12 January 2016

New Year’s dinner at Lurcat revives my enthusiasm

I’ve always liked Café Lurcat and Bar Lurcat. Although they’re two separate establishments, they complement each other nicely. The Bar has a cool, hip vibe, great cocktails and excellent bar food (many of the same items available at the café.) The Café is elegant and sophisticated, the food is delicious, creatively prepared, and beautifully presented.

But we hadn’t been to either in a while. Why did it fall off our list? Well, we used to enjoy the live music in the Bar. But they don’t have live music regularly anymore. And the last time we went to the Café for a celebration dinner, we had a problem with a server-with-attitude. So despite really liking the ambiance and the food, we’ve opted for other restaurants for anniversary and birthday dinners lately.

We also don’t usually go out on New Year’s Eve. But I saw a notice of Lurcat’s menu for New Year’s Eve and it just appealed to me. So we decided to give it a try.

Well, not only was it a great way to welcome 2016, but the whole experience really refreshed my confidence in the restaurant.

For New Year’s Eve, Lurcat offered a fixed price menu for dinner, but with a few options for each course. You could get the dinner in either the Café or the Bar. There was music in both venues – a solo piano in the Café, a Sinatra-style jazz combo in the Bar. After the dinner service, there was a dance party with DJ in the bar.

We opted to take a table in the bar. First of all, that style of music fit more with our mood for the evening. In addition, then we’d already have a table when the dance party began.

Our dinner reservation was set for 8:45. We figured that way, we’d enjoy the jazz combo throughout dinner and be done eating when the dance party began (estimated at 10:30, actually closer to 11).

Our server for the evening (Anthony) was fabulous. Here are some of the things he did that made the evening so enjoyable:
  • He made helpful suggestions for choices from the menu. When we had trouble deciding which cocktail to order, he gave his recommendation and personal guarantee that if we didn’t like it, he’d take it back and bring something else.
  • He listened to our likes and preferences and based his suggestions on what we’d like.
  • He paced the service according to our schedule. So when we got up to dance, he held delayed bringing things to our table until we were ready. At one point, he apologized that the kitchen was running behind. But we just got up and danced until our entrees were ready.
  • At the end of the evening, after midnight, he advised us that there was quite a long wait at the coat check. But he took our claim check and brought our coats to us at the table.
  • Throughout, he was genuinely friendly and accommodating.
As we expected, the food was great. The amuse bouche was smoked salmon with herbed crème fraiche served on an endive boat. For starters, my wife had crab cake and I had an arugula salad consisting of little dumplings filled with duck and foie gras, and little kumquats and pieces of pear to add sweetness. My wife’s entrée was lobster and scallops on squid-ink stained pasta and with roasted vegetables. For my entrée, I had four beautiful lamb chops on a roasted garlic puree with fried artichokes and a Bordelaise sauce. It was the best lamb chops I’ve had in a long time.

Even though it was a fixed price menu, it was not a ‘tasting menu’ per se. The portions were full-sized. By the time we got to the entrée, my wife was feeling full and only ate about half of her pasta. The rest was boxed up and made a nice lunch. And we had a lot of choices for each course (except the amuse). Regular diners at Lurcat would recognize several familiar dishes, such as the crab cake, apple-cheese-chive salad, and Chilean sea bass. (If you want to see the full menu, click here. (I think this will work.))

The side dish was a platter of roasted cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and baby potatoes. There also was a choice of desserts. While we generally like to get different items and share, in this case we both ordered the pistachio pavlova with blackberries and black current syrup.


So after all that, Lurcat is back on my list of excellent restaurants for a special occasion. I only wish they’d reinstitute live music in the Bar.



22 December 2015

Adieu to Vincent: A Restaurant


I don’t think I’ve ever purposely gone to a restaurant knowing that it was about to go out of business. I certainly never have written a blog post about one. But today I couldn’t help myself. I had to have one last visit to Vincent on the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. The restaurant’s last day of business is Dec. 31. I went there for lunch.

I have been to Vincent several times in the past. My wife and I have celebrated special occasions there. Once, I was the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by the person who was my current boss and three former bosses to commemorate my 35th anniversary of working at Land O’Lakes. (Here’s the post I wrote about that experience.)

It also was a great place for business entertaining. I’ve commented before that my favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities is Meritage in St. Paul. Like Vincent, it features French food. But the ambiance at Meritage is more casual bistro. The dining room at Vincent was big and open with tall ceilings and tables nicely spaced so that you felt comfortable talking business over dinner. That would be difficult at Meritage where the guests are kept cozily close, encouraging interaction (but not so conducive to private conversation).

Our Star Tribune food writer, Rich Nelson, in eulogizing Vincent (sorry for the melodrama) has lamented that that beautiful space will be transformed into a Caribou Coffee/Einstein Bros. Bagel shop. Somehow, I can’t imagine coming into the shop on a late evening to find the conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra munching a bagel and sipping coffee after a concert at Orchestra Hall across the street. (That happened one time when we dined at Vincent.)

So, what to have at my last meal at Vincent? I thought about ordering a burger. I must admit that I’ve never had Vincent’s burger, despite receiving nearly universal acclaim as one of the city’s best. (Here’s Rick Nelson’s tear-stained tribute to the burger.) To be honest, I’m not big on burgers at nice restaurants. Seems like kind of a waste. And besides that, apparently chef Vincent Francoual will be moving on to become Culinary Director of Cara Irish Pubs, and perhaps his famous burger will show up on the menus of The Local, The Liffey, Cooper, or Kieran’s.

I also considered ordering steak frites. A classic French dish like that would have been fitting.

Instead, I opted for red wine braised beef short ribs with risotto. Here’s the photo. It was delicious. So was the baguette served with a pot of creamy butter. I confess, I ate all four pieces in the basket and nearly finished the pot of butter. I also had a glass of red wine, a blend of tannat and cabernet Franc by French vintner Madiran, Chateau de Viella 2011. That’s going on my list to try to find at local wine shops. And I splurged by ordering dessert. I wish tarte tatin had been an option. Instead, I had a walnut tart with caramel sauce and caramel ice cream. And an espresso.

So, au revoir Vincent. Thanks for the great meals.

17 December 2015

La Grolla, St. Paul: A pretty good reason to cross the river

There’s a lot of hype and excitement about all the new Italian restaurants opening in the Twin Cities. (Check the third paragraph of Rick Nelson’s year-in-review article for a list.) I’m excited. I’ve often lamented that so many of our Twin Cities Italian eateries just don’t match the quality and creativity of meals I’ve eaten at in other cities.

So really, it’s my own fault for not having discovered La Grolla sooner. Partly, it’s my parochial attitude about going to St. Paul to eat. There are so many good restaurants west of the Mississippi that I usually don’t consider driving to St. Paul. But, I must admit, it seems like my list of ‘exceptions’ – St. Paul restaurants that are worth the trip – has grown to the point where I may have to change my attitude. (See especially Meritage (my favorite Twin Cities restaurant), Ngon Bistro, Muffuletta, and the St. Paul Grill (for lunch). Also, there’s Caffe Biaggio which is a really good Italian restaurant in St. Paul, and somehow I’ve never written a blog post about it.)

So now, add La Grolla to the list. We went with friends on a Saturday night, to have dinner before going to the new jazz club in St. Paul, Vieux Carre. (The jazz club was really fun. Worth checking out.)

The ambiance in the dining room is very pleasant – warm, friendly, brick and plaster walls, high ceilings. We got a table near the front. Our server was friendly and knowledgeable about the items on the menu. She was not particularly attentive, however. After our meals were served, we didn’t see her again until she checked to see if we wanted dessert.

La Grolla has a very nice wine list with an interesting variety of Italian wines. We opted for a Sangiovese, an excellent choice that fit the variety of meals that our group ordered.

My wife and I started with Insalata Bianca. It was a large plate of Belgium endives tossed with fennel, hearts of palm and shaved Parmesan cheese dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. It was very tasty. Our friends also split one of the other salads. One of the quirks at La Grolla, the menu states that there’s a plate charge for splitting an item. We didn’t bother with ‘splitting’ our salads. We just positioned the salad plates so that each of us could reach and share. The salads were quite large. Ours was $9. I suppose if you didn’t want to share and didn’t want such a large salad, you could order a small salad for $6.

Another little quirk – the menu states that there’s a $4 charge for a second basket of bread. The bread was good and the amount we were given in the bread basket was adequate. We didn’t want a refill anyway.

For an entrée, I ordered one of the nightly specials. It was house-made pappardelle noodles with a delicious, briny fish and seafood sauce. The sauce included salty anchovies, fish and seafood with cherry tomatoes and cream. The pasta was tender and tasty. The whole meal was excellent. Here’s a photo of it.  

Two people at the table ordered grouper. Both plates looked very appetizing, and the food was very tasty. But the fish was served with the skin on. One of the meals, the fish separated cleanly and easily from the skin. The other meal, the skin stuck to the fish and was difficult to eat. Was this an indication of uneven preparation in the kitchen? I don’t know. But here’s where we wished the server had been more attentive and checked to see if everyone was satisfied with their food.

The fourth person at the table had veal scaloppini. As much as I liked my pasta dish, I think her meal was the best of the evening.

So, while we had a few concerns, overall it was a very nice experience. I think La Grolla ranks among the best Italian restaurants I’ve eaten at in the Twin Cities. I’d have to say my current favorite still is Trattoria Tosca in Linden Hills. And I owe myself a return visit to Caffe Biaggio. But I certainly would welcome a return visit to La Grolla next time I feel like driving across the river.

09 December 2015

Yes, it’s true. Spoon & Stable is fantastic

I almost didn’t write this review. There have been so many raves about how great Spoon & Stable is, what more is there to say?

Spoon & Stable definitely deserves the accolades. Still, there are a few highlights worth noting.

First of all, they take reservations. Yeah! Not that they’re particularly easy to get. No matter how eager we were to dine there, we weren’t going to show up at 5:30 to get a table or eat at the bar. We tried several times during the fall and finally got a table at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend.

Next, it’s a beautiful room – warm, comfortable and inviting. You enter into the bar area where you’re greeted by a bustling buzzing bar scene. We were on time for our reservation, and the hostess assured us that our table was being set – 5 minute wait at the most. One minor quibble – it’s one big open room. The dining room opens into the bar area with only a waist-high divider. Our table was in that first row adjacent to the bar. At one point, the overflowing crowd at the bar resulted in patrons leaning against the divider and actually brushing against my wife’s hair. Not a big deal, but a little annoying.

So let me get my other quibble out of the way now. The other thing is the tables seem quite close together. So, when the server was waiting on the people at the next table, his butt was right at the edge of our table.

Service, by the way, is good. Our server was well-informed about the menu, helpful with suggestions, attentive and friendly without being annoying. 20151129_022703469_iOS

We started with drinks. I ordered a Manhattan No. 2, the house variation of a classic Manhattan. This one had both rye whiskey and calvados and sherry instead of sweet vermouth. It was recognizable as a Manhattan but unusual enough to be memorable. It was, needless to day, delicious. My wife was in the mood to try something different. Our server advised us that the bartender makes a daily special cocktail. On this particular evening, it was a stylized Grasshopper. With some hesitation, she decided to order one. This variation was quite different from a classic Grasshopper. In fact, the only similarities were the shocking green color and mint flavors. She liked it. But it really should have been an after-dinner drink rather than a pre-dinner cocktail.

Now on to the food. From the ‘Garden’ section of the menu, we decided to split an order of the Roasted Carrot Salad. It was excellent. On the plate were three different kinds of carrots, roasted but still a little crisp. The dressing was a maple vinaigrette which added nice autumn tones to the dish. It wasn’t particularly large. Perhaps diners with a heartier appetite would order a second starter. The Duck & Foie Gras Terrine looked good to me. Or one of the side dishes would have been nice as an alternative.

For my entrée, I ordered braised lamb shank. I love lamb shanks, and this one was fabulous. It was not too fatty and was fork-tender. On the plate with the lamb was a medley of vegetables and beans. They were a nice accompaniment and did not detract from the lamb, which was the star. The menu says it also has preserved lemons, but I didn’t detect that flavor.

Visually, my lamb shank was appealing simply as a big chunk of meat with a bone sticking out (as you can see in the photo). My wife’s entrée, on the other hand, was a work of art (see photo below). Her dish was called ‘lightly Smoked Steelhead Trout.’ It was probably a little more rare than she had anticipated. but the flavors were amazing. The plate had a few Brussels sprouts, a rutabaga puree, and a citrus vinaigrette.

We decided not to order dessert. But not to worry. The server presented us with a box of four bite-sized sweets to nosh while paying our bill. Very nice. In terms of value, I thought our meal was quite reasonable. It wasn’t inexpensive, and the portions were moderate. You could spend more if you added dessert or more starter plates. But we were satisfied with the amount of food we ate and the price we paid.

So we definitely would go again. It probably would be for a special occasion … if we can get a reservation.

Here’s my wife’s Smoked Steelhead Trout

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01 November 2015

The Jaguar Question: New or Classic? Answer: Yes!

If I had discovered Jay Leno’s Garage on YouTube sooner, I might be driving a different car today.

As I’ve written in a previous post, I bought a Jaguar when I retired. Easy to say. But after I finally decided to do it, I had to decide whether to get a new car or a restored classic. I fairly quickly discovered that the price would be pretty close to the same. You can pick up a classic E-Type for less than I paid for the new XK that I was looking at. But then I’d have to pay for restoration (because I have neither the ability nor inclination to do the work myself, not to mention no garage to do the work in or tools to work with). So a nicely restored E-Type would have cost about the same as the new car.

Ultimately, I let ‘practical’ considerations carry the day. Now, I know it’s probably a stretch of the definition to say that buying a Jaguar is a practical thing to do. But my considerations all were practicalities about what I needed in my retirement car. I only have a two-car garage at my house. So ‘my’ car had to be one I could rely on and drive anytime I needed to go somewhere when my wife was already out with ‘her’ car. That also means it has to be mechanically reliable. I’d always heard how temperamental the E-Types used to be, and I didn’t want to get caught in a situation where the car would be disabled by mechanical problems. ApplePicking Jaguar

So I decided to buy the new one. So now I have a mechanically reliable car and one that will maneuver through our Minnesota winters (with snow tires). It had been a while since I’d bought a new car, and I have been amazed and delighted by the electronics and how they enhance the driving experience. I was pretty skeptical about the back-up camera and parking assist. But I’ve become a convert. Now when I’m driving my wife’s Honda CRV, which does not have a back-up camera, I’m constantly twisting around to make sure I’m not backing into something, something that the camera and parking assistance in my Jaguar would detect and alert me to. And that’s just one example. I really am impressed by the electronics in new cars these days.

I probably never would have entertained second thoughts about my decision if it hadn’t been for my experience driving a 1987 Alfa Romeo Spider. (If you want to read about that, click here.) There were a few things about that car that made me really start to wonder: What did I miss out on by not buying a classic E-Type? Despite my fascination with modern new car electronics, I was totally enthralled by full instrumentation in the Alfa. So tell me – with all the fancy electronics, why can’t they have a virtual dashboard in new sports cars? And it was a roadster, so for two days my wife and I had fun tooling around town with an open top. Again with practicalities, regardless of my decision of new vs. old, I planned to get a coupe in either case.

The whole experience with the Alfa made wonder what it would be like to drive a classic E-Type. So where else would you look to find out? The internet.

That’s how I stumbled onto Jay Leno’s Garage. He has several Jaguars in his collection. The first video I watched, he was proudly showing off his 1963 Series I E-Type. Leno tells the viewer that the car is original and unrestored. As he’s showing it off, he remarks at least twice that the dashboard clock still works! During the program, he makes a comment along the lines that the E-Type really was a reliable car, at least in its day. (Of course, he has a staff of mechanics to make sure the cars stay in good running order.)

Then he takes the car for a drive. Wow! As he drives along, he delivers a steady patter of tidbits about the car and his views about the Jaguar and cars in general and car culture especially as it was in the early to mid 1960s. For me, it was totally enthralling. I know if I had seen it before I retired, I would have more seriously considered finding a classic.

Now, my bottom line, I have no regrets about the 20014 XK that I bought. It’s a great car. But, if I ever win the lottery, I’m getting an E-Type. And as much as love the coupe, it’ll be a roadster, like the one below.

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28 October 2015

A Peachy Outcome from a Musical Encounter

I always said that while Krik’s Picks is mostly about food, it also would include thoughts about other things, such as music and politics. (And lately, cars too.) But this post ties together several different strands. Kinda what makes life interesting.

So let’s start with music – Edina Bands. You may know about Next Door, the online social network for neighborhoods across the nation? My neighborhood, Parkwood Knolls, participates in Next Door. One day in early August, I got an email alert from Next Door about a kid selling peaches as a fundraiser because he was going into the Edina Marching Band in the fall.

Ok, as a band kid myself (Albert Lea High School band, 1968-70; University of Minnesota Marching Band, 1970-74) I was sympathetic to his appeal. My own children graduated from Edina High School, but they weren’t band kids. But the clincher (and segue to the next strand) – I saw that he’s the grandson of a former Member of Congress who I knew fairly well – David Minge. I had met the student’s parents at another Parkwood Knolls event, so I knew they lived in the neighborhood.

David Minge served in Congress for 8 years. I was an ag lobbyist before I retired. Rep. Minge represented a very rural agricultural district in southwest Minnesota and he served on the Ag Committee. I got to know him quite well. But more importantly, I had a very high degree of respect for his sincerity and commitment to public service. There was no question that Rep. Minge was in Washington to serve the interests of his constituents and the nation.

He lost his re-election bid in 2000 by 155 votes. It was the final year of Bill Clinton’s Presidency and a tough year for Democrats. Minge knew he’d have a close race. It’s often the case that if Congress has not finished its business by October before an election, they’ll take a recess and come back after the election to finish up (in a Lame Duck session). Unfortunately for David Minge, Congress held votes all thru October, right up until a week before Election Day. I, for one, am convinced that if Minge had decided to skip votes and campaign in Minnesota, he would have gotten the votes he needed. But instead, he put the people’s business ahead of his political interest, stayed in Washington, and ultimately lost the election.

Unlike many defeated politicians, David Minge did not stay in Washington and join a lobbying firm. A year after he lost his election, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed him to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. He retired from that position in 2012. 20150916_235325701_iOS

So with that little political side note, and my predisposed sympathy for band kids, I ordered a case of peaches from David Minge’s grandson. $30. The case had 45 peaches. They were big beautiful and lusciously ripe. We ate a lot of them just straight, and we gave some to each of our kids’ families.

Here’s what I cooked with the rest of them:

Grilled Scallops with Peaches, Corn and Tomatoes: I grilled the scallops and the peaches on a stove-top grill pan, not a charcoal grill. But it still turned out great. Here’s a photo =>

I made a Peach Vinaigrette. I had a recipe for a salad that called for it. But I can’t now find that recipe. But here’s the recipe for the vinaigrette. It was good, but not something I’d make regularly.

Ginger Peach Jam: This turned out really nicely. Definitely worth making again.

Sam Sifton’s Perfect Peach Pie from the New York Times. This was my first time making a peach pie; I usually make apple pie. I really liked how it turned out. But I substituted a butter crust from Land O’Lakes. This is my favorite pie crust, and I routinely use it instead of whatever other crust might be called for in a recipe.

Peach and Coconut Macaroon Cake: This has been in my recipe file for so long I almost forgot where I got it. But it’s from the Washington Post. I love this cake. But even more importantly, my wife loves it. I made it for her birthday cake in September.

Of course, all of this is sort of moot, since it’s long past the season when you can get fresh peaches in the market. Sorry. I think you could use frozen peaches for the cake and for the jam. Otherwise, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until next summer when peaches are available again.

By the way, here’s a picture of the peach pie:

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18 October 2015

La Fresca is a breath of fresh air in S. Mpls.

There are so many good restaurants in the Twin Cities. Yet I still get excited when I find another one that’s truly delightful. As my wife and I walked out of La Fresca with a couple of friends, we were already talking about when we could plan a return visit.

Not that we should have been surprised. La Fresca is the self-described ‘nouveau Mexican’ iteration of Chef Hector Ruiz family of restaurants. ‘Family’ is a good term to use. Each of the restaurants in his small group (now numbering 4) shares familiar similarities – Latin influences and creative combinations in generally small neighborhood locations that appeal to local residents and, yes, families. But like a family, each individual member has it’s own distinctive features.

Café Ena, where we have enjoyed many delicious meals, is ‘Latin fusion’ with influences from South America and Central America. Click here for a previous blog post.

Rincon 38 features Spanish and Latin small plates, tapas if you will. We’ve enjoyed dropping in to enjoy its exciting variety by sharing several items on the menu with a glass of wine. Click here for a previous review.

El Meson, now sadly closed, was the grand dame of the family. But a newcomer, La Ceiba, that opened early in 2015 promises to satisfy fans of El Meson’s Caribbean inspired dishes. We haven’t been there yet, but it seems like we should.

I can’t really explain why we haven’t eaten at La Fresca sooner. It’s been open for a year and a half. But we just hadn’t gotten there yet. But after last Saturday’s meal, I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite of the group (while reserving the right to change my mind whenever we try La Ceiba.) 20151018_014603004_iOS

Like the others, La Fresca does take reservations. (Thank you for that courtesy.) We arrived on time and had a very short wait for our table to clear. The dining room is smaller than Café Ena, maybe about the same size as Rincon 38. But the tables are not crowded, just comfortably cozy. There also are a few seats available around the bar where wine and beer are served.

For a starter, my wife and I split a small plate called Puerto Morelos. It was a lobster and shrimp medley on a block of avocado polenta and topped with roasted corn cream sauce, jicama and cucumber slaw, and fried leeks. It was small, but delicious. Our friends split a salad from the ‘segundos’ part of the menu. It was roasted squash and beets with mixed greens, a light dressing, and crumbled goat cheese.

The entrées from the Terceros part of the menu run heavily toward fish and seafood. There are beef and pork and chicken and vegetarian choices. But we all opted for seafood.

My wife ordered Aguascalientes, pictured above. It was pistachio crusted halibut on potato gratin and served with roasted king oyster mushrooms, baby spinach, cauliflower puree sauce, and fried leeks. It was fantastic.

Across the table, one of our friends ordered Yucateco, which was sea bass with a Mayan sauce, zucchini, squash, charred corn, leeks, radishes, scallions, and onion. I didn’t get a taste, but it looked great.

Our other friend ended up with the most fantastic meal of the evening, the Mariscada. It was a fish and seafood soup with red snapper, shrimp, calamari, scallops, potatoes, onion, carrots and celery all swimming in a flavorful pepper broth. First of all, it was a very generous serving; he couldn’t finish it all. But he was surprised that it didn’t come with bread to soak up the wonderful juices. However, our resourceful server managed to find a baguette and brought it to the table.

I chose the evening fish special. It was coconut crusted grouper also served on a block of avocado polenta. It was accompanied by roasted zucchini, corn, onions and tomatoes. Excellent!20151018_014607549_iOS

If I had one quibble about the evening, it would be timing. We ordered a round of drinks (sangria, wine, and a beer). Our appetizers came very quickly after the drinks were served. But then it seemed like we had a long wait for our meals to come out of the kitchen. We were having a nice conversation and were not in any rush. So we didn't complain. But the wait was noticeable.

So once again, Chef Ruiz has provided delightful neighborhood restaurant that was thoroughly enjoyable. We do have to plan a return visit soon.