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 entr̩es. 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 Рcrisp, 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.