29 November 2007

Another birthday dinner at Chambers Kitchen

Well, another birthday has come and gone. It’s always a little difficult to pick a restaurant for a birthday dinner when your birthday usually falls so close to Thanksgiving. But since my birthday was on Sunday after the holiday, I felt like I’d have a chance to work off the Thanksgiving feast before indulging in a birthday feast.

My wife and I had pretty much decided on a return visit to Chambers Kitchen. The clincher was a phone call she received from the restaurant. They had noted that we’d been there a year ago for my birthday, and they called to see if we’d like to eat there again this year. They offered us something that they call the Captain’s Table. We’d meet the evening’s chef, have a glass of Champaign, and learn about the entrées on the menu. We’d also get a tour of the kitchen.

So we made a reservation.

When we arrived, we were escorted to a bistro table just in front of the staging area of the kitchen. In a few minutes, our chef came out to meet us. (“My name is Eric,” he said, “Eric with an ‘A’.” So I guess it’s Aric.) He told us a little about his background (born in Wisconsin, trained in Chicago). He asked us what we ate last year. He told us about some new items on the menu that he thought we’d enjoy. Then we met another chef, Dave, who, we were informed, was preparing a foie gras appetizer for us. They seemed to be a little concerned that we would eat foie gras. We assured them that we most decidedly would.

We were escorted to our table and began to peruse the menu. Before too long, Dave came out with our special appetizer. It was a small morsel of foie gras pate served with a toast point and something Dave called a plum mustard. Tasted separately, the plum mustard and the foie gras each were wonderful. The foie gras was smooth and rich. The plum mustard was sweet and tangy. I liked them together. My wife preferred to eat each separately.

Not being sure just how this Captain’s Table thing was going to work, we decided to order a starter course from the menu. My wife asked our waiter about a couple of items, but they all were seasoned with cilantro. She commented that she’s sensitive to cilantro and so ordered the butternut squash soup instead. It was delicious and quite unlike any squash soup we’d eaten before. The squash soup we’re used to is thick and creamy. The soup served at Chambers Kitchen had a a good squash flavor but the broth was thinner. We thought was probably a chicken stock. I ordered the Kampachi sashimi. The fish was expertly sliced paper-thin. It was served with crumbles of fried garlic and a wonderful chili and sesame sauce.

One of the items on the menu that Aric had mentioned was char-grilled chicken served on mashed potatoes with a kumquat-lemongrass dressing. My wife decided that she would try it. I ordered the grouper with wok-fried Napa cabbage, water chestnuts, and cucumber. The wine we picked was Le Haut-Lieu sec Vouvray. We’re not very familiar with vouvray, so we asked the waiter. He commented that it would be a nice segue from the glass of Champaign and that it compliment Linda’s chicken very nicely.

While we were waiting for our entrée, we were surprised that another appetizer was delivered to our table. This one was on the menu – smoked bacon wrapped shrimp. Wow! It was succulent and very flavorful. The shrimp was firm but moist. The bacon wrap was very thin; it added flavor without overpowering the shrimp.

Not too long afterwards our meals arrived. By now, we both were feeling fairly satiated. As we dug in, we encountered our first, and really only, shortcoming. After her first taste of her meal, my wife commented, “This has cilantro in it.” We debated what to do. On the one hand, she was already full and didn’t really feel like eating a whole entrée. On the other hand, we felt disappointed. When we talked to our waiter about appetizers, we rejected a couple because they had cilantro in them. We felt like he should have made the connection and when Linda ordered the chicken, he should have mentioned that it had cilantro.

In retrospect, I also realized that we missed an opportunity. After all, we had spoken to the chef before we ordered. We could have noted Linda’s sensitivity and asked which meals were made without cilantro, or, alternatively, we could have asked if a particular item could be made without it.

As we discussed what to do, Dave came back and asked how things were. So we told him about Linda’s sensitivity to cilantro. He responded immediately and insisted on redoing the meal without it. It took a little while, but shortly he arrived with a redone meal, this time without the offending herb. Linda only ate a few bites, but was enjoyed the flavors and was satisfied with the way it worked out.

My fish was delightful. The stir-fried vegetables were very tasty. (They also were flavored with cilantro. I’m not a big fan, but I don’t have a sensitivity, like Linda does.) The fish was moist and flavorful. I probably could have finished the plate, but I also was full after all the appetizers, so I also had some leftovers on my plate. We had both mine and Linda’s boxed up and brought them home. (We had them for dinner later in the week.)

Needless to say, by now neither of us had room for dessert. Nevertheless, the waiter brought us a sampling of three sorbets when he brought the bill. I gave him a credit card. And when he brought the charge slip back to sign, he also brought along two different candies for us to sample.

So, I’ve said it before on Krik’s Picks, Chambers Kitchen is easily one of my top restaurants in Minneapolis, and this birthday dinner confirmed my earlier judgment. Even though we had the problem with the cilantro in Linda’s entrée, they handled it graciously, promptly, and satisfactorily. In terms of value, it was amazing. Even if you factor out the complimentary appetizers and other extras, we had plenty to eat and the cost was reasonable – certainly fair for the quality and amount of food we had.

After we’d finished, we went into the kitchen to say good-bye to Aric. As promised, he gave us a tour of the kitchen. We weren’t the last table to leave, but no one was cooking anymore, so it was pretty quiet. It was fun.

I have no qualms about recommending Chambers Kitchen for a celebratory meal anytime. If you have a chance to experience the Captain’s table, by all means do so.

26 November 2007

Award-winning cheese from Land O’Lakes

Every year, U.S. dairy farmers gather together at the National Milk Producers Federation annual meeting to review and discuss what’s happening in the dairy industry. The meeting draws more than 1500 dairy farmers and industry leaders from across the nation.

NMPF sponsors a cheese judging contest for the dairy cooperatives that are its members. On the first night of the meeting, they hold a welcome reception for everyone who’s in attendance. At that reception, we all get a chance to see which awards we won, see who else won awards, and best of all, we get to taste samples of the cheeses entered in the contest.

This year, Land O'Lakes won six awards. We won first place for mild cheddar and a low-fat provolone. We received second place for our sliced, processed Swiss-American and third place awards for aged cheddar, jalapeno-pepper processed cheese product, and sliced, processed reduced fat yellow American.

In the photo are Land O'Lakes CEO, the chairman of our board of directors, and the chief operating officer of our dairy processing operations. Our company executives really take a lot of pride in the quality of the cheese that’s made from our members’ milk.

Since we are a cooperative, our board is elected by the farmer-members; our chairman currently is a dairy farmer from eastern Wisconsin. The milk from his farm goes to our cheese plant in Kiel, Wis., and is used to make the award-winning cheddar cheeses at the contest.

(Cheese snobs generally sneer at the idea of ‘award-winning’ processed cheese. The video clip included with this post shows our chairman holding a piece of processed cheese and commenting that for him, a cheese sandwich made from processed cheese is comfort food, much to his daughter’s chagrin. This is the first time I’ve tried to post a video on Krik’s Picks.)

Sorry about the sound quality. If you didn't catch the punchline at the end, after his daughter said she didn't like the processed cheese, he told her, "Don't eat it then."

There were 122 entries from 11 cooperatives, and as you might guess, that adds up to a ton of cheese – literally. There was 2,284 pounds entered in the contest. Even though we eat a lot of cheese at the opening reception, there’s still a lot left after the meeting is over. Cheese that is uncut gets donated to Second Harvest. Apropos the next blog post, a lot of families who rely on food shelves in the Orlando area had some pretty good cheese for their Thanksgiving tables this year, courtesy of America’s dairy farmers and cooperatives.

20 November 2007

Enough food to feed a family for a week

Recently a friend of mine sent me a link to a very thought-provoking blog entry on the subject of cultural and economic responses to food.

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, many of us are thinking about and planning our holiday feasts. The historical context of Thanksgiving was for Americans to acknowledge the bounty of the land. The significance of the observance was the fact that the bounty that they enjoyed was by no means assured. The early colonists were vulnerable to unfamiliar and hostile conditions that gave them no assurance that they could harvest and store enough food to stay alive.

When we modern Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week, it’s easy to forget that around the world, and in fact, in our own nation, some families still face uncertainty about having enough food to survive.

About a year ago, I attended a conference on the subject of hunger. It included food corporations, hunger relief organizations, religious institutions, and government. The goal was to create a dialogue that would lead to strategies for eliminating hunger.

I thought it was very interesting. But we didn’t very far toward the goal. In fact, from my perspective, I think we got hung up on a definition of what we wanted to solve, i.e., what is the definition of ‘hunger?’

Some of the presenters were adamant. We have a definition, and it’s based on the question of food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a survey to measure food security. It’s based on the perceptions of people as to whether or not they ‘had enough money for food.’

Other presenters pointed out that this limited definition makes hunger a consequence of poverty. Solve poverty, and you’ve solved hunger. But we know that’s not true.

There are at least two other causes for hunger. One is when food is not available. Even if you have money, if there’s nothing to buy, you go hungry. Famine is not something that Americans have had much experience with. The worst we experience is the occasional hurricane or other natural disaster that creates a panic that in turn empties the supermarket food shelves. Those incidents are fortunately rare and short-lived … in America. But elsewhere in the world, famine still is a frightening reality for many.

The second, terribly sad cause of hunger is poor nutritional choices. It’s shocking to me that the obesity epidemic in America is particularly prevalent among the poor. The widespread availability of cheap processed food that lacks nutritional balance leads to the paradox of overweight people who are simultaneously malnourished.

Which leads me back to the blog entry that stimulated this whole chain of thought. The blogger is a woman named Michelle Stern. She operates a business in San Francisco that offers healthy and seasonal cooking classes and birthday parties and she also has an online shop. On Halloween, she posted a blog about a book called “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.” A writer and photographer traveled to 24 nations and documented the dietary choices of 30 families. I haven’t seen the book yet. But the half dozen photos from the blog are dramatic and compelling.

It’s interesting to examine the similarities and contrasts of the food from families in the Western nations. The photos from Germany, Italy, the United States, even Poland dramatically show how much processed food we have in our diets. I was struck by the prevalence of soda pop in each of those photos.

The most expensive week’s worth of groceries on the blog entry is Germany, totaling more than $500 for a family of four. The U.S. family (North Carolina) is shown with $341 worth of food for a week, also for a family of four.

But the most compelling photos show the contrasts for families in developing nations. An Egyptian family of 12 = $68 for groceries for a week. A family of nine in Ecuador = $31 food for a week. And finally, the starkest contrast, from a refugee camp in Chad, a family of six = $1.23 food for a week.

The final thing that struck me about the photos is the smiles of the families. I hope I’m not projecting too much of my own values. But I interpret that to show a universal desire to provide food for your family. And if you’re able to do that, then you’ve got something to smile about.

Happy Thanksgiving.

07 November 2007

Dinner with a bunch of friends at Café Ena, Minneapolis

Earlier this year, my wife and I ‘discovered’ a new neighborhood restaurant. I had read about Café Ena and it sounded intriguing. It’s a sister restaurant to El Meson, which is one of our favorites for Caribbean and Spanish cuisine. We agreed that it would be fun to try it, but we didn’t have a specific date for doing it.

One evening, after seeing a movie, we decided to just drive by and take a look. It looked intriguing. On a whim, we decided to see if they had a table, and surprisingly they did.

Well, we loved it. The food was creatively prepared and attractively presented. The prices were reasonable. The décor is casual, the service is friendly. We returned a couple of more times, just the two of us, once with our daughter.

Here are a few highlights that we tried in those earlier visits:

Corriander-crusted ahi tuna served over serano mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, in an orange bell pepper cream sauce, garnished with a green apple fennel slaw.

Pan seared scallops served with a cauliflower and broccoli croquet, sautéed julienned vegetables, in a pomegranate plum sauce garnished with a jicama fennel slaw.

A braised lamb shank drizzled with adobo sauce, served with vegetables, beans and white rice.

So in early November, as we planned an evening out with a group of friends, we suggested Café Ena, and it was agreed we would go there.

We had a 7:30 reservation. When we arrived, our table wasn’t ready. With a group of 8, there’s not much to do but wait until the space clears. We opened a bottle of wine, and by the time we’d finished it, our table was ready.

When our group goes out, we usually have a lot of fun. Even so, we were hoping people would agree with our recommendation. A bad experience can put a damper on the evening, and though we’d had good experiences on your previous visits, we’d never been there with a large group.

Well, no worries. We had a blast.

We started by sharing some appetizers. Ena has a ‘ceviche duo,’ which is a creative combination of a traditional Mexican ceviche served with tortillas and a South American ceviche served with a plaintain fritter. We ordered a couple of those. Another unique specialty was the ‘queso fundido,’ which is a South American cheese that is fried and served with salsa. The third appetizer was fried calamari. They were very tender and tasty and was served with an avocado aioli.

For dinner, at our end of the table, we had the evening specials.

I had sea bass, seared and served over a mound of coconut risotto. It’s probably the most unusual meal I’ve had at Ena. The risotto was very rich and the coconut flavor gave the dish much more of a Caribbean flavor. My wife had duck breast. It was fantastic – very rich, flavorful, and tender. Our friend across the table had rack of lamb which was a half dozen nicely prepared lamb chops. I don’t know what everyone had at the other end of the table. But there wasn’t very much left on their plates.

Café Ena charges a corkage fee of $15/bottle if you bring your own wine. That’s what we did. It was fun to bring one of our favorite wines to share with the group, and our friends also brought some very nice wines. But one of the things I like about ordering wine at the restaurant is that’s how I discover new kinds that I like. Café Ena has a great wine list with lots of South American varieties. On our previous visits, we ordered off the wine list, and had great experiences.

This remains one of our favorite restaurants, and I would happily recommend it.