Only a few weeks ago, A2 the GFCF was the last restaurant I would have taken seriously, let alone sought out. For one thing, there's that name, which when I uttered to my husband, he mistook for a reference to America's Next Best Dance Crew — no kidding.
More importantly, though, is the gluten-free concept, a phenomenon I've reviled since my days of waiting tables six years ago in health food-obsessed Denver. I still wake up in a cold sweat from server nightmares about guests screaming at me over "g-free" crab cakes. And I couldn't forget the time the woman next to me on a flight berated the attendant for several minutes about the airline's lack of gluten-free cookies. Fortunately, I'd had no such experience with folks who avoid casein (the protein found in cow's milk that puts the "CF" in the restaurant's name), though I was still skeptical. One thing was sure: I wanted no part of this insufferable movement.
I'll be damned if Audrey Faulstich didn't make me eat crow — albeit a wheat- and dairy-free version. The registered nurse opened A2 the GFCF this past April not only as a haven for folks seeking a gluten and casein-free lifestyle, but also to convince skeptics that such a diet can actually taste good. And damned if she didn't succeed.
Faulstich had been working in the mental health field for several years when she became interested in integrative medicine, and particularly how a gluten and casein-free diet impacts overall health. After making the dietary adjustment herself, Faulstich was wowed by how much better she felt. She became convinced that she was being called to help people outside of the hospital setting. She hatched the idea to open a health-focused restaurant, and called upon her friend Audra Gandy to help develop the recipes.
Faulstich and Gandy opened A2 this past April on the southeast corner of Washington Avenue and 14th Street. They transformed the front half of the former Lola space into a bright modern café with white tables and black geometric chairs and a sleek coffee counter. Faulstich's own colorful artwork hangs from the white walls and a hydroponic herb garden overflowing with basil, cilantro and thyme casts a glow over the white faux-leather chairs that populate the front portion of the room.
A2 is set up as a fast-casual café, and the dishes are simple — a necessity considering Faulstich is a one-woman show following Gandy's departure back in June. Do not let this simplicity fool you, though: Faulstich's flavors are bold enough to impress even the most gluten-loving skeptic.
The "Peanut Play," a Thai-inspired dish, pairs pulled chicken and rice noodles with a salad of romaine and cilantro. Faulstich dresses the bowl with a zesty peanut and lime dressing; the razor-sharp citrus cuts through the peanut's richness, making it at once creamy yet refreshing.
The "Mexican Moment" features the same pulled chicken, though this time it's served alongside crispy corn tortilla chips and dressed with spinach, kale and cilantro. A searing hot jalapeno lime dressing gives a jolting amount of heat. It's a little difficult to eat as a knife and fork salad, but you can overcome any difficulties by picking up the chips and dressing them like nachos.
Whether you maintain a gluten-free diet or not, I'd encourage you to head right over the A2 and order the "Indian Thai Tumble." The salad follows the same form as the others — a portion of chicken, a side of rice, the romaine-kale-spinach blend. Its vindaloo coconut dressing, however, makes the dish. The warm, satisfying sauce tastes heavily of curry and is accented by ginger and fresh herbs. It was so addictive, I found myself wondering what else I could order to dip into it. It's outstanding.
Unlike the salads, which are gluten-free by default, the sandwiches show how Faulstich has to work around traditional bread offerings. She bakes everything in-house, using a product derived from sunflower kernels (made by Wildwood-based Think Eat Live) as a substitute flour. The results range from surprisingly good to a little like non-alcoholic beer — if you have to give up the booze, you can deal, though you know what you are missing.
The pretzel bread was the least successful. Served as the base for the Washington Avenue Club, it tasted like mildly fluffy cardboard and detracted from the sandwich's positive aspects — the smoky barbecue mayonnaise-dressed chicken and the crunchy cabbage salad. Faulstich admits this is her least favorite, and that she's not fully satisfied with the product. I'd expect to see it tweaked or taken off the menu.
The baguette is a better gluten-free alternative, though I still missed the texture of a traditional version. It's the bread of choice for the meatball sandwich, which was far tastier than I had expected. Faulstich's tender, garlicky meatballs are smothered in oregano-laced tomato sauce. I went all in on this one, opting for the casein-free cheese substitute. I expected the worst and was pleasantly surprised by its rich, parmesan-like texture.
If I didn't know otherwise, I would've thought that someone had snuck some wheat into the bread used in the excellent Monte Cristo sandwich. The French toast bread nails the texture of traditional sandwich bread, and Faulstich ups the game by infusing the dough with vanilla and cinnamon. The intensely flavorful bread is stacked with sliced turkey, bacon and a gooey egg — an ideal mix that hits all of the joys of breakfast in every bite.
A2's pizzas were equally impressive. The individual-sized pies are built on a firm, medium-thick crust that crisps up and glistens with olive oil around the edges. Faulstich's freshly made tomato sauce is featured on most versions, including the garlic chicken. Here, the pizza is topped with herbed chicken, green peppers and fresh tomatoes. I went with the real-deal mozzarella (unlike gluten, casein-free is only an option at A2) on this one as I did with the "Veggi Venus." Instead of tomato sauce, this pie was covered with tri-colored peppers, tomatoes, red onions and a dressed cabbage and romaine salad. On both versions, I was surprised by how little I missed a flour-based crust.
If the pizza was enough to convince me that gluten-free food could be good, A2's chocolate brownie was delicious enough to make me wonder whether it's actually preferable. Closer in texture and shape to a muffin, the rich pastry is a bomb of intense, semi-sweet dark chocolate flavor. As I was eating it, the person behind the counter was trying to explain to me that the sunflower "flour" made it high in protein and omega threes, but I was so enraptured he might as well have been telling me it was sent down from on high.
My uncle, a beer geek who used to bake in his spare time until he was diagnosed with celiac disease a few years ago, is thrilled that a place like A2 the GFCF exists. "You don't know how good it feels to be able to go into a restaurant and just order," he sighed. He'll be going back often, but probably not as often as me — gluten-free or not, that muffin might make me a regular.
- PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
- Owner Audrey Faulstich is an RN on a mission to improve health through food.