15 January 2015

Is Zentral the best restaurant in Mpls? Could be.

Whenever I’m asked what’s my favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities, I answer Meritage in St. Paul. But lately I’ve started to consider that maybe Meritage’s younger sister in Minneapolis, Brasserie Zentral, might displace her as my No. 1 choice.

Both restaurants are the creations of Chef Russell Klein and his wife Desta. There are some family similarities – a commitment to fresh and top quality ingredients, elegant (though not stuffy) ambiance, masterful preparation and beautiful presentation. But while they share familial traits, they have distinctive personalities. Meritage is French. But the menu offers some playful riffs – matzo ball soup that’s so good some of our friends have considered serving at their Passover Seders or a duck liver ‘schmear’ that’s unlike any chopped liver appetizer I’ve ever eaten.

Zentral, on the other hand, is primarily Hungarian, Austrian, and northern Italian. It’s menu features things like sausages, spaetzle and dumplings, smoked fish, and schnitzel.

About every other week, I have a study group at an office downtown. It goes over the lunch hour, and when it ends at 1 p.m., I’m ready for lunch. I’ve tried Zentral for lunch a few times now. The first time I went, I had the burger. I was curious because the Star Tribune restaurant critic gave it such a glowing review. It was very good. But it was, after all, just a burger. IMG_0273

Since then, I’ve tried more of the ethnic specialties and I’ve enjoyed them much more. I think so far, my favorite was duck Bolognese on pappardella pasta. I also really liked the gnocchi with lamb ragout and braised red cabbage.

On my most recent visit, my brother and I met for lunch to celebrate our birthdays. For this special lunch, I did make a reservation and did indicate that it was a birthday lunch. Each time that I’ve eaten at Zentral, I chose a seat at the chef’s counter, looking into the gleaming and bustling kitchen. Mike and I sat there as well. When we were seated, our server brought a complimentary glass of sparking wine to celebrate our birthdays. Nice!

One of my brother’s co-workers had recommended schnitzel. Mike was tempted by the duck Bolognese, but ultimately opted for the schnitzel. He enjoyed it, and I thought it looked very good. I haven’t ordered schnitzel so far because it just sounded like a piece of breaded meat. But the presentation was so appealing that I think I will try it on some future visit.

I ordered chicken paprikash. The chicken was braised and was so moist and tender it fell off the bones. It was served with rye bread dumplings and stewed peppers. It was fantastic.

My chicken and Mike’s schnitzel were bigger meals than any of the previous lunches I’ve had there. They easily were big enough to be dinner entrées.

So you might be wondering, since I liked Zentral so much for these several lunches, why any hesitation about saying it’s my new favorite? The answer is dinner.

My wife and I have had dinner there once with another couple. The food was great. But the service was poor. I can’t figure out why, since the service at lunch always had been great, at least for me. But other online reviewers, including Zentral’s own Facebook page, have complained about slow and inattentive service. And I recognize that things often can be different between a lunch experience and dinner. Even within the family, lunch at Meritage is different than dinner there.

So we’re going to go back for dinner sometime. After I do, we’ll see. I may be changing my best restaurant recommendation.

11 January 2015

Kwik Pick: Dinner at Ngon Bistro, St. Paul was great!

I’ve had lunch a couple of times at Ngon Bistro and really enjoyed it. I’ve even posted a blog review about one of those lunches. (Click here to read it.) I’ve been looking for an opportunity to head across the river and try it for dinner. And that’s what my wife and I did this past Saturday.

  • Food = 5/5
  • Service = 5/5
  • Ambiance = 4/5
  • Value = 4/5

As you can tell from my ratings, we liked Ngon Bistro for dinner very much. I’m not a big fan of Asian cooking. But I think that one reason why I like Vietnamese cooking is because much of it has a French influence (from the bad old days of French Indochina colonialism.) The menu at Ngon reflects this cross-cultural amalgam.

My wife, who likes Asian fare much more than I do, focused on the traditional items on the menu, especially the pho. Ngon regularly receives kudos for its pho. Besides the pho, she was very excited by the variety of dishes offered, but finally picked the seafood pho served with shrimp dumplings and mussels. I was tempted by the mock duck and by the duck pho. But I opted for one of the seasonal specials instead – duck confit served on risotto with mushrooms and zucchini. We both loved our main course meals. For starters, we had an order of sweet potato and shrimp croquettes and an order of lettuce wraps with tofu. Both were very good, though I remembered from a previous lunch experience that I’m not a big fan of do-it-yourself lettuce wraps.

Our server was excellent. She was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the food and drinks. Her descriptions of the items that we asked about were very helpful. Also, since we planned to linger for the music, she was very accommodating and let us order things at our own pace.

The ambiance in Ngon is very comfortable with tall ceilings, a big open dining room, interesting art on the walls and a very cool bar. The noise level on a Saturday night, before the musicians started playing, was moderate. We could carry on a conversation very easily without have to shout or strain to hear what each other was saying.

There’s a little bit of a back story to our visit. One of the reasons why we hadn’t gone to Ngon sooner was because we were looking for a Saturday night when they have live music. We do like to support restaurants that have live music. I knew from my lunch visits and from the web site that Ngon has music occasionally, and we kind of just waited until a time when our open Saturday night coincided with their music schedule. According to the web site, the music starts at 9 and they also resume happy hour at 9 on Saturday nights.

So we planned our evening to have dinner at 8, so that when we finished eating, we could order a couple of drinks at happy hour pricing and enjoy the music. Well, when we arrived, we asked for a table where we’d be able to see the musicians, and the hostess told us that she didn’t think there would be music that evening. She even called over one of the servers who also was unaware that music was scheduled. I told them that it was on their web site, but they still were dubious. After we got settled at our table, we also asked our server, and she determined that indeed, there would be live music. However it likely wouldn’t start until 9:30 p.m.

As things worked out, we finished our food just as the musicians were setting up, and we ordered our happy hour drinks. I had a barrel-aged Sazerac. I like a Sazerac, and I make a good one at home. But I’ve never had a barrel-aged cocktail. It was good, but I couldn’t really detect the benefit of aging the cocktail. Specialty cocktails ordered during happy hour are discounted $2. So my Sazerac was $9 instead of $11; I thought it was a fair price either way. My wife ordered a glass of the house red wine; happy hour price $5. But it was not very good. She didn’t finish it.

Recommendation: We’re already talking about our next trip to Ngon and who we’re going to bring along. But I don’t think we’ll purposely plan the evening around their music or happy hour. It just wasn’t that compelling to do it the same way again.

Click here for an explanation of my Kwik Pick ratings.

08 January 2015

Grilled salmon, mixed pepper risotto warm a frigid night

The outside temperature was 3 degrees and the wind chill was –14 as I started working on dinner this past week. But a little cold weather doesn’t stop me from firing up the Weber grill. Grilled salmon is our familiar favorite and we have it almost weekly.

I use a charcoal grill. It takes a little extra prep time to get the coals burning. But my wife and I think the flavor of the charcoal is worth the trouble.IMG_1011

For the salmon, I lightly sprinkle it with no-salt lemon pepper. It’s actually not an easy product to find. You can find lemon pepper at most supermarkets. But if you want no-salt added … that’s not so easy. I usually buy it in bulk at the Linden Hills Co-op. After the coals are hot, I arrange them toward the outside of the Weber kettle so that the fish roasts with indirect heat. Then I simply lay the seasoned fish on the grate, skin-side down. Then I put the cover on the grill and let it cook for about 20 minutes, a little longer if it’s a bigger piece or if the coals don’t seem as hot as usual.

I often serve risotto with our grilled salmon. I have a few standby recipes that I make, but for this dinner, I decided to use up a few leftover items cluttering the fridge. For New Year’s Eve, I’d bought some mini peppers, and I had several extra. So I mince one of each – red, yellow, and orange and then added some minced green pepper. I also had about a tablespoon of grated lemon peel and a small piece of leftover feta cheese. After consulting a few recipes online, I devised this recipe.

Mixed Pepper Risotto with Artichoke Hearts

  • 1/2 c. minced onions
  • 1 c. minced bell peppers, a mixture of various colors
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 c. arborio rice
  • 3 1/2 c. broth (chicken or vegetable)
  • 1/2 c. white wine
  • 1 c. canned artichoke hearts, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 c. (about 2 oz.) crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 tbsp. grated lemon peel
  • 3 or more tbsp. minced herbs (I used basil and chives), to taste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Sauté onions and peppers in olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat, until onions are soft. Stir in rice and toast for about a minute, until the rice is shiny and translucent. Reduce heat slightly and add wine; stir constantly until the wine is evaporated. Add broth, 1/2 c. at a time, stirring often; cook until the rice has absorbed each addition of broth before adding another 1/2 c. After you’ve used about 3 c. of broth, taste a grain of rice. It should be al dente, not mushy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the artichoke hearts and continue to stir in broth until the rice is cooked to your desired consistency.

Remove the rice from heat. Stir in the feta and herbs. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Notes: For the broth, I had a half cup of homemade turkey broth in the fridge. I used that plus 3 cups of instant vegetarian chicken broth (another product I buy at Linden Hills Co-op). If you use a commercial stock, you may not need to add any salt, especially since the feta is salty as well. If you don’t have feta in the fridge, you can use grated parmesan cheese instead. For the herbs, I always prefer fresh herbs. But a tablespoon of dried oregano would add the the Greek character of this dish.

Standing over a stove stirring risotto is a wonderful way to warm up on a cold winter night. Besides the salmon and risotto, my wife made a simple green salad. Very nice.

30 December 2014

KwikPick: Burger, Beer, Warm Welcome at Pig & Fiddle, Edina

On a frigid Saturday night, the 4:40 movie had just ended, and people were surging toward the restaurants at 50th & France (Edina’s ‘downtown’ neighborhood). We saw crowds packed into the entry of several places as we shivered for a block and half from the theater to the Pig & Fiddle. Much to our surprise, we got right in. A few minutes after we got our table, the place was full.

Food: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Ambiance: 5/5

Value: 4/5

After the movie, we just wanted a good burger and something to drink. We’d been to the Pig & Fiddle before and enjoyed it. It strives to be a neighborhood pub for the 50th & France area. It’s actually on the Minneapolis side of the line. I wonder if that’s why it took a while after the movie to fill up. Maybe there’s some kind of psychological barrier to crossing from Edina into Minneapolis.

In any case, it was exactly what we wanted. Pig & Fiddle has a varied menu of traditional pub food, I think mostly selected to accompany the great selection of ‘American craft beers.’ I considered several menu items, but we had set out looking for a good burger, and that’s what we both ended up ordering. I got mine with fries ($2 extra). Otherwise the burger and sandwiches come with house-made chips, which are pretty good too.

I usually have a pretty good idea of what beer I want. But my wife is not a regular beer drinker, and she needed some guidance. Our server was very knowledgeable and helped her pick something that she enjoyed. Overall very good service.

We asked for a table in the dining room. We like the ambiance there better than the bar. (In the bar, the ambiance has a more typical pub feel, a little noisier and with TV monitors showing various sporting events.) The dining room has nice stained glass windows and a big fireplace.

In terms of value, I thought Pig & Fiddle was very reasonable. Our total was $57 including tip.

Recommendation: I would definitely go back for a casual dinner after a movie.

Click here for an explanation of my KwikPick rating scale.

29 December 2014

KwikPick: Christmas Eve at Mill Valley Kitchen, St. Louis Park

We used to avoid going out on major holidays like Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. But we wanted to spend the evening with some friends, we weren’t interested in any of the new movies, and eating Chinese seemed like such a cliché. So we made a reservation at Mill Valley Kitchen. It was a very enjoyable meal.

Food: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Ambiance: 3/5

Value: 3/5

The only other time I’d eaten at Mill Valley Kitchen (MVK), it was a group celebration dinner with some friends. I remembered it as a pleasant meal, but hadn’t hurried back. My wife has had lunch there a few times. But I have eaten a couple times at its sister restaurant downtown – Marin. I wrote a review of that a year ago. The two restaurants are very similar, though I think I like Marin better.

Like Marin, MVK prides itself on top quality, very fresh food that’s prepared very simply and healthfully. The food we ate on Christmas Eve certainly lived up to the restaurant’s goal. My wife and I split a kale salad to start. The menu specifies that it’s ‘baby’ kale, but we didn’t really expect the small tender leaves that we were served. It was good, but we were expecting more robust crunchy leaves of kale. My wife had scallops which is a favorite of hers. The tomato-fennel sauce was spicier than she expected, but she still enjoyed it. I had duck breast with black lentils. I thought it was excellent.

Our actual server was pretty good; I probably should give her a 4. But we did have an issue with being seated. At first they directed us to a table in the bar, but that was not the ambiance we wanted for our dinner. There were open tables in the dining room, but the first one they took us to was near the door leading out to the patio, and while it was not a frigid night, it was still Minnesota winter, and it was a bit drafty by the door. So we asked to be moved again, and this time the table was just fine.

In terms of value, we had a nice meal, we each had a glass of wine, and the total with tip still came out below $100. That’s not bad, but it’s also not inexpensive. I gave a nice tip because the server was working on a holiday. (At least I thought it was nice.)

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a self-consciously health-oriented restaurant, and you don’t want to hassle with downtown parking (to go to Marin), I’m sure you’d enjoy Mill Valley Kitchen. I still would probably prefer Marin.

Click here for an explanation of the rating scale.

27 December 2014

KwikPick: Celebration dinner at Murray’s Mpls.

It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten at Murray’s. But a friend picked it for a special birthday dinner, and I’m glad he did.

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

Comments: You go to Murray’s for steak, right? Sure they’ve got fish and seafood on the menu, and I’m sure they’re good. But it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we’d be eating steak. Murray’s offers several different steaks at several different price points … all of them expensive. In that regard, it’s not much different than any other high-end, expense account steakhouse. But I like the fact that it’s a locally owned independent restaurant. That gives it a nice ambiance.

The guys started with martinis. Excellent. Murray’s has an excellent wine list; we had a couple of bottles of Frog’s Leap Merlot that went great with our steaks. We also ordered a few side dishes. They were a little on the small side, but tasted very good. The steaks were outstanding and large. Two of the guys worried that medium rare would be too well done, but didn’t want to order rare. The server proposed ‘rare plus.’ That’s what they ordered, and the steaks were just right. (I ordered mine medium rare, and it was just how I like it as well.)

I guess when you go to a restaurant like Murray’s you expect near-perfection, and for our group they delivered. Still, it was very expensive, so it’s hard for me to give it a high ranking on value.

Recommendation: I don’t know if I’d pick Murray’s for my own birthday dinner. But if any of my friends did, I wouldn’t hesitate to say ‘Yes!’

Click here for an explanation of my rating scale.

26 December 2014

Neighborhood ambiance, creative cooking at Sparks Mpls.

This is the second post on neighborhood restaurants in Minneapolis. The first post was about a special wine dinner at Victory 44. It was a really great experience, but not the typical experience at V44. This review of Sparks, on the other hand, is very typical of what you can expect for the restaurant.

According to Sparks web site, the owner decided to open the restaurant when he moved to the neighborhood, which is Bryn Mawr. (He also owns Rinata, an Italian restaurant in south Minneapolis.)

We’ve eaten at Sparks twice. The first time (several months ago) was with friends. We ordered and shared several small plates from the menu. The menu for small plates, pizzas and salads offers a lot of variety. We liked that experience very much, but never found an opportunity to return.

Until, that is, a Saturday night in mid-December. We just wanted a casual, no-fuss meal and thought of Sparks. So glad we did.

Sparks has expanded since our first visit. We were seated in the expansion space. While you can tell the difference from the original dining room, they did a good job of joining the two rooms and making them feel seamless. There’s a huge mural on one of the walls featuring a stylized painting of the Minneapolis skyline. (I guess one of the significant differences between Sparks and Victory 44 is that the Sparks neighborhood is very close to downtown Minneapolis and so is sort of downtown oriented. Victory 44 is more of a destination in and of itself.)IMG_0975

We had a great server. She was friendly, attentive, and knowledgeable. Her recommendations on the menu were right on. She also was very patient and accommodating as we tried to decide on a bottle of wine. Sparks offers a fun wine list (as well as a nice selection of local beer on tap.) And the wine prices are very reasonable. We picked a Spanish red wine and loved it.

We started our meal with a couple of small plates. The cauliflower au gratin was excellent. The cheeses were smoked gouda and cheddar, and it was seasoned with paprika. It was a nice variation from roasted Brussels sprouts (which we often order as a starter, and was on the menu at Sparks as well). Our second starter was Cuban black beans. I would normally expect that Cuban black beans would be flavored with ham or bacon. But this was a vegetarian version served with cheesy tomato sauce and scallions. Delicious.

For my entrée, I ordered Madras lamb shank. The lamb was braised, moist and fork-tender. It was seasoned with curry, mint chutney and yogurt. A very unusual preparation of one of my favorite meats, and I loved it. My wife had Amish roasted chicken seasoned with herbs and lemon juice.

It was a great meal and one that showed the creativity that’s evident in some of the neighborhood restaurants in Minneapolis. We’ll definitely be back.