Choices by Shawn (Fairfax, VA) Restaurant Review

M and I celebrated our anniversary last week.  This year, our anniversary fell on a Saturday and none were more surprised than us to realize that we both had the evening (prime job time) off.  After sifting through our options of usual gluten-free-able restaurants, we chose Choices by Shawn.  I had been there once before for brunch with the girls and the dinner menu (mostly, the grail of “Southern Fried Chicken GF”) looked promising.

Choices by Shawn is right down the street from our alma mater, and I was exceedingly surprised when I first found out about the restaurant, less than a year ago.  The namesake owner is gluten-free, and the restaurant claims a dedication to allergy-sensitive food service that is evident from the first glance at the website to the first step up to the hostess stand, all the way down to dessert.  Some dishes on the menu are only served without gluten and other can be specially made gluten-free.  Dairy-free dishes are also denoted on the menu.  A separate kitchen for gluten-free preparations ensures against cross-contamination.  All in all, for whatever faults may be listed in the reviews on Yelp, Choices by Shawn is set up to protect those customers with food allergies.

My first visit for Sunday brunch at the restaurant had a slow start.  We chose to sit on the wrap-around porch, which was as cute as one could wish for brunch with the girls.  Traffic was a little loud, but given that the restaurant sits on a corner in Old Town Fairfax, this was not at all surprising.  We held off on ordering until all of our party arrived, and the wait staff were wonderfully patient with us.  I ordered the zucchini pancakes, which were tasty enough, but not really my thing.  I should have gone with the GF waffles or french toast while I had the opportunity, or at least my old standby of eggs.  I did get to try their bruschetta, as my friend was kind enough to order it GF.  The brunch menu, paired with the porch seating, is well-worth the reservation for a cute date with your friends.

M and I went to dinner and, again, a reservation was worth the security of a table when we arrived.  The restaurant is in a converted house, with two kitchens and a bar, so table space is limited.  During warmer months, when the porch is open in the evening, I imagine this is less of a problem.  The hostess asked if there were any in our party that were gluten-free, and with our affirmation, grabbed a red card along with the menus before taking us to our seats.  These cards are available to clue in wait staff to the gluten issue within a party, allowing extra precautions to be made.  (I also received the same question and card at brunch–I believe it is asked of every party entering the restaurant.)  The menu was clearly laid out: labeling what menu items were already made without gluten, and which could be modified to be gluten-free.  It also denoted dishes that were Dairy-free, Vegetarian, and Vegan.  Many of the dishes seemed easily able to be made Dairy-free/Vegan, but as M and I do not restrict dairy, we did not explore these options.  The menu also noted that all Gluten-Free dishes were served on red plates, and asking us to question our server if served on any other plates.

choicesbread

M and I placed the red Gluten-Free card on the table, ordered wine, and the server brought our drinks along with a plate of homemade bread–dutifully in a red basket.  This is bread that I would like to recreate–deep, dark brown with a hearty crumb, with bits of seeds mixed through the dough.  With a swath of butter and a pinch of salt, it was delicious.  And, while more and more restaurants are (fortunately) adding gluten-free options to their menu, the bread baskets of most are still off limits.  We placed our orders, including the duck sliders as an appetizer, and quickly received our salads, that come with every dinner entree.  The salads were pretty basic, but the inclusion of the course helps to make the price tag of the menu items a little more reasonable.

choicesslider2

The duck sliders with pickled onions and aioli were served on the same bread that came in the bread basket.  I had been hoping for real slider rolls, but made due with the toast.  The sliders were truly the star of the show.  The pickled onions and aioli were a nice tangy counterpoint to the rich, succulent ground duck burgers.  I put some of the arugula and romaine lettuce garnish from the plate on mine, for just a little bit of extra lift for the heavy burger patty.  Give me a couple of these sliders with some fries and I would have been all set.  However, we still had our main dishes on the way.

choicescrabcakes

Though the goat cheese and roasted red pepper burger was tempting, I settled on the crab cakes with garlic-parmesan fries, and M chose the Southern Fried Chicken with gravy, mashed potatoes, and roasted vegetables, with the full knowledge that we would split our plates.  Service was quick, polite, and unobtrusive.  The plates arrived looking rather nice–I was hoping for a little dish of my remoulade, but almost enough was poured over my crab cakes and the lettuce garnish to serve for dipping.  My crab cakes were wonderful: tender and flavorful.  I have never encountered GF crab cakes at any other restaurant, so being abel to safely have crab cakes once more was delightful.  My fries were a bit of a let-down.  They were recommended, and, while a fine batch of fries, the garlic flavor barely came through at all.  Parmesan was sprinkled on top, which, to be fair, is exactly what the menu listed (“Crispy, garlicky fries topped with parmesan”).  I suppose, in my mind, I thought the fries would be tossed with garlic and parmesan, integrating the cheese throughout the pile of fries and allowing it to begin to melt from their heat.  The cheese, instead, simply sat on top of the fries and usually slid off as I picked them up.

choiceschicken

M’s fried chicken looked quite promising: thick rich gravy, golden breading, creamy mashed potatoes.  The flavors of the gravy, potatoes, and vegetables were lovely.  Even the chicken on it’s own was quite tasty.  Choices by Shawn has achieved  the delicate, crispy breading that is so difficult to procure…with one downfall: the breading was far too delicate to stand up to the gravy that was so liberally spread over the plate.  The parts covered in gravy had started to disintegrate by the time the plate reached our table, and what portion that remained crispy was masked as soon as it touched the gravy.  The flavor in the breading just couldn’t quite stand up to the other food on the plate.  To be fair, I had noticed that Choices by Shawn offered GF Friend Chicken when I was at brunch, and M and I has gotten our expectations up.  We knew one of us would be ordering the dish before we stepped into the restaurant.  But I do wish the chicken received a heartier crust–the current delicacy of the crust is more appropriate to a fish dish than the stick-to-your-ribs, down-home fried chicken that we had hoped to receive.  The texture of the chicken breast with the crust was a little off as well–we ended up avoiding a portion at the thickest point of the chicken breast.  Between the bread, sliders, salads, my crab cakes, and the rest of M’s plate, we were quite stuffed, so we didn’t press the issue and did not have dessert.

The prices were a little bit high–this isn’t a restaurant that we would visit weekly.  But, for the assured safety and peace of mind of knowing that our food is properly prepared to be gluten-free, it is worth it for a nice night out.  Looking through reviews on Yelp, a lot of customers had problems with the wait staff and rudeness, but M and I encountered no problems with the staff there.  I would be more willing to come back for their brunch menu, and I am intrigued by the Full Service Tea that they also offer.  Overall, as a food-allergy friendly restaurant, Choice by Shawn is a pretty good choice.

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Catching up with Almond Flour Scones

scone top

It has been over a month since I last posted, in spite of my best intentions.  My summer camp, as mentioned, ate up a considerable portion of each day.  With our move, M and I are further away from this job, so that meant that we were up by 5:30am every morning to walk Punc, pack lunches, and get ready to leave the house by 6:30.  We usually didn’t get home until 5:00 or 5:30pm, and by then, quite truthfully, it took all of my remaining energy to put together some semblance of dinner, then shower, and sleep.  On the very first day of camp, I came home and simply couldn’t move for four hours.  I adore my job, especially the summers, but it takes constant energy.  After twelve hours of acting, blocking, stretching, singing, dancing, planning, memorizing, and leading; it was an achievement to keep my eyes open until 10:00pm.

scone stack

We have one week left, but I can confidently say that this summer was the best one yet.  We had truly outstanding staff and equally outstanding students.  I have spoken about teaching before, touching briefly on how inspiring my students are to me, and how teenage culture is played out before me only a few years after I left it, myself.  I always feel as though I learn as much from my students as they (hopefully) do from me, and this year, as always, I had several particularly inspiring students.  I will not go into details–the privacy of my students is the most important thing–but I can say that, a physically exhausting as camp has been, I know after a few days of proper sleep, all of this inspiration will have me refreshed and ready to dive into our fall classes.

scone pile

I did manage to have a few adventures in the kitchen, mostly inspired by our farmer’s market finds.  I hope to share those adventures soon–just one more week of camp (and my birthday) to get through before the schedule returns to normal!

With all of my early mornings, filled with harried lunch-packing (though I tried my best to pack the night before, so much of our sliced veggies and fruits or sandwiches, etc would have suffered from sitting overnight, leaving me with some prep every morning) and even quicker breakfasts, it was important for me to find something quick, portable, and protein-packed.  Our camp has a nut-free policy, but I rely so much on the handy protein of nut products that I often found myself searching to pack them into my breakfasts, and then thoroughly washing my hands upon arrival.  These scones, with their tantalizing mix of whole-grain flours and almond meal, were the perfect fit for my breakfast bill.  The scones are exceedingly flexible in terms of add-ins–I made another batch of white-chocolate blueberry scones, as well as cherry pecan, using the same recipe.  Those eluded photographs, but I do have my first batch of blueberry lemon spice scones to show off.  These scones freeze beautifully.  I was able to grab a few, microwave for ten seconds for a quick thaw, and then carry them to eat in the car on the way into work.  These scones are easily vegan.
scone duo

Almond Flour Scones

Serves: 8 | Prep time: 15 min |Cook time: 10-15 minutes

  • 1 1/4 c. almond meal
  • 3/4 c. oat flour, teff flour, or additional almond meal (and any mixture therein of the three)
  • 2 Tbsp. corn starch (or potato starch)
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 3 Tbsp. boiling water
  • 1 Tbsp. flax seed (ground)
  • 2 Tbsp. milk of choice
  • 2 Tbsp. honey or agave (granulated sugar may be used, but you must add an additional Tbsp of milk)
  • dash salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (or citrus juice, for citrus scones)
  • up to 1 Tbsp spices or zest of choice, optional
  • up to 1 c. of add-ins (dried fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, fresh fruit, etc), optional*

*If only one type of add-in, I usually ended up using only 1/2-3/4 c.  If using two types, I used up to 1/2 c. of each.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Combine boiling water and ground flax seed in a small bowl, stir together well and allow to rest, thicken, and gel for several minutes.  Combine almond meal, flours, cornstarch, baking soda, salt, and any spices (if using) in a large bowl, stir until thoroughly mixed.  Combine milk, vanilla/juice, and honey and any zest (if using) in small bowl.   Add liquids, plus the gelled flax mixture, to the dry mix and stir until fully incorporated.  Stir in choices of add-ins*.

*For the scones pictured, I stir 1 tsp of cinnamon into the dry mixture, 2 tsp. of lemon zest and 1 tsp of lemon juice into the milk and honey mixture, and 3/4 c. of dried blueberries into the dough.

Dump the dough onto the lined baking sheet and shaped into 1 large or 2 small round circle(s).  Cut each circle into eight triangles, but do not separate the triangles.  Bake for 9-12 minutes, until lightly browned.  Remove from oven, recut at the lines, but, again, do not separate scones.  Allow to cool.  Store in a tightly sealed container on the counter for up to one week, or in the freezer for up to one month.

If you would like glaze the scones, wait until completely cool, then mix 1/2 c. powdered sugar (with up to 1 tsp. spices) with 1 tsp. vanilla extract and 2 Tbsp. water or citrus juice.  Drizzle over cooled scones and allow to harden.

 

 


Gluten-Free Yogurt Soufflés for Busy Times

souffle topped

My life is on the verge of that particular “busy” that only comes with summer camps.  I have mentioned that I am on the administrative and teaching staff for a small arts company.  So all of the processing, planning, and scheduling of 600+ students and a 40+ teaching team over a 7-week span falls to me and my four other cohorts.  This is my first time being so involved with the prep and pre-planning needed for camp, so it has certainly been a huge learning curve to overcome in order to work effectively.  I am quite excited for camp to start, but we just have to wade through all of the paperwork to actually get to camp.  Alongside the endless loads of laundry and meal planning that I am attempting, since I know I will hardly have time for such things after the camp starts.

souffled topped above

Not too long ago, I faced one of my fears in order to whip up a delicious, beautiful breakfast.

Do you remember my shortlist of dishes and cooking practices in the kitchen that intimidate me?  If not, here’s the list again:

  • Kale chips
  • Deep frying
  • Soufflés
  • Homemade stock
  • Making sushi
  • Butchering Breaking Down*
  • Risotto

*I’ve amended butchering to Breaking Down, because I did mean the practice of taking apart a chicken or other larger piece of meat…not the actual killing of the animal…

souffle plain top

If you did remember, you know that I have already tried my hand at making my own kale chips and risotto from scratch, successfully.  So naturally, buoyed by my cooking-success-streak, I’d try something new: soufflés.   In all actuality, I came across a photo on Pinterest that was too irresistible.  And that is exactly how I found myself doctoring up gluten-free yogurt soufflés for breakfast on a Sunday morning.  Just as promised, these soufflés are beautiful, delicate bites of cheesecake-reminiscent heaven.  I filled my ramekins to the rim, so that the souffles were still substantial, even after they had fallen.  The promised cheesecake texture is spot-on.  The yogurt adds a touch of tang, but, if you are looking for a smoother flavor, vanilla-flavored greek yogurt would be a great option as well.  This is actually a very simple dish with a lot of “wow” factor–perfect for when you are hosting breakfast and brunch (or dished up after dinner as dessert!)

souffle bite 2

I topped these with some macerated raspberries and slivered almonds.  Next time, I plan on upping the lemon flavor even more.

souffle plain



Gluten-Free Greek Yogurt Soufflés

Adapted from Baking Bites

Serves: 4 | Prep time: 10 minutes | Cook time: 15 minutes

  • 1 c. greek yogurt, plain
  • 3 eggs, room temperature and divided yolks and whites
  • 2 Tbsp. white rice flour
  • 1 Tbsp. tapioca starch (or potato starch)
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1/4 c. sugar (granulated)
  • additional butter & sugar for ramekins

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Grease inside of ramekins (bottom and sides, all the way up to the rim) with butter.  Ad a spoonful of sugar to the ramekin, turning and tapping until the sugar has coated the buttered surface.  In a medium bowl, whisk egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy.  Slowly add in sugar, beating mixture at medium-high, until the mixture doubles in size, all sugar has been incorporated, and the mixture forms soft peaks.  (Soft peaks are when the mixture lifts, than gently folds in a little point when you pull the whisk straight up out of the mixture.)  In large bowl, stir together yogurt and egg whites until thoroughly combined.  Mix in flour, salt, lemon zest, and vanilla extract.  Gently stir in about 1/4 of the egg white mixture.  Carefully and gently fold in the remainder of the egg white mixture until fully incorporated.  Divide into ramekins.  Lightly tap ramekins on counter to release any air bubbles.  Place filled ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, until the tops begin to brown.  Do not open the oven during baking time.  Serve immediately.

The soufflés, as mentioned, should rise beautifully.  Even if they begin to fall, if you filled the ramekins to the rim, it will still make a lovely dish.

 

souffle empty