Senza: Gluten-free dining exits the health-food ghetto
There is no doubt that gluten-free options are growing. However, at least in the places that I've lived, most gluten-free options are kind of sad. They are either bundled in with "health food" options and are also whole-grain/vegan/low-fat bundles or misery or are just regular menu items made with an assortment of mediocre processed gluten-free breads and pastas. Since the main problem for me with wheat seems to be the complex carbohydrates, often these options are worse than regular food. For those with celiac, it's not exactly fair to be banished to a butter-free ghetto just because you can't have wheat.
So I was excited to eat at Senza, which is a new gluten-free restaurant in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. Except they don't want to be known as a gluten-free restaurant, just as a really good restaurant that happens to be gluten-free. The concept reminded of of a restaurant I read about in Berlin called Ma Restaurant and I expect Senza will share a Michelin Star with Ma considering the level of cuisine here.
The lighting was not very good for taking pictures myself, but their website has some great photos like this one of the steak entree:
The cuisine, as you can see from the photos, is very modernist, but still very filling and satisfying. I ate off the A La carte menu at this visit, but I'd love to try their tasting menu some day. Everything was cooked with the utmost skill with excellent use of classical techniques. Of course my favorite classical technique, the flavoring with stocks and broths, was showcased in the prawns dish, which features a lovely savory consomme (a type of broth clarified with egg whites) made with Virginia ham. I should try this myself as I have seen it in cookbooks as a use for the hardened ends of a good ham. The scallops were perfectly seared and my halibut and arctic char dishes made it clear that the chef really does seafood very well. Each dish also features a wealth of interesting little textures and flavors. One of my favorites with a tiny little s'more on top of the chocolate ganache for dessert, served alongside a lovely little cup of creamy chicory "coffee." The scallops came with mini choucroute, which are bundles of pork wrapped with sauerkraut.
I would probably skip the bread and pasta next time. I tried a little, but especially compared to the meats and fishes, it's just kind of clear that this isn't where the restaurant shines. I do think it's possible to do bread service that doesn't just remind you that gluten-free bread will never be that nice sour crusty french bread you miss so much. Cassava, also in Lakeview, does "bread" in the form of cheese puffs made with cassava that are really good. Also, personally, I can't tolerate high alcohol beverages like wine or cocktails very well and gluten-free beers don't agree with me, so I would love to see some ciders on the menu, especially considering that they are experiencing a bit of a revival these days.
On Saturday I paid a visit to the local wine and spirits shop Lush and there were doing a cider tasting. I tried a few really good ones, my favorite being the Eric Bordelet Poire Granit. Later I learned this was a perry, a pear cider, which I am glad I didn't know because I had only had really horrifyingly sweet perrys. But this was dry and almost buttery. I also was a huge fan of the Isategi Natural Cider, though the staff at Lush noted this was a hard sell to most people. But I love very sour barnyardy tastes. If you like gueuze or kombucha, you'll like this. And I think Senza's food would pair well with these.
Either way, I'm glad that Senza is showcasing the fact that there are many good real naturally gluten-free foods that don't require creating elaborate mediocre substitutes. And given that trends in restaurant food are moving away from things like grain and sweet-heavy dishes and have been for some time, it was only a matter of time that such a restaurant would open. And Senza is very serious about gluten-free. They told me that there is absolutely no gluten allowed in the restaurant ever, which is a must for people with celiac disease.