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.