24 January 2011

Bahamian Beer: Sands or Kalik?

I spent two nights in the Bahamas last week. Believe it or not, it was a business trip. Why I only spent two nights is a long story. But the consequence was, I don’t have anything to post on Krik’s Picks about Bahamian food. All of the meals I had during my stay were buffets for the large group I was with. The food was good, but certainly not a memorable dining experience.

BahamaBeer (768x1024)But I can comment on Bahamian beer. They served Sands beer during the receptions and dinners at the meeting I attended. I thought it was pretty good, and it went well with the food on the buffet.

I also had a Kalik Gold beer at the airport while waiting for the plane to board. I liked the Kalik better than the Sands. It had more body and was more like an amber, which I tend to prefer.

The label on the Kalik was kind of intriguing. (You probably have to click on the photo and enlarge it to see what I’m referring to.) It has a picture of a very colorful Caribbean costume and it says “Junkanoo 2010” on the bottom. I didn’t know what Junkanoo was. The co-workers I was with speculated that maybe it was a kind of carnival celebration, like Mardi Gras.

While I was researching this blog post, I learned that ‘Kalik’ beer got its name from the clanging of the cowbells that are rung during Junkanoo. Junkanoo (I learned from Wikipedia) is observed with costume parades around Christmas and New Years. It has its origins as a slave festival that celebrates freedom from slavery.

Freedom from slavery – that’s a sentiment that I’ll drink to.

21 January 2011

Dinner at Raku, Edina MN

The bitter cold weather we’re having motivated us to find a place to eat on Saturday night relatively close to home. The intersection of 50th and France in Edina (nominally ‘downtown’ Edina) has been attracting a lot of new eateries. That’s our ‘hood so that’s where we decided to go.

We picked Raku, which bills itself as a ‘modern Japanese restaurant.’ I made the reservation through Open Table. For the first time ever, that was a bit of a problem. When we checked in, promptly at 7:30, the hostess didn’t have us on the list. However, she checked a second list and there we were. RakuEdina (1024x765)

The interior of Raku is almost like three different venues. There’s the sushi bar with a row of seats and behind them, a row of booths next to the windows. There’s a bar with several seats in a semi-circle and several tables. And there’s a more formal dining area. We had a short wait, about five minutes, before a table opened up. But it was one of the booths by the sushi bar. That wasn’t the ambiance we wanted, and we weren’t in a rush. So we let someone else take that booth. We headed over to the bar to have a cocktail while we waited for a table in the dining room.

Raku has a very cool list of specialty cocktails. We both ordered a sake-tini. It was made with a muddled slice of cucumber and served with a slice of cucumber as a garnish. The bartender made quite a show of preparing the drink, and he was fun to watch. It took about a half hour for a table to open up. But we enjoyed watching the bartender and chatting with other diners.

(While we were sitting at the bar, a local media celeb came in with a small entourage. She was intrigued by our cocktails, and when we told her how good they were, she also ordered one.)

So far, so good. When we were seated at our table in the dining room, we were confronted with four menus – a cocktail menu like we’d seen at the bar, a list of sake flights, a list of specials, and a regular dinner menu. Here’s where we could have used a helpful server to explain some of the specials and choices. Unfortunately, we didn’t have one.

Our server rushed by just as we were starting to look at the different menus. She wanted to know if we were ready to order. Well, we weren’t. I ordered a flight of sake. Linda continued to sip her cocktail.

Raku has a very diverse menu. They have a wide selection of sushi, sashimi, and rolled items. They also have a nice selection of traditional Japanese dishes. Linda doesn’t like sushi. I do, but consequently, we don’t often eat at sushi restaurants. So I could have used some help and guidance on what to order. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it.

While we were waiting for our table, Linda saw another diner being served a wonderful looking bowl of soup. She spied it on the menu – seafood soup with shrimp, scallops, fish, crab, tofu, and noodles. She also got two pieces of shrimp tempura. (I thought they came with the soup. But the menu online doesn’t show that, so maybe Linda ordered them separately.) She thought it was very good. The shrimp tempura was especially tasty.

There were a couple of items on the nightly special list that looked good. Here’s where some advice from the server would have been helpful. But since she seemed to be too busy to advise me, I ended up order a Raku sushi entrée off the menu. It was the marine sushi with several pieces of sushi and a spicy tuna roll.

I mentioned that I ordered a sake flight. The server brought it after taking our dinner orders. It was three small servings of different kinds of sake. It was really enjoyable sipping them and noting the different flavors in each kind. I shared it with Linda. She normally doesn’t like sake, but she did like sipping these.

My entrée came with a choice of soup or salad. The soup was miso, and I like miso soup. But I decided to have the salad instead. The ginger dressing was very tasty, but overall, the salad was just ok.

So like I said, we weren’t in a rush. I ate my salad. We sipped the sake. But after a while, we realized that it was taking an awfully long time for our food to arrive. Pretty soon, our server rushed over. The sushi chef was backed up on orders. She apologized and brought us a complementary order of edema me. We’re not particularly fond of edema me. But it was a nice gesture.

Finally our food arrived. I’ve already said that Linda liked hers. My sushi was beautiful and very good. I also liked the spicy tuna roll. But it was a huge plate and could easily have been split between two people. I ate it all anyway.

By the time we’d gotten served and finished our meals, it was about 10 p.m. By now, the pace was definitely slowing down, and there were several open tables. But our server was nowhere to be seen. She finally rushed by with our check.

Here’s my bottom line on Raku – great bar, entertaining bartender, comfortable dining room, good food, but unreliable, inattentive, unhelpful service.

Our displeasure with the service notwithstanding, we agreed we’d still come back. Raku has a particularly interesting lunch special – soup or salad, an appetizer, and an entrée for $16. The rest of the lunch menu also looks interesting, including a box lunch (I assume bento box) for $10.

18 January 2011

Disappointing dinner at Zahtar, Minneapolis

We have a couple of friends who we go out with for dinner once in a while. We usually like to try new restaurants. It was my job to pick the location for our January 2011 get-together. I checked my usual sources, focusing on relatively new restaurants in town, and I found Zahtar. The Google search came up with “Zahtar by David Fhima.” That sounded very promising.

David Fhima is a Twin Cities restaurant impresario. One of his first ventures was Mpls. Café. First it was located in the Calhoun Beach Club. Then it moved downtown to 1110 South Hennepin. When that closed, he opened Fhima’s in downtown St. Paul. We only went there a couple of times. The food was great. But many of the dishes were too spicy for my wife. Somewhere along the line, he opened Louis XIII in the Southdale mall in Edina. That restaurant never got much critical acclaim, and we never ate there. Ditto for LoTo (shorthand for ‘lowertown’ St. Paul) and his current project called Faces Mears Park.Zaytar

When we arrived for our reservation, 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, there was only one other table of diners in the restaurant. While that wasn’t a good sign, there were some promising aspects. The décor is very appealing – warm lighting and shear hanging fabric dividers that create a feeling of intimacy in the large attractive space. We had looked at the menu online and saw several items that looked promising as well.

Despite the fact that we were only the second group of diners to arrive, there was no hostess to greet us and show is to our table. Just a sign directing us to check in at the bar. OK.

We were shown to our table and given our menus. We decided to order a bottle of wine. I saw a couple of interesting choices. I asked our server about Rioja Vega. OK. That wasn’t much help. We ordered it anyway, and liked it quite well.

Next we ordered a couple of appetizers to split. One was the fried calamari. They were very good, lightly breaded and very tender – not at all rubbery. They were served with a spicy aioli. The other appetizer was a shrimp tostada. The flavors were good, but it was quite difficult to eat. Also, it was seasoned with cilantro, which my wife cannot eat. But so far, so good.

For entrées, we had quite a selection. One of our friends had braised short ribs. They looked wonderful – very tender and falling off the bone. At the server’s suggestion, I had the salmon. I don’t usually order salmon at a restaurant because we have it often at home. Also, it was served with rice, and that didn’t appeal to me very much. But I asked if it could be served with the mashed potatoes instead, and when she said ‘yes’ I decided to get it. I liked it. The salmon was very fresh and flavorful. It was just a little on the dry side; might have been slightly overcooked. Our other friend ordered a sandwich - Croque Monsieur, basically a fancy ham and cheese sandwich. He said it was good. But I noticed he only ate half and didn’t take the leftovers home.

But the real issue came with my wife’s meal. She decided to have the steak frites. When the server asked how she wanted the steak cooked, my wife said she wanted it pink in the middle. That didn’t seem to track with the server. ‘Medium rare?’ she asked. No, pink in the middle, my wife reiterated. ‘Medium well?’ the server asked. No, that would be overdone. Just pink.

When her steak was served, she cut in and it was cooked all through. There wasn’t more than a hint of pink in the middle. Now the dilemma – send it back or eat an overdone steak? She wouldn’t enjoy an overdone steak. But if she sent it back, she worried that we all would be done eating before her replacement steak arrived. We assured her that we’d eat slow, and the server said it would only take five minutes to get a new steak out. It took more than five minutes, but we fulfilled our pledge and were only about half done with our meals when hers arrived. The new steak was medium rare. But my wife ate off the ends and edges and brought the middle section, which was too rare, home with us. She’ll cook it a little more and eat slices of it for lunch.

The manager apparently detected that we were unhappy. He came over and listened sympathetically. He assured us that we would not be charged for the steak.

We did have a dessert – a piece of carrot cake. I liked it a lot.

Thinking back on the meal, I believe the main problem was the service. Our server was unfamiliar with the wines on the menu and there was apparently a problem communicating my wife’s preference for her steak to the kitchen. That was very disappointing. The manager did what he could to accommodate us. That kept us from getting mad, but we were still disappointed.

At the end of the evening, our friends asked if David Fhima was in the house. No, our server explained. He’s no longer affiliated with the restaurant. So for me, the big question is this: Did Zahtar decline after Fhima left? Or did Zahtar and Fhima part ways because it’s a failed concept?

15 January 2011

Lunch at Cuba Libre, Washington, DC

For my first trip to Washington, DC, in 2011, I offered to take the head of Land O’Lakes DC office (and the only person in that office) out for a New Year’s lunch. She picked Cuba Libre.

She had mentioned it to me once before, and I when I looked it up online, I learned that there are three other restaurants in the group – one in Philadelphia, one in Atlantic City, and one in Orlando. The restaurant is decorated to resemble a Havana street scene. It borders on corny, but I actually thought it was fun.

The menu is very interesting. They list a bunch of ‘piqueo’ – Cuban small plates. They also have an intriguing selection of ceviches. The rest of the lunch menu includes soups, salads, sandwiches, and a handful of entrées, all of which sound very tasty and authentic. (Of course, since I’ve never been to Cuba, I wouldn’t really know if they are authentic.)

Besides the lunch menu, they also have a daily special – Cuban bento box. On our January visit, we both decided to go with the bento, which included a ceviche, a salad, and a small main course. The ceviche was called ‘atun fire and ice’ – citrus-cured tuna served with red onions and jalapeno-ginger-coconut sauce. It was delicious. The salad was called ‘ensalada de pollo rancho luna.’ It consisted of citrus marinated chicken with cabbage, romaine, tomatoes, red onions, and cucumbers topped with crispy wontons. I liked it, but it was my least favorite item in the bento.

The main course was a small serving of ‘vaca frita’ - braised short ribs with grilled red onions and peppers served on a bed of black beans and rice. Both the ceviche and the salad were available on the lunch menu. The short ribs are available as an entrée on the dinner menu.

The bento also came with a small dessert. (Sorry, but I don’t remember what it was. I know it wasn’t apple pie or carrot cake.)

We didn’t have anything to drink at lunch. But the restaurant has a quite an impressive drink menu. They offer several different mojitos, tropical cocktails, cachaça, and pisco as well as sangria and a great selection of bottled beer. In addition, they have a list of 70 different kinds of rum.

I think it would be fun to come here sometime with a group, order a bunch of small plates and ceviches and have drinks.

11 January 2011

Lunch at the St. Paul Grill

A colleague invited me to a New Year’s lunch. We picked the St. Paul Grill. It’s one of my favorite lunch spots, also very popular with Minnesota politicos and St. Paul leaders. SPGrill2

We both started out with a Caesar salad. The salad was very good. The dressing was nice and light, not excessively garlicky. No anchovy, however. It was a very large serving. I ate most of it anyway. But two people could easily split it.

Neither of us charted new territory with our entrées. My friend had the walleye lunch. I’ve had it in the past. It’s lightly breaded and sautéed. The fish comes out very moist and the coating has a nice crunch.

I ordered the pasta Adriatica. The first time I ordered this lunch, I was so impressed that I replicated it at home. It’s really quite simple. The ingredients are pasta, cubes of chicken, tomatoes, spinach, and kalamata olives. At home, I made it vegetarian by substituting mushrooms for the chicken. A nice firm tofu also would make a good substitute. The first time I had this dish, it was made with farfalle. That’s what I used when I made it at home. This time, it was made with penne. I like it better with farfalle.

St. Paul Grill is a great place for a business lunch. The service is great. The ambiance is comfortable. The food is reliably good. I’m not so fond of it for dinner. I’ve only had dinner there once. But at night, it becomes a pretty straight-forward steak place. It’s good, but nothing remarkable.

08 January 2011

Another lunch at Bibiana, Washington, DC

This is the second time I’ve had lunch at Bibiana. I needed to go downtown for a meeting. I had time for lunch. My first time there was such a pleasant experience that I decided to go again. Wow. Am I glad I did!

When I came in at 11:45, I was the first person there. At first I wasn’t even sure if they were open yet. But they were (lunch begins at 11:30). I was seated at a nice table by the window. My server was very friendly and helpful. BibianaRavioli

There were so many tempting items on the menu, I wasn’t sure what to pick. I decided to go with an antipasti and a pasta. For the starter, I asked about the buffalo milk ricotta with honey, black pepper, chives, and almonds. My server suggested instead ‘datteri’ which was roasted dates stuffed with cheese and served with pistachios and pancetta. A great recommendation; I loved it.

For the pasta, I had ‘marubini.’ They were ravioli filled with braised veal and topped with brown butter, pancetta, sage, and shaved parmesan.

My server offered dessert. I declined but ordered an espresso. He brought me a dessert menu anyway, “for the next time you come,” he said. I looked through it. There was a cheesecake with pistachio crust that sounded good. No carrot cake or apple pie, but there is a dessert that they call ‘Torta del Finanziere.’ I guess a finanziere is a small tea cake. Bibiana ’s is a hazelnut cake served with apple butter, roasted lemon salted caramel apple, and apple cider gelato. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

We have some very good Italian restaurants in Minnesota. But I haven’t found one like Bibiana yet. The creativity of the dishes, delicious flavors, and artistic presentation really make me wish we had something like it here.

I will go there for dinner sometime. Stay tuned.

03 January 2011

A plug for Pairings, Minnetonka

Regular readers of Krik’s Picks probably picked up on the fact that my daughter and her family moved to Minnesota during 2010. Yea!!

My son-in-law is in the restaurant business. I’ve written about him previously and mentioned a couple of his past restaurants when they lived in Chicago – foodlife and BenjYehuda. For my first post in 2011, I decided to give a plug to his new restaurant.

When they moved here, he got a job as kitchen manager and sous chef at Pairings in Minnetonka. The concept behind Pairings it to combine a wine market with a food market. When you walk in, the wine shop is to the right. The restaurant is to the left. You can pick up a bottle of wine and bring it into the restaurant. They’ll open it for you with no corkage fee.

We’ve had dinner at Pairings several times. We even took Tovah and Peter there before they moved here. The food is very good, and there’s a lot of variety in the offerings. They have everything from pizzas to salads to pastas to entrées. You can eat in or take out. Pairings_1024

The photo is from a visit in October, after Peter has been working there for about a month. We were there again in December. My son picked Pairings for his birthday dinner. He picked a night when Peter wasn’t working, so he actually got to sit with us and enjoy the fare.

Like I said, all of the food is good. But there are a few standouts. I think the pizzas are particularly noteworthy. The duck confit pizza is particularly good. We usually get one of those. For my son’s birthday, we also got a mushroom pizza that was very good. They also have a ‘pizza bar’ (for lack of a better description). You can pick your own favorites from a selection of 16 toppings.

The pastas are very good, and they have a selection of nearly a dozen sandwiches, including wraps and paninis. In addition, each night they offer a few entrées. Some of the entrées change seasonally. I’ve had a braised lamb shank that was very good, and my daughter had the salmon which she liked.

Pairings does have a few breakfast items on the menu, and they have a Sunday brunch menu. I’m a breakfast fan, but they don’t open until 10 a.m. so I’ve never had breakfast there. That might be ok for Sunday brunch. But 10 a.m. doesn’t usually work for breakfast on a work day for me.

So I recommend Pairings for a nice variety of offerings, excellently prepared, and if you’re so inclined, you can enjoy them with a nice bottle of wine from the next door wine shop.