10 February 2007

Dinner at Johnny Delmonico’s, Madison, WI

Johnny Delmonico’s is a cool, sophisticated steak house that could fit into any capitol city in the country. It’s practically in the shadow of the Wisconsin state capitol, barely two blocks away. The fact that Delmonico’s is locally owned and that you can only enjoy it in Madison, Wisconsin, just adds an intangible sense of enjoyment to the experience of dining there.

My guests at dinner work for the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives. Since WFC is significantly a lobbying organization, and several staff members spend significant time at the Capitol. So I was quite surprised to learn that none of them had eaten at Delmonico’s previously.

Neither had I. I don’t get to Madison nearly enough. It’s a fun town to visit. The combination of state capitol and University of Wisconsin campus, located on either end of State Street, gives the city a fun combination of moods and experiences. I think the city’s restaurant scene is very creative. There are fun and funky bars and burger joints. Some great fish and seafood restaurants. Lots of ethnic restaurants (including the only Nepalese restaurant that I’m aware of in the Midwest). And, of course, Capitol Square is surrounded by restaurants and bars, which brings me back to my dinner at Delmonico’s.

The décor is open, inviting, and comfortable. Tables are discretely spaced so that the diners at the next table won’t hear your conversation … unless you want them to.

I was very impressed by the service. Our server was friendly and engaging. Some servers have a hard time figuring out how to break into the conversation in order to take orders or take care of the business of serving the meal. Our guy handled that very smoothly and unobtrusively. He was attentive but not pushy. I made a point of arriving a few minutes early and I laid out a few of my preferences as the host. He was very conscientious about observing my ground rules. (I gave him a healthy tip. But after writing about how good he really was, I probably should have given him more.)

The food was great. We started with a couple of appetizers – one order of oysters Delmonico and an order of bacon-wrapped scallops. The scallops were the most popular at our table. Since I like oysters, I deferred from taking a scallop. Judging by the enthusiasm of the other diners, I would say the scallops were good. I liked the oyster Delmonico quite a lot. It was broiled with spinach and bacon. Very tasty.

For entrées, the menu offers a lot of variety. But steaks (and fish) are featured. At our table, three people ordered 6 ounce steaks, one ordered an 8 ouncer, and one rib eye. One guest had grouper, and I had a veal chop. I like the option of ordering a smaller steak. Some of the national steak house chains serve steaks that are so large it’s ridiculous. Another option at Delmonico’s is to dress up the steak with ‘add ons.’ Two of my guests had their steaks ‘Oscar style,’ that is with crab meat, asparagus and hollandaise. It’s a creative option. Other choices are with a hollandaise and blue cheese sauce, bacon-wrapped, or a selection of sauces and rubs.

A salad is included with the steaks at Delmonico’s. That’s a nice touch in a world where everything usually is ala carte. They also served a basket of nice, crusty bread with a little tub of butter. But like most steak houses, the sides are extra. We had two orders of asparagus, on order of creamed spinach and one of whipped potatoes. They all were quite good.

I liked the wine list at Delmonico’s. They offered an ample selection of reasonably priced wines. I easily found one I was familiar with at a reasonable price. They also have a ‘reserve list’ with more expensive wines. But all I wanted was a pleasant, drinkable wine that my guests could enjoy and I wouldn’t have to worry about whether to give the nod to open another bottle. We had a pinot noir from Estancia. It fit my wishes precisely.

In sum, Johnny Delmonico’s turned out to be just right for this small dinner meeting. It offered good food, a comfortable setting, attentive and unobtrusive service. It stays on my list of Madison restaurants that I would come back to.

03 February 2007

Lunch at Al Vento, Minneapolis, MN

It was a pretty cold Friday afternoon, the beginning of the coldest weather we’ve had in Minnesota in several years. I met my friend (and occasional guest blogger) Patty at al Vento, located in a pleasant residential neighborhood in south Minneapolis, near the Minnehaha Creek and Parkway. It was sort of a belated birthday lunch and celebration of Patty getting a new client for her communications consulting business.

The décor of the restaurant is pretty sparse. I may have made a mistake choosing a table by the window. We got a draft from the door whenever it opened. Fortunately for us, unfortunately for al Vento, it didn’t open too often. Patty commented that it was a little chilly at our table.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch … which means the service was kind of slow. But we weren’t in any hurry, so that didn’t bother us. The server was friendly enough, just slow. It wasn’t like he was busy with other diners. During the hour and a half we were there, there were only five or six tables of other diners. We had to ask for bread (which was very good, but served without butter). He didn’t offer dessert. Patty ordered coffee. When he brought it, he brought artificial sweetener. Patty asked for sugar, by the time he brought it her coffee was cold.

We each ordered a glass of Mattei Barbera. (It’s kind of ironic that al Vento’s style of cooking is southern Italy, but the winery is from northern Italy.) The wine mellowed after being poured. I thought it was hearty and full-flavored, particularly good on a cold afternoon. By the way, the wine was half price at lunch - $3.50 for a generous size glass.

Patty ordered a gold beet salad with fennel vinaigrette and warm goat cheese. I’m not a big fan of beets, but Patty said she is. Unfortunately, she said that the salad was kind of tasteless, except for the cubes of roasted beets, which were too scarce in the salad. My salad was mixed greens with roasted pears and goat cheese. I liked my salad very much. The pears were sweet with a warm, roasted flavor. The goat cheese provided a pungent counterpoint to the pears. (Another server complaint – he forgot to offer cracked pepper for our salads.)

For entrées, Patty ordered bucatini all' amatriciana with tomato and pancetta, and I ordered pappardelle with braised duck ragu and goat cheese. We both liked our meals quite a lot. Hers was a bit spicy. The server told her it would be. She said that it would have been too much for someone who didn’t like spicy food. Mine was wonderful. The pappardelle was cooked just right. The duck ragu had plenty of meat in it and the sauce had a very nice blend of seasoning. In this dish, the goat cheese complemented the duck ragu (whereas it contrasted the pear in the salad).

My understanding is that al Vento is in a space where another neighborhood bistro had been previously. I think it’s the kind of restaurant that will survive or ultimately fail, depending on whether the local residents eat there regularly. I hope the thin crowd on the Friday we ate there was a symptom of the cold weather, and not an indication of neighborhood apathy for the restaurant.

I would go back. The half price wine alone made it worth the trip. On the other hand, Broder’s Pasta Bar is much closer to my neighborhood, and I like it better. But I wish al Vento well.

Ladies night at Il Vesco Vino, St. Paul, MN

Here’s another guest review from my friend, Patty Miller (see above post).

My golf foursome, aptly named Great Golf Delicious Dinner, continues the delicious dinner tradition at the holidays with a get-together to talk golf and start dreaming of our summer outings. Lani, Linda, Bonnie and I met at Il Vesco Vino this year. It’s the new restaurant at 579 Selby, in the beautiful double brick mansion that once housed The Vintage.

Despite its Victorian exterior, the interior is spared any frou-frou. The warm terra cotta-and-cream color scheme, sleek white dishes and contemporary glassware are quietly sophisticated. But the fireplaces and low lighting keep it cozy.

The wine list is exclusively Italian and features wine by the quartino (250ml), mezzo (500ml) or the bottle. We all ordered quartinos, which gave us each two+ generous glasses of wine, making the price seem very reasonable. Since we weren’t really familiar with the Italian offerings, our waiter was very helpful in selecting something that we all enjoyed.

For starters, Lani and Linda had the special soup of the day, a thick, fragrant lentil, which Linda said was close to the best lentil soup she’d ever had. Both took home about half of the portion, which was sizable for a starter and enough for the next day’s lunch.

I had the pear salad, which featured pear slices poached in red wine, grilled pineapple and arugula piled on a wine-and-butter seared slice of stirato bread and topped with crumbled gorgonzola. The bread took what could have been a rather typical salad and gave it texture and structure. It was tasty and a nice complement to my spicy/creamy entrée.

For an entree, Bonnie opted for the pasta tossed with prosciutto, peas and pecorino in a cream sauce and declared it excellent. Linda’s seafood-and-pasta dish was probably the prettiest, served in a boat-like bowl and studded with dark-brown mussel shells. She said it was a little garlicky for her taste, but said the flavor was still good. Lani had the seared ahi tuna on a “salad” of warm beets and tomatoes seasoned with basil. She said the tuna was excellent, but the beets could have cooked a little longer. I chose the spicy fennel sausage and zucchini tossed with pasta in a cream sauce. The flavor was luscious, rich and pleasantly spicy. There was decidedly more sausage than zucchini, which was fine with me, although the zucchini added nice color.

We wrapped up the meal with coffee and I had the biscotti and vin santo, which was reminiscent of my last trip to Tuscany. The wine was just sweet enough and the biscotti, which you dip in the wine, were crisp and buttery.

Throughout the meal, the service was helpful, pleasant and unobstrusive. Il Vesco Vino lived up to our “delicious dinner” standards and all of us said we’d go back.

01 February 2007

A|O|C – a tapas dinner in Los Angeles

When we go on vacation, my wife and I pride ourselves on being able to find interesting, fun restaurants that serve an enjoyable meal. We very seldom make reservations from home. Most of the time we do as I wrote in Chapter 2 when we found Casa del Rey. We wandered down to the Marina, checked the menus at a couple of places, and went in.

But as we planned our trip to Los Angeles, we wanted to eat dinner one night at a good restaurant where there would be the possibility of catching sight of a celebrity. So we started our investigation. We talked to friends who travel to L.A. fairly often. We sent e-mails to the children of friends who now live in L.A. We checked numerous web sites – CitySearch, Epicurious Travel, and others. When we would get a recommendation, we’d cross reference with different sources to see if they all agreed.

We narrowed it down to two possibilities – The Ivy and A|O|C. The Ivy sounded very promising. One of the web sites we checked noted that a scene from the movie Get Shorty was filmed there. I liked that movie, and I remembered the scene. But on CitySearch, several of the reviewers said that the food was mediocre and over-priced. On the other hand, the on-line reviewers for A|O|C raved about the food. So we picked A|O|C. We called ahead and made a reservation for our second day in L.A.

We packed our second day in L.A. full of activity. First a long walk along the Marina. Then we drove to Paramount Studios for a tour of the lot. Then we drove to Hollywood to see the Walk of Fame and Grumman’s Chinese Theater. Then we drove to Beverly Hills, had lunch, and shopped on Rodeo Drive. Then we drove back to our hotel to rest and freshen up before dinner. (I confess. I checked my e-mails again. Sorry.)

By the time we headed back onto the freeway to go to the restaurant, the traffic actually wasn’t bad. We made good time, found it easily, and arrived about 15 minutes early. They weren’t quite ready for us. But they offered us a table upstairs. We said “ok.” Our mistake.

See the nice picture of the dining room and bar at the top of this post? That’s not what you see upstairs. Basically, it was just a row of tables in a hallway. Not unpleasant. Not uncomfortable. (The tables were squeezed a little close to each other, but they were downstairs, too.) But, people-watching or star-gazing was nil.

On one side of us was a table of eight young adults. They were a parody of the stereotype of the self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, egocentric L.A. denizen. They were kind of funny in a way I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate. They ordered lots of plates and drank lots of wine.

On the other side was a nice, quiet couple who described themselves as Persians. They were very nicely dressed and the woman was quite stunning. We exchanged a few pleasantries. But I don’t think this was their style of restaurant. They didn’t seem to get the idea of ordering several small plates and sharing.

My wife and I do like tapas. Sometimes, it seems like you end up ordering more than you want or need. But that wasn’t our experience at A|O|C. We started with a selection of three cheeses. We told the server what varieties of cheese we liked, but we weren’t familiar with the differences between the specific cheese makers on the menu. We ordered a goat cheese, a sheep cheese, and a brie, and our server brought us a combination that he thought would work well together. They were very enjoyable.

We also ordered a bottle of Spanish wine – Solar de Rendez Rioja. Wow! It was fantastic. After the server opened the bottle and we had taken a few sips, the manager came to our table to make sure we liked the wine. He was sincerely interested in our opinion of the wine, and leisurely chatted with us about it.

After the cheese, we ordered two of the small plates. One was the young broccoli with garlic and chili. It was excellent. The broccoli was cooked crisp tender. The garlic and chili provided a nice counter-point and were not overbearing. The second plate was the market fish from the wood burning oven with orange, mint, and capers. It was very creative. The flavors each were distinct and complementary.

When we were done with the fish and broccoli, we decided we’d had enough. So instead of ordering another plate or two, we ordered a dessert. I picked the gateau Breton. My wife would have preferred a chocolate dessert, but she wasn’t really hungry anymore so she went along with my choice. When I ordered it, I jokingly called it an apple tart. The server very seriously and patiently explained that it was not a tart, rather it was a dense cake served with calvados, smokehouse apples and crème legère.

So in total, we didn’t see any celebrities and the room we were seated was nothing special. But we loved our meal and we loved the wine.

California PS: Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills & Sea Grille in Palm Desert

I don’t feel like I must review every restaurant I eat at. Most of the time it’s an easy decision which ones to write about and which to not. But sometimes, the decision is not so easy. On our recent trip to Southern California, we had two restaurant experiences that fell into that grey zone. Basically, they were both good restaurants. I just don’t have a lot to say about them.

In Chapter 3, I mentioned that we ate a late lunch in Beverly Hills. The restaurant was Il Fornaio (the bakery). Turns out it’s actually a chain of restaurants and bakeries in California, Nevada, and Washington.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived, so no problem getting a table. We kept an eye out for celebrities, but none to be seen. We ordered a salad and an entrée and shared both. The server was very accommodating and brought separate plates to facilitate sharing (and no extra plate charge). The salad was an Insalata Invernale. It was endive, frisee, radicchio, red grapes, gorgonzola and toasted walnuts tossed lightly with champagne vinaigrette. The pasta we ordered was Cappellacci di Zucca. It consisted of ravioli filled with butternut squash and walnuts, served on a bed of tomato sauce and topped with brown butter, parmesan and crispy sage. We enjoyed both very much.

Apropos a bakery, they served very good bread and bread sticks. The olive oil for dipping was top quality. (I didn’t ask for butter.) We each had a glass of wine – hers a Pinot Grigio Il Fornaio and mine a Barbera Il Fornaio.

After we left L.A., we drove to Palm Desert for a conference. We stayed at the Marriott Desert Springs. Nearly all of the meals there were part of the conference. But our first night was free. We made arrangements to dine with another couple attending the conference.

We had done some research into restaurants in Palm Desert. But we ultimately decided to just stay and eat at the resort. We chose the Sea Grille.

A couple of us had the Caesar salad. It was served with Spanish white anchovies. (Here’s what the Gourmet Food Store says about Spanish white anchovies: “Little white anchovies from Spain are filleted and marinated in olive oil and salt, creating a very mild dish. Fry them, toss them in salads and pizzas or just eat them with some fresh bread. Simple and delicious. Temporarily out of stock.” The salad was good, though I like Caesar dressing a little tangier than this one was. One person in our group had clam chowder.

As you might expect at the “Sea Grille,” most of our group ordered fish – one trout, one ahi tuna, one swordfish. I was the oddball. I ordered lamb chops.

They had a very nice wine list with a lot of wines in the $32-$48 range. They also have a reserve list with more expensive bottles.

The food was good, and we had a very pleasant evening. But when I started to think about my blog entry, I couldn’t come up with much to say.

But I did come up with a theory about a resort restaurant like Sea Grille. With the hotel and the vacation homes surrounding the golf course, I bet they get a lot of repeat customers. If these people are choosing to stay in the resort to eat, they want something that’s reliably good, even if that means it’s predictable. (In this context, ‘predictable’ is not a bad thing.) And you’re not going to spend $80-$100 for a bottle of wine every night, but you might spend $32. So Sea Grille (and I bet the other restaurants in the resort) is positioned as this nice, reliable, good, not-too-expensive restaurant that people don’t mind eating at once a week or maybe even more often.

Anyway, it worked for us. We had a comfortable table, attentive service, good food, good affordable wine, and we enjoyed a leisurely dinner with new friends.