“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…we had everything before us…”
– Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities”
Recently we spent a busy weekend in the town of Portishead, just outside of Bristol and naturally found ourselves needing to eat out in a couple of the restaurants dotted around the Marina there. The two restaurants we chose were a stone’s throw away from each other and yet our experiences of their allergy-friendly services were worlds apart.
The first was Bottelinos, an independent small Italian chain in the South West, who were confident that they could cater for M’s food needs and had gluten-free options clearly marked on their menus. The first hiccup came when G asked for the “Pasta Maximus”, a bolognese sauce with a meatball, and was disappointed to be told that she couldn’t have it as the sauce wasn’t gluten-free. We had already had to discount a large proportion of the other pasta dishes because they weren’t dairy-free, so my disgruntled girl moodily requested steak and chips instead – and that’s when the fun and games really began.
Our waitress nipped back to the serving counter and spoke to the chef, before coming back to tell us that the chips weren’t gluten-free either and G’s choices were rapidly disappearing. Feeling somewhat concerned about what we could order for our increasingly hungry pair, I asked for the allergens listing so that I could see exactly what was on offer for G and started flicking through the pages with my fingers tightly crossed that I would find something she would enjoy. The first problem quickly became evident when every pasta dish on the menu was marked as containing gluten, which I assumed was because of the pasta itself rather than the base ingredients in the sauces and there was no easy way to distinguish which sauces actually contained gluten and which were really gluten-free. This type of wholescale approach to allergens may seem sensible, but makes it extremely difficult for an allergy-sufferer to work out what they can or can’t choose without extensive help and detailed knowledge from waiting, kitchen and managerial staff.
Then came the next whammy. As I ran my experienced eye over the rest of the allergen menu, I spotted that the chips were marked as being gluten-free, despite the advice we’d already been given to the contrary. It was far too late for us to up-sticks and search out somewhere else to eat dinner, so I asked to speak to the manager, a request that was met without delay. My first question was about the Maximus sauce, the only one that G was prepared to even consider for her supper, and we were told that whilst the bolognese sauce was gluten-free, the meatball wasn’t and so, having dismissed pasta as an option, we quickly moved on to the matter of the chips. The explanation given here left me stunned and unlikely to rush back for another meal with the children in tow. The manager explained that they had a dedicated gluten-free fryer, so the chips usually would be safe; however (and this is the important bit), on a Friday night they use that fryer to cook everything because of how busy they get and the need to keep up with orders. Not only was I extremely disappointed that they didn’t consider being able to cook gluten-free foods a priority on a busy evening, but I have serious concerns as to whether they are really able to thoroughly clean the fryer and change the oil before Saturday’s service begins; or indeed if they even do.
Eventually we were able to compromise with the manager and the chef cooked G’s chips in a separate pan to ensure the cross-contamination risk was reduced, something we were able to watch from our table. M was given a plate of grilled chicken and sliced cucumber, though he did find a small piece of lettuce when he was half-way through, which again suggested that their approach to allergy-friendly catering wasn’t good enough. In fact, both children did suffer some delayed symptoms in the 24 hours following our meal, which supported our concerns that the cross-contamination risks hadn’t been as well-managed as we’ve experienced elsewhere.
In stark contrast, the second restaurant and our location for Sunday lunch with old friends, impressed us from the very start. Mike had popped in to Aqua beforehand to ensure that a repeat of Friday’s disaster was avoided and their response couldn’t have been more different. Not only was he given a copy of their allergy menu to show G, but both the chef and the manager came to talk to him about everything we needed. The chef painstakingly went through every item on the menu, explaining which could be made both gluten- and dairy-free for G and made some suggestions of other tweaks that could be made to suit her tastes. As for M, the only cucumber to be found in the restaurant is behind the bar, so the chef made a note to ensure that one would be available for M’s Sunday lunch and again reassured Mike that they could make a tasty dish to meet his complex diet. It was already sounding like a much more promising meal and we couldn’t wait to actually try it out on the day itself.
When we arrived on the Sunday, our booking had been well-annotated to indicate M’s dietary needs and the waitress was aware of what he could eat and how the food was going to be prepared. G chose steak and chips again with the added extra of some goats cheese to replace their standard sauces and M was served a beautifully presented dish of grilled chicken on an apple, pear and cucumber salad. What made the meal even better for M was the lemon sorbet he was able to enjoy for pudding. I had seen it on the dessert menu and asked the waitress if I could see the tub itself to check the list of ingredients. She brought the container to the table and we were thrilled to see that it was indeed safe. The options for G were not so good given she doesn’t like sorbet, but she was able to enjoy a plate of apple, walnuts and sheep’s cheese, which kept her, and me, happy.
Our Sunday lunch was a truly fantastic affair and so different to the problematic experience we endured on the Friday night. It shows what turns a good restaurant into a great restaurant and somewhere that people will visit time and time again. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Aqua to anyone looking for allergy-friendly restaurants and have passed their details on to the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards as somewhere worth knowing about and deserving of recognition. Bottelinos, it would appear, could learn a lot from their nearest neighbour in Portishead and the weekend really was a tale of two restaurants.