Arte Café

Last Saturday was a bit of an unfortunate incident. So far, Brunch with Bear has been able to avoid any major scenarios (see Il Tesoro) but as the universe would have it, our luck can only go so far. After a disappointing downward spiral from a rather pleasant meal, Arte Café has failed to make the list.

Arte Café is actually a really beautiful little place tucked into one of my favorite neighborhoods—the Upper West Side. It’s located on 73rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. If you’re going on the subway, it’s a short walk from the 72nd Street station on the 1, 2 or 3 lines. It has great natural lighting and plush chairs. The decor is a little kitschy but in a cozy, not a creepy way. The waitstaff is friendly and professional, and everything is very clean. Their brunch menu is fairly simple, with half breakfast items and half pasta dishes.

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I informed our waitress about the allergy situation, and she pointed out several things on the menu. I asked her if there was anything easy to make without dairy (i.e. cheese, milk, cream, butter, etc.) and she told me to get what I wanted, and she would ask the kitchen to do it for me. I ordered the rigatoni con pollo, because I felt like I should try to eat some Italian food at an Italian restaurant. Our waitress told me that she would have the kitchen make it in a plain tomato sauce, rather than the usual sauce, which had cream.

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The food came out, steaming with delicious smells. After the initial ten-minute wait, I proceeded to clean my plate, because I was incredibly hungry. (NOTE: Every time I have an incident, it was because I was too hungry to stop eating. Please do not make this mistake). The pasta was actually really delicious, and everything felt fine. The rest of the meal seemed to progress normally, and I had plans later to be at the Met.

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After finishing brunch, I felt like my face was redder than normal, and my throat was feeling funny but not necessarily the same way that it does when I usually eat something unsafe. My lips were feeling puffy, but I do happen to have rather puffy lips anyway. The main thing was that my breathing was not irregular; if it had been, that would have been a more alarming warning. I decided to ignore the inkling in the back of my mind; as you probably already know, this decision was a terrible one.

The walk over to the museum was relatively normal, but once inside the lobby, my stomach began to hurt and I felt much, much weaker. After taking a few Benadryls, my boyfriend managed to take me back home safely. I spent the rest of the evening sleeping and wallowing (as is my usual custom after these things).

Today, almost a week later, I called the restaurant to inform them of the incident. When the staff member on the other end of the line picked up, I explained to her that I had been to the restaurant last weekend and while I had a good experience in the restaurant, I had a serious allergic reaction after leaving. She apologized immediately and transferred me to the manager.

The manager was also very concerned about the incident. I explained that I had told the waitress of the situation and that I ordered the rigatoni con pollo, and he seemed very surprised that anything had happened. He said that whenever he is at the restaurant and they have an allergy request, he personally supervises in the kitchen to avoid this sort of situation; however, he must have been out that day and there was probably some cross contamination. He also told me that they usually get these sort of requests, and they do try their best to accommodate all the customers. They even have a special computer code for allergies to put it in their system. He apologized several times, telling me that the dish I had ordered should really have not had anything in it, and to please let him know if I would be coming back so that he could take care of me better. I wrote down his email address and thanked him for the conversation.

If someone had asked me right after the reaction if I was going back to Arte Café, I would have definitely said “no.” After such a pleasant interaction with such a concerned manager, my response has changed to “maybe.” I’m still not positive that it would be a safe experience, especially because it was a major reaction as opposed to just hives or puffy lips. Something in the kitchen must be seriously contaminated or just handled carelessly for such a mistake to happen. However, if the manager is there to oversee and guarantee safety, the experience may be different. I enjoyed the atmosphere a lot, and it may be worth another shot if all goes well, but, for now, there are other places to try first.

Il Tesoro

A few weeks ago, my roommate and I went out to dinner on the Upper East Side before the semester ended. Earlier in the year, I bought a Groupon for a restaurant called Il Tesoro. The elegant Italian restaurant is located at 82nd Street and 1st Avenue, and is a short walk from the 1st Avenue bus stop on the M79 Crosstown bus, the 77th Street stop on the 6 line and the 86th Street stop on the 4, 5, and 6 lines.

Italian food is usually tricky with a dairy allergy, but their online menu specifically advises guests to inform servers of food allergies. It’s always comforting to see a restaurant being proactive about their food allergies. This statement and the great price from Groupon convinced me to check it out. Before you go, I suggest that you call for reservations or book a table via OpenTable because the restaurant is sometimes closed for private parties.

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The interior of the restaurant is very plush and very dim. The chairs have actual cushions on top of the cushioned seat and the tables are slightly higher than normal. Everything was very comfortable although everything was a little hard to see, as you can probably tell from the photos. We were by far the youngest of the customers, and Bear was too shy to take more than a few photos.

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The menu lists dishes in Italian with English descriptions and the waitstaff brought us bread with olive oil and vinegar whilst we perused the options. (NOTE: The two of us got different kinds of bread, so make sure you ask about the bread ingredients so that you can get the non-dairy version!)

When I informed our waiter of my food allergies, he adamantly acknowledged, “Yes, all dairy!” The manager was behind him, encouraging me to order whatever I wanted. “We can do anything you like,” he said. I finally decided on the penne scampi, making sure that they could make it sans cheese, butter, etc. When our food came out, everything was beautifully arranged; though you can’t really tell from the photos, Il Tesoro gets two paws up for presentation!

il tesoro (food)

Whenever I try a new dish or food, I wait at least ten or fifteen minutes after the first bite, in case of a delayed reaction. If my food has even traces of allergens, my throat often starts to swell or I will develop hives or puffy eyelids. Such was the case with Il Tesoro; after my first few bites, my throat immediately felt tight and I became suspicious.

I flagged down our waiter and he reassured me that there was no dairy in it at all. I was momentarily at a lost. I didn’t want to make a scene, of course, but I didn’t want to continue eating unsafe food. (Sometimes I am hungry enough that I will continue eating food that seems suspicious but it is always a bad idea.) Moments later, our waiter came and whisked away my plate with many apologies and no explanations.

I took a Benadryl to counteract my tight throat and itching, and soon our waiter came back offering us more apologies and a fresh plate. The original plate, he informed us, had “just a touch of cream” in it but this new plate was completely allergen-free. He insisted that we let him know if we needed anything at all. The manager was behind him again, repeating, “Buon appetito!

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The pasta was very flavorful—enough so to overpower the taste of vanilla mint Benadryl! I’m not usually a huge fan of lemon in my pasta but it was delicious with the shrimp and the garlic. The portions were very generous and are definitely large enough for two people. My roommate ended up taking half her short ribs and gnocchi home for another meal. We were so full that we decided to not even look at dessert!

NOTE about the pricing: Il Tesoro is on the pricey side for us poor college students and as you can see, I’ve tagged it under the “$$$$” category of “get someone else to take you.” (Or perhaps, “get a Groupon to this restaurant.”)

Under some circumstances, the “touch of cream” mishap would have completely ruined my night. However, the waitstaff was so friendly and willing to check and double-check my food that my initial worries dissolved eventually. I am often too shy to insist on double-checking, but obviously it is very important and I will be doing that more often. Better safe than sorry!

The elegance of the restaurant complemented a long conversation about Classical mythology and Columbia and the Groupon made an expensive meal affordable. For a final night in New York (at least until the spring semester), Il Tesoro did not disappoint!

The Full Story: Director’s Cut

I’m a nineteen-year-old college student with a teddy bear and severe food allergies to dairy and peanuts, both of which I’ve had since before I could remember. Bear is an international icon; he travels with me everywhere as a mascot and a pal. The allergies travel with me too, but as life-threatening hazards that haunt my every meal.

Food allergies make me seem different from everyone else, but I never feel that different. I love food and my food-obsessed family. I love talking about taste and texture and take-out. I love cake and bread and French toast and ice cream and all of those things. I just don’t share my snacks. I don’t eat at parties. I read ingredients compulsively and carry around auto-injectors.

Food has mostly been on the periphery of my worries for most of my life. I know what restaurants I like and what I can eat there. I’m from Los Angeles, where most restaurants are willing to cater to strange dietary needs of celebrities and average-allergy-ridden-girls alike. Allergies really only affect me if I’m invited to a dinner party, or if I’m on a date, or if I’m camping. For the most part, I prefer to focus on more sophisticated things than mastication, like music, and gymnastics, and literature. Life is pretty easy breezy like that, in California. But now I live in New York.

I left my cozy California comfort zone for Columbia University. I had emailed various Dining Services people over the summer before my big move. It was dangerous, for me to be moving so far away from home, but I loved—and still love—New York City. My dream of moving to the Big Apple hinged upon whether or not I would be able to eat at school. When I moved in on campus, everything seemed fine. The dining hall was very accommodating. It seemed safe.

On the fifth day of my first year of college and the first Friday in my first week of living in New York, the dining hall decided that the pesto was magically dairy-free for a moment. Yeah, it wasn’t. Fifteen minutes after I finished dinner, I stopped breathing.

My sister died from anaphylactic shock when I was eight years old. Every time I have that same allergic response, it’s physically and emotionally draining. I can’t talk; I can’t think. My skin swells up and hives spread like wildfire. I get weak and dizzy and desperate. Everything is hot and suffocating, and time moves much too slow. I feel so guilty for eating whatever it was that made me this way. So much for living life without regrets, right?

The person at the ResLife desk that evening phoned Public Safety and informed them that I was having a panic attack. I struggled to clarify the life-or-death situation when my first-year roommate happened to come downstairs with the girls from our hall. If she hadn’t shown up and threatened me into using the epiPen, and the other girls hadn’t called the ambulance themselves, ResLife would have just seen me collapse on the floor. And these words would never be written.

Commence seven excruciating hours of no food, no water, and no blankets! Seriously, why are Emergency Rooms always freezing? Not to mention, no fun on my first Friday night in New York. However, heads up, St. Luke’s Children’s hospital has some very nice EMTs and some Winnie-the-Pooh wallpaper.

After some infuriating phone calls and meetings, Dining Services was apologetic and Health Services were concerned and the Office of Disability Services was sympathetic. The Administration told me that I’m the first student to come through with any sort of severe allergies, and they’re doing the best they can. I’m sorry, did the fact that I might have died before beginning my college career mean anything? Apparently not.

I wanted to institute allergen labels in the dining halls, maybe education for students and staff about food allergies and how to deal with them. Instead, I had to register as a disabled student. Not to say that disabilities are bad—in fact, they’re neutral—but I had never seen my food allergies as a disability. It’s more like an inability. Well, if food allergies weren’t a disability before, they sure were that year. My first year of college consisted of a dining contract with The Administration, in which I was only allowed to eat at specific on-campus locations. I could never choose my meals—they were made special for me without my input. Even then I had constant anxiety about everything I ever ate. Needless to say, the Freshman Fifteen was not an issue for me.

After that first Friday, I became afraid of the city. I didn’t want to go out and try all the amazing food that the city has to offer, because it was more dangerous than ever.  There was no safety net, no understanding Administration, no one that would take care of me if I were to collapse on the floor of some cute café in Chelsea.

I’m a sophomore now, studying neuroscience and English and Classics. My roommate is studying sociology, and a few weeks ago, we talked about food allergies. She’s an avid blogger and she asked me about finding safe places in the city. Somewhere in the conversation, I said, “I should blog about allergies and eating out in New York!”

Let me explain my process of finding a safe restaurant in the city. I usually conduct a search with something like “dairy-free brunch” or “allergy friendly dining” and end up with some weird Yelp pages and a couple vegan options. The only problem is that I like eating meat, I enjoy my fair share of gluten, and I’m not a nut who only eats wheatgrass and drinks carrot juice.

So I used my dad’s tried-and-true “brute force” method. I Googled restaurants all day, and combed through PDF after PDF of menus, searching for that magical phrase, “Please let your server know if you have any food allergies.” After about a week or so of this, I realized that this blog needed to become a reality. There exists no resource for a girl like me—a girl who has food allergies but still wants to get a decent breakfast at a lunchtime hour.

I’ve always loved the city. I love the anonymity, the electricity, the people, the pace. I love theater and history and humanity. And I love food. So instead of waiting for dairy-free to become a celebrity trend, Brunch with Bear is my new project.

If you are like me, and you can only eat about half the things in this country, you probably want to be able to enjoy New York like a New Yorker, food included. You should be able to go get brunch without fretting over every bite. You should be able to order food that you actually like without having to pay the price (either for the dish or at the hospital). You should be able to go out and enjoy this beautiful city without having to carry around your own cart of snacks and medications. So here it is. Brunch with Bear is a blog dedicated to being brave and embracing the Big Apple for those of us that crave food created equal, food allergies or not.

My motto is “it’s safer to be braver.” Instead of being afraid of all the wonderful food out in the city, I’m going to take my Benadryl and my best friends and my bear, and eat my brunch. And if I don’t have to use the epiPen, I’ll let you know. (If I do have to use it, you’ll hear about that too.) Allergies are not going to stop me from getting my brunch and breakfast, lunch and dinner too! And now they won’t stop you either.