26 December 2006

Heaven on 7 – taste of New Orleans in Chicago


On our recent trip to Chicago, we had lunch with our daughter at Heaven on 7 which boasts “Best Louisiana Cookin’ Outside of New Orleans.” That’s a pretty big boast, but it is a pretty good restaurant. We ate at the Rush Street restaurant on a Saturday afternoon while shopping.

It’s a fairly large restaurant. Their web site says they have seating for 170. The room where we were lead had a wall filled with different brands of beer. On the table was a selection of 15-18 different kinds of hot sauce. Right next to us was a keyboard player singing solo blues music.

I had a cheese omelet. It was very served with what they call breakfast potatoes. They were diced potatoes sautéed in oil with onions and peppers. The omelet was good, but not as good as the omelets served at Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown (where my son works). In fact, there wasn’t anything really Louisiana about my meal but I had fun trying a couple of the different hot sauces on my egg and on the potatoes.

My wife had poached eggs on New Orleans crab cakes with Creole sauce. It was really tasty. The sauce had a lot of flavor without overwhelming heat. My daughter had jambalaya which also was very tasty and very authentic of New Orleans cooking.

The blues player was Pat Hall. We really enjoyed his music. At the restaurant, he was playing solo. But he also has a band that he plays with called Pat Hall and the Fat Guys Band. I always believe in tipping the musicians, but in this case, instead of a tip, I bought his CD instead. It really is enjoyable.

24 December 2006

A lunch at foodlife, Chicago


I’ve mentioned before that my daughter’s fiancée works for foodlife in Watertower Place in Chicago. When someone first describes it to you, your likely reaction will be: “Oh, it’s a fancy food court.” They’re actually a little sensitive about that. And to the extent that the term “food court” implies over-salted greasy fast food, they’re probably right to be sensitive.

It’s actually a pretty interesting concept. foodlife consists of 13 stations, i.e. kitchens that prepare different kinds of food. When you enter foodlife, you’re taken to a table and you’re given a credit card. Then you wander around, see what’s being prepared at the different stations, and then select what looks good to you. After you’ve made your selection, the cook at the station swipes your credit card. After you’re all done with your meal, you exit past a cashier who swipes the card one more time and tells you now much you owe.

I think the thing that makes foodlife work is the freshness of the food, the training of the cooks, and the overall commitment to delivering a high-quality meal to the customer. And it does work. My future son-in-law tells about local and national celebrities who he sees dining at foodlife. Since foodlife is part of the Lettuce Entertain You group, he also regularly sees chefs from the other Lettuce restaurants dining at foodlife. The upper floors of Watertower Place are residences, and he says that many of the residents are regulars at foodlife. They also will do deliveries to the residents and will do catering for business events.

On our most recent visit, we went for lunch and kept it pretty light. I had a cup of turkey chili with corn bread and my wife had a cup of a daily special soup from the “Souplife” station. Both soups were great. Nicely seasoned, not too salty. My daughter had pad Thai from the “Laser Noodles” station. She eats there regularly, and that’s one of her favorite meals.

Other stations include Comfort Food, Cooking Light (with recipes from the magazine), Do Hots (hot sandwiches), Eat Greens (salad bar), Fresh Made Pizza, La Vida Mexico, Miracle Juice Bar, Pasta Fresca, Roadside Grill, Rotisserie, Stir Fry Heaven, and Sweet Life.

23 December 2006

Guest Post: W.A. Frost, St. Paul


(Submitted by my friend, Patty Miller)

I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog. Not only do I get news about what you're up to, but ideas for future eateries.

As an FYI, we went to W.A. Frost for my mom's birthday. The atmosphere was exceptional, with the Victorian Christmas decorations and a real-wood fire blazing near our table. The food was very tasty, but it was a little upscale for my mom and aunt (age 86 and 84). And frankly, for me, too. I don't eat venison or duck, which seems to feature prominently on the menu these days. However, Mom and Aunt A. had the vegetable Wellington, which was flavorful, beautifully presented and not too much to eat, which is a big factor for them.

I had the squash ravioli, which were tender and filled with a smooth, cinnamon-tinged squash puree. But there were only 5 ravioli, each about ½ the size of a Post-It note, which I thought was a little skimpy for an entrée, not a side. I was hungry (anticipating a festive birthday meal) and ended up eating a cup of yogurt when I got home!

The only steak on the menu was $36, which I might have ordered if not in the presence of my relatively frugal relatives. We split the dessert combo three ways and each bite was delicious. I think Frost's makes some of the finest crème brulee in town - it's silky smooth with just the right amount of burnt-sugar crisp on top. The dessert morsels were presented on a long, narrow plate, which was perfect for sharing and looked very pretty. We oohed and aahed our way through them, putting a nice finish on the meal.

The service was spotty - attentive when our server was around, but she'd disappear for eons. My aunt ordered a glass of wine with dinner and it wasn't brought until she was halfway through her entrée. The server apologized, left us the wine to quaff, but took it off the bill. So, that's my latest take on Frost's. Oh, and they make dynamite Manhattans!

21 December 2006

Erte, in the Northeast Minneapolis arts district



A holiday tradition in Minneapolis is the Ballet of the Dolls dance troupe production of A Nutcracker (not so) Suite. After a three-year hiatus, the troupe did a new production for the 2006 season. For most of the readers of this blog, it will be too late to catch this year’s production. But for someone like me, who doesn’t care much for classic ballet, this is a fun, creative, and humorous production.

Earlier in 2006, Ballet of the Dolls moved into the newly renovated Ritz Theater in the emerging Northeast Arts District. It’s located just north of Broadway on University Ave. NE. It’s exciting to visit the area. There are many new galleries, pottery studios, antique shops. There also are creative new restaurants opening side-by-side with the old neighborhood bars.

We decided to try Erte Restaurant for dinner before the show. I was very impressed. The service was very prompt. When we sat down, the server filled our water glasses and delivered a plate of bread and butter and assorted olives.

We started with black bean cake nachos. It was a big platter of red, blue, and yellow corn chips. They were covered with lots of cheese (a couple different varieties), sour cream, guacamole, and salsa. There were four black bean cakes on top of the nachos. They were very tasty and a little spicy.

Entrées come with a small salad. It’s a nice touch that you don't see too often anymore. Too often, the salad is extra, and too often it’s too large, especially if you’re having another starter like the nachos.

I had the forest mushroom risotto. It was terrific. It had small cubes of squash cooked in and lots of wild mushrooms. It was finished with blue cheese which provided a great accent to the mushrooms and squash.

Another great entrée was the duck breast. You’re served two nice duck breasts, lean and cooked to medium rare with a cherry glaze. There’s a little of the skin and fat on top which adds nice flavor, but can be easily removed if you don’t want the fat. It was served on a sweet potato mash.

One of our group had Erte’s ‘Applause’ Salad. The waiter recommended it as “an item you’ll want to come back for.” It included crisp apple slices, shredded carrots, goat cheese curry crusted croutons, nuts, on top a bed of spring mixed greens dressed with chutney vinaigrette. The waiter’s boast was right on.

The only dish that was disappointing was the pork chops. Perhaps it was intended as a no-carb meal, but all you’re served are two nicely cooked t-bone chops on a plate.

We ordered a bottle of Malbec wine from Argentina. When it was served, it had a bite to the taste. But it mellowed nicely. We weren’t sure if it was because it had a chance to breath or if it just tasted better served with the food.

As I said at the beginning, there are other interesting new restaurants in the area. But I would recommend Erte and definitely will be making a return visit someday.

19 December 2006

Hanukkah 1: Cookie Factory


We have a tradition in our family called the cookie factory. It started when our kids were little. Every year before Hanukkah, we would mix up a batch of gingerbread cookie dough and bake cookies cut into many traditional shapes – a shofar, stars, dreydls, an oil jug – as well as a gingerbread boy and a cow. (I got the cow cookie cutter at a dairy convention once. I told the kids that the cow is an essential shape for any kind of cookie baking. Because, of course, the cow produces milk, and we make butter from the milk, and how could we bake cookies without butter?)

As our kids got older and eventually left home, we started inviting my nieces and nephew to our kitchen to continue the cookie factory tradition. During this time, the tradition took on a new twist. The kids started decorating the cookies with unusual combinations of colored icing and with modern-art styles, so some of our cows and gingerbread boys started looking pretty bizarre. They also started cutting their own cookie shapes freehand using a knife instead of a cookie cutter. Very creative.

This year was a milestone. We had our 4-month old granddaughter here for the cookie factory. Of course, she couldn’t help decorate; she couldn’t even enjoy the cookies. But it marked the beginning of the transition to a new generation.

Over the years, I’ve tried several different recipes for the cookie dough. But I always come back to an old standby. It’s just the gingerbread cookie recipe from my Betty Crocker cookbook. I bought this cookbook when I moved into my first apartment as a student at the University of Minnesota. I’ve had it for more than 30 years. I bought a copy for my daughter when she got her first apartment. It’s a great, reliable reference.

But … THEY CHANGED MY GINGERBREAD COOKIE RECIPE!!!!

Below is the recipe from my cookbook. I looked up the recipe as it appears in the new cookbook. It appears as though they reduced the amount of butter or shortening and increased the amount of molasses. No thanks. I’ll stick to my old standby.

My Original Betty Crocker Recipe for Gingerbread Cookies

½ cup butter (OK, the original called for shortening, but I can’t do that)

½ cup sugar

½ cup dark molasses

¼ cup water

2½ cups flour

¾ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon soda

¾ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon allspice

Cream butter & sugar. Blend in molasses, water, flour, salt, soda, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. Cover and chill for 2-3 hours.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll dough ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured, cloth-covered board (or on a silicon mat). Cut to shapes using cookie cutters. Place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes. Remove from sheet, cool, and decorate.

Hanukkah 2: The Family Party

Our other family tradition is a Hanukkah party. We alternate years with my sister-in-law’s family (the nieces and nephew who help with the cookie factory). This year was our year to have it at our house. It was, of course, our granddaughter’s first Hanukkah party. At 4 months old, she was more interested in putting the gifts (and wrapping paper and toys and whatever she could grab) in her mouth. But we got pictures. Our daughter also came home from Chicago for the party. The only person missing was my future son-in-law. He couldn’t get away from work.

Latkes, fried in oil, are a traditional Hanukkah food. We serve them with sour cream and applesauce. I made the applesauce from apples that my parents gave us from their farm. We decided to have a deli night with cold cuts, bakery bread, pickles, and all the fixings. My brother-in-law brought a salad. For dessert, of course, we had the gingerbread cookies from the cookie factory.

We made two kinds of latkes – traditional and sweet potato latkes. The traditional latke recipe is from Temple Treasures, a cookbook compiled by the Sisterhood of Temple Israel in Minneapolis. The sweet potato latke recipe is from the Florida Sun-Sentinel, one of my favorite online newspaper food pages.

My son took over the actual cooking. He fried them a little before the party began. We drained them on cookie sheets and then heated them in the oven when it was time to eat.

Here are both recipes.

Potato Latkes

6 medium potatoes

1 medium onion

1 tablespoon matzo meal (or flour)

2 eggs

¼ teaspoon baking powder

1½ teaspoon salt

Pepper to taste

Grate potatoes and onion using either a box grater or food processor. Squeeze excess moisture from potato-onion mixture. Add remaining ingredients. Heat vegetable oil on a skillet or griddle. We prefer small, thin latkes with crisp edges, so we place ¼ cup latke mixture in the skillet and flatten with a spatula. Fry until they begin to turn brown at the edge, then flip. Finish frying, transfer to cookie sheet lined with newspaper and paper towel to drain. Either eat hot, or warm latkes in oven before serving.

Sweet Potato Latkes

Make these savory-sweet pancakes ahead and reheat them on a baking sheet in a 425-degree oven about 7 minutes. Watch carefully because edges burn easily. Serve with sour cream or yogurt.

Sun-Sentinel, December 14, 2006

1 1/2 pounds orange sweet potatoes (often labeled yams), peeled

1 medium onion

2 large eggs

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

5 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Vegetable oil, for frying

Grate sweet potatoes and onion, using grating disc of a food processor or large holes of a grater. Transfer to a large bowl. Beat eggs with salt and pepper and add to potato mixture. Add flour and mix well.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet, preferably nonstick. Fill a 1/4-cup measuring cup with potato mixture, pressing to compact it, and turn it out in a mound into skillet. Quickly form 3 more mounds in skillet. Flatten each with back of a spoon so each cake is about 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter, pressing to flatten.

Fry over medium heat 3 minutes. Turn carefully with 2 slotted spatulas and fry second side about 2 1/2 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp.

Drain on paper towels. Stir potato mixture before frying each new batch and add a little more oil to pan. Serve pancakes hot. Makes about 4 servings.

18 December 2006

A Retirement Dinner at Tria, North Oaks, Minn.


A group of co-workers gathered at Tria recently on a Sunday night to send off our friend as she enters retirement. This is a baby-boomer retirement, mind you. She’s way too young to retire. Her husband is still working. She probably will end up doing something else. But she’s reached the magic number of age and years-of-service, so she’s leaving Land O'Lakes.

Tria was a good place for this dinner. It’s a nice, comfortable space – lots of wood, three fireplaces, soft lighting, simple décor. On a Sunday night, it wasn’t particularly crowded, so our relatively large group of 14 got great service.

Some of the reviews I’ve read indicate that Tria changes its menu frequently to feature fresh and locally available food. For our dinner, there was a nice range of selections – some pastas, three fish dishes (including the nightly special), several steaks including a buffalo steak, a couple of chicken dishes, a pork tenderloin, short ribs, and lamb.

We started out with several ‘sharing dishes’ for the table. I thought the artisan cheese platter was the best. The calamari also was good, served with a sweet tomato jam sauce. Several of the guests liked the Moroccan lamb cigars, but I didn’t taste one.

For my dinner, I started with the classic wedge salad. The dressing was very tasty, but overall, it’s not a very creative start to the meal. After the sharing plates, I probably could have done without a salad. For my entrée, I had the braised lamb shanks. I love braised lamb shanks. These were very good. It was a large, meaty shank. It was cooked nicely until the meat fell easily off the bone. If I were being picky, I’d say it was slightly on the dry side. But the flavors were great, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was served with Roquefort potatoes. They were very rich, very cheesy, and I ate them all.

The only complaint I can come up is that they muffed a special request. One of the diners was tempted by the saffron roasted sea bass. The menu said that it was spicy, which the server verified. So not wanting a spicy meal, she ordered a steak instead. On the menu, the New York steak came with polenta. The filet came with cauliflower au gratin. She wanted the New York steak, but she wanted it served with the cauliflower. When it came out of the kitchen, it was served with au gratin potatoes, so she sent it back. They turned it around quickly and it came right back out with the cauliflower. She loved the cauliflower. But the steak had a spicy sauce on it. She tasted the sea bass – not at all spicy.

For our wine, we had a Sterling ‘Vintner’s Collection’ sauvignon blanc and Echelon pinot noir. Both were good, moderately-priced, and nicely compatible with the meals we ordered. Tria does have a supplemental list of ‘reserve’ bottles. If you’re there for a special occasion and want to celebrate with a special bottle of wine, you’ll be able to find it on this list. For our large group, the Echelon and the Sterling were just fine.

Actually, I do have one other complaint. Location. They are located way, way out. North Oaks is a suburb north of St. Paul. Maybe if you’re coming from St. Paul, it may be more accessible. But if you’re coming from the Minneapolis side of the river, or, the western suburbs, I would advise driving with a GPS system. Another suggestion would be to come in the summer. Then you can drive out there before it gets dark. According to the web site, Tria has a great patio. So that would be a nice option for summer dining.

If you can find your way into the wilderness of North Oaks, I think you’ll like Tria.

28 November 2006

Chambers Kitchen, Minneapolis, MN



The Chambers Hotel opened recently at 9th and Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis. It bills itself as an art hotel. Chambers Kitchen is the hot, new restaurant in town that’s attracting a lot of attention and a lot of buzz. It’s the brain-child of Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, specializing in Asian fusion. My wife and I chose it for my birthday dinner at the end of my Thanksgiving week vacation.

Arriving at the Chambers is an experience. You can come into the lobby bar from an entrance on Hennepin Ave., or you come into the hotel lobby if you use the valet parking service on 9th Street. Either way, you enter a bright, open, and welcoming space. The hotel lobby and the lobby bar fuse seamlessly. In fact, the check-in desk for the hotel is slightly hidden between two white pillars. I suppose the owners of Chambers would object to me calling it a ‘lobby bar.’ They refer to it as a lounge and casual café.

We had a few minutes before our reservation, so we asked to see the art gallery. It’s not large. But it’s nice to see a commitment to original art. The pieces on display the night my wife and I were there were quite modern. We were told that after the initial display, it would be replaced with exhibits of all local artists. Presumably there are original pieces of art in the guest rooms as well.

In my Sept. 11 post on Michelangelo’s in Sacramento, I noted that it bills itself as an art restaurant. At Michelangelo’s, they take that very seriously – there is art everywhere. But sitting in the dining room of Chambers Kitchen, you look around and wonder “Where’s the art?” It’s there. It’s just unobtrusive. Perhaps it’s too unobtrusive.

The other thing about the dining room itself is its industrial décor. While the hotel lobby and bar are sleek, white, and open, the dining room downstairs features an open ceiling, exposed ductwork, iron beams, and the space is broken up by support pillars. The stairway down from the lobby also chops up the space by leading right into the middle of the dining area, almost creating four separate spaces.

We were seated at a table under the stairway. At first we were a little hesitant and considered asking for a better table. But it turned out to be a great table because we could see everyone coming and going. After all, this is a “see and be seen” venue.

We had been warned that the Chambers attracts a young crowd, and that we would feel old. Neither of us found that to be the case. We thought that the people in the lobby bar and the dining room were a nice mix. (The rooftop (5th floor) lounge was definitely more upscale, youth oriented.) Open Table says that the dress code is “casual dress.” The night we were there, people were more dressed up and very fashionable. We only saw one table of people wearing jeans. I had a sport coat and tie, and I wasn’t the only one.

No matter how you feel about the décor of the hotel or the dining room, the real star is the food. In a word, it’s fantastic.

My wife started with a mushroom soup. The server brought a bowl with grated parmesan cheese on one side and charred poblano peppers on the other. Then he poured the soup over the peppers and cheese. The flavors were amazing with pieces of charred peppers mixed with parmesan and the creamy mushroom soup.

My first course was like a Caprese salad made with grilled figs instead of tomatoes. The mozzarella was ‘house-made.’ It was very creamy and yielded nicely to the bite. The salad was served with ice wine vinaigrette, which was very good as well.

For an entrée, my wife chose striped bass crusted in spices and served in a sweet and sour broth. The fish was cooked through, as my wife likes it. The spices formed a crust over the top of the fish. It was a little spicy for her tongue, but tolerable. (She confesses to being a wimp when it comes to spicy food.)

I chose duck a l’orange. A duck breast was served seared and sliced on an orange sauce. I didn’t think the orange sauce was very distinctive. What really made the dish for me was a small mound of shredded Asian pear and crystallized ginger. It complemented the duck perfectly.

For wine, we chose a Moulin-a-Vent, Chateau des Jacques beaujolais. We both liked it very much. It was not too heavy to drink with the fish, especially considering the spice crust.

When we picked Chambers Kitchen, we wanted a special place to celebrate my birthday, and we didn’t care if it was an expensive dinner. That said, we were pleasantly surprised that the evening was not expensive. If we would have had dessert, I suppose the total would have been more. But we left feeling very satisfied.

A final word about service: when we were seated, our server seemed to think we were in a hurry. We were taking our time talking about what we might like to order and selecting a wine. He kept stopping by our table to see if we were ready to order, not in an impatient way, but just checking. When he finally figured out that we wanted to relax and enjoy the evening at a slower pace, he accommodated very nicely. After our first courses were served, we asked him to wait a while before bringing the entrées. He honored the request, and he checked with us to see when we wanted the next courses brought out. He also was very accommodating about taking our photo.

We do have some nice restaurants in Minneapolis-St. Paul, special places to celebrate a birthday. Chambers Kitchen certainly earned a place on our list for future visits.

27 November 2006

Notes on Thanksgiving recipes


For Thanksgiving this year, I volunteered to bring dinner rolls and a vegetarian entrée. I figured since I was taking the week off, I would have all day on Wednesday to do the cooking.

I got the recipe for the dinner rolls from the New York Times Dining & Wine section online – Wheat & Cornmeal Cheese Rolls. It sounded interesting and calls for fresh sage. Since I still have sage in the garden, I couldn’t resist trying the recipe.

Here are a couple of observations. First, this dough is very sticky when kneading it. I’ve had similar experience with other bread dough that uses cooked cornmeal as an ingredient with the yeast and wheat flour. I kneaded in way more white flour than the recipe calls for, and it still was sticky when I put it in the bowl for raising. However, after raising, the dough was nice and soft and not too hard to work with.

Secondly, as noted, I made the rolls on Wednesday, then I stored them in plastic bags for transport to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving. When we ate them on Thursday, I felt that they were tough. I should have freshened them for five minutes in the oven, and I think they would have been better. In fact, I have been toasting them for breakfast this week, and they turn out very well. (When I split the rolls for toasting, there’s a nice spiral of cheese and sage in the middle. Very fun.) So if you make the recipe and don’t eat the rolls when you make them, try warming them in the oven, or toasting them, and I think you’ll like them better.

Finally, I made the rolls with cheddar cheese. It works very well, but I wish I would have made one batch with goat cheese, as the recipe recommends. I think it would be an interesting flavor.

The vegetarian recipe – Baked Penne with Roasted Vegetables – came from Giada De Laurentiis show, Everyday Italian on the Food Network. I’ve had the recipe since she made it on a show that was aired last May. Instead of using zucchini and summer squash, I used a butternut squash, peeled and cubed.

The dish strongly resembles a lasagna recipe I’ve made with roasted vegetables. I felt that it needs more cheese (and that would make it even more like lasagna). I think you could double the quantity of the fontina and mozzarella.

So here are the recipes:

Wheat & Cornmeal Cheese Rolls

(From NYTimes, Nov. 15, 2006)

1½ c. milk

1/3 c. stone-ground cornmeal

1½ teaspoon salt

1 packet active dry yeast

¼ c. maple syrup

1½ c. whole wheat flour

1½ c. all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons melted butter

6 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded, or 8 ounces soft fresh goat cheese

2 teaspoons minced sage leaves

Scald milk in 1-qt. saucepan. Stir in cornmeal, mixing constantly, and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes until thickened. Add salt and transfer to large mixing bowl.

Place yeast in a bowl and add ½ c. warm water. When cornmeal is no longer hot, stir in the yeast and syrup. Mix in whole wheat flour and then 1 c. all-purpose flour, half a cup at a time, until a soft dough forms.

Knead about 8 minutes, adding most of remaining flour. Dough should be elastic and a bit sticky. Coat a bowl with some melted butter, place dough in bowl, turn so buttered side is up, cover loosely, and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Punch down dough and roll or stretch on a board to a rectangle 12 by 16 inches. Sprinkle cheddar on top (or spread with goat cheese). Scatter with sage. With long side facing you, roll dough up tightly. Brush edge with water to seal it. Cut roll into four equal sections, and cut each section in thirds.

Use half of remaining melted butter to grease a baking pan 9 by 13 by 2 inches. Place rolls in pan with cut side up and brush tops with remaining butter. Let rise 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bake rolls 10 minutes, then lower oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake about 30 minutes more, until browned. Remove pan from oven and cool 10 minutes. Cut rolls apart and transfer to rack to cool.

Yield: 12 rolls.

Baked Penne with Roasted Vegetables

2 red peppers, cored and cut into 1-inch wide strips
2 zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 summer squash, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cremini mushrooms, halved
1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced into 1-inch strips
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 tablespoon dried Italian herb mix or herbs de Provence
1 pound penne pasta
3 cups marinara sauce (store bought or homemade)
1 cup grated fontina cheese
1/2 cup grated smoked mozzarella
1 1/2 cups frozen peas, thawed
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus 1/3 cup for topping
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

On a baking sheet, toss the peppers, zucchini, squash, mushrooms, and onions with olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and dried herbs. Roast until tender, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook for about 6 minutes. Since you will be cooking the pasta a second time in the oven, you want to make sure the inside is still hard. Drain in a colander.

In a large bowl, toss the drained pasta with the roasted vegetables, marinara sauce, cheeses, peas, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Using a wooden spoon, gently mix, until all the pasta is coated with the sauce and the ingredients are combined.

Pour the pasta into a greased 9 by 13-inch pan. Top with the remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan and butter pieces. Bake until top is golden and cheese melts, about 25 minutes.

Yield: 6 servings

25 November 2006

Introducing the ‘new’ Krik


I got an interesting phone call from a friend of mine a few weeks ago. She’s known me my whole career. In fact, she hired me for my first job after college. She called after she read my blog and had some observations about it.

“I see you’ve got a new name,” she said.

I didn’t know what she meant. At first, I thought she meant my username: SPKrikava. But when I tried to clarify, she said, “No, not that. I see you’re going by ‘Krik’ now.”

“Oh,” I said, finally understanding what was behind her comment. “You’re right. I am re-branding myself. But Krik is a ‘heritage’ brand, not a new name.”

In fact, I went by Krik all the way through high school. I checked my senior yearbook, just to make sure I remembered it correctly. It seems that only the guys called me Krik. Most of the girls who wrote in my yearbook called me Steve. A few called me Steven. One, quite inexplicably, called me Stevie. (If there’s any reason why, I sure can’t remember it now.)

During my college years, only old friends from high school ever called me Krik. By the time I had graduated and got my first career job, no one called me that anymore.

I’ve always been pretty conscious of what I call myself. For the first seven years of my career, I was a reporter and editor. So the name I chose for my byline was pretty significant; I went by ‘Steve Krikava.’ After I started working in government relations, I gradually shifted to ‘Steven.’ For a while, I even insisted on being called ‘Steven P. Krikava.’ But that was too formal, it didn’t feel natural, and it didn’t last long.

I don’t know when I started thinking of myself as Krik again. On my August 31 post, I mentioned how I called my DC restaurant guide Krik’s Picks. Maybe that’s when it resurfaced. Anyway after that, our CEO started calling me Krik, and it just seemed kind of natural.

I also didn’t intentionally start out to re-brand myself. It’s just sort of a reflex response to some of the things happening in my life. Today is my birthday. I’m 55. I actually like birthdays. I’m not self conscious of getting older. But this one seems more significant than most.

One thing that’s significant is that retirement is now an option.

The last time that celebrating a particular birthday made any real difference in my life was when I turned 21. One day it was illegal to buy alcohol; the next it was legal. I didn’t do anything different, just got a day older. Fast forward now to this week. If I quit my job at the beginning of the week, I would have collected my final paycheck and moved on. But after today, whenever I decide to leave Land O'Lakes, I can ‘retire’ and that involves some kind of on-going connection as a recipient of retirement benefits. I didn’t do anything different, I just celebrated a birthday.

And while I’m not planning on retiring any time soon, the chronological possibility is somehow making me consider – what do I want to be, what do I want to do, how do I want to live when I retire. See? Re-branding.

But there’s more. In less than a year, my children will be married. Admittedly, that’s more of an evolutionary step. I’ve been a parent for almost 29 years, and my children have been on their own and independent since they graduated from college. But now they are bringing other people into our relationship. (Fortunately, the ‘other people’ are nice people.) So that changes the way I see myself (as a father-in-law) and the way I relate to my children.

And I’m already a grandfather. It would be easy to think about being a grandfather as simply a variation on being a parent. But my experience so far has been the same as many others who say that being a grandparent is remarkably different from being a parent.

So there, you see, there’s enough going on that’s requiring me to explore new dimensions of my existence. So isn’t it natural to consider re-branding?

Stay tuned to Krik’s Picks and see how the new brand works out.

21 November 2006

A week of fun, food, family

I’m writing this at the beginning of Thanksgiving week. I’m taking the week off, which really means three days of vacation because the office is closed on Thanksgiving day and the following Friday.

It’s a big week for me. At the end of it, on Saturday, I celebrate my 55th birthday. So I’m taking time off to just relax, take time to do some fun activities, do some cooking, go to a few restaurants, and, of course, spend time with family.

Here’s what I did yesterday, on the first day of my vacation.

First of all, we went to the University of Minnesota Minneapolis campus. My wife and I both graduated from the U of M, and we enjoy just going to campus from time to time to walk the campus and reminisce.

As you may know, the Mississippi River flows by the campus. The East Bank campus is the main campus where we had most of our classes. The West Bank campus (connected by the Washington Avenue Bridge) was the hippie, counter-culture hangout during the early ‘70s when I was there. Now it’s the location of the new law school and the Rarig Center for performing arts. When I was a freshman, I lived in Middlebrook Hall, located on the West Bank.

Besides walking through campus, we went down to the river and walked for a couple of miles. There’s a nicely maintained walking path that follows the river flats. In the ‘70s, they threw some pretty wild parties on the river flats.

After our walk, we went to Al’s Breakfast for a late morning breakfast/lunch. I mentioned Al’s in my very first post, ‘Welcome’ on August 6. My son works at Al’s, though he’s cut back on his hours now that he’s back in school. He wasn’t working when we went this week, but we had fun with his friends who were working that day.

Al’s is good because it knows what it does well and it doesn’t try to do anything fancy. Eggs, omelets, pancakes, waffles – pretty basic but good stuff. I had the Jose – two poached eggs on a bed of hash browns (nice and crisp) with cheese melted over the top, served with buttered toast. Yum! My wife had the Smokey – an omelet with bits of crisp bacon, tomatoes, and cheddar cheese, also served with toast. (She had her toast ‘dry.’ Sad choice.)

My son invented a summer special (scrambled eggs with spinach and feta cheese), a spring special (scrambled eggs with fresh mozzarella and basil), and a winter special (I don’t remember what’s in it, scrambled eggs and something tasty). Of course, all three are available all year round.

On Monday night, I made braised lamb shanks with white beans (recipe in the next post). I’ve been carrying the recipe around in my Palm Pilot for a long time. I can’t remember for sure where I got the recipe, but I think it was from the food page of the Florida Sun-Sentinel. It was an interesting recipe to make. Often, the first step in braising meat is to brown it before adding the cooking liquid. In this case, the recipe calls for searing the shanks in a very hot oven, then adding the beans and cooking liquid.

The recipe says to periodically check the liquid and add more if necessary. I added a half-cup of water after an hour and another half cup during the final 30 minutes. I probably didn’t have to add that last half cup, but I didn’t want the beans to dry out.

We drank half of a bottle of Prunotto Barolo wine. We brought the bottle back from our trip to southern France a few years ago. It was a wonderful wine that perfectly complimented the braised lamb and beans. Trouble is, I can’t find any place in Minnesota that carries Prunotto. So sad.

Try the recipe. I think you’ll like it.

Barbara Kafka's Oven-Braised Lamb Shanks With White Beans

This hearty dish makes an ample amount of richly flavored white beans. Rather than serving the individual shanks as the entree and the beans as the side dish, consider stretching the meal by spooning the beans into shallow plates and shredding the meat over the top.

From Barbara Kafka's "Roasting" (William Morrow, 1995). Makes 4 to 8 servings

4 lamb shanks (1 to 11/4 pounds each), trimmed of visible fat

2 small onions, peeled

6 medium cloves garlic, peeled

1 cup water

2 pounds dried white beans, such as Great Northern or navy, soaked overnight in enough water to cover by 2 inches, then drained

1 bouquet garni (fashioned from a 2-inch sprig fresh rosemary, five 2-inch sprigs fresh oregano, six 2-inch sprigs fresh thyme and 1/2 dried bay leaf)

3 cups canned tomatoes with their juices, tomatoes chopped

1 cup red wine

2 cups chicken stock or broth

About 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 475 degrees.

Pat the shanks dry and place in a roasting pan large enough for the shanks to fit comfortably without touching.

Roast the shanks for 20 minutes. Using tongs, turn the shanks. Add the onions to the pan and turn to coat with the pan drippings. Return the pan to the oven and roast for 10 minutes. Add the garlic to the pan, turn to coat and continue roasting until the shanks are crusty and brown, about 10 minutes longer.

Using tongs, carefully transfer the shanks, onions and garlic to a plate; cover to keep warm.

Pour or spoon the fat from the pan, reserving 2 tablespoons. Place the pan on top of the stove over medium-high heat, add 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Boil, using a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Using the reserved 2 tablespoons fat, coat the bottom and sides of a large pot or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, such as a 7-quart casserole, that is large enough for the shanks to fit comfortably without touching. Place half the beans in the pan. Coarsely chop the roasted onions and garlic and spread them over the beans. Place the shanks on top and add the bouquet garni. (If you prefer, you may scatter the herbs between the shanks instead of tying them into a bundle.) Spoon the remaining beans over and around the shanks, spreading them in an even layer. Pour over the tomatoes and their juice, the wine, stock and the reserved deglazing liquid from the roasting pan and cover the pot. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.

Transfer the pot to the oven and roast for 2 hours, checking the level of liquid occasionally and adding more water as necessary. (May cool to room temperature and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Return to room temperature prior to proceeding.)

Sprinkle the shanks and beans with the salt and, using a wooden spoon, work or mix the salt into the mixture. Return the pot to the oven and roast, uncovered, until heated through, about 20 minutes (adding more water as necessary). Remove and discard the bouquet garni.

To serve, either transfer the shanks to individual plates and spoon the beans on top or spoon the beans into shallow bowls and shred the meat over the top.

Per serving: 635 calories, 61 gm protein, 76 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 101 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 866 mg sodium, 19 gm dietary fiber.

12 November 2006

Cue at the Guthrie – Take 2

In my October 18 post, I mentioned an experience at Cue at the Guthrie. While three of us at dinner that night enjoyed our meals, we all agreed that the service was mediocre at best, and one of our group was very dissatisfied with his meal.

I went back to Cue later in October, this time for lunch. My brother and I try to have lunch together in between his birthday (mid October) and mine (late November). I suggested that we give it a try, and he was game.

The modern, stylish décor of the restaurant works as well during the day as it does at night. At night, the lighting is all cool and dramatic. During the day, the floor-to-ceiling windows flood the dining room with light and reveal attractive views of the Mississippi river and the hip new development along the river.

This was a birthday lunch, so we started with a glass of wine. We chose a Barbera d’Alba by Pio Cesare. We both started with the puréed white lentil soup with olive oil-baked croutons
and heirloom tomato coulis. I like lentils and lentil soup, and this was very satisfying. The tomato coulis was very flavorful, but the small dollop in my bowl of soup was not sufficient for the size of the bowl they served.

My brother had filet of big eye tuna on grilled whole wheat bread with leaf lettuce,
grilled onion and peppercorn tartar sauce. It was a very attractive sandwich. The tuna slices were about a half inch thick – easy to overcook. But this was nicely seared and medium rare in the middle.

I ordered the wild mushroom risotto with pecorino cheese, crisp leeks and parmesan broth. The flavors were very good. The mushrooms had an earthy flavor and scent that combined well with the cheese. The leeks were a nice touch and lent a textural contrast to the rice and mushrooms. The parmesan broth added moistness to the dish, but not so much that it became soupy.

I liked it a lot, but I think my brother’s sandwich looked better. My wife always says that she likes the risotto I make so well that she never orders it at a restaurant. But I like to order risotto at restaurants to try different flavors and combinations of ingredients. In this case, however, I agree with her. I’ve made risotto with mushrooms and liked it better than what was served a Cue.

Which is not to say that I was disappointed. Overall, I thought the food was very good and a reasonably good value. (You don’t go to Cue for a bargain meal. But the prices were acceptable for a celebration lunch.)

Service, which was mediocre for our dinner foursome, was outstanding at our birthday lunch. Our server was attentive and prompt. She checked in with us regularly, made suggestions but never was pushy. And she graciously took our photo to preserve the moment.

In my October 18 post, I said that I wanted to like Cue. I’m happy to say that it redeemed its ‘miscue’ from our earlier dinner. I’m ready to recommend it and look forward to another meal there soon.

Salt Creek Grille, Valencia, CA

Election Day this year was kind of unusual for me. For the past several years, I’ve hosted an Election Night party at our house. This year, business travel precluded me from putting on another party.

I got up early, as I usually do on Tuesdays, and went to spinning class at the JCC from 6-7. Usually on a Tuesday, I go to the office from the ‘J.’ But this time, I went home instead and had breakfast. (Toasted challah, cheese, a pear, and coffee.) Then I went to the polls to vote. After voting, I went to the airport for a trip to Valencia, CA.

Recently, my job has taken me to California more regularly. And I like California. But most of the time, I’m in Sacramento (see my September 11 posting) or the Central Valley. I rarely go to southern California, and honestly, I don’t really like the Los Angeles metro area. It’s too spread out and traffic is awful. It took me 45 minutes to get from the LA Airport to the Hyatt Valencia.

Once I arrived, however, I have to admit – it’s really quite pleasant. The hotel is right across the street from Valencia Town Center. After getting checked in and doing a little work, I wandered over to the shopping center to look for a place to have dinner.

After checking out several places (some ordinary like TGI Fridays, some interesting but expensive), I settled on Salt Creek Grille. I wanted to eat outside. The weather in Minnesota was in the 50s and damp. The weather in Valencia when I arrived was 95 with low humidity, bright and sunny. By the time I went out for dinner, it had cooled a bit. But it will be five months before I can eat outside in Minnesota again, so that was one of my criteria. Also, the restaurant has a nice range of choices – from salads and sandwiches to fairly expensive entrées, including a selection of prime beef meals.

I was hungry after a day of travel. I didn’t have any lunch, and the shift in time zones made it later than I normally eat dinner. But I still didn’t want to overdo it. So I decided on a salad and a sandwich.

The salad was their house specialty. It was mixed greens with Granny Smith apples, tomatoes, gorgonzola cheese, candied pecans, and balsamic vinaigrette. It was pretty good. I especially liked the apples, pecans, and dressing. I had expected the tomatoes to be ripe and flavorful. They looked very nice, but they weren’t anything special. The gorgonzola was good, but not as robust and salty as I normally like.

For my sandwich, I ordered a blackened ahi tuna steak. It was seared and served very rare. I’ve written in earlier posts that I don’t mind rare fish, and this was very rare. Barely warmed in the middle. But it was very good quality tuna and very delicious. Also on the sandwich were daikon sprouts, tomato, avocado, and wasabi mayo. It was served on Portuguese bread. I picked it up and started working on it. It was a very thick sandwich and somewhat difficult to eat.

I was enjoying it, but I finally set it down and started to deconstruct the sandwich, cutting off smaller bites and separating the different ingredients. That actually made it more enjoyable. I decided that the bread was the main problem. I’m not sure what Portuguese bread is supposed to be like. The bread with this sandwich was sort of like Italian focaccia. But it was kind of dry and not very flavorful. I think the bread was absorbing all the flavor and moistness of the sandwich.

When I started eating the sandwich by isolating the individual elements, it was a lot more tasty. The only other quibble about the sandwich was the wasabi mayo. It didn’t have a lot of spiciness, like I expect from wasabi. I suppose a lot of the mayo was spread on the bread, and when I took apart the sandwich, I didn’t get as much mayo in each bite as maybe was intended.

According to the web site, the Salt Creek Grille has two other locations – one in New Jersey and another in California. Overall, I liked it. I would go back again.

Salt Creek Grille postscript: Wouldn’t you know? The second night of my meeting in Valencia we had a group dinner – at the Salt Creek Grille. We had a choice of the house salad like I had my first night or a Caesar. This time I had the Caesar – good but nothing special.

For an entrée, we had a choice of salmon, a steak, or rack of lamb. I love lamb, so I ordered that. Wrong choice. This was an example of a restaurant trying to do something fancy when plain would have been better. The steak and salmon were simply and nicely prepared. The lamb was nicely done, but it wasn’t great quality meat. They roasted the lamb with a seasoned breadcrumb coating. It did not enhance the meal at all.

For our wine, we have Ravenswood Zinfandel. It was very good and went well with the lamb as well as the steak.

28 October 2006

Happy hour at the Sample Room


A group of us from work recently went to the Sample Room in Northeast Minneapolis for happy hour. Most of us have worked together for many years. So we had a fun time reminiscing about past adventures and misadventures.

The Sample Room was a great place for such an event. It’s fairly small with booths along the walls and tables on the floor. We commandeered a bar-height long table for our group of seven.

The bar is located close to the Mississippi River in a historic part of town. The neighborhood is laid back and unpretentious. As the name implies, the Sample Room’s theme is small plates and selections – just right for sharing by a group. The night we were there, they offered half-price bottles of wine. They also have flights of wine – three small glasses of different varieties of red wine or white wine. They also have flights of tequila and single-malt scotch.

For drinks, we did the half-price bottles of wine. A couple people had beer. Our guest of honor for the evening had martinis. One person had a red wine flight. I and one other had the scotch flight.

I am a scotch fan, and I was familiar with all three of the selections. Oban, Dalwhinnie, and Balvenie. I think I liked the Balvenie the best, but it also is the one I’m most familiar with.

On the menu, the small plates are grouped in categories – cheese, seafood, meat, vegetarian. You can order a sampler selection which allows you to mix and match four plates from among the categories.

We had two orders of the sampler selection. Our choices were shrimp, goat cheese, camembert, and olives on the first order. The second order had meat loaf, sugar snap peas, more cheese, crab cake. Everything was a solid notch above ordinary bar food. The flavors were good and the items were well prepared. Our choices were easy to share.

The menu does have some entrées, and one of our group did order a pasta dish. It looked fine. But the on-line reviews on CitySearch indicate that others feel meals are not a highlight of the restaurant. That’s the way it looked to me as well.

We did also order a dessert sampler. We had cheese cake, crème Brule, and a berry tart. All were good. Nothing to brag about, but satisfying.

Finally, a word about the service. It was adequate. Not particularly attentive – we had to flag our server down a couple of times to order food and drinks. But we were there to party, so no one minded too much. The bartender was very accommodating, coming to our table to take our photo. For our group of seven, they added the tip to our bill. I understand why. I’m sure the server gets a substandard tip when there are groups partying like ours. But it still kind of irks me. I at least wish they would point it out when they do it, or if it’s a policy, to have it noted in the menu or on the bill.

I definitely would go back to the Sample Room. But it would have to be with a group. I don’t think my wife and I would have nearly as much fun going there just the two of us.

18 October 2006

Nix on Bellanotte

Last week, one of our company executives told me about a dinner meeting he’d been to. After we covered the substance of the meeting, I asked him where the dinner was. He told me Bellanotte in downtown Minneapolis in the Block E entertainment district on Hennepin Avenue.

“Not good,” he told me. “I won’t go back. You should write about it in your blog.”

His main objection was very poor service. This was a small group of 8-10 people. It was a late evening dinner. People were tired. They just wanted to have a relaxing dinner and get out of there. The service was very slow and inattentive.

My wife and I had the same experience at Bellanotte several months ago. We also decided that there are too many good restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul to waste time with a disappointing venue.

And yet, it wasn’t easy for me to decide to write a negative review. I’ve never really panned a restaurant before on KriksPicks. It made me consider the approach by another restaurant blogger, RestaurantGirl, who reviews restaurants in New York City. I don’t travel to NYC much, so I don’t have any experience with the restaurants she writes about. But you should take a look at her blog if you travel there.

Anyway, in her profile, RestaurantGirl says that her policy is only to write about restaurants that she wholly recommends. I can sympathize with that policy. First of all, a restaurant review is such a subjective thing. A cuisine or style of cooking that is unappealing to me might be someone else’s favorite. Second, who has time to write about the negative experiences? I’ve got notes on at least a half dozen restaurants that I haven’t mentioned in my blog. Why waste a post on a place that I don’t recommend?

It happened that I was talking to another co-worker about the dinner and mentioned it was at Bellanotte.

“Ooo,” she scowled. “I went there once. It was not good. I won’t go back.”

So that’s it, Bellanotte. Three strikes, you’re out.

Even harder than writing a negative review about a restaurant that I didn’t like is my dilemma about Cue at the Guthrie. My wife and I went there with friends a couple of weeks ago. Three of us had good meals. One of us was so unhappy that he swore he’d never go back.

I had roasted lamb with wild rice. When you look at the menu posted online, lamb isn’t on as a regular item. I think that my entrée usually is done with elk and for some reason, they substituted lamb the night we were there. I really liked the lamb. But I'm curious what it would have been like with elk.

My wife had grilled, marinated poussin with black barley-preserved cherry risotto and Madeira glace de viande. I thought this was the best meal of the evening. The risotto was wonderful.

One of our friends had braised rabbit with wild mushrooms. He liked it quite a lot.

But our other friend had the pork prime rib, and he was very unhappy about it. It was all fat and bone, very little meat.

We all agreed that our service was mediocre at best. And I think that’s the core of the problem.

Example 1: When we arrived, we dropped our friends off to claim our table while we parked the car. When we got in to the restaurant, they were seated and had ordered wine. (It was a Saintsbury Pinot Noir. The wine was very good.) We joined them, but our server never brought us menus, and we had to ask for water.

Example 2: My wife asked the server what is poussin? The server told us it was a milk-fed chicken. We knew enough about food to know that didn’t sound right, and my wife ordered it anyway. When I got home, I learned on Wikipedia that poussin is simply a Cornish game hen.

Example 3: Perhaps most importantly, an attentive server would have noticed someone at the table not enjoying his meal and intervened in time to prevent a dissatisfied customer.

So what’s a blogger like me to do? I can’t ‘wholly recommend’ the restaurant, but there were some good things. Part of the trouble is that I really want to like Cue. It’s an attractive space, and I want to see that part of Minneapolis thrive. So we will give it another chance.

11 October 2006

End of the Minnesota growing season


I just spent a couple of hours in the kitchen chopping basil to bag and freeze. Actually, it was lemon basil. I harvested the last of my sweet basil over the weekend. You see, the weather forecast is for our first killing frost, either tonight or tomorrow. Some of the heartier herbs will survive. In fact, I’ll be using fresh sage until it’s covered by snow. But the delicate stuff, like basil, definitely is a goner. (No irony intended – preserving basil by chopping and freezing it before a frost kills it.)

Same for tomatoes. My yard does not accommodate tomatoes well anyway. I always plant a few just to make a valiant effort. But my yard is too shaded for the plants to thrive. This year, with the heat in July, we actually harvested several handfuls of grape tomatoes and a few cherry tomatoes. But when the weather cooled off, they stopped ripening.

So my lament for the end of garden fresh tomatoes is mostly theoretical, but it’s no less heartfelt.

A friend of mine at work, a new reader of my blog, commented that she liked the postings about tomatoes. She said she has a favorite tomato recipe. She got it from Mary Hunt’s syndicated column called ‘Everyday Cheapskate.’

I told her that I would post it on the blog, so here it is. (Thanks, Jill.) The original recipe calls for shortening in the pie crust, but I’m giving you the option of using butter instead.

Savory Cheese, Tomato & Onion Pie

Pastry shells:

3 c. flour
3 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
c. shortening or butter
1 egg
2 tbsp. white vinegar
4 tbsp. cold water

Blend together flour, sugar, salt, and shortening (or butter if you choose to substitute) until mixture looks like coarse meal. In a small bowl, mix together egg, vinegar, and water until well mixed. Add to flour mixture and stir until it just sticks together. Form into two balls, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 15 minutes. When dough is chilled, roll out one ball and place in 9-inch pie pan. (You may freeze the other ball for a later use.)

Filling:

4 tbsp. butter
2 large onions, sliced
2 large, firm tomatoes
1 tbsp. chopped fresh basil
5 oz. Swiss cheese, grated
5 oz. Monterey Jack cheese, grated
2 tbsp. flour
2 large eggs
¾ c. cream or half-and-half
Dash nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350. Caramelize onions by melting butter in a large skillet and sauté onions for 30 minutes or until soft and brown. (Be careful not to burn.) Remove onions and set aside.

Slice tomatoes ¼ inch thick. Place tomatoes and basil in same skillet used to caramelize onions. Cook over medium heat for 3 minutes until heated through and tomatoes have absorbed any butter remaining in the skillet.

Grate cheeses into a bowl. Mix in flour. Spread 1/3 of cheese mixture over bottom of pastry dough in pie pan. Top with onions. Spread tomatoes over onions. Cover with remaining cheese. Whisk together eggs and cream until just blended. Carefully pour over cheese; sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake for 35-40 minutes until eggs are set and top is golden brown.

28 September 2006

Dinner at Cave Vin, south Minneapolis

My former boss, the one who rented a villa in Eze, France, after he retired, came to town for a meeting. So we decided to get together for dinner. He was staying at an airport hotel, and we didn’t want to go downtown. So my wife and I picked Cave Vin. I’ve provided a link to its web site, but it doesn’t have its menus posted.

Open Table (the online restaurant reservation service) says that Cave Vin is located in the Armitage neighborhood. I didn’t know that was what the neighborhood was called. But it’s a pleasant residential part of town. The restaurant is located in a corner commercial area that includes a laundry and a convenience store.

When my wife and I arrived, Bob was sitting outside enjoying a glass of wine. The restaurant has a few outdoor tables. But there isn’t any particular reason to sit outside except if the weather is particularly nice. Bob said it had a casual, comfortable feel of a French village café.

Bob had ordered a Portuguese wine – Lisa Terras do Sado. I couldn’t locate any online information about the wine or the winery. It had a hint of sweetness. I commented that it tasted like a chenin blanc that we used to drink. (The New York Times wine columnist, Eric Asimov, has written about chenin blanc in a recent post on his blog – The Pour. His blog is worth reading regularly.) By the way, Mondays and Tuesdays are half-price wine nights, so the bottle was a real bargain.

As you can see from the photo, the décor is open and spare. We’ve been there on busy weekends when it can get a little noisy. But it’s a pleasant, comfortable space.

Our waiter left us a basket of bread. It was a nice crusty French bread with a little pot of soft butter. It was very good, but we could have used some more butter.

Linda and I split a salad printemps. It was fine, but nothing out of the ordinary. (Printemps is French for ‘spring’ isn’t it? This salad wasn’t particularly springy.)

Bob ordered steak tartare. He commented that it’s hard enough to get a hamburger served medium rare in America, much less find steak tartare on a menu. He said it was very good, but also very rich. Instead of an entrée, he ordered another starter – fruits de mer. It was a plate of shrimp, crab, and fish fritters. Again, he said it was very tasty but also rich. Served as an appetizer, it would have easily sufficed for three or four people.

I ordered veal scaloppini. It was very tasty, served with a pistachio crust. The trouble is, like trout (see my post on Olives in Washington, DC), the thin slices of veal are difficult to get done just right. Also, since veal is very lean, it can get tough if it’s overdone. This veal was slightly overdone.

My wife’s meal was the best of the evening. She had crab-crusted halibut. The halibut was flakey and moist, and the crab was a perfect complement.

Overall, I think that Cave Vin is a comfortable restaurant that serves consistently good food. It was a good choice for our dinner with Bob.

23 September 2006

A September lunch at Olives, Washington, DC

I arrived on Tuesday in Washington at 10:30 a.m., on my usual flight. For this trip, I stayed at Hotel Rouge on Embassy Row, walking distance to my meetings on Wednesday. My lunch meeting was cancelled, so I was on my own. I wandered around downtown a little bit and decided on Olives at 1600 K St. NW. If you look at the web site, you’ll see that Todd English has six restaurants called Olives across the United States. I’ve never eaten at any of the others. But I have been to Olives in DC a couple of times. One of the cool things about the restaurant is that it’s two blocks from the White House. It’s impressive to just look down the street and see it as you arrive or as you leave the restaurant.

I decided to have one of the daily specials – trout with a lemon caper sauce served with braised Brussels sprouts and pureed potatoes. The restaurant serves a nice bread basket to nibble on while waiting. The bread is served with a black olive tapenade, a green olive tapenade, and a small assortment of green and black olives. They all were good, but I thought the green tapenade was particularly flavorful. I realized that with the caper sauce on the fish, I must have been in a mood for something salty.

The braised Brussels sprouts were very tasty. But the trout was the best. I’d forgotten how much I like trout. We eat fish quite a lot at home, mostly salmon, tilapia, and various ocean fish. But I grew up eating trout. My grandpa loved to fish, mostly in trout streams that wind through the rolling hills of southeast Minnesota.

I never had the patience for fishing. My idea of fishing was occasional family outings to a ‘trout farm’ near Spring Valley, Minn. We would stand at the edge of a pond stocked with fish, drop in our hooks and within minutes we’d pull out a nice-sized trout. I’m sure my grandpa was mortified.

I discovered that the trout farm went out of business several years ago. A new owner was involved in a controversial plan to reopen the business; he was opposed by sport fishermen who worried that the trout farm would disrupt the fishing in streams that fed the ponds on the farm. The new owner died this summer, and it’s unclear if anyone will pursue his plan any further.

Somewhat ironically, while Gramps loved to fish, he didn’t particularly like to eat fish. But I did. My mom would cook up the trout, usually fried in a cast iron pan. I loved it.

The trout I had at Olives was nicely cooked. It’s easy to overcook trout because the fillets are so thin. But this fish was moist, tender, and very delicate. The caper sauce was a very nice complement to the fish. The trout was served skin side up. That kind of took me aback. I usually take the skin off fish. I ate a few bites including the skin, and it didn’t taste bad. But old habits are hard to break, and I took most of the skin off, exposing a white, succulent, tender fish, almost like lobster.

I enjoyed it very much. It put me in a good mood for my meetings and work the rest of the week.

11 September 2006

Michelangelo’s, an Italian art restaurant in Sacramento

Okay. The first thing I want to say is I wish I had brought my camera because the image of Michelangelo’s from the internet does not do it justice. I mean really. Does this look like an art restaurant, for heaven’s sake?

But it is. The art is good, and the food is wonderful.

This was my second visit to Michelangelo in Sacramento. The first was a very similar business trip. I’m in town just overnight. I couldn’t bring myself to pay an outrageous rate for a ‘business’ hotel downtown, so I’m staying at a Clarion in the midtown district. But the best thing about staying here is that I discovered Michelangelo just a three block walk away. So when I set up this trip, I knew right away that I wanted a return visit to the restaurant.

The shtick is that the restaurant is affiliated with an art gallery. Really cool. The restaurant décor is stone tile flooring, wooden tables and chairs, rustic ceiling, and eclectic art on the walls. I arrived before my dinner guest and had a drink at the bar. I ordered a ‘Lemon Halo.’ It was vodka, lemon flavored spring water, and limoncella, served in a martini glass with a coating of sugar on the rim. Yummy.

A group of gay men were ordering gin & tonics before touring the gallery. They commented that the painting over the bar was the ‘gayest’ portion of the Sistine Chapel. I knew I was in for a good evening.

I was entertaining a California dairy industry leader. No agenda, just to discuss things happening in the industry, in Sacramento and Washington, DC. We’re friends and have known each other for a few years.

We decided to order a bottle of wine. He deferred to me. I felt self-conscious ordering an Italian wine in California, but I couldn’t resist the Barbera d’Alba by Bricco Quattro Fratelli.

Sorry, but I have to insert a diversion from the restaurant review.

I have a former boss and friend who, when he retired, rented a villa in Eze, France, near Nice. My wife and I visited him while he was there. We had a wonderful time touring the little mountain villages along the Mediterranean. One day, we drove into Italy to check out a local market in Sanremo. We had a great day shopping, including picking up food to prepare at the villa that evening. We bought a Barbera d’Alba at the market, and it was outstanding. The one I drank in Sacramento reminded me of it.

So, back to Michelangelo. They served a nice bread basket with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I asked for butter, and they graciously served it. My only disappointment was that it wasn’t Land O'Lakes brand.

My guest ordered the evening specialty – shrimp spiedini, skewered shimp served on a lemon mascarpone risotto. The shrimp were nicely grilled; the risotto was rich and creamy. I ordered the grilled ahi tuna with fresh tomato caper sauce over penne. The tuna was two pieces of steak cut about ½ inch thick. I had ordered it seared, and I was concerned that the thin pieces got overdone. But they were just the way I like it – hot on the outside, rare and cool in the middle.

We both enjoyed our meals immensely and didn’t let discussion of business diminish the ambiance of the restaurant nor the enjoyment of the meal.

If you’re ever in Sacramento and want to try a unique, casual Italian venue, I would recommend Michelangelo’s.