28 October 2008

Business lunch at Muffuletta, St. Paul

When I first started my career, 34 years ago, the company I worked for, Midland Cooperatives, was located at 2021 E. Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis. Every once in a while, the publications department where I worked would go to Muffuletta for a special lunch.

(I seem to recall that when we went there, the restaurant was called the Lamplighter Inn. Muffuletta’s web site says it’s been a St. Paul mainstay for 27 years. That would imply that it used to operate under a different name, probably different owners. But I couldn’t find anything online to confirm that.)

Whatever it was called, one of the specialties that we all would look forward to was the beer cheese soup.

Things change. Midland eventually moved out of the neighborhood to a new office in Fridley. Then, in 1982, it merged with Land O'Lakes, office located in Arden Hills. Muffuletta has changed a lot, too. The menu is much more up-scale with an emphasis on locally-produced food. But they still serve beer cheese soup, and it’s still worth the drive to have it for a special lunch.

I met Daryn McBeth there on a drizzly October Friday recently. Daryn is the head of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, the organization that planned the AgNite Gala during the RNC on September 2. I wanted to thank him for the hard work that made the gala a success, and we also needed to get caught up on a few organizational items.

The lunch menu is very appealing, and it was kind of hard to decide what to have. In the end, though, we both decided to have the daily special – The Bear Market Special. (Very apropos for the worrisome crash of the financial markets.)

For the special, we had a choice of a salad or … the beer cheese soup. Daryn had the salad. It looked good, and he enjoyed it. But I had to have the soup. It was just a cup. But the flavors were a wonderful blend, very cheesy, and garnished with a few kernels of popped corn.

The entrée was a pumpkin risotto. I didn’t think it had a very distinctive pumpkin flavor, but that was all right with me since I’m not a big pumpkin fan. However, there was a very flavorful variety of other ingredients, including some wonderful mushrooms, and overall, the risotto was very good.

The dessert was a bread pudding with dried cherries. Now, I’m really not a bread pudding fan. I asked the server if I could substitute a different dessert. He apologetically declined, explaining that the portion size for the special is not the same as for the other items on the menu. I didn’t mind too much. I still ate it all, and it was good. For all I know, it was really excellent bread pudding. I just don’t get into it.

All that was just $10. Admittedly the portion sizes were quite small. But that suited us just fine. We had a nice conversation, and I was very happy to have reconnected with an old favorite. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be making my way back to Muffuletta sooner rather than later.

22 October 2008

A birthday lunch at Manny’s, Minneapolis

I’ve written before how my brother (whose birthday is in October) and I (birthday in November) have an annual lunch to celebrate. Well, we missed last year. And we almost missed this year. We agreed on a date, but I didn’t write it on my calendar. I would have totally missed it if he hadn’t had his assistant call and ask if we could meet a little earlier.

Manny’s was an easy choice for this year’s lunch. It never used to be open for lunch. But a change of venue this year, to the swank, new W Minneapolis Hotel (located in the Foshay Tower), also resulted in a few other changes – including, now they serve lunch (and breakfast, too).

We both decided to order the Peppered Bar Steak with Bleu Cheese, Cabernet Butter. Wow! It was fantastic. The steaks were done to perfection. There was a generous dollop of a bleu cheese and butter blend with a hint of cabernet. The steak was a nice size for lunch. That is to say, it was a big steak. Not as big as the steaks they serve at Manny’s for dinner. But their dinner steaks and chops go for $40 and up. This was a nice sized luncheon steak for less than $20. And it came with a pile of really nice fries, crisp and flavorful.

I like the ambiance of Manny’s. The new space is fairly contemporary and not so much like the dark wood paneled cliché of a steakhouse. Our server was very good. He figured out pretty easily that Mike and I were celebrating and he played it up. At the end of lunch, he invited us to come back next year and he offered to join us.

So here’s my bottom line. My wife and I probably wouldn’t eat at Manny’s for just a dinner out for the two of us. We’re just not the kind of people who think that paying $40 for a steak is a good value. But I definitely would go there again for lunch. I thought the menu had enough variety to be interesting, the food was good, the service was pleasant, the ambiance was comfortable. All in all, it was a pretty good value.

21 October 2008

A family dinner at Brasa Rotisserie, Minneapolis

When we have dinner with my son and his wife and daughter, it’s usually at our house. And when it’s not at our house, it’s at theirs. But in late September, after Linda and I returned from our vacation in Greece, we decided to eat out with Ben and his family. He suggested Brasa. It’s reasonably close to their neighborhood, it has a good reputation, and he’d eaten there once before.

It was a beautiful Friday evening. The weather was warm and still. The sky was cloudless. The trees in the neighborhood hadn’t begun to turn color yet. When we arrived at Brasa, we snagged the last remaining outdoor table and ordered a bottle of wine. (No struggling with a wine list here. The menu simply lists “Med. Bodied, Fruity, Red” or “Bold, Ripe Red.” We went with Med Bodied Fruity Red (which turned out to be a Pinot Noir.)

The concept at Brasa is pretty simple and straightforward. Roasted meat – chicken, beef, or pork. Interesting sides. Lots of attention paid to quality and skillful preparation.

On our family visit, we got two orders of chicken and two orders of beef.

The sides we ordered were:

  • Roasted yams with andouille sausage. This was probably my favorite dish. The sweet, roasted yams were nicely complemented by the moderately spicy sausage.
  • Slow cooked collard greens with smoked turkey. Another great combination. We got two orders of this one.
  • Red beans and corn bread. My wife ordered this, but thought it was too spicy for her taste. (I, however, liked it.)
  • Fried, sweet plantains. Very good.
  • Romaine & fresh mozzarella chop salad. I was disappointed by this one. It didn’t have the depth of flavor that I would have wanted.

The one side that we didn’t order that I wish we would have was the rustic style cheese grits. Benjamin says they are fantastic, but I didn’t get to taste them.

The service at Brasa was pretty relaxed. We didn’t care. We just enjoyed sitting around, savoring the meal, and sharing stories about our adventures in Greece. It was a good meal and a good value enhanced by beautiful weather and pleasant company.

A celebration dinner at Gibson’s in Chicago

Our daughter ran the Chicago Marathon in October. This was the second time she ran it. She beat her first time, but she doesn’t run competitively. She’s one of the charity runners. She ran for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society.

After she completed the run, she went back to her apartment to rest. Then we met her for a dinner to celebrate her accomplishment. Gibson’s Steakhouse is less than two blocks from her apartment, and she commented that she’d always wanted to eat there. So as my wife and I walked over to her place, and as we passed Gibson’s, we stopped in to see if we could get a table.

“Sorry,” we were told. “No tables are available until after 9 p.m.” We didn’t think that would work for Tovah. After all, she’d just finished running 26.2 miles. We figured she’d want to eat early and go to bed. As we turned to leave, my wife thought to ask about the outdoor tables. “You’ll have to check outside,” was the answer.

Well, we did check outside, and much to our delight, we discovered that we could get a table in a half hour. So we strolled over to Tovah’s apartment, got her, and strolled back just in time to be seated. The weather on the day of the marathon was stunning. It probably was a little too hot for the runners, but it was perfect for an early evening dinner al fresco.

Like any expense account steakhouse, Gibson’s features huge portions and breathtaking menu prices. Like consider this: “Big Porterhouse” = $93. Or this: “Medium Australian Lobster Tail” = $82.25, or with ‘turf’ = $115.

Fortunately, since this was not an expense account meal, they have a section of the menu called “Bar Food” which offers a nice selection of reasonably priced items. My wife went for a half rack of baby back ribs, only $12.25. My daughter ordered the prime rib French dip, only $13.75.

I split a Caesar salad with my daughter and I had a veal chop. Ok, so that wasn’t in the ‘reasonable’ category. It was a nice sized chop, but it was $37.50.

In terms of flavor and quality, we all thought our meals were very satisfying. The service was great. Our server was attentive without hovering. We weren’t at all rushed. In fact, there seemed to be tables open outside almost the whole time we were there.

But the best part of the meal was the ambiance. Across the street was Mariano Park, a little triangular haven of trees, grass, benches and tables bordered by State Street, Rush Street, and Bellvue Place. It was filled with families and lovers and people enjoying the balmy October evening. There was a steady parade of fancy cars, limos, and motorcycles to watch.

After we finished our meals, we walked Tovah home. We hung out with her for a little bit and then left so she could get to sleep. As we walked by Gibson’s, there were open tables on the sidewalk, but it was still jam-packed inside.