Risley re-opened last week to a crowd of students, staff and families in celebration of its new designation as a fully gluten-free kitchen. The kitchen marked the new era with a menu featuring comfort foods usually loaded with gluten to show off the possibilities of a gluten-free diet.
On the menu were potato latkes with chive sour cream, cheddar corn bread, white bean pot pie, breaded chicken tenders, cauliflower mashed potatoes, polenta lasagna, a crepe bar and the usual stir-fry station. There were carrot cake cupcakes for dessert.
The food itself was surprisingly tasty and certainly masked the gluten-free, nut-free designation. The latkes were crispy and not the usual soggy, limp piles that other dining halls serve up; the corn bread (although corn meal batter does not usually include flour) was excellent and the cauliflower mashed potatoes were warm and creamy.
For the main courses, the white bean pot pie and chicken tenders tasted like the real deal and were, like everything else, comforting. The polenta lasagna, too, was novel and surprisingly tasty.
For dessert, the carrot cake cupcakes were delicious, with the pleasing addition of dried cranberries, strong cinnamon spice and nicely-done frosting.
I found the Nutella crêpe to be the only disappointing item on the menu. The filling tasted off, almost like the hazelnut chocolate spread had been burnt. Or was it even Nutella?
I also noticed the faux-pas of menu repeats, such as the cornbread served next to polenta lasagna (both cornmeal-based) and roasted cauliflower dished up next to mashed cauliflower.
At the entrance greeting both hungry arrivals and those of us who just couldn’t wait until dessert, was Seeds, a gluten-, soy- and nut- free bakery. It offered samples of brownie bites, black and white cookies, chocolate chip cookies and oat-less oatmeal raisin cookies. These tasted exactly how I had arrived thinking gluten-free tasted (see dry, pale, brittle cookies). I guess it’s tough to pull off gluten-free baked goods unless you’re Udi’s.
Despite those hiccups, the chefs made a concerted effort to show the possibilities of eating gluten-free. In other words, it doesn’t have to mean dry, pale, brittle cookies. And, I have to say, the meal was satisfying, even for someone who is not bound by a gluten-free diet.
Beyond the food, the atmosphere was convivial. Proud chefs, dressed in their whites, circulated the tables talking to guests — not a usual occurrence at Risley dinners — with music playing in the background. The audience, I noticed, was a mix of the usual Risley regulars (I go about once a week) and guests checking out the special opening.
Although few students are forced to eat gluten-free, I am proud Cornell is making efforts to accommodate a greater share of students. Risley Hall’s gothic aura will continue to call me back, at least while I remain living on North Campus. Its limited hours and eccentric charm may not appeal to all, but when it is open, it rarely disappoints.