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

Cake:

  • 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.

Wow!

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.

28 April 2015

Groovy lunches at The Third Bird, Mpls.

I’d have to say that for me, The Third Bird was an acquired taste. As a fan of Kim Bartmann’s Café Barbette, I anticipated good food, comfortable ambiance, and maybe a little quirky style and ambiance. So the first time we went there, on a Saturday night last winter, I was disappointed.

Wait. Disappointed is too strong. The food was good. The vibe of the restaurant was energetic. The service was fine. But part of why we went there in the first place was to try it’s bison burger, which had been getting rave reviews, including from my wife. Much to our chagrin, we were told that the burger wasn’t available that evening. I think that the server could have handled the situation more diplomatically. But we left fairly nonplussed.

I can’t really explain why I decided to try it again for lunch this spring. I guess I was still curious and certainly was willing to give it another try. But over the course of three lunches in March and April, I’ve gotten over my initial concerns and have become a fan, at least for lunch.

Each time I’ve been there, it’s been later than normal for lunch. I arrived after 1 p.m. and found myself almost alone in the restaurant. That would be a negative for some diners. But I didn’t mind. I guess after years of business travel, I’ve gotten used to eating alone anyway and I used the lack of distractions to focus on the menu, the food, the wine, and the ‘groove’ of The Third Bird. IMG_1170

Lunch 1: My server informed me that there had been a substitution for the fish entrée listed on the menu. It sounded good, so I ordered. It was pan roasted trout with thin sliced, pickled radishes, tender herb shoots, peas, and slices of sautéd turnip. It was simple, light, and delicious. It was a little pricier than I expected ($21), especially since there was nothing else on the plate. But I’m a big fan of trout. It’s not easy to prepare well, and this lunch was great. I also had a glass of rose wine - Côtes de Provence Clos Cibonne Tibouren 2012. It was a nice reminder that spring was on the way, despite Loring Park being covered in late March snow.

Lunch 2: Having had a good experience on the first lunch, and now being more familiar with the menu, I planned a lighter lunch for this visit. I opted for the parmesan omelet. The omelet is cooked flat, not folded over. The flavors were great - buttery eggs and pungent cheese. It was served with a simple salad on the plate with the omelet. I had a glass of white wine with this lunch. The menu listed it as Jacquere Vin De Savoie Abyme. I don't know if that's the grape and the region, but it was very good. It may have been a bit over chilled when served, but by the time my food arrived, it was the right temp. It was bright and acidic and very fresh. It went very well with the omelet. It also was a very generous pour, probably 6 ounces (maybe more).

Lunch 3: Now I felt I was on a roll, and I was looking forward to the third lunch toward the end of April. This time, I had my mind made up before arriving; I was going to order the legendary bison burger. But, oops, I waited too long. My server informed me that the bison burger was no longer a regular item on the menu. They would have a burger on the menu all the time. But the bison burger would take a turn in the rotation, and it was not available that day. Well, I came in planning to eat a burger, so I ordered the one that was offered that day. It was a double patty stuffed with cheese and topped with crisp fried onions. The burger came with a small bowl of a very good barbecue sauce. There’s no way you could pick up the burger and eat it like a sandwich. I attacked it with fork and knife, dipping it in the sauce (though the burger was so moist and flavorful that it didn’t really need a sauce). The burger, like all sandwiches on the menu, comes with malt vinegar chips. For a $2 up-charge, you can get fries, greens, or soup. I stuck with the chips. I considered ordering beer with the burger. But the wine list at The Third Bird is very creative, and so I ordered a glass of red wine instead. I had a robust Montepulciano, recommended by my server.

So the food and wine experience for lunch was very good. Since I was there late and without many other diners, the restaurant was very calm and laid back. I don’t know if that would still be true during a busier lunch time. Certainly my one dinner experience was a more energetic vibe. But at least for my three lunches, the servers were all very friendly and helpful. I like the ambiance of the restaurant. And each time, there was some very appealing music playing over the sound system. My favorite was my second lunch. The mix was mostly classic rock and roll, but with some more contemporary rock mixed in.

Now that I’ve gotten over my initial hesitancy, I’m eager for a return visit for dinner. I see that they have music occasionally. That might be fun to try.

19 April 2015

KwikPick: Sonora Grill, Mpls., great Southwestern cooking

My wife and I have become fans of Record Store Day. It started because our son’s best friend bought a record store in the Longfellow neighborhood of South Minneapolis. At the time, I thought that it sounded like a risky decision for a young father. But Dave Hoenack and his wife, Laura, have made Hymie’s Vintage Records a focal point for the revival of vinyl recordings in Minneapolis. And we look forward to attending the block party that they throw as part of Record Store Day. We’ve gotten in the habit of finding a local restaurant for dinner after the festivities at Hymie’s. This year, another couple of friends joined us for dinner at the Sonora Grill, located only 6 blocks from Hymie’s.

  • Food: 4
  • Service: 3
  • Ambiance: 3
  • Value: 5

The back story on the Sonora Grill is that it started out in the food court at Midtown Global Market in 2011. A couple years later, they opened the Grill in an old Embers Restaurant several blocks east in the Longfellow neighborhood. I’d been there once before for lunch, shortly after it opened. I really enjoyed the food at lunch, and that’s why I suggested it for our Record Store Day dinner.

The food was great. For a table of 4, we got one order of their whole baked chicken, one order of paella, one order of beef short ribs, one order of eggplant fries, and one of their daily salads. The salad turned out to be more of a dinner salad with slices of chicken on it. It was very good, but not really what we were expecting. Besides that, everything except the paella came with vegetables on the plate. The chicken asado was fantastic. We expected that it would be enough for two people; it actually was enough for three. Besides the chicken, the plate included flour tortillas, beans, and a potato salad. My plate of short ribs included a slaw of shredded cabbage and a tasty salsa. The short ribs were cut ‘flanken’ style. I thought they were a little dried out and tough, but others at the table really liked them. The paella was very good, with large tender shrimp, mussels, chorizo, and chicken on top of delicious saffron rice. And we all loved the eggplant fries which came with a spicy aoli.

Service for our table anyway was a bit of a disappointment. Our server was friendly and helpful with advice about the menu. But he also was very slow and inattentive. However, we noticed that the server for the next table was very prompt and attentive, so it may be just the luck of the draw as to how good your server is. As far as ambiance, no complaints really, but as I mentioned above, this is a repurposed Embers restaurant. So the ambiance is comfortable but plain. We actually ate on the patio outside, and that was very nice.

I rated Sonora Grill high in terms of value. We got a lot of really good food for a very reasonable price. We only had one round of drinks – three glasses of wine and one beer. I was the beer drinker. When I inquired about the beer on tap, the server mentioned a dark Mexican beer that wasn’t even listed in the menu. It was great with the food, and was only $5 for a pint glass.

After dinner, we all agreed that Sonora Grill deserves a return visit. After this experience, I think I’d skip the short ribs, and maybe order a selection of Sonoran tacos (called ‘caramelos’). They’re priced at only $4 and the menu lists an intriguing variety of fillings, such as shrimp, beef tongue, roasted mushroom, and fish.

Anytime you’re looking for a place to eat in the Longfellow neighborhood, I’d heartily recommend Sonora Grill.

Click here for an explanation of my KwikPick rating scale.