30 December 2009

Dinner at D'Amico's Kitchen, Minneapolis

I really wanted to love this restaurant. I wanted to say that it was a replacement on my Top 2 list of favorite special occasion restaurants in Minneapolis. After all, it's located in the same space as one of my old Top 2 - the Chambers Kitchen. And I had a wonderful lunch there with my brother. But the sad fact is that when my wife and I went there in early December for a belated birthday celebration, it just didn't live up to expectations. I've thought about this a lot. It's not that it was disappointing. It's just that it wasn't as good as I wanted or expected.

The space is lovely. I already said that in my previous post. For our dinner reservation, the service was perfunctory. No specific complaints. But compared to the service my brother and I had at lunch, just not on the same level.

So let's get down to it - the food. I guess the only way to put it is, the food is inconsistent. And if I think about it, I should have caught a hint of that from the lunch with my brother.

For starters, I had a zucchini carpaccio. It was a wonderful, flavorful combination of paper-thin slices of zucchini squash dressed with a wonderful, light vinaigrette flavored with mint, pine nuts, and French feta. My wife's starter was equally as engaging, but quite different in style. She ordered the saffron risotto balls. These were golf-ball sized bundles of saffron risotto, breaded and fried, and stuffed with braised veal. I would have to say, these two items were the highlight of our meal.

For an entree, I ordered an evening special, veal Milanese. Except, the menu called it a veal chop. So what I expected was a nice piece of grilled veal like I get at some of the high end steak houses. Instead, what I got was a breaded veal chop that was fairly thin and frankly overcooked. I had thought about getting the braised beef shortribs. At $11 cheaper, I think that would have been a better choice.

My wife ordered sea scallops with Brussel sprouts and dates. It was very good. But it just didn't compare to the scallops that she had at Sea Change for her birthday dinner a couple of months earlier.

So what it all boils down to is this. I would go back to D'Amico's Kitchen. I'd gladly have another lunch there. I'd have a dinner there, but there'd have to be a particular reason why. Maybe this is the kind of restaurant that's better for lunch than dinner. (That's how I feel about the St. Paul Grill.) I think that some of the items are marvelously delightful - my zucchini carpaccio, the tuna crudo I had with my brother at lunch. Other items are good but kind of out of character, like the fried calamari that my brother had at lunch or the fried risotto balls my wife had at dinner. And the entrees range from sublime, like the oriechette I had at lunch or Linda's scallops. while other entrees are very ordinary like the veal Milanese or my brother's veal meatball sandwich.

In the end, I can't say that this is a new favorite special occasion restaurant. As I said in my review of Sea Change, this is an outstanding replacement for my old favorite of Cue at the Guthrie. But as unlikely as it may seem, my second favorite special occasion restaurant now would have to be Meritage in St. Paul.

26 December 2009

Krik's Picks Brand Extension

Not to be too corny about this, but I'm extending the Krik's Picks brand. I've set up a Yelp account.

I have two on-line sources for diners' opinions about restaurants. One is Open Table. I use that to make reservations, and often check the diner reviews. I also submit reviews, but they don't have a way for other people to 'follow' your reviews. (At least, if they do, I haven't figured out how.)

The other is Yelp. This is an on-line resource for reviewing businesses. It has a very active community of users who review restaurants. I've gotten into the habit of checking Yelp before trying a new restaurant. They do make it easy for people to follow your reviews on Yelp. In fact, they even give you a personal domain, if you want. So if you want to read my Yelp reviews, just click here. I've also included my Yelp profile in the Links section of Krik's Picks.

So far, I haven't figured out how to mesh my Yelp account with my blog. It seems silly to post separate reviews on both. But I think I'll just try it for a while and see how it develops. If you have any observations or advice, I would welcome them.

Recipe: Godfather (cocktail)

This isn't just a recipe. It's also a gadget review.

I got my wife an ice crusher. She wanted one so that we could have crushed ice with cocktails. In the past, we would wrap a couple of ice cubes in a towel and use a hammer to crush them. Not too cool.

I looked around and checked online reviews of different styles. It came down to either an expensive electric one or an inexpensive hand crank crusher. The thing that finally sold me was a user review for the hand crank crusher. She said that it was perfect for crushing just a couple of ice cubes for cocktails. It seemed like most of the electric ones were really for crushing lots of ice at a time, like maybe for a party. So I decided to get a Metrokane Retro Ice Crusher. (It's made from stainless steel and is so reflective, you can't hardly see it in the photo. It's to the left of the martini glass.)

We got the cocktail recipe from West End Crave in St. Louis Park. You can read my review of the restaurant on my new Yelp page. My wife got the recipe, and it's the first thing we made with our new ice crusher. It's good. Try it.

2 oz. scotch whisky
1 oz. amaretto

Pour the scotch and amaretto over cracked ice. (The bartender suggested a low-ball glass, but as you can see, we prefer martini glasses.) Stir and enjoy.

Happy New Year!

24 December 2009

KwikPick: Dinner at Topolobampo, Chicago

We were in Chicago for Thanksgiving. My daughter and son-in-law requested dinner at Topolobampo. I've heard a lot about Rick Bayless and was curious about Topolo and his other restaurants, so we said 'Sure.'


Ratings are on a scale of 1-5. Click here for my criteria for each rating.


Food: 4
Service: 3
Ambiance: 4
Value: 3


First of all, to go there, you can't think of it as just Mexican food. This ain't your ordinary taqueria. The items on the menu are creative combinations of flavors intended to surprise and delight you. And the dining room where you enjoy these culinary creations is somewhat formal. You can dine in an informal setting at the Frontera Grill, located in the same space. But we were celebrating a special occasion, so we chose the more dressy, formal setting.


So let me explain my ratings. which may seem unimpressive. Start with the food. Most of it was fabulous! We started with a trio of different ceviches (I'm not sure if the plural of ceviche is ceviches.) All of them were great. I particularly liked the Atun 'Chamoy' which was tuna with a spicy, tangy citrus dressing. We also shared an order of "Tacos de Huitlacoche." These were crispy rolled tacos filled with a corn mushroom combination. Also very tasty. My son-in-law had a pork belly soup that he said was very good. It was served with a lime "air," a bit of foamy something with a nice lime flavor; very unique.

So far, so good. Next came our entrees. I had scallops. They were cooked just the way I like them, still very moist and not at all rubbery. The accompaniments on the plate included a very tasty chili sauce and a pea-cilantro mash and enoki mushrooms. My daughter had a lamb rib-eye. The lamb was beautifully cooked and was served with a plate full of wonderful flavors, including pear-infused chili sauce, potato-apple tortitas (which turned out to be like little potato pancakes) and a grilled salad.


Up until this point, I would have said that the food rated a 5. (All right, it wouldn't have made angels weep, but it was excellent.) Then came the duck.


Both my wife and my son-in-law had duck. Both of them asked for their duck to be cooked more medium rather than medium rare. Both were served medium rare to seared. They ate it, and the flavors were great. But I guess when you're paying a premium to eat at a celebrity chef restaurant, they should be somewhat accommodating on preparation. After all, it's not like they asked for it well done. And at the very least, if the chef objected to cooking the duck to medium, then the server should have said so and given them the option of choosing something else.


Which brings me to my next quibble - the service. I checked Yelp reviews to see what other diners said. It seems that haughty servers are a standard at Topolo. Our guy was ok, just not remarkably so. He did make a very good recommendation on a glass of wine that my wife ordered. But by and large, he was not particularly attentive and all of commented that he seemed to have a very superior attitude. Hence an 'average' 3 rating.

I thought the ambiance was nice and gave it an above-average rating of 4.

Overall value had to be an average 3. Sure, most of the food was excellent. But the price tag was steep. Except for the duck, we felt we paid a fair price for the evening. But there's no way I could say it was a great value for the money.

Recommendation: Go for a unique dining experience. Go for the celebrity cache. (Bayless didn't appear on our visit, but apparently he's there often.) Go for a special occasion. Just be prepared for service with attitude and an expensive tab.

05 December 2009

Lunch at BenjYehuda, Chicago


My son-in-law is working for a new restaurant in Chicago. It's called BenjYehuda Urban Street Food. The owner, who's name is Benji, was inspired by street food that's prepared in cities around the world, featuring fresh, locally grown ingredients prepared according to authentic local styles. BenjYehuda is modeled after the food stands on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem.

So in the spirit of street food, the offerings at BenjYehuda are simple and straightforward. You can have falafel, chicken, or steak (shawarma). You can have it in a pita, wrapped in flat bread (laffa), or in a box - on lettuce as a salad or on rice as an entree. Then you can add any combination of toppings or side items. These include hummus, baba ganoush, tahini sauce, hot sauce, pickles, Jerusalem salad, corn salad, red cabbage salad, and carrot salad. You also can get a sampler consisting of three mini pitas, one of each entree with the toppings of your choice.

My wife and daughter both had steak, in a box, on lettuce. I had falafel in flat bread. Both versions were very good. My falafel sandwich was very generous in size. Two people could share it and still be satisfied, especially if you also have an order of fries.

I don't know if french fries are authentic Israeli street food. It's been more than 30 years since I was there. But they are authentic American street food, and the fries at BenjYehuda are great. They are hand cut and very crispy. If you want, you can get cheese to dip your fries into.

For dessert, you can get a churro. We didn't have one, but they looked good.

The restaurant is open through lunch. Most of the patrons work at nearby offices in the Loop. You also can get takeout.

30 November 2009

Recipe: Gingerbread Pudding Cake

There was a time when Land O'Lakes used to publish a recipe pamphlet that was sold at the supermarket checkout stand. As employees, we sometimes would receive complimentary copies. I eventually accumulated quite a collection. The recipes were thoroughly tested with clear, precise directions. I don't know if they were foolproof. But they were pretty reliable.


My kids loved them, especially my daughter. When she got her first apartment in college, we gave her several of them, at her request. She always said that she loved them because they always turned out. They helped give her the confidence to be a creative cook in her own right.

I don't know if Land O'Lakes publishes any recipe books anymore. If they do, employees don't have a chance to get copies at the office. But it's probably a moot point because the company has a very comprehensive recipe collection on the web site.

My wife and I spent Thanksgiving with my daughter and her husband in Chicago. We had our Thanksgiving meal with my son-in-law's family. My daughter made two recipes for the meal. Both were from old Land O'Lakes recipe books, and both are available online. One was an artichoke dip. The other, below, is a gingerbread pudding cake.

I decided to post the cake recipe because I thought the preparation technique was so unusual. After spreading the gingerbread mixture in the bottom of the baking dish, the recipe calls for pouring a cup of water and melted butter over the batter before baking. Honestly, I was skeptical of the result. But it turned out fabulous. Somehow the liquid absorbed into the cake to produce a light, tender, moist dessert. The tip with the recipe suggests serving with pumpkin ice cream. For our Thanksgiving dinner, we had whipped cream. Since I'm not a big fan of pumpkin, I thought that was much better.

So here's the recipe.

GINGERBREAD PUDDING CAKE

Preparation time: 30 min Baking time: 40 min

Yield: 12 servings

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/4 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg

1 cup mild flavor molasses

1 cup water

3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 1/2 cups hot water

1/3 cup butter, melted


Heat oven to 350°F. Combine flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, salt, allspice and nutmeg in medium bowl; set aside.

Beat 1/2 cup butter and sugar in large bowl at medium speed until creamy. Add egg; continue beating until well mixed. Reduce speed to low. Beat, alternately adding flour mixture with molasses and 1 cup water, beating after each addition only until blended. Pour batter into ungreased 13x9-inch baking pan; sprinkle with 3/4 cup brown sugar.

Combine 1 1/2 cups hot water and 1/3 cup melted butter in medium bowl; carefully pour over top of batter. (Do not stir.) Bake for 40 to 55 minutes or until gingerbread is cracked on top and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve warm with ice cream, if desired.

29 November 2009

Birthday lunch at D'Amico's Kitchen, Minneapolis


In my last post, I lamented the closure of two of my favorite 'special occasion' restaurants in Minneapolis. (Scroll down to read it.) Another Minneapolis standout that closed during the economic downturn was D'Amico Cucina. It had been many years since I ate at D'Amico's, but many people felt it was the best Italian restaurant in town.

Well, the creative energy behind the original D'Amico's combined with the hip, stylish venue of the Chambers Hotel and I think I have a new special occasion favorite – D'Amico's Kitchen at the Chambers.


My brother and I decided to try it for our annual joint birthday lunch. I always liked the the sort of stark, industrial space that the old Chamber's Kitchen had in the 'basement' of the hotel. D'Amico moved the main dining room to the lobby level (which had been a bar before the changeover). The new space is bright and airy. As you'll see in the photo below, the big windows provide diners with views of the bustle of downtown Minneapolis. I could see down the stairs, and it looked like there were tables still in the basement, so I asked our server what they were doing with the space. He said that they used it as overflow when the upstairs dining room is full.


Speaking of our server, he was great. Since Mike and I had an early lunch reservation, it wasn't particularly crowded when we arrived. But our server gave us lots of personal attention. He also gave some helpful information about the menu and good recommendations.


D'Amico has a prix fixe lunch option – a starter, main dish, and dessert. Since we were celebrating, we decided to go for it.


Mike started with spicy fried calamari. It was very good. The spiciness was not overwhelming, and the calamari were tender and tasty. It was a huge serving, way more than one person would order as a lunch starter. It could have easily been split between the two of us. My starter, on the other hand, was definitely an individual, starter-sized serving. I had tuna crudo. It was sashimi grade tuna with avocado and melon, lightly dressed in olive oil, chives, lemon peel. It was very light and absolutely bursting in flavor.


For our entrees, Mike had a veal meatball sandwich with provolone cheese. It also was a very generous serving, and it came with a side of fries. The meatballs were very flavorful, and there was a side of marinara sauce for dipping. I ordered orecchiette with a fried cherry tomato salsa, pecorino cheese, and arugula. It was fantastic. The flavors were very fresh and blended nicely. It was not a huge serving, but ample for me.


For dessert, we both ordered baked almond frangipane crepe with mascarpone at the recommendation of the server. It was a very good ending to a special lunch.


I was very impressed by D'Amico's Kitchen. I can't wait to go back and try it for dinner.

24 November 2009

Celebration dinner at Sea Change, Minneapolis



The economic downturn has been tough on restaurants. Both of my favorite special occasion places closed in 2009 - Cue at the Guthrie and Chambers Kitchen.

Fortunately, the economy has not discouraged creative restaurateurs from exploring new concepts, and both venues have opened exciting new replacements for my old favorites. This review is about the new restaurant at the Guthrie. The next is about the replacement at the Chambers.

Sea Change got on our list of 'must try' restaurants as soon as it was announced that Tim McKee was behind it. We don't usually rush to a new place when it opens. We prefer to give them time to work out some of the kinks. Sea Change opened during the summer. We went for my wife's birthday in September.

Wow! What a great experience it was. One of the things that's so fun about McKee is that each of his Twin Cities venues has its own character. Each one is so different from the others. Yet all of them reveal the unmistakable guidance of McKee's creativity.

Linda and I really like fish and sea food. That's why we go to San Francisco so much. (Actually, there are a lot of reasons, but that one is good enough for this post.) We have high standards for the fish we're served. Freshness is an absolute non-negotiable must. Then careful preparation that puts the freshness of the fish on display. Then lastly, creativity in flavors and presentation to make a memorable dish.

Now, not to delay the description of our meals too much longer, let me start with the wine. We ordered a Portuguese Alvarinho but they didn't have it. Our server recommended an alternative, and I'm sorry, but I can't remember precisely which one. It may have been a Spanish Albarinho. To me, he showed a good grasp of what he had available and an intuitive sense of what we'd like. The service was like that all through the evening.

For starters, Linda had King crab appetizer with cucumber and lemon. Her comment was how long it had been since she'd even seen King crab legs on a menu. It was a real treat. The crab was fresh and succulent. The cucumber and lemon provided a nice compliment to the flavors of the crab. I chose albacore served raw and complimented with watermelon, jalapeno, and mint. It was fabulous.

Linda's ordered scallops for her meal. They were beautifully prepared and came with a relish of sweet corn, chorizo, jalapeno, and lime. She was concerned that the jalapeno would make the dish too spicy for her. But it did not. I chose sea bass, which was either a nightly or seasonal special. There's a striped bass on the menu, but that's not what I had. My sea bass was served with shredded tendrils and fennel served on a bed of sauteed mushrooms. The flavors were wonderful.

We didn't really plan on dessert. But since it was Linda's birthday, we shared a trio of gelatos (gelati?) They were very unusual, and we enjoyed them quite a lot.

So in case you can't tell from the review so far, I do recommend Sea Change especially for a special occasion. Our old trick with Cue at the Guthrie was to make a reservation for about the same time as the beginning of the play at the theater. Seems like a lot of tables open up then.

30 October 2009

Trick or Treat! Hooray for Pearsons


My granddaughter always thinks I'm joking when I say that I don't like chocolate.

“Poppy,” she says with an exasperated tone. “Just try it.”

Of course, I'm exaggerating a little bit for effect. But the fact is that when it comes to preferred sources of empty calories, chocolate falls pretty far down on my list.

That's kind of a roundabout way of explaining why Pearson's Salted Nut Rolls are my favorite candy bar – no chocolate. And that brings me to the real point of this post: Pearson's Candy was founded in St. Paul, MN in 1909, and they are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. (Click here to see their web site. Lotsa interesting history about the company.)

So happy anniversary to Pearson's, a food company neighbor to Land O'Lakes. I wonder if eating Salted Nut Rolls counts as eating local?

By the way, even though chocolate isn't my favorite, I do like fudge. And I also like Pearson's Nut Goodie Bars.

27 October 2009

Recipe: Focaccia with Olives and Rosemary

It's kind of hard for me to believe I haven't posted this recipe before. It's one of my favorites. Not only is it delicious (especially when you have fresh rosemary available). But it's also pretty easy to make. The only thing tricky about it is that focaccia is supposed to be a soft, airy bread. So you only want to use just enough flour to allow you to handle the dough without sticking. Lots of good quality olive oil helps. That caveat notwithstanding, I still use more like 5½ cups flour, about 1 cup more than the recipe calls for.

The only other modification I use is I mix the olives into the dough rather than spread them on top as the recipe says.

This really makes a big loaf. I usually end up freezing half of it for a future use. But it also keeps fairly well in the refrigerator. I like to split it and toast it and eat it with butter and cheese and fruit for breakfast.

Focaccia with Olives and Rosemary, Bon Appetit, May 1995

2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons dry yeast
4½ cups (about) all purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
24 black or green brine-cured olives (such as Kalamata or Greek),pitted, halved
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1½ teaspoons dried

Place 2 cups warm water in large bowl. Sprinkle dry yeast over; stir with fork. Let stand until yeast dissolves, about 10 minutes.

Add 4 1/4 cups flour and salt to yeast mixture and stir to blend well (dough will be sticky). Knead dough on floured surface until smooth and elastic, adding more flour by tablespoonfuls if dough is sticky, about 10 minutes. Form dough into ball. Oil large bowl; add dough, turning to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm area until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours. Punch down dough; knead into ball and return to same bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm area until doubled, about 45 minutes or less

Coat 15x10-inch baking sheet with 1 tablespoon oil. Punch down dough. Transfer to prepared sheet. Using fingertips, press out dough to 13x10-inch rectangle. Let dough rest 10 minutes. Drizzle 2 tablespoons oil over dough. Sprinkle olives and chopped rosemary evenly over. Let dough rise uncovered in warm area until puffy, about 25 minutes.

Preheat oven to 475°F. Press fingertips all over dough, forming indentations. Bake bread until brown and crusty, about 20 minutes. Serve bread warm or at room temperature.

26 October 2009

Recipe: Roasted Harvest Vegetable Lasagna

I've written before about my parents and their garden. Well, a couple of weeks ago I benefited again from their bounty and generosity. They stopped by the house on their way into the city and dropped off some of their late fall harvest. (I suppose it's sort of like a 'community supported agriculture' delivery.)

The delivery included several butternut squash. Our daughter was coming to Minnesota for the weekend, and we were planning a family dinner on Friday night. (See following posts for the restaurants we visited while she was here.) I remembered making a lasagna once with roasted squash, and my wife agreed that would be good for the dinner entree.

Well, I searched and searched, and for the life of me, I couldn't find the original recipe. I did, however, find another recipe for squash and mushroom lasagna that I thought I remembered making at least once. (Click here for that one that I found on Epicurious.) That recipe called for sauteing the squash rather than roasting. But I figured I could use that as a basis and improvise.

So the recipe below is my adaptation of the butternut squash and mushroom lasagna from Epicurious. Just a few comments first. I felt that my version was dryer than the Epicurious one. I attribute that to the fact that sauteing the squash in broth provides a high-moisture ingredient for the lasagna that's missing in my version. I also wanted to add roasted red peppers, but my wife felt that was too much. So I compromised and only put the peppers on half of the lasagna. My son and I liked them.

1 large (or 2 medium) onions, cut into 1-inch chunks
½ pound whole mushrooms, cut in half (small mushrooms) or quarters (large mushrooms)
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-inch cubes slices (about 5½ cups)
olive oil
4 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary (or thyme), divided
4 tablespoons sliced fresh sage, divided
2 15-ounce containers whole-milk ricotta cheese
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese, divided
2 cups grated provolone cheese, divided
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided
3 large eggs
2 roasted red peppers cut into strips (optional)
½ pound dried lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, toss squash cubes, onions, and mushrooms with olive oil to coat. Spread vegetables onto a rimmed cookie sheet. Sprinkle with half of the herbs and season with salt and pepper. Roast vegetables in oven for about 30 minutes, or until squash is tender and beginning to brown. Remove from oven and reduce temperature to 350 degrees.

Mix ricotta, 1 cup mozzarella cheese, 1 cup provolone, and 1½ cups Parmesan cheese, and remaining herbs in large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper; mix in eggs.

Brush 13x9x2-inch glass or ceramic lasagna pan with oil. Spread 1 cup ricotta mixture over bottom. Arrange 3 noodles on top. Spread 1/3 of the ricotta mixture over noodles. Arrange ½ of the roasted vegetables over. Sprinkle with ½ of remaining mozzarella and provolone. Top with 3 noodles, then 1/3 of the ricotta mixture, remaining roasted vegetables, and remaining mozzarella and provolone. Top with 3 noodles. Spread remaining ricotta mixture over; sprinkle with remaining Parmesan. Cover with oiled foil.

Bake lasagna, covered, 35 minutes. Uncover; bake until heated through, about 25 minutes longer. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

23 October 2009

KwikPick: Family dinner at Jasmine 26, Minneapolis

We had (almost) our whole family home last weekend. Only my son-in-law in Chicago couldn't be here. So for dinner on Saturday, we wanted to pick someplace casual and kid-friendly. We thought of a few old standbys, but finally decided on someplace new – Jasmine 26 on Eat Street in Minneapolis.

Food: 4
Service: 3
Ambiance: 3
Value: 3

It's been a long time since I've eaten Vietnamese cuisine. I do really like it, and the food served at Jasmine 26 is pretty good. With our group of five adults and one child, we ordered a nice selection. The only trouble is, the style of dishes (at least those that we ordered) did not lend themselves to sharing, which is usually part of the fun of eating at an Asian restaurant.

For example, I had red peanut curry with roasted duck, eggplant, bamboo shoots, bell peppers and sweet potato. It was excellent. But, the way it was served, you spoon some rice into a small bowl and then spoon some of the curry over the rice. The curry has a lot of liquid, almost more like a stew. So that made it difficult to share. By the way, it was delightfully spicy. Just enough heat to make it interesting.

My son and his wife both had soups. (My wife has had soup at Jasmine 26 before, for lunch. I think it's kind of a specialty.) They both liked their meals, but again, pretty hard to share soup.

My wife's dish was quite interesting. She had the seafood crispy noodle, which was a variety of seafood sauteed in a light garlic sauce and served in a bowl formed from crispy noodles. I did taste that, and it was good. She liked how the sauce softened the noodles on the bottom of the plate so that there were an interesting variety of textures as she ate the dish.

My daughter's meal also was interesting. She had grilled shrimp tossed in coconut milk with thick rice noodles, garnished with shredded lettuce, cucumber, herbs. I took a taste of that and liked it, though my wife's crispy noodle meal was more interesting.

I guess I'm kinda working backwards on this meal. We actually started with an order of spring rolls and coconut cream cheese wonton. I liked the wonton better than the spring roll, though others at the table raved over the spring roll. And my granddaughter had the chicken satay appetizer as her meal.

Recommendation: As I look back over this review, I notice that the most common adjective that I used was interesting. So I guess I would recommend Jasmine 26 if you're looking for an interesting meal – maybe a little unusual from the usual Asian, good flavors, quality ingredients, well prepared.

17 October 2009

KwikPick: Mort’s Deli, Golden Valley, MN

We have trouble sustaining an authentic deli in Minnesota. Mort’s is the most recent attempt. We gave it a try for lunch when my daughter came to town for a visit from Chicago.

· Food: 3
· Service: 3
· Ambiance: 3
· Value: 3

Pretty average scores, in my judgment. Based on this visit, I’d have to say that Mort’s sandwiches are your best bet. My wife and daughter split a Mort’s Reuben. It was made with horseradish cheese instead of Swiss. They liked the lean corned beef and the sandwich was very tasty. But the horseradish cheese was very mild. They both spiced up the sandwich with mustard. We were joined by my sister-in-law and her older daughter. They split a corned beef sandwich, and they also liked the corned beef.

Mort’s serves breakfast until 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, so I focused on the breakfast menu. I opted for corned beef hash (which is available all day anyway, as are the omelets). Sorry, but I was not impressed. The corned beef was good (notice a trend here?) But the hash seemed to lack flavor. I much prefer the hash at Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown.

The hash came with a bagel and two latkes. The menu says that the bagels are from H&H Bagels in New York City. The bagel came with cream cheese and two pats of butter – very nice touch. The latkes, on the other hand, were unimpressive. They needed to be much crisper. They were served with sour cream (good) and applesauce (tasted like grocery-store Mott’s).

After we placed our order, the server brought us a plate of pickles. They were very good, as was the matzo ball, chicken noodle soup. For beverages, I had coffee. It was ok, nothing remarkable. The half-and-half on the table wasn’t Land O Lakes (boo, hiss). Mort’s also offers a large variety of Dr. Brown’s sodas – my wife’s favorite. And my daughter had a large glass of chocolate milk – only 99 cents, a bargain.

Recommendation: Worth a visit, stick to sandwiches, nothing to rave about.

16 October 2009

Hennessy House B&B, Napa, CA

Guest post by Lisa Novacek Hertel

On a recent vacation, our family stayed at the Hennessy House B&B in Napa, Calif. The experience merits mention given the consistent quality of comfort, hospitality, and yummy provisions we enjoyed.

Heath, Lil (our 4-year old) and I arrived early enough on a Thursday afternoon to participate in the complimentary wine and cheese tasting provided to all guests each day. The selection hit the spot, with an array of hearty cheddars and white cheeses to soothe the appetite, fruit to complement the cheeses and satisfy Lillian, and a mix of local wines to sip and savor. We especially enjoyed a Cabernet Sauvignon from a familiar name but one we had not previously associated with wine production -- the Francis Ford Coppola collection. We were very pleased with our discovery (and you can learn more at http://www.franciscoppolawinery.com/).

The Hennessy House afternoon taste fest managed to tide us over very well until dinner. The B&B is well placed in the heart of Napa with several fine dining establishments within walking distance. We chose an Italian restaurant, Uva Trattoria Italiana (http://www.uvatrattoria.com/), which had an inviting menu and something for everyone. Naturally, Lil wanted cheese pizza, but it was such a delight, her parents helped her devour it! Heath ordered the Fettuccine Pollo with mushroom-cream sauce, and I settled for the simple Penne Pesto. Both of us were pleased with our choices as well. A very satisfying meal from start to finish.

Now, back to the Hennessy House. Returning to our room, we found that staff at the Hennessy House had helped to ensure a comfortable evening with in-room services of sweet sherry and gourmet chocolates, movies to delight younger guests, and at least five pillows per occupant! We appreciated the cozy end to a travel-heavy day.

The next morning, we made our way to the dining room while taking in the lucious smell of breakfast cooking and baking. Freshly squeezed orange juice, hot coffee and a tea lover's paradise of flavors welcomed us as we took our seats. Soon, staff entered and placed full sundae dishes of fresh fruit on our china plates. This was act one of a three-part production, which segued into a delicious slice of cranberry bread pudding accompanied by sizzling bacon. While we may have been content to stop at this point, we managed to find room for the third and final offering, fresh-from-the-oven, homemade muffins. Lil and I chose sour cream raisin, while Heath enjoyed a parmesan cheese muffin. These delights were served with butter and divinely melted in our mouths.

The Hennessy House staff members were as attentive and gracious as we completed our stay as they were at the beginning. We were given extra muffins for the road and bottles of water to keep us hydrated. Directions were shared to a local park that is a favorite of the owner's children. And no goodbye could be complete without a few photos for the scrapbook, which the innkeeper personally took for us.

We left the Hennessy House with a very positive impression, and we know we'll be back.

30 September 2009

Victory lunch at Art & Soul, Washington, DC


I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but it was a victory lunch … celebrating the hiring of a new staff person who will open a Washington office for Land O'Lakes. She picked Art & Soul, and I eagerly agreed.

Art & Soul is in the ‘new’ Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel. The hotel is part of a boutique chain called Affinia. They have hotels in DC, Chicago, and New York City. I’ve never stayed at one.
The décor is flashy and cool. Lots of art, creative lighting, bold color. I’m told it’s becoming the hot new venue for political events in DC.

Jen, my new employee, ordered the fried chicken. She said it’s her favorite and a rare indulgence. I didn’t try a bite. (After all, I just hired her. I’m not going to start picking food off her plate … yet.) The menu calls it ‘Maryland style’ which I suppose refers to the breading on the chicken. It looked very good. Crisp but not at all greasy. It came with a serving of potato salad. That really looked good.

I thought the starters on the menu looked very creative. I was particularly intrigued by the tomato pie, so I ordered that. I was worried that wouldn’t be enough, so I asked about a soup. The server said they had a soup of the day that wasn’t on the menu. So I ordered that, too.

I was very happy with my choices. The soup was tomato and beef, very thick and flavorful. The server’s disclaimer was that it wasn’t a chili, and it wasn’t. As much as I enjoyed the soup, I really liked the tomato pie. The pastry was very flakey and tender. There was a layer of goat cheese on the bottom, topped by ripe, luscious red tomatoes. It was served with a small salad of exotic greens. Truthfully, it would have been enough alone without the soup.

We were starting to run out of time, but they had a peach turnover on the dessert menu, and I couldn’t resist. One order consisted of two turnovers and a scoop of ice cream. Very good.
Art & Soul is a DC eatery that I’ll be returning to on future visits.

07 September 2009

Before dinner drinks at moto-i, Minneapolis

While waiting for a patio table to open up at “It’s Greek to Me,” my wife and I spied a rooftop bar across the street. It was a beautiful early September evening (Labor Day weekend). So we decided to give it a try.

The name of the establishment was moto-i. It bills itself as the first sake brewery restaurant outside of Japan. It describes itself as a Japanese pub, serving small plates, noodles, rice, and of course, sake. The restaurant makes draft sake or namazake. We saw some glasses being served, and it looked interesting.

We opted for a couple of sake cocktails. I had a Cucumber Cooler. It was nigori sake, Hendricks gin, and vodka. I like the cucumber infused flavor of Hendricks and usually have a bottle in my freezer at home. The sake in this martini was reminiscent of vermouth, but had a distinct sake flavor. It was served with a slice of cumber.

My wife had Lychee Lovedrop. It had futsuu sake, lychee syrup, and Yazi Ginger Vodka. The server said it would have a pear flavor, and I suppose that’s a good way to describe it. The lychee nuts served with the drink have a sweet flavor and a firm pear texture. The ginger-infused vodka complements the sweetness and adds just a little spiciness.

We will definitely return to moto-i in the future to try the menu and the house-brewed sake.

(By the way, we had great meals at It’s Greek to Me as well, and then ended the evening with a hot blues trio playing at Tryg’s in St. Louis Park.)

16 August 2009

Guest Post: Paris chocolate shops

By Vicki Hicks

(Krik's Note: You've seen my friend Vicki Hicks in a previous post. She jets off regularly to Paris and then regales me with tales of her culinary ventures. After our dinner at Founding Fathers earlier this year, I asked her to write a guest post about her visits to Paris chocolate shops. Read on ...)


During my most recent trip to Paris in February I was only on the ground for four days. I have visited Paris many times and have hit most of the tourist highlights and a few obscure places as well. What to do with such little time? We decided to take a tour of some of the best chocolate shops Paris has to offer. To begin our search for the ultimate in chocolate decadence, we referred to an article in last December's New York Times. While we did not visit each of the shops mentioned in the Times, we did manage to identify two standouts from our tour.

It just happened that our chocolate tour was conducted on Valentine's Day. Our first stop was Patrick Roger's shop on Avenue Victor Hugo, not far from where I was staying with a friend who was living in Paris on assignment. I had visited Patrick's former location on St. Germain, so I knew we were in for a treat. Squares of chocolate ganache mixed with hazelnut were my favorite, and the chocolate covered orange peels my least. From there, we headed over to the area around the Luxembourg Gardens, to a chocolate shop I had visited before and is famous for its macaroons. I can't remember the name of the shop but it is just down the street from a candle store that has been around for centuries. We purchased several types of macaroons each, including pistachio, milk chocolate and dark chocolate.

From there we walked to Christian Constant, another chocolatier. After peering through the window we decided not to enter. Most of the chocolates were infused with a variety of spices and flowery flavors. We were looking to mainline chocolate and did not need any interference. As it turned out, our next stop was nirvana.

Upon reaching Pierre Hermé’s shop at 72, rue Bonaparte, we discovered we were not alone in our quest for the best chocolate in Paris. The line to enter the tiny shop was out the door and down the street to the corner. My friend pronounced that no chocolate was worth standing in line for and I said that a line that long indicated we had found the best chocolate in Paris. After about 20 minutes or so, we entered a shop that was filled with the most incredible chocolate desserts and macaroons I have ever consumed. We ended up buying one dessert that was a mound of chocolate mousse and ganache, with crunchy caramel - just as described in the Times. We also bought a dessert that was several layers of different types of chocolate, with a couple of layers of crunchy hazelnut. And, most importantly, we found the best macaroons I have ever tasted - filled with Pierre Herme's delicious chocolate. I sampled Mexican and Venezuelan chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, hazelnut and pistachio. Inserted in the box of macaroons was a full color booklet to identify the chocolates and macaroons.

Three days later, it was departure day. I decided I simply had to bring a box of Pierre Herme's macaroons back to DC with me. That morning we hopped on the Metro to make the trek across the city to Pierre Herme's. Not surprisingly, at 10:30 in the morning, a line was out the door and down the street. Upon entering the store, I quickly bought a small box of macaroons and ran back to the apartment to gather my bags and leave for the airport. Since I do not know when I will be in Paris next, I rationed the macaroons and allowed myself to have one a day for the next week. Yes, the delicate cookies had lost some of their freshness, however the chocolate was as luscious and creamy as when they were fresh.

For information on these two chocolate shops, along with several others, I refer you to the New York Times article:

http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/travel/14journeys.html, and for a map showing the location of the chocolate shops:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/12/14/travel/20081214_PARIS_CHOCOLATE.html

22 July 2009

Group dinner at Agraria, Washington, DC


In March, I promised a review of Agraria in Washington, DC. Sorry that it’s taken so long. I’ve actually been there twice since the March post on its sister restaurant Founding Farmers.

As I write this, I was there with a group of grassroots farm activists last night. The farmers who I bring to DC really like the concept. Agraria is intended to help consumers connect with the farmers who grow the food. The restaurant grew out of a concept by the North Dakota Farmers Union, and there are a lot of individual farmers who are investors in the venture.

I have to admit that I was not an early fan of Agraria. On my first visit for dinner, I was frankly unimpressed. A follow-up lunch, I felt it was better but not anything worth raving about. It wasn’t until I started using it as a venue for group dinners that I became an enthusiastic fan. I think it just took a while for them to hit their stride and really start to refine the concept. Now, I couldn’t imagine bringing a group to DC without making Agraria one of the venues for our evening events.

So with this post, I’ve included the menu for our group dinner.

The tomato mozzarella salad was excellent. The tomatoes were perfectly ripened and bursting with flavor. The mozzarella was creamy and delicious. The basil was fragrant and the dressing was tastefully restrained so that the other ingredients could shine.

I had the steak, and it was fabulous. Perfectly cooked, lean and delicious. It was served over a modest serving of sweet potato hash that was a wonderful complement to the meat. They also served a house-made steak sauce. It was very good, but I liked the steak so much that I didn’t feel it needed any sauce.

Several people at my table had the grilled salmon. I didn’t taste it, but it looked fantastic.

The restaurant included a third option that I hadn’t selected originally – goat cheese ravioli. One of my co-workers ordered that. I commented on how good it looked, and he offered to share his ravioli in exchange for some of my steak. I thought that was a fair deal. The ravioli was outstanding. The pasta was tender and perfectly prepared. The cheese stuffing was rich and flavorful. There were five or six ravioli on the plate. Since it was so rich, I thought that was a little excessive. I think three ravioli would have sufficed. But really, it was a great side dish to the steak.

As you can see on the menu, we had a peach turnover for dessert. It was very tasty. The peaches were fresh and flavorful. I thought the pastry on the turnover was good but nothing special. The ice cream was rich and creamy.

As I noted in my review of Founding Farmers, Agraria is a little off the beaten path. It’s in Georgetown, but it’s down by the waterfront, so you kind of have to know where you’re going to find it. The office and entertainment complex where it’s located is fabulous and worth finding. But you do have to look for it.

The restaurant recently revamped its regular menu. They made it somewhat more casual, more similar to Founding Fathers. It’s very creative and the commitment to fresh, high quality ingredients gives me confidence that it will continue to meet diners’ expectations. I think it’s definitely worth a visit.

14 July 2009

Bastille Day dinner at Barbette, Minneapolis

I don’t really consider myself to be a ‘Francophile.’ I mean really. Who doesn’t love French cooking and who doesn’t find Paris to be the most romantic city in the world? But does that necessarily make you a Francophile?

Still, I must admit to being quite intrigued by the French Revolution. When you think about the support that the French gave to the American revolutionaries – I mean, without them, our revolution probably wouldn’t have succeeded – you’ve gotta wonder: How did the French Revolution go so off-kilter? The ideals of “Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite” ring so true to the American Revolution. So how it all end up with a ‘reign of terror,’ mechanized execution ala the guillotine, and eventually the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as a megalomaniac, emperor, and would-be world conqueror?

So that’s sort of a roundabout way of saying that I always pay attention to July 14 – Bastille Day. This year, I found myself home alone on Bastille Day. Linda is in Duluth at her sister’s cabin on Island Lake (see the post immediately following). I decided for sure that I would go out for a French dinner on Bastille Day, and for several reasons, I finally opted for Barbette in Minneapolis.
I’ve actually written about Barbette twice before on Krik’s Picks. It was the very first restaurant I reviewed in August of 2006. And I wrote about it again a year later. Both of those happened to be lunch visits. My wife and I have eaten there multiple times for dinner, though I haven’t previously written about those experiences here. We think it’s great.

So, recognizing that we do like Barbette, please don’t take it wrong that I’m going to start this review with two complaints.

1. I called them up on Sunday, July 12. “Are you doing anything special on Tuesday for Bastille Day?” The answer I received was – they were in the middle of their Bastille Day celebration as we spoke; 8,000 people reveling in a street festival. All fine and good. But what about Tuesday, the actual day? No, sorry, nothing special. (Isn’t that sorta like celebrating the Fourth of July on the 2nd? It might be fun, but really, who cares?)

2. So I asked to make a reservation for 3 people at 7 p.m. Sorry, I was told, we can give you a reservation at 6:30 or at 8. But, if you come at 7, you’ll most likely get a table. We keep half of our tables open for walk-ins.
That’s how it all worked out. I went there early. I got a table. It was a lot of fun and delicious.

I don’t mind eating alone. I do it fairly regularly when traveling for work. But since this was a special occasion, I sought out some dining partners. Since my wife was in Duluth with her sister, the most logical person to ask was my brother-in-law. That sounded good to him, and he brought along his son. Also, we have a French American executive at Land O'Lakes. I happened to meet with him on Tuesday, during the day. We started talking about Bastille Day, and I invited him to join me for a drink at Barbette before Phil and Eli arrived.

I arrived first, and JP arrived a few minutes later. We ordered a bottle of Cabardes rose and the Charcuterie platter. The Charcuterie was very good and quite unusual in that it included some smoked salmon. Phil and Eli showed up shortly after the charcuterie arrived. So we also ordered a bowl of warmed olives and the three-bean terrine.

All of them were very good. I’d never had French olives warmed, as they were served at Barbette. I liked them. And I got very excited when I noticed that the three-bean terrine was served like the French tri-color. So I had to shoot a picture. (OK, it takes some imagination to see the tri-color. But I took it as at least a nod toward Bastille Day.)
JP had to leave. But Phil and Eli and I ordered entrées. Eli had traditional steak frites. He asked for it cooked medium well. It was served medium, maybe even a tad toward medium rare. But he liked it. The fries were exceptional – crisp, salty, and plentiful. He had way more than he could eat. He had the extras boxed to take along for some friends.

Phil had grilled tofu with couscous and tomato tapenade. It looked very nice. But he said that the flavors weren’t anything special.

I had an evening fish special. It was corvina, which the server described as being similar to sea bass. It was seared and served with braised greens, a mixed vegetable relish, and a polenta cake. The fish was firm and very tasty. It was expertly prepared; not at all rare in the middle, but still very moist and flakey. The braised greens were excellent. The vegetable relish was very distinctive and complimented the fish nicely.
So happy Bastille Day to all. Liberte – Egalite – Fraternite. Viva la Revolution!

12 July 2009

Island Lake Orzo Salad

12 oz. orzo pasta
2 Tbsp. + ½ c. olive oil

1½ c. (6 oz.) seasoned feta cheese, crumbled
1 c. chopped red bell pepper
1 c. chopped yellow bell pepper
¾ c. Kalamata olives, pitted
4 green onions, chopped
2 Tbsp. drained capers

3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1½ tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. ground cumin
3 Tbsp. pine nuts, toasted

Cool orzo according to package directions, until tender but still firm to bite. Drain. Rinse with cold water. Drain and transfer to large bowl. Toss w/ 2 Tbsp. olive oil.

Add feta, peppers, olives, onions, and capers.

Combine lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, oregano, mustard, and cumin in small bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil; season w/ salt and pepper.

Add dressing to orzo and toss. Cover and refrigerate; can be made 6 hours in advance. Garnish with pine nuts and serve.

Island Lake family gathering (Duluth)

My sister-in-law and her husband have a lake cabin north of Duluth. It happens to be the cabin that their family had when they were growing up. Every summer, we have a big extended family get-together at the cabin. That started this weekend.

Food becomes a big part of the celebration. Nothing fancy, you understand. Actually, this is one of those occasions when the meals get judged on quantity, not necessarily quality. One year, when I burned the chicken almost beyond recognition, the meal was still a success because everyone got enough to eat.

Krik’s Picks gets mentioned from time to time. It’s usually in the context of, “Steve, you should write about this in your blog.” That happened on Saturday night. Blake (Linda’s brother) grilled burgers and Cindy (Blake’s wife) made a pasta salad. It was great! By the time the meal was over, people were complimenting the salad and someone said, “Steve, you should write about this on your blog.”

As luck would have it, I had my camera. So Cindy and Marcy (Cindy’s sister) picked up the nearly empty bowl of salad, and I shot a pic. Above is the recipe.

07 July 2009

Not SciFi – Robots handle Minnesota farm chores

I went to a meeting at a dairy farm near Little Falls, MN, where I watched a robot milk a cow. I have to admit that as an old farm boy, I’m easily impressed by cool machines. But this was really cool!

The dairy farmer who hosted the meeting is Greg Blaine. He’s a member of Land O'Lakes (who I work for) and a former state legislator. He’s had the milker for about six months, and he loves it.


Here’s a short history of milking cows. Cows used to stand in individual stalls in a barn, and the farmer would come with a stool and a pail. He (or she) would milk the cow by hand into the pail, then pour the milk into a bulk tank where it would be chilled and stored until a truck came to haul it to the processing plant. Then they invented milking machines. Twice a day, the farmer would bring the machine to each cow, in her stall, and attach the milker to her udder. The milk would flow immediately into a stainless steel pipeline and be pumped to the bulk tank and never be exposed to air. This is the system most farmers in my neighborhood used when I was growing up.


Then came milking parlors and free stall barns. The cows would lounge in an open barn and two or three times a day, they would be gently herded to a room where they would be milked in groups. But on Greg’s farm, the cows lounge in the open barn and go over to the robotic milker anytime they feel the urge to get milked.


We stood in Greg’s observation room for 30-45 minutes. There were usually one or two cows waiting to enter the milker, and very few times when it sat empty. There’s a really good web site called DairyFarmingToday if you want to know more. It has profiles on different size dairy farms in different regions of the country. There’s also a ‘Dairy Dictionary’ of common dairy terms, including milking machine and milking parlor, if you’re interested.


I didn’t get a good picture of the robotic milker in action. But you can see a video of a milker in action on the University of Wisconsin Extension web site.


One of the big problems for dairy farmers who are leaders in their industry is finding someone to get the work done while they’re at meetings. (We have a lot of meetings in the dairy industry.) It’s not uncommon for farmers to get phone calls from their workers during meetings. Greg’s phone rang during the meeting he hosted. I joked that at least we knew it wasn’t his milker calling. Turns out, the joke was on me. The robot automatically calls the farmer if a problem occurs with the milker. Greg says the robot speaks in a cyber-female voice. He and his wife, Michelle, call the robot Gilmore and the cyber-female voice is Gilmore’s secretary, Glenda.


As I looked at the cows in Greg and Michelle’s barn, doing what cows do (it’s a cliché but standing around chewing the cud), and occasionally ambling over to the robotic milker, I thought of the humorous ads about California happy cows. But they couldn’t be any happier than the black and white beauties I saw near Little Falls.

29 June 2009

Hot Plate: From Grits to Fine Hits

Here's another article from Roll Call. I haven't eaten at Palette yet, but I've been intrigued ever since it opened. Now I've got a good reason to make a point of it. After so many stories about National Guard troops who come home from a stint in Iraq to discover that they don't have jobs to come back to, it's nice to read about a place that kept the job open. So hooray for Palette and thanks Arnel Esposo for your service to our country.

June 25, 2009
By Alison McSherry
Roll Call Staff

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Local chef Arnel Esposo mastered the art of cooking while dodging bullets. Now the executive chef at Palette (1177 15th St. NW), Esposo first learned to cook during his tenure in the Army.

Over the past 20 years,he has transitioned from preparing meals for thousands of hungry soldiers to creating tasty dishes for hungry Washingtonians. While the chef always had an interest in cooking - he used to help his mom shop at the local market as a kid - Esposo decided to enlist in the Army after graduating high school in 1989.

"There was an option to be an infantryman or a cook," Esposo says. "I followed my grandfather's footsteps. He was a cook in the Army." After completing basic training, Esposo was sent to eight weeks of cooking school in Fort Lee, Va., where he learned to prepare meals for thousands of people at a time. Each day he was charged with preparing bacon, eggs and grits for breakfast.
"Of course grits, I've always had fond memories of grits," Esposo says with a smile. Early on in his cooking career, the young soldier had a mishap with grits. Because he was born in the Philippines and grew up in Maryland, grits were not a staple in Esposo's diet.

"The first time I made grits, they were so lumpy," he says, adding that after tasting the offending item, his commanding officer screamed at him to drop and do 20 push-ups in the middle of the kitchen. Esposo explained that grits were not a typical breakfast-time treat in Maryland and that he had never made them before.

"He said, 'OK, from now on for the next 30 days, you'll do grits every morning.' So I perfected making grits when I was 18 years old," Esposo says with a giggle.

After his release from the Army, Esposo used the GI bill to attend the Baltimore International Culinary College. This training led to an apprenticeship at Kilkea Castle in Ireland, where he mastered fine cuisine. After two years across the Atlantic, Esposo returned to D.C.and did stints cooking at the Citronelle and the now-closed Red Sage before arriving at Palette six years ago.

"I enjoy being in D.C.," Esposo says. "I think we're up there as far as cooking goes."

While restaurant cooking can be stressful, Esposo says there is nothing quite like the harrowing experience of cooking for thousands of troops in the middle of a war zone.

"It's horrible. I mean it's a 24-hour job, seven days a week," he says of his experience cooking in the Middle East during Operation Desert Shield. "At 2 o'clock in the morning you're waking up to boil water and you're firing up the stove to warm it up and cook for thousands of troops."

Desert Shield wasn't the chef's only brush with war. In 2007, while he was serving in the National Guard, Esposo was called out of the kitchen and shipped to Iraq. While he was employed as a professional chef in Washington, Esposo became an infantryman.

"Believe me, I wasn't ready," he says. "I wish I'd stayed in the kitchen." When Esposo returned from serving a year in Iraq, his job at Palette was waiting for him. In fact, his colleagues at the restaurant went so far as to send him care packages while he was overseas. While cooking for the troops is a hard task, Esposo says cooking in a restaurant is more challenging.

"As far as cooking for a daily event for thousands, you can really see what you can do, but a la carte is more challenging," he says. "You have a lot of people that come in, and you don't know what they want."

The menu at Palette is a mixture of Pan Asian and American cuisine, with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Esposo buys locally grown foods and cheeses whenever possible. "We just want to keep it unique," he says. "We're focusing on being unique, local and honest with the food we have."

Several months after returning to Palette from Iraq, Esposo was once again called out of the kitchen - this time to keep order during President Barack Obama's inauguration. Esposo was only given 24 hours notice.

"I was really kind of ticked off about that," he says. "It was very, very cold. I was wishing I was in the kitchen that day." Despite the frigid temperatures, Esposo was still able to revel in the moment and enjoy watching the historic event unfold before his eyes.

He stood guard at the inaugural opening concert held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On Inauguration Day, the chef stood guard along the parade route.

"I was lucky because when the president got out of the limo, he was right behind me," Esposo says. "I turned around. I had to look like everyone else does." Now, at the age of 41, Esposo is faced with a decision. Does he re-enlist in the National Guard or does he let his contract expire and focus full time on cooking and spending time with his wife and two young sons?

"I don't even know if I want to give it up," he says. "I feel that I owe my career to the military. I'm a third-generation [soldier], and I feel like I'm obligated to fulfill my time and duty."

Esposo is still enlisted in the National Guard, and for now his he is directing his focus on his cooking and whatever doors it may open. "This career can take you pretty much anywhere," he says.

2009 (c) Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

21 June 2009

Anniversary dinner at Café Lurcat, Minneapolis


For our anniversary this year, we wanted someplace special. The dilemma was – someplace special, like someplace we’ve been before or someplace new? We finally decided that for this anniversary (No. 35), we didn’t want to take a chance. So we decided to go to a reliable standby. That narrowed the range somewhat, but there are at least a half dozen ‘favorite places’ we could have picked. The one we finally decided on, the one we were absolutely sure would delight us, was Café Lurcat. It didn’t disappoint.

Start with the space. It’s gorgeous. White table cloths give it a formal, dressy feel. High ceilings give it a spacious, airy feel. Comfortably spaced tables strike the right balance between intimate and social – you’re close enough for some discrete spying (absolutely necessary for checking out what other people are eating) but far enough away to protect your own sense of privacy.

Our table was a primo location by the window overlooking the alley and with a view of the street and Loring Park. The people-watching was great. Linda even spotted an old friend from Duluth. (They came in to greet us. And when we finished, we went up to the rooftop of Joe’s Garage to visit with them.)

We ordered a bottle of wine. It was Francis Blanchet Pouilly Fume. It was very reasonably priced and was a great accompaniment for the food we selected.

Café Lurcat’s menu is a combination of house specialties and seasonal specials. For our starter, we decided to split the salmon tartare, which was a seasonal special. It was served atop diced pineapple and was seasoned with chili vinaigrette. It was garnished with thin slices of radish and edible flowers. Really great.

Linda’s entrée was a café specialty – scallops. They were cooked just the way she likes them, cooked through but still tender, not dry and rubbery. They were served on housemade creamed corn and wild mushrooms with dots of pungent blue cheese. My entrée was a seasonal item – halibut with roasted tomatoes and scallions. The fish was moist and flakey and totally delicious. We also ordered a side dish of roasted cauliflower, which also was amazingly tasty.

Service through the evening was attentive without being annoying. Our wine glasses were filled when we needed them, but never overfilled. He was very knowledgeable about the wine and guided us to make a great selection. He also gave good advice about the menu items.

It’s fun to try new places. But for a very special occasion like this, I’m glad we chose a reliable restaurant that we knew would come through.

19 June 2009

Check out the Strib's new food blog

I like how the Minneapolis Star Tribune is using social media to complement and supplement its treeware version. I became a fan of Taste on Facebook. Now they've started a food blog. So I'm including it in my blog roll on the left. Check it out.

14 June 2009

United Way Happy Hour at Big Island

For the Land O'Lakes United Way campaign last fall, a co-worker and I auctioned a private, gourmet event at her family ‘cabin’ on Big Island in Lake Minnetonka. We actually did a similar event a year ago. For that one, our boss brought fresh fish and seafood from the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. This time, we decided to do a happy hour and boat cruise around the island.

Even though this wasn’t a dinner, I don’t think anyone left the island hungry. You can see the menu in the photo on the left. Lydia made the grilled shrimp with Gianni dipping sauce and the guacamole. I made two kinds of quesadillas and the vegetable tray. Since this was a ‘happy hour,’ we also did a couple of signature cocktails – Cosmopolitans and Sidecars. (After the party got going, one of the guests also mixed up a couple of Singapore Slings.)

I made two kinds of quesadillas. One was pesto, fresh mozzarella, and roasted red bell peppers. The other was inspired by a Minneapolis restaurant, now defunct, called Nikki’s Café. Several years ago, on one of the three-day weekends (I can’t remember if it was Memorial Day or Labor Day), we went out of town and came back on Sunday afternoon (to avoid the holiday traffic jam on Monday). We were feeling pretty stressed and decided to go out. At the time, we’d never eaten at Nikki’s, but we knew it had live music on Sunday night, so we went there.

We had a Nikki’s pizza – chicken, walnuts, and goat cheese. (At least, that’s how I remember it.) We loved the pizza, the drinks were great, and the music was fantastic. Nikki’s became a regular favorite for us, and it was a sad day when it closed.

So my Nikki’s-inspired quesadilla was pesto, chicken, walnuts, and goat cheese. I heated them on a gas grill. It’s the first time I’ve ever made grilled quesadillas. They turned out great. With the leftover ingredients, I made them for my son and his wife when they came to our house for dinner the next day. He said they were the best quesadillas he’s ever eaten. (That’s saying something because he’s no slouch in the kitchen himself.)

Grilled chicken, walnut, goat cheese quesadilla (as inspired by Nikki’s Café)

1 pkg. (8-10) 10-inch flour tortillas
¼ c. prepared pesto
½ lb. cooked chicken, cubed or shredded
½ c. walnut pieces, toasted
6 oz. goat cheese
Olive oil


Spread 1 tbsp. pesto on ½ of a tortilla. Scatter on chicken, walnuts, and dot with 2-3 tbsp. goat cheese. Fold over tortilla. Brush with oil. Grill for 2-3 minutes per side, or until lightly toasted.

10 June 2009

Hot Plate: You’ll Never Go Hungry For Long

I've written several posts on DC restaurants. But I recently read an article in Roll Call about 'cheap eats' in DC. Roll Call is sort of like a community newspaper for Capitol Hill. I thought the article filled a gap in Krik's Picks coverage of Washington restaurants, so I asked permission to post it. Here it is. Thanks, Roll Call.

June 4, 2009
By Alison McSherry
Roll Call Staff

It is essential for any intern living in a group house with a crowded kitchen and minimal income to know where to find inexpensive food. Luckily, there is a smorgasbord of choices when it comes to eating on the cheap in D.C.

Monday nights bring half-priced pizza to Capitol Lounge (231 Pennsylvania Ave. SE). Large cheese, pepperoni or veggie pizzas are all reduced to go perfectly with a bottle of beer. On Tuesdays, the bar offers 25-cent wings. This deal draws a crowd, so be sure to get there early. If you’re willing to up the ante and spend a whole $1, swing by on Wednesdays for Fiesta Night when soft tacos go for $1 and quesadillas will only set you back $4.

Over at Wok and Roll (604 H St. NW) in Chinatown you can get a cheap meal and a history lesson. Not only is the restaurant a haven of fried rice and avocado rolls, but it is also housed in the Surratt House where John Wilkes Booth and others conspired to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

At happy hour, which runs from 5 to 8 p.m. on weekdays, Wok and Roll offers $1 pieces of sushi along with $2 beers. Even outside of happy hour, the menu is budget-friendly. Lo mein starts at $8.50, and a variety of noodle soups are available starting at $6.95.

Vapiano, the cafeteria-style Italian restaurant with locations downtown (1800 M St. NW) and in Chinatown (623 H St. NW), offers low-cost food in a decidedly hip environment. The restaurant is operated like a cafeteria, with patrons standing in line at a counter to order. While it may take a few minutes to order your food, Vapiano is well worth the wait. Pizzas featuring fresh ingredients start at $7.95, while big bowls of tasty pasta top out at $10.95.

In fact, no dish on the menu exceeds $11. Vapiano is also extremely convenient for groups. Customers are given a plastic card on entering that serves as their bill, taking the pain out of breaking up a check among friends.

California Tortilla (728 Seventh St. NW and various other locations) is a great spot for cheap burritos that cost less than $10. The Chinatown location also offers the “Burrito, Soda and Movie Deal.” For a mere $12.99, patrons get a burrito, a soft drink and a voucher for a movie ticket at the Regal Cinema across the street. This deal is valid after 4 p.m. on weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday.

Burgers abound in D.C. While they may not be the healthiest dining option, they can be extremely cost-efficient. Good Stuff Eatery (303 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) offers more than 10 different burgers, priced from $5.49 to $7.69 and topped with everything from avocado to chili to pickled daikon. Turkey burgers are available for the health-conscious and mushroom burgers for vegetarians.

Some of the more creative offerings include Spike’s 5 Napkin, the chef’s eponymous burger, and Colletti’s Smokehouse burger, named for general manager Mike Colletti. The burgers are so tasty that Michelle Obama recently visited the Capitol Hill hot spot to indulge.
While the first lady may have chosen Good Stuff Eatery for lunch, President Barack Obama chose Five Guys Burger and Fries. This burger joint has locations all over town and features a simple menu. Serving only burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese and fries, this restaurant is perfect for curing a hangover. A “little burger” — which consists of one patty instead of the usual two — costs a mere $3.40, while a hot dog is only $3.29.

The Billy Goat Tavern (500 New Jersey Ave. NW) beats the competition when it comes to pricing. This tiny bar and burger joint offers a cheeseburger for a mere $3.25. Not only does the Goat offer cheap grub, but it also offers ample outdoor seating, making it the perfect spot to get some fresh air after a long day at the office.

2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

25 May 2009

May recipes

I spent a week at home in mid-May. During the week, I did a lot of work in my yard and got my flowers and herbs planted. I also did a lot of cooking. As a present to my wife, I cooked dinner every night of the week. It gave me a chance to try a bunch of recipes that I hadn’t taken time to try previously. All of the recipes were from Bon Appetit 2008.

I asked Linda which recipe she liked best. She declined to pick one. So for Krik’s Picks, I’m posting the two that were my favorites. One was what I considered to be the best meal of the week. The other was the most fun to prepare.

Shrimp Skewers with Tzatziki, Spinach & Feta

This recipe was my favorite meal of the week. I’ve made tzatziki before but this one had some interesting differences – shallots instead of garlic and aniseed. The recipe calls for cubing the cucumber, but I did a coarse grate on a box grater. It also called for using Greek yogurt, and I used a regular, whole-milk yogurt.



As you can see in the photo, I also served orzo with the meal. For the orzo, I tossed the cook pasta with fresh garden herbs, olive oil, and feta cheese.

Ingredients:

1 cup yogurt

1 cup 1/4-inch cubes English hothouse cucumber

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice plus additional for drizzling

2 tablespoons chopped shallots

1 1/4 teaspoons aniseed, finely crushed, divided

Olive oil (for brushing and drizzling)

1 pound uncooked large shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails left intact

8 cups baby spinach leaves

3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

Preparation:
Mix yogurt, cucumber, dill, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, shallots, and 3/4 teaspoon crushed aniseed in small bowl; season tzatziki generously with salt and pepper. Chill.


Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Brush grill with oil. Thread shrimp onto 4 metal skewers. Brush shrimp all over with olive oil; sprinkle with salt, pepper, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon crushed aniseed. Grill just until shrimp are opaque in center, about 3 minutes per side. Divide spinach among 4 plates; drizzle lightly with additional lemon juice and olive oil. Top each with 1 shrimp skewer. Spoon tzatziki over shrimp; sprinkle with feta cheese and serve.


Bon Appétit August 2008