Eating at The Ivy with allergies

I’ve often thought that it might be nice to go to The Ivy as a family. Our local one is so beautifully decorated, and whilst it is just a brasserie chain, it feels a bit more special than most restaurants. We recently had reason to celebrate (end of exams) and so I contacted them directly to see if they could cater for us and was very happy to receive a positive response saying that they’re be extremely happy to cater for our needs and to speak with the waiter directly. Once I’d found it, the allergen menu online looked quite good and we were surprised that there was a variety of dishes that looked suitable. We still felt that familiar low level anxiety of trying somewhere new, but that’s not uncommon!

 

Well, it was a superb experience, well beyond our expectations and is definitely a restaurant we will return to. The waiter was fantastic, he immediately said he knew what everything contained, he took down our requirements seriously but without fuss or the wise-cracks that Little S in particular has to deal with. We’d checked the allergen menu and the sourdough bread looked safe so we ordered some, the waiter came back a few minutes later to say he’d been concerned that the information was not correct, had checked and found that it contained milk. Whilst it wasn’t reassuring that the allergen menu online was incorrect, we were pleased that the waiter clearly knew what he was talking about and had been extra vigilant.

We could see our order on the screen with a big allergy order alert which made us feel confident that the kitchen was aware of the order, and the message had got through. Big S ordered a minute steak with chips and watercress. She was given a red wine jus rather than the usual peppercorn sauce, and it came adorned with an allergy flag. The waiter said that they normally cook the steaks in garlic butter, hence why none appeared as options on the allergen menu, but Big S’s was cooked separately and safely. Little S had an option of three choices just from the children’s menu and more from the adult – this is almost unheard of! She chose grilled chicken with chips, tomato sauce and tender stem broccoli. Again it was a great option, came with the allergy flag, the portion size was huge for a kids meal. It was tasty, well cooked, well presented and it was wonderful she could order something off the menu without any alterations. Also, the chips were amazing!

 

I had a rather delicious halloumi dish with fregola and herb sauce – for a veggie option, care had been taken to give a really well thought out, interesting and tasty dish, rather than the usual afterthought that the veggie choice often is!

 

We didn’t order any puddings so didn’t check if any were possible, but the waiter did bring Big S a complimentary little raspberry compote with coconut yogurt and toasted coconut flakes to celebrate the end of her exams which was a really lovely touch.

 

It turns out that we vaguely know the head chef and have since passed on our thanks for a really good and safe experience. He was so pleased to get good feedback, and gave us a full run down of their allergy procedures. Everything is cooked separately, it’s checked three times, the manager takes responsibility to check again and it is even served on a separate tray. He seemed proud of their processes and I can see why, it made us feel confident and relaxed which is a very rare experience in a restaurant. 

 

So top marks and a big allergy applause for The Ivy – we will return with cautious (only because we’re an allergy family and it has to be that way!) confidence the next time we have something to celebrate.

 

Franco Manca – turns out it’s a good choice for allergies

We were in London for a day out in the Easter holidays. We often find it really hard to eat out when in London. It’s partly because we don’t want to waste too much of the day finding a restaurant and then waiting for the food to arrive, but also we don’t want to take risks and end up having a reaction, or just a stressful experience. So, more often than not, we end up eating the emergency sandwiches I always pack, and simply stop for a nice drink instead. When Yorica was around we always headed there for the best ice cream ever! Oh, we so miss Yorica!

We were just about to go and find somewhere to eat our emergency rations when we walked past a branch of Franco Manca on Old Brompton Road. Now, we’ve never eaten at a Franco Manca before but have heard good things about the chain catering well for allergies, and so we took the huge, brave step of walking in for lunch! Yes, it felt slightly nervy but also wonderfully spontaneous which is something we generally miss out on.

The menu is short and we were really surprised at what good value the pizzas were. To our delight the first pizza on the list was a marinara (tomato sauce, garlic, oregano and basil) with no cheese in sight – how wonderful! We ordered this as it’s a joy to order something on a menu without alterations and it was almost perfect. The base was deliciously chewy with charred bits and plenty of air bubbles – a really great pizza base. The tomato sauce was fresh, vibrant and light.

The only thing letting it down was the heavy handed addition of the oregano, which surely must have been a mistake because it was as if an entire jar had been tipped on top! We like oregano but this really was way too much! All in all it was a good, safe pizza but next time we’d ask for less oregano (!) and maybe add some toppings for extra interest. The vegan cheese on offer is Violife and there were plenty of meat and veg options to jazz it up. The beauty is you can start with a safe marinara and then add to it, rather than the trickier option of taking cheese off a pizza and then adding toppings instead. Even some of the dips were vegan, but we didn’t investigate further to see if they were totally safe.

I’d probably give Franco Manca 4* out of 5 mainly because the staff were efficient but a little brusk, I wasn’t 100% sure they’d got the message in our allergy order so watched like a hawk whilst the food was being prepared! Also, as it’s a pizza oven you have the potential for some cross contamination in the oven. But, having said that we had no issues and the food was good, safe and tasty, as well as being very good value. We’ll certainly eat at a Franco Manca again. 

We noticed a vegan raspberry sorbet on the menu but didn’t try, we felt like we’d been brave enough for one day!

(The menu also featured a gluten-free base which may be worth investigating if you’re gluten-free, although how that works with all the flour about I’m not quite sure? On the menu i didn’t see any peanuts but there were walnuts in a salad, almonds and hazelnuts in the puddings, as well as pesto on some pizzas.)

Tea at The Orchid Lounge, Pan Pacific, London

I so wanted to write an absolutely glowing review as we’ve been looking forward to this exciting and special occasion for ages, so I’ll start with the good and then if you want to hear the negatives (there were some), you can read on…

We booked afternoon tea at The Orchid Lounge at Pan Pacific in London as the ultimate treat for big S’s 18th Birthday. Years ago we had a very successful afternoon tea at The Langham when Cherish Finden was head pastry chef there, so when we’d heard she’d joined the newly opened Pan Pacific as executive chef, it seemed like a wonderful choice for this very special occasion. I contacted Cherish on social media and the hotel directly, and was reassured that our dietary requirements (which I admit are tricky and numerous) could be catered for and the hotel would make sure it would be a very special occasion. We were so excited, we talked for weeks about what it would be like and checked and rechecked the menu! 

The Good was very good: the dessert plate of patisserie was spectacular with interesting, thought-provoking flavours, contrasting textures and it really was picture perfect to look at.

Our table had two versions, the usual one and the 14 allergen-free one, and there were few differences. The Free-from selection was delicious, incredibly impressive and certainly worth seeking out if you’re hankering after particularly fine patisserie. As it was late November, the tea had a Christmas theme and was an entire story of walking through the forest, Father Christmas and the reindeer flying over the trees, then waking up and opening the Christmas presents. It was really special. The ‘forest tower’ was filed with Yuzu mousse that was light and perfumed. The Christmas tree shortbread seemed to have a passionfruit caramel centre which was totally delightful. The Christmas bauble contained an orange mousse and gel, and the gift was the richest chocolate of many contrasting layers. All spectacular, and exceptional that such fine patisserie could be made ’14 free’. I know that Cherish and the kitchen spent months developing that aspect.

14 allergen free patisserie plate
The traditional patisserie plate

Indeed, all the food was fabulous – maybe the sandwiches weren’t necessarily to our taste (I’m not sure anyone want a fat slice of tofu in a sandwich!) but they were interesting and presented beautifully, and they were trying to tick the boxes for us and our requirements.

Vegan sandwich selection

Those of us who had the Kopi Tiam version (dim sum and Singaporean take on afternoon tea) found the offerings beautiful, delicate and very interesting. The curry puffs were a real highlight, and the dim sum a real flavour sensation and a step outside the comfort zone for the younger members of the family. Just what you want from an afternoon tea experience.

Dim Sum
Mushroom Bao

I’m impressed how the kitchen catered for our various dietary requirements and I feel they are extremely skilled and should receive massive praise for the beautiful food they create.

Before I say anymore, I have to say the hotel has been fantastic. They’ve been very communicative, extremely apologetic and are making changes to address all our issues. So please do consider Pan Pacific if you’d like a truly spectacular afternoon tea.

But here are the problems we had. Our issues mainly arose from the service and I have to say that sadly the special occasion was ruined, in fact it ruined the whole weekend. I could go on at length about the two hour wait for any food to arrive, the whole tea taking four hours (yes, 4 hours!), the offers of free drinks being swiftly denied by other staff, the constant need to ask for a tea cup or glass of water which took multiple requests and ages to come. Or the fact that Big S ended the meal with a small contact allergic reaction to some cross contamination (yes, we know and accept this is a risk of eating anywhere), or that the one member of our group who ate the prawn dim sum since came down with a nasty bout of food poisoning. But all those failures could have been forgiven, what really ruined the experience was the incompetent way the staff dealt with allergies, and the four occasions where we avoided an allergic reaction due to us (and mainly Little S) noticing something was not right about the plate in front of her. The kitchen knew about the food but not all the service staff did, meaning each time something arrived there was an air of (dangerous) confusion.

Firstly, we were all served an amuse bouche of a Calamansi jelly with a mango pearl served in a cleaned-out egg shell so it looked like an egg. Eye catching and interesting but also somewhat un-nerving as the start of a meal for a family with an egg allergy amongst them. We pointed out that it wasn’t right to serve an empty egg shell to someone who is seriously allergic to egg to which the waiter responded that it was fine because it had been thoroughly washed out (I don’t think this is safe!). We asked if Little S could have similar in a different container, but after a lengthy enquiry this apparently was not possible. So little S had to sit there with an eggshell in front of her – we all started to feel rather uncomfortable. What were they thinking? How can using an empty eggshell and serving it to an egg allergic child be acceptable? (For those who ate the amuse bouche it was delicious, but for Little S it was the start of feeling that they didn’t want her there, that she was a bother, which made us feel fairly sad.)

Amuse bouche

Next up came the sandwiches. The waiter proudly talked us through the fillings announcing that Little S had a cheddar cheese one. Eek! When told that wasn’t ok as she’s allergic to milk, he said, it’s ok just start eating the others and I’ll go and check. The head waitress came for a look and said it was turkey, finally it was confirmed to be tofu. A relief, but we were feeling increasingly ill at ease. Maybe we should have just left, but this was the special event, we had nothing else planned and surely it could go well from here, but no. Big S was given the wrong in between course biscuit and this was only noticed by Little S at the very last second.

Between course freefrom biscuit

Next the wrong scones were given to Little S, again a mistake noticed only by ourselves. As I say, I know we’re difficult to cater for but we’d only gone for this hugely expensive experience because it was confirmed that we could be looked after, and maybe we should have just left, but it’s hard when there are no other easy options and you’ve gone to such lengths to make this happen. 

14 free scones
Traditional scones

As I say, the meal ended on a high of wonderful 14-free patisserie, but we would have maybe enjoyed it more if we’d felt less anxious and it had been two hours earlier. To not be able to have your first bite of sandwich for two hours after arrival is excessive. And to be fair, once all the issues were pointed out the head waitress got involved and did all she could to turn the situation around. It was just sad that the occasion had been ruined, that special 18th birthday celebration which was meant to prove that yes you can have the same luxury experiences even with a food allergy just didn’t go to plan. Will we go for afternoon tea again soon? I’m not sure we will as it was just a stressful occasion and not the relaxed special occasion we’d hoped for….

Turtle Bay

We recently had reason to celebrate and decided to brave the big wide world with a trip to a restaurant. D and I have visited Turtle Bay before but not for a family meal out – when we’ve been it’s been so loud with pounding beats that you couldn’t hear your neighbour speak – not exactly conducive to a nice relaxed child friendly meal!

Cocktails! 🍹

Anyway, the girls have developed a taste for spice and Turtle Bay is where you want to go for spice! As it turns out it is also a great example of an ‘allergy applause’ destination and was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

As usual, we had perused the allergen menu (easily available online here ) at length and were delighted over the range of potentially suitable dishes. It seems that nuts are not much of a thing in this restaurant which is always reassuring.

We identified suitable dishes for starters, mains, children’s menu and pudding. This was looking good 🤩 as a range of pudding options is more than a little unusual for us!

We went early (6.30pm) and it was quiet, calm, felt totally safe from a Coronavirus perspective. The atmosphere is just like being on a tropical holiday – the rustic beach cafe vibe and Reggae has to bring a smile to your face.

We started with mocktails and cocktails which added to the beachy vibe. The service was fabulous – the waiter knew the menu inside out and listened to our requirements with care. We had chosen a sweetcorn fritter starter to share but the waiter was concerned about the oil they were fried in. He checked with the chefs and they confirmed they were not happy to say they would be safe for a a milk allergy. This was disappointing for the girls as they love sweetcorn fritters but reassuring and exactly the kind of response we’d want in this situation. Instead we shared some Trini doubles – delicious chickpea curry on fluffy rotis. I was expecting the girls to dislike the chickpeas (they’re never keen when I use them!) but they both pronounced them delicious and devoured the plateful. Chickpeas are now definitely on the menu at home this week!!

Trini Doubles

Little S had the barbecued chicken and chips (only allergens soya and sulphur dioxide) from the Little Turtles Menu  – which was a huge portion, grilled to perfection and served with the crispiest, fluffiest chips I’ve seen in ages.

Big S nearly had a curry but opted for the jerk chicken with chips – again it was thoroughly enjoyed but a bit spicier than the children’s version.

I maybe found the veggie offerings a little less pleasing – I had an Avo Chilli Smash beach salad and while it was very tasty it seemed a bit like a few veggie things were chucked on a plate with the hope it would make a dish. I would have chosen something else if I’d realised the same chickpeas were in both the starter and my main. I like chickpeas but twice in a meal is a bit much!

Beach Salad

When it came to it we were too full to enjoy pudding, so I guess we’ll have to return to try out the dairy-free ice creams, sorbet or chilli chocolate brownie. 

All in all it was a fabulous choice of a meal out, and a celebratory one at that. A holiday vibe, great fancy drinks, fantastic allergen free offerings and some delicious spicy food. We’d thoroughly recommend it 😀

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

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!

Pizza Express (actually a reasonable option for the dairy and egg-free)

It may seem strange that I’m writing a review of a very well-known pizza chain – doesn’t pizza rely on cheese? However, we’ve eaten at a LOT of Pizza Express branches as a family and the girls have always been able to eat a safe and tasty meal, one that is almost completely on the kids menu (very unusual for us, we normally end up having to eat ‘off menu’ and always lose out financially for it).

At Pizza Express the waiting staff have always seemed friendly and well trained. They have unfailingly listened to our requirements and made no fuss…. And we’ve never had any food mistakes in any of the branches we’ve visited.

On the bambino menu the girls can start with dough balls and side salad (dairy, egg and nut free). This is followed by a pizza (minus the cheese)…. A cheese-less pizza might sound a bit substandard, but since the bases are unfailingly delicious and the tomato sauce good too, it is still a surprisingly satisfying main course. It’s all rather dough-based, but hey, it is a pizza restaurant!

But most exciting of all, there’s a new addition on the menu, a dairy, egg and nut-free raspberry sorbet. My girls hardly ever get to eat a pudding in a restaurant so this new development is hugely exciting, and the sorbet tastes gorgeous too! Although must admit we only actually ate it on third attempt as it had sold out the first two times we went, but that’s another story.

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The Cornish Arms, St Merryn, North Cornwall

During our wet holiday last week we did manage to eat out at a Rick Stein establishment. I’ve always wanted to eat at a  Rick Stein restaurant (odd maybe for a confirmed non-fish eating vegetarian!) as he’s always seemed like a nice, fairly laid back chap who cooks some great honest, flavoursome food. Since we were staying near Padstow and Rick Stein seems to own half the place it seemed the perfect opportunity.

We had wanted to take the ferry from Rock, have an early evening wander around Padstow and then possibly eat at The Rick Stein Cafe – we were en famille after all and didn’t want a too fancy (or expensive) restaurant. But, due to some rather bad organisation we got the timing wrong and missed the last ferry – d’oh! So we decided on a drive to Rick’s pub The Cornish Arms in fairly nearby St Merryn.

The pub was modern, welcoming and full of families on a Thursday evening. The seafood looked great and everyone seemed to be really enjoying it. We must have been the only table with two non-fish eaters and a further one who’d rather not!!

The vegetarian options were extremely limited (it is a British pub after all), with a choice between a Ploughman’s or a blue cheese, tomato and rocket tart. For me a Ploughman’s is a lunch-time dish so I opted for the tart, and I have to say it was a big disappointment, even by pub standards. It consisted of a square of puff pastry topped with some blue cheese, four very undercooked and low-on-flavour tomato halves (not peeled) and a little pile of rocket leaves – that was it! Not impressed…

D had the special of pork chops with mash and gravy. It was a huge portion and he said the gravy was lovely and the mash ‘fine’ but one pork chop was frazzled and tough and the other more on the pink side than you want to go with pork. It was the very last portion which may explain it, but again, not hugely impressed.

However, everything was much better for the girls. The waiter took our food concerns most seriously, retreated to the kitchen and came back saying they could have four out of the six options available – an amazing amount of choice for us! He even made sure he personally notified the chefs when our order went through to be extra careful. We hadn’t asked for this level of attention by the way.

Big S had her favourite of sausage and chips – not exactly haute cuisine but eating out is about having what you really want isn’t it? Little S had a wholesome slab of grilled cod with chips – certainly the best dish on the table and much enjoyed. Also, much to our delight there was egg-free sorbet on the pudding menu – so for once (almost a first for us!) we managed to all have pudding too.

Both girls ate safely and enjoyed the meal out. It was really the excellent service that made it a good evening out (plus we’d probably have loved the food if we were fish eaters). On that basis alone I would say it was a successful meal and we left a happy family :-).