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.

10 September 2006

Oven roasted tomatoes

A year ago, my parents celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary. As part of the celebration, my brothers and sister and I did a family cookbook. One of the recipes that my sister included was for oven roasted tomatoes. Earlier this summer, we had a family get together at my brother’s house, and my sister mentioned the tomato recipe, and it got me curious.

So this week, my wife went to the farmers market and I asked her to buy a peck of tomatoes so I could roast a bunch. She brought back a bag full of beautiful, ripe Roma tomatoes. As I reviewed the recipe, I realized I had a few questions. So I called my sister.

Q: Your recipe says roast at 350 for three hours. That seems kind of hot for too long. Don’t they get dried out?

A: Well, I have a convection oven, so I only set it for 325. And with a convection oven, it doesn’t go a full three hours.

Q: Oh, well I have a convection oven, too. So I guess I won’t do it at the heat and time that the recipe says. Also, we bought Roma tomatoes rather than regular round tomatoes. Do you think that makes a difference?

A: Well, Romas have less water, so they’ll probably roast down quicker than three hours. The main thing is to roast them until they collapse and the water has evaporated. Then all that’s left is the oil with a nice, concentrated tomato essence that you can use in other recipes. Another thing to remember is to line the pan with parchment paper so that the tomatoes don’t stick.

(Actually, the recipe in the anniversary cookbook doesn’t say anything about parchment paper.)

Q: I don’t have parchment paper. Do you think a silicone liner will work?

A: I don’t have a silicone liner. But it should work ok.

My sister’s recipe is below. I’ve modified it to reflect the conversation we had and my experience roasting the tomatoes we bought. Like so many things, the recipe is really just a guideline. The thing is, you want to roast the tomatoes until most of the moisture is cooked out of them, and they are flat and concentrated on the roasting pan.

We used the roasted tomatoes on a pizza. We chopped them up and spread them over the pizza crust, then sprinkled with chopped fresh basil and oregano and topped with Gorgonzola cheese and parmesan. Turned out very nice. Thanks, Joan.

1 c. olive oil
12-15 tomatoes cut in half
Balsamic vinegar
4 cloves sliced garlic
2 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves

Set oven at 325. Line a 11x17-inch pan with foil. Coat the pan with oil. Arrange tomato halves on pan. Sprinkle with salt, sugar, and vinegar. Distribute garlic and thyme leaves over tomatoes. Drizzle with oil. Roast until tomatoes are concentrated and collapsed. (This will depend on how big the tomatoes are and how much water they contain, 1½ -3 hours.)

You can preserve the roasted tomatoes by layering in a pan, separated by wax paper, and then freezing them.

I modified my sister’s recipe thusly: I did use a silicone mat on one pan. But on the other pan, I just oiled the pan and placed the tomatoes directly on it. That worked ok for me. I also used garlic powder instead of sliced garlic, and I didn’t use any sugar. As noted in my introduction, I used Roma tomatoes which are smaller than regular tomatoes, so I used a lot more than 12-15 tomatoes per pan.

Lesson: Technique is more important than quantities or precise recipe specifications. What you’re looking for is a concentrated, collapsed tomato that still retains its shape. Just pay attention while its roasting and pull them out of the oven before they start to dehydrate.