‘A safe haven’ for delicious gluten-free dining

The interior of 99 Bank is light, white and open, as opposed to the space's "bordello"-style look when it was Nadine's.

The interior of 99 Bank is light, white and open, as opposed to the space’s “bordello”-style look when it was Nadine’s.

BY MICHELE HERMAN | My husband and I recently treated ourselves to dinner at 99 Bank, the new restaurant on the corner of Bank and Greenwich Sts., former home to the Marrow, Paris Commune and Nadine’s.

All we knew about the place was what we could see from a cursory peek from the sidewalk, and the menu had passed my test: There were a couple of entrées under $20, which is what passes for a bargain in the West Village.

If the main requirement of being a control group is ignorance, we were the perfect customers: We enjoyed our dinner immensely strictly on the merits of the food. It wasn’t until after we had eaten that we realized the entire menu is gluten free. This is particularly impressive given the fact that my husband had a burger on a bun and I had what is ordinarily a gluten feast: spaghetti arabiatta with garlic bread.

We’re both perfectly fine with gluten, but we know an increasing number of people who report feeling better without it. We also know people (and are starting to become people) who chafe at the noise and frenzy at the average tightly packed New York restaurant, and 99 Bank passes that test as well. Since it’s a large corner lot, the tables are unusually well spaced. To those of us long accustomed to all the bordello red and gold of Nadine’s, 99 Bank is almost shockingly calm in decor as well — spare, open and white.

I called over the manager-looking guy who was roaming around to learn the restaurant’s backstory. He turned out to be Frank Baldassare, the founding partner, who opened the place with his friend and business partner Michelle Kassner and chef Nima Khansari, formerly executive chef at Goldman Sachs.

They created the restaurant not to exploit a fad, but because Baldassare is part of the roughly 1 percent of the population with celiac disease, a serious, inherited autoimmune condition. As he describes it, one night in 2002 he went to bed perfectly healthy, only to wake up with blurred vision and numb legs and other alarming symptoms.

Baldassare was one of the lucky ones: He received a diagnosis within a few months, not a few years. He had always been health conscious, and says he began following a gluten-free diet like a Marine. But for a long time he remained sick. This was in part because of the havoc wreaked by his overactive immune system, but also because the available food was lousy, especially to a guy raised on Italian food.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, an additional 0.4 percent of the population have a diagnosed wheat allergy, and a much larger group, possibly up to 18 million people, have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. (Gluten is present in rye and barley in addition to wheat.)

Baldassare, a record producer and licensed massage therapist, became increasingly interested in alternative wellness treatments. And he began finding better gluten-free products. Eventually, he married the producing to the wellness and began producing his own online cooking show for people with food allergies.

He created the restaurant for people like him, but also not like him.

“We wanted to make a safe heaven,” Baldessare told me. “Our goal was to create a restaurant where no one would know we were gluten free. We wanted a safe and real dining experience with a real wine list, with no worry anyone would get sick.”

One behind-the-scenes hero of the story is Bellyrite Foods, a small gluten-free baked-goods company in Maspeth, N.Y., that is a major supplier for the restaurant.

“I drove them crazy on the hamburger buns,” recalled Baldassare. “Most gluten-free hamburger buns fall apart.”

He kept pushing the company until they produced a bun that not only tasted like a bun, it held up to the way diners actually eat a juicy burger: taking a bite, stopping to talk, taking another bite.

The restaurant also has a reconfigurable room downstairs for private parties, big enough for 18 for a sit-down meal or 30 with passed hors d’oeuvres.

He’s working on a kids’ menu complete with gluten-free pizza, hot dogs and mac and cheese. Brunch is already being served, with lunch to follow in the spring when the Greenmarket has more to offer. One word to the wise: There are nuts and eggs in some of the menu items, especially dessert.

Some observant locals may wonder what happened to the name on the awning that said “The Missing Ingredient.” That’s the name of Baldassare’s cooking show. He and his partner Kassner figured they would extend the “brand” to the restaurant. But when they gave it a little thought, they realized that a restaurant probably should not emphasize the thing it lacks. So they went with the address: simple and clean.

99 Bank, at 99 Bank St., at the corner of Greenwich St. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Brunch on Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Lunch will be starting soon, Monday to Friday, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 212-524-0030 or e-mail [email protected] .

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