Gluten-Free Chinese Food Comes Back to Manhattan – Lilli and Loo

Lilli and Loo Montage, originally uploaded by A Gluten Free Guide.

While you may have mourned the recent loss of Gourmetland's gluten-free Chinese food menu, Lilli and Loo brings fantastic gluten-free asian cuisine back to NYC. More than just Chinese food, Lilli and Loo offers an entire pan-asian gluten-free menu – fully vetted and approved by the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP).

Owners Maggie and Alfred worked for five months to perfect their gluten-free recipes unveiling their gluten-free menu last week. The pan-asian offering reflects their Malaysian roots while their gluten-free offerings look for inspiration to their business partner's daughter, Vanessa, who has Celiac disease. After becoming accustomed to creating special dishes and using wheat-free soy sauce for Vanessa, they decided to reach out to a GFRAP representative to give a safe gluten-free Asian dining experience to more of Manhattan. Not content to provide merely "safe" food, they strive to offer customers "real" food rich with flavor and exotic spices. Their efforts pay rich dividends to all who dine at Lilli and Loo.

Maggie and Alfred display genuine care for their patrons and impressive knowledge about food. There are many intricacies involved with gluten-free cooking: being aware of cross-contamination dangers, checking for hidden sources of gluten, knowing which brands of fish sauce or rice noodles are gluten-free, etc. At Lilli and Loo patrons can dine with confidence that the owners knowledge of such intricacies is nonpareil. After noting their warmth and friendliness, I was struck by Alfred's love of food. This man is a kindred spirit to any foodie.

Alfred derives evident pleasure in discussing food, recipes and ingredients. He delightedly explained to me that arrowroot starch gives their gluten-free sauces a better texture and clearer consistency. His energy levels rose as he talked about all of the attention and detail brought to bear in creating truly outstanding gluten-free recipes. Alfred's eyes twinkled as he described the ingredients in the fresh Saigon spring rolls and dipping sauce. Strike up a conversation with Alfred about the subtleties and nuances of food preparation and you will soon find yourself soaking up insights from a true culinary artist. At Lilli and Loo I felt the tangible graciousness and joy towards creating great gluten-free food that I experienced during my culinary feasts in Italy.

After all of this discussion about the menu, my stomach was rumbling. I wanted to eat some of Alfred's creations! Joined for dinner by my gluten-free stalwart Molly and my little sister Alex, the quantity we ate belied our small statures. But since I still didn't get to sample everything; a follow up visit is necessary -ah, but I get ahead of myself.

We started with the Fresh Saigon Roll, made with fresh mango, avocado and rice vermicelli in a rice paper wrapper. It was presented beautifully with a strip of nori to add a depth of color. The best part was the spicy mint dipping sauce – fresh basil, cilantro and ginger make this sauce something I would have eaten with a spoon had decorum not gotten the better of me. Molly's comment about the sauce is illustrative: "this is ridiculous it's so good." It's fresh and subtle with a spicy finish.

The Tom Yum Seafood soup was next. This hot & spicy lemongrass kaffir lime broth with seafood okra, tomato and mushrooms is VERY spicy but we all loved the heat – Alex said she had never had a soup with so much flavor.

To round out our appetizers we ordered the Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps. The pineapple and fresh ginger add a fresh sweet taste that surprises and delights.

The Pomegranate Teriyaki Grilled Chicken is sweet but with a bite “like a pomegranate.” I love it when the flavors of ingredients are highlighted instead of hidden. The steamed vegetables were cooked perfectly, with just a hint of crisp and crunch.

The Borneo Orange Chicken is made with crispy white meat and a spicy mandarin orange sauce. Molly, who is generally a vegetarian, decided to give one piece a try. That piece was so intoxicating she kept going back for more, eventually finishing the dish. When you have to fight a vegetarian for a chicken dish, it must be good.

My favorite was the Asian Shrimp Ratatouille – diced tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and peppers in a sweet and sour sesame garlic sauce. The eggplant was better than the special at Gobo. I could eat this dish every night for a week without tiring of it.

Alfred is working to expand the gluten-free menu in the coming weeks and if this location's offering takes off they will look into developing gluten-free menus for the other three Lilli and Loo locations in Manhattan. I have an extra incentive to help make this happen since their uptown location would deliver to my apartment. If you are lucky enough to live within a 15 block radius of 61 st and Lexington, you can already order a gluten-free meal to be delivered to your door.

Before leaving, I met the other partner whose daughter inspired this great addition to the GFRAP roster. He told me that they are open to suggestions because they aren't doing it for the money but to do what is right for customers. I had an incredible meal start to finish – my only suggestion would be to have some alternative to the 'gluten-filled' fortune cookie for the gluten-free customers. Maybe just serving a fortune on a plate rather than the cookie. Anyone have any ideas?

Lilli and Loo: 792 Lexington Ave, New York 10021 Btwn 61st & 62nd St Phone: 212-421-7800


Erin S. said...

This is so exciting, especially with the demise of the gf menu at Gourmetland. Thanks for such an enticing review of Lilli and Loo. I can't wait to try it out and maybe host a Meetup there in 2008!

CeliacChick said...

Hey Cat,

Just noticed I took almost the exact same pic of the outside of Lilli's that you took! heh heh, promise I'm not a Copy Cat! :)

Anonymous said...

I had very good results eating here. I am very sensitive to Gluten and when I ordered from the GF menu no problems whatsoever. I write about many restaurants where I do get sick so this is a great find.