30 May 2007

I wonder if I could live here?

In today's NYTimes, there's an interesting 'editorial observer' item by Verlyn Klinkenborg. He's writing about a cross-country road trip and the thoughts that occupy his mind while speeding down the highway.

As he's driving past the farms and ranches, small towns and cities of middle America, he finds himself wondering, "Could I live here?" It's an interesting question, and he handles it well in his commentary.

I usually make a point of reading Klinkenborg's commentary, even though I often disagree with him. He's about my age; actually a little younger. He lived in Iowa for a while during his youth. He was born in Colorado, and he went to college in California. Now he lives on a small farm in
New York and writes for the New York Times.

Often, I object to his views on 'what's wrong with American agriculture' and what policies are needed to make it right. But even when I disagree with his observations and prescriptions, I find him to be thoughtful and sincere. I appreciate that and respect it, and I'm willing to make time
to read his work.

This column resonated for me because in my travels, I've found myself wondering the same thing. Like Klinkenborg, my answer to my self-posed question is 'yes,' yes I think I could live in many places I've traveled to.

I have a theory. I think that people who have made a dramatic move in their lives tend to be able to see themselves living somewhere else. I think that people who move from a rural community (like from Iowa to New York or from southern Minnesota to Minneapolis) can imagine it more easily than the reverse. I find that many city people cannot fathom living in a small town or on a farm.

It’s also true that many country people can’t fathom living in a city, and some, like Klinkenborg, opt to move back to the country.

My belief is that people who have lived in the country have experiences that promote a healthy balance between individualism and community. When you are alone in the country, you are challenged to stretch, to learn the limits of your abilities, and to grow. But the experience of confronting personal limits also promotes an appreciation for teamwork and joint efforts for mutual benefit. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. Strong individuals lend their talents to the community, and strong communities help individuals achieve goals that are beyond their individual abilities.

Maybe that’s why cooperatives are such a common feature in agriculture and rural communities.

Just a thought that I had. That’s all.

23 May 2007

Lunch at Shelly’s Northside in Baldwin, Wis.

Oh, boy – field trip! I had the pleasure of hosting a van load of visitors in Minnesota for a visit to a dairy farm near Baldwin, Wis. My visitors were co-op people from Washington, DC, the Northeast, and Kansas City. What brought them to this particular dairy? Manure!

More specifically, we came to learn about an innovative system set up on the dairy that captures methane gas from cow manure, refines and purifies it, and burns it as a fuel. As our nation starts to get serious about decreasing our reliance on petroleum-based fuels, we’re seeing a surge in interest in renewable fuels from agricultural products. Ethanol and biodiesel probably get the most attention. But in Wisconsin’s Dairyland, with all those cows, there’s a logical and natural interest in finding ways to convert methane from cow manure into a fuel.

The result is a win-win situation. There’s a desirable environmental benefit because the process of capturing the methane reduces the odors and carbon emissions from the dairy There’s also an economic benefit to the farmer in that it’s provides a new revenue stream to the dairy – from the sale of a renewable fuel and the sale of carbon credits earned by reducing carbon emissions from the farm.

Actually, if you want to learn more about it, you’ll find tons of information on the internet. But this is supposed to be a food blog.

The group I was hosting is the ‘Waste to Wealth’ committee of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Our tour ended just a little before noon. Our choices for lunch were simple – there were plenty of fast food options at the Interstate exit, or we could drive an hour back to the city, or we could test my theory and find a local café. People were hungry. No one particularly wanted fast food. So we steered onto Main Street to check out what was available.

We were unsure about a restaurant. But a friendly local gave us a tip. Shelly’s Northside is always busy at lunch time. It must be good.

So we piled back into the van, and after a few wrong turns (and nearly running a stop sign) we found Shelly’s. Our group of 7 took up a big chunk of the available seating. We got quizzical, and somewhat annoyed, looks from some of the locals who showed up and found their home territory invaded by a bunch of strangers – talking on cell phones, clicking on their BlackBerrys, and talking about co-ops.

There was a board posted with the daily specials and menus on the table. One of the specials was a cup of soup (choice of beef barley or cream of potato) and a half of a tuna sandwich. Three of our group had that. The soup looked good and hearty. The sandwich was filled with a generous scoop of tuna salad.

One of the group had a cheeseburger and fries. Another had a ‘petite’ burger, which was a smaller burger with a small order of fries. The burgers were fine. The buns didn’t look to be anything special. The fries appeared to be hand cut, not pre-cut, parboiled, frozen fries. Another member of the group had a patty melt. The burger was like the other burgers, and it was served grilled between slices of marble rye bread. The bread looked like good deli bread.

Shelly’s offers breakfast all day. I ordered a #5, two eggs and hash browns. I had my eggs cooked ‘over hard’ and they came out just how I like them with the yolks fully cooked but the whites weren’t overdone or rubbery. The hash browns also seemed to be hand grated rather than prepared in advance or frozen.

After we placed our order, our host from the dairy farm came in. We invited him to join us, and he told us that Shelly’s is his local favorite café. He ordered one of the daily specials – beef stew served over mashed potatoes. We all had ordered several minutes before he arrived. But no sooner had he placed his order when the waitress appeared with his lunch. I noticed that they have the stew simmering in a Crockpot, and as soon as someone orders the special, it’s served right up.

The menu board listed several kinds of homemade pie. I couldn’t resist. I was told the cherry crumble pie was made with canned cherries, so I ordered the rhubarb pie. It was great. The rhubarb was tart and the pie crust flakey. (Not as good as my mom’s or my wife’s pie crust, but very good.) Two others also ordered pie; both ordered the banana cream.

The final tally – lunch for 8 people at Shelly’s Northside: $52 plus tip. It was a good, authentic local café. We really only had one unpleasant surprise – smoking is allowed in the restaurant. It’s been so long since any of us had smelled cigarette smoke in a restaurant in Minnesota, or DC, or California that we almost forgot how unpleasant it is.

14 May 2007

Kafé 421: Lunch in Dinkytown

Lunch with a friend, to find out how she likes retirement, provided a good excuse to try a new restaurant. I’ve been hearing some good things about Kafé 421. And it’s a good location – in Dinkytown, two doors down the street from Al’s Breakfast.

The restaurant is getting good reviews around town. Some of the on-line reviews I read gushed with enthusiasm, some calling Kafé 421 a ‘treasure.’ So I’ve been eager to give it a try.

It certainly is an appealing restaurant. When you pull up on the street, you’re greeted by a large, attractively-designed sign over the awning that shelters a half dozen tables for sidewalk dining. I thought about eating outside. But it was a very hot day, and there wasn’t quite enough shade for me to feel comfortable, so we went inside.

Inside, you are welcomed by several friendly staff people. I think the hostess who seated us was the owner, Georgia Sander, though she didn’t introduce herself. I noticed, however, that all during the hour we were there, she was bustling around, checking on guests and generally making sure that things went smoothly. If it wasn’t the owner, then she certainly was a dedicated and conscientious employee.

All of the staff members who we saw were very friendly. Everyone had a pleasant smile and a cordial greeting. Our server (India R., according to the receipt) was very efficient, and very attentive. Another staff member who brought our food to the table very enthusiastically agreed to take our photo, even stepping up on a chair to get a good angle. And when I asked the person who cleared our plates for a cup of coffee, he quickly brought it over, even though I assume it wasn’t his job. So Kafé 421 definitely gets an ‘A’ for service and friendly staff.

I also was impressed by the décor. There’s an attractive wall mural along the hall that leads from the entry to the main dining room. In one corner, there’s a piano. (Kafé 421 features live music on Wednesday and Friday evenings.) All of the walls feature interesting art – paintings and sculptures. So I’d also give it an ‘A’ for ambiance.

Then there’s the food. Based on our experience, here’s where I’d quibble with the enthusiastic reviews that I read. I had the Pescado sandwich, which was described as tuna mixed with olive oil, peppers, chopped olives and basil with Swiss cheese and tomato on grilled Vienna bread. When I read the description, I anticipated a fillet of tuna on the bread. Instead, the tuna was chopped and mixed with the other ingredients, like a tuna salad. The flavors were good, but it wasn’t what I expected. Lunches are served with a choice of salad, soup, or fries; I had the Caesar salad. It was an unusual Caesar. It had a good Caesar dressing, Parmesan cheese, and croutons. It also had tomatoes mixed in, which I thought was quite unusual for a Caesar. Not bad, but also not expected.

Bonnie ordered the tilapia sandwich, described as semolina-crusted fish with tomatoes, radishes, arugula, and cayenne remoulade also served on Vienna bread. This was more like we expected, only it wasn’t served on Vienna but on a grilled focaccia roll. She had the mixed green salad which she said was nice and crisp and fresh, but was dressed so lightly as to seem almost dry.

They do serve a basket of good bread. Unfortunately, the butter is Glenview Farms.

So how do I summarize the food? On the positive side, the lunch menu is creative and has a lot of variety. The food was well-prepared and very tasty. My negatives aren’t serious. It’s mostly a matter of not meeting expectations. But my overall reaction was, “This was good, and I would come back. But I certainly wouldn’t rave about it.”

By the way, as you can see in the photo, we both had a glass of wine. Kafé 421 has a nice wine list with a good selection of wines by the glass. I had a Greek red, Gai’a Notios. I picked it because I generally have good experience with Greek reds, and I considered it to be a reliable choice. It lived up to expectations and was a nice complement to the flavors in my sandwich. Bonnie had Harlow Ridge Pinot Noir. She said it was good, and I’ve had the Harlow Ridge before. It’s not an intense or a complicated wine, just a good accompaniment to a casual meal.

I liked Kafé 421 and I will try it for dinner sometime. I loved the décor, the overall ambiance, and the friendly staff. I thought the food was a good value, especially since it included the salad. Even though I can’t rave about our lunches, this restaurant deserves to be supported and encouraged.

04 May 2007

My chance to critique the NYTimes food critic

A friend of mine from Washington, DC, forwarded to me an interesting article. A New York Times food writer ran an article on April 29 about the food scene in Minnesota. As I am writing this blog entry, there are 50+ reader responses to the article. Many of them agreeing with the writer’s picks, and many taking indignant exception to -

1. Restaurants not included in the list;

2. Disagreeing with restaurants recommended, or

3. The whole concept that our Minneapolis food scene needs to be validated by a reporter from the New York Times. (Though the article’s headline refers to the ‘Twin Cities’ food scene, there are no St. Paul restaurants mentioned.)

My reaction was somewhat different. First of all, I was pleased that not only had I eaten at all but one of the writer’s picks, I agreed that some of these are among the top restaurants in our city. Second, while I think our Twin Cities restaurant scene has improved immensely, I don’t think we are a top tier restaurant city. The indignant protests about the many fine restaurants that we do have are understandable. We’re not a hick town. But in my opinion, Minneapolis and St. Paul are not in the same league as Chicago, New York, DC, Miami, San Francisco, and L.A. for restaurants.

Anyway, my friend invited me to react to the restaurants listed. It’s an invitation I can’t resist.

20.21 – I’ve only eaten there once. My wife and I went for lunch one day while visiting the Walker Art Center. We thought the food was very creative and very well prepared. It also was ridiculously expensive for lunch. We would go back for a special occasion. But it’s not one of our favorites.

Chambers Kitchen – This is easily on my list as one of the best restaurants in Minnesota. I love the food, the ambiance, the location, and the attitude. See my blog entry for more.

Cue at the Guthrie – This also is on my list for one of the top restaurants in Minnesota. I’ve been here for lunches, dinners, and cocktails. I keep coming back because it’s always impressive. I’ve got a blog entry on this one as well.

112 Eatery – This restaurant gets a lot of rave reviews locally as well. So I’m not surprised it showed up on the NYTimes list. I’ve only been there once. But I was not impressed, and I’m not likely to return. I thought it was expensive and mundane. The space is unexceptional, and the service was inattentive. It’s got lots of fans. I’m not one of them.

Spoonriver – Now here’s one on the NYTimes list that I just plain can’t agree with. When it opened, my wife and I were curious. But we walked by on our way to Cue and looked in. The Times review comments that the restaurant is a ‘rail-car width’ venue. Sorry. It looked totally unappealing, cramped, and unattractive. But the reality is I’m not a Brenda Langdon fan. I’ve eaten at Café Brenda. The food has been good enough. But the attitude is totally unappetizing. I get the feeling of this haughty, healthier-than-thou, organic snobbishness that puts me off entirely. My brother and I ate there once for our annual birthday lunch. He ordered a diet Coke. He was coolly informed that they do not serve diet Coke at Brenda’s. (Oh, by the way, they do serve sodas at Cafe Brenda. Just nothing as prosaic as Coca Cola.)

Well, excuse me. When attitude and political correctness takes precedence over customer preferences, then that’s a place I don’t need to spend my money. Sure, the people who go there generally recognize that it caters to a particular brand of food politics. But I disagree with it, and I choose not to patronize it, and I can’t recommend it.

To the Times reporter who wrote the article, I say, “Thanks for stopping in and thanks for your opinions.” For a traveler passing through, you could eat at these restaurants and be impressed (unless you wanted a diet Coke at Brenda Langdon’s restaurant). Come back again someday and try some of the other neighborhood restaurants that your other readers suggested. We may not be a top tier restaurant town yet. But we’re trying, and we’ve got a few more places that deserve notice outside of Minnesota.

Lunch at Bistro Bis, Washington, DC

I love Bistro Bis. The food is consistently outstanding. The menu is creative, and the food is well-prepared. So when a friend of mine suggested Bistro Bis for a lunch meeting recently, I quickly agreed.

Bistro Bis is considered a French restaurant. But I think it’s more accurately described as a Mediterranean/French-Italian restaurant. I’ve been there for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and they do all three extremely well. They also do a great job with groups. I’ve entertained a table of 12 for lunch. I’ve attended breakfast and lunch group events. They just consistently perform well.

Another thing I like about Bistro Bis is the location. It’s in the Hotel George, two blocks from Union Station and four blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The George is a Kimpton Hotel. It’s a great place to stay, and occasionally, you can find great room rates. (My wife and I stayed at another Kimpton, the Hotel Serrano, in San Francisco in March.)

For our recent lunch meeting, I was accompanied by two co-workers, and my friend had his wife along. My friend is an aficionado of morel mushrooms, and they had an appetizer of ‘morilles et oignons.’ It was a small ramekin of sautéed morels and caramelized onions. His wife had the ‘beet salad au citron.’ It was a platter of red and golden beets with goat cheese, walnuts,
orange, arugula and citrus infused olive oil. It looked lovely, and she liked it very much, but I’m not a fan of beets. One of my coworkers had the ‘panachee with cheese.’ It was a very nice salad of shallots, chives, cherry tomatoes and dijon vinaigrette with warm goat cheese.

My other coworker ordered a luncheon entrée salad – ‘crab salade Lucullus.’ It consisted of nice-sized chunks of crab meat with grapefruit, mango, tomato, avocado, spring salad and citrus-dill aïoli. It was served molded into a tower on the plate. It was very attractive. She reported it was good, but not as flavorful as she expected.

Three of us had the daily special of rockfish ‘barrigoule.’ It was a delicately cooked piece of rockfish served on a white bean puree along with artichokes, zucchini, and green olives. It was amazing. The sauce was light and delicate. The vegetables were cooked crisp tender, and the olives added a tangy, salty accent.

The other entrée was seared scallops. It was four nice-sized sea scallops, cooked just right. They were cooked through, but still very moist and not at all rubbery. It was served with garlic, tomato, olives, basil and a timbale of roasted eggplant surrounded by the scallops. An attractive, creative presentation that was appropriate to the superb preparation of the scallops.

A few of us opted for dessert. My friend’s wife had a bowl of seasonal mixed berries – very fresh, very tasty. One of my coworkers had the ‘terrine fraises.’ This turned out to be a layered strawberries and white chocolate mousseline with pistachio sponge cake and strawberry sorbet. He said that it was so good, he wished he’d had two desserts instead of a meal.

I had a lemon goat cheese torte. It was a light, fluffy torte topped with lemon curd and a goat cheese cream. The pungent goat cheese went well with the tangy lemon curd, and it looked beautiful on the plate.

I enthusiastically recommend Bistro Bis for any meal of the day.