13 September 2008

Crashing the Party: Comments on food served during the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis

Ok, I know that the host ‘cities’ for the convention were Minneapolis and St. Paul. I actually spent quite a lot of time during the RNC attending different events. I never got to St. Paul once. I think it’s noteworthy that while the business of the convention was conducted in St. Paul, 75% or more of the social activities were held in Minneapolis. Draw your own conclusion.

The Star Tribune’s restaurant critic, Rick Nelson, wrote about the reception food at two of the events that I attended.

For the delegate reception on Sunday, Aug. 31, he wrote: “This red carpet seemed a bit frayed, thanks to generic, we-could-be-anywhere offerings along the lines of soggy duck spring rolls, drab commodity cheeses, fried and skewered scallops straight out of Mrs. Paul's and a mystery spread billed as olive bruschetta …”

I agree with his assessment. Granted, it’s tough to serve a wide variety of reception food to thousands of people in a space as large as the convention center. But the offerings at the delegate reception were ordinary at best. (Fortunately, I was saving myself for dinner reservations at Chamber’s Kitchen following the reception.)

His comments about the food at the media reception were much more complimentary: “Visitors got a delicious up-close-and-personal taste of Minnesota …”

Again I agreed. The media reception actually was catered by several different vendors. As you meandered through the Mill City Museum, the Guthrie Theater, and the river bank below those venues, guests sampled a variety of reception food, most of it noteable and very good. I thought the food in the D’Amico area (courtyard of Mill City Museum) and in the Guthrie was the best. Nelson heaped praise on the Spoonriver food and the offerings by vendors in the Mill City Market. I quite liked the lamb meatballs and the artisanal cheeses, but I’m put off by Brenda Langton’s ‘healthier-than-thou’ attitude about organics and decline to put her on a culinary pedestal.

Nelson also wrote about ‘crashing’ different private parties during the opening weekend of the convention. I suppose that was part of the sport. But I didn’t want him to miss out on the food at the food and ag industry event, billed AgNite. So I sent him an invitation. He declined, but another Strib reporter, Chris Riemenschneider attended.

Read on for my report on AgNite.

Crashing the Party: AgNite, a food and agriculture industry gala

When I invited the Strib restaurant critic, Rick Nelson, to attend AgNite, I said in my e-mail, “I've gotta believe that the food and ag people will put on the best spread of the convention.”

Being as objective as I can be, I believe my boast was partially true.

AgNite was planned by the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. It was intended to be a non-partisan celebration of the food and agriculture industry. A way to raise awareness among the visiting media and delegates (and a small handful of politicians) of the role of our industry in the American economy. AgNite was recognized as one of the major events of the convention, perhaps the major event on Tuesday, Sept. 2.

We planned for 3000-4000 guests. Like the delegate reception, it’s a challenge to put on a party for that many people and still make the food special.

In the main reception areas, there were several ‘butler-passed’ items. I didn’t try them all. There was a particularly unusual roast beef with horseradish canapé; it was served on a spoon shaped cracker. The visual impact was great (though the taste was just ok). The crab cakes were fairly ordinary. My favorite item was a chicken Wellington, served in a puff pastry shell. I got one while it was still piping hot, and it was very enjoyable. We also had a buffet with mini pizzas and ‘sliders’ – small hamburgers and cheeseburgers. I didn’t like the pizzas at all, but the mini burgers were pretty good.

There was a VIP room, and the food in there was special.

We had a whipped potato station with garlic mashed potatoes or mashed sweet potatoes served in a martini glass with a variety of toppings, including cheese, chives, and sour cream. There also was a carving station with very nicely done prime rib served on rolls. (Inexplicably, there also were very ordinary chicken strips available at the same table.)

Probably the highlight of the VIP room was a seafood bar with shrimp, crab claws, salmon, and ceviche. The quality of the seafood was wonderful.

There were desserts in both the VIP room and the main hall. They disappeared so fast that I didn’t get a taste of anything.

Comparing AgNite to the media reception and the delegate reception, we definitely beat the delegate reception. The media reception had more variety of items, and it probably was better than the food in the main hall of the AgNite gala. But I’ll stand by my assertion that the spread in the VIP room at AgNite beat them all.

KwikPicks: A late evening nosh at Palomino in Minneapolis

My wife and I went to Palomino after a reception.

Food: 3

Service: 2

Ambiance: 3.5

Value: 1

When I set the 1-5 scale for KwikPick rankings, for ‘value’ I said a 1 means “they should have paid me.” For our visit to Palomino, they sorta did. We had a $20 gift card that we used on our visit. As I noted above, we had been to a reception earlier in the evening. There was plenty of food and drink, but we had planned to use the gift card anyway. We were surprised how vacant Palomino was at only 9:15 on a Saturday night. (Labor Day weekend, the waitress complained. She was bored and inattentive.) We each had a glass of wine and we split a salad and a pizza. My wife quite liked the salad; I thought it was ordinary. She didn’t so like the pizza, but I thought it was tasty. 4 items, $40. Not worth it. Take off the $20 gift card, and that was about right

Recommendation: Keep looking. You can find better food, better service, and better value within a few blocks.

KwikPicks: Dinner at Chamber’s Kitchen, Minneapolis

Another amazing meal that confirms my opinion that this is the best restaurant in the Twin Cities.

Food: 5

Service: 5

Ambiance: 4

Value: 5

On my third visit to Chamber’s Kitchen, I wondered, “How could this compare to the wonderful ‘chef’s table’ experience we had on my last birthday?” Though we didn’t get the little extras that go along with the chef’s table meal, we had a great meal. My ‘4’ rating on ambiance reflects the somewhat stark and industrial décor, and it can be fairly noisy. Four starters, four entrées, four delighted diners. Though it can be expensive to eat at Chamber’s Kitchen, I still rate it ‘5’ for value. It truly is worth every penny.

Recommendation: Find any excuse to eat here.

KwikPicks: Lunch at Zelo, Minneapolis

There’s nothing like an outdoor lunch on the Nicollet Mall.

Food: 4

Service: 3

Ambiance: 3.5

Value: 4

Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer in Minnesota, and Labor Day this year was a brilliant, gorgeous, warm day, just right for al fresco dining. After a morning of shopping downtown, we picked Zelo for lunch and staked a strategically-placed table near the corner of Nicollet and 9th with the restaurant awning providing enough shade to keep us comfortable. The people-watching was great. Limos kept pulling up on Nicollet, disgorging unidentifiable VIPs to what appeared to be a special event at McCormick & Schmick’s across the street. Clueless out-of-towners drove blithely down the Mall, unaware that it’s for taxis, buses, and limos only. (The only downside to outdoor dining on the Mall is the bus traffic – noisy and smelly.) The menu at Zelo is creative and the food is nicely prepared. We kept it simple and each had a soup and a salad and a glass of wine. The only complaint was our server. She was slow and inattentive. Another server working the sidewalk tables kept noticing that we were waiting and offered to help us. As soon as she did, the person assigned to our table suddenly appeared. We gave a reasonable tip to our server. We wished we would have been served by the other person; she would have earned a more generous tip.

Recommendation: If the opportunity arises, definitely eat here.

11 September 2008

Reflections on September 11

I was supposed to have been on a plane to Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001. I cancelled my trip because I needed to be in the office to finish up a project. If I had been on the flight, we would have been in the air for about an hour when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. I think the flight I would have been on was diverted to Detroit. I suppose most of the Minneapolis passengers ended up renting cars to get back home.

September 11, 2001 was supposed to have been the kick-off for our company United Way campaign. I was working at my desk when a co-worker arrived and said that he’d heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My first reaction was – oh, it must have been a small plane and an inexperienced pilot who lost control. No, my co-worker said, it was a jet.

I checked the news on the internet. At that point, it still wasn’t clear what was going on. I read what I could online and then went back to work. Some of the other people turned on a TV and continued to watch. Of course, it wasn’t too much later when shouts rang thru the department. Another plane had hit the second tower.

I went out and joined the small crowd of people huddled around the TV. The images were both riveting and horrifying. Finally, I couldn’t stand seeing people falling from the towers, forced to choose between plummeting to their deaths or being burned to death. I went back into my office.

Not too long after that, another co-worker rushed in. “The first tower just collapsed. I watched it happen on the TV.” I rejoined the crowd in front of the TV. They already had video of the planes hitting the towers. We watched the replays of the first tower’s collapse. Despite the horror, after so many impossible, unimaginable things had happened, you couldn’t help but keep watching. While we were watching, the second tower came down. I saw it live on TV.

Needless to say, United Way activities were canceled.

Former U.S. Representative Richard Pombo used to tell his September 11 story. He was personally taking a group of constituents on a tour of the U.S. Capitol. They were at the very top of the rotunda. They watched as a plane circled the city and came in low. It disappeared from view and smoke started rising from the Pentagon. As Pombo used to tell the story, “It suddenly occurred to us that we probably ought to get out of the Capitol.”

I suppose people naturally connect to a tragedy like this by seeking some aspect that they can relate to. If you didn’t know someone who was directly affected, then you empathize with people from your home state who were affected. It didn’t take long for the local news to start finding stories about victims who were native Minnesotans, or Minnesotans who escaped from the towers, or the Minnesotan who vainly tried to regain control of the plane over Pennsylvania.

In 2001, both of my kids were in the hospitality business. My son had just moved to New Orleans and was looking for a job as a cook. My daughter was living in Boston and waiting tables while she looked for a job in her chosen field. As I watched the tragedy unfold and read the coverage, I couldn’t help but think that under different circumstances either one of them could have been on the breakfast shift in Windows on the World on September 11, 2001.

07 September 2008

Kwik Picks: Bank, in the new Westin Hotel, Minneapolis

(A guest post by Patty Miller)

Out for a business lunch, we decided to eat at Bank on the spur of the moment.

  • Food: 4
  • Service: 3
  • Ambiance: 5
  • Value: 4

Comments: Bank is definitely one of the hot new business-lunch destinations downtown. The surroundings are gorgeous - the lobby of Farmers & Mechanics Bank restored to its arte moderne glory. Former bankers' offices are now private dining/meeting rooms. I had a stellar pannini of asiago, basil, grilled chicken, roasted red peppers and tomatoes accompanied by homemade, super-crisp asiago-sprinkled potato chips. One companion ordered a chicken Caesar salad that was a standout due to the presentation: an assortment of toppings was served in small spoons arranged around the outside of the plate. The other ordered half a roasted chicken that was golden-brown and moist, accompanied by roasted potato salad, which she said was quite good.

Recommendation: Definitely worth a visit.

Sushi dinner at Tsunami, Chicago

An overnight trip to Chicago provided me with an opportunity to have dinner with my daughter. It actually was the day after her one-year wedding anniversary. Regrettably, her husband had to work that evening, so he could not join us.

As I considered where to eat, I thought about picking a place that I know my wife wouldn’t like. So I suggested sushi. A quick check in Open Table revealed that Tsunami is located less than a block from Tovah’s apartment. She likes sushi and was eager to try it, so I made the reservation.

We had a 7 p.m. reservation on a Wednesday night. It wasn’t very busy when we arrived. Maybe it was because if was just after the Labor Day weekend.

We were seated in the upstairs dining area near the bar. We liked the ambiance upstairs better than downstairs, although the dining area in the front of the restaurant leading out to the patio also had a nice atmosphere.

Since I don’t eat sushi very often, I knew I’d need help, and our server was very accommodating. First of all, I asked for advice on sake. Tsumani has a nice selection and quite a wide price range. They offer a tasting flight – two-ounce samples of three different varieties. That’s what I ordered. The flight I chose had momokawa silver dry, dewazakura “green ridge” and wakatake onigoroshi. I actually liked the momokawa the best, even though it was the least expensive of the three.

I also needed an explanation of nigiri and maki. Again, our server was most helpful. He explained the nigiri is fish or seafood over a mound of sticky rice while maki is a roll that contains several ingredients.

Tsunami’s menu lists several ‘maki mono’ rolls and then a section of specialty rolls. We started with one of the specialty makis – sumo maki. It was tempura fried shrimp rolled with cream cheese, avocado, and spicy sauces. That was followed by a fairly plain tuna maki. To tell you the truth, I kind of liked the plain one better because the more complicated, specialty maki had too many flavors competing with each other.

At the same time we ordered our second maki, I decided to try a nigiri. I had una (sea urchin) with a quail egg. For me, this was the only real disappointment of the meal. I’ve never eaten sea urchin before, and I didn’t think that it had much flavor.

We concluded with a final specialty spider maki that included soft-shell crab, avocado, cucumber, and spicy sauces. It was very good.

As I’ve already noted, I don’t eat sushi too often. The last time I had it, it was with my son in Minneapolis, at a place called Nami. I have to say I liked Nami better. To refresh my memory, I looked at the menu online. It has many of the same kinds of sushi as Tsunami, but my recollection is that I liked them better. It also wasn’t as expensive. Tsunami was not outrageous, but I think that Nami was a better value. Lastly, while the ambiance at Tsunami was not uncomfortable, Nami felt more like an authentic Japanese sushi bar. Tsunami had more of a feel of a hot spot for young people, and when you look at their photo gallery online, it sort of confirms that impression.

But these are mere quibbles. We had a good meal, and it was fun being with my daughter for the evening. And I would recommend Tsunami for other diners, at least until I have a chance to try more Chicago sushi bars.