29 March 2007

Two Mpls. Fish Restaurants: 3 Fish & Stella's

A few weeks ago, a friend at work, who’s not originally from Minnesota, asked me for a recommendation of a good fish and seafood restaurant. The first two that came to mind were Oceanaire and Blue Point. They are very different. Oceanaire has become a high-end, expense account restaurant. Blue Point is an exclusive locale in a western suburb.

Almost as an after thought, I suddenly remembered another – Three Fish in south Minneapolis. “I’ve only been there once,” I said. “But it was really good.”

Not too long later, my wife and I were making plans to go out with another couple. Where should we go? “Three Fish,” the other couple suggested. Wow. Was I glad they did.

Three Fish is a gem of a place. It’s located at the south end of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. It’s this unpretentious restaurant that serves consistently good fish and seafood. Somewhere, once, I heard an explanation for the name. Three fish = seafood, ocean fish, and freshwater fish. I don’t know if that’s accurate. But they do consistently well on all three.

Our group selected two orders of the scallops. Our friends, who have dined there more frequently than we, said it was a reliable favorite. The dish lived up to expectations again for us. One of the group ordered the weekly grill special. It was a straight-forward, grilled piece of fish. Top quality, not overdone, moist and flavorful. I had the mahi-mahi. It also was grilled and served with a plate of grilled vegetables and a sauce that complimented the fish.

Three Fish has a week night wine special. They have a selection of wines that are $20 per bottle, Monday through Thursday. On the weekend, they are $10 more. We ordered Tres Ojos garnacha. My wife and I like Spanish wines very much. But what can I say? This was outstanding!

Three Fish is not an undiscovered gem. A lot of people know about it, and you usually need a reservation. But the next time someone asks me for a recommendation it will be on top of my list.

So about a month later, our daughter came home for a weekend. (She lives in Chicago.) We were trying to decide where to go for dinner, and my wife suggested Stella’s in Uptown Minneapolis. None of us had been there for dinner before. My wife had been there for lunch.

The feel and style of Stella’s is way different from Three Fish. The Uptown area is a hip neighborhood with a lot of young people. The restaurant is a high energy, cool décor venue, quite different from the relaxed, quiet ambiance of Three Fish. Stella’s has an open air, rooftop bar that’s always hopping during the warm weeks of the year.

We started our meal with an order of the coconut crusted shrimp appetizer with pineapple coconut marmalade. I thought it was great. My wife had had it as a lunch entrée on her previous visit, and she thought the shrimp were overdone.

For dinner, my wife ordered the stuffed grouper. If you’ve read my blog in the past, you may have noticed a pattern. Usually, my wife picks the best item on the menu. Not this time. I thought the stuffed grouper was very tasty. But it was breaded and over seasoned.

My daughter ordered crab-stuffed ravioli. The pasta was stuffed with crab and mascarpone cheese, nicely seasoned. Three of them were topped with a traditional marinara sauce and three with a white sauce. They were very good, if a little rich.

For once, I picked the best meal of the evening. Mine was the marlin special. It was a nice, fresh piece of marlin, which is similar to tuna – dense and very flavorful. It was grilled just right and served plain, with complimentary sides on the plate.

Stella’s and Three Fish are two very different fish restaurants. But they both are worth the visit. Stella’s is more casual with high quality fish combined with a fun location and cool rooftop bar. Three Fish is not formal, but it’s more reserved dining area with friendly service and a creative menu – and high quality fish.

21 March 2007

‘First Class’ lunch at 36,000 feet

I travel a fair amount for work. I travel enough that occasionally, I qualify for an upgrade to First Class. However, my most common destination is Washington, DC. There are so many ‘elite’ travelers to DC that you have to be platinum or at least gold to get an upgrade. My measly ‘silver elite’ status usually doesn’t cut it.

The last couple of times I got an upgrade were for personal, vacation travel. I let my wife have the first class seat. (I may be dense, but I’m not stupid.) But on my trip to DC this week, I got an upgrade. It must have been a combination of time of day (mid-day) and the fact that I was flying to Dulles instead of Washington National.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been served a meal on an airplane. I just can’t imagine being hungry enough to buy those snack boxes they sell for an outrageous price on airplanes these days. But they were serving a lunch in first class on the flight to Dulles. I was curious to see what a first class lunch consisted of these days.

The choices were a lunch salad or a ‘cobb salad wrap.’ I chose the wrap. On the tray were the wrap sandwich, a side salad, and a commercial oatmeal/raisin cookie wrapped in sealed plastic.

The best part of the meal was the side salad. It was barley, roasted corn, and black beans with a few pieces of red pepper and a hint of cilantro. The dressing was a simply oil and vinegar combo. It actually tasted pretty good, and it was fairly filling. I should have stopped there.

The cobb salad wrap was awful. It had no flavor, no color, no texture, no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Take a look at this Wikipedia photo of a real cobb salad. I should have realized the improbability of wrapping a cobb salad in a flour tortilla, serving it in flight, and having it having any semblance of a genuine cobb salad.

The cookie was sadly disappointing too.

A first class upgrade is nice. If you want to work while flying, you actually will have enough room to work semi-comfortably. But based on my experience this week, the food it not a reason to want an upgrade.

19 March 2007

Original fast food at the Convention Grill, Edina, Minn.

(Guest post from Patty Miller)

Before Arby’s, before KFC, before the Golden Arches, there was the Convention Grill. Tucked into what was once the “downtown” for the village of Morningside, the Convention Grill has been drawing customers with its no-frills, top-notch “fast food” since 1934.

While many a retro café has tried to duplicate the look, the sleek, stainless-steel-and-neon exterior of the Grill is the real thing. And so is the interior. Step into the front dining area and you’ve stepped back in time. Dark-brown wooden booths line the walls, which are painted a rather sickly shade of golden yellow – or maybe it’s the greenish glare from the fluorescent lights that makes them that color. Brown-and-gold patterned linoleum is underfoot, and against one wall, there’s a jukebox loaded with pop favorites of the past 70 years, so you never know what’s going to be playing. Tonight, it’s Iron Butterfly’s Inna Gadda Davida.

Red vinyl-covered swivel stools face a stainless steel counter, and behind it stretches a huge open grill, a score of hamburger patties sizzling and popping, while their accompanying buns fry on a thin, glistening layer of grease. Speaking of grease, I won’t be doing any fat-sodium-calories tally in this review. But note – the food may be cooked in grease, it’s not greasy.

The side dining room takes you away from the crowd of folks waiting to get seated (during the dinner hour, there’s always a crowd) and the fast-paced action around the grill, with cooks flipping and building burgers, wait staff whirling up shakes and squeezing by with loaded trays held high. It’s quieter and more spacious, although some misbegotten “update” in the 80s added mirrors and a teal-and-gold, zigzagged-pattered wallpaper border.

But the wait staff – I should probably say waitresses because I’ve never seen a guy server – hasn’t been updated and are still clad in uniforms right out of the heyday of drive-ins, complete with aprons with a pocket for their order book. They’re attentive, friendly, fast and no-nonsense – just like good diner servers should be. As soon as we’re seated, Julie pops over with plastic tumblers of ice water and asks if us if we’d like anything else to drink.

Of course we do. What we want is one of the Grill’s fabulous, made-with-real-ice-cream malts or milk shakes. Yes, they make malts with real malt powder. With flavors that range from banana to butterscotch, it’s hard to choose, but my friend and I both settle on chocolate-coffee (not mocha, chocolate-coffee). There’s a new twist – the Grill now offers half orders on malts and milk shakes. As we waver, Julie reassures us that it’s not really a paltry half order, more like three-quarters. We both opt for the half.

That’s actually a wise move because the shakes are always served first. Creamy, flavor-packed shakes poured (or more like glopped) right from the metal container in which they were created into tall, old-fashioned malt glasses. There’s nearly another full glass left in the container, so unless you’re splitting, the half order makes sense. Plus, you want to leave room for the burgers.

Our server heads off with our order, while we peruse the menu, not that there’s much to peruse. The Convention Grill is a burger joint, but since I began making my semi-annual pilgrimages in the 1980s, they’ve tossed in a few options like Caesar salad and a triple-decker grilled cheese sandwich. Look around the room and mostly you’ll see plates piled with burgers and fries.

You can build your own burger or choose from standards such as a California or mushroom-and-Swiss burger. Then there’s my friend’s fave — the Plaza burger, made famous by a diner in Madison. It’s topped with blue cheese, sour cream and onions. But tonight, she and I both opt for the classic mushroom-and-Swiss, although I switch out smoky Cheddar (or sometimes pepper Jack) for variety. Finished off with fried onions, of course.

Let’s see, we’ve got malts and burgers – now for the fries. The Grill’s fries are a wonder. Thin strips of skin-on potatoes, deep-fried until they’re crisp and golden and slightly salty on the outside, yet warm and nicely potato-y on the inside. These are fries with heft, not those pallid, skinny things from Burger King. Warning: you may be tempted to buy a full order, but don’t unless you have at least three friends with you. A half-order generously serves two, while the side order is more than enough for one.

When the burgers come, they’re open-faced with cheese slices melting on the pile of hot sautéed fresh mushrooms and onions and thick, hand-formed burgers. The bun is warm and toasted to a golden brown on the flat side. We both ignore the wan slices of tomato and pale leaves of iceberg lettuce, add a little mustard and ketchup, and bite in. You can’t make burgers like this at home. I think it’s the 70 years of grease.

13 March 2007

Lunch at Arby’s, Clear Lake, Iowa

I don’t eat at fast food restaurants very often, probably no more than five times a year. I usually find that it’s almost as easy and almost as quick to stop in at a café or casual restaurant and sit down to a quick meal as it is to swing through a fast food place. On the rare occasion when I do eat at a fast food place, it’s almost always when I’m traveling – like on a short layover at an airport.

When I do eat fast food, I have to admit, my decision where to eat and what to eat usually is driven by some kind of ad or promotion. Examples:

I ate at a Quiznos at the Denver airport because I wanted to see if a toasted sub really was better. I thought it was.

It’s been a really long time since I’ve eaten a fast food burger, maybe two or three years. The last time I remember eating one, Burger King had a promotion for three slices of natural cheese on the burger – cheddar, Swiss, and provolone. I always support serving natural cheese instead of processed cheese. But in this case, it didn’t really make much difference. Maybe this just goes to show that processed cheese really is the most appropriate addition to a fast food sandwich.

About a year ago, I stopped at an Arby’s while driving home from Wisconsin because they had their ‘two fish sandwiches for $4’ promotion. It was a pretty good bargain, but holy smokes; it was too much to eat.

In February, I was driving back from Des Moines and I stopped in Clear Lake, Iowa, to buy gasoline. While I was pumping the gas, I noticed an Arby’s across the road. I decided to get lunch there. Maybe you’ve seen the commercial that compelled me to eat there:

Three guys are in the cab of a pickup truck. They’re gazing out the window.

The driver says, “Are those real?”

The guy in the passenger seat says, “Oh, they’re real all right!”

The guy in the middle says, “They’re so big!!”

Of course, they’re at the Arby’s drive-up window, and they’re ogling the chicken tenders on the menu.

So I went in to try the chicken tenders. I ordered a value meal – three pieces of chicken tenders, a small serving of curly fries, and a beverage.

The chicken tenders were actually pretty good. The coating was not too heavy. More importantly, the seasoning was pretty well balanced – not too salty and not overwhelming. The chicken was moist and truly tender.

The curly fries, on the other hand, were awful. They were limp, not at all crisp. They were coated in a horrible, orange seasoning. Truly awful.

I don’t usually order soft drinks, and when I do, I prefer original Coca Cola. Fortunately, they had unsweetened iced tea! HOORAY! It cut the awful flavor of the curly fries.

All together (and taking them at their word that the tea truly was unsweetened), my lunch had 717 calories, half (347 calories) from fat – 39 total grams of fat, five grams of trans fat. It had 29 grams of protein, 67 grams of carbohydrates, and nearly 2000 milligrams of sodium. All for about $6.

Clear Lake postscript

If you’re driving by Clear Lake around lunch time, skip the fast food joints at the I-35 intersections. Drive into town; it’ll only take you an extra five minutes. You’ll find a local café or a deli where you can get a sandwich and a cup of soup and a slice of homemade pie.

I grew up in southern Minnesota, about 40 miles from Clear Lake. When my mom and dad were young, they used to go to dances at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” died when their plane crashed while trying to take off in a snow storm after playing a show at the Surf.

That was early in the morning of February 3, 1959. I was 7 years old.