30 September 2015

Italian fantasy–behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo

When my wife and I were in Italy (April 2013), we rented a car for a few days of driving around Tuscany. It was a Fiat Punto. It was a nice little car. In Italy it’s classified as a ‘super-mini.’ Here in the U.S. I guess it would be called a subcompact. It was reasonably fun to drive while visiting the medieval hill towns. On the highway, it would cruise along fairly easily. I think the fastest I pushed it was 120 km/h (72 mph).

But, it was basically just transportation. And being on vacation in Italy, I couldn’t help but wish for a more stylish ride. AlfaRomeo1

Fast forward to 2015. I had an opportunity to drive a 1987 Alfa Romeo Spider ‘Quadrifoglio.’ One of our auto dealers in Minnesota has a collection of ‘heritage’ cars available to rent. (Check out Morrie’s Heritage Car Connection.) When I first heard about it, I wondered why ‘heritage’ and not ‘classic’ cars. At least according to Wikipedia, the most common definition of a classic car is 25 years or older. (An antique car is 50 years or older.) At least according to that definition, the 1987 Alfa Romeo I checked out from Morrie’s would qualify as a classic. But some of the other cars available are newer than that.

But I wasn’t so much interested in whether or not I was driving a classic. I’d never driven a sports car like the Alfa. I was just interested in the experience. It was great!

When I started planning the outing, at first I thought about taking a day trip along the Mississippi River to Red Wing for lunch. But within a few hours of picking up the car, I changed my mind. A trip to Red Wing would involve too much highway driving, and for this car, I wanted more of an engaged driving experience.

Morrie’s recognizes the character of the car. On its web site description it says that the Alfa “may not please your inner speed demon.” That’s true. The car has a 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine. Again, the web site says it best: “It needs to be coaxed a little to make the most of it.” But the coaxing is fun. The engine revs eagerly and shifting is quick and smooth.

When I picked up the car, I drove it around the parkways and lakes in Minneapolis, just to get a feel for its personality and to get used to driving a stick shift again. When I learned to drive, the car had a manual transmission. And since then, I’ve driven manual transmission cars, like the Fiat in Italy. But I don’t do it every day, and it does take a while to get back in the swing of it.

There were a couple of notable things about the car. First of all, it was a convertible and it was small. We kept the top down thru the whole time driving it, only putting it up at night. It made a big impression on me how close everything seems while driving it. For example, backing up – I twisted around to see where I was going, and the back of the car is right there. I could reach back and put my hand on the trunk. And driving down the highway, even small American cars seem to loom over the Alfa. IMG_0685

Another thing that I really loved was the dashboard. The car had full instrumentation. Besides the speedometer, tachometer and fuel gauge, there were little gauges for oil pressure, water temperature, and ammeter. That was another flashback to my early days of driving. It used to be that those instruments were important things to watch, to make sure things were running smoothly and you didn’t overheat the engine.

Like I noted earlier in this post, I abandoned my original plan to drive to Red Wing. Instead we drove to Woodbury and then cut across country to Afton. Then we followed the river road north to Stillwater where we had a nice lunch overlooking the St. Croix. It wasn’t exactly like driving through Tuscany. But it was fun.

And really, that’s why you’d rent a car like this. Or own one, if you have the garage space and if you have the mechanical ability to tinker with it. (It is, after all, an old car. It had 91,000 miles on the odometer. It rattled a little bit on rough roads.)

You’d also drive one to be noticed. That worked for us, too. As we were cruising along the freeway, in the middle lane, 60-65 mph, there was a steady stream of cars in the left lane zooming past us. We saw a few look over with a combination of curiosity and (dare I say) envy. One of the cars that blasted by was a Maserati. I’m sure I saw the driver ease up a bit as he passed us and give us a respectful nod.

28 September 2015

Riverview Wine Bar, Mpls., hits the right notes

Sunday of Labor Day weekend seems to be lucky for us. (Yes, I know. Labor Day was almost a month ago. But keep reading.)

We were just looking for a relaxing place to have a light bite and listen to some live music. Several years ago, that’s how we discovered Nikki’s. (Now sadly defunct.)

There aren’t a lot of places in Minneapolis that offer live jazz on a Sunday night. So it’s a wonder why we hadn’t discovered the Riverview sooner. It’s a cool and inviting locale in the Longfellow neighborhood. It was just what we were looking for.

The interior is warm and comfortable. Customers can choose to circle the bar or take a table. There is a fireplace which I can imagine would add a lot of ambiance on a cold evening. At about 7 p.m. on Sundays, the band sets up in a corner by the door. Looking at the Riverview’s online entertainment calendar, it appears that the Zacc Harris Trio plays nearly every Sunday. The trio’s music was very engaging and easy to listen to. RiverviewWineBar

Riverview’s menu offers a lot of variety. They have a nice selection of cheese and charcuterie and a lot of small plates. If you have a heartier appetite, they do offer 6-8 full-sized entrees. They also have salads, sandwiches, and flatbread/pizzas. Prices are very reasonable, ranging from $6-$15 for the small plates and $15-$25 for entrees. All of the pizzas appear to be $12. Their burger is $12 and three-cheese grilled cheese is $13 and comes with a choice of salad or soup.

We started with duck pate from the charcuterie menu. It was rich and smooth and delicious. It was served with bread, spicy mustard and cornichons.  Next we split a ‘Figaro’ pizza with figs, caramelized onions, almonds and chevre cheese. It was excellent. We tend to be light eaters, so that’s all we ordered. But I think most diners would probably order one or two more small plates. The menu offers a lot of intriguing choices including spinach and artichoke spread, caramelized Brussels sprouts, mussels, seared scallops, and mushrooms. Lots to consider for our next visit.

Of course, it is a wine bar, and it has a very extensive and interesting wine list. I felt the wines were pretty reasonably priced. Not inexpensive, but good value. Since we planned to spend the evening there, we ordered a bottle of wine to go along with the food and continue sipping while we listened to the music. I saw several interesting Italian wines, but unfortunately, they were out of most of them. Still, we ended up with a Valpolicella that we liked quite a lot.

So for us, the Riverview goes down as a place to definitely return to. Especially if we’re looking for music on a Sunday night.

30 June 2015

French cuisine, charm on the table at Le Diplomate in DC

In my many years traveling to Washington, DC for work, I’ve enjoyed many delicious French restaurants. I’d always heard good things about Le Diplomate but somehow never went there. It’s not that it’s out of the way. But I seldom had a need to stay in the Logan Circle neighborhood, and so just never made a point of eating there.

That changed a few weeks ago. I had a meeting downtown and got a good price for a room at a Kimpton Hotel (The Helix) near Logan Circle. So on Sunday night, I wandered over to Le Diplomate to see if I could get a table. There were plenty of people there on a Sunday night. But I didn’t have any trouble getting a table.

Le Diplomate has a very appealing menu, offering a wide range of items from small plates to classic bistro cuisine. It has a list of nightly specials. On Sunday night (at least this summer) the special is ‘coq au Riesling.’ I don’t usually order chicken at a restaurant. (We make chicken often enough at home.) And I’d never had coq au vin before. (My wife had it once in Paris. It was tough, tough, tough.) But my server made it sound appealing (braised for hours, meat falling-off-the-bone tender). Also, it was served with spaetzle. That was the clincher for me, so I decided to get it. IMG_1271

But first, I ordered radish crudité from the hors d’oevres section of the menu. Take a look how beautiful it was. And delicious … yum! The radishes were fresh and crisp, sprinkled with sea salt. They came with thick slabs of lightly toasted bread and a pot of butter. It was fabulous and a generous portion, enough for two people to share. Somehow, I managed to eat it all, however.

The coq au Riesling as good. Maybe not quite as tender as the server lead me to believe. But very flavorful. I loved the spaetzle. They were delicious.

The ambiance at Le Diplomate is friendly and casual. My table was on the edge of the outdoor tables, so I could enjoy the warm, humid DC air. (I did enjoy it. May in Minneapolis was quite dreary, and the weather in DC in early June was not oppressively hot yet.)

So I’m sorry that it took me so long to try Le Diplomate. I’m glad I finally did. It certainly lived up to the favorable comments I’d always heard about it.

29 June 2015

Dinner at Fiola makes a delicious trifecta

Almost three years after my first visit to Fiola for a staff celebration lunch, I finally made a return visit for dinner. It was as marvelously fabulous as our team lunch and fully lived up to my (high) expectations. IMG_1264

This was also the third dinner I’ve had at Fabio Trabocchi’s fantastic Italian restaurants in Washington, DC. And as the headline for this post implies, they were three grand events. I wrote about Casa Luca earlier this year (click here for that post). I reviewed Fiola Mare a year ago (click here for that post). And just for the record, here’s my original 2012 post about my lunch experience at Fiola.

My dinner at Fiola was on a warm Saturday evening. I debated whether to take an outside table, and finally opted ‘yes.’ The restaurant’s outdoor tables are on a wide plaza along a lightly traveled street, but just a block off of Pennsylvania Ave. It was very pleasant.

My server was great. Since I had just flown late in the afternoon, my reservation was a little later than the usual dinner time. I don’t know if that was a factor, but he was very accommodating and helpful in his advice and recommendations.

To start, I ordered a burrata on pesto topped with asparagus, a parmesan crisp, and beets. I almost didn’t order it, because I’m not particularly fond of beets. But it was delicious. (The beets, by the way, remained on the side of the plate uneaten.) As you can see in the photo, my server also brought me an ‘amuse’ from the chef, a demitasse of gazpacho. It was great. It has motivated me to find some gazpacho recipes to make this summer when vine-ripened tomatoes are available at the farmers market.

For my entrée, I ordered agnolotti stuffed with lamb and served with mushrooms. The house-made pasta was fresh and very tender. The agnolotti were served in a flavorful sauce. When I asked if it was a cream sauce, my server informed me that it was simply butter and little pasta water. Fabulous. (Something else I’ve got to try at home.) IMG_1267

I was tempted by dessert, but decided not to. However before I got up to leave, my server returned with a jug of limoncello. Only this limoncello was the color of blood orange. Very impressive, very good, much appreciated.

So the headline reference to ‘trifecta’ implies some kind of horse race and begs the question of what order would I rate them. Of the three Fabio Trabocchi restaurants, I’d rate Fiola Mare as No. 3. It would be tough, however, to choose between Fiola and Casa Luca. The food and service at each was equally impressive. Both are expensive even by DC standards. Because of that, I suppose either one would be considered a special occasion dinner spot. Luca purports to be a family friendly osteria. So to that extent, it’s somewhat more casual (though you would not feel over-dressed if you were wearing a suit). But for an over-the-top celebration dinner, I guess I’d opt for Fiola.

24 May 2015

Lemon Poppy Seed Cake w/ Strawberry Frosting

Well, it’s a rainy Sunday on Memorial Day Weekend. Perfect for baking. I improvised this recipe from a couple of different sources. First, the cake recipe is from the Beth El Women’s League “New Kosher Cookbook.” The recipe as printed is a Bundt cake. I’ve made the recipe many times, and it’s a favorite. I only made one modification to the recipe, but as you’ll see in the directions, this time I baked it in a loaf pan rather than a Bundt pan. My modification, I included some fresh lemon juice and lemon zest, simply because I had half a lemon in the fridge from another recipe. I’m not sure if the cookbook is available. My wife got it as a bridal shower present … that would be at least 41 years ago.

The frosting is from Go Bold With Butter, a dairy industry web site to promote butter. The recipe was for Strawberry-Lemon Sandwich Cookies. I made a batch of those and had quite a lot of the strawberry frosting left over. So my plan was to make the cake and fill it and frost it with the frosting.

I’m serving the cake tonight. We’re having some friends over to play canasta after dinner.

Lemon Poppy Seed Cake with Strawberry FrostingIMG_1249


  • 1 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 c. butter
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 tsp. lemon extract
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 1/3 c. poppy seeds
  • 2 1/2 c. flour
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Soak poppy seeds in buttermilk. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form, then set aside. Cream butter and sugar. Add egg yolks and lemon extract. (I only had a half teaspoon of lemon extract on hand. So at this point, I also grated in some lemon zest and squeezed in about a teaspoon of lemon juice.) Sift the dry ingredients and add alternately with the poppy seeds and buttermilk. Fold in the beaten egg whites. Grease a loaf pan, and pour in cake batter, filling to about 3/4 full. (Depending on the size of your loaf pan, you may have additional cake batter. I made six cupcakes.) Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Then carefully invert the cake from the loaf pan onto a rack. Cool completely. Split cake horizontally. Cover the bottom half with a generous portion of strawberry frosting. Cover with the remaining half and then frost the rest of the cake. (Note that since I was using leftover frosting from the cookie recipe, I only had enough to fill and frost half the loaf.)

Strawberry Frosting:

  • 3 ounces strawberries, rinsed, hulled and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar

Place strawberries in food processor or blender. Process until pureed. Use electric mixer on medium speed to beat butter until light and fluffy. Add strawberry puree and mix until combined. Gradually add confectioners’ sugar and continue mixing until combined and spreadable.

Note that I used farmer-owned co-op products – Crystal Sugar and Land O Lakes Butter.

19 May 2015

Hymie’s Vintage Records truly is the best!

I do like buying things online. If I know what I want and it’s just a matter of price and availability, buying online is quick and easy. But this month, I had an experience that demonstrates what true customer service is all about, and I can’t imagine it would ever happen online.

For Record Store Day in April I went to Hymie’s Vintage Records. We seem to have a pretty robust vinyl scene in Minneapolis, and Hymie’s is often cited as one of the leading vinyl purveyors. The owners, Dave and Laura Hoenack, put on a pretty great block party. Besides that Dave is one of my son’s best friends. IMG_1246

I bought a few things in the store, and as I was checking out, I asked Dave if he had a copy of Cannonball Adderley’s Fiddler on the Roof recording. (Another friend of mine said he’d heard it on the radio recently and it was great.) It is available online. Amazon, just for example, has it as a CD, MP3 download, and even used vinyl ($20). But, I’ve been listening to vinyl in my home office recently, and I thought if Hymie’s had it in stock, I’d buy it.

Unfortunately, Dave told me that he didn’t think he had a copy in the store. So I paid for my other items and kinda forgot about it.

About a month later (just last week as I write this), a parcel was delivered to our door by the mailman. It was from Hymie’s. Sure enough, Dave had remembered my inquiry, and when he found a copy of the album, he sent it to me.


By the way, when I set up my home office, I decided to get a record player. I still have quite a few records from my college days. I even still have my old turntable. But it’s beyond repair. So I did quite a lot of research, and the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB gets high marks for being an affordable, high quality turntable. I did buy it online; I can’t remember if it was Amazon or Best Buy.

30 April 2015

Spanish culture thrives at La Cosecha, Paso Robles, CA

When my wife and I planned our California vacation in March, we considered how to break up the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I suppose we could have done it in one day. But there was no need to hurry (it was a vacation after all) and there are plenty of things to see and do in the nearly 400 miles between the two cities. I’d always been curious about the Paso Robles wine region. We have friends who recommended it as did some of my former associates at Land O’Lakes.

Our hotel was the Paso Robles Inn, located right on the town square and easy walking distance to several restaurants. A friend had recommended Il Cortile for excellent Italian cooking. But when we called for a reservation, we learned that Il Cortile is closed on Tuesdays. However, they recommended La Cosecha, also right on the town square and owned by the same chef. We enjoy good Spanish and Latin food, so it was an easy decision to give it a try.

I’m glad we did. It was delicious, relaxing, and very enjoyable.IMG_0364

Since we’d spent the afternoon wine tasting at several area wineries, we decided to have cocktails before dinner, rather than a bottle of wine. The restaurant offers an intriguing array of craft cocktails. My wife had something called the Jabroni, like a Negroni only made with cachaca instead of gin, Cynar, white vermouth, and amaretto. She doesn’t normally like the bitterness of a Negroni. In the Jabroni, the Cynar gave a hint of bitterness. But it was mellowed by the white vermouth and amaretto. She liked it.

My cocktail was called ‘A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That.’ It’s not on the regular menu; I think it was a special concoction of the bartender. It was made with bourbon, iris liquor, Fernet and amaro. It was sort of like a Manhattan though the iris liquor gave it a flowery essence like a Sazarac.

As I’ve mentioned before in my blog, my wife is sensitive to cilantro. So we asked the server to steer us away from anything that would have cilantro. Ceviche is a house specialty. We knew that would have cilantro, but I wanted it anyway. It featured shrimp and scallops, and it was great. My wife ordered a salad for her starter. When it arrived and she took her first bite, she detected the distinctive cilantro flavor. The server was genuinely dismayed; he had told us no cilantro in the salad. He took it away and brought her a fresh one, at which time he informed us that the first one had micro greens as a garnish, and that included some cilantro sprouts.

For her entrée, Linda had chicken roasted with mushrooms and white sweet potatoes. We had never encountered white sweet potatoes before. Our server actually brought one out from the kitchen to show us.

My entrée was braised bison short ribs. They were excellent, very tender and very flavorful. They were served on top of a celery root puree. I did have a glass of wine with my dinner. I ordered a Turley Old Vines Zinfandel. It was one of the wines we had tasted at the winery earlier in the day. I wanted to see how it paired with the meat. It was excellent, as you’d expect. La Cosecha has a very interesting wine list, with many locally produced wines as well as a selection of Spanish and South American wines.

The ambiance of the restaurant was very laid back. There were a couple of large groups in the restaurant that night. I thought it was interesting that the groups were all men. I assume that they were in Paso Robles doing business, and most likely that business was wine.

Our server was very friendly and helpful. He quickly and efficiently took care of the slight misstep of the cilantro greens on my wife’s salad, and otherwise, he was great.

With the prevalence of Hispanic culture in California, I suppose it makes sense that a town like Paso Robles would have a great Spanish/Latin restaurant. I’m glad we found it.