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.