A guide to gluten-free dining in Maineby Erika Blauch Rusley
[Feature article from the Summer/Fall 2012 issue of Green & Healthy Maine]
Pillowy whoopie pies crammed with sweet cream frosting. Piping hot pizza with just the right balance of crisp and chew. Oversized loaves of fresh-baked bread still warm from the oven. Totally dreamy, or a gluten-free nightmare? Luckily, the vast array of gluten-free dining options in Maine now means that those with a gluten sensitivity or allergy can have their bread and eat it, too—without fear.
Funky new eateries and elegant dining institutions alike have joined forces in offering special gluten-free menus or those that clearly mark which items are gluten-free. They are part of a growing nationwide trend of increasing awareness about gluten sensitivities and allergies, including celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder in which the immune system reacts to consumption of gluten by attacking the small intestine. According to a report by the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago, one in 100 Americans suffers from celiac disease, making it the most common inherited autoimmune disorder. The numbers of individuals diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity other than celiac disease is even higher. As diagnoses for celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities become more commonplace, smart restaurants and grocers throughout Maine have responded to the growing demand for alternatives to gluten.
Gluten-sensitive visitors to the southern Maine coast will want to stop in Kennebunkport, the famous summer retreat of the presidential Bush family. The Maine Stay Inn, in the Historic District, is a great home base. Innkeepers Judi and Walter Hauer, who purchased the historic 1860 Italianate home in 2008, often include tips on gluten-free dining in their blog, and will prepare gluten-free meals upon request. Their daughter, Joanna, has celiac disease, so they are especially welcoming to vacationers with all types of food allergies. The Inn even hosts an annual Gluten-Free Weekend during which all guests discover just how far gluten-free eating has come.
“People who are gluten-free are often nervous when they eat out. It is difficult to know if chefs truly understand what it means to be gluten-free, so it’s very reassuring to have your food prepared by someone who ‘gets’ it,” says Joanna Hauer. The Hauers know about details that make a difference, like keeping a separate butter dish for gluten-sensitive guests to avoid contamination by wheat-based bread crumbs, or running utensils and cutlery through the dishwasher twice to remove all traces of wheat flour.
Joanna also provides guests with an array of dining recommendations for places she has experienced firsthand. For a classic American experience with a Maine twist and scenic water views, she points visitors to Federal Jack’s, the Shipyard Brewery’s family-friendly brew pub in the heart of downtown Kennebunkport. The gluten-free options even include New England clam chowder. For more eclectic fare, she heads to Bandaloop, a much-lauded restaurant featuring local and organic meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetarian dishes. Try the pan-seared jumbo sea scallops with ginger-coconut risotto or the grilled Creekstone Farm NY Strip steak and mashed potatoes, and treat yourself to the entirely gluten-free fresh fruit crisp and ice cream for dessert.
Next stop: hip, artsy, historic Portland. Foodies from all over the country flock to Maine’s largest city, where outstanding dining is the norm and gluten-free options abound. Begin your day in Portland at Bam Bam Bakery on Commercial Street, the Portland area’s only dedicated gluten-free cafe. The comfortable space has both tables and couches and boasts a staggering selection of delectable baked goods. Slather a piece of toasted honey-oat bread with peanut butter and sip a warm mug of locally-roasted Rock City coffee for your breakfast, or treat yourself to the coffee cake.
“I always wanted to have a place where people could come in and hang out with friends,” says Bam Bam owner Bevin McNulty. “The cafe is not just for people with food sensitivities.” Indeed, Bam Bam was a contender for “Best Local Bakery” in Portland, sharing the field with four other traditional bakeries. Given the cafe’s popularity, McNulty has responded to the “huge” demand for savory items, which now include soup, quiche, and chicken pot pies. Look for pizza on the menu as well this summer.
After strolling past the shops and attractions on the waterfront Commercial Street, head to the Arts District for lunch at the Local Sprouts Cooperative on Congress Street, a worker-owned cafe where any sandwich can be made on gluten-free bread, including the yummy grilled cheese with pesto and bacon. Seasonal salads are another safe staple. Following an afternoon at the Portland Museum of Art, walk down Congress Street to the Thai-inspired, entirely vegetarian Green Elephant, or its omnivore-pleasing sister restaurant, Boda, neighborhood favorites with clearly marked gluten-free menus. McNulty personally recommends the locally-sourced Mexican meals at Zapoteca, at the west end of Fore Street. Because most of the foods on the menu at Zapoteca are traditionally gluten-free (including the handmade tortillas) and all items are prepared fresh daily, the chefs at Zapoteca can easily accommodate special diets. For a Maine-meets-Mexico twist, try the fresh lobster ceviche with housemade tortilla chips.
If you’ve overindulged in Portland’s culinary delights, a hike in the Camden Hills is a great antidote. Spend the day ambling through the woods and taking in breathtaking views of Penobscot Bay and the rugged coastline from the top of Mount Battie, then head down to Camden for a satisfying meal. 40 Paper, a trendy Italian bistro and bar in a converted woolen mill, is a good bet. Just about anything on the menu can be prepared gluten-free, even the handmade pasta, and every one of the desserts is gluten-free as a rule. A glass of Green’s Belgian Amber gluten-free beer, the roasted squash Bishop’s Hat ravioli with broccoli rabe, and the Maine cranberry friand with roasted Comice pears and caramel-almond gelato will make for a perfect New England-themed experience. The Newcastle Publick House in Damariscotta, a lovely village between Camden and Boothbay Harbor, is another good choice for gluten-free dining in the Midcoast area. The traditional pub features a diverse menu that is sure to please all types of diets. Pig out on pulled-pork pizza on housemade gluten-free dough, or enjoy the elegant indulgence of local Pemaquid and Damariscotta River oysters on the half shell. Across the river lies Savory Maine, a new restaurant in a renovated church where nearly every item on the menu is local and organic and the gluten-free breads, entrees, and desserts change with the seasons.
Like wild blueberries, options for gluten-free travelers spring up in the most unexpected places in Maine. Keep an eye out, ask around, and you’ll be delighted by what you find.
For a list of grocery stores, cafés, and restaurants in Maine that feature plentiful gluten-free options, click here.