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Less gluten, more taste

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Visiting Iron Chef finalist Jehangir Mehta, top right, and Beast owner/chef Naomi Pomeroy prepare a gluten-free dish during a lunch event at her restaurant last month. Patrons enjoyed the gluten-free meal, part of a Chefs Table Tour sponsored by the nonprofit Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training (GREAT) Kitchens. Simple croutons would do.

The universal salad topping adds that extra crunch that makes eating so pleasurable.

But not at Beast.

Here at this Northeast Portland restaurant, the texture on the chicory and apple salad comes from dried milk solids cooked in brown butter, which transform into a crumbly, tasty garnish.

“It’s like breadcrumbs, but there’s no gluten in it,” says chef and owner Naomi Pomeroy, a Top Chef finalist and three-time nominee for the coveted James Beard Award. “We could put a crouton on it, but it wouldn’t be necessary.”

Beast, which opened in 2007, is one of two Portland restaurants certified to serve the growing mass of diners seeking gluten-free options for health, lifestyle or medical reasons.

Gluten-free diets also are more sustainable, as they require knowing where food comes from, and avoiding processed foods that tend to have big carbon footprints.

In a city now known as a gluten-free mecca, Portland was the second stop of a 10-city “Chef’s Table Tour” in late October, sponsored by a nonprofit called Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training (GREAT) Kitchens.

“We chose Portland because it is a very forward-thinking city; people like the food, appreciate the food,” says Iron Chef finalist Jehangir Mehta, owner of two New York City restaurants, both of which are certified by GREAT Kitchens to safely serve customers avoiding gluten.

Certified restaurants — including Beast and one other in Portland, Vitaly Paley’s Imperial — don’t need to exclusively serve gluten-free fare. They just need to know how to substitute for wheat, barley and rye ingredients upon request, avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen, and take other measures — like skipping the bread basket — that a growing segment of the population is demanding.

Despite the fact that the meals at Beast are all prix fixe, served at a communal table, Pomeroy says it makes sense to adapt to the new norm.

“Beast is not known for our substitutions and changes; our menu even says it,” Pomeroy says. “It’s not well known, but if somebody calls ahead and says ‘I’m gluten-free,’ it’s quite easy enough to accommodate them.”

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Gluten Free dinersGoing mainstream

As the ambassador for the Chef’s Table Tour, Mehta — as well as Pomeroy — brought some star power to the face of the gluten-free movement.

It’s one that’s often greeted with an eye roll, as if it’s just another Portland thing to do.

That’s hardly the case. The new wave of the gluten-free renaissance is no longer relegated to the “natural foods” section of the grocery store — it’s changing the way the American restaurant industry thinks about and serves its customers, from New York City to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and, yes, especially Portland.

As an early adopter, the Rose City boasts gluten-free food fairs and upstart companies; blogs and support groups; and food trucks, bakeries and high-end restaurants offering gluten-free pie, pizza, bread, beer, tamales and everything in between.

Forktown Food Tours, which has its pulse on the latest Portland foodie trends, soon may offer an occasional gluten-free food tour, according to co-owner Heidi Burnette.

There’s been an uptick in requests about gluten-free options, she says, mostly from locals and people around the region. For those who book tours with her, she takes them to hotspots for gluten-free dining when possible, she says, “but they are generally willing to ‘cheat.’ ”

Given all the attention on the trend, is it a marketing bandwagon these chefs and companies are jumping on for as long as it lasts — or is gluten-free here to stay?

Reading labels

A number of signs point to the latter. In April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration spelled out the definition of gluten-free on food labels.

Gluten is the protein that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley and cross-breeds of those grains. It’s present not only in bread and pasta but can lurk in everything from pickles and ketchup to meat and candy.

The new rule says the product must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, an amount the FDA says is safe for those with celiac disease.

An estimated 3 million people in the United States have celiac disease. When they eat gluten, their immune systems are prone to attack their small intestines. About 5 percent of foods currently labeled “gluten-free” contain 20 parts per million or more of gluten, the FDA estimates.

About 6 percent of the population have less severe reactions and call themselves gluten-intolerant. Still others have started to avoid gluten, a diet that helps with other medical conditions and — by forcing people to read labels and cook more from scratch — tends to be healthier.

Sure, the trendiness of the gluten-free wave accounts for a lot of the increase.

But many have been avoiding gluten for decades, before it came into vogue.

Many blame the rising number of people with gluten issues to rising consumption of wheat in the United States and higher concentrations of gluten in products like bread and pasta.

A Milwaukee, Wis., cardiologist, Dr. William Davis, wrote a 2011 book called “Wheat Belly” that’s often cited. He explores the source of the U.S. wheat supply, a hybridized “dwarf wheat” developed by scientist Norman Borlaug in the 1950s. The wheat has a higher gluten content and could be taking its toll on the public’s guts.

Local companies have jumped into the niche market with specialty products, like Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour, that have attracted a loyal following nationwide. That was the secret ingredient in the quince and frangipane galette dessert prepared by Pomeroy and Mehta at Beast.

Contrary to public perception, not all gluten-free offerings nowadays are an affront to the taste buds. The explosion in popularity means pumped-up flavors and textures like the butternut squash velouté at Beast, a luxurious soup thickened by the use of créme fraîche rather than flour. Or the onion rings made crispy with chickpea flour, which accompanied a Persian-style red snapper topped by a beet and shisito pepper glaze.

“A lot of people with gluten allergies miss the crunch,” says Mehta, whose two restaurants serve mixed fare but offer printed gluten-free menus for those diners.

Pomeroy says she became a believer a few years ago, after talking with a friend who had celiac disease. Consumers and chefs can benefit from more education, she says.

And, of course, the easiest way to do that might be to taste it themselves. “These are greens from the farmer’s market,” she says of the salad she prepared for the Chef’s Table lunch. “It’s not hard when you start with the most basic, beautiful things you can.”