28 February 2008

Guest post: Café des Architects in Chicago

My sweet daughter sent me the following e-mail about a restaurant she and her husband went to in Chicago. I asked her if it was ok to put it on Krik’s Picks as a guest post. So here it is:

Hi Dad!

As a fellow foodie, I wanted to share with you the delicious meal Peter and I had last night! This week is Restaurant Week in Chicago and basically what that means is about 25 high end restaurants offer a special tasting menu this week and all menus are $31.95. It's really a great deal because I would say at every single one of these restaurants the average entree is $31 (or more) and with this deal you get 3-4 courses. So it was very hard to decide on a restaurant but we went with Café des Architects in the Hotel Sofitel.

To start they brought out a basket of fresh breads with butter and a delicious tapenade.

Our appetizers: I got a lobster-mango salad that was so nummy! It was a piece of lobster on a piece of mango and topped with some kind of creamy cheese. (The menu online says it was a citrus cream pistachio caramel - Krik.) It also had a little side of candied walnuts and baby spinach with a scoop of fresh guacamole. Peter's sounded simple but he liked it even better than the lobster app! It was a cauliflower velouté (I probably spelled that wrong but basically a pureed soup).

Then they brought a salad which was pretty basic and had an aged balsamic dressing.

Entrees: Peter got a crispy duck breast wrapped in bacon on top a butternut squash puree. I got a butternut squash risotto with a parmesan crisp. Both were delicious and we ate every last drop- literally! I never order duck but it looked so good and I'm glad we did because it tasted great.

Dessert was one option only and was a trio of desserts; a crème brulee, a cinnamon cake with coffee flavoring, and a fruity dessert that I can't really explain but tasted good. Our only complaint was not enough chocolate in the dessert :)

(In a follow-up e-mail, she elaborated on the dessert - Krik.)

I have a better description of the dessert....I couldn't think of what it was before but it was a key-lime tapioca topped with fresh fruit. I actually don't think I've ever had tapioca before but it was great and I loved the texture!

16 February 2008

Signature Café – (I gave it another try)

The second restaurant that I ever wrote about on Krik’s Picks was Signature Café. Signature is a comfortable, casual restaurant in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis. The food is quite good. The husband-wife team that runs it is committed to serving high quality ingredients (more about that later) creatively prepared. Despite all that, in my original review, I said I probably wouldn’t go back. We have other independent, neighborhood restaurants closer to home.

I was gently taken to task for ‘damning the restaurant with faint praise.’ The defender was my friend and sometime guest blogger Patty Miller. In fact, it was Patty’s recommendation that took me to Signature in the first place.

Late in January, I made plans to take my staff out for a dinner to thank them for their hard work. Since both of them are friends of Patty’s, I invited her to join us as well. As I considered where to take them for dinner, I took into consideration that they would be in St. Paul, so it made sense to look for a place kind of centrally located. Prospect Park is right on the Minneapolis/St. Paul border. Can’t get much more central. So in deference to Patty, I decided to give Signature another try.

Well, I won’t make you read to the end for my conclusion – I remain unenthusiastic. Our experience was very similar to my first dinner there. But I just can’t get too excited about it.

Patty, by the way, got waylaid and cancelled out.

On this particular Monday night at the end of January the restaurant was pretty vacant. There was a couple sitting at the bar enjoying a glass of wine. They might have had some appetizers, I didn’t pay close enough attention to see. But for most of the evening, there was only one other table of diners in the place.

On Monday’s, Signature typically offers a tasting menu. It’s a great way to get a sample of different things. They have their regular menu as well. Both of my staff members opted for the tasting menu.

Their meals started with a wild mushroom and brie bisque. This was the only item on the menu that was at all disappointing. They both felt that it did not have enough cheese. One stated that it tasted like cream of mushroom soup.

My starter was a goat cheese cassolet. It was a very tasty blend of goat cheese, roasted tomatoes and garlic. It was very good, but also very rich. It could easily have been shared by two or even four people.

The second course on the tasting menu was a Parma ham and goat cheese crepe served with fresh arugula salad. I didn’t taste it, but LaDonna and Nadine said it was great. The crepes were very tender and the flavors blended very nicely.

Their entrée was seared wild scallops on a bed of sliced potatoes and a sauce of asparagus white wine puree. It was very creatively prepared, the scallops were moist and tender. They liked it very much. My entrée was the fresh catch of the day, and it also was expertly prepared and very tasty.

The tasting menu included a dessert, a chocolate gelato with mint syrup.

As I noted above, Signature makes an effort to use top quality, fresh ingredients. They include a statement on their menu: “Dedicated to sourcing the highest quality products from many local farmers who strive for humane treatment of their animals as well as sustainable agricultural practices.” Now, I’m not a big fan of the ‘eat local’ fad. And despite its menu statement, Signature doesn’t go overboard on the local sourcing of ingredients. (If it did, it wouldn’t be serving scallops or halibut, but rather walleye and trout.)

When our server brought a bread basket, I noted that the butter was Grassland. Now, Grassland is a regional butter company, it’s true. I’m not a big fan of Grassland. But after discounting for normal competitive feelings (since I work for Land O'Lakes), they serve a perfectly adequate product. But I couldn’t restrain my amazement. Serving Grassland butter when Land O'Lakes is located less than four miles from the restaurant? Ok, our Arden Hills office is not a butter factory. But still …

On top of that, if Signature wanted to be somewhat more local in the butter it serves, it could serve AMPI State Brand. And if it wanted to make a point of difference over how the butter is made, it could serve butter from the Hope Creamery.

I’m afraid I gave our poor server a hard time. He said it was his first week on the job. When I was served the Grassland butter, my comment was, “Oops. Wrong butter.” I think he thought I was joking. I wasn’t too obnoxious, but I did say that they should be serving Land O'Lakes.

Will I never go back to Signature? I won’t say that. Maybe there will be another occasion where I want a nice place to eat near the University of Minnesota. I guess the best way to say it is that I am respectful of their efforts, but I don’t seem to fit the clientele they seem to be striving to impress.

Don’t let me dissuade you. By all means, try it and let me know what you think.

10 February 2008

Steak dinner at Disney

The annual meeting of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives brought a group of us from Land O'Lakes to the Walt Disney World Yacht & Beach Club Resort. On the first night of the meeting, a group of us went to the Yachtsman Steakhouse at the resort.

So, cut me a little slack, it was a business dinner, as it happens, we all had exactly the same steak – an oak-fired rib eye. It was a perfectly adequate steak. Each of us had it cooked differently to our personal taste. No one complained that it wasn’t just the way they wanted it.

The only differences were the sides and accompaniments that we had with the meal. Two of us had a Caesar salad. Classically prepared, it was just fine. The other two had lobster bisque. They both said it was good.

We did order sautéed mushroom caps with the steak. One order was more than sufficient for all four of us. General consensus – they were fine, but nothing to rave about.

The steaks came with garlic mashed potatoes. Living on the edge, two of us changed the accompaniment. My boss had a baked potato. I had potato pancakes. I saw them as the accompaniment for another dish on the menu – lamb prepared two ways (boneless rack and braised). I almost ordered the lamb, but I decided the thing I really wanted were the potato pancakes. Alas, they were disappointing. Not crisp like we prepare potato latkes at our house.

We got two desserts. One was a crème brulee and the other was a trio of gelato with strawberry and vanilla pineapple sauce. The crème brulee was very good. The sundae reminded us of a banana split only without the banana.

Actually, the main reason why I’m writing this review is because of the wine. It was quite unusual and I liked it. We ordered a bottle of Tablas Creek Cote du Tablas. I always have trouble figuring out how to pick a wine from a list, especially if it’s a business dinner and I have to worry about how my colleagues will like the choice. To be honest, it just sounded intriguing, so I asked the server about it. She said it was a syrah based wine. I’m not very familiar with syrahs but I’ve been trying a few lately, so I decided to give it a try.

Ok, so I’ve learned from the winery’s web site that in fact, the Cote du Tablas is mostly a Grenache (43%) and only 18% syrah with a couple other grapes included in the blend. That correction notwithstanding, it was a very interesting wine. When I first tasted it, it actually was kind of harsh and biting. The note that I made for myself after dinner was that it was very peppery. But after it had been open for a few minutes, the flavor mellowed, and it was very good with the steaks.

By the way, some of the same guys ate at Shula’s steakhouse a couple of nights later. They said it was better than the Yachtsman.

Tornado Steakhouse, Madison, Wis.

Totally in contrast to the Yachtsman (previous post), the Tornado Steakhouse in Madison, Wis., is an example of an excellent, independent restaurant that accommodates business travelers.

In early February, I had my annual sojourn to Madison for a meeting organized by the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives on behalf of Land O'Lakes to discuss legislative issues that affect farmers and co-ops in the state. Last year, we went to Delmonico’s, another wonderful, locally-owned steakhouse. While I could have happily gone back, I’m always eager to try new places. So after checking around a little, I picked the Tornado.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I love traveling to Madison. It’s a beautiful little city and it has a great restaurant scene. This year, the city was not very hospitable. Attendance at our meeting the next day was threatened by a looming snowstorm. Though I worried about the storm, it couldn’t spoil the fun of being in Madison.

Tornado describes itself as having a supper club atmosphere. The bar feels old and clubby with lots of wood. When we entered, there was a small group of people laughing and chatting at the bar. Total strangers, they gave us a cordial welcome, the camaraderie of fellow travelers seeking refuge from the storm. The dining room has a feeling almost like a lodge – wood beams, knotty pine paneling (almost like a log cabin) with antiques and western art on the walls.

Because some of my guests live out of town, they requested an early dinner so that they could hit the road before the snow started. So when we sat down, the restaurant was fairly empty. Service was prompt and very friendly. Our server described the evening specials and took our beverage orders.

Though steaks dominate the menu, there is enough variety to satisfy anyone except a vegetarian (no pasta or vegetarian entrées). Our group of five ordered three steaks, one salmon, and one walleye. The steak offerings are varied enough so that you can find whatever size fits your appetite. They all were big enough to be satisfying, but none so big as to be obscene.

I ordered the evening special, which was a grass-fed tenderloin. (When I ordered it, I joked with the server: “Grass-fed, that means tough, right?” I think she knew I was joking, but she assured me that it would not be tough.) I almost changed my mind when she said it came with a sauce. But when I asked if it could be served on the side, she accommodated my request. I’m glad I ordered it. It was very tasty. The sauce also was good, but I liked being able to decide how much or whether to have any sauce with the meat.

My guests who had the other two steaks liked theirs as well, as did the fish eaters. I didn’t taste either of the fish. The salmon looked better than the walleye. It was a thicker piece. The walleye looked like it might have been overcooked. I would not hesitate to recommend the Tornado Steakhouse to anyone traveling to Madison.

Our meeting the next day was very successful. The storm held off until about 4 p.m. We had a good group dinner at the Madison Club. One of the guests who was a member at the club gave us a tour and hosted us for a drink in the clubroom after dinner. We watched the Super Tuesday returns while the wind and snow began to build outside. I left Madison at 8:30 the next morning. It took me an hour to go 30 miles on extremely treacherous roads. But by the time I was 30 miles north of the city, I was out of the storm and had a smooth drive home. Madison had a record snowfall by the end of the day.