22 August 2007

Kabul – Afghan restaurant in Madison, Wis.

I’ve written before about how much I like the restaurant scene in Madison. The city just offers so much variety – ethnic styles, different price ranges, different ambiance. So when we hit the road in July for an overnight trip to Madison, I had to admit feeling a sense of frustration. Our reason for going was to join in a family celebration with some friends. But there wasn’t going to be time to break away from the celebration to try any new restaurants.

My dilemma was solved by the decision to drive straight through and get lunch in Madison, even though it would be a little later than we normally would have lunch. There were four of us on this road trip – me, my wife, her sister (Tammie), and her sister’s husband (Phil).

Tammie attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So she had her own itinerary planned – basically a stroll down memory lane. My wife also had her own plans – visiting a young friend who’d recently had a baby. So Phil and I were on our own for lunch.

We parked near Capitol Square and began a leisurely stroll down State Street, checking out places to eat as we went along. It was a pretty hot day, but we wanted to eat outside, if possible. That meant that we decided not to eat at several places along the way because while they had sidewalk dining, there was no shade to provide relief from the heat.

We had gone several blocks and were nearing the beginning of the U-W campus when we found Kabul Afghanistan Restaurant. It wasn’t a totally random choice. Phil had eaten there recently when he brought his son, Eli, to Madison to tour the campus.

Phil eats primarily vegetarian and I like creative vegetarian dishes, too, especially for lunch. Kabul has a great selection of beef, chicken, and fish as well as vegetarian. But we both picked vegetarian lunches.

Phil had the vegetarian burani. It consisted of sautéed eggplant topped with vegetables and served with yogurt and fresh mint. I had a vegetarian couscous – a medley of carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, potatoes green peppers, and garbanzo beans served over couscous. Both lunches were very tasty and filling. They were served with a small salad and pita.

After lunch, we reconnected with our wives and got ready for the celebration we came to enjoy. It was a fun weekend, and I’m glad we had a chance to visit another of Madison’s fun, tasty, and unique eateries.

17 August 2007

The Café, Ames, Iowa

By Guest Blogger Patty Miller

When I was a student at Iowa State University in Ames, Aunt Maude’s was THE place to go for a special dinner – especially if the parents were paying. With its funky, Victorian charm, fabulous strawberry daiquiris (made with fresh berries) and well-prepared classic American fare like London broil and au gratin potatoes, Aunt Maude’s kept us coming back for more than 30 years.

So you can imagine our dismay when my college roommates and I made a pilgrimage to ISU in late July only to learn that Aunt Maude’s was closed for remodeling. Where would we eat? Ames is definitely not a hotbed of haute cuisine. More like hot dogs. The person at Aunt Maude’s who took our call must have sensed our disappointment and recommend Maude’s “sister” restaurant, a slightly more casual bistro called The Café.

First we had to find the place, which is located in a re-creation of a Midwestern downtown about 10 blocks north of Ames’ real downtown. The faux city center is the heart of a new housing development, which was a cornfield the last time we were in town. It’s actually kind of cool, and The Café is the attraction any downtown ― old or new ― needs to draw visitors.

Dark-red brick on the outside, it’s all dark wood, dim lighting, shutters and coziness on the inside. Just off the dining room is an order counter where you can carry out or eat in with minimal service. A long, narrow bar on the other side opens into an “alley,” an inviting space between two buildings to sip a well-mixed cocktail.

The Café touts its “local, in-season produce and homemade artisan breads and desserts.” The menu isn’t extensive, but offers a nice selection (featuring that local produce and artisan breads) of soups, starters, sandwiches, salads and entrees. Here’s where you notice the sibling resemblance between Maude’s and The Café – the food isn’t fancy or uber creative, but it’s well presented and delicious. And reasonably priced by Minneapolis standards – nothing was over $20.

Our group started with one of the simple appetizers – bruschetta served on house-baked flatbread. For entrées, we ordered the stuffed green pepper with a seasoned-just-right filling and dotted with tangy feta cheese; chicken drizzled with a rich, complex mole sauce and served with wild rice; and butter-knife-tender beef tournedos with garlicky mashed potatoes.

Of course we had to sample the desserts. It was refreshing that the portions weren’t gargantuan – just enough to have a little sweet at the end of the meal. The fresh raspberry tart was tasty, the tropical fruit tort was light and refreshing, yet moist and flavorful, but neither was anything to write home about. Our fave ― the dark-chocolate crème brûlée ― was velvety smooth with a crackly crisp sugar top.

Would we go back? In fact, we did – the next day when we dropped in and ordered hearty sandwiches at the counter. While our service in the evening – both in the bar and the dining room – was attentive and pleasant, the order-counter service was surly, bordering on rude. From other reviews of The Café, this unfortunately seems to be a pattern.

But next time you’re heading down I-35, make a quick detour into Ames and check out The Café, proof that you can find well-prepared food in the middle of corn country.

P.S. Aunt Maude’s is scheduled to reopen in the fall.

The Café

2616 Northridge Parkway

Ames, IA


16 August 2007

Another visit to Barbette

The very first restaurant that I reviewed on Krik’s Picks was Barbette in south Minneapolis near Lake Calhoun. A year later, my wife and I came back to Barbette under very much the same circumstances. I took a day off. Linda went for a walk; I went for a bike ride. We read the paper and had coffee. Then we went to the Museum of Russian Art.

Since I’ve already written about the concept behind Barbette, I won’t repeat myself now. (Click here to read my review from August 2006.)

On this visit, we each started with a glass of wine. Linda ordered a Bordeaux blanc – Chateau Le Tuileries, Andre Brunel, Domaine Becassone. It was fantastic – a little buttery like a chardonnay but still relatively light and refreshing. I had a Malbec El Portillo from Argentina. I enjoyed it very much.

We both had specials for our lunches.

Linda had the daily scramble – sausage and Portobello mushrooms scrambled with eggs. The flavors were very complimentary. The sausage was not too spicy, and the mushrooms provided an earthy balance.

I had the daily luncheon special – pan-fried lamb served with a salad of mixed greens, goat cheese, 'sunburst squash' (also called pattypan) and beets. The lamb was outstanding. It was seared with a crusty exterior and a rare, tender interior. Linda said it was too rare for her, but I gave her a bite of an end piece, and she agreed it was wonderful. The salad also was good. It didn’t compete with the lamb and the goat cheese provided a pungent compliment to the meat. I don’t particularly like beets, so I didn’t eat the tender cubes of red beets in the salad.

The portions are not particularly large. For my lunch, it may have been about a third of a pound of lean lamb cut into four slices. Linda’s scramble was probably two eggs. But we left feeling very comfortable with our appetites satisfied. And the prices were reasonable - $12 for my lamb, $8.50 for Linda’s scramble.

I love having a reliable place like Barbette that we can return to with the confidence that we will get a good meal.