Cedar Restaurant – an exercise in “Genuine Hospitality”
As a pescaterian, dairy-free celiac, I often find it difficult to eat out. I counsel others on how to do so safely, but my dietary restrictions definitely restrict my restaurant options. For the most part, I’m ok with that, since I love to cook and we eat quite well at home where I know the food is safe and I can ensure it’s also healthy and delicious.
But there are those occasions where it’s nice to be treated to a fancy dinner: anniversaries where the focus should be on the company, not on preparing the food; Mother’s Days where it just seems wrong to be the one in the kitchen. It’s for those reasons that I keep my eyes open for restaurants that might suit me, my restrictions and my tastes. Restaurants where I can relax, knowing that the chef and the staff truly understand my needs, allowing me to fully enjoy the experience, and making me want to tell everyone I know about the place. I know that if I (with my restrictions and high standards) can find such a restaurant, you can find a restaurant!
So it was that we invited dear friends to join us at a new (to me) restaurant in Washington, DC called Cedar. Our friends have exquisite taste, and dine out quite often at restaurants I would consider reserved for only the most special of occasions. They have no dietary restrictions and hearing the words “wild game,” “pâté” and “caviar” cause them to perk up their ears.
Cedar Restaurant had reached out to me on Twitter to invite me to experience their allergy-friendly menu and attentive chef. I decided to put them through their paces by not just serving me, with all my “food issues” (as they were called at the wedding we just attended), but also others who have high standards and no food boundaries.
Cedar is a hidden treasure just south of DC’s Chinatown – just around the corner from the Spy Museum and the FBI building. The restaurant itself is below-ground — the windowless space allows soothing amber light and sheer curtains to create a timeless atmosphere where you can lose yourself in the experience without care for time of day. The quiet contemporary environment is balanced by the woodsie feel of forested wall murals and cedar planks throughout. Surprisingly comfortable wooden chairs beckon you to stay longer and savor house-made desserts.
A savory yeasted aroma escaped the kitchen as we descended into the restaurant to find our table and I was delighted to learn that in preparation for my visit, the pastry chef had baked homemade gluten-free bread. Enjoying truly delicious fresh GF bread with my amuse bouche was completely unexpected, and definitely set the evening off on the right foot. Apparently, the restaurant has had enough requests for gluten-free meals that this bread will be available from now on, so be sure to ask for it!
Our server, Noelle, was completely familiar with the menu and what the chef would be prepared to do for me. Each dish – from wild boar to river trout – could be modified, if need be, to gluten and dairy-free.
I started with a salad of field greens and fresh peaches, with peppered meringues. The dressing was light and pure, adding just enough flavor to temper the bitter arugula without overpowering the peaches. The meringues were truly unique and not at all sweet – adding a crunchy counter-point to the soft peaches (what gluten-containing croutons typically do for salads).
For my meal, I chose truffled mushrooms with lentils and mustard seed, served with a five-minute egg. I must say I was leery of the egg, not being a runny yolk girl, but I deferred to the chef. Happily, the truffle oil was exquisite, tying together the sharp mustard seed with the lentils and yolk. I will admit that I uncharacteristically finished my whole plate – I wasn’t letting any of this dish go to waste!
For dessert, I chose a house-made blood orange sorbet which was lovely and light. There was also a flour-less chocolate cake on the menu, but it Noelle let me know that it contained dairy, so I gladly opted for the sorbet.
As you can see, I had an amazing meal and was completely impressed and satisfied. How about the others at my table? Ordering everything from boar to Day-Boat Scallops to cedar-smoked salmon with root vegetable risotto, they were each equally pleased with their dishes and just as happy to have found a new dining experience to meet their expectations.
About the Chef
Chef McCloud came out to greet us during dessert and I asked him what had made him so aware of gluten and other food allergens. His career has taken him to many different restaurant environments, including working at the Victoria and Albert Restaurant at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa from 2002-2005. Disney’s mantra to make every customer happy clearly left an indelible impression on Chef McCloud. He recounted some of his experiences where instead of being given a list of things that the customer couldn’t have (like I did to him), he was given a very short list of foods that the customer could have. Rising to the challenge and preparing delicious dishes that made each customer uniquely happy brought him the satisfaction he thrived on in his job.
I asked what he thought made him different from chefs who instead respond to such requests to modify dishes by refusing to alter the integrity of “their” creation, Chef McCloud smiled and said, “I’m not cooking for myself here – I’m cooking for you.” … Ah, music to my ears!
How To Find a Safe Restaurant Near You
Even if you don’t live in the DC area, you can take heart knowing that there are other chefs out there like McCloud and servers like Noelle. Restaurants like Cedar are making the changes necessary to serve as many as possible, despite their “food issues.”
McCloud’s kitchen recognizes that it’s not enough to just prepare a food using gluten-free ingredients. All the cooks and stewards in his kitchen are well trained to prevent cross contamination. “When we have allergy issues to pay close attention to, everyone is made well aware so we can meet the guests’ needs,” says McCloud. “The most important thing to me is making people happy at our restaurant. I want to create dining memories for people. That means taking care of special needs and desires. Whether it’s severe dietary restrictions or finding an obscure bottle of wine that a guest wants, it’s all part of hospitality.”
Of course it’s easiest to find safe and delicious food at high-end restaurants which have time to fashion each dish individually and which do not use pre-made sauces or recipe bases like marinated meats and tofu. But I have had great luck for far less money at ethnic restaurants (real ethnic, not “Americanized”) which don’t rely on gluten in the first place. Most Thai, Vietnamese and Sushi dishes are safe for those on a gluten-free diet without having to make any changes. Many restaurants are adding special “Gluten-Free Menus” as well, but don’t forget to still inquire about their cross-contamination procedures. Just because a restaurant starts with gluten-free ingredients, doesn’t mean the dish will remain gluten-free when it’s delivered to your table! (See the Domino’s Pizza debacle).
Our neighborhood restaurant that we regularly enjoy knows us now (I think I’m their “Norm!” from Cheers!), and is aware of my dietary needs, so I feel safe eating there anytime without fuss. I introduced them to gluten-free soy sauce (from San-J®) and they now offer it on their menu as an option to diners. We eat in or get take-out for two for less than $20, so it’s justifiable for a date-night or when we don’t have time to cook.
The point is, you can find safe restaurants by doing your homework and asking around at support groups or on-line through social media based in your area. Inquire of the chef or manager by calling before you visit – preferably mid-afternoon when they are preparing for the dinner rush, but not in it. Explain your needs and ask whether they can accommodate you. Ask about cross-contamination protocols in the kitchen (if they offer gluten-free pasta, for example, do they use a fresh pot of water?) and give them notice of your allergies or sensitivities ahead of time, if possible, so they can get creative and ensure your safety by planning ahead.
Take the time yourself to find a restaurant like Cedar near you for your special occasions or one you can patronize regularly. You will be rewarded with amazing, safe meals, and the restaurant will be rewarded for attending to your and others’ dietary needs. You deserve a night out once in awhile – take it with confidence and enjoy the treat of someone else in the kitchen for a change!