisted of tender baby lettuces dotted with roasted pear pieces, blue cheese, and spiced nuts; it was a perfect balance of sweetness, pungency, and crunch. Other gluten-free appetizers during Restaurant Week were Citrus-Cured Atlantic Salmon with horseradish-lemon cream, radishes, cucumber, and dill; and Shenandoah Beef Tartare with potato crisps, brioche, micro herb salad, and mustard sorbet (without the brioche to make it gf).

Shrimp and Grits is one of the restaurant’s signature southern dishes and should not be missed. Grits are made from ground dried kernels of corn cooked with liquid until thickened. It’s something I’ve always associated with breakfast food. The creamy golden concoction presented to me, topped with plump succulent shrimp and bits of smoky tasso ham, reminded me more of polenta, which is a corn mush common in northern Italy cuisine that is served either as a side dish or as a base for sauces and stews. There is a difference between grits and polenta but I didn’t let such a technicality come between me and my food.

Other gluten-free selections were Shenandoah Beef Short Ribs, which was described as a pot roast dish, and Atlantic Salmon.

The only gluten-free dessert was Seasonal Berries with Vanilla-Chantilly Cream. Even if I could be smug about ordering a healthy treat, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was envious when my friends began swooning over their peanut butter and chocolate concoctions. I was even more resentful when the berries were served without the cream! The waitress explained that often a “protein” is added to the cream, making it unsuitable for me. Only after pressing for clarification did she further investigate and learn that nothing had been added to this batch of cream. So I got my cream.

Vidalia has an upscale modern décor. Its bright magnolia toned walls, accented with large mirrors, makes you forget the restaurant is located below ground. Our generous booth, though located near a serving station, provided a comfy cushion from sound, allowing for easy conversation.

Though DC Winter Restaurant Week is over, Vidalia serves a daily special three-course prix-fixe chef’s menu available for $19.90, not including beverage, tax, or gratuity. The three-course lunch during Restaurant Week cost $20.11. Some restaurants add a few extra dollars to the fixed price for particular prime dishes such as the Shrimp and Grits at Vidalia. Reservations are recommended.

Vidalia, 1990 M St., NW, Washington, DC 20036. Tel: 202-659-1990. www. Chef Jeffrey Buben.

Amici Miei: My New Best Friend in Potomac, MD

“The best meal I’ve had since we lived in Italy,” was how I described my lunch at Amici Miei to my husband, making him extremely jealous that he hadn’t been with me. Instead, I dined with a friend who’d noticed gluten-free pasta was on the menu of this Potomac, MD neighborhood Italian restaurant, and she immediately thought of me.

Amici Miei, which means “My Friends,” does not have a gluten-free menu. Instead, the menu states they offer gluten-free pasta (for an additional $2.00), and a big sign in the window announces the recent additional of gluten-free pizza that is cooked in the traditional wood-burning oven.

Many of the lunch specials, antipasti, insalate, and secondi are naturally gluten-free or easily modified. For example, when my friend lamented that we couldn’t share a Calamari e Gamberetti (shrimp) appetizer because the squid was fried, our waiter said it could be grilled as an alternative. Presented atop a mound of deep green arugula and sprinkled with parmesan cheese, my first bite of the flawlessly seasoned seafood transported me to the small northern Italian town where my husband and I had lived for two delicious years. The flavors were that true, that fresh. So authentic was the experience of that first mouthful I even imagined I heard my fellow diners speaking Italian. Turns out they actually were.

Restaurant Manager Roberto Deias and Chef Davide Megna both trained in Italy. I didn’t ask, but I think they are both also from Italy because it was Manager Roberto who I overheard speaking Italian with several lunch guests. Roberto studied restaurant management in hotel school on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, an autonomous region of Italy, while Chef Davide studied at a cooking school in the northwestern Piedmont region of Italy. Their menu at Amici Miei embodies tastes from several of Italy’s diverse regions.

For my pasta plate I ordered Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Bucatini is thick-stranded pasta; I was served gluten-free pasta twists in its place. The dish is often associated with Rome in the Lazio region, though the town from which it gets its name, Amatrice, used to lie within the borders of the region of Abruzzo to the east. Its simple tomato-based sauce is traditionally prepared using salt-cured pork jowl. Amici Miei uses bacon that added a rich smoky depth, and tiny bits of hot pepper pleasantly contributed to the customary zing.

Roberto appeared genuinely pleased that I commented about the restaurant’s gluten-free offerings and was aware of the pervasiveness of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. He has a pastry chef brother in Italy who’s told him of the gluten-free demands for products there. Amici Miei serves one gluten-free cake, which sadly I was too full to sample during lunch. My friend’s lunch special included Panna Cotta, which is a cooked cream dessert from the Piemonte region that is naturally gluten-free, though it’s best to always check with the server and/or chef before assuming any menu item is gluten-free.

Amici Miei may easily become my new best friend. I’m making dinner reservations there for next week. Maybe I’ll even take my husband!

Amici Miei
1093 Seven Locks Rd.
Potomac MD 20854
Tel. (301) 545-0966