04 July 2017

Enjoying a belated Fathers Day lunch at Coalition in Edina

For Fathers Day, in June, my daughter's present to me was to have lunch together. (Sweet.) I got to pick the location. I wanted to be careful not to pick too expensive, in case she insisted on picking up the check. I didn't purposely pick a theme, but my choices all were along 50th Street in South Minneapolis. Two of the choices were reliable favorites:  St. Genevieve at 50th & Bryant and Terzo at 50th & Penn. The third choice was a new restaurant at 50th & France - Coalition. Tovah picked Coalition. It exceeded expectations.

The South Minneapolis/Edina location is the second Coalition location. The original is located in Excelsior. We seldom go out that direction. I don't think I've ever eaten there. And now I don't have any reason to, since the new location is so good.

The decor at Coalition is sleek and modern with chrome, brick, and high ceilings. My daughter arrived early and got us a high-top table next to the window facing onto 50th Street. That was very nice for our July 3 lunch date. Farther back in the restaurant are tables and booths. They looked very comfortable, but perhaps a little bit dark, maybe a better mood for dinner. Overall the restaurant wasn't particularly crowded. We received a friendly greeting at the door, and our table was close to the entry. I did see one group of 3 come in, also seated at a high-top. But when their fourth person arrived, they moved to one of the tables in the restaurant.

Tovah had scanned the menu online. At lunch, it features several small plates, vegetables, and salads. The entree section of the menu is mostly burgers and sandwiches. There were several items on the small plates and vegetables that looked good, so we decided to order 3 of them to get a variety to sample. We also decided to split a sandwich.

Here's what we had:

  • Burrata (listed as a starter, or small plate) - two generous globes of soft, milky burrata cheese served with a generous scoop of fig jam, some greens, thin slices of American prosciutto, and four pieces of lightly toasted ciabatta bread. 
The burrata platter was my favorite
  • Brussels sprouts - lightly sauteed and served with grilled grapes and hazelnuts. We both thought they had a sweetness that couldn't be explained simply by the grilled grapes. Turns out they are drizzled lightly with some honey.
  • Cauliflower - Our server commented that this is one of their most popular items on the menu. The florets are lightly fried (I think in sesame oil) with a sweet pepper barbecue dressing and green onions. 
  • We also split a chicken sandwich on focaccia with brie cheese and arugula. 
The vegetables were excellent. I can see why the cauliflower is so popular. My personal favorite from this lunch was the burrata platter. The cheese was excellent. It was beautifully presented. The fig jam was good. The ciabatta was good. I'm not a big prosciutto fan, but Tovah liked it. 
Lunch at Coalition, ample servings at a reasonable price

It turns out that those 3 items would have been ample for our lunch. We didn't need the sandwich. The sandwich was good, but not memorable. It was nice that they split the sandwich and plated it separately for us. And I just realized as I'm writing this post - we were given a choice of salad on the side with the sandwich. I asked for slaw. But the salad we were served was more of a tossed salad with a light vinaigrette and tomatoes. It was fine. But my daughter doesn't like tomatoes, and I noticed she left hers on the plate. 

Coalition is open for breakfast as well as dinner. We looked at the menus for both. I seldom go out for breakfast, so I don't anticipate sampling that menu. On the dinner menu, the starters, vegetables, and salads look pretty much the same as the lunch menu. The main difference seems to be that the sandwiches are replaced with full entrees. 

I did bring the leftover Brussels sprouts and cauliflower home. My wife and I had them with a meal at home. She really liked them and said she'd like to try the restaurant. So I'm sure that we'll make a return visit, probably for dinner (maybe after a movie at the Edina Theater). 

Also, I did pick up the check for lunch. My daughter objected. But really, the joy was in having time alone with her, and not having her pay for our lunch. 

31 May 2017

Travelogue NYC: Enjoying it in spite of myself

I don't really like New York very much. I serve on the board of Mazon, an anti-hunger advocacy organization. Mazon has a yearly board meeting in New York. That's really the only reason why I go there. If it weren't for Mazon, I probably never would go to New York.

And yet ...

It seems like my wife and I always have a good time when we go to the yearly meeting in New York. We walk around a lot. We see a lot of interesting things. We enjoy some good food and hear exciting jazz. Sometimes we visit acquaintances who live there. My wife usually does some shopping.

Our most recent trip in May turned out that way. Here's what we did.

My board meeting was scheduled for Monday. We flew in on Friday. Our flight was supposed to arrive early afternoon. But, first we had a delay taking off from Minneapolis. That put us an hour behind schedule. Then when we landed, at 2 p.m., we encountered horrendous traffic delays getting to our hotel. That took an hour and a half. (Our driver lamented that normally, it should have taken no more than 30 minutes.) By the time we got checked in, it was 4 p.m., and we hadn't had any lunch yet. Luckily, happy hour at the hotel's rooftop lounge started at 4 p.m. So that's where we went for a bite to eat and liquid attitude readjustment.

Our dinner reservation (9 p.m.) was at a jazz club. It was a 2 mile walk down Broadway; took us right through Times Square. Then after dinner, at midnight, we walked back. Times Square was still hopping.

The next day, was a major walking expedition. We walked over to the High Line trail. In case you don't know, it's a walking path that follows the route of an old elevated railroad line. The north entrance is on 34th St. W. and 11th Ave. and it stretches to the Meatpacking District, ending at the Whitney Museum.

The TriBeCa Band performing at a street fair

On a previous trip, we went into the Whitney after walking the High Line. But this time, we had a different destination in mind. After coming down from the High Line, we picked up Greenwich Street and followed that all the way to the 9/11 Memorial and the new World Trade Center building. It was really an impressive and sobering experience. Before beginning our hike back to the hotel, we went into the Oculus, which is the centerpiece of the World Trade Center transportation hub.
At the 9/11 Memorial

Along the walk back to our hotel, we took a break for shopping in the West Village on Bleeker Street. Linda scored a piece of jewelry. The route to our hotel took us through Times Square for the third time. On a Saturday afternoon, it was unbelievably jam packed. I swore that I would not go through it again (at least on this trip).

By the time we got back to the hotel, we barely had enough time to rest up before we had to leave. We had an 8 p.m. table reserved for the first set at a jazz club back in Greenwich Village. After all the walking, this time we took a cab. Once again, the traffic was horrendous. We should have gone by subway. Our 10 p.m. dinner reservation was back up near Central Park. So when the first set ended, we hopped in another cab and headed back uptown. Thankfully, by this time, the traffic had thinned and it didn't take too long to get there.

Total walking distance for Saturday in New York: 10.8 miles.
Brilliant day for the AIDS Walk

Sunday we spent much of the day wandering through Central Park. By coincidence, Sunday was the New York AIDS walk. We went over to the main stage and listened to the speakers for a while, then continued our stroll. We took a break for brunch and to browse through the Greenflea Market. It was fun checking it all out, but we didn't buy anything. Then we went back into the park. It was a beautiful day for walking aimlessly with no destination in mind.

Our dinner on Sunday night was near our hotel. Afterwards, we took a short walk to settle our stomachs. We enjoyed seeing Lincoln Center and Columbus Circle at night. With my board meeting the next day, we didn't go out for music after dinner. Total walking distance on Sunday: 10.7 miles. (It didn't seem that much, but that's what the app on my iPhone said.)

On Monday, while I was at my meeting, Linda went shopping. Rain had moved in overnight. But fortunately the shops she planned to visit were close by. When the rain let up around midday, she even went back to Times Square one more time, this time to stop in at the Hershey Store. In the evening, we were heading to TriBeCa for dinner. The weather was still threatening, but after sitting in a meeting all day, we decided to walk it, figuring we could duck into the subway if the rain got too heavy.
Looking across the Hudson River at New Jersey

After dinner, we fully intended to take the subway back to the hotel. But we'd been tipped off to a walking path along the Hudson River that we'd never walked before. We ended up walking all the way back. Total walking distance on Monday: 7.5 miles.

I'll post some additional information about our hotel, the jazz clubs we visited, and the restaurants we ate at. But I'd have to say that despite my general disregard for New York, we did have a nice time.

06 April 2017

Recipe: Tagine de Legumes du Cafe Aion

When my wife and I spent a few days in Boulder in March, my favorite restaurant was Cafe Aion. We had great French food at Brasserie Ten Ten and great Italian at Via Perla. But the lunch we had at Aion was so delicious and memorable that I'd have to say it was my favorite.

As I wrote in my original blog post about Aion (click here for the full post), I liked the vegetable tagine so much that I sent an email to the restaurant requesting instructions on how to replicate it. I got this quick reply:

"Roast vegetables with a little olive oil and salt - high heat in the oven. (we use carrots, butternut squash & cauliflower)
"Make the mix: sauté equal parts of chopped ginger & garlic in olive oil. when they are starting to turn golden add in ground cumin, coriander, cinnamon, chili, bay leaf & saffron, stir briefly to release aromatics Then add in canned tomatoes and let simmer until it has thickened a bit. Then add in cooked chickpeas, the roast veggies and let the whole mess simmer for a bit (might need to add a little bit of veg stock)  to really come together! 
"We like to top ours with fresh chopped herbs (parsley, cilantro & mint) as well as preserved lemons & fresh chilies."

That was good enough for me to give it a try. I made it for our family Friday night dinner recently when my sister-in-law and her husband joined us; he's a vegetarian. I basically liked how it turned out, and I'm using my experience to suggest a recipe. I did consult some other posted recipes for tagines and particularly for vegetable tagines. The New York Times Cooking web site has a very useful and instructive post on how to make tagine. I'd recommend it. 

When I made this tagine, I think I used too much saffron. I used two healthy pinches of saffron threads, and the resulting dish had a very pronounced saffron flavor. Usually, I think saffron should be more balanced with the other spices, as it was in the tagine I had at Aion. So in the recipe, I've called for less saffron. I did saute some chopped onions before I added the canned tomatoes. I envisioned the garlic and ginger and spices to be the basis for a tomato sauce, and I just thought some onion would be good. 

I used home canned tomatoes from my mother's garden. They tend to have quite a lot more liquid than commercial canned tomatoes. The instructions I got from Aion suggested adding vegetable stock if the tagine seems too thick. With the home-canned tomatoes, I didn't have to add any more liquid. But I think that might be necessary if using commercial canned tomatoes. 

My version of this dish has more chickpeas than what I was served at Aion. I liked having more chickpeas in the dish, and they helped make it more substantial for the vegetarian. I served the tagine with brown rice. Aion serves it with pita bread. 
My version is on the left. I was trying to replicate Aion's on the right

Since I'm making the recipe up, I took the liberty to name it. But I also believe in giving credit when it's due. So I'm calling this: 

Vegetable Tagine from Cafe Aion

Roasted vegetables
1 small to medium head of cauliflower, cut into florets
1/2 large butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (2-3 cups of cubed squash)
3-4 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about the same quantity as the squash)
Olive oil

4 cloves of garlic, minced
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced (about equal to the amount of garlic)
Olive oil
3/4 tsp. cumin
3/4 tsp. coriander
3/4 tsp. cinnamon 
3/4 tsp. chili powder
4 bay leaves
1 large pinch saffron threads
1/2 large onion, chopped
28 oz. canned tomatoes (or 1 qt. of home canned tomatoes)
Salt & pepper (as needed)
2 c. cooked garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
Water or vegetable stock as needed 

2 tbsp. minced fresh parsley
2 tbsp. minced fresh mint
1 preserved lemon (discard pulp and mince the rind)

Combine vegetables in a bowl. Coat veggies with olive oil and season lightly with salt. Spread vegetables on a large baking sheet. Roast in 400 degree oven until tender and beginning to brown (30-45 minutes). 

Saute onion in a 3-quart Dutch oven until soft and translucent. Add garlic and ginger and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Stir in spices; cook for an additional minute. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, and saffron. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the tomatoes start to thicken (15-20 minutes). Taste the tomato sauce and season as needed with salt and pepper. Add garbanzos and roasted vegetables. Cover and continue to simmer to blend the flavors, another 10-15 minutes. Add water or vegetable stock if the tagine is getting too thick. The finished consistency should be like a thick stew.

Pour the tagine into a large serving bowl or platter. Remove the bay leaves. Garnish with chopped fresh herbs and minced rind from a preserved lemon. (You can see in the photo that Aion uses the bay leaves as an additional garnish.) Serve with garlic toasted pita bread or rice or couscous. 

04 April 2017

Fish sandwich praise proves to be restaurant bait

Our local restaurant reviewer has a blog that he calls Burger Friday. Each week, he writes a post about a different burger served in Twin Cities restaurants. I do keep his comments in mind when considering different restaurants around town. But truthfully, I seldom order a burger.

This past Friday, however, his post was about fish sandwiches. (Click here to read it.) I do have a favorite fish sandwich, which I've noted in a previous Kriks Picks post. (Click here to read it.) But when I was downtown at lunch time today, I thought about his blog post and decided to try the fish sandwich at Sea Change. I've written several posts about Sea Change. It's one of my favorite special occasion restaurants. (Click here for my most recent.)
Fish sandwich at Sea Change

When I reread my previous post about Sea Change, I realized that this wasn't the first time I've had the fish sandwich. I did like it both times. The fish is thick and moist and flaky. It's served with a slice of yellow cheese melted over the top. That component to the sandwich is totally unnecessary. The fries served on the plate are very good. They're also optional. My server told me I could substitute a salad if I preferred. (I didn't.)

I asked for a wine recommendation. He suggested a Gruner Veltliner from Austria. I'm not very familiar with that variety, and I almost opted for a Pinot Grigio from Italy. But I decided to go with his recommendation, and I'm glad I did. The wine is very crisp and powerful. It balanced the sandwich very well.

The ambiance at Sea Change is relaxing, at least for a later lunch. I arrived at about 1:15 and there were only 3 or 4 other diners in the restaurant. Service was prompt, attentive, friendly, and knowledgeable. 

03 April 2017

Lunch in Winter Park before Disney immersion

In early February, my wife and I took our daughter and her family to Florida. We attended a family wedding in Boca Raton and then drove to the Orlando area to take them to Disney World (grandchildren are 7 and 5 years old).

It was a long and somewhat grueling ride. There were six of us with luggage jammed into a Chevy Tahoe. I'm not used to driving a vehicle that large. Of course, we never could have fit into any smaller vehicle. But it still was crowded and a long drive from Boca.

My daughter went to college in Florida. She had made plans to meet a college friend for lunch. So before driving to our Disney resort, we side-tracked to Winter Park. They met at a casual cafe on Park Avenue, right across the street from Central Park. We didn't want to intrude on their reunion. And besides, we wanted to walk around a little to stretch out the kinks after our long ride. Oh, and we wanted a nice quiet place to relax and have a glass of wine before going to Disney World.
My half of the crab cake sandwich

I suppose that Park Avenue is Winter Park's downtown. Anyway, it's quiet and quaint. As we moseyed through an alley, we spotted The Bistro on Park AvenueThe ambiance of the Bistro was appealing and the menu looked tempting. So we got a table.

I had a glass of pinot grigio. My wife had prosecco. We split the daily special, which was a crab cake sandwich. It came with a small side salad with blue cheese dressing.They did charge a plate fee to split it. But they also split the lunch in the kitchen for us. (Often, we find that restaurants will provide you with an extra plate for sharing, but don't often actually split the meal for you.) 

It wasn't a big lunch. But we enjoyed it. 

17 March 2017

Travelogue: A short hiking vacation in Colorado

I never really liked Colorado very much. That is, until we went there in early March of this year. Throughout my career, I only went there a few times for business meetings (in Denver and Colorado Springs). On those trips, I didn't see anything appealing enough for me to return. My wife and I went to Denver in 2015 for a family wedding. It was a fun wedding, but still no desire to vacation there. But when the invitation came for another family wedding in Denver, my wife and I decided to take a couple of extra days and go to Boulder with her brother and his wife.

That trip completely changed my attitude. Not only could I see making a return trip (to Boulder, that is), I'm eagerly thinking about when that might be.
Day 1 hiking in Chautauqua

In early March, there's still plenty of skiing in Colorado, at least at the hire elevations. We're not skiers. We were looking for some scenic hiking. We found plenty of it in Boulder.We rented a cabin at the Colorado Chautauqua Association. We specifically picked it because it's located right on the hiking trails for Chautauqua Park, and it's only a little more than a mile to downtown Boulder and the University of Colorado campus. (More on our lodging below.)

Shortly after arriving and having lunch, we went to the ranger station at the Chautauqua Park trail head. The ranger helpfully assessed our ability . He recommended an easy introductory hike to help us get acclimated. The route took us across a meadow, relatively flat, and then into the trees and slightly higher elevation at the foot of the Flatiron rock formations that are a distinctive feature around Boulder.

The next day, we drove a short distance to South Boulder Creek and parked at the West trail head. No ranger here to advise us. But there was a good map available and the trail is pretty well marked. This time I remembered to start the Strava app on my iPhone. (Strava maps your route and tracks statistics such as elevation gain, total distance, and heart rate if you're wearing an activity monitor.) The route we took started by following the creek through a large meadow. It was pretty flat, but the trail was quite rocky. After about 2 miles, we connected to the Mesa trail that circled a large hill. We did take one wrong turn that took us about a quarter of a mile out of the way. But we doubled back and completed the circuit of the hill. Along the way, we saw a herd of mule deer grazing on the hill above us. According to Strava, our total distance was 5.6 miles with an elevation gain of 640 feet. We reached a maximum elevation of 6115 feet.

On our last morning in Boulder, my brother-in-law and I decided to take a more challenging hike. One of the popular features of Chautauqua Park is Royal Arch. On our first hike, we saw the trail sign directing hikers to the arch. We greeted another hiker who was on his way down. He advised us that the trail was very icy and slippery. "It's a challenging hike anyway, and the icy conditions make it even more difficult," he said. But we decided to try it.

He was right. As the trail gained elevation, we encountered increasing amounts of snow and ice. Some of it had been packed by other hikers. (Some of it had been polished by hikers who felt the only safe way down was to slide on their butts.) We did see some hikers with ice crampons on their boots. In the end, we didn't make it all the way to the arch. We rested at a point in the trail with great views and decided we'd had enough. Besides, we anticipated (correctly) that the descent would be treacherous as well. Our total distance on this hike was 2.9 miles with an elevation gain of 1019 feet. Our maximum elevation was 6793 feet. Good enough.
View from 6800 feet

The final hike of our trip was on Saturday morning before the wedding. We found the Bluffs Regional Park Trail a short drive from our hotel in Englewood. It was good exercise - a 3.5 mile loop (including side trails to scenic overlooks) and a total 200 feet of elevation gain. The views of the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains were nice. But it really was an urban hiking experience and nothing to compare to our hikes in Boulder.

In Boulder, we rented a cabin from the Colorado Chautauqua Association. As I noted above, the main appeal was proximity to the hiking trails. We had a two bedroom cabin, two bathrooms, a porch, a living room, and a kitchen. We shared it with my wife's brother, his wife, and their adult son. It was not at all luxurious, but it was quaint and comfortable and convenient. I would definitely stay there again on a future trip to Boulder.

In Denver, we stayed at the Inverness Hotel in Englewood. Compared to Chautauqua, it was big and modern and luxurious. But it isn't really the style of hotel that I generally choose for myself. It was the designated hotel for the wedding guests, and one of the pre-wedding dinners was held there. I guess the two big deals about the Inverness are the golf course (I don't golf) and the spa (we went hiking and didn't use the spa). There was one feature, however, that I did really like. Downstairs from the lobby is a pub called the Spotted Dog. It was really fun. They have good craft beer and pub food. One evening we joined several of the other wedding guests in the pub where there were pool tables, table shuffleboards, darts, and other games. It was really fun.

I've written three posts about restaurants we ate at in Boulder - Via Perla, Brasserie Ten Ten, and Cafe Aion. All three were very good.

Chautauqua has a dining hall, and we ate there 3 times - one lunch, one breakfast, and one happy hour. The food is really quite good. They don't have an extensive menu. But you can easily find something to suit almost any preference. The meals in the dining hall are a reasonable value. They're not cheap, but also not expensive.Breakfast for two people was $26. The Happy Hour - 4 beers plus a couple of appetizer plates was $22. And, if you don't want to spend that kind of money, you can always use the kitchen in your cabin.

Happy house: Elk sausage (left), Brussels sprouts, and beer

16 March 2017

Cafe Aion lures me back to Boulder

I don't know if or when I'll ever come back to Boulder. But if I do, I'm for sure going to come back to Cafe Aion. I had my favorite meal there during our fairly brief visit to Boulder in early March.

We spent two nights in a cabin at Colorado Chautauqua. On our final morning, I took an early hike with my brother-in-law. Then my wife and I packed our car, checked out, and before returning to Denver, we decided to explore University Hill (or just The Hill) at the edge of the University of Colorado campus. We anticipated that it would be a funky commercial area like Dinkytown at the University of Minnesota campus.

We made a beeline to Starbucks because we hadn't had coffee yet. While we were relaxing and checking emails, we struck up a conversation with a friendly local. He had lived previously in Minnesota and after comparing notes about Minnesota, we chatted about things to see and do in Boulder. He asked us where we planned to have lunch. Up until then, we had planned to try a burger joint on The Hill. He made a face and offered an alternative - Cafe Aion. The way he described it, we thought it sounded good. So after we finished our coffee, we strolled by to check it out. From the outside, it looked fairly nondescript. But being adventurous, we decided to give it a try.

After exploring the campus for an hour or so, we made our way back and got a table for lunch. All I can say is, "Wow." What a great lunch it was.
Lunch at Cafe Aion

The ambiance is very casual, as you probably would expect near campus. The cafe was fairly busy for early afternoon on a Friday. But we got a table quite quickly. The style of food is Spanish tapas and Moroccan small plates.

Probably influenced by our initial intent of finding a burger joint, my wife ordered the burger. It was Colorado beef with brie and pickled onions on a delicious brioche bun. It came with sweet potato fries. It was fantastic.

I had a hard time deciding on what to order off the tempting list of menu items. I finally chose a vegetable tagine. It was roasted squash, carrots, and cauliflower with garbanzo beans in a sauce flavored with ginger and saffron. It came with two lovely pieces of flat bread. I liked it so much that later in the day, I sent an email asking for guidance on how to replicate the dish in my own kitchen. I got a prompt and helpful reply. Watch this space for a future post on my effort to cook the tagine.

We both had a glass of wine with lunch. Linda had a Spanish Sauvignon blanc from Naia. She liked it so much that I'm going to try to find it retail to buy for home. I had a garnache which was very good as well (though I probably won't try to buy any for drinking at home).

So this was a truly excellent and satisfying way to end our stay in Boulder. I noted, regretfully, that Aion has live music on Thursday nights plus a 'burger and beer' special - the burger that Linda ordered plus a beer for $15. What a deal!

There was only one problem with our experience there. Service was slow and inattentive. For us as vacationers, that wasn't a big issue. But I could see that some of the other diners had schedules to keep and were frustrated by slow service. Of course, I don't know if the problem exists at dinner. But for me, it's not a deal-breaker. I would definitely come back for either a lunch or dinner.