Alchemy Cafe – restaurant review

I struggle with how to write this review. If I were writing it purely about the taste of the food, it would be written one way. If I were writing purely about their gluten free-ness, it would be written another way. I will try my best to meld the two.

The ManBeast, myself, and four dining partners were at Alchemy Cafe last weekend as one of our friends was keen to try the fish fry. Being a restaurant in the Willy St neighborhood, and this being Madison, I didn’t think too much about them not being able to handle a gluten free meal for me. So many places I can just walk into here, and they will at minimum know how to answer my questions, once I ask the right ones, and at best, already have a gluten free menu.

So I’m torn on how to write this review. When I asked about gluten free menu options, the waitress gave me a laminated sheet that detailed how EVERYTHING on their menu could be either cross contaminated with gluten, or already contained gluten. This partly tells me that they don’t really understand gluten free dining issues. On the one hand, they were incredibly honest with their gluten free sheet that essentially states that NOTHING can be made gluten free, and that they are horrible with cross contamination (if you have true food allergies, I would highly suggest you avoid this place). I have to give them props for this honesty. On the other hand, a food establishment that isn’t willing to use a clean cutting board and knife to prep my food ranks pretty low on my list. It really isn’t hard to make a bunless burger gluten free, as long as clean prep surfaces and utensils are used (which for their burgers, is where they said gluten would likely be introduced).

Apparently this is indeed asking too much of Alchemy, as I did suffer from a glutening the days following eating there. That said, the burger I did chance eating was actually quite tasty (TinShack Smokehouse Burger). I’m not sure I’ve had bison before, but it was quite tasty, the cheese was a perfect complement to the taste of the burger itself. The whole thing was perfectly done to my liking. While I don’t blame them for my illness, as I knew I was taking a chance eating what they clearly stated would likely be cross contaminated, I’m also slightly appalled that they are that bad at cross contaminating food. I would fear for my life if I ate there with food allergies, and I would also fear for many people if they ever had problems with food borne pathogens.

The atmosphere was incredibly too loud for a meal, and our waitress ended up squeezing 6 of us onto a four top. The general set up of the place is odd and not great at efficient use of space. Add in cold weather in Wisconsin, and every time the front door opened, you could feel a strong waft of cold air. Our waitress was competent, but nothing special, and deserves not extra accolades. She was a bit slow, and less than enthusiastic about making sure we were taken care of. On yelp, I didn’t give them a one star, because my food was tasty, but I cannot in good faith rate a restaurant higher that is that bad at cross contamination. While my food was good, I will never eat at this place again. And due to how loud the place was and how small the bar area is, I’m not even sure I’d want to go there for drinks.

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Vintage Brewing Company – restaurant review

I don’t hold out much hope for brewing companies. My experience with them thus far has ranged from mediocre to poor at best. But the ManBeast really wanted to try a sandwich at Vintage Brewing Company on Whitney Way. Being a ribs person, I was interested to see what they offered. So this afternoon I called to see if their ribs were indeed gluten free. The person who answered my phone call assured me they were, but just to order it without corn bread, and to make sure our server knew that I needed a gluten free meal.

When we got there close to 7pm this evening, the bar area was packed. I guess it’s popular with the after work ‘happy hour’ crowd. We only waited about 20 minutes for our table, not long enough to even order a drink and finish it. The ManBeast and I both knew what we wanted, so ordering was quick. He ordered the grilled cheese cheese burger with a side of steak fries, and I ordered a full rack of ribs with the maple whipped sweet potatoes and the slaw. Our server was professional and prompt, making sure we were well taken care of without being overbearing.

Our food was delivered promptly, and I was impressed that the person who brought our food out knew to ask ‘Who has the gluten free ribs?’ Turns out, they change gloves in the back when prepping gluten free meals. That gave me a bit more confidence. Afterall, brewing companies are not known for keeping the gluten out of things. The ManBeast’s grilled cheese cheese burger also looked quite impressive.

This is the one time I wish I was more of a photographer, so I could show you what our food looked like. Not that it looked like anything special, but so I could show you what delicious food looks like. Give you some visual food porn to go along with these words. The ribs were incredibly succulent fall off the bone slightly sweet but incredibly smokey. In other words, exactly how I like my ribs. I was easily able to just pull the bones out, and suck off the extra BBQ sauce. The maple whipped sweet potatoes were very buttery and bizarrely light and fluffy, in a way I wasn’t expecting sweet potatoes to ever be. The slaw was nothing impressive.

The ManBeast was quite content with his grilled cheese cheese burger. If I could eat gluten, it is the kind of menu item I would try just to try (plus my slight obsession with grilled cheese). His comment was that with a second burger, this could easily be a Man v. Food challenge. The entire plate plus fries in under a 1/2 hour would be difficult to do, simply because of the amount of carbs on the plate.

All told, with tax and tip, our food came to $42 and drinks to $25. The two glasses of wine (merlot and malbec) I had were nothing impressive, though they were definitely decent. The ManBeast said the IPA he ordered first got better the more he drank it, but that the second (I think the strong Scotch ale, though it could have been the Belgian pale ale) was better.

All together, this is a place we’ll be back to. Hopefully with friends. The atmosphere was great. The seating area was roomy, and not so incredibly loud that the ManBeast and I couldn’t have a great conversation about science (what? what else did you think we talk about?). As I told someone on facebook, we give it the best rating we can: the, we’ll be back, rating.

Nostrano – restaurant review

In case you haven’t kept up with Madison news, the protests are still running strong. Saturday saw the largest numbers yet turn out with some estimating close to 100,000 people in attendance. Yesterday there was a bit of grumbling as the governor’s office supposedly wanted the building cleared out of protesters so cleaning could occur. Well, apparently he is capable of playing some cards close to his chest, because today they blocked anyone from coming back into the building. Even one of the elected representatives to the State Assembly had problems getting into the building.

In other sneaky moves, the head of the senate has now declared that all staff for the ‘missing’ senators must now go through him for time card approval. And no one can freely make photo copies. Seriously? Is this what this shit is coming to? I hope those people rot in hell (and get recalled and called up on corruption charges, which just might happen to Walker based on some of the stuff he’s said and done).

In more pleasant news, a restaurant review.

Last week I have the pleasure of dining at Nostrano here in Madison. They pride themselves with serving local seasonal foods, something that I’m sure is a bit more challenging, it being winter and all here in Wisconsin.

I was a bit early (and most of the rest of my dining party, late) so I joined a coworker at the bar, which had some interesting drinks to offer. As I was pumped full of sudafed due to a sinus infection, I chose to stick with water. But if I’m ever back (on someone else’s tab) I’ll be sure to try at least a few of their creative concoctions.

Once we were seated, our waitress did a great job making sure we were well taken care of. She did a great job answering my questions as to what was gluten free (the vast majority of the menu). Unfortunately they were out of the rabbit that night, which is what I would likely have ordered had they had it. If you’re looking for a place with a large offering, this isn’t your kind of place. They only had one vegetarian option, not that the rest of the menu was extensive either.

I ended up with the: Grilled Sturgeon
Chickpea Aioli | Roasted Artichoke | Nocellara Olives | Salsa Verde
which the waitress seemed to think was one of their best items. Quite a few in my dining party opted for the pork shoulder. No one complained on any level about the food, though a few of us commented on quantity. My dish was quite tasty and well presented. And small. While I don’t consider $19 a lot for a dish, I did leave still hungry (no one else was ordering dessert, but they weren’t exactly large enough to be filling either). But perhaps more important here, I didn’t get glutened.

My impression of Nostrano is that if you want to eat well, you’re going to need to shell out quite a bit of money. You’ll want an appetizer, and you’ll likely still have room for dessert. It could add up fast.

But the atmosphere was great, the waitstaff all were friendly and helpful. The food was well prepared. This is a place I’d happily let someone else pay for to have me eat at, but as I told the ManBeast, there is no need for it to be on our ‘to eat at’ list. The food wasn’t so amazing that I think he needs to try it, and for the price and size of the dishes, I’d rather try another place neither of us have been to.

Jacs Dining and Taphouse

I find some of the spam I get on this blog funny. Who comments ‘first’ on a post that is a week old?

Jacs Dining and Taphouse
I’m not sure why this place hasn’t gotten more (any) mention in the gluten free dining world of Madison. We wanted to go out for dinner Friday night and I had narrowed it down to Jacs Dining and Taphouse on Monroe St and Coopers Tavern on the Square. In a fit of new behavior, I actually called each place to see how well they could handle me. Normally I just wing it and hope for the best. Jacs had the single best answer I could hope for. When I asked the woman who answered the phone how well they handled gluten free food she told me ‘Oh! There are only three things on the menu we CAN’T make gluten free. We have gluten free bread. And a dedicated gluten free fryer.’ I was sold. We’ll hit Coopers Tavern another night (they can handle gluten free, but weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about it).

It ended up being three friends and the ManBeast and I. While we’d aimed to get there for 7, the place was packed and we were told it could be 45 min until we got a table for 5. The place is pretty small, so it was understandable. They’ve got a decent bar area, but the place isn’t that big, so there aren’t all that many tables you can shove in a small place. We made ourselves cozy at the bar and were served by bar tenders that were actually *nice* and *smiled* at us. Gasp! I don’t know how long it actually was until we were seated, but it didn’t feel like all too long.

Our waiter was knowledgeable about their gluten free menu and was able to rattle it off without needing to refer to anything. Somehow, all 5 of us ended up with one version or another of their 2 burger selections. Their bread comes from the Silly Yak Bakery, which is decent, but quickly becoming nothing special. Unlike Monty’s Blue Plate though, Jacs toasts their bread a bit, which meant that it didn’t fall apart as I was eating my burger. The burger itself tasted like it could have used a bit more flavoring to the meat. However, the rest of what was on it made up for that, as their aioli was quite tasty. Their fries were also quite tasty. Nice and crisp with a fair bit of some mysterious flavor. Even compared to the ones we make at home, they were quite good.

Overall, we gave the place a solid B. The food was good, but nothing out of this world. The drinks were reasonable and the ManBeast was pleased with their beer selection. We did feel their prices were a bit high for the quality of food. That said, we’re still planning to go back to try some of their other dishes. We liked the atmosphere and all the staff we interacted with were some of the more friendly we’ve come across. And I can’t help but want to support local establishments that are HAPPY to accommodate and welcome gluten free diners.

Caveat: While I was fine Fri night, I’ve been off and not feeling the greatest this weekend. I’m showing some mild glutening symptoms, but I have no clue from what. It could have been Jacs, but it could just be something else entirely going on. So as with anywhere, if you’re gluten free and eating out, eat at your own risk and make sure you ask the questions you need to.

Gluten Free in Des Moines, IA

While we don’t own a TV, the ManBeast has become a fan of Man vs. Food (thank you internet TV!). Sometime shortly after Thanksgiving he mentioned wanting to travel down to Iowa to go to Jethro’s to have an Adam Emmenecker sandwich. Des Moines is the closest place the show has visited, and as it was only a 5 hour drive from Madison; we decided it was doable. While Jethro’s didn’t exactly fit my gluten free dining needs, who am I to deny the ManBeast the chance to eat a crazy big sandwich? He’s changed his eating habits a great deal so that I can eat safely, and I compromise by being okay (and supportive!) with his beer hoarding tendencies and his desire to try new foods.

Our plan was to drive down last Friday morning, arriving for lunch at Jethro’s, check into our hotel, and then have a gluten free dinner for me. I found us a great last minute deal at Extended Stay that only cost us $40 for the night. Not only the cheapest I could find advertised for Des Moines, but also pretty decent thanks to a small kitchenette and a quiet/warm/clean place to sleep.

Our drive did indeed take 5 hours; there was absolutely no traffic. But there were a bizarre number of cars wrecked on the side of the highway, including one tractor trailer on it’s side in the middle of the median. We stopped at a HyVee in Altoona to buy a camera. I wasn’t able to find mine before we left and the ManBeast wanted pictures. Being the people we are, the ManBeast checked out their beer selection, and I checked out their gluten free section. Now I know, if I ever find myself in Altoona, I could live quite comfortably, as their gluten free section rivals many even here in Madison (though Woodman’s on the west side still has them beat).

We found ourselves at Jethro’s right at the tail end of the lunch crowd. The ManBeast’s comment about his sandwich was that the food itself wasn’t anything special, though the buffalo chicken tenders on it were quite tasty. He was able to finish about 2/3 of the sandwich, which is pretty impressive. He’s requested we return during biking season so he can do the actual challenge. I had some sort of salad, which wasn’t anything special, but I didn’t get glutened, so I guess that’s a plus.

For dinner, I picked out Shane’s Rib Shack from the options available on Urban Spoon. I knew going in that Shane’s was a chain, but it had such great reviews and a gluten free menu. And I LOVE ribs. What I didn’t know was that this is the sort of place you walk in, place your order at the counter, and they bring the food out to you. I was a bit disappointed, as I wanted a more sit down, waiter/waitress, order food sort of place. But my ribs were damn tasty and I didn’t get glutened. The ManBeast didn’t order anything, as he was still full from lunch, but he concurred that the bite of my ribs he had was good.

So, one can be gluten free in Des Moines, Iowa, and live a decent life. If our budgets were a bit more, there were other restaurants I would have loved to try, but considering I wasn’t the focus of this food adventure, I was quite pleased with the foods available to me. And quite pleased that I didn’t get glutened.

Montys Blue Plate Diner

We had dinner at Monty’s Blue Plate Dinner last night. The ManBeast was in the mood for “American” food, in other words, a burger. A search on Yelp turned up Monty’s with a few good reviews that their food was actually decent. Add in a gluten free menu (pdf), and we decided to give it a try.

I knew before we even got there that I wanted the BBQ bacon cheddar burger on a gluten free bun. The first disappointment was the fries. I know to ask whether fries are truly gluten free, or if they are fried with other foods in the fryer. As it was Friday, the fries were not actually gluten free, because they also fry their fish fry in the same oil on Fridays. I was a bit disappointed that this was not mentioned on the menu. But as we have a deep fryer at home and the ManBeast has figured out how to make good fries, I wasn’t too bummed.

Turns out the ManBeast and I both wanted the same burger. Expect he got his with waffle fries and a regular ‘bun’. I got mine with a gluten free ‘bun’ and cole slaw. We both also had iced teas. After the exchange with the waiter about the fries, I was a bit hesitant about the bun. He went a double checked that they even ‘still have them’ and came back to tell me it was actually rice bread. Now, if you’re gluten free, you probably would have had the same reaction I did, rice BREAD? That’s not a bun! And is it even edible? He informed me that the bread was from a local bakery, the Silly Yak bakery, so I decided to give it a go. Might as well since it didn’t cost me any extra and leaving it off wouldn’t have saved me any money.

I like how Eating in Madison A to Z reviews their burgers, so I’ll do the same here:
* Bun: Not really a bun, actually 2 pieces of thick bread, VERY lightly toasted.
* Meat: Perfectly medium rare, local meat, tasted like quality ground beef.
* Bun/meat ratio: Reasonable, though when the waiter asked me what I thought about the bread, I suggested that it could be toasted a bit more and would likely hold up better that way. However, the whole thing ratio, with the cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato made it a bit overwhelming to pick up and get a good bite of everything all at once.
* Cheese: Supposedly there was cheddar, and I did see it, but I’m not sure I ever actually tasted the cheese.
* Misc.: The bacon and chipotle mayonnaise really made the burger for me and gave it a flavor I really liked. I might even say that the onions added to the flavor in a positive way.
*Gluten: I can only guess everything must have actually been gluten free, as a day later, I have no symptoms of a glutening. I think this might be the first burger I’ve eaten out WITH a ‘bun’.
Overall: 8 out of 10.

Between the two of us, we spent about $23 including tip. I’d give the place a good solid B. I’d definitely be open to going back, but with how many other restaurants there are in Madison, there are plenty of other places that I still want to try too.