31 December 2008

Guest post: Holiday dinner at Graham Elliot, Chicago

By Tovah Domenick

When Peter and I decided to spend part of our holiday money on going out to a nice dinner, the possibilities were endless. Chicago is definitely a foodie's world and since it's rare that we treat ourselves to a nice dinner, we wanted it to be a memorable one.

After much debate, we decided on Graham Elliot. Graham Elliot is a celebrity chef in Chicago and is known for being at the forefront of the molecular gastronomy trend at Avenues, the restaurant in The Peninsula hotel. Creating dishes such as fois gras coated in Pop Rocks, Elliot took fine dining to a whole new level – though the prix-fixe menus were out of reach for everyday people like us. In June Elliot opened his own restaurant, coining the term "bistronomic" for his new approach, blending everyday bistro ambiance with modern haute-cuisine.

As we entered the restaurant we were greeted by friendly staff and an amazing smell, which turned out to be a bowl of juniper and rosemary boiling in water at the host stand. The restaurant decor is simple yet classy. The drink menu boasts of exotic drinks and a fine wine selection, but since we don't drink the bartender made us a "mocktail" of a passion fruit and ginger fizz.

The menu is divided into 5 sections- Cold, Hot, Sea, Land, and Sweet. The Cold and Hot were first courses, the Sea and Land were main courses, and of course the Sweet was desserts. We decided to order one of each. After placing our order, we were given a basket filled with not bread, but garlic butter popcorn, which was delicious!

For my first course I ordered the Bagels and Lox, a play on the classic Sunday morning favorite. The dish came with two thin bagel chips on top of thinly sliced tomatoes sitting in a herb puree, and topped with slices of smoked salmon. The salmon was very fresh and the whole dish tasted great. Peter ordered a sausage risotto topped with a nice layer of provolone cheese and fried basil. Yum!

My second course I ordered from the Sea menu, the Roasted Monkfish Wellington. Delicious! The monkfish was cooked perfectly in the breading and it was served with French lentils, glazed carrots and melted leeks, and a truffle coulis. Peter ordered from the Land menu, Beef Tenderloin, served with parsnip tater-tots, mushrooms, creamed watercress, and smoked Béarnaise. The dish was simple but great, fresh flavors.

For dessert we couldn't resist ordering the Deconstructed Snickers, which was a fudge torte topped with peanut nougat, toasted peanuts, and salted caramel.

Overall the meal was great and we would go back again as they change the menu seasonally. We were expecting to be wowed a bit more, given Elliot's history, but everything was flavorful and fresh, and the portions were plentiful for the prices (appetizers were all around $11 and the entrees were $30-40). When in Chicago I would definitely recommend giving it a try!

30 December 2008

Mark Bittman: Dairy Hero

I've always felt that the dairy promotion organizations should give a "Dairy Hero of the Week" award to the most favorable portrayal of milk or dairy products in public media. In the absence of such an industry recognition, let me forthwith offer my nominee for this week's Dairy Hero of the Week - Mark Bittman, New York Times food writer, AKA "The Minimalist."

His column in today's food section extols the simple joy of northern Italian buckwheat noodles "bathed in butter." You can read his column online, but I think you'd enjoy watching the video. (My favorite ad lib from the video, when commenting on the amount of butter in the recipe, he suggests that you could double the amount, or even triple the amount, if you want. My hero!)

Click here to watch the video.

29 December 2008

Sunday brunch at Hell’s Kitchen, Minneapolis

I like Hell’s Kitchen. I really do. But after my most recent visit, I’m concerned that it’s focusing so much on the schtick and losing sight of the food.

Hell’s Kitchen moved to a new location not too long ago. The new venue is great! It’s a basement/cellar space that used to be a jazz club and steakhouse. It lends itself wonderfully to the ambiance that Hell’s Kitchen cultivates. And they’ve done a fantastic job with the lighting and décor.

But here’s the thing – when you look at the menu and the web site, they milk every pun and double entendre that you can imagine. “Damn good food.” “Spicy (food)? Hell no.” Gift cards labeled “Ticket to Hell.” You get the idea. It’s all very clever, though they have overdone it a little. But it only works if the food really shines. Otherwise, it’s just a gimmick.

Much of the food is very good. I had the corned beef hash and really enjoyed it. The menu says the beef is house-cured. The potatoes, onions, and celery in the hash are cooked crisp tender. The eggs were fried rather than poached. But they were cooked very well with runny yolks that richly coated the hash. Other highlights are the homemade peanut butter and homemade blackberry jam and orange marmalade.

But my wife had the vegetable frittata, and she had two complaints. One – Hell’s Kitchen has a strict policy of no substitutions or no deletions. She really didn’t want to have the carrots in the frittata, but, too bad. Her other complaint – there was nothing wrong with the frittata (other than the offending carrots), but there wasn’t anything special about it either, and for $8.75, she felt it should have been exceptional. Really, she would have preferred to see an omelet on the menu.

One of our friends who joined us for brunch really wanted to have the roasted vegetable Panini. But since they wouldn’t serve it without the fontina cheese, she got a pancake instead. It was just a pancake.

Another thing. The servers are famous for their attitude. But there’s a fine line between good-natured sarcasm or complaining and annoying excuses for slow or inattentive service. I feel on this recent visit, the line was crossed, and the attitude of the server and hostess was more annoying than good-natured.

(I’ve written about the attitude at Al’s Breakfast, and I suppose there are people who don’t appreciate it there either. But, Al’s really is a dive, and, you’re not paying $9 or more for your eggs.)

So here’s what it boils down to for me: I like Hell’s Kitchen, and I’ll eat there again sometime. But I’ll stick with their specialty breakfasts like the hash and skip the everyday fare (which is just ordinary).

22 December 2008

KwikPicks: Dinner at Wasabi in Minneapolis

Had a very enjoyable sushi dinner at Wasabi with some people from work.

Food: 3.5

Service: 3

Ambiance: 2.5

Value: 3

I’ve been on a project team with a group of consultants from Deloitte. As we near the end of the project, and as the consultants begin to disperse, the project sponsor offered to host an early dinner before people made their way to the airport. I was asked to recommend a venue. Wasabi was the choice.

We don’t have too many sushi places in Minneapolis. I like Nami and Origami. There are a few others like Fuji Ya and Sushi Tango. I hadn’t tried Wasabi, which is relatively new. But a co-worker had, and he had very good things to say about it. The location was appropriate for two of the consultants who needed to leave early and get to the airport.

Ordering was really quite simple. We started with a ‘boat.’ It was, literally, a large model boat with different varieties of sushi and sashimi arrayed on the deck. These items all were pretty basic – a couple of rolls, 3 or 4 varieties of fish and seafood items, and one very attractive maki roll. Our server suggested it would be good for 3 or 4 people, and I guess he was right. He also told us about two evening specials. Ok, I know this is a terrible thing for a food review, but I’m really at a loss to explain them, and since they were specials, I can’t even look them up on the restaurant’s online menu. But they were really good.

Overall, I thought the fish was very fresh and well prepared. The items on the boat were good but not out of the ordinary. The specials were really good. The ambiance of the place was comfortable, but the noise was a little too loud. It was hard for me to hear people across the table very well.

One of our guests for dinner was from New York and the other was from Los Angeles. I asked them to comment how Wasabi compared to sushi restaurants in their cities.

Melissa (New York), thought the décor of Wasabi resembled a Japanese country lodge: “Big points for creativity of the rolls, especially the "lobster-sized" shrimp one - you see a lot of shrimp tempura in rolls these days but rarely one with such an extraordinary specimen!”

Michael (L.A.): “Quality of the fish was at least on par with what I find in NYC and LA. Definitely would consider going back the next time I'm in Minneapolis.”

Recommendation: I probably like Nami and Origami better. But Wasabi is definitely worth a visit, especially if you’re in the neighborhood anyway for an event at the Metrodome or the Guthrie Theater.

18 December 2008

Farewell to 3 Fish in Minneapolis

The only thing sadder than a reliable standby that disappoints (see next post) is a reliable standby that closes. I just read in today’s StarTribune that 3 Fish has closed. I always considered 3 Fish to be a hidden gem. Comfortable décor, good food, reasonable prices. I felt it and Stella’s were two of the most reasonable places to get good fresh fish and seafood in Minneapolis. Now it’s gone. Too bad.

KwikPicks: Amore Victoria, Minneapolis

I hate it when a restaurant that I consider to be a reliable standby is disappointing. But that’s the experience my wife and I had with the dinner we had recently at Amore Victoria.

Food: 3

Service: 3

Ambiance: 3

Value: 3

Before dinner, we went to an open house at the pottery studio where our son does his work. We did some light noshing so we weren’t starving, nor were we in a rush to get our food. We started with drinks. I had a glass of wine, and my wife had a cocktail. Our server asked us if we were ready to order, so we did. We had barely begun sipping our drinks when our first courses arrived. We didn’t want to send them back, but we really would have preferred to enjoy our drinks a while before eating. I ordered the Lombardi salad. It was really good. It had romaine, kalamata olives, goat cheese, artichokes, tomatoes, and baby red potatoes. The dressing was whole grain-mustard vinaigrette. Linda had zuppa de mare (seafood soup). It was very tasty with lots of fresh fish and seafood. It also was quite a large portion.

For entrées, Linda had the ‘Italian stallion’ and I had one of the evening specialties, veal Milanese. Linda knew that she was just getting a hamburger, but it was nothing special. I was expecting veal scaloppini. Instead, it was a patty of ground veal, topped with mozzarella cheese and served on a bed of pasta with a pesto sauce. The pasta was very good. The veal was very ordinary.

In retrospect, I would have been very happy if I had ordered the Lombardi salad and Linda’s soup, and I wouldn’t be writing about being disappointed.

Recommendation: I'll give it another try, and you should too.

16 December 2008

Birthday dinner at Porter & Frye in Minneapolis

Back in May, I did a post about a lunch I had at Porter & Frye at the Ivy Hotel in Minneapolis. My comment in the post was that I couldn’t wait to come back and try it for dinner in the lower level dining room.

So I picked Porter & Frye for my birthday dinner. Guess what? When my wife and I arrived for our reservation on a Tuesday night (my birthday), we were informed that the lower dining room was not open that evening. So we ended up eating in the bar, like we did for the lunch on my previous experience.

We settled in to our table and began to peruse the wine list. Porter & Frye has an interesting concept for its wine list. They have a variety of wines listed at several price points. You can choose a 3 ounce sample, a 6 ounce serving, or a bottle. So, for example, they have nine wines listed at $38 per bottle. But if you prefer, you could get a 3 ounce serving for $6 or a 6 ounce serving for $10 of the same wines. They also have a second list of reserve wines.

After discussing it, we decided to order a bottle of Qupe Syrah from California for $38. A few minutes later, our server informed us that they were out of that particular wine. Okay. So we were disappointed, but the cocktail list also was interesting, so we decided to order drinks instead.

While we were waiting for our cocktails, the hostess came over with two glasses of Champaign. She recognized that we were disappointed that the downstairs dining room was closed and that the wine we had ordered was not available. So as a gesture, she gave us a complimentary glass of Champaign. Nice touch.

We started our meals with a scallop appetizer. It consisted of two nice sea scallops, seared and wrapped in lamb bacon. It was an excellent starter and a wonderful blend of flavors. Linda thought the scallops were too rare, but overall, the dish was very enjoyable.

The house salad also was very good. I thought it was like a cross between a Greek salad and a wedge salad. The wedge of iceberg lettuce was served with artichokes, cucumber, feta, and cherry tomatoes. It was dressed with red wine vinaigrette.

For her entrée, Linda ordered halibut. She said it was the best halibut she’s ever eaten. It was cooked through, to her liking. But it was moist and flaky, not at all dry. It was served with snap peas and wild mushrooms. As a garnish, the plate had some puffed wild rice; very unusual.

For my entrée, I ordered short ribs. The meat was moist, tender, and very flavorful. It was served on a white bean mash that was very good. On the side, as a condiment, they served a horseradish foam. It had a good, solid, horseradish kick, but the texture was all light and airy. It was very unique and very memorable.

We didn’t really want dessert, but it was my birthday, and the hostess knew it, so she offered us a complementary dessert. Of course, they didn’t have either my first choice (apple pie) or my second choice (carrot cake). So we got some creamy thing (pane cotta, I think, with berries). Check the photo. They served it with a lit candle.

So what’s my conclusion? I give Porter & Frye a solid ‘B.’ The food was inventive and very good. But the menu is not large, and if you’re not in the mood for something a bit unusual, you might have trouble finding something that you want. The service was attentive and accommodating. But it still was disappointing to eat in the bar rather than the downstairs dining room. I’ll go back someday. But Porter & Frye doesn’t make it into my top 10 Twin Cities restaurants.