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.

15 March 2011

Happy St. Urho’s Day

When I first started working for Midland Cooperatives, we sold groceries to many independent food co-ops on Minnesota’s Iron Range. A lot of those co-ops were founded by Finnish immigrants. (Part of the lore of the co-op paper was that during a period of labor unrest on the Iron Range, 1930s if I recall, communist activists tried to take over the paper, presumably to use it for propaganda. Gus Hall, who was the leader of the Communist Party of the USA was born on the Iron Range. I never met him, but his name was occasionally invoked with awe and a little fear.)

One of the fortunate coincidences of my name is that it sort of resembles a Finnish name. Just throw in a few extra ‘k’s and ‘i’s, and and I could pass for a Finn. When I did interviews for the paper, I was sort of accepted as ‘one of their own.’ And when they found out I wasn’t really Finnish (I never tried to pretend), they never held it against me.photo

It was in that context that I came to learn about St. Urho (he has a Facebook page, you know) and St. Urho’s Day, celebrated on March 16. According to the legend, St. Urho saved the people’s vineyards by banishing the grasshoppers from Finland. "Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen!" he commanded. The day was commemorated by wearing purple (color of wine, I suppose).

Now some cynics claimed that St. Urho was invented by Finns in order to preempt the celebration of St. Patrick’s day on March 17. For my part, I had a purple tie that I used to wear on St. Urho’s Day.

Actually, I still have the tie, though I don’t wear it anymore.

14 March 2011

Birthday party at Sushi Tango, Mpls.

Until last weekend, I’d never been to Sushi Tango. Can’t really say that I had any desire to go. But my sister-in-law decided to have her (can’t really say which one) birthday dinner there with a group of friends, that provided the impetus to go.

Several people in the group knew about Krik’s Picks. “Are you going to blog about this dinner?” they wondered. With that kind of a build-up, how could I decline?

I can say many nice things about Sushi Tango. But in some ways, it also was disappointing. I guess my summary conclusion it this: It was a nice place for a birthday dinner. We had a lot of fun. But I probably wouldn’t go back.SushiTango4

For this birthday dinner, the guest of honor chose a hibachi table. Good decision. It was very conducive to conversation around the griddle, and we had a lot of room to get up and walk around and socialize. On the other hand, our chef was a dud. Granted, we were not an easy crowd. But part of the job is to be entertaining. He couldn’t keep peoples’ attention.

Also, he hadn’t mastered some of the tricks. His onion ring volcano was pretty impressive. But there’s the trick while he’s preparing the fried rice. He started by cooking the eggs. Then before mixing it together with the rice and vegetables, the chef demonstrates his prowess by flicking pieces of cooked egg into the mouths of the guests. Our guy kept missing. He also was a bit clumsy. He knocked over a glass of water. SushiTango2

So far, the rating is ambiance = good, entertainment = ‘meh.’ But what really counts is the food (and drinks). Once again my review is mixed. My wife and I had Asian-inspired martinis. Hers was a lychee martini that was quite good. Mine was a cucumber martini that was just so-so. They also have a nice selection of beer. We ordered several appetizers to share. I thought these were consistently good. I liked the kimchee, but I’m not an expert by any means. There was a good tofu appetizer that got passed around. My favorite was something called ‘tataki’ which was paper-thin slices of tuna seasoned with ginger, garlic, herbs and a sauce. They also ordered edamame – not my favorite. For me, the apps and drinks were the highlight.

I would say that the rest of the dinner, cooked on the griddle, was excessively salted. My wife and I split something called the Uptown Special – shrimp, scallops, and calamari. It was good, but certainly nothing special. Around the table, a few people had chicken, but I didn’t taste any. Probably the entrée that was the most impressive was the seared tuna steak. These were SushiTango1beautiful, thick pieces of ruby red tuna. The chef seared each side and then let them simmer briefly while he cut tender slices. By now, many of the diners were getting full. So even though my wife and I were done with our seafood, I was able to score a piece of the tuna. It was good.

At the end, they brought out a birthday dessert. Nice touch. Throughout, the service was friendly enough and reasonably prompt, so no complaints about that. But I guess I just wasn’t impressed enough to want to come back.

10 March 2011

Oatmeal–The on-going debate

Toward the end of February, there was a lot of internet chatter about oatmeal. Mark Bittman posted an Opinionator column slamming McDonald’s essentially for ruining an otherwise healthy menu item. He also posted a link on Twitter to a Slate article rating various fast food oatmeal servings.

This all caught my attention for two reasons. First, I have happy memories of making oatmeal for my kids when they were little. Second, I’ve been eating oatmeal more regularly, lately. Oatmeal

I haven’t eaten oatmeal at McDonald’s, and I’m not likely to in any case. But I do order oatmeal sometimes at Starbucks and Caribou. And I regularly have oatmeal at the company cafeteria.

Bittman’s complaint about the McDonald’s oatmeal boils down to this: they take a simple basic food and make it into junk food with a bunch of sugary additions and additives for who-knows-what purpose. OK. That’s basically why I don’t eat at McDonald’s anyway. But his article was basically just a rant against McDonald’s.

I liked the Slate article. They, at least, established some criteria for evaluating the oatmeal at McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Au Bon Pain. But one of the things I was frustrated with was the lack of nutritional analysis. I mean, here’s what it boils down to for me. Why would you order oatmeal instead of a donut, a Pop-Tart, or a breakfast sandwich? Basically because you’re willing to give up a flavor jolt in favor of greater nutrition.

(In his Opinionator rant, Bittman observes that the McDonald’s version of oatmeal actually has only 10 fewer calories than a cheeseburger or an Egg McMuffin. Good point. But sort of a narrow comparison. Bottled water has fewer calories than milk. Which has more nutrition, however?

So here’s my addition to the discussion. I looked up the nutritional analysis of the versions of oatmeal served at each of the venues in the Slate article. Since I’ve been eating Caribou’s oatmeal, I added that as well.

McDonald’s: Slate ranked it at the bottom of its taste and aesthetic scale. They basically said that someone might come in thinking they’d eat a healthy serving of oatmeal, but when confronted with the reality of a bowl of gray, lumpy mush, would opt for a breakfast sandwich instead. (Sort of Bittman’s argument as well.) Nutrition stats (from McDonald’s web site): Serving size = 250 grams. Calories = 290 (with brown sugar). Fat = 4.5 grams. Sodium = 160 mg. Fiber = 5 grams. Price = $1.99.

Au Bon Pain: Slate ranked this one in the middle. They liked that it’s prepared in large batches and ‘ladled from a big, communal pot.’ I’ve never had oatmeal at Au Bon Pain. So I can’t argue with their assessment from personal experience. But when I read their ratings, it seemed like maybe ABP’s oatmeal got unfairly marked down by some judges because it was bland. (WTF – that’s oatmeal.) Nutrition stats for apple cinnamon oatmeal from ABP web site: Serving size (small) = 227 grams. Calories = 190. Fat = 3 grams. Sodium = 5 mg. Fiber = 25 grams. Price = (No data).

Starbucks: This one won the Slate rankings. But as I read the reviews, I can’t honestly say why. It’s an individually prepared, instant mix. I’ve had Starbucks oatmeal and liked it ok. Nutrition stats = Calories = 290 (with brown sugar and dried fruit). Fat = 2.5 grams. Sodium = 105 mg. Fiber = 6 grams.

Caribou: Slate didn’t rate Caribou. (Too Midwestern?) But I have Caribou oatmeal fairly regularly. So I decided to include it in this review. I don’t know if it’s instant or prepared to order; I think it might be instant. But I’ve found it to be reliably good and not excessively gummy. Nutrition stats: Serving size = 215 grams. Calories = 280. Fat = 4.5 grams. Sodium = 170 mg. Fiber = 7 grams.

Now one of the points that Bittman was trying to make is that oatmeal is a very simple, basic food. He was objecting to how fast food companies turn it into ‘junk’ with all kinds of additives. So perhaps the best way to compare is to go to the source and see what the nutritional rating is for regular Quaker Oats. I’m hoping that the cafeteria oatmeal that I eat the most is most comparable to this.

Here’s what I found for a regular serving with 2 tablespoons of sugar and about a quarter cup of raisins: Calories = 325. Fat = 3 grams. Sodium = 5 mg. Fiber = 6 grams.

So how does it all wash out for me. I like the Caribou oatmeal the best personally. I’ve never had Au Bon Pain nor McDonald’s. But based on the Slate review, I think I’d probably prefer Au Bon Pain. I like homemade oatmeal the best of all. But when I have breakfast at home, I very seldom take the time to cook oatmeal.