I have to confess...French food has always been my favorite. Since I was a young teen and my parents took me out to my first truly French restaurant, I was in love with the food, the sauces, the bread...
Ah...the bread. Well, that's not typically something you'll be able to indulge in at most French restaurants (unfortunately, I've found that too few offer gluten free bread), but you can still have a terrific meal while staying safe. Here are a few tips for dining gluten free at French restaurants, whether stateside or in France:
1.) Bring your own bread. To be honest, even if gluten free bread is offered at a French restaurant, I'm always nervous about where it's been baked and cut. There are just too many chances for cross-contact with regular bread and other sources of gluten.
2.) If you forget to bring your own gluten free bread (I always feel terrible if I forget to bring our son a gluten free roll), look on the bright side...you won't fill up on empty calories and will have more room for the wonderful French specialties (and maybe dessert!).
3.) Bring a gluten free dining card explaining your dietary needs, like one for French Cuisine from Triumph Dining. These are key when dining at new restaurants where you may not be familiar with the food preparation procedures. They are bilingual, so there is no chance your dietary needs will be "lost in translation." The cards make it clear what you can eat, what you can't eat, the importantce of avoiding cross contamination, and hiddlen sources of gluten in that particular type of cuisine.
4.) Always talk to a manager or the chef, in addition to your server, if possible. You want to be sure you are getting the most acccurate information about the best choices for a safe gluten free meal.
5.) Be prepared to navigate the "regular" menu. We've found it rare to find French restaurants that offer gluten free menus. When our family visited France almost four years ago, it was unusual to find a restaurant that clearly understood what gluten free meant. The one dedicated gluten free restaurant we dined at closed shortly after our visit, but fortunately there is now another restaurant, NoGlu, that's 100% gluten free...as well as a dedicated GF bakery called Helmut Newcake. Here in the States, Mon Ami Gabi, owned by the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group and with five locations in the U.S, has a printed gluten free menu to offer diners. But if you're not fortunate enough to have some of this work done for you, you'll have to follow these other tips when navigating the menu...
6.) Most of all, beware of sauces. While sauces do not have to be thickened with a flour-containing roux, they often are in French restaurants. Unless the chef is willing to prepare a special sauce for you (in a clean pan), you will probably have to forego the sauce.
7.) Meats, fish, potatoes, vegetables can all be prepared simply and without gluten. Look for items on the menu that present the lowest risk. The French saute many foods in butter, which is safe for gluten free diners and makes for a wonderful. rich taste. Just be sure to find out if the meat or fish is typically dusted with flour before sauteeing...that may be something the chef may not even think about unless you specifically ask him. It's your job to be vigilant and request that they "hold the flour."
8.) Other potential offenders are bouillon and broths (used in soups and also in sauces). You'll want to ask -- and ensure -- that these do not contain gluten. Same goes for marinades and salad dressings. Fortunately, French chefs take pride in making things from scratch...and therefore know exactly what ingredients are present in all the food. If there is something they use that comes pre-packaged and they can't determine its gluten free status, it's best to choose something else.
9.) Mustard can contain malt vinegar, so check that when ordering anything with a creamy dijon (mustard) sauce.
10.) Simply prepared foods can still be some of the tastiest choices. You won't feel like you're "missing out" if you opt for French bistro favorites like steak and pommes frites (French fries) or an omelet, both popular choices on many French menus. Just don't assume anything...check to make sure fries are fried in a dedicated fryer (if not, perhaps they'll prepare you some "home-fried" potatoes in a separate skillet).
11.) At first glance, the dessert menu at a French restaurant may seem off limits, but chances are, you may find two French specialties which are inherently gluten free: chocolate mousse and creme brulee. Of course, you'll want to confirm their gluten free status, but these are usually good bets if you still have room for dessert. You may even be lucky enough to find a flourless chocolate torte or gateaux on the menu. But again, confirm its gluten free status...flourless doesn't always necessarily mean gluten free, and it may be kept alongside other gluten-containing desserts (and even cut/served with a shared knife). That's why individually portioned desserts like chocolate mousse or creme brulee are usually your safest choice.
12.) If you prefer a cheese plate for your "dessert," as is customarily offered at French restaurants (I love this), it may be best to request no blue cheese. There's continuing debate over this, but some blue cheese contains mold that's been cultured on rye wheat bread. It's best to be safe and avoid it.
Oh...and one final tip: Be sure to enjoy the (gluten free) wine!
Do you have any favorite French restaurants where you've dined? Share them below -- or submit a quick review to our gluten free restaurant review website, GlutenFreeTravelSite, so that the hundreds of thousands of people using our site can benefit from your recommendations! You can also read gluten free restaurant reviews of Helmut Newcake, Noglu, and other restaurants on the France page of our site.