Although I’m just now getting a chance to review Inman Park’s Restaurant Week 2012, don’t underestimate either the foodie blog-worthiness or the true importance of this event for ATL gluten-freers. I waited in hungry anticipation, checking menus and calling ahead and making sure my Twitter universe was well-informed of what I was planning to eat more than two weeks in advance.
For seven glorious days every spring (March 26th-April 1st this year) the Poncey Highlands-Inman Park neighborhood, whose character is defined by the exceptionally dense area of really, really great restaurants packed into its historical confines, plays host to this event. Make that a big E, Event. Among 14 contenders offering either $25 or $35 meals (consisting of an appetizer/soup/salad, entrée and dessert), of which many were more than happy to point out gluten-free options to be served, one stood above the pack in all of its Southern, gluten-free grandeur. Wisteria made the cut by a long shot this year, offering an entirely separate GF menu, abounding with a plethora of choices, all certified gluten-free, off of the regular menu. Although the options on the GF menu are not original creations (which, if so, would consequently create an entirely separate gluten-free offshoot within the restaurant itself) it is clear that Chef Jason Hill has taken some most-likely painstaking measures to ensure gluten-freedom in many of his signature Southern dishes while preserving integrity and taste.
Wisteria’s regular gluten-free menu, finalized circa 2009 (I think), is reason in itself to rejoice. In fact, gluten freedom is increasingly embraced by restaurants and bakeries around Atlanta as a substitution, major focal point (à la Wisteria) or even raison d’être. But there is something yet more important that Inman Park Restaurant Week brought to my attention this year. By promoting its gluten-free menu at one of Atlanta’s big foodie events, Wisteria raised the bar from mere recognition to all-embracing reverence for this increasingly common dietary restriction. What may be a seemingly simple, albeit good-natured alternative to most really is a harbinger, I believe, of a new era for gluten-freers to come. Okay, I may have gotten emotionally sidetracked. But hopefully y’all get the point!
Getting back to that three course meal I’d been thinking about for weeks in advance. Wisteria, you did not disappoint (and please forgive me for the pictures below; they don’t do justice to your elegant plates or intimate and perfectly-lit atmosphere).
For starters, I went with the Pimento Cheese Deviled Eggs. With the likes of Ahi Tuna and Crispy Flatbread (yup, GF!) and Kobe Beef Carpaccio, this was a very difficult decision. A difficult decision most likely compounded by the gluten-free cocktails keeping my cup full all night. (And here a side note: I know I speak for my fellow wine-loving gluten-freers when I say that, yes, the waiter’s thoughtful act of suggestion and gluten-free verification of alcoholic drinks with the bartender is never overlooked or unappreciated.) As I said before, soup and salad were also considered first course contestants, and the Split Pea Soup with pork belly ‘niblets’ or the Roasted Beets and Pickled Pear Salad, a tangy and refreshing plate that has been a favorite of mine even before my gluten-free days, are sure to be winners.
Moving on to Round 2, the choices were more numerous and ever more succulent sounding. The first item to catch my eye: Shrimp and Grits, which, when prepared correctly and creatively, represents both a traditional base as well as an artistic pinnacle of Southern fare. Gluten-freers can take their pick from a wide variety among main courses, noted highlights including a Molasses-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with sweet potato soufflé, Almond-Encrusted Georgia Mountain Trout and Braised Lamb Shank with parsnip puree and roasted Brussels sprouts. The Georgia Coastal Shrimp and Grits was my final choice, and the spicy broth indeed put the correct and simultaneous creative touch on the dish.
Last but not least, dessert. If any one specific area is consistently lacking or just completely skipped over among the gluten-free offerings of restaurants, it is dessert. Bakeries that specialize in gluten-free desserts have taken the leap of faith and subsequently proved that almond flour and mixtures of soy flour, sorghum flour and brown rice flour complete our favorites cakes, pies and cookies in an equally tasty and quite possibly more three-dimensional manner than their regular, wheat flour cohorts. I was graciously offered a bowl of sweet Strawberry Lemon Granita as what the waiter considered restitution for the gluten-free void on the regular dessert menu. I reassured him that I was not in the least disappointed. Wisteria’s welcoming and successful attempt to create a shared space for coexisting gluten-laden and gluten-free environments all within the same four brick walls had thoroughly delighted me for one night. One day I will expect a bread pudding sans gluten to taste just like the one dutifully prepared by Chef Hill and his team (I was no less of an enjoyer of delicious foods and desserts back in my pre-GF days). But not now. Wisteria has more than sufficiently given us gluten-freers something really, really good to look forward to when we want to go out for dinner.
For now, us gluten-freers should take the time to celebrate Wisteria’s brave step forward. I suggest a cocktail to start, and probably just about anything on the gluten-free menu to follow.