Wagamama – a truly great experience when eating out with allergies

I’m going to continue my ‘eating out with allergies’ series as it’s an area where I’m always looking for help and recommendations, so maybe my comments and reviews may help others too. Click on the ‘Eating Out’ tab for previous recommendations 🙂

I don’t know about you but eating out causes us some serious anxiety. Often we’ll think, oh wouldn’t it be nice to not have to cook for once and eat out instead. Then I spend ages trawling through the options online with the following thoughts running through my brain; ‘is there anything safe on offer, how seriously will they take our requirements, is it going to end badly, is it worth going out if it’s for something so simple and plain it would be easier to make it at home?’

More often than not we stick to one of our usual favoured chain restaurants which can seem more reliable in catering for allergies, or we just stay at home. Whilst it can be successful, the stress of trying a new location can simply be too much, tipping the meal from enjoyable to tense and uncomfortable. Little S often goes very quiet in restaurants, it’s like she isn’t at ease and is carrying a load of worries. Do any of you find this to?

Often the easiest and most relaxed way to guarantee a good safe meal is by staying at home, but that’s not so much fun….

When people first mentioned Wagamama as a good allergy friendly destination we inwardly scoffed – how could a Japanese style restaurant which actively sells a lot of food with sesame, peanuts and other nuts be suitable for us? So we dug our heels in and didn’t try it for ages. Then one opened near us and we took the plunge with Big S (just milk allergic so Japanese food is a fairly safe option) whilst Little S was on her first school residential (which had it’s own stresses, but that’s another story!)

Wow, were we impressed! The whole service is incredibly slick, and caters for allergies in a caring but professional manner. The manager is the only one who will take allergy orders, ensuring responsibility is taken by the person in charge and they always refer to the allergen menu which is a great reassurance. Big S can have a lot of items on the menu and now she’s a teen it’s fab to have a cool, safe and really popular restaurant she can head to with friends.

Little S’s options are fewer (free-from milk, eggs, peanuts and sesame) but still she can have an actual dish from the menu which is always fresh and tasty and doesn’t require us to bring bits from home, or for copious alterations to make it suitable. For reference Little S has the grilled chicken Katsu with Amai sauce and it’s been successful every time she’s had it (and that’s loads of times).

Children’s grilled chicken Katsu with Amai sauce

The only problem we’ve come across was the disappointment when the breadcrumbed chicken Katsu started to be cooked in the same oil as a dish containing cottage cheese, making it unsuitable if you have a dairy allergy. This was pointed out by a manager and then suddenly it all made sense why Big S had been sick a couple of times after eating the regular Katsu; there was a new dairy cross-contamination. This had been Big S’s favourite dish so she was mightily disappointed to forego her choice, but she’s got used to the grilled version now.

Grilled Chicken Katsu with sticky rice

Wagamama has grabbed with relish the rising popularity of vegan food and created an entire veggie and vegan menu, giving plant-based spins on their traditional favourites. This is a big bonus for me as a vegetarian as I’m more used to very little choice when eating out.

Vegetarian Yasai Katsu

So all in all, Wagamama is now a family favourite, relied upon for a safe and tasty restaurant experience. So much so we even visited a branch in Holland when we were struggling for safe options! If you haven’t, I’d recommend you to give it a go, it’s so nice not to have to cook every day!

Children’s Menu

Malta and Gozo with allergies

We’re just back from a wonderful, relaxing and very sunny summer holiday and I thought I’d pass on some thoughts on Malta and Gozo as holiday destination from the point of view of a family with food allergies to cater for. Whenever we go somewhere new I do a search on the supermarket availability for safe foods and allergy-friendliness of a destination, frequently coming up with nothing useful or only snippets of information. So maybe if I write my thoughts , other people may find it helps them in future.

I haven’t been paid in any way for this review, it just to help others who travel with allergies by passing on my thoughts 🙂

Similar to most families with allergies, we went self-catering; even if we could easily go to stay in hotels or all inclusive I’m not sure it would be my chosen option. It is not an issue and I think I just like cooking too much, and the trip to the local supermarket is always an interesting holiday activity for me. On this occasion we splashed out on a private villa with a pool and much needed air-con. This proved to be a highlight and certainly helped us relax and cool off. See below for our beautiful villa and pool in traditional Gozitan style.We used a company called James Villas and I have to say that the whole process from booking to returning home worked like clockwork. If you’re looking for a Mediterranean villa holiday I’d really recommend having a look at their site.

The first notable feature that made this holiday so easy was the language. Although everyone speaks Maltese, the official language is still English and that made getting our message across so much easier. It’s so reassuring when trying to convey such important requests to know that the person you’re talking to is really getting the message. I should add that the Maltese people as a nation are incredibly laid back, friendly and welcoming. I’m not sure I even heard a car horn in anger.

As we were staying on Gozo which is a small island only 14km long by 7km wide, there wasn’t a huge selection of food shops, but we did come across a Lidl, one supermarket in a shopping centre called Arkadia which we used and various little convenience stores. The selection of brands available was excellent; they even had Waitrose own-brand products!

We found the range to include products from the UK, France, Italy and Malta. The free-from brands we came across included Alpro, Pure, Valsoia, Misura and Schar. A really impressive range for a small island you might visit on holiday. So we were very well catered for, for buying dairy-free margarine, dairy-free yogurts, ice cream and milks, free-from biscuits and croissants.

We don’t need gluten-free products ourselves, but that range was even better. Amazingly, even the small convenience stores had a few free-from products available.

We did however have a problem with bread. I didn’t find any sliced loaves that didn’t have ‘may contain sesame’ labels and that wasn’t a risk we were willing to take on a small island. I only managed to buy some UK produced pittas that we survived on, along with the supplies I’d brought from home! More concerning was the fact that the peanuts were bizarrely kept within the bakery cupboards – that really wasn’t a welcome sight.

A lot of the ice cream parlours advertised vegan ice cream, but again we weren’t taking any risks whilst on an island with no big hospital, so opted for very cooling, iced ‘slushies’ instead which were available everywhere.

We ate out a couple of times. Lunch whilst visiting the Citadella in Victoria, the Capital, and one in a restaurant near our villa called Il Girna by Peppe. Both occasions were successful. The staff were very accommodating and we felt confident that they took our concerns seriously. Both adapted the menu to suit our needs, and whilst the resulting dishes were fairly plain, they were safe, so we were happy customers. If you’re after gluten-free or vegan food, the provision was excellent with dishes available in all the establishments we checked.

So, all in all, it was a really good destination for a holiday with allergies/food restrictions and I’d definitely recommend considering it as an option. We only visiting Malta once to go to the excellent aquarium, but I believe it offers more of the holiday resort type holiday. Gozo was much quieter, with stunning architecture (and really interesting house names – our favourite was ‘Reality’!). It’s fairly rocky with dramatic cliffs, stony bays and always beautiful crystal clear sea and inlets. Seafood lovers will be very happy, many very simple looking beach cafes and shacks seem to be turning out the freshest seafood. Sandy beaches are few and far between, with the red sanded Ramla Bay being the favourite. It should be noted that we had some fairly hairy drives with roads suddenly ending in front of us, or being so steep that the car couldn’t make it up in 1st gear, something I have never experienced before.

There’s also plenty of culture from pre-historic temples which pre-date the pyramids of Egypt by one thousand years, to hilltop Basilicas aplenty. It seemed to me that Visit Malta has invested a lot in their tourist attractions and they were all modern and top-notch. I’d say we did everything in Gozo in one week, but then we like to be busy and you could happily stretch it out with more ‘relax time’, and that would be rather lovely in the wonderful southern Mediterranean climate.

‘The Diner’ Review

The Diner (also known as Goodlife Diner) has fair few branches scattered all over London and also one in Southampton and is temptingly styled as a retro Diner with booths and neon lights a plenty, but also boasts an extensive veggie and vegan menu. I think this is one of the few American diner style restaurants that we have eaten at as a family. Somehow all the milkshakes and sesame-seed buns makes us feel they won’t be suitable. Anyway Big S (milk allergy only) had been to a party at The Goodlife Diner and they were not only very helpful and accommodating on the phone when I scoped out the options before hand, but she also came home raving about the meal. This was the kind of destination that a teen wanted to go to.

On her recommendation we returned as a family and it was a very pleasant experience. The waitress was extremely well trained on allergies and immediately brought out the allergy folder. Naturally, as a Diner, it’s a burger and chips kind of place, not a place for exciting gastronomy – but that suited us for a simple family lunch. We always take our own rolls if we think burgers might be on the menu as invariably the bread isn’t suitable. But to our delight the Vegan gluten-free buns were safe (no egg in sight which is unusual for gluten-free). The girls said they were tasty if a bit crumbly, but what a joy to have a burger without the Home supplied bun.

The meat eaters of the family said the burgers were delicious and chips particularly fine (although looking at the allergy folder you might want to step away from the egg and dairy-free onion rings as they had a whopping 3,000 calories per portion!!)

I had a veggie burger which was only ok, it had that musty flavour of health food shops and dried herbs which I’m not particularly keen on. But there is an entire veggie and vegan menu to choose from, so I wouldn’t dismiss it as a unsuitable restaurant for vegetarians.

To our delight there was a dairy-free milkshake on the menu but we didn’t try it out as it was coconut flavoured and not to our taste.

So if you fancy a family meal in a proper ‘diner’ style setting with neon lights and milkshakes and burgers, I’d say The Goodlife Diner is a pretty good choice, not too expensive and caters well for all dietary requirements.

The Boulevard Restaurant, East Wittering

 

Perhaps wrongly, we don’t often frequent independent cafes or restaurants, and instead opt for the reliability of chain restaurants with their meticulous allergen folders and by-the-book trained staff with strict procedures when handling customers like us. It is quite simply easier. It is a shame as you do want to support small independent and family run businesses over large corporates. So we are really happy when we do come across somewhere independent that can suit our needs without trouble.

We came across The Boulevard Restaurant in East Wittering, West Sussex by chance. We had originally pinpointed a positively reviewed and recommended nearby pub (for allergies) but received such a terrible response from the management when we enquired about allergens – real rudeness in fact that we left pretty rapidly. Having made the unusual move of leaving the house for a day out without a full packed lunch ‘just in case’, we had to find an alternative place to eat. Luckily, we didn’t have to go far before we stumbled across this little gem of a family restaurant.

The Boulevard is family run and has I believe served since 1979. It’s a relatively ‘simple’ cafe restaurant with the kind of menu you would expect but with daily specials, very generous portions and crucially the staff have been without fail so helpful, efficient and friendly. There’s a full range of safe (or adaptable) favourites on the children’s menu, and the main menu has plenty of veggie and vegan choices – so we’re one happy family! So much so, we’ve now visited three times even though we live quite a way away.

Another highlight for us is they sell a full range of New Forest Ices, and as I’ve mentioned before their sorbet is dairy-free, egg-free and totally nut-free too. When we visited they had three flavours of sorbet. A choice of pudding for the girls when eating out is a rare luxury for us, and again outside of a chain, the girls would be offered a piece of fruit usually.

Then to the girls’ delight, the bill comes with a little tub of jelly beans rather than the ubiquitous chocolates. Happy bunnies all round!

So, if you’re near the Witterings (the beach at West Wittering is vast at low tide and well worth a trek) I’d really recommend a stop off at The Boulevard Restaurant – we might even see you there!

New Forest Ice Cream – Sensational Sorbets

A big shout out about New Forest Ice Cream, or more specifically their delicious sorbets. Totally free from dairy, eggs, nuts and sesame these sorbets are a god-send on days out in the South, particularly Hampshire and the New Forest.

We’ve been aware of New forest Ice Cream for a while as they are the most common brand in local ice cream vans, but sadly not many of their ice lollies are suitable. Only the Super 5 multi-coloured lolly is totally safe for us (the push up lollies may contain nuts which is never a good risk to take on a day out at a beauty spot). Then a few years ago we came across mini tubs of raspberry sorbet at a National Trust property. We were in heaven! It was the first time my girls have had the delight of their own mini tub of iced treat; at last they could be just like their friends.

Since then we’ve sought out the New Forest Ice Cream Parlour in Lymington, Hampshire which gives the whole ‘choose your flavour and eat in experience’ as everyone else can enjoy in a parlour, but with sorbet. Sadly their range has got smaller with the passionfruit, mango, blood orange and lemon being discontinued since last year. Sad times 😦

Happily the remaining raspberry and blackcurrant flavours are AMAZING! The parlour goes to great lengths to ensure the scoops are clean and there is no cross contamination. I thoroughly recommend it. In fact we love the sorbet so much we bought a tub to take home 🙂

The manufacturing site has an impressive nut ban with no nuts allowed on the premises (the pistachio flavour is made off site) making both the sorbets totally safe, but also the ice cream if dairy is fine for you.

Allergies in Amsterdam

 

I don’t know about you, but since allergies have become part of our life, holidays make me nervous. Or perhaps I should say, I’m very good at dreaming about and planning holidays but the practicalities of allergies have totally changed our viewpoint.

On the whole we’re pretty cautious about holiday destinations. Allergies have added a whole new consideration to holiday planning. We’ve never braved a catered holiday, or one where we’d be eating every meal out, so it’s always a self-catered option for us so we can cook ourselves. Probably sounds crazy to anyone who doesn’t have to think about it. We frequently stay in the UK or go to France as D is fluent in French and we know we can get our requirements across with none lost in translation. And yet we used to travel far and wide, perfectly happy in other cultures and countries where we couldn’t speak the language at all. We used to be so much bolder in our choices, but these days feeling comfortable, safe in our surroundings is as important as excitement and adventure.

But this time we strayed a little from our comfort zone. We needed to show the girls that they can travel as long as they’re careful and plan well. So we planned a short city break to Amsterdam to experience (or revisit for D and I) another culture and see some beautiful sights and awe inspiring art. I have to confess that I was really keen on the idea and happily booked the flights and then I started to fret! Why did we choose a country which eats so much cheese? What if we couldn’t find the ingredients we needed, what if people didn’t get our concerns? Looking in our guide book at the traditional dishes the Dutch like to eat, it was mainly a large selection of items that would be off our menu in any case – cheese, waffles, pancakes, chips with mayonnaise. It was starting to look rather a poor choice, although as is widely known, the Dutch speak English incredibly well.

Well I needn’t have worried. Yes, we can’t eat the traditional items but we managed and had a fabulous, if rather tiring few days. Ok we only ate out once at a tried and tested Wagamama. I know not at all traditional or adventurous, but we all felt happy with that. In fact the waiter was more than capable of dealing with our concerns in the most amazingly fluent English that he even learnt that the chicken in European Wagamama branches has a pre-marinade that contains sesame oil, so the chefs put their heads together and came up with a suitable safe alternative for Little S. It really was impressive service.

Otherwise we cooked in our own apartment or came out with pre-packed picnics on the go. I do think that we have some real advantages by self-catering, we not only save lots of money but also get the opportunity to have a good browse in the local supermarkets. It’s actually become a bit of a holiday treat for us. The local cavernous shop was a Dirk van den Broek and had a fantastic range of Alpro products, even the – sadly missed and discontinued in the UK – pouring yogurt and an Alpro brand margarine which I’d never seen before.

In fact there was so much dairy it was kept in its own closed refrigerated room, ideal for dairy avoiders! We also came across Oatly which is always a bit of a relief. European standard food labelling certainly helped when making our choices and trying new products. Luckily it was a short trip and I’d packed loads of food, as we did struggle to find suitable nut, sesame and milk free bread and I didn’t come across any safe biscuits or easy snacks we could buy.

I think the hardest part was probably the travel – not only the worries of flying with allergies, but being unable to find any suitable snack or meal at an airport or on the flight. I know others brave long haul flights but we’re not there quite yet.

Sorry, I know this post doesn’t give reams of useful information about travel to Holland with allergies, and may seem ridiculous to those who don’t have any concerns, but we found it a hugely positive experience to step outside our comfort zone, to be that little bit braver and show the girls that their horizons can extend to new and different places. For me, the crucial aspect is planning and taking the right stuff to make sure we can get by without surviving on bags of crisps alone!