17 April 2016

KwikPick: Eastside in Mpls. promises great things for downtown dining

We have some friends who've recommended Eastside for a long time now. I don't have any excuse why we haven't dined there sooner. But I can assure you, we'll be back.

Food: 5
Service: 4
Ambiance: 4
Value: 5

Recommendation: The menu is very diverse. You can choose 'snacks', small plates, large plates or sides to suit your tastes and appetite. On our first visit, we chose a side of cauliflower to split as a starter. Then we each ordered an entree. She had a bison burger and I had lamb. Despite my aversion to ordering a burger for dinner, this one was delicious. And my lamb was great as well.

Our server was friendly and attentive. The decor is hip, modern, and comfortable. We felt that very satisfied with the price we paid for the quality of the food and drink we consumed.

We'll definitely be back, and I'll write a fuller review. But we were so pleased with our first experience at Eastside that I wanted to post a quick, preliminary review.

04 April 2016

Fresh pasta, charming ambiance at Luciana's in Dana Point

After four nights in LA, during our March trip to southern California, we'd become kind of desensitized the high restaurant prices we encountered. So after we left LA for a two-night stay in Dana Point, we were delighted to find that at Luciana's, we got excellent Italian food in a charming, comfortable setting with friendly service ... all for a very reasonable price.

The restaurant was suggested to us by the staff at our hotel in Dana Point, the Blue Lantern. Luciana's is a very short walk from the hotel. We made a reservation, though on a Wednesday night in March it turned out we didn't really need one.

Inside, the restaurant is very warm and inviting. The tables are not crowded together, yet the dining room feels cozy. The decor is rustic. The tables sport white tablecloths.

The menu at Luciana's is quite extensive. We came intending to try the fresh pasta. But the menu includes a tempting list of Italian entrees featuring fish, poultry, or meat. There are vegetarian options available as well as gluten-free. You can get a pasta side-dish to go with your entree.

For starters, you can choose from antipasti, soups, and salads. My wife and I split a spinach salad. It featured fresh spinach and radicchio with thin-sliced apples, goat cheese and Gorgonzola. The dressing was a balsamic vinaigrette, and it was topped with caramelized pecans. I particularly liked the contrast of the slightly bitter radicchio with the sweet apples and the cheeses. The serving size was ample enough for the two of us.

For her entree, my wife ordered 'fettuccine boscaiola.' I wasn't familiar with what a 'boscaiola' sauce for pasta was, but based on what I've read in preparing this post, the version served at Luciana's isn't very typical. My understanding is that boscaiola is usually made with bacon and mushrooms in a garlicky white wine sauce. Linda's entree did have mushrooms and the garlicky white wine sauce. But it also featured shrimp, scallops, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes. (It was the seafood that made the dish so appealing to her in the first place.)

My entree was 'linguine Luciana.' It was recommended by our server and is listed on the menu as the restaurant's signature pasta dish. Another seafood dish, it featured clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and calamari. It was topped with a somewhat spicy tomato sauce.

We both loved our entrees. But needless to say, after each eating a whole plate of fresh pasta, we were full and declined dessert. There aren't a lot of desserts on the menu, but traditionalists will be pleased to see tiramisu and creme brulee. Luciana's does have a signature dessert, a flourless chocolate and hazelnut cake served with berries and a scoop of gelato.

30 March 2016

Dinner at The Little Door in Santa Monica inspires dreams of Paris

The best meal we had during our March trip to southern California was at The Little Door in Santa Monica. The restaurant was on a list of recommendations from the daughter of some friends of ours. We hadn't tried it on any of our previous trips to LA. This time, we decided to make a reservation. Wow! We'll definitely be back.

Really. We liked everything about it, starting with the ambiance and decor. Inside, the restaurant is warm, inviting, cozy but without being crowded. It seems to be authentically French. Many of the other patrons were speaking French, and the host (perhaps owner?) and servers seemed to be answering fluently.

The dinner made us excited to plan a trip to Paris.

I started the evening with a cocktail, a Vieux Carre, which has recently become my new obsession. (Here's the recipe I've been using to make the cocktail at home: Click Here.)

To start, my wife and I split a salad. It consisted of shaved Brussels sprouts with farro, bacon, and Parmesan cheese. The dressing was a vinaigrette with olive oil, lemon, and balsamic vinegar. The lemon in the dressing gave the salad a refreshing, tangy citrus flavor.

For our entrees, we both had fish. Linda had grilled sea bass which was topped with a sauce made from sun-dried tomatoes and Pernod (an anise-flavored liqueur). It was served with sauteed spinach, braised fennel, and a potato puree topped with black olive tapenade.

My fish was roasted monk fish with a sauce of blood orange and capers. The fish was wrapped in bacon, so it came out almost like a bacon-wrapped scallop. The fish was served on a mash made from cauliflower flavored with mustard and a roasted red pepper sauce - Romanesco. It was excellent.

We both had a glass of wine with the fish. Hers was a sauvignon blanc from Chateau Reynier in Bordeaux. I had a sancerre from the Loire Valley. Both were excellent.

Our server was very good. I mentioned how he seemed to be ably bilingual with the French-speaking patrons. For us, he was attentive and friendly. By the end of the meal, we were tempted by dessert but finally decided not to. (We did plan to go out to find some live music after dinner.)

Overall, the value of our dinner was good. It was the most expensive dinner we had on this trip. But the amount of food was ample, and the flavors and presentation were impressive. So the overall experience was well worth the cost.

I do have one regret about the dinner, however. When I looked at the menu, I was tempted by an entree called Couscous Royale. The description called it a lamb stew with lamb chops, chicken, and merguez lamb sausage. I was a little dubious about ordering 'stew' and the monk fish sounded so good, so I went with the fish.

But during the evening, I kept seeing our server bring a tagine to tables around us. It looked fabulous. So at the end of the evening, I asked about the tagine. Oh, he replied. That's the lamb stew. It's a specialty of the house.

Oh, well. Something to look forward to the next time we're in LA and a return visit to The Little Door.

22 March 2016

Malibu Seafood offers fresh fish with an ocean view

I suppose we should have read the reviews more closely. We knew that Malibu Seafood was a fish market that also sold meals. But we thought it was a sit down restaurant. So when we arrived for a late lunch and saw a line out the door, we wondered if we'd ever get seated. 

I dropped off my wife to get in line while I parked the car. When I got back to her, she had discovered that in fact, it is not a sit down restaurant. Rather, you place your order at a counter and receive a pager which notifies you when the food is ready. Then you pick up your tray, find a picnic table and eat. 

So, other than that unexpected discovery, we had a very enjoyable lunch. As I noted already, we were surprised by the long line when we arrived at about 1:30 for lunch. Turns out that a film crew was shooting a commercial nearby, and they had arrived just before us for their lunch break. Still, reading other online reviews, apparently it's fairly typical to wait in line at Malibu Seafood. But the line moves fast.

It was worth the wait. We both were tempted by the fried seafood. It looked inviting and smelled wonderful. But we ultimately opted for grilled squid steaks. That's something we seldom see on menus in Minnesota. Plenty of Minnesota restaurants serve fried calamari, but grilled squid - not so much. I had a sandwich with fries. My wife had a platter with fries and coleslaw. The squid was excellent. The fries were thick cut and kind of soggy. My wife's coleslaw was good but ordinary.

The weather was gorgeous. So we found a picnic table with a nice view of the beach and the ocean and enjoyed our lunches.

Overall, I have to admit, I don't think it was worth a special trip. After lunch, we went down to the beach and walked around a little bit. It was nice, but not really any different from the beaches at Santa Monica, or really anywhere along the coast. Still, our lunches were quite reasonably priced, and it would be a nice, casual place to stop if you were in Malibu anyway.

Just in case you were wondering, they're not open for breakfast. There's a sign on the wall that explains that they don't serve breakfast because that's when they're out catching lunch.

20 March 2016

Hertz has become my first choice for car rental

I doubt that headline will cause anyone at Hertz HQ to do cartwheels. I only end up renting a car once or twice a year. But after another great experience with the company in March, I decided to write a blog post about it.

National used to be my preferred car rental agency. Before I retired, Land O'Lakes had a corporate agreement with National. I had an Emerald Club loyalty card through the company, and it was convenient to also use it for personal travel. I still have an Emerald Club membership. I just haven't used it since retiring in 2013.

My first experience with Hertz came in 2014 as my wife and I planned a trip to Italy. For some reason (I can't really remember why) I was dissatisfied with the choices available from National. So I decided to look around. Hertz had the best options available to me at the time, so I decided to book through them.

We had a great experience renting the car in Italy. In order to facilitate the rental, I installed the Hertz iPhone app. I have to tell you, it's really a slick app. (One of the funny little quirks about it - whenever I rent a car, even in the U.S., the confirmation page on the app is in Italian.)

Since then, I always check with Hertz first when planning travel. And since then, I haven't found any better deals for the rentals I needed.

This most recent experience in March is a good example. We flew in to Los Angeles on a Saturday morning. Our reservation was to pick up the car at the LAX Marriott. As a member of the Gold Plus loyalty program, when I checked in at the Hertz counter in the hotel, I was offered an upgrade. So my wife and I ended up driving a Mustang convertible around southern California for a week. We both agreed that it was a gas!

That kind of service truly exceeded our expectations. So thanks, Hertz. See the happy customer below.

13 March 2016

Kwik Pick: Terzo Vino Bar whets our appetite for Italian white wine

We met friends at Terzo to talk about travel in Italy. As my wife and I plan our next trip, we got lots of good suggestions from these friends, and she had just returned from skiing in the Italian Alps. So between us, there was a lot of enthusiastic discussion of our planned itinerary.

I wrote my previous review of Terzo in 2014, as we were planning our first trip to Italy after I retired. Our intent was to sample wines from the regions where we'd be traveling. It was a great strategy for shaping our expectations of the wines we'd be tasting on the trip. Not that we need to make up an excuse to go to Terzo, but planning for our next trip was as good a reason as any.

Also, Terzo has revamped its food menu, now offering more meals and a prix fixe option. We've always liked the food there, and we eagerly anticipated the new menu. This visit turned out to be an exploration of Italian white wines. The ladies started out with a glass of prosecco. My wife commented afterwards how much she enjoyed drinking the prosecco out of a regular white wine glass, instead of a champagne flute. I had a glass of Lambrusco, which turned out to be refreshing, light, and bubbly, a nice starter for the evening.

Then we switched to a bottle of Pratello Lugana, a white wine from the Lombardy region made from 100% turbiana grapes. I wasn't familiar with either the region or the grape. But this wine went very well with my wife's scallops and my branzino.

Food: 5/5 Besides the entrees mentioned above, we shared a couple of items from the pasta (primi) section of the menu. Everything was very flavorful, creatively prepared, and attractively served.

Service: 4/5 We relied on our server's advice for the wine. As with our past experiences, the suggestions were very good. The only quibble that I have, service was somewhat slow. It didn't bother us too much since we were having an enjoyable conversation. But we all noticed and remarked on the slow service.

Ambiance: 4/5 The ambiance is comfortable and casual. Tables are not crowded.

Value: 4/5 We felt the wine was very reasonably priced ... but the food was kind of expensive. The prix fixe option is $45 for a choice of an antipasto, a pasta/primi, and an entrée. But everyone at the table has to go that route, wich precludes sharing. And the servings are ample, so if you go that route, you can expect plenty to eat. In the end, though, I guess I'd say that $45 for food at a wine bar is a lot.

Recommendation: Definitely go to Terzo if you like Italian wines or if you want to try a variety of wines from different regions of Italy. The food is excellent. Just be prepared for some sticker shock at the cost of a meal.

25 February 2016

An amazing tasting menu at Victory 44 in Minneapolis

My wife and I treated our son and daughter-in-law to a joint birthday dinner in January. His birthday is in December, hers is in February. So January was a nice middle ground. They picked the locale - Victory 44 in Minneapolis. I've written about the restaurant before, once for a wine dinner they had about a year ago and once for lunch after I retired in 2013. Both times were with my son. So you can tell that it's one of his favorites.

The restaurant is in the Victory neighborhood of North Minneapolis, located on 44th Ave. N. (hence the name - Victory 44.) The dinner menu consists of a creative assortment of dishes. You might be tempted to call them small plates. They are quite reasonably priced. But in general, each serving probably is enough to share between 2 people. When you order, you can pick your own assortment of plates, each of which is individually priced.

But the real V44 experience is the tasting menu for two. And on Tuesdays, (the night we went) the date night tasting menu was $70 for two.

So here's how the tasting menu worked on the night we were there. There are basically 8 items on the menu. For purposes of the meal, they are paired into 4 sets. The diner gets to choose one from each pair ... plus a dessert. Since it's for two people, there's a little negotiating to decide which items to pick. Fortunately, my wife and I have pretty compatible tastes so we tended to lean toward the same choices anyway. Then, my son and daughter-in-law generally opted for the other choice. So at our date night dinner for four we were served almost every item on the menu, and we all could taste each item.

So just for the record, here's what we ate:

First course - Devils on Horseback and Ham & Pickle Tots. The version of Devils on Horseback served at V44 is a date with Gorgonzola cheese wrapped in bacon and roasted until the bacon is crisp. The Ham & Pickle Tots were a house-made variation of Tater Tots with ham mixed in and served with a dill pickle sauce.

Second course - Snow peas and smoked beets. Since my wife and I don't particularly like beets, we did try them. But because we didn't want the beets, our server generously substituted a plate of V44's famous Loaded Bacon Fries. They were amazingly good.

Third course - Cheddar Pierogies and Squash Farotto. The 'farotto' was prepared risotto style with farro substituting for arborio rice. I've read about that technique but never tried it. It was very good. The Cheddar Pirogies were the only disappointment of the meal. They weren't bad. But to me, they just weren't noteworth.

Fourth course (main entree) - Fried Chicken. The other option was Pork Sausage. That didn't really appeal to any of us. So we all got fried chicken. It was excellent.

As I mentioned early in the post, each serving is split between two people. But by now, we'd each tasted 7 items, and we were getting full. But there was still dessert to be served. One of each - Banana Pudding and German Chocolate Cake. We all took a taste. But most of the dessert got packed into take-home containers.

We did have a bottle of wine with the dinner. It was a petite sirah by Miro. It was very reasonably priced. I realized after we ordered that we have a bottle of the same wine on the shelf at home. Our server initially suggested a pinot noir as a good choice to pair with all of the items. But we don't particularly like pinot noir. The petite sirah was a very good choice.

Tuesday night date night was not busy. There were only a few other diners in the restaurant. That meant that our server was available to give us particularly attentive service. She was great - very helpful with her suggestions and very knowledgeable about the items being served.

V44 has adopted a no tipping policy. So when you consider that $70/couple also includes a tip, that makes the Tuesday date night tasting menu a remarkably good deal.

I only have one quibble with the restaurant. Even though the tasting menu is a good deal (on date night or not), it's still pricey enough so that we'd consider it to be a special occasion experience. My quibble is, when we go out to celebrate a special occasion, we're also looking for a nice ambiance. The ambiance at V44 is very casual and relaxed. That's not bad, and obviously the regular clientele like it that way. But for some people, for us, it might make them consider another restaurant for a touch more class.

Despite that quibble, I doubt that you could find a better tasting menu in the city. It offers plenty of variety. The food is remarkable for its quality, preparation, and creativity. And the value is fantastic. It's definitely worth a visit.