31 December 2011

Arrivederci 2011, homemade tortelloni

If the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions, then I was there and back in 2011, relative to keeping my blog up to date. I ended the year with 44 posts, counting this one, which is my last. Better than last year, true. But I started out so well, with 28 posts through May. Then I had a pathetic one post in June, one in August, and only one in October.

And it’s not for lack of material. We had a fun long weekend in San Diego in November. I only did two posts (Searsucker restaurant and Solamar hotel). But I should have done posts on Blue Point, Taka Sushi, The Prado in Balboa Park, Asti, and Croce’s, all of which were great and deserved to be praised in Krik’s Picks.

But for my last post of 2011, instead of trying to reconstruct my impressions of those San Diego eateries, I’m going to post on a new cooking experience instead.

In May, Bon Appetit magazine had an Italian theme issue which included a recipe and instructions for making stuffed pasta. Coincidentally during the year, my daughter and her husband lent me their pasta machine. I’ve always had an inkling to try making fresh pasta but was intimidated by the process. So finally, over the long Christmas weekend, I decided to do it.IMG_5182

First, here’s the link to the recipe from May Bon Appetit for Ricotta Tortelloni.

And here’s the link to their step-by-step instructions.

I also found an online video for using a pasta machine.

And I found a Giada DeLaurentiis video. (She uses a Kitchen Aid attachment rather than a hand crank roller like I got from Tovah and Peter.)

I used the pasta recipe from Bon Appetit, but I modified the filling. Instead of seasoned ricotta, I used some cooked squash, mixed in about an equal amount of ricotta and seasoned it with some dried sage.

It turned out pretty well. I was pleased by how easy it was to shape the tortelloni. I worried that the pockets would open up and the filling would get all watery when I cooked them. But that was not a problem.

The recipe says it makes enough for 12 starter courses or 6 main courses, and that was about right. My wife and I had about a third of the batch along with a green salad. We boiled and drained the tortelloni and sprinkled them with parmesan, a little olive oil, and basil. It was a light meal, but sufficient for the two of us. I froze the rest. My plan is to use the frozen tortelloni whenever I need either a quick meal or a convenient side dish.

Next time I make fresh pasta, I’m going to make fettuccini.

Happy new year. Keep reading Krik’s Picks.

24 December 2011

Grilled cheese: Homemade vs. Caribou

I really like grilled cheese sandwiches. If I don’t see anything else on a lunch menu that looks good, a grilled cheese is a pretty safe bet. (Sometimes it’s worth ordering even if it’s not on the menu. Click here to read about a late night soup/sandwich improv in DC.)

So I was both curious and excited when Caribou Coffee put grilled cheese sandwiches on their food menu. The first time I tried to order one was at an airport location. (Denver, if I remember right.) Too bad. That location didn’t sell sandwiches. Also didn’t have free Wi-Fi.

I did finally have one earlier in December. I finished a workout and instead of having breakfast at the office cafeteria, which I usually do, I stopped at a Caribou near the gym and ordered a coffee (medium dark roast) and a grilled cheese sandwich. They actually have three on the menu. I chose the classic sandwich which features three kinds of cheese on brioche bread. The others are combination sandwiches with cheese and turkey, chicken, or roast beef.

I was unimpressed. There was nothing particularly wrong with the sandwich. It just wasn’t very distinctive.

I didn’t think much about it until yesterday when I made a grilled cheese sandwich for myself at home. I didn’t do anything fancy. I used homemade whole wheat bread, a supermarket aged cheddar (happened to be Bongards Creamery), and butter (Land O Lakes, of course). It was so much better than the Caribou sandwich.

Maybe Caribou doesn’t use real butter when they grill it.

06 December 2011

America Eats Tavern, DC, serves tradition avant-garde

Originally I had mixed feelings about America Eats Tavern in DC. I was excited because Chef Jose Andres was the creative mind behind the project. But I had some concerns.AmericaEats4

First of all, it replaced one of my favorite DC restaurants – Café Atlantico. Second, I was afraid that the concept was kind of gimmicky. It’s a so-called ‘pop-up restaurant,’ a temporary restaurant to test out a particular theme. In this case, the theme is American food prepared with native ingredients and inspired by historical  recipes. The thing I like about Jose Andres is his passion for creating a memorable dining experience, his creativity in ingredients, and the delightful flavors that come out of his kitchens. I didn’t want to be served something just because it’s a ‘native’ food or because it’s historically authentic preparation.

Well, I shouldn’t have worried. For the most part, my two experiences at America Eats have been up to the standards that I expected from Chef Andres. By the way, on my first visit last July, for lunch, I got to meet him! I arrived a little later than the normal lunch crowd. As I was waiting to be seated, I saw him walking toward the front of the restaurant. I didn’t want to seem like a star-struck groupie, but I asked the hostess if I could get a picture with him. He graciously agreed. After the photo, he went on his way, and I was seated.

For that lunch, I had a gazpacho and a lobster roll. Both were fabulous. The gazpacho was served by pouring the cold soup into the bowl around an island of croutons and tomatoes. The lobster roll consisted of large chunks of chopped lobster held together with a light dressing, served on an airy roll that was more like a brioche than a bun.AmericaEats1

I returned for a dinner at the end of November with three colleagues in DC. When our server greeted us, he advised that portions are small, so we should consider ordering something from each section of the menu – oysters, appetizers, soups/salads, and entrées. Seemed like a lot. While I do like oysters, I decided to take a pass this time, and my colleagues followed suit.

For the appetizer round, I had shrimp etouffee. It was delicious. Some of the other apps around the table – an unusual take on macaroni and cheese, this one made with vermicelli noodles, also an order of shrimp and grits that was quite good. And for the table, we split an order of hush puppies; they were excellent.

From the soup/salad section, I ordered the gazpacho again. I liked it just as much as the first time. One of my colleagues ordered the crab cake. The crab cake itself was great. But it was served with a slaw made from shredded Brussels sprouts that was very unusual and delicious. The beet salad, ordered by another of my guests, was a real attention-getter. On the plate were four beautiful, round baby beets and four balls of shredded beets. My guest said it was delicious, but quite a lot of beets for one person to eat. The fourth item we ordered was she crab soup, also very good.AmericaEats7

Finally, for the entrées, here’s what we ordered: bison steak (for two), blackened croaker (a rustic Southern fish), and Eisenhower’s beef stew. I split the bison with one of my guests. It was good, but the meat was a little fatty. I was surprised because I’ve always thought that bison is supposed to be a very lean meat. The croaker was good, but not really much different from any other blackened fish. The stew was very unusual in that it was served ‘deconstructed’ with two generous chunks of stew meat in the middle of the plate and the vegetables arranged around the side. It was not at all stew-like.

So while all of the entrées tasted good, they were the most disappointing part of the meal. If any part of the meal bordered on being gimmicky, it was the entrées. They also were kind of expensive, and, as the server said, the portions were not large. I think I probably would have been happier if I’d ordered one of the oyster courses and skipped the entrée.

The ambiance of America Eats is basically the same as Café Atlantico – rustic and casual. Our server was good. He was attentive, friendly, informative. Coincidentally, we had the same server at dinner as I did for my solo lunch six months before. He told us that America Eats Tavern will remain in operation until July 4, 2012, a one-year run. Then the space will evolve into something new.AmericaEats6

Meanwhile, I got a bit of good news when he told us that Café Atlantico will be reopening nearby, in the space that currently houses Zola. I couldn’t confirm that news. But if it’s true, I’ll be glad to have it back.

25 November 2011

How Giada saved my Thanksgiving lasagna

OK. So Giada de Laurentiis didn’t knock on my door and offer to help with the lasagna I was making for Thanksgiving. (I wish.) But I did pick up on a Twitter feed that indicated that she was making a butternut squash recipe on the Today Show. I watched it online and got an idea that made a big improvement in my recipe.

Here’s the back story.

This past summer, we redecorated our dining room. During a summer family event, I offered to have Thanksgiving at our house so that people could see the end result. We ended up having 27 people – 4 who came just for appetizers, 2 babies born in September, 2 toddlers in high chairs, and 19 people around the tables. That’s the biggest dinner party we’ve ever hosted at our house.

Among the guests were my son-in-law’s parents. They have a family tradition of having a lasagna on the menu for Thanksgiving. My son-in-law (kitchen manager and sous chef at Pairings) and I planned the menu, and we decided to include a lasagna. (Here’s a photo of us with the whole buffet.)IMG_5045

About two years ago, I posted a recipe for a lasagna made with roasted squash and other harvest vegetables. My comment was that the flavors were good, but it was a little dry. I had some butternut squash in my pantry (from my parents’ garden), so I decided to reprise the lasagna. But I wondered what to do about the dryness.

That’s when I picked up on the Twitter feed and checked Giada’s butternut squash lasagna recipe (also available on her web site). She included a béchamel sauce, and I realized that would add the moisture my recipe was missing. Besides that, I loved the technique of blending in some basil to give the béchamel a distinctive flavor. (I’ll be using that technique again in the future.)

Here’s the revised recipe with Giada’s béchamel included.

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)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
3½ cups whole milk
3/4 cup basil
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.

Melt the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the nutmeg. Cool slightly. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender. Add the basil and blend until smooth. Return the basil sauce to the sauce in the pan and stir to blend. Season the sauce with salt and pepper.

Brush 13x9x2-inch glass or ceramic lasagna pan with oil. Ladle about 3/4 c. of the béchamel over bottom of the pan. Arrange 3 noodles on top. Spread 1/3 of the ricotta mixture over noodles. Ladle another 3/4 c. béchamel over the ricotta. 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, more béchamel, remaining roasted vegetables, and remaining mozzarella and provolone. Top with 3 noodles. Spread remaining ricotta mixture over and remaining sauce; 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.

Thanksgiving menu 2011

My son-in-law and I planned our menu for Thanksgiving. We had a big crowd, and we planned an extensive menu. Quite a difference from last year when there were only six of us (plus a baby) – my Mom & Dad, my daughter and son-in-law (and their son), and me and Linda. Click here to see the post on last year’s meal and a photo.

Now look at this photo of the 23 people squeezed into our redecorated dining room for this year’s feast.IMG_5046

I did the turkey on the Weber grill, as usual.

My son-in-law made gravy, using some of the drippings that we siphoned out of the drip pan on the grill. It added a nice smoky flavor to the gravy. He also made roasted Brussels sprouts using a recipe from Epicurious. He also made a cranberry and orange relish.

My daughter made stuffing. My wife made corn.

I took the week off and used Wednesday to prepare a few things in advance. One was braised short ribs, another recipe from Epicurious. My son-in-law actually found the recipe. I know he wanted to make it. But he had to work on Wednesday, and the braised meat always is better if you make it in advance and then let it sit in the braising liquid overnight. The only variation I made to the recipe was that I used boneless short ribs. The main reason I did that was because we were preparing for a big crowd, and I didn’t think I’d have a big enough pan to make the bone-in ribs. The butcher at Jerry’s prepared six pounds of boneless ribs. There were 12 ribs, and that proved to be just the right quantity.

I also made lasagna with roasted butternut squash, mushrooms, red onions, and red peppers. See next post.

On Thanksgiving, I baked whole wheat date rolls, yet another Epicurious recipe. Then I turned the kitchen over to my son-in-law. All I did was finish roasting the turkey and reheat the ribs and the lasagna.

Other family members brought appetizers and desserts. My mom and dad brought dried beef and beef jerky from Nick’s Meats in Hayward, MN. They also brought cheese and crackers. My brother and his wife brought a vegetable tray. My daughter brought an artichoke dip.

For dessert, my other brother brought a pumpkin pie and a minced fruit pie. My daughter-in-law brought two apple pies. My son-in-law brought a huge carrot cake. (My favorite desserts are apple pie and carrot cake. Thanksgiving was the day before my 60th birthday, so they brought special desserts for me.)

This was the biggest dinner we’ve served in our house. But no one went home hungry.

22 November 2011

Friendly comfort at Solamar San Diego

I’ve written before how much we like Kimpton hotels. When we plan a vacation, we always check to see if the city we’re traveling to has a Kimpton, and if it does, we always check the rates. (They’re usually very affordable.)

So that’s what we did when we started planning our short trip to San Diego. San Diego was our destination because I would be attending a dairy conference there. But we decided to go a few days early for some relaxation. The conference was at a resort in Mission Valley. We also looked into La Jolla, but we were there a year ago for a wedding. We usually prefer staying downtown where there’s good choices of restaurants, preferably in walking distance, and options for nightlife. The fact that there was a Kimpton right in the Gaslamp Quarter, and they offered a special rate, clinched it for us. So we made a reservation for three nights at the Solamar.IMG_0352

The first pleasant surprise was when we checked in, the desk clerk wished me a happy birthday. I can’t figure out how he knew. Maybe it’s on my profile for the Kimpton In Touch (frequent stayer) program. As I noted in my next post, our room wasn’t ready when we arrived, so we wandered into the Gaslamp Quarter to have some lunch. When we returned and got checked in, while were were unpacking in our room, there was a knock at the door. The manager sent up a bottle of wine and a birthday cupcake, along with a nice note. Really cool!

One of the things we like about Kimptons is that most (maybe all) have a nightly wine reception in the lobby. We enjoy having a glass of wine before our evening activities and chatting with the other guests. It’s very cordial and relaxing.

It turns out that the special rate that we reserved also included two coupons for a free cocktail for each night of our stay. I had totally forgotten that detail. The Solamar has a really cool rooftop pool and lounge. So we enjoyed a couple of cocktails up there during our stay.

Kimpton prides itself on having staff who can help guests find fun and unusual things to do. We got a lot of good advice from the staff when we asked. We did have rain on one day during our visit. That spoiled our planned activities for the evening. However, the desk clerk gave us a recommendation for dinner (Asti Ristorante), got us a reservation, and also got us complementary admission to Jim Croce’s Jazz Bar a block away from the restaurant. It was a fun evening.

Needless to say, Kimpton hotels remain on our list of places to stay when we’re traveling.

Best burger at Searsucker in San Diego?

My wife says that the burger she had for lunch at Searsucker in San Diego was the best she’s ever had in her life! Wow. That’s quite an endorsement.

We arrived in San Diego around lunch time on a Thursday. We planned on a few days of relaxation and sightseeing before attending the National Milk Producers Federation annual meeting. For the relaxation part of our trip, we stayed at the Solamar, a Kimpton hotel located in the Gaslamp Quarter. We knew we probably couldn’t get into our room right away, so we had planned on getting lunch. The desk clerk gave us a few suggestions. We checked our bags and strolled onto the street to check out a few places.

Searsucker wasn’t one of the choices he suggested. When we walked by, the menu looked appealing. We checked a few more places, but then returned to Searsucker.

At lunch, you place your order at the reception desk. Lunch items are listed on a large chalkboard hanging overhead. Linda’s burger was made from chopped steak. She thought that was why it was particularly good. Also, it was cooked to medium rare, which is her preference.

I ordered a Triple C sandwich. I guess that’s supposed to stand for ‘crab cake club’ sandwich. I suggested they change the name to ‘ABC’ – avocado, bacon, and crab. It was delicious. I wouldn’t really describe it as a ‘crab cake’ sandwich. The crab mean was loosely bound together, but it was mostly crab and not very much filler.

We did order a side of their ‘brown butter fries’ on our server’s recommendation. They were good, but not outstanding. Considering everything else we ate over the next several days, we probably should have saved the calories.

Searsucker appears to be a hopping night place. We walked by often during our stay, and in the evening, it looked jam-packed. For dinner, it’s regular table service from a menu. It looks like a pretty creative menu at that.

We considered a return visit for lunch. But with only four days before the meeting started, we wanted to try other restaurants. Anyway, starting your vacation with the best burger you’ve had in your life is a pretty good beginning.

07 November 2011

Weary dinner at Lucca in Des Moines

In October, I traveled to Des Moines to attend the World Food Prize activities. My company, Land O’Lakes, helped sponsor a panel discussion on women in agriculture in the developing world. (Click here to read about the panel. Click here to view a video of an African woman who formed a dairy cooperative to help her family and her village succeed as dairy farmers.)

My trip to Des Moines was one problem after the other. It’s only a four hour drive from the office. But when I checked airfares, there actually was a pretty favorable fare available, so I decided to fly. However, when I went to the gate at the time to board the plane, all the passengers and I learned that our plane had a mechanical problem. They didn’t have a spare part in Minneapolis. So they had to fly in a different plane from Detroit. So the four-hour drive that I was avoiding turned into a five-hour delay at the airport.

When it became evident that I was not going to arrive in Des Moines in time for our group dinner, I started thinking about where I would have dinner when I finally did arrive. First I pulled up the address for my hotel (Embassy Suites) on Google maps. Then I searched for restaurants in walking distance. After I’d identified a couple interesting ones, I checked the reviews on Yelp. And that’s how I ended up at Lucca.

Des Moines is an interesting city. They have this nice, clean downtown on the west side of the river and this absolutely beautiful state capitol on the east side of the river. But in between is about 12 blocks of gritty industrial buildings. They’re trying to give the area some cache by rebranding it Historic East Village. As I walked to Lucca at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, with hundreds, if not thousands of visitors in town for the World Food Prize, East Village was a virtual ghost town. I saw several interesting shops. But there were no other pedestrians on the sidewalk and very few cars.

My research showed that Lucca serves dinner until 10 p.m. When I walked in, there were only two other tables of diners in the place. I decided to be charitable and asked the person who greeted me if they were still serving dinner. He looked uncertain and asked the hostess. She assured me that they would serve dinner.

I’m glad they did. I had a great meal. Lucca has a very interesting menu concept. Everything is prix fixe. The menu lists several ‘primi’ courses and several secondi courses. It’s $30 for a starter and entrée, $7.50 more for dessert. The other thing about the menu – most of the items are designated by a one or two word listing. You have to ask the server to describe the preparation. It reminded me of Bar La Grassa in Minneapolis. In a way, it’s kind of annoying. But I guess it serves the purpose of stimulating a discussion with the server before you decide what to order. For me alone at 9 p.m. in Des Moines, that was all right. But it could also be distracting if you wanted to focus your attention on a discussion with dining partners or a date.

I started with the gnocci. Several Yelp reviewers raved about them, and I agree. They were light and flavorful, dressed in burnt butter with sage. For my entrée, I ordered scallops. These were four beautiful, large scallops, seared and served with mélange of crisp sautéed vegetables. I realized that both courses consisted of pillowy food. I guess after my distressing travel delays, I needed something comforting on my plate.

After I finished, I asked the woman who appeared to be the hostess about the menu concept. “What if a diner doesn’t want to order both a primi and a secondi course?” She said it hasn’t been a problem. Sometimes people will share, and she assured me that they could accommodate a diner who really didn’t want to order both courses. I also asked about the particularly enjoyable music mix that was playing through dinner. She told me it was a jazz ‘station’ on the internet radio service Pandora. Cool.

I hope East Village thrives and Lucca survives until the next time I’m at loose ends in Des Moines for dinner.

06 November 2011

Lunch at Lincoln in DC

I suppose you have to wonder why there isn’t already a restaurant in DC named ‘Lincoln.’ I sure don’t know why. But there is now, and I had a lunch meeting there with my DC staff person on my most recent trip.

The décor is certainly appealing. The main dining room is open and airy. There are attractive, stylish pictures on the wall. Probably the main attention-getter is the floor. It’s ‘paved’ with Lincoln pennies.

The theme of the menu is small plates. I guess they actually prefer to say ‘seasonal’ small plates. By that, I assume they mean that the menu changes seasonally.

I thought the lunch menu was interesting. They have a bunch of sides or appetizers that you could share or have as part of your meal. They have a limited number of entrées. They look interesting, but neither of us chose one.

Our server described a soup of the day. It was a corn chowder with shrimp. We both ordered it. Jen thought it was bland. I agree that it didn’t have a lot of intense flavor, but I thought the flavors were well blended and subtle. A difference in perspective, I guess. LincolnDC

The lunch menu offers a nice selection of creative sandwiches and salads. Jen ordered the peach grilled cheese. It featured peach jam, fried green tomatoes and camembert cheese. It looked very appealing, and she liked it.

I was tempted by a couple of the salads. The chopped salad sounded intriguing, with avocado, peas, corn, feta cheese, and diced tomatoes. I also thought the Nicoise sounded good, with tuna, lima beans, capers, purple potatoes, tomatoes, and quail eggs.

But in the end, I also opted for a sandwich. I had a barbecued short rib sandwich. The meat was very tender. I also liked the barbecue sauce, though I guess it was fairly salty. The only thing I would say is that it was a little messy for a business lunch. I also opted for fries instead of chips ($3 upcharge). The fries were very good and were dressed with a drizzle of truffle oil. Like the sandwich, however, also very salty.

That was it. We didn’t have any dessert. I guess the big question is – would I go back? Well, I wouldn’t make a special trip downtown to eat there. But if I were staying downtown, or if I had a lunch meeting downtown, I’d definitely go again.

12 October 2011

Lunch at Cocina del Barrio, Edina

After two disappointing dinners at Barrio’s Edina outpost, I wasn’t sure if we’d ever try it again. But as my wife and I discussed where to have lunch after a morning appointment, she recalled an ad for $10 lunch there. We both must have been in the right mood, because we decided to give it a try. I’m glad we did.

I don’t want to belabor my previous complaints. We went to Cocina del Barrio in February, and I gave it a mediocre review on Krik’s Picks. (Click here to read it.) I was quite surprised to receive a follow-up comment from ‘Mike’ at Barrio asking to give them a second chance. We did a few weeks later, and honestly, the experience was no better. It certainly wasn’t the food. We loved the food. But we felt that the service in particular was inattentive and not particularly friendly.

Our lunch experience was totally different. To be sure, it wasn’t particularly busy. But besides our server, two other staff members dropped by our table to make sure we were comfortable and that we liked out food. Very nice.

The food was good. The $10 special starts with an individual serving of fresh guacamole garnished with paper thin slices of radish and jalapeno. The house made chips were crisp but not greasy and not too salty. It came with a salsa verde and a red salsa. Both were good. I like my salsa hot, but I just made sure that I had a slice of jalapeno on the chip. My wife, who isn’t so fond of spicy salsa, liked them both. The other part of the lunch special is two of their daily special tacos. Today it was pulled chicken. They were great.

I should also say a word about ambiance. Unlike the noisy, crowded scene during our two dinner experiences, our lunch was quiet, comfortable, and relaxed. They were playing the most creative music mix, everything from Buena Vista Social Club to Johnny Cash to Led Zepplin. Cool.

I definitely would come back for lunch. And our experience was nice enough that I may come back again for dinner someday.

26 September 2011

Apple picking at the Farm … and applesauce

When I first launched this blog, one of my first posts was about my parents’ garden. That particular post was about their tomatoes. I said that I’d write later about their apples. So now, five years later, here it is.

Mom & Dad have a lot of apple trees on their farm. They always have a lot to harvest. My brothers and my sister always plan trips to the farm in September to help pick apples. We went last Sunday.

Actually, my son and his daughter went on Friday. (She’s five years old. I started Krik’s Picks when she was born. She’s my oldest grandchild.) My wife and daughter-in-law came on Sunday with the two grandsons.

We picked a lot of apples. They have several different varieties, and we didn’t even take some of each. We mostly took Regent, Prairie Spy, Red Delicious, and a few of a yellow apple variety that dad couldn’t remember the name. Apples2

On the counters in our kitchen, we now have eight bags of apples. We’ll give some as gifts. I’ll make several batches of applesauce (and freeze them). I’ll also make some apple crisp and if I’m ambitious, a couple apple pies. (My daughter-in-law taught me a technique for making pie crust in the food processor. It works, but I’m still intimidated.) And we’ll be eating a lot of fresh apples for several weeks. (Picked fresh from the farm, they keep very well.)

Pictured in the pot on my stove, I have my first batch of applesauce. I’ll serve it with our dinner on Wednesday night. I cut up about half a bag of the Prairie Spy variety. Dad warned me that they’re not an ideal cooking apple. He was right. After about 45 minutes of cooking, they still were not breaking down to a saucy consistency. I like applesauce with some apple chunks in it. But this was too much. So I facilitated the process by using a potato masher. Still pretty chunky, but it did the job.Apples1

I don’t use a recipe to make applesauce. I just peel and cut a bunch of apples into chunks and put them in a Dutch oven. When the pot is about three-fourths full, I add a cup of sugar and some cinnamon (one tablespoon, or or less, depending on how you like it). Then I add water about halfway up the pot. The more water you use, the longer it takes for the apples to cook down. But the longer they cook, the more the apples break down into a saucy consistency. I don’t recommend adding too much sugar. The tartness of fresh apples is good, and if you like it sweeter, you can always add a dollop of ice cream. (Vanilla is good, but if you can get cinnamon ice cream, that’s the best.)

13 September 2011

Basil Harvest 2011

The forecast says possible frost in Minnesota this week. So when I got home from work tonight, after dinner, I harvested my basil.

My dilemma is that I always miscalculate how much basil to use during the growing season. I’m afraid that if I cut too much too early, I won’t have any left at the end of the season. Then I get to the first frost forecast and lament that I’ve still got so much in the garden, and feel like I should have used more earlier in the summer.

One year, I decided to chance it. I left my basil in the garden despite the forecast of ‘possible’ frost. Well, it froze, and I wasn’t able to salvage very much of my crop. So now my strategy is this. I cut the stems with large deep green leaves, but leave the lower stems. They usually have some new sprouts. If the forecast is wrong and it doesn’t freeze, I can harvest some late-yield basil for use until the killing freeze comes.BasilHarvest2011

So, what do I do with the basil that I harvest? Freeze it, of course. I used to make pesto and freeze it. But that sort of limits my options for using throughout the winter. So I clean and mince the leaves and freeze them. Then, I just take out a few tablespoons, or a half cup, whatever I need during the winter.

One of the things we use frozen basil for is pizza. We make a homemade crust. Then my wife takes a couple tablespoons of frozen basil, thaws it and mixes it with a good olive oil and spreads it on the pizza crust before putting on the toppings and cheese. It’s sort of a modified pesto, but she doesn’t usually mix garlic or parmesan into the sauce. I also use the frozen basil in pasta sauce, risotto, and soup.

I also strip off the basil blossoms that shoot out the top of the plant. (That’s what’s in the bowl in the photo.) I freeze them and use them in homemade vegetable broth or turkey broth. The basil blossoms add a nice, fragrant characteristic to the broth.

One disadvantage of freezing the basil is that it tends to lose it’s intense, green color.That’s ok for most cooking uses. But it’s not ideal for pesto, which I want to be almost iridescent green.

I read somewhere that basil is related to catnip. If that’s true, I can certainly see why cats like catnip. I usually get a euphoric, woozy feeling while chopping cups of fresh basil leaves.

10 August 2011

Employee Salsa Contest 2011

Last year for our employee celebration at work, the organizers had a salsa contest. Coworkers who were interested formed teams and picked a favorite recipe. Then we made the salsa at the office for people to taste and vote on their favorite. I was part of a team. I posted an item on Krik’s Picks along with the recipe we made.

It was such a popular event that they repeated it this year. I didn’t join a team. I didn’t have time to get things organized (and besides, our team lost last year, so phooey). But I did join the tasting and voting.SalsaContest2011

Two people in our community relations department and their intern were one team. They called themselves “Two-and-a-half Hot Mommas.” I was going to vote for them even if their salsa tasted like runny ketchup. But it was good. I thought it really was the best salsa of the day. (Of course, they didn’t win.)

The intern actually provided the recipe. It’s a family recipe sent to her by her dad. In his note, he said this quantity makes a 5-quart ice cream pail of salsa. It also appears to be very hot. For the contest, they cut the quantities of everything in half and to accommodate Minnesota taste buds, only used three habaneros and and three green jalapenos instead of the cayenne peppers. The final caveat is that they always adjust the ingredients to taste, and they usually use less hot peppers. (So if you make it full strength, be forewarned.)

The intern’s last name is ‘Guest.’ So I guess this is literally a ‘Guest’ recipe. (Sorry.)

Guest Family Salsa

6 qt. tomatoes

4 bell peppers

½ each sweet banana peppers, hot banana peppers

1 large onion (red or sweet)

1/3 cup olive oil

1 stalk celery

Juice of one whole lime

Cilantro to taste (1/2 bunch)

6-9 habaneras

10 cayenne peppers

Salt and pepper to taste

No salt seasoning (Mrs. Dash)

¼ cup minced garlic

Um, they didn’t provide any preparation instructions. One of the other ‘Hot Mommas’ had this to say about prep: “The peppers were hand-minced very fine and I'd caution you to wear rubber gloves when handling peppers - if the raw vegetable oils come into contact with your skin, they are very irritating. You chop everything up, add the cilantro/salt/pepper last to taste and either hand mix or if you want to pulse in your food processor (which we did not have) it will make either a chunkier or juicier salsa.”

19 July 2011

Celebrity Twitter disappointment

On Saturday morning, I finished the paper but still had some coffee left in my mug. So I grabbed my Android smartphone to check Twitter. One of the celebrity chefs I follow is Giada DeLaurentiis. She had a post about an upcoming show from Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles.

Linda and I once stayed in Marina Del Rey while on vacation in LA. Click here for the blog post. We enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try to catch the show. I switched to my DirectTV app, looked up the times when the show would appear, and scheduled it to record on my DVR … all without leaving the breakfast table. Fact is, I could have done it from DC or CA or anywhere I was traveling. That’s what I love about the new electronics. (It’s actually easier to find shows and schedule them to record from my smartphone than it is on the TV.)It’s also one of the few instances when I’ve found Giada’s Twitter feed, or any celebrity chef’s Twitter feed, to have anything useful.

When I established a Twitter account for Krik’s Picks, I immediately began following a bunch of my favorite Food Network chefs – Giada, Mario Batali, Jamie Oliver, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, and Guy Fieri. I envisioned getting tons of recipe ideas and helpful hints on cooking techniques. What a disappointment.

Giada – I have more of her recipes in my repertoire than any other chef. She’s my best source of recipes other than Bon Appetit magazine and Epicurious. But her tweets are consistently trivial and boring. Last April, she wrote about how fun it was to discover and try organic nail polish. Really, Giada? To her credit, however, she does use Twitter to engage her fans. She has a lot of interaction with them.

Mario – He mostly uses FourSquare to tweet about where he is. I thought about that. Maybe if I were in the same city, I might see where he just checked in, jump in my car, and hurry over to see him. Then again, maybe not! Otherwise, not much point in following Mario.

Bobby Flay – He uses Twitter to promote his restaurants a lot. That’s a pretty good strategy. But since we don’t have one of his restaurants here in the Twin Cities, most of the time his tweets just don’t have much interest to me.

Emeril Lagasee – Also uses his tweets to promote products that he endorses. Yeah, fine. Just not that interesting.

Guy Fieri – On Triple D, he’s funny, irreverent, and fun to watch. But his Twitter feed mostly just tells us where he’s going. OK.

Jamie Oliver – Every once in a while, he’ll tweet about a recipe that sounds interesting. But then he goes off on a crusade against chocolate milk in schools, and it just gets tedious.

I also follow Mark Bittmann, the former food columnist for the New York Times. When he was the Minimalist, he was humorous, entertaining, and featured great recipes. Now that he’s the Opinionator, he’s sarcastic, shallow, and shrill. (I think even the Times recognizes this. They’re running old Minimalist videos on their web site. Check out this one.)

Don’t get me wrong. I still like watching all of these chefs on TV, where they’re very entertaining. (I also read Bittmann’s columns, but don’t generally get much out of them.) It’s just that their Twitter feeds are disappointing. Maybe it’s just hard to be entertaining in 140 characters.

17 July 2011

Dinner at Wakame, Minneapolis

My wife and I met friends for dinner at Wakame on a hot July evening. They live in the neighborhood and eat there regularly. When they made the reservation, we hoped we could eat outside on the patio. But it was a steamy, muggy evening with temps in the high 80s, so we ate inside.

Before Wakame, this space was a seafood restaurant called Three Fish. We went there with this same couple. (Click here to read my previous review.) It was one of our favorites, and we were disappointed when it closed. We’d always heard good things about Wakame. But since my wife doesn’t like sushi, we hadn’t been there yet. Wakame2

We started by splitting two salads. (Well, actually, we started with drinks. Linda was very excited to see that they have a lychee martini on the menu, and that’s what she ordered. My friend and I had sake, and his wife had a glass of red wine.)

The salads that we split were a spicy crab salad and a seasoned squid salad. Both were very good, though I liked the squid salad best. The crab salad was crab, cucumber, and seaweed. The dressing was a spicy mayo and it was topped with sprinkles of tempura that added a nice crunch. The squid was sliced rings with cucumber dressed with a sesame vinaigrette. Like I said, I liked that the best.

Fortunately for Linda, Wakame has a diverse menu with lots of alternatives to sushi. She had the apple teriyaki sea bass, and really loved it. It was a nice size piece of fish cooked expertly. She didn’t want the rice or mashed potatoes that normally come with the fish. She asked for extra vegetables instead. She got a very generous portion of mushrooms and zucchini. I tasted her meal, and it was great. (A very worthy substitute for Three Fish.)Wakame1

I like sushi. But I’m not a sushi connoisseur, so I let our friends do the ordering. We got three rolls and three orders of nigiri and an order of a scallop sushi.

So I know this is terrible for me to admit it, but since I didn’t order the rolls, I absolutely don’t know which ones they were. You can see them in the photo. They all were very good. But sorry, I don’t know what they are.

For the nigiri, we had two orders of yellowtail and one tuna. Since nigiri is such a straightforward, simple item, whether you like it or not depends on the quality and freshness of the fish. (I guess the same is really true for a roll. It’s just that since there are other ingredients, the fish is less predominant. However, if the fish in a roll is slightly off, the other ingredients won’t overshadow, and you’ll know it.) Anyway, the nigiri at Wakame was very good. I think I liked the tuna better than the yellowtail.

The scallop sushi was ok, but nothing special. Wakame3

We did order dessert. We ordered lemon cake, which was light and very flavorful. Just as we were finishing that, the owner sent over a pineapple dessert. (It’s nice to know that they take care of regulars at Wakame.) The pineapple, strawberries, and sectioned orange on the plate were beautifully presented, and how can you go wrong with good fresh fruit.

Our friends told us that Wakame has a great happy hour. We all thought it would be fun to meet there some evening when we could sit on the patio and have drinks and appetizers.

20 June 2011

Return visit to Siroc, DC

I’ve had a lot of travel during the first couple weeks of June. Good for experiences to report on Krik’s Picks. Bad for having time to actually write anything. So be patient. There’s some good stuff coming.

But here’s a quick review of Siroc in Washington, DC. I was here a year ago with a large group. We had a fantastic experience, andSiroc2011 I swore I’d be back. (Click here for last year’s review.)

The second visit was as impressive as the first time. Same cordial, accommodating service. Really excellent food and wine. Comfortable ambiance.

As I reread my review from last year, I didn’t write very much about the actual food we ate. Last year, I (and several others) had the ossobuco. I love ossobuco. I thought about ordering it again. It was fantastic. But, I decided I had to try something different. So I ordered agnolotti filled with braised short rib and roasted potato. The fork-tender meat was shredded and stuffed into a beautiful pasta moon. For my starter, I had a frisee salad with shaved fennel. The salad has dollops of goat cheese and tiny pieces of chopped pistachios. The dressing was a basil-grapefruit vinaigrette. Excellent.

Siroc has a nice variety of pastas on its menu. They offer half orders as a ‘secondi’ or you can order two half-orders if you want a variety of pasta. One of our group on this visit chose to do that. The other diner had one of the evening specials, a beautifully prepared serving of black bass.

So it was a wonderful return visit that confirmed my view that this is one of the best Italian restaurants in DC.

30 May 2011

Group dinner at Bacio, Minnetonka, MN

My wife and I spent a very enjoyable evening with friends at Bacio in Minnetonka. There were 12 of us. On a Saturday night, a group that large can be difficult. But Bacio handled our group with grace and efficiency. The service was friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive. Bacio2

Someone who organized the group suggested that we bring bottles of wine from our personal stash. Four of us did. I was impressed that our server was familiar with the wines that we brought, even though they weren’t from the restaurant’s list. As it was, we still ended up ordering two more bottles from their list.

We started with a round of appetizers – 6 or 7 from the menu which we shared around the table. My wife and I split a Brasiliana salad. We both were very pleased. It was an ample, creative mixture of celery, hearts of palm, lettuce, avocado with a lemon vinaigrette.

For dinner, I had a half order of lamb meatballs from the pasta section of the menu. I thought they were very good. They were served with a pasta called garganelli. The sauce was a mint pesto with pine nuts and raisins.

My wife ordered halibut, served with farro, spinach, lump crab, and saffron-tomato broth. She liked it but thought it was a little bland.

It seemed like everyone else enjoyedBacio1 their meals as well. I tasted a bite of a friend’s walleye entrée. I thought it was good, but I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of walleye. His wife had the Ahi tuna. Check the photo. It looked fabulous.

The ambiance at Bacio is very comfortable. The space is beautifully designed, with tall ceilings and hanging arches. It does convey a rustic Mediterranean feel. We’ve been there before with smaller groups and I’ve liked it each time. I definitely would recommend it.

28 May 2011

Linda’s Hanukkah menu, Part I

For the past several years, I’ve given my wife a present of preparing dinner for a week. She likes because it’s a whole week when she doesn’t have to worry about whipping together a dinner after her piano students leave. I have fun doing it because it gives me a chance to try a bunch of different things.

When I first started giving this present, I used to organize it by day and give her two or three options for each day. But one year, she said she’d prefer to just mix and match recipes. So since then, I find two or three recipes and organize them into related categories. So, for example, here are the categories for her 2010 present:

Here’s the Beef (beef recipes)IMG_4648

Duck, Duck, Gray Duck (duck recipes)

Salads & Something (3 different dinner salads)

3 Ways with Fennel (3 recipes featuring fennel)

Vegetarian (just what it says)

Cluck Cluck (chicken recipes)

Something’s Fishy (fish recipes, duh)

Also, when I started, I used to go to a wide variety of sources for recipe ideas. (One year I did all celebrity chef recipes from Food TV.) But for the last couple years, I’ve gone to picking recipes from Bon Appetit. And, I’ve branded the list with my blog name. So the present is “Krik’s Picks Recipes, The Best of Bon Appetit 2010.”

The only problem is finding a whole week when I’m not traveling or we don’t have other things planned during the week. So lots of times, I end up delivering the present in the spring. That’s what happened this year. It got to be May and I still hadn’t delivered the present.

So in mid-May, I took a week off to plant my garden and do some cooking. Trouble was, we still didn’t have 7 days in a row. So I’m doing it in two installments. This is Part I, three recipes that I made that week. I’ll do Part II in September when her lessons start back up again.

For Part I, Linda picked these three recipes:

Rib Eye Steak with Tomato-Caper Relish from Bon Appetit, August 2010, p. 77. This was our favorite (pictured above). We substituted New York strip steaks instead of rib eye.

Dilled White Bean & Grape Tomato Salad from Bon Appetit, June 2010, p. 86. Linda liked it, but I was kind of disappointed. I thought it was a little bland. The picture is beautiful. In fact, looking at it again as I write this post made me think that maybe adding some capers or kalamata olives would perk it up a little. Also, I never use canned beans, as the recipe calls for. I soaked dried beans and cooked them up.

Rosemary & Lemon Grilled Chicken Breast from Bon Appetit, July 2010, p. 50. If you look at the recipe, you’ll see that the original called for turkey cutlets. We substituted bone-in, skin-on chicken legs and thighs. This was a very tasty recipe and very easy to make.

Watch for Part II later this year.

18 May 2011

Disappointing return to Nick & Eddie’s, Mpls.

We probably should have just left.

When we showed up at Nick & Eddie’s for our 8 p.m. reservation on a Saturday night, the host apologized and said our table wasn’t ready. There were some large groups that were not clearing as quickly as they anticipated. He offered us a complementary cocktail. So that helped.

While the host was cordial and accommodating, the bartender was strangely surly. That should have been our first clue.

The wait wasn’t really that long, maybe 20 minutes. We were offered a booth by the window in the bar. My wife really would have preferred to be in the dining room. But we took it.

A server swished by and dropped off a menu. We didn’t see him again for 20 minutes. The combination of inattentive service and a crush of people around the bar lead us to ask if we could be reseated in the dining room. The host (still trying to be accommodating) found us a table – in the back near the restroom and the back door. Now, instead of having a crowd hovering over our table, we felt like we were outcasts.

A new server greeted us and we ordered an appetizer. But while we were sitting there, feeling forlorn and disconnected from the rest of the crowd, we decided we just didn’t want to eat back there. My wife went back to the host who offered us our booth in the bar. This is where we should have left. Instead, we took it.

We didn’t want the same neglectful server from earlier. Our new server said that she’d take care of us. She did, and she was ok. But we still were frustrated by frightfully slow service.

Our appetizer arrived – fried pirogis. We decided to place our dinner order. Great, except … our server regretfully informed us that were were out of a few things. That turned out to be nearly half of the dinner items. Basically, the only dinner items available were chicken dishes. My wife really wanted a burger, and they weren’t out of that. I ended up ordering a Caesar salad and an appetizer-size pizza.

It took a long time for our meals to come out. But when they did arrive, the food really was pretty good. My wife really liked her burger. I thought the dressing on the Caesar had too much anchovy. (I like anchovies on my Caesar. But this dressing had an overpowering anchovy flavor.) But my pizza was very unusual. It had smoked mozzarella cheese and nice slices of ripe tomato. The cheese and tomato were over a layer of tapenade. Very unusual and very tasty.

Our first visit to Nick & Eddie’s was shortly after it opened. It was pretty good. I gave it a favorable review (click here to read it). But I can’t recommend it after this Saturday’s experience.

16 May 2011

The Best Lunch Deal in Edina: Raku

I have to admit that sometimes when you discover a fantastic restaurant deal, you worry that when the word gets out, the crowds will come and spoil it. In this case, however, I’m worried that if more people don’t find out about the fantastic lunch deal at Raku, the restaurant won’t be able to survive and we’ll all lose out.

My wife and I have been to Raku before for dinner.(Click here for that review.) It was on a Saturday night. We liked the décor, the ambiance, the bar, and the food. But the service wasn’t so great, and that kind of spoiled it for us. Still, we looked at the lunch menu, and it looked so promising, we decided we would give it a try.

When we showed up a little before noon on a Monday, there were only three other tables being served. Our server greeted us and gave us our menus. Raku offers three lunch specials. The main lunch special is $16. You get a soup or a salad, and appetizer (like a sushi roll or egg roll), and an entrée. My wife was pretty sure that’s what she wanted when I pointed out the bento box special – $10. She’s not a big eater, so that sounded good to her.RakuLunch2

To start, before the bento box even arrived, she was served a cup of soup and a small salad. When the server brought the bento box, we both looked at and said, “This can’t be only $10!” He assured us that it was. The menu says that the box comes with a California roll and three pieces of ‘shumai.’ We didn’t know what shumai was, so we assumed it was the entrée portion of the box. Well, the shumai were three little shrimp dumplings, comparable to dim sum. So in addition to that, there was an ample serving of the entrée; my wife chose shrimp tempura. Besides the shrimp, there were tender pieces of vegetables, including broccoli, sweet potato, squash, and zucchini. (Take a look at the photo. You’ll see what I mean.)

I was tempted by the bento. But I had to go for the sushi special, three rolls for $12. I also received a cup of soup to start. The menu gives the diner a choice of more than a dozen different rolls. I opted for a yellowtail roll, a spicy crunchy salmon roll, and an eel cucumber roll. I loved them all. RakuLunch1

No problem this time with disappointing service. Our server was friendly without being overly familiar. Attentive without hovering. He was knowledgeable and gave us good advice. Of course, there were so few other diners in the restaurant he had plenty of time to give us personal service.

So we’ve been telling everyone we know: EAT AT RAKU. We told our kids. (Hidden agenda – we’ll babysit the grandkids while they have lunch.) I posted a picture of Linda’s bento box on Facebook. And I gave it a 5-star rating on Yelp. (I’ll ‘tweet’ this review after it’s posted.)

It’s gotta be the best lunch deal in Edina.

14 May 2011

Mother’s Day Menu

We’re so lucky that both of our kids live in Minneapolis and so we can see them for family-oriented holidays. So with Mother’s Day coming up, my son and son-in-law and I decided to prepare a dinner for our wives and the mothers of our children. My wife, being at least nominally the ‘grande dame’ of the family said she was in the mood for Mexican. My daughter and daughter-in-law thought that sounded good. So I went to work to find a creative menu to serve on Sunday night.

Here’s what we came up with:2037

Guacamole & tortilla chips

Shrimp Mango Tacos

Cabbage Radish Slaw

Rotini Salad with Chives

For the guacamole, we stuck with a pretty standard combination. But we did innovate a little by adding a quarter cup of pomegranate seeds. They added a sweet, juicy character to the smooth, rich avocado.

I got the pomegranate seeds at Trader Joe’s. While I was there, I decided to check out their shrimp. As I was perusing their selection of frozen seafood, I saw a very intriguing item – frozen, cooked chucks of langostino tails. “Lobster flavor for the price of shrimp” the package bragged. I was intrigued, so I bought them and substituted them in the shrimp mango tacos. 2038

Well, needless to say, this was the most unique part of the menu. My son-in-law, who’s a chef at Pairings, was fascinated by the langostino tails. I think he’s going to look into integrating them into some future dish at the restaurant. My wife and I remembered having langostinos on paella when we were in Spain. The flavor was good, maybe not quite the same as lobster. And the price was slightly higher than shrimp. But it was worth it.

The taco recipe was from the New York Times. So was the cabbage and radish slaw. But I was very disappointed by the slaw. I thought it was dry and lacked flavor. I’ve already deleted that recipe.2039

The pasta salad is from Rick Bayless. His web site has a number of intriguing recipes. When my daughter and her husband lived in Chicago, we took them to one of Bayless’s restaurants – Topolobampo. Very good. I picked this recipe because I’ve already got a lot of vigorous growth on my chive plants. When I minced them for the salad, the scent of the fresh chives literally filled the kitchen. I thought this was a great recipe, and since it didn’t call for any fancy ingredients, it could be whipped up almost at any time.

So it was great having the whole family over and a lot of fun. This was a nice casual menu that the guys could prepare together without a lot of hassle.

11 May 2011

Light dinner at Moto-I, Minneapolis

The first time my wife and I went to moto-i in Minneapolis was about a year and a half ago. We had an enjoyable experience on their rooftop patio. moto-i is located at Lyndale and Lake St., right across from It’s Greek to Me. When we checked for a table at Greek, we were told it would be a half hour wait. We decided to check out moto-i while we waited for our table. It was a warm summer night. We watched the passers-by on Lyndale below us and enjoyed a couple of innovative cocktails.

moto-i is a sake brewery restaurant – like a brew pub, only they make sake instead of beer. Our cocktails were creative concoctions featuring sake creatively combined with gin, vodka, and other beverages. My wife particularly liked hers which featured a lychee nut; first time she’d ever had one. We scanned the menu and agreed that it would be worth coming back for a meal sometime.

Fast forward now to the first Saturday in May. Our son was having a pottery sale at his studio. He and the other artists always have a spread of snacks at their sales, so we knew we’d be nibbling before going out for dinner. Since moto-i is only two blocks from his studio, it was an easy decision to give it a try. A couple of other friends said they’d meet us there.

Much to our chagrin, the cocktails this time were nothing special. My wife was quite disappointed that she couldn’t find the same one that she’d enjoyed so much before. I ordered a cucumber martini. It was good, but like I said, nothing special. The saki-tini that we had in January at Raku in Edina was much better.

On the other hand, the food at moto-i did a much better job of living up to expectations. My wife ordered fried tofu lettuce wrap. She was very pleased with it – good flavors, nicely prepared and presented, not greasy. One of our friends got one order of corn and shrimp fritters from the starter menu and a vegetable dumpling. I thought the fritters had very appealing textures, with the kernels of corn in the batter. The vegetable dumpling also was very tasty.

Our other friend ordered Asian country ribs from the ‘Big Boy’ section of the menu (full meal plates). He said it was excellent. The ribs were meaty and the barbecue sauce very tasty. It came with rice and a cabbage salad. It also had several small hot peppers that he gave to me. My meal was ‘drunken noodles’ from the ‘rice, noodles, soup’ section of the menu. It was a good-sized bowl of noodles with chicken, red peppers, red onions, Thai chilies and lime. I ordered it because the server said it was spicy. It wasn’t. But I added some of my friend’s hot peppers from his ribs. That spiced it up very nicely.

The atmosphere in moto-i is very ‘young’ and a bit loud. We thought it was too dark, and it was difficult to read the menu. The service was not great – fairly perfunctory and somewhat neglectful.

Still, my wife and I agreed that we’ll go back again. But I think we’ll try to do it when the rooftop patio is open and we can enjoy the fresh air and the view.

23 April 2011

Cuba Libre, DC, saves the day!

My first experience at Cuba Libre was a lunch with a coworker early in 2011. I gave it 3 stars on my Yelp review and commented that I'd like to return with a big group sometime.

I had the opportunity to do that in early April. I brought a group of 11 people. I had made a reservation just a few days before. When I arrived and checked in at the hostess stand, I heard the words that every diner dreads, "I'm sorry sir. We don't have a reservation for you."

Aha! I whipped out my iPhone, pulled up the e-mail confirming the reservation and showed it smugly to the hostess.

"Sir," came the reply. "This reservation is for tomorrow night." Doh! How in the world would I find another restaurant that could accommodate 11 people at 8 PM without a reservation?

The sympathetic hostess said, "Hold on a minute. Let me see what we can do."

Well, it took 20 minutes, but somehow, she was able to put together a table for 11 people. I would have upgraded my Yelp review to 5 stars based on customer service alone. But the appreciative comments I got from my guests about the food and the ambiance just added to my opinion of the place.

We did as I suggested in my earlier review. We started with a round of drinks and several appetizers to share. I had a caipirinha that was very good. (Helped to relax me from the tension of almost not getting a table.) We ordered a flight of all five ceviches that were on the menu that night. We also ordered a selection of four empanadas and a couple orders of the guacamole. As with my lunch experience, the ceviches were great. The guacamole also was very good, but kind of a small serving. We should have ordered more; I don’t think everyone got a taste. The empanadas were good, but I prefer baked empanadas. (These were fried.)

After the appetizers, some people ordered dinners and others ordered more small plates. I had a small plate order of boquerones – white anchovies served with grape tomatoes, cucumber, and an olive ‘salpicon’ (which was pretty much a black olive tapenade). I do like anchovies, and this was a very creative dish. However, it wasn’t very filling, and I probably would order it again as an appetizer rather than an light entrée.

Thank you Cuba Libre for saving the night for me and my group.

20 April 2011

A Tale of 2 Pubs: Cooper & Merlins

I like pubs. Or at least, I like the U.S. version of pubs, and I like the idea of a pub. I was in a London pub once, about 30 years ago. But that’s hardly the basis for having a strong opinion. Most of my attitude about pubs is from dining in them here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

In the past month, my wife and I have enjoyed two west-of-the-river pubs. That is to say, they were not in St. Paul. But they weren’t strictly in Minneapolis. The first pub in this post is The Cooper in the West End shops in St. Louis Park. Our most recent visit was our second. We liked our first experience so much that we agreed that we would be back. This was it.Pub2

The Cooper is big and new and bold and classy. It’s a raucous, rambunctious, noisy, busy scene. The food is tasty and there is plenty of authentic pub fare on the menu – fish & chips, shepherd’s pie, corned beef & cabbage, sandwiches. The drinks are also good. They have a great selection of beer and ale on tap (including Guinness), some interesting cocktails, and, of course, a great selection of Irish whiskeys.

On our first visit, we ordered off the bar menu. My wife had a Reuben sandwich; I had fish & chips. Like I said, we liked our meals quite a lot and we agreed that we would be back. On our most recent visit, my wife had a burger and I had steak & mushroom pie. I loved mine. My wife said her burger was good but nothing special. She wished she’d ordered another Reuben.

Back to the Cooper in a minute. But now for a word about Merlin’s Rest Pub in south Minneapolis on East Lake Street. I’d never heard of Merlin’s before. But this winter, we were looking for a place to go for a bite to eat and to hear some music, and I found Merlin’s using a Google search. That evening, we decided to stay closer to home. But we didn’t forget about it.

A week ago, we were invited to celebrate Record Store Day at Hymie’s Vintage Records on East lake St. Our son’s good friend from high school owns the shop with his wife. They organized a series of live bands and our son set up a booth to sell his pottery. Didn’t have to ask us twice – we were there. And since Merlin’s was just two blocks away from Hymie’s, it was a logical venue for dinner, drinks, and music to end the evening. Pub3

Merlin’s is gritty, funky, and eclectic. It too is raucous, rambunctious, noisy, and busy. We didn’t make a reservation (dummies). But when we arrived and asked for a table for 7 (including my two little grandchildren), it only took them a few minutes to get us set up, even though the place looked pretty full.

Merlin’s menu features an appetizing selection of classic pub food – fish & chips, bangers & mash, Cornish pasty, Highland steak pie, as well as burgers and sandwiches. All of the guys at our table ordered fish & chips. Very good. My wife ordered the Reuben; it wasn’t grilled. Afterwards, she said she wished she’d ordered a burger.

Now for the comparisons – start with the whiskey.

While we were waiting for our table at Merlin’s, I flagged down one of the staff and asked about their selection of Irish whiskey. Turns out, I think he was the proprietor. I told him what kind of whiskey we drink regularly, and he made two recommendations. First we had a round of Danny Boy whiskey. It was good, but not really distinctive from Bushmills. Then later we had a second round and ordered his second recommendation – Irish Manor (doesn’t seem to have a web site). I liked this one better. On our first visit to the Cooper, I ordered Bushmills. But in the meantime, I read that the proprietor had acquired a house brand of Irish called 2 Gingers. So on the second visit, I ordered that. It might be a good whiskey to use in a cocktail. But straight up and unadorned, it’s not very distinctive.

The ambiance at Cooper is definitely upscale. It’s filled with West End shoppers and theater-goers. Merlin’s is much more of a neighborhood place. The patrons were an interesting mix of young and old, artists, musicians, workers, bikers … you get the picture.

Merlin’s has music. The Cooper doesn’t. The house band at Merlin’s is Papa John Kolstad and the Hot Club. (That’s Papa John in the photo above with my wife and son.) We were told that he owns the building, and that he also owns the building where Hymie’s is located. H-m-m.

According to Merlin’s web site, it was just named the ‘Best Neighborhood Pub in Minneapolis.’ But the fact is that the Cooper is much closer to home. So in the future, we’ll probably end up at the Cooper more often than Merlin’s. I say that with a certain amount of regret.

10 April 2011

Late night grilled cheese sandwich

I wouldn’t normally write about eating in a hotel lobby bar. But then I learned from Land O’Lakes Facebook page that April is ‘Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month.’ I so I decided to write this brief post about my most recent grilled cheese sandwich.

On a recent trip to DC, I had one of those annoying, frustrating, delay-plagued flights that resulted in me arriving in DC quite a bit later than I had planned. On top of it, my hotel wasn’t particularly close to any restaurants, and the weather was threatening rain. So I decided to stay in the hotel and just eat something light.

L’Enfant Plaza Hotel has a brew pub in the lobby. I’ve stayed at the hotel a few times, and I’ve had lunch in it’s restaurant, simply called The Grill. But I’d never eaten in the pub.

As I looked at the menu, I thought about having fish and chips. Then I saw that they had roasted tomato soup. I thought that sounded good, and what better to go with it than a grilled cheese sandwich. They didn’t have one on the menu. But I asked my server if the chef would make me one. “Of course,” he replied.

Well, the soup was good, as I expected it would be. But the sandwich was a real delight. It was made from two thick slices of a good substantial bread. The cheese was a very flavorful cheddar. And the sandwich also had thick slices of ripe Roma tomatoes. It was grilled toasty brown so that the cheese was soft and melted.

It tasted great, just what I wanted. It just goes to show that it pays to ask.

02 April 2011

Lunch at Barrio Lowertown, St. Paul, MN

“Wow!”

That was the involuntary exclamation of a colleague after taking a bite of a grilled skirt steak taco at Barrio Lowertown.

“Whoa,” I said. “That must be one heckuva taco.” I think I must have made him self conscious, because he immediately down-played it.BarrioSP2

“No, no,” he said, “The pork carnitas taco was good too.” He’d already eaten half of that before taking a bite of the beef taco. I’ll take him at his word, that he couldn’t really say which taco was better. But I’ll stand by my journalistic standards that it was the beef taco that evoked a verbal response.

That little vignette capsulizes my enthusiasm for Barrio. The lunch that my co-worker and I had with our colleague was absolutely a culinary delight.

The ironic aspect for me is that I thought I’d never eat at the St. Paul incarnation of Barrio. I mean … why? Cucina del Barrio is right in my neighborhood. And for a sense of the original tequila bar ambiance, it’s much closer to head downtown Minneapolis than trek half way to Wisconsin for the Lowertown joint. But when my co-worker and I talked about where to have a lunch meeting in downtown St. Paul, Barrio just seemed like the logical choice.BarrioSP1

The place wasn’t very busy at noon on a Monday. I hope that’s not a bad sign. We had our choice of tables, and chose a high-top by the window overlooking Mears Park. Our server told us that when the weather gets nice, the windows open up and they set up tables on the sidewalk for a genuine al fresco dining experience.

While I’m on the topic of service, we had fabulous servers … two of them. They were friendly, accommodating, and prompt. I suppose that had something to do with the fact that the place was not busy. Still, they could have been bored and inattentive. Somehow, I don’t think either of them would be that way.

While our colleague’s steak taco earned the most verbal display of appreciation, the rest of the food was outstanding as well. My co-worker had a grilled steak salad. It had tomato wedges, tortilla strips instead of croutons, a generous serving of steak, and avocados with a chipotle-mango vinaigrette. I didn’t taste it, but it looked fabulous.BarrioSP3

My co-worker and I also split a bowl of corn chowder. It was rich and creamy with queso fresco cheese, fresh kernels of corn and roasted poblano peppers. It was drizzled with infused oil. Delicious.

I ordered mushroom quesadillas. On the plate were four quesadillas filled with an earthy mushroom filling, grilled and then served with cheese sauce, shredded romaine, radishes sliced paper thin, and jalapeno slices.

The food was fantastic, and it reminded me why I am such a fan of Barrio’s multiple incarnations.

22 March 2011

Dinner with friends at El Meson, Minneapolis

Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge.

We had a coupon lying around for El Meson – $10 off. “Wanna go this Saturday?” I asked my wife. “I don’t think the coupon is good on Saturday night,” she replied. But the idea had started to percolate, and the next evening she suggested I get a reservation.

The thing is, we don’t really need a coupon to want to go to El Meson. It is one of our reliably good restaurants that we willingly return to. We have been there often. I can’t believe that I haven’t written about it on Krik’s Picks.

I have, however, written about El Meson’s sister restaurant, Café Ena. Like sisters, there are certain family resemblances. Both feature Latin cuisine. Ena is more South American. They call it Latin fusion – Peru, Argentina, Brazil. El Meson is more Spanish and Caribbean. Both feature a lot of fish and seafood, fresh ingredients, and artful preparation.

We were all set, then a couple of our friends called up wanting to know if we had plans for Saturday. We invited them to join us at El Meson. With a slight adjustment to the reservation time, we became a foursome.ElMeson

El Meson lived up to our expectations. The food was fantastic. We started with a couple of small plates to share at the table. Off the tapas menu, we ordered ‘zetas.’ The menu describes these as “roasted baby mushrooms stuffed with gorgonzola, asparagus, roasted red peppers in a yellow tomato sauce.” The pungent gorgonzola cheese made a delightful complement to the earthy mushrooms. And the vegetables and sauce blended the whole dish together nicely. The other starter was ceviche. The menu described El Meson’s ceviche as Caribbean style. It featured shrimp, scallops, calamari, and fish. These are marinated in lime juice with habanero and cilantro. Normally my wife can’t handle cilantro, and she doesn’t like a lot of heat. But this ceviche was nicely balanced so that neither the cilantro nor the habanero caused her any problems.

For entrées our friends decided to split ‘Casarola de Mariscos.’ I’ve had that dish on previous visits. It features fish and seafood in a flavorful saffron sauce. It comes with white rice on the side, perfect for soaking up the sauce. My wife had her favorite – conchas. These are seared scallops served with very creative risotto with coconut, mango, and spinach. It’s all served in a lemon butter sauce and topped with a pineapple salsa.

In my original description, I said that they have a lot of fish and seafood on the menu. But I think for the first time, I ordered beef. My entrée was called ‘Carne a la Brava.’ It consisted of beautiful beef medallions coated in smoked paprika and sautéed to order. (Mine actually was done a little more than I ordered.) The beef comes with Valencia rice and a medley of roasted vegetables including fingerling potatoes, artichoke hearts, and little pieces of chorizo sausage. The sauce on this dish is a tempranillo demi glaze.

One of the things I’ve always liked about El Meson (and Café Ena) is the wine list. All the wines are reasonably priced, and the selection trends heavily toward Spanish and South American wines. We’ve had several that were memorable, including the one we had on Saturday night. It was a blend of syrah and grenache called Mas Donis Barrica from a Spanish winery called Bodega Capcanes. The only frustrating thing about the great wine that they have at El Meson is that I can’t find them for sale in wine shops!

So I’ve pretty much raved about the food and the wine, but there’s one more thing that my wife and I love about El Meson. They have a flamenco dancer and guitar player who perform most Fridays and Saturdays. It adds a little authenticity and flare that makes the evening so enjoyable.

Oh, by the way – that coupon that I mentioned at the beginning? Turns out it was good on Saturday after all. But we didn’t bring it. Oh well. The evening was well worth it.