29 March 2009

Saturday dinner with friends at Meritage, St. Paul

Sometimes people will ask me what’s my favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities. That’s a hard question to answer because it really depends on the occasion. I really like Barrio and Broder’s Pasta Bar and Al’s Breakfast, but all for different kinds of meals. So usually when I answer that question, I pick my favorite special occasion restaurants. Up until now, those have been Chambers Kitchen and Cue at the Guthrie. I understand that Cue is undergoing a renovation soon, and that it will have a new name and new menu. So for now, I probably will drop that from my list.

But I have a new one to add, and I’m really excited about it – Meritage. Are you shocked that I have a St. Paul restaurant on my favorite list? I am. But I don’t need any coaxing to cross the river for a dinner at Meritage, it’s that good!

First of all, the décor at Meritage is wonderful. It has a casual feel of a French bistro (the owner actually calls it a brasserie). A long wall of windows provides engaging views of historic downtown St. Paul. The windows also make the space feel expansive, almost like dining outdoors even on a chilly March evening.

Our server was prompt, friendly, and efficient. He checked right away to make sure we weren’t in a rush for a show or a concert. We weren’t. So he let us enjoy a relaxed, leisurely meal.

The menu at Meritage is fun and engaging. Besides a nice selection of soups, salads, and small plate starters, they offer several ‘amusements’ at the top of the menu. These are interesting and creative items, $3 apiece. We ordered two of the amusements and a plate of gnocchi from the starters.

One of the amusements was a tuna tartar taco. That turned out to be too small for four people to share. We really should have ordered two of them. My wife said her bite was a little spicy. Mine was not.

The second amusement was citrus cured mahi mahi. I expected a ceviche style dish. Instead, it was more like sushi. The plate had four or five thin slices of mahi; it was barely cured in the citrus. I thought it was very tasty, but my wife didn’t like it so much.

The gnocchi from the starters was my favorite. The menu called them ‘Parisian-style’ ricotta gnocchi. They seemed to have been browned in butter, so they had a little crust around the soft, creamy middle. They were served with arugula-walnut pesto and a tomato relish.

Before ordering entrées, we ordered another round of starters. From the amusement part of the menu, my wife had lobster bisque. It was probably about a quarter cup of a tasty soup, served in a cup about the size of my granddaughter’s play tea cup. It was served with a tiny little spoon of minced lobster meat. Another of our group had matzo ball soup. It was so good, we joked about ordering it takeout for the Passover seder coming up in two weeks. We also got an order of pomme frites to share. I thought they were good, but I didn’t really think they were that special, and with all the other food, we didn’t really need them.

For entrées, two of our group ordered the duck, which is a house specialty (at least on the winter menu). It consisted of a nice duck breast, seared and served with house-made duck sausage on a bed of braised red cabbage and spaetzel. The whole meal was a wonderful blend of complimentary and contrasting flavors.

I ordered the Saturday plat du jour – braised beef short ribs served with potato puree and vegetables. The beef was cooked to a fork-tender consistency and literally fell of the bones. The potatoes were rich and creamy. The vegetables consisted of baby carrots, baby parsnips, and green beans, barely cooked so that they were still crisp with plenty of crunch when I bit them.

The fourth entrée was probably the most creative. It was a ‘composition’ of winter vegetables. The plate included a celery root latke with apples and cauliflower ravioli. It also had a butternut squash Brule that was like a little crème Brule made with creamy, pureed squash. But the most unusual item for our group was parsnip cromesquis. I had no idea what that would be. Our server described it as being like a fried parsnip soup. I looked it up online while writing this review. A cromesquis is a technique of thickening a filling (like parsnip soup), then enclosing it in a breading. Then, when it’s fried or broiled, the filling melts. When you bite into it, you have the crunchy exterior and inside is … soup! It was amazing.

Like the dinner menu, the dessert menu offers little amusements as well. But by this time, we all were quite satisfied. So we ordered a three-scoop sampler of ice cream, an espresso, a cappuccino, and we called it an evening.

I would highly recommend Meritage, especially for a special dinner, and I won’t mind at all crossing the river for my next visit.

28 March 2009

Dinner with a friend at Founding Farmers, Washington, DC

I’ve got a review coming up for a DC restaurant called Agraria. The North Dakota Farmers Union developed the concept and is a part owner. I like entertaining groups of farmers there when I bring them to Washington. The only thing I don’t like about Agraria is that while its location is very scenic, it’s a long way from Capitol Hill. So it’s not ideal for groups who are spending their day tramping the Hill in support of ag issues.


So I was excited to hear that a sister restaurant, Founding Farmers, recently opened on Pennsylvania Avenue. Still not the closest to the Hill, but somewhat more convenient than Georgetown. The name is apt for many reasons. It calls to mind the phrase ‘founding fathers,’ an appropriate reference in our nation’s capital. It also should remind us that George Washington and many of our nation’s founders were in fact farmers. And lastly, it’s a reference to the fact that some of the restaurant’s founders are farmers.


I invited a friend and colleague to join me for a visit to Founding Farmers. Though she’s originally from Oklahoma herself, when I met her, she was working for North Dakota Sen. Quentin Burdick, and she’s become something of an adopted North Dakotan herself. She had just gotten back from a trip to Paris, so we had lots of food talk to cover.


Founding Farmers has a very extensive menu. You can get a full, multi-course meal, or stick with something light. They have lots of small plates, several entrée salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes. We didn’t order it, but they have a very interested cheese plate selection. All of the cheeses on the menu are domestic. They have three different price points - $14, $16, or $18. Presumably, each level offers something more unique or challenging. I definitely want to try that on some future visit.


On this visit, we started with the ‘Devilish Eggs Combo.’ This consists of a platter of deviled eggs in various styles and with various ingredients. There’s classic deviled eggs and deviled eggs with lobster, crab, and salmon. It was very unique and fun.


For our entrées, Vicki ordered the plank salmon. I had rock fish, which was one of the evening’s ‘fresh catch’ choices. The fresh catch can be prepared four different ways – with sea salt, cracked pepper, and lemon, with roasted hazelnut butter, Meuniere style, or Napa Provencal. I had mine with sea salt, cracked pepper, and lemon.


The food all was very good. But I made a mistake. I wanted to have a glass of wine with my meal. I was thinking a sauvignon blanc. I looked at the white wines on the menu, but all of the sauvignon blancs were Southern Hemisphere wines. Now, its not that I’m ideologically opposed to Southern Hemisphere wines. In fact, a couple weeks ago, I had a sauvignon blanc from Chili and liked it so much that I bought half a case to have at home. But for a restaurant that brags about local food and U.S. farmers, I kind of made up my mind that I wanted a domestic wine.


So instead of a South African sauvignon blanc, I convinced myself that a domestic pinot noir would be ok with fish. Well, it wasn’t. The wine was good. The food was good. It’s just that they didn’t go well together. So I guess is should have either gone with an imported sauvignon blanc, or with a California chardonnay.


Overall, I liked Founding Farmers quite a lot. I definitely will return. But it wasn’t perfect. Vicki said that on her earlier visit, the service was slow. It wasn’t a lot better on this visit. (I didn’t fault our server. He was very friendly and quite helpful. It’s just that he wasn’t around to help us when we wanted him.) As we were leaving, Vicki introduced me to a North Dakota Farmers Union official who she knows. He asked about our meal, and when Vicki told him about the service, he grimaced and commented that they still need to work on that.


Lastly, as much as I liked Founding Farmers, I was disappointed to learn that it does not have private dining rooms. So I didn’t achieve my original objective of finding a new place to use for group dinners.

20 March 2009

Recipe: Cream of Spinach Soup

When my kids were little, we had a common Sunday ritual. I would bake fresh bread in the morning, and for lunch, we would have bread and homemade soup. One of their favorites was Cream of Spinach Soup. It was really easy to make and didn’t take long, either.

So today, on my Facebook page, my sweet daughter sent me a wall-2-wall request for the recipe. How could I say ‘no?’ Besides, I promised to post two recipes this month because I didn’t post any in February.

This is a Land O'Lakes recipe. It appeared in the magazine that we published for the members of the cooperative. The recipe calls for using canned corn. I’m sure you could easily use an equal quantity of fresh corn. But when I make it (which I haven’t done for years), I used frozen corn from my parents’ garden.

So here it is, by special request from Tovah, with love to her and her brother:

Cream of Spinach Soup

6 tbsp. butter
¼ c. chopped onion
¼ c. chopped celery
1/3 c. flour
7 oz. can of whole kernel corn, drained (or fresh corn cut off the cob, or frozen corn)
10 oz. package of frozen, chopped spinach, thawed and drained
4½ c. milk
1 tbsp. instant chicken-flavor bouillon
1 tsp. prepared mustard
Fresh ground pepper

In a 3-qt. saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add onion and celery; sauté until crisply tender (3-4 minutes). Reduce heat. Stir in flour; mix well to form a roux. Add remaining ingredients. Mix well, then cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 20-25 minutes or until thickened and hot.

Yields 6 1-cup servings.

14 March 2009

Late night dinner at Matchbox, Washington, DC

In January, my wife and I traveled to Washington, DC, to witness the inauguration of Barak Hussein Obama as President of the United States of America. It was a fantastic experience.

We were traveling to DC on the Saturday before the Inauguration. We planned to arrive late afternoon and then have dinner at a nice restaurant near our hotel. My wife had her heart set on scallops. We’d eaten there on a previous visit, and we knew they had a jazz trio performing in the lounge. It sounded like fun – nice dinner followed by jazz music.

Our trip to DC required a connection in Chicago. Everything seemed to be going ok. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. We boarded on time and pushed back without delay. Then came the announcement – we’d have to de-ice. Not to drag this part of the story out too much, but de-icing, and a particularly delays on the ground after we landed in Chicago resulted in us missing our connection. There were plenty of other flights to DC that day. Trouble was, they were all full.

United rebooked us on a flight for the next morning, but we didn’t really want to do that. So basically, we spent all afternoon going from gate to gate in O’Hare Airport trying to get seats on another flight on standby. (We met Rev. Jesse Jackson as he was waiting for his flight to the Inauguration.) Finally, the last flight of the day, we got on.

That was a relief. Unfortunately, however, our flight would get us to DC in time for our 8:30 reservation. So our dinner plans were ruined. Our plane landed in DC at 9:30. By the time we got our luggage and took a taxi to the hotel, it was 10:15. We left our bags in the room and went to the lobby to get restaurant recommendations from the concierge. Much to our surprise, we found out that most of the nice restaurants in downtown Washington close their kitchen at 10 p.m.

The concierge recommended a few nearby brewpubs. We thanked him, and as we turned to go, he came up with one more suggestion – Matchbox. It was only three blocks away, and he thought they offered a full menu.

Well, we arrived at Matchbox to find a hopping bar scene with lots of young professionals laughing and talking and drinking and flirting. Even though it was already 10:30, we still had to wait for a table. So we ordered a drink and watched the crowd.

It didn’t take long to get a table. We opened the menu and were pleased to find that in addition to pizzas and burgers and salads, they had several full dinner entrées, including scallops. We decided to split an order of their calamari salad to start. It consisted of sautéed squid on a bed of greens, accompanied by different varieties of peppers, Kalamata olives, and a balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

Needless to say, Linda had the scallops. She said they were some of the best she’s ever had. They were cooked just right – done all the way through, as she likes them, but not at all dry or rubbery. They were served on an herb risotto and topped with wilted spinach. A coconut red curry added an oriental touch to the preparation.
For my meal, I had the daily fish special. On this particular night, it was rockfish in a seafood stew. It had mussels, squid, octopus, and shrimp in a wonderful, tomato broth.

Even though it was late, and we were exhausted, we decided to have dessert. We split a chocolate chip waffle with almond gelato, chocolate ganache, crème anglaise, and candied pecans. Very good.

Though it wasn’t the dinner we had planned, and there was no live music, it still ended up being a memorable way to start a memorable trip to Washington. Since then, I have recommended Matchbox to many people, and I would gladly go there again, particularly for a late evening dinner.

Lunch at Johnny’s Half Shell, Washington, DC

On Monday of our trip to Washington for the Inauguration, we went to Capitol Hill to pick up our tickets for the swearing-in ceremony. The lines to get though security and into the Congressional office buildings were unbelievable. But as was generally the case during our whole stay for this amazing event, people were in good humor and patient.


Once inside, most offices had light refreshments for the visitors. We stopped at Rep. Tim Walz, Rep. Betty McCollum, Rep. Collin Peterson hosted his in the House Ag Committee hearing room (very impressive), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.


After we left the office buildings, we still felt like having a light lunch. So we walked a few blocks to Johnny’s Half Shell.


Linda started with the soup of the day. One of the problems with delaying my blog entries is that I didn’t write down anything about the soup, and now, two months later, I can’t remember what kind it was. But she liked it. What she really liked, however, was the grilled squid that she ordered next. It was very nicely prepared, grilled to just done, tender and tasty. (After you’ve had squid grilled or sautéed, the breaded and fried calamari just seems so mundane.)


I had a Salad Nicoise. As you can see by the photo, the components of the salad were separated on the plate, rather than being all mixed together. I liked that, and everything was very fresh and tasty. My only quibble – the tuna was poached. I would have preferred it seared.

I’ve eaten at this restaurant before for group lunches and once for a group dinner. I liked it better when it was just the two of us.

08 March 2009

KwikPicks: Business dinner at Ocean Grill, Madison, Wis.

On my annual winter trip to Madison, I hosted a dinner with the folks from the Cooperative Network. We dined at Ocean Grill, part of a local group of creative restaurants.

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

One of my guests was a student at the University of Wisconsin. His dad works with me at Land O'Lakes. He noted that Ocean Grill is one of his parent’s favorite restaurants in Madison. I’ve eaten there previously as well, and it certainly is great place to eat. The quality of the fresh fish and seafood is exceptional. I had the potato crusted seabass – fantastic (take a look at the photo). A couple people had seafood enchiladas, another regular item on the menu. They all said they really liked it. One guest had scallops, and they looked fantastic. One guest, who has a seafood allergy, even had steak. So you can see it’s a diverse menu.
So for my KwikPick ratings, I rate the food pretty high.

The service for our group was fine, but there wasn’t anything exceptional about it. The ambiance is comfortable for a business dinner, but I wouldn’t describe it as being cozy or romantic (like for an anniversary dinner or birthday). I like the large windows that look out onto MLK Street. And as for the overall value, it’s great food at a fair price. I wouldn’t describe it as a bargain, but it’s well worth the expense.

Recommendation: Definitely worth considering when you’re in Madison, especially if you’re in the mood for fish or seafood.

Recipe: Chocolate Pistachio Biscotti

Technically, I’ve already broken one of my New Year’s resolutions. In January, I resolved to run at least one recipe per month on Krik’s Picks. Well, I only posted three items in February, and none of them were recipes. (Note that I’ve been doing pretty well on my other resolution, to eat more slowly.)

My lapse in February notwithstanding, I intend to fulfill the spirit of the resolution and get back on track by posting two recipes in March.

The recipe in this post is my wife’s second favorite biscotti. Most of the time, when I make biscotti for her, the recipe features slivered almonds and candied orange peel. This weekend, however, when I asked what kind she wanted me to make, she asked for the chocolate pistachio recipe below.

I got this recipe from the Food Network web site, which says the recipe is from Gourmet magazine. I have made two modifications. The original recipe calls for hazelnuts, not pistachios. I made the recipe once with hazelnuts, and it was good. But I really love using shelled, unsalted pistachios, which I buy in bulk at an imported food store in south Minneapolis. And I like the color contrast of the green pistachios with the dark, chocolate biscotti. Also, the original recipe calls for dusting the tops of the cookie logs with powdered sugar before the first baking. You can do that, if you want. I just don’t bother.

So here’s the recipe. Give it a try and let me know how you like them.

Chocolate Pistachio Biscotti

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup raw, unsalted pistachios, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar (optional)


Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and butter and flour a large baking sheet. (I use a silpat baking sheet, as you can see in the photo.)

In a bowl whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl with an electric mixer beat together butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat until combined well. Stir in flour mixture to form a stiff dough. Stir in pistachios and chocolate chips.

On prepared baking sheet with floured hands form dough into two slightly flattened logs, each 12 inches long and 2 inches wide, and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar (if desired). Bake logs 35 minutes, or until slightly firm to the touch. Cool biscotti on baking sheet 5 minutes.

On a cutting board cut biscotti diagonally into 3/4-inch slices. Arrange biscotti, cut sides down, on baking sheet and bake until crisp, about 10 minutes. (Note that I arrange them standing up on my baking stone. I find that they get crisper this way.) Cool biscotti on a rack. Biscotti keep in airtight containers 1 week and, frozen, 1 month.