29 May 2008

Lunch at Porter & Frye in the Ivy Tower, Minneapolis

Last March, I wrote about the opening of a new hotel and condominium complex which consisted of a renovation and new construction surrounding the Ivy Tower. The Ivy Tower had been a dilapidated, vacant office building in downtown Minneapolis.

The restaurant in the new Ivy Hotel & Residence is called Porter & Frye. In March, I just stopped in for a drink with a couple of coworkers. Now, three months later, I finally had a chance to give it a try.

A public relations agency I’ve done some work with invited me to a lunch meeting. We all agreed that Porter & Frye would be the place.

We met promptly at noon. There weren’t too many patrons for lunch. But it was the day after Memorial Day. I was disappointed, however, that the classy lower level dining room was not open. Our table was in the lobby level pub/lounge. It wasn’t like eating in the bar. But it’s definitely not the same ambiance as the dining room.

The lunch menu is very promising. There an ample number of choices and a nice variety with several nice salads, some sandwiches, and a few entrées. The prices are reasonable, too. You can order a salad and a sandwich without feeling like you’re paying an outrageous amount. The menu also is very creative with some interesting combinations and unusual ingredients.

Two of us started with the ‘house salad.’ You wouldn’t get this from the menu description, but it’s kind of like a dressed up wedge salad. On the plate is a nice-sized wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with raspberry vinaigrette. A wedge salad is not a very creative dish, even with the tasty vinaigrette. But this one is made memorable by the other ingredients on the plate. First, there’s a roasted artichoke. There’s also a roughly peeled tomato that’s almost like a multi-sided polygon. There are a couple of thin slices of cucumber rolled into tight spirals. The menu says there is feta cheese, but it’s not very distinctive.

The other diner had the arugula salad. The presentation also was very creative and interesting. The plate included beets, kumquats, and parmesan cheese.

We also ordered some main dishes, though the salads were nice-sized portions. You could get by with just the salad or by splitting another item.

I thought the best item of the lunch was the margherita pizza. It was plain and simple with very tasty toppings – tomatoes, fresh basil, and creamy mozzarella cheese. It was served on a grilled crust that was very thin and crispy.

The other diner had the gnocchi. They were wonderfully light potato dumplings topped with a marinara sauce, niçoise olives, and bucheron cheese. The marinara was very interesting. It was very thick and chunky, almost more like a pile of roasted tomatoes. Our server warned us that the bucheron cheese was very pungent, and she was right. The flavor was very good and distinctive, but the odor lingered in my nose for quite a while after lunch.

My main complaint about ordering gnocchi is that it tends to be quite rich and really too much to eat as your main course. That was the case at Porter & Frye. In fact, the person who ordered it did only eat half of it and took the rest home.

I ordered the grilled cheese sandwich. This item, I feel, is an example of taking a simple sandwich and trying so hard to make it fancy that they end up spoiling the charm of it in the first place. The cheese was something called Taleggio. It was an Italian cheese with a very strong aroma but a mild flavor. Honestly, there wasn’t very much cheese on the sandwich. But I suppose if you used a couple of thick slices, like you would if it were cheddar, the aroma would be too overpowering. The bread was a very unusual, heavy rustic bread. It was sliced thin and grilled so crisp as to almost be like a cracker. (When I described it to my wife, she asked it if was like a panini, I realized that’s what it was like.)

The menu didn’t say so, but the sandwich was served with a side of French fries. These were very thin and crisp. They were pretty heavily salted, but I find that most people like them that way. If I had known there would be fries with the sandwich, I might not have ordered the salad. (But I’m glad I did because I enjoyed the salad more than the sandwich and fries.)

All in all, I’m glad I tried Porter & Frye. I had pretty high expectations, but the restaurant didn’t fully deliver. I won’t be rushing back there any time soon for lunch. If I do go back for lunch, I would definitely consider ordering a salad and splitting the gnocchi with someone, or trying one of the other dishes. And I still intend to give it a try for dinner, if nothing else but to experience that beautiful dining room downstairs.

03 May 2008

Lunch at Ristorante Luigino, Washington, DC

Sometimes, when I sit down to write a review for Krik’s Picks, I have to really think about the meal I’m writing about and I struggle for words to describe the ambiance and/or the food. On the other hand, though I’ve only eaten at Luigino in DC a few times, both lunches and dinners, and the memory of some of those previous meals leaps immediately to mind.

The first time I ever had ossobuco was at Luigino. Yum! I also had a wonderful, simple lunch of gnocchi there. And once when my wife was with me, she had an insalata di mare (shrimp, scallops, and squid with white beans, dressed in olive oil and lemon juice) that was so amazing that she still speaks of it to this very day.

So on a recent trip to Washington, DC, when I found myself free for lunch and was in the neighborhood, I took advantage of the opportunity to eat there again.

When I looked at the menu, I saw that they offered a weekly lunch special, three courses for $20.08. It sounded good to me, so that’s what I ordered.

To start, I had a choice of a salad, an antipasti (mussels in saffron sauce), or a half-order of pasta. I chose the pasta – mezzalune di carciofi. All the pasta at Luigino is house-made. The mezzalune are shaped as half moons. The pasta was delightfully tender. They were filled with pureed artichokes and topped with a veal reduction and a little cream. The flavors were delicately balanced and the sauce was not excessively rich.

The choices for the main course were a chicken breast, a plate with a sampling of three different pastas, or fish. I chose fish – coda di rospo al forno. It was baked monkfish topped with capers, fresh tomatoes, and drizzled with a little white wine and olive oil. Monkfish is a variety we don’t see too often in Minnesota. I’ve never cooked it myself. The texture was dense but not at all tough. The Wikipedia entry compares it to lobster in terms of texture.

Finally, the choices for dessert were sottobosco or bunet al cioccoloato. I don’t know what a bunet is, but I know that cioccolato has something to do with chocolate which is not my favorite. So I had the sottobosco. It turned out to be beautiful fresh berries served on a fluffy cloud of custard with just a hint of Marsala wine. Fantastic!

What a great lunch, and what a fantastic value for what was served.