Josh Marten was dreaming about gluten-free, dairy-free onion rings. The dream was so vivid it woke him at 1 o'clock in the morning. A short while later Marten, who is head chef at The Vine restaurant in Grants Pass, had the mixing bowls out and was trying to recreate the recipe that interrupted his sleep.
"I got out of bed and started experimenting," recalls Marten. "I wanted three things. They had to be gluten-free. They had to be dairy-free. And the onion couldn't pull out and burn your lower lip when you bit into it."
Today those insomnia-induced onion rings are a favorite on The Vine's menu, along with gluten-free pizza, pasta, calamari, chicken strips, fish and chips and more. Between 60 and 70 percent of the restaurant's menu items are gluten-free, and most everything else can be made with gluten-free alternatives on request, says Marten, who had no background in either natural-foods cooking or gluten-free experimentation before starting at The Vine.
In fact, The Vine, located at 1610 Allen Creek Road, isn't actually a natural-foods restaurant. It just acts like one.
"I'd describe it as upscale, casual dining with a chef's touch," says Glen Hendriks, who started the restaurant 10 months ago with his wife, Tawni Hendriks. Their daughter, Tiffany Albright, also chips in as server.
The Vine's menu features an assortment of international dishes that lean heavily toward Tuscan, with a wide assortment of pasta dishes and pizza. The Hendrikses use organic ingredients whenever possible and are working with local farmers, such as Plaisance Ranch near Williams, to increase their local offerings.
On Tuesday nights the menu goes international, featuring a different country or region every week. Recent themes have covered Cuba, Israel, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Greece, the Netherlands, Argentina and Louisiana.
"We go all over the world," says Glen Hendriks. "A lot of people can't travel the world, so we're bringing world cuisine to Grants Pass. We're looking for a real indigenous flair."
So how does a gluten-free, dairy-free and heart-healthy menu grow out of a restaurant dedicated to world cuisine?
It happens when one of the owners — in this case Tawni Hendriks — is diagnosed with celiac disease.
"I've been gluten-intolerant for 10 years, but I didn't know what it was until I was diagnosed three years ago," says Hendriks, a trained esthetician who manages the family's other business, Regeneration Skin Spa in Grants Pass.
During those years of intestinal pain, she learned how hard it is for people with food allergies — not just wheat or gluten allergies — to find restaurants that will take their health concerns seriously.
"We didn't plan it," she says. "When we started out, I just said we needed to have some gluten-free options. I wanted to cater to those who have dietary concerns; people who are usually ignored by the restaurant industry and who normally don't get to eat out."
Convincing her husband, who had become educated about Tawni's dietary needs over the years, was easy. Convincing a professional chef was another thing entirely.
"We butted heads in the beginning," admits Tawni Hendriks. "But now that the chef is on board, we just keep adding more and more."
"In the beginning I felt hindered by it," says Marten. "But the funny thing about gluten is ... the more I looked into it, I realized there are so many products out there with gluten in them. And what I'm finding is the extra ingredients that have the gluten in them aren't needed.
"There's pretty much always an alternative that's gluten-free, and you don't have to give up the flavor profile," he says.
Because the restaurant does use wheat, Marten and his staff go to great pains to make sure the gluten-free items do not get contaminated by wheat.
Utensils, bowls, knives — anything used for gluten-free items — are marked with blue tape. Employees working with items containing wheat have to wash their hands before touching gluten-free items. For people who are especially sensitive to gluten, the menu warns that gluten-free onion rings and other deep-fried items share the same deep fryer as other breaded items.
"It takes a lot of extra work and research," says Tawni Hendriks. "The cooks and servers have to be trained. Products have to be researched. I went through every one of our spices. People don't realize that a lot of times meat is injected with wheat to plump it up.
"It takes a lot of time to research everything and find alternatives, and it's more expensive, but it's worth it," she says. "The chef has people coming back there and thanking him. We've had people literally in tears when they learned they could have gluten-free pizza."
For more information, see the website www.dineatthevine.com or call 541-479-8463.