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.


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.