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When Cardamom Can Kill

Two friends with a litany of allergies cope with the fear of the unknown ingredient.

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Illustration by Peter Arkle  

Eating out can be unnerving when you’re allergic to everything. The number of people with food allergies in the U.S. has doubled in the last decade, according to some allergy experts, and local restaurants are grappling with how to accommodate the growing ranks of the afflicted. Former cookbook editor Katie Workman (allergic to tree nuts, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, buckwheat, seeds of citrus fruits, and poppy seeds) and interior decorator Lucy Savo (allergic to almonds, walnuts, pecans, apples, pineapples, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and eggplant) tried three very different spots: a Belgian bistro, a four-star French restaurant, and a Chinese chainlet. Workman chronicled their visits.

DINNER NO. 1
Resto
111 E. 29th St., nr. Park Ave. S. 212-685-5585
The first good sign was the menu: It encouraged those with allergies to speak up about them. We did, after which our waiter went back and forth to the kitchen to discuss with the chef. Two appetizers appeared instantly risky—the spiced lamb ribs with pickled tomato and the deviled egg with crispy pork toast. “Spiced,” “pickled,” and “deviled” often point to spice blends, and nutmeg, mace, and cardamom are likely components. Lucy had a clearer playing field and chose the Blue Hawaiian spot prawns. For the entrées, she asked to change the walnut vinaigrette on the chicken dish, but they couldn’t, so she settled on steak-frites. I got mussels, but couldn’t have them with a curry sauce (curries often have spices I’m allergic to), so I went with a bacon-and-creamed-leek sauce. After dessert (a waffle with a nut-free chocolate sauce), the waiter deposited the check and said, “Thank you, ladies—I’m relieved.”

DINNER NO. 2
Le Bernardin
155, W. 51st St., nr. Seventh Ave. 212-554-1515
At the start of our meal, the waiter asked us to write down our allergies to prevent any miscommunication. The brandade purée amuse-bouche was deemed safe; we then chose three courses apiece. Surprisingly, there were only a few dishes that we had to avoid: a hamachi with Moroccan berbere spices, the spicy langoustine sambal, and the pear julienne—an immediate no-go for Lucy. The meal was completely delicious. We had oysters and smoked salmon to start, and for the middle course, we shared a warm peekytoe Maryland lump crab cake and a curried seafood dish. The curry blend here is made in-house, so the chef could okay it with certainty. We were each served a chocolate and sweet-potato dessert that had been determined safe. We were happy to have such a nice dessert, but felt a little cheated not to have the chance to peruse the menu. Still, you can’t go too far wrong here.

DINNER NO. 3
Lili’s 57
200 W. 57th St., nr. Seventh Ave. 212-586-5333
Sesame, nuts, spices, gluten, soy—Chinese food can pose problems. And as in many ethnic restaurants, the language barrier can be tough. There were quite a few dishes with nuts, eggplant, and soba (buckwheat noodles) to skip past, and of course, we steered away from the Little Bit of Everything Bowl. For appetizers, we liked the sound of the Fresh Saigon roll, but it contained soba. At first, our waiter told us the crisp roll with curry was safe. But after intensely questioning the manager, we went with a special sushi roll. For the main courses, we got the pad Thai and sautéed shrimp with string beans and asked that the chef choose a safe sauce for us. All were good, especially the pad Thai (peanuts, not in the tree-nut family, are okay for both of us), and the meal ended without incident. The check was plunked down before we had a chance to contemplate dessert, but we didn’t protest.


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