Father's Day proved to be the perfect opportunity for an excursion to our local Carrabba's, and I arrived with high expectations and an eager appetite. It made the holiday extra meaningful to know that my whole family could go out to eat, while at the same time no one had to compromise for my dietary restrictions or their preferences.
Arriving shortly before 5:00 pm, the restaurant was already filling up for the night. Despite the growing crowd, the host/hostesses kept pace with the distribution of tables and before too long, we were seated and greeted by one of the most friendly waiters I have ever encountered. LT was his name, and with his index-like knowledge of Carrabba's offerings, I knew my gluten-free experience was in good hands.
It turned out that the one and only printed gluten-free menu was circulated to another table, so I had to rely on my working knowledge of my earlier examination the gluten-safe menu from the sample one I found online (see that here). Note to Carrabba's: having more than one gluten-free menu on hand would be a great improvement! Luckily, LT, too had brushed up on his gluten-free know-how and could help me navigate the dairy angle as well. However, he reassured me that he would double check with the kitchen when putting the order in.
Part of Carrabba's gluten-free renewal, they've focused on isolating the individual ingredients of the kitchen to make sure they know which ones are safe. They've created standardized cross-contamination prevention protocols, and have trained the staff to understand the proper storage and preparation to make sure the gluten-free menu items are as free from gluten as possible (in a shared kitchen). For more info on that, click here.
I ended up ordering an entree for my meal, which came with an appetizer of a soup or salad. I'm not sure which, if any of the salads (Italian, house, or Cesar) can be made dairy-free, but all of the above are gluten-free minus croutons. LT informed me that the minestrone and Mama Mandola's Sicilian chicken soup, are both gluten and dairy-free, so I decided to go with the latter, having previously tried the minestrone.
The soup has a nice, flavorful chicken broth as its base, which is seasoned with herbs. Immersed into the golden broth are an assortment of onions, carrots, and other veggies. The star of the dish is the slow-roasted chicken, which is extremely tender and juicy. While the dish was good, it was really missing an extra element- the missing pasta to render it gluten-free. I do not know if I would order it again because it struck me as a little uninspired.
If the soup is uninspired, my entree would be described as the polar opposite. I went with the wood grilled salmon with a side of Italian green beans. The salmon, made without the grill baste, came topped with a tomato basil vinaigrette that was downright tantalizing. Made with flavorful tomato, aromatic basil, and deliciously distinctive balsamic vinegar. The fish itself was cooked perfectly, easily sliced by a fork. The green beans, cooked with olive oil, featured curls of red onion, which added a complementary flavor. They were still crispy- just the way I like them- and had a summer-fresh flavor. All in all, it was a downright delicious pairing, and one I will not soon forget.
Ultimately, my evening at Carrabba's was a success, as my whole family was able to enjoy themselves, and I was able to eat more than boring grilled chicken with unflavored broccoli. Our waiter, LT, deserves the highest compliment for his hospitality and assurance that he'd look out for my food. While the service was impeccable, the kitchen was unusually- and noticeably- slow that day, really unusual from my past experiences. I hope this was an anomaly due to the holiday weekend, but it really was the only negative of my experience.
I'm glad the Carrabba's has decided to double down with their commitment to the gluten-free community, and hope that this commitment extends to include Italian delicacies such as pasta and/or pizza. I really hope that someday I can enjoy those specialty dishes with my family at the restaurant, but in the mean time will be back for the wood grilled salmon.
Update 12/12/2015: Since my last visit, Carrabba's has undergone a gluten-free game changing menu evolution. In addition to now marking gluten-free options on the main menu and adding additional dishes to chose from, Carrabba's now serves up gluten-free pasta. At a visit to a location in Hickory, NC, I got my first taste at the new pasta: casarecce. When I ordered, I requested mine be made in fresh water and a cleaned pot to prevent cross-contamination. I ordered the linguine positano which features grilled chicken, crush tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and basil. The simplicity of the dish it's strength and it is hands down among the best restaurant meals I have ever had. My only complaint is that the dish is a bit salty, but I can totally overlook that one flaw and will definitely be ordering this dish again.
While there, I also had the minestrone soup, which now no longer has to be ordered without pasta. After my mediocre perception of the chicken soup, I was impressed by this soup because of it's rich, flavorful broth and perfect concentration of vegetables of all shapes and sizes. The cup portion is perfectly sized to be an opening act for any entree.
Update 12/31/15: My family returned to Carrabba's for New Year's Eve. I tried the chicken lettuce wraps small plate as an appetizer. It's gluten-free and dairy-free without added cheese on top. The chicken is tender and accentuated with vinaigrette-tossed vegetables and drizzled with a port wine reduction. The portioning is perfect to share, or a quite substantial precursor to the entree course.
Update 1/1/17: I returned to Carrabba's again for New Year's Eve and decided to try something new-to-me: the wood-fired tilapia with the Italian side salad. The salad was good, with a nice vinaigrette dressing and blend of tomatoes, onion, carrots, lettuce, and olives. The tilapia was lacking in flavor, relying on the fragrant basil and balsamic vinegar to carry the responsibility of taste. The fish itself was pretty flavorless. I was informed the grill baste for the asparagus is not dairy-free, so had to do without and instead go with an olive oil coating. The asparagus was also pretty flavorless and rather unimpressive. Next time, I'm definitely going to stick with the pasta.