30 January 2010

Recipes: Grilled Polenta with Mushroo...

Here's my first recipe post for 2010.

I've written before about a United Way project that I do with a co-worker at Land O'Lakes. She has a 'cabin' on Big Island on Lake Minnetonka. We auction a happy hour as part of the United Way campaign. The winning bidders for our 2010 event paid the highest we've ever raised. Woo-hoo!

It's bitter cold outside, and hard to think about a balmy summer day sipping cocktails on a deck overlooking Lake Minnetonka and enjoying appetisers. But I tried my first new recipe for the group. Both components of the appetiser are from celebrity chefs on the Food Network. The grilled polenta is from Bobby Flay and the mushroom ragout is from Emeril Lagasse.

Grilled Polenta

8 cups chicken stock or water
2 cups polenta
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Generously butter a large shallow baking dish and set aside. In a large saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Slowly pour in the polenta and the salt, whisking constantly with a wire whisk. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until thickened and smooth, about 20 to 25 minutes. Fold in the corn, Parmesan, and parsley. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Cover and chill in the refrigerator at least 4 hours or overnight.

Preheat the grill to medium-high. With a sharp knife, cut the chilled polenta into squares. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill on both sides until golden brown. Arrange the polenta on a platter and spoon the mushroom ragout over. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Mushroom Ragout

Olive oil

1/4 pound oyster mushrooms, sliced

8 medium-size shiitake mushrooms, sliced

2 large portobello mushrooms, sliced

1 medium onion, sliced

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup red wine

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Add the mushrooms and saute until the liquid is released and they are golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and the garlic and saute until the onions soften, about 5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Carefully add the wine and cook until it reduces by 3/4. Check seasoning and serve over grilled polenta.

27 January 2010

Dinner (?) at minibar, Washington, DC

My Yelp post on minibar pretty much covers the food. This post will answer the question: Why was I there in the first place? It also will share several photos and a short video.

As you may know, minibar is touted as the most difficult reservation to get in Washington, DC. There are only 6 seats and 2 seatings per evening. They open reservations exactly one month in advance, and they recommend calling on the day that you want your reservation. Which, I didn't do. I had a hard time deciding to even seek a reservation. It's expensive. And the whole concept of a 27 course tasting menu that features very unusual flavor combinations and preparation techiques honestly sounded a little daunting. So for my mid-January trip to DC, I didn't make the call until a few days later than the recommended one-month advance.

Actually, at first I was sort of relieved when I was told that both seatings were full for that evening. I just made a reservation at Cafe Atlantico and put my name on the wait list. But it was only a week or so later when I got ... THE CALL. There was a cancellation, and I could have two seats for the 6 p.m. seating. I had planned on having dinner with a colleague at the National Milk Producers Federation. I checked with him to see if he was game. He was. We took it.

That's how it came about that I got a reservation. But, I still haven't answered 'why.' minibar is the creation of a Spanish chef named Jose Andres. I became a fan of Jose Andres from his public television series 'Made in Spain.'

Let me take one more brief diversion and explain why I would be interested in watching a program about Spanish food. When my daughter was in college, she took a summer term in Spain. My wife and I went there for a visit while our daughter was there. We visited Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. We absolutely loved it. We loved the food, the ambiance, the wines, everything. So when we saw the tv listing for Made in Spain, we decided to give it a try.

We really liked the show. Jose Andres is this quirky, energetic bundle of enthusiasm about food and cooking. I haven't actually tried any of his recipes yet. But they seem to be simple, straightforward presentations that feature high quality ingredients. So I will give it a try some day. One of the visual devices of the show is that he 'shuttles' back and forth from Spain to Washington, DC. (He demonstrates his recipes in his home kitchen.) I checked to see which restaurants he owned in the DC area, and low and behold, I'd actually been to two of them - Cafe Atlantico and Jaleo. I read about minibar on his web site and became intrigued. I had an upcoming trip to DC planned, and no dinner plans for the night I arrived. So I placed the call, and, well, now I'm back to where the story began.

As I commented in my Yelp post, they are extremely accommodating and welcoming to the minibar diners. So we settled in at the counter, looking into the kitchen, and met our chefs for the evening. I asked if Jose ever was there. "Oh, all the time," was the reply. "Will we see him tonight," I asked. "No," I was told. "I don't think he's here tonight." (Rats. Well maybe he showed for the 8:30 seating.)

Before going, I read quite a lot about minibar, from other Yelp reviewers, from the Washington Post restaurant critic, and from the restaurant's own web site. Someone complained that he didn't get enough to eat. So I was thinking about that. The menu includes 27 items. Some items are a single bite. Others are two bites, but I don't think any are three bites or more. So how many bites do you think it takes to eat, for example, a steak at a nice steakhouse? I wasn't hungry when the meal at minibar was over. And as the Post reviewer commented, you're paying for an entertaining evening and an unusual dining experience.

Yes, there is entertainment value and the novelty of some of these unusually prepared foods. But it is also dinner. So I was also wondering - how many calories do you get from those 27 courses?

In my Yelp review, I list the items that I liked the most. I think it's interesting that the ones I listed are mentioned in several other reviews. I suppose that means that while they're constantly experimenting and putting new things on the menu, there are a core of tried-and-true, crowd-pleasing items that they've just got to keep on the menu night after night. And as accommodating as they are, there's no use begging for more of any particular item.

At the end of my Yelp review, I said that I'd recommend minibar, as long as you understand what you're getting for your money. There's a very instructive video on the Washington Post web site. It includes comments from Jose Andres as well as pictures of diners enjoying the show/meal. One of the scenes shows people eating the Dragon's breath popcorn. It really is amazing. Your chef puts this very ordinary looking piece of popcorn on your plate. You pop it in your mouth, chew and swallow. Tastes good. Then you exhale, and 'smoke' comes out of your mouth and nose. How do they do that? I don't know, that that's the kind of experience that makes it so hard to get a reservation.

The video below shows the chef making the Cotton Candy Eel.

24 January 2010

Dinner at Loring Kitchen & Bar, Minne...

It was a damp and dreary night. We'd been to a hockey game (indoors, thankfully) to watch our niece play. (Her team lost, boohoo.) The January rain fell on mounds of ice-covered snow, and the streets were slick and strewn with slushy puddles. When we walked into the Loring Kitchen & Bar, it was like entering a sanctuary from winter.

We had 7:30 reservations, and we were quite surprised to see so many open tables when we walked in. We had tried to get last minute reservations a week earlier, and were told that the only opening they had was at 4:30 p.m. So I expected the place to be packed. Maybe everyone was too intimidated by the bad weather. (Maybe everyone was on their way to New Orleans to watch the Vikings in the play-off.) There was a steady stream of people in and out during the evening. But at no time were all the tables full.

While waiting for my sister-in-law and her husband to arrive, my wife and I ordered drinks. They have a nice line up of signature cocktails. My wife ordered a Blue Martini with gin. It comes with blue cheese stuffed olives. My wife thought it was a nice touch that the martini was served in a frosted glass.

I asked if the bartender could make a sazarac cocktail. The server came back after a few minutes and confessed that they had never heard of a sazarac. They looked it up online, but didn't have the pernod (or absinthe) that's an essential ingredient. I said that was ok, and I didn't really want him experimenting on me with a cocktail that he hadn't made before. I suggested that for his next vacation, he should go to New Orleans and learn how to make a sazarac. So I also ordered a Blue Martini (with vodka). She served it. But then a few minutes later, she brought over another drink. "Try this," she said. No charge. The bartender had improvised with ingredients he had on hand. It was pretty good. So I drank the ersatz sazarac and gave the martini to my sister-in-law.

I'm including that anecdote because on Yelp, some of the reviewers complained about poor service. We just didn't have that experience at all. All the staff who we encountered were friendly and accommodating.

One more thing about the Loring Kitchen - it's a "see and be seen" place. We saw three tables of friends there over the course of our meal. And as we left, we noticed that Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak was unobtrusively seated at a table with his wife.

I almost made this my first Yelp review with a 5-star rating. But Yelp defines a 5-star as flawless, and our meal wasn't flawless. Click here for my review of the food. Suffice it to say that we really liked our meals, but there were a few minor glitches. The tuna ceviche wasn't up to par. My wedge salad was good but nothing extraordinary. The chocolate chip cookies that we had for dessert were unexceptional. That said, my wife and I agreed that we'd gladly return. Frankly, I can't wait for spring and summer when we might score a table on the veranda overlooking Loring Park.

23 January 2010

Breakfast at Le Bon Cafe, DC

Once, I don't remember how long ago, I had an espresso at a sidewalk table outside of Le Bon Cafe. The cafe is right on Capitol Hill. So on my most recent trip to DC, when I had some time between meetings, I decided to walk over there for coffee and to read the paper. When I got inside, some of the breakfast food looked interesting. So instead of just coffee, I had a mid-morning breakfast.

You can click here to read my review of the food on Yelp. Some of the other reviewers were put off by unfriendly, or at least inattentive service. Didn't bother me. I didn't go in there to make a new BFF. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this kind of place. Quaint. Little. Maybe a little quirky. I liked the background music, and I got to sit in the front bay window.

So I would recommend it, and I'll probably go back again someday.

09 January 2010

Celebration dinner at Benihana, Golden Valley, MN

Late in 2009, I announced a 'brand extension' and started a Krik's Picks profile on Yelp. At the time, I wondered how I would integrate my Yelp posts with my blog. I've only been doing Yelp for a couple weeks now. But I think Krik's Picks on Yelp will take the place of my 'Kwik Pick' reviews that I started a while ago.

So here's what I'm going to try. When I post a review on Yelp, I'll just post a photo and brief item on the blog with a link to the Yelp review. I don't know if that will make a difference to anyone. Most of the time, I think I'm just talking to myself on this blog. But if I have any readers, and if any of you have an opinion about this approach, feel free to let me know.

So click here to read about the birthday celebration that we had for my son at Benihana in Golden Valley, MN. Here's the photo.

Players Grill, Highland Park, IL

My wife and I didn’t plan to have dinner on New Years Eve at Players Grill. In fact, we thought we'd be celebrating New Years with friends at their home in Wayzata, MN. But circumstances conspired to change our plans. Our daughter, who was due to deliver her first child on Jan. 5, called us on Wednesday evening, Dec. 30, to tell us that she was in labor and ... it was time to come! We were ready for bed, but being compulsive planners, we were already packed. So we threw our bags in the car and hit the road. It was 10:45 p.m. Our goal was to arrive in Chicago in time for the birth of our grandchild.

Well, we didn't quite make it. Trey David was born at 4:58 a.m. on Dec. 31. We arrived at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. So we found ourselves in Chicago (actually north Chicago suburbs) on New Years Eve. Our son-in-law's parents live there. We connected later in the day at the hospital and decided to have dinner together for New Years Eve. After driving all night, and with only a couple hours of sleep, and in a part of the city that we didn't know very well, we certainly weren't in a position to decide on where to eat. A sports bar for burgers sounded fine for us. So we piled into a car and drove into nearby Highland Park to find a place to eat. So that's how we ended up at Players Grill.

(By the way, as I'm sure you've noticed, these are pics from the hospital, not the restaurant. I didn't bring my camera to the restaurant.)

I don't know if it was really that good. But the combination of exhaustion, exhilaration, and the company of nice people (who were equally as tired and happy) added up to a really enjoyable New Year's Eve dinner.

Players pretty clearly is a neighborhood joint. People would get up from their table and mozy over to another table to chat ... with friends or acquaintances, I assume. The manager, bartender, and service staff also seemed to know many of the people. They also have their own frequent diner club.
My father-in-law used to have a restaurant in Duluth - the Carlton House. The menu at Players was very reminiscent of the Carlton House menu, or for that matter, any number of supper clubs in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Ribs are a classic supper club favorite. My son-in-law's mother had Players' ribs, and pronounced them to be delicious. Right along with ribs would be barbecued anything. I had a barbecued brisket sandwich that was very good. Another supper club favorite is shrimp. Lotsa shrimp options on the Players' menu; my son-in-law's father chose a mixed seafood plate with shrimp. scallops and salmon. And my wife had a burger.
Besides a full bar, Players has a nice selection of beer on tap. The Burning River Pale Ale from Great Lakes Brewing was good.
I don't know if I'll ever go back to Players. I suppose as long as my daughter and her family live in the north Chicago suburbs, it's a possibility. But I will definitely have warm memories of our New Year's Eve dinner there every year when we celebrate our grandson's birthday.