24 December 2012

Peruvian lunch in SF, at La Mar

For our November trip to northern California, my wife and I flew in on a Wednesday, arriving in San Francisco just before noon. That gave us enough time to stop along the Embarcadero for lunch before heading to Santa Rosa.

On our October trip, we’d spied an interesting looking restaurant that we wanted to try. La Mar is a Peruvian ‘cebicheria.’ (I don’t know if that’s actually a word. I couldn’t find an official definition online. But by implication, it’s a restaurant that specializes in ceviche.)

The weather was pretty nice, and we asked for a table on the semi-enclosed patio overlooking San Francisco Bay. The patio was well populated, but the rest of the restaurant was pretty empty. (It did fill in later during the lunch hour.)DSC00275

La Mar offers a daily tasting menu. On our visit, there were two choices, one of them vegetarian. The items offered on both menus were very intriguing and looked interesting. I had the non-vegetarian option. One word: Fabulous.

My lunch started with a classic ceviche. It was yellowtail cured with red onion and habanero and served with Peruvian corn and yam. Also on the artful plate was a small serving of ‘causa.’ This is another word that’s not too easy to find, but I take it that it’s a fancy mashed potato. My ‘causa Limena’ featured Dungeness crab (a Bay Area specialty) on whipped potatoes with avocado puree and a sauce.

The entrée was fresh fish with red onions, tomatoes, cilantro and mashed yucca with a pungent sauce. The dessert was a Peruvian purple corn sorbet.

My wife had a hard time picking an entrée for lunch. She finally chose quinoa chaufa (another difficult word to find a definition for). A ‘chaufa’ apparently is a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese cooking. The quinoa chaufa essentially was quinoa served in the style of fried rice. Her dish had peppers, onions, mushrooms, bean sprouts, egg, noodles and mixed seafood.

Before I end this review, I have a comment about the service. At first, our server seemed impatient with Linda’s indecision about what to order. He seemed exasperated that she was having a hard time picking something. But in the end, he made up for it by serving her a bowl of the Peruvian purple corn sorbet like I had, no charge.

So this was a great lunch. Excellent preparation, a cuisine that’s a little unfamiliar to us, beautiful location in one of our favorite cities. I think it was Linda’s favorite meal of the trip. I have a hard time picking a lunch as my favorite meal. I’ll save that designation for another review.

22 December 2012

Northern California lodging for any taste, any occasion

I had two trips to northern California this fall, one in October and one in November. On both trips, I had some business and on both trips, my wife and I spent some additional time on our own. I’ll be posting information on some of the great restaurants we ate at. But this post is about where we stayed, because we stayed at four very different styles of lodging.

Here’s the list. Read on for my review of each:

I was at the Ritz for a meeting. Half Moon Bay is a small, artsy, and intensely organic agricultural town. A long time ago (1975), when my wife and I lived in San Francisco for a year, we drove down to Half Moon Bay (about 45 minutes) not really knowing what it expect. It was late October, and we discovered that they have a pumpkin festival. Well since then, the Half Moon Bay pumpkin festival has become a BIG deal. The cars are backed up for miles making their way into the town. That got to be an issue one day when the group I was meeting with went to Palo Alto for the day for a seminar at Stanford University. Our trip back to the hotel was significantly delayed because of the traffic.2012-10-23T21-59-48_5

The word ‘pretentious’ has negative connotations. I don’t mean to be negative about the Ritz, but pretentious is the best word I can come up with. It is self-consciously elegant. The location is fabulous. It overlooks a beautiful stretch of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a short and easy walk down to the beach. The golf courses are supposed to be fabulous (I don’t golf). And it has a highly rated spa (I didn’t use any of the spa offerings). It was a great place to have a business meeting. The staff is very accommodating and friendly (in an unpretentious way). But it would not be the kind of place we’d pick for a vacation spot.

After our stay at the Ritz, we drove to Wine Country for a stay in a bed and breakfast in the little town of Occidental. We prefer bed and breakfast accommodations when visiting wine country. It doesn’t matter if the rooms are a little small. We don’t spend much time in the room anyway.

For this particular visit, we had a hard time finding a bed and breakfast in our usual haunts. We knew we wanted the Sonoma Valley. We checked Healdsburg and the town of Sonoma, but the places we’d stayed previously had no availability. We considered staying in Bodega Bay, which is on the coast west of the Sonoma Valley. But as I was looking at the map, I saw Occidental and was pleased to discover that it has a very highly rated B&B – the Inn at Occidental.

It was a great choice for our long weekend in Wine Country. The proprietors were friendly and gave some great suggestions on wineries to visit. The morning breakfasts were delicious. They have an evening wine reception. We like B&Bs that do that. We like meeting people and comparing notes on wineries to visit and things to see or do. One minor quibble – in some B&Bs they offer creative appetizers with the wine. At the Inn at Occidental they offer a plate of cheese and crackers, but nothing particularly creative.DSC00268

Occidental is a small town. I mean really small. They do have a couple of restaurants in town, including a really wonderful one, Bistro Des Copains, which I will review in a later post. But if you’re looking for a town with lots of dining options, this isn't it. During our three-night stay, we ate once in town, once in Sebastopol (20 minute drive, including getting lost once), and once in Graton (10 minute drive).

One more thing – the Inn’s web site says it’s an hour drive from San Francisco. But driving up out of The City on a Friday afternoon, it was about 3 hours to Occidental.

When we came back to northern California in November, my meeting was being held at the Vintner’s Inn in Santa Rosa. This time the drive on a Wednesday afternoon from San Francisco was mercifully quick. Vintner’s Inn really is a wonderful place to stay. It has an excellent restaurant on the premises and good meeting facilities. But the accommodations are extra special. There are 44 rooms, located in three or four separate lodges. The whole resort sits within a working vineyard, and guests can walk through the vineyard and see some of the work being done.DSC00279

The rooms themselves are very spacious and nicely decorated. Each room either has a little private patio or a balcony. Ours overlooked the vineyard. When we checked in, there was a small bottle of the wine made from the Inn’s grapes. We uncorked it and sat on our patio and watched the sun set. Wow.

As I mentioned, the resort has an excellent restaurant on premises. But there’s nothing else nearby. So guests would have to drive to Santa Rosa or Healdsburg or Sebastopol (or any of a number of nearby towns) for other dining options.

After our wonderful stay at the Vintner’s Inn, we finished our northern California sojourns in San Francisco. There are two small chains of boutique hotels that we like to stay in when we’re in The City. This time we stayed at the Prescott Hotel, which is a Kimpton Hotel. The Kimpton business model is to take older hotels, renovate them and run them as boutique hotels. We have always found them to be friendly and fun, though often the rooms can be small and/or quirky.

We liked the Prescott very much. The location is ideal, just two blocks to Union Square. We had countless restaurant options all within walking distance. Like all Kimptons, it has an evening wine reception. Several years ago at another Kimpton in San Francisco (the Serrano), we met a young Irish couple and struck up a friendship. My wife still exchanges e-mails with the young woman.

There are a couple of other Kimptons in San Francisco that I like better than the Prescott. But we had a great time.

Of these four lodgings in northern California, my wife’s favorite was definitely the Vintner’s Inn. For me, I think I liked the Inn at Occidental the best. We definitely would look for a Kimpton hotel for our next stay in San Francisco. And we’re not likely to stay at the Ritz Carlson in Half Moon Bay in the future.

18 December 2012

Birthday dinner at Bar La Grassa, Minneapolis

When I wrote my first review of Bar La Grassa two years ago, I explained all the reasons why I liked it but couldn’t rave about it. At the end of the post, I promised a do-over. Well, it was a while coming, but here it is.

The first time we went to Bar La Grassa, we didn’t like our table. This time we got a better table. I also didn’t like the lack of descriptive language about the menu items; I’m over that now. And just like our first visit, the food was very good and creative.BarLaGrassa2

We started with a couple of bruschettas. One was peperonata with gorgonzola cheese. The other was eggplant caponata. Both were excellent. Because we are big fans of gorgonzola, I think we liked that one better. But we didn’t realize how large they would be. Each plate had two large thick slices of bread and the toppings were generously piled on. We could easily have gotten by with one order between the two of us.

Next we went for two half portions of pasta. One was a foie gras tortellini. It was very rich and delicate. The other pasta was agnolotti with mushrooms and taleggio.  Agnolotti is another kind of stuffed pasta. For this dish, they are stuffed with taleggio, a soft Italian cheese.

For dessert, I had a tart tatin – closest thing to apple pie on the menu. I also had an espresso.

Toward the end of dinner, I commented to my wife, “As good as this is, it doesn’t compare to some of the Italian restaurants I’ve eaten at in DC.” Many people say Bar La Grassa is the best Italian restaurant in Minneapolis. It may be, though actually my current favorite is Tosca in Linden Hills. But so many  times, after an Italian meal in DC, I can’t help lamenting – Why can’t we have an Italian restaurant like this in Minnesota?

As much as I enjoyed Bar La Grassa, here are four recent DC restaurants that I think are better – Bibiana, Acqua al 2, Potenza, and Fiola. Unfortunately, I discovered on my last trip to DC, Potenza is no longer in business.

I’ve struggled trying to articulate what makes those DC restaurants better than Bar La Grassa or Tosca. There isn’t a single factor. Part of it is ambiance. The DC restaurants I listed are mostly fairly formal and elegant. Bar La Grassa is kind of a hipster venue (a trait I noted in my original review) and a little pretentious. Tosca is a friendly neighborhood place, relaxing and casual, but not really elegant.

When it comes to the food, the DC restaurants don’t have anything over the Minneapolis Italian restaurants in terms of flavor and preparation. But I guess I’d describe the DC restaurants as having classic Italian menus. Bar La Grassa is innovative definitely not ‘classic.’ Tosca has classic preparations, but the menu is quite small.

I’m not sure if this description adequately defines the difference. But I have a solution. I’m going to bring Linda along to DC in January. (We’re going to attend Barak Obama’s Inauguration.) We will eat at one (or more) of the restaurants I listed. Maybe she can help me articulate the difference. Or, maybe she’ll totally disagree with me. I guess we’ll see. Stay tuned.

15 December 2012

Belated birthday lunch … served slowly

My brother Mike and I usually have lunch between our respective birthdays. His is in October; mine is November. Well, one thing lead to another, and we ended up having lunch in mid-December, coincidentally on our brother Richard’s birthday.

Mike asked me to pick the restaurant. Neither of us had eaten before at Cosmos in the Graves Hotel. So I made a reservation there for noon on a recent Friday.

When I got there, Mike had already arrived and had perused the wine list. Neither of us were going back to the office on a Friday afternoon, so we shared a bottle of wine with lunch. Mike found a personal favorite on the list and ordered it. We started chatting. Pretty soon I noticed Mike scanning the restaurant, and I realized that we’d been sitting there for at least 15 minutes, and no wine, no server to be seen.

He finally caught her attention and waved her over. She apologized for the delay, saying that they’d had trouble finding the bottle. Ok, but then she could have let us know, and maybe given us the option of ordering our lunches.

The wine finally arrived, and we started enjoying it. Unfortunately, that was just indicative of the slow serve we experienced the rest of the lunch. There were long delays between courses. In the end, it took an hour and 45 minutes for us to finish lunch, and we didn’t have dessert or coffee. That would have been too long for an average business lunch.DSC00285

The server was friendly enough. She did a nice job taking our picture, and when she didn’t like the way the first shot turned out, she took another (and another and another). She did make one other faux pas – she asked which of us was older. I’m 9 years older than Mike.

Other than the service, Cosmos was very nice for lunch. I like the décor, quite sleek and modern. And the food was very good.

We both started out with Caesar salads. They were served with a slice of French bread toasted very crisp as a crouton. The traditional anchovy was laid atop the crouton I suppose to give anchovy haters an unobtrusive way to leave it off the salad. (I relished my anchovy. I didn’t notice if Mike ate his.)

For my entrée, I ordered the daily fish special. It was steelhead salmon. It was cooked so that the skin got very crisp. When I grill salmon, the skin gets crisp like that, but this wasn’t grilled. The fish was very moist and delicate, like trout, which apparently it is. It was served with roasted Brussels sprouts (yum), roasted fingerling potatoes (also yum), and small beets (left on my plate untouched.)

(Several sources say that ‘steelhead’ are trout, not salmon. Like salmon, and unlike trout, steelhead live in salt water but return to fresh water to spawn (like salmon) whereas trout spend their whole lives in fresh water. Wikipedia says that steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species, even though rainbow trout is strictly a freshwater fish. I don’t understand how they can be the same species when they have such a significant difference. I guess that’s just a shortcoming of my biology education.

(I actually don’t care what they call it. The way it was prepared at Cosmos was good.)

Mike had Cosmos pad Thai with shrimp. It was kind of an unusual entrée to find on the menu. I don’t consider Cosmos to be a fusion restaurant, and there weren’t any other Asian dishes on the menu. Still, Mike liked it.

Overall, I liked the ambiance and food well enough to consider going back to Cosmos despite the slow service. Next time, however, I think I’d like to try it for dinner rather than lunch.

29 November 2012

Diner’s dilemma – Is this safe to eat?


If you find moldy food in your refrigerator, is it bad to just eat it?

I admit that I’m a freak about wasting food. (Click here for a previous post on that topic.) Nearly a whole shelf of our refrigerator is cluttered with containers of leftovers. Sometimes they contain just a few bites, and usually it gets eaten within a couple of days. Occasionally we wait too long. Last night, we found a container with about a half cup of leftover corn. When we checked, the corn had started to take on a rosy hue, and it smelled awful. So down the garbage disposal it went.

This morning for breakfast, I took out some leftover scrambled eggs from Sunday brunch. I had a single flour tortilla in the freezer, and I decided to make a breakfast burrito. I grated a little cheese into the egg. Then I reached for a jar of fresh salsa that we had opened last summer. When I opened the jar, there were three neat circles of mold growing on the surface of the salsa.

The first thing I did was use a spoon to dip out the mold, being careful not to actually stir some of the mold into the salsa. Then I took a sniff. Didn’t smell bad. I wavered, then decided “What the heck.” I scooped three tablespoons of salsa onto the eggs, then dumped the rest into the garbage disposal.

That was four hours ago, and I’m still ok. But it made me wonder – how bad does it have to be before it’s actually bad for you?

(The burrito, by the way, was pretty good. I heated the egg/cheese/salsa combo in the microwave, then wrapped it in the tortilla. Maybe the microwave zapped any nasty mold spores that might have caused me trouble. Or maybe it will hit me later.)

24 November 2012

Staff lunch #2: Ngon Bistro, St. Paul MN

Oh-oh. A whole month since my last post. Sorry.

Over the past year, I’ve worked particularly close with the Communications staff at Land O’Lakes. We’ve worked together to make sure the cooperative’s legislative message is accurately and effectively conveyed to our farmer-members and the public. We use publications, the internet, and social media to get the job done. One great example is a video that was filmed during our last grassroots fly-in to DC and posted early in November. Click here to view it.

So anyway, I decided it would be appropriate to host an appreciation lunch for the staff. I was chatting with one of the staff one day and I made my typical smart-aleck comment about how there’s no good reason to come to St. Paul to eat. She, being a St. Paul resident, defended the restaurants in her city. Then she cheated by laying a liberal guilt trip on me.

She told me about how the restaurants (and other businesses) on University Avenue have lost business during the construction of the new light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. So as a supporter of light rail in the Twin Cities, I had no choice but to pick a University Avenue restaurant for our staff lunch. She recommended Ngon Vietnamese Bistro. Sounded good to me.

We picked a date that looked good for the entire staff. But when the day arrived, about half of the group had to cancel out for numerous reasons. Still, with five of us, we were able to sample a wide variety of items.DSC00269

We started with a few appetizers. The lettuce wrap with beef was tasty. But it was served ‘deconstructed.’ All of the items were on a platter, and each person made his or her own wrap. It was a little messy, and I would have preferred to have the wraps served already ‘wrapped.’ We also shared a plate of vegetarian egg rolls. They were very crisp and flavorful. I think the best starter was the plate of sweet potato and shrimp croquettes. One of the things I like about Vietnamese cuisine is the fusion of Asian and French styles. The croquettes were excellent examples of that.

For my entrée I had a dish I’d never heard of before – Com Tam. It was rice, cucumber, tomatoes, pickled carrots and daikon. You can choose to have it served with chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu. I chose tofu. It was a great choice. I loved the combination of flavors. It was an ample serving, probably more than I needed for lunch, but not overly filling.

One of my coworkers had the Com Tam with the pork combination. It was the same basic dish, but with pork cooked three different ways (shredded, barbecued, and bacon). It actually made the dish appear to be much more filling.

Another entrée on the menu that I was unfamiliar with is ‘Bun.’ It’s a vermicelli noodle salad with greens, cucumbers, bean sprouts, herbs and peanuts. It could be served with pork, shrimp egg rolls, chicken, beef, or tofu. One of our group had it with chicken. It also was a very substantial item, and she said it tasted great.

One of my coworkers had Pho. I don’t recall every having had Pho myself. I was surprised when I looked it up for this review that it’s another example of the French influence in Vietnamese cooking. It’s derived from the French ‘pot-au-feu’ or beef stew. She chose Pho with rib eye. (Other choices were meatball, chicken, seafood or oxtail.) It was such an ample portion that she took half of it home.

The final item served was the classic Vietnamese sandwich ‘Bahn Mi.’ It was served with pork and a nice pile of sweet potato fries. DSC00270

In the end, I had to admit that I’d found another St. Paul eatery worth crossing the river for. (As I’ve written before, my No. 1 Twin Cities restaurant is Meritage.) Besides the food, I really liked the ambiance at Ngon. It’s a big, open room, nicely decorated. Along the west wall, there’s a really cool bar with a fantastic, custom tap beer dispenser (I guess they’re called ‘towers.’)

One more notable point – as we were finishing our lunch, St. Paul’s mayor Chris Coleman came in. We said hello and introduced ourselves. (Though Land O’Lakes office is located in Arden Hills, our mailing address is St. Paul, and we’re considered a St. Paul company.) Fortunately, none of my coworkers outed me as a Minneapolitan.

So I will definitely look for an opportunity to return to Ngon, maybe for dinner next time. The only question is – what in the world will I do in St. Paul after dinner?

24 October 2012

Staff lunch #1: Fiola, Washington DC

I was in Washington early in October on just an overnight trip. I owed my DC staff a celebration in appreciation for the hard work on all of the fly-ins we conducted this year. So I set something up for after my meetings. I wanted to try someplace new, and came across Fiola. I made a reservation, and it was the perfect choice. 2012-10-24T19-53-49_0

It was a quiet, relaxing, somewhat elegant venue. The service was friendly, knowledgeable, attentive, but not intrusive. And the food …

So often my reviews of an Italian restaurant in DC begin with the words: “Why can’t we have Italian restaurants like this in Minnesota?” I didn’t want to do that again. So I tried to think of a different reason to rave about Fiola’s food. Then I had a revelation. It was sort of like the dog that didn’t bark. (Sorry if the literary reference isn’t obvious. Click here to read about a Sherlock Holmes story where the clue that solved the murder was the dog that didn’t bark.)

When you look at Fiola’s web site, there’s no hyperbole about “local” or “organic.” Instead, the emphasis is on “freshness” and “quality.” Despite the passionate claims of locavores and organic evangelists, they’re not the same thing.2012-10-24T19-53-49_1

I felt our lunch at Fiola was great because of the careful attention to high quality ingredients expertly prepared and matched to the customer’s preferences. We started by sharing two appetizers, a burrata with roasted tomatoes and pesto and a plate of prosciutto with figs and balsamic vinegar. Since ‘discovering’ burrata at a DC restaurant earlier this year, I’ve become a shameless devotee and order it as often as I can.

Then we went on to the entrées. I had risotto with two beautiful, tenderly prepared scallops. The al dente rice was flavored with a shockingly brilliant green pesto sauce. I’m a pretty good risotto maker. But this was exceptional.

One co-worker had fettuccini ‘carbonara.’ It looked beautiful, and she said it was delicious. I don’t often order carbonara, so I don’t know if this is common, but hers was served with a fried egg on top. I thought it was unusual but visually very interesting. (Perhaps my only quibble about the lunch – her egg was overcooked, and the yolk didn’t flow over the pasta when she cut into it.)2012-10-24T19-53-49_3

Another co-worker had lobster ravioli. The fresh, tender ravioli were served in a rich creamy sauce with two generous pieces of lobster meat.

My third co-worker was having trouble deciding. She wanted pasta, but couldn’t decide what to order. The server casually asked what she wanted on her pasta. She said a simple marinara sauce. He said that would be no problem. She amended her request and asked for a meat sauce. Again, no problem. But it’s not on the menu, she commented. No problem. Now that’s the kind of nonchalant commitment to customer wishes that is so impressive.

Since it was a celebration lunch, we did have desserts – chocolate mousse (Tartufo di Cioccolato), almond gelato, pear sorbet, and apple pie. 2012-10-24T19-53-49_4

Alright, the menu called it an apple almond tort, but it was close enough to apple pie for me.

Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. I would love to try Fiola for dinner sometime.

03 October 2012

Recipe: Tomato Jam

I mentioned in an earlier post that I went to the Minneapolis Farmers Market at the end of September and bought a bunch of tomatoes. It’s part of an annual end-of-summer tradition. This year, I bought a basket full of tomatoes. It might have been more than we usually get. It was a lot of tomatoes. But they were right at their vine-ripened peak and perfect for the combination of recipes that I usually use.

One recipe is for oven roasted tomatoes. Click here for my previous blog post on that.TomatoJam

The other recipe is for tomato jam. I’m kind of surprised I haven’t posted it previously. It’s really delicious. I got it from the New York Times, back when Mark Bittman was the food editor. (When Bittman was the Minimalist. That was before he became the Opinionator (which he is now) and became shrill, shallow, and tedious.)

So here’s the link to the recipe.

Tomato Jam (NYTimes, August 20, 2008)

1 1/2 pounds good ripe tomatoes (Roma are best), cored and coarsely chopped

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon fresh grated or minced ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon salt

1 jalapeño or other peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced, or red pepper flakes or cayenne to taste.

1. Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan, Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often.

2. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, then cool and refrigerate until ready to use; this will keep at least a week.

Yield: About 1 pint.

Krik’s tips: I have to admit I don’t follow the quantities very closely. I probably use double the tomatoes, only a little more sugar, and the rest of the seasonings vary from batch to batch. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference. However, the last batch I made was particularly large, and I think I should have cooked it longer. The jam seems more runny. More like a sweet salsa than jam. Good flavor but the texture is different.

I like to use this instead of ketchup (or catsup) on burgers and grilled meat. My wife and I also like to serve it on crackers as an appetizer.

30 September 2012

Recipe: Gingersnap Cookies (with Grandchildren)

I took a day off on Friday. I stayed home and my wife and I took care of our two grandsons for the day. I went early to the Minneapolis Farmers Market and bought a bushel of tomatoes. (More about them later.) Then I went by my son’s house and picked up Leo. Shortly after I got home, my son-in-law dropped off Trey. BettyCrocker

In the afternoon, after their naps, we made gingersnap cookies. I relied on my standby recipe from my Betty Crocker Cookbook. The poor thing is getting pretty old and worn. As you will see in the photo, the cover now is being held in place with duct tape. I positioned two of the cookies on the book cover just to show how they turned out. I once looked into getting a new cookbook. But I discovered that they’ve changed some of the recipes. So I guess I’ll just keep using this book that I bought more than 40 years ago.

Gingersnaps are my favorite cookie. Maybe the boys would have preferred chocolate chips. But no one complained. They had fun helping and then sampling the finished cookies.

Their parents and sisters came over for dinner on Friday, as is our usual family practice. We had gingersnaps for dessert. Toward the end of this post is a picture of my wife and me with all four grandchildren on the hammock outside.

Gingersnaps (from Betty Crocker Cookbook, copyright 1971, 9th printing)

3/4 cup butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1/4 c. molasses

2 1/4 c. flour

2 teaspoons soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

1/2 tsp. cloves

1/4 tsp. salt

Mix thoroughly butter, sugar, egg and molasses. Blend in remaining ingredients. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Shape dough by rounded spoonsful into balls. Dip tops in granulated sugar. Place balls sugared side up on baking sheet. Flatten slightly (using cookie press or back of spoon). Bake 10-12 minutes. Immediately remove from baking sheet to cooling rack.ShabbatCookieKids

Makes 4 dozen cookies.

Krik’s tips: OK, the Betty Crocker original recipe calls for shortening. But I work for Land O’Lakes, so I changed it to butter. The original recipe doesn’t call for flattening the balls of dough before baking. I do it to get thinner, crisper cookies. I’m also sort of compulsive about uniform size cookies. So I divide the dough into four pieces, and roll the pieces into a short log (about 1 inch diameter, 4 inches long). Then I cut each log into 12 pieces, and dip the tops in the granulated sugar. This process eliminates the step for flattening the balls. Also, you can take one or more of the rolls, wrap in plastic wrap, place in a freezer bag and then freeze. Then, anytime you want a dozen fresh cookies, just take out one of the logs, slice into 12 pieces, dip in sugar and bake.

21 September 2012

Blue Point, Wayzata, made this dinner special

My wife had a hard time deciding where to go for a special birthday dinner this year. We brainstormed a list. She hemmed and hawed and went back and forth between several favorites. Finally she called me with her decision – Blue Point in Wayzata. It turned out to be a great choice.

It seems like a lot of the hot new restaurants opening in the Twin Cities offer limited menus and small portions. There’s nothing wrong with that really, unless the limited menu is so limited that you can’t find something that you really want.

But it was a relief when we opened the familiar Blue Point menu and saw so many tempting choices that it was hard to decide what to order finally. And another advantage of choosing an old familiar restaurant is the confidence that your going to be served something that tastes good. I like experimenting and innovation with cooking. But you don’t always know if you’re going to actually like some of the unusual combinations being offered these days.BluePoint

Which is not to say that even an old standby like Blue Point is immune to glitches. My wife started out by ordering an apple, pear, and endive salad. She took one bite and called the server over. “Does this salad have cilantro,” she asked. The server said she was quite certain it did not, but she went to the kitchen to check. It turns out, the dressing had cilantro. But she quickly replaced the salad with a cup of clam chowder, that my wife liked very much.

For my starter, I ordered the tomato and feta salad. It was excellent. My wife’s entrée was pistachio crusted halibut. She enjoyed it very much, and the serving was ample enough that she had leftovers to bring home. I ordered grouper “en Pappillot.” I love how cooking the fish in a pouch results in a moist, succulent meal. It was excellent.

By relying on an old standby, my wife enjoyed a delicious, almost-hassle free birthday dinner. Blue Point remains on our list of special occasion restaurants.

18 September 2012

Return visit to Lavagna, DC

I was in DC earlier in September – the only trip I have planned for the month. I’ve written before how the Barracks Row part of Capitol Hill is attracting lots of creative eateries. So on this most recent trip, I had made up my mind to try someplace new. I was going to be in the neighborhood anyway for a reception. So I planned to just wander up the street and look at a few menus.

My plan fell awry, however, when I walked by Lavagna. I ate there last January, and really liked it. Nothing that I’d seen while wandering so far looked better. So I abandoned by plan to try someplace new and got a table at Lavagna.

Some things have changed since I ate there in January. For example, in my original post, I mentioned that ‘Lavagna’ not only is the name of a town in Italy, but it’s also the word for ‘slate.’ When it first opened, Lavagna posted its menu on little chalkboards. But no longer. The owner, Stephen Chueng, was circulating through the restaurant chatting with customers. I asked him about the slate menus. “Too difficult to manage” was the short version of his answer.

One thing that has not changed is the three-course special – a starter or half-order of pasta, a pasta or entrée, and dessert for $27. It’s a great value and convenient way to sample the variety of the menu. They also offer flights of Italian wine for $10.

I went with the suggestions that the owner gave. I started with an artichoke bruschetta. The toasted bread was layered with a creamy ricotta and topped with artichoke puree and tomatoes. The artichoke was like a pesto and not at all chunky.

For my second course, I went with his recommendation to try the ravioli ricotta. The way he described it, it was a whole egg yolk and ricotta inside the ravioli. When the ravioli is cooked to al dente, the yolk is warmed but stays soft, so that when you cut into the ravioli, the warm yolk flows out creating a rich sauce. The whole dish is topped with parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and a marinara sauce.

When my meal arrived, I cut into the ravioli with eager anticipation. But alas, the yolk was overcooked. The flavors were delicious, but when Stephen Chueng stopped over to see how I liked it, I pointed out that the yolk was not soft. He insisted on taking it away and bringing me a new order. When the replacement arrived, this time the yolk was soft and runny as intended, and it really did make a difference. As I was finishing the dish, the chef came out and personally apologized for the first mishap and asked how I enjoyed the dish. It was excellent.

For dessert, I had a choice of tiramisu, panna cotta, or gelato. I went with the panna cotta, and really enjoyed it. I ended with a nice cup of espresso.

I was happy to have had a repeat visit at Lavagna, even though I started out with the intent to try someplace new.

17 September 2012

Recipe: Eggplant Lasagna w/ Parsley Pesto

My wife’s birthday landed on Rosh Hashana this year. So I prepared the festive meal with help from family and guests who shared the evening with us.

Here’s what I made – turkey (roasted on the charcoal Weber Grill), eggplant Lasagna with parsley pesto, mashed potatoes, challah, and applesauce (apples from my parents’ farm). My son and his wife brought a delicious apple cake. My daughter and her husband brought a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis for Sweet Pea Crostini (a crowd-pleaser every time). Another guest brought a delicious kale salad with walnuts and dried cranberries. Another guest brought roasted asparagus and red peppers. Any my wife’s sister brought a tray of chocolate peanut butter brownies.RoshHashana2012A

We had a total of 12 adults, three kids, and one toddler for the dinner. There was plenty of food. No one went home hungry.

The lasagna that I made was something new. I’ve made lasagna with roasted fall vegetables before. But the eggplant lasagna was unusual (at least for me). I didn’t think of it at the time, but it was almost like moussaka. I found the recipe on Epicurious. It originally appeared in a 2003 issue of Gourmet magazine (RIP). I followed the recipe pretty closely. The recipe called for no-boil lasagna noodles; I used dried noodles and boiled them according to the package directions.

The only addition – I had some shredded mozzarella in the refrigerator, so I sprinkled that over the lasagna before baking it. Also, the recipe said there’d be about 3/4 cup of pesto leftover. I only had about 1/4 cup left for drizzling over the finished lasagna. The recipe says it serves 8. Since we had so much other food, I cut it into 12 pieces, and several people only took half pieces.

Here’s the recipe as it appears on Epicurious.

Eggplant Lasagna with Parsley Pesto Gourmet | November 2003

Yield: Makes 8 servings

ingredients

For béchamel
1 garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
5 cups whole milk
1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
For pesto and ricotta mixture
1 1/3 cups hazelnuts (5 1/2 ounces), toasted and loose skins rubbed off in a kitchen towel
4 cups loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (from 3/4 lb)
3 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 1/2 cups)
2/3 cup plus 1/4 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons black pepper
1 large egg
1 (15-ounce) container whole-milk ricotta
For lasagna
4 pounds medium eggplants (4), cut crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick slices
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
9 (7- by 3 1/2-inch) oven-ready lasagna noodles (sometimes called "no-boil"; 6 oz)
1 1/2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

preparation

Make béchamel:

Cook garlic in butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderately low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Add flour and cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes. Add milk in a stream, whisking. Add bay leaf and bring to a boil over moderately high heat, whisking constantly, then reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until liquid is reduced to about 4 cups, about 10 minutes. Whisk in salt and white pepper, then remove from heat and discard bay leaf. Cover surface of sauce with wax paper until ready to use.

Make pesto and ricotta mixture:

Coarsely chop 1/3 cup hazelnuts and reserve for sprinkling over lasagna.

Purée parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano, 2/3 cup oil, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and remaining cup hazelnuts in a food processor until pesto is smooth, about 1 minute.

Whisk egg in a bowl, then stir in ricotta, 1 cup parsley pesto, remaining teaspoon salt, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper until combined well.

Stir together 1/4 cup pesto and remaining 1/4 cup oil in a small bowl for drizzling over lasagna.

Roast eggplant for lasagna:

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 450°F. Oil 2 large baking sheets.

Brush eggplant with oil on both sides, then arrange in 1 layer on baking sheets and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake eggplant, switching position of sheets halfway through baking and turning slices over once, until tender, 20 to 25 minutes total.

Assemble lasagna:

Put oven rack in middle position and reduce oven temperature to 425°F. Lightly oil a 13- by 9- by 2-inch glass or ceramic baking dish (3 quart) and line a larger shallow baking pan with foil.

Spread 1 cup béchamel in baking dish and cover with 3 pasta sheets, leaving spaces between sheets. Drop 1 cup ricotta mixture by spoonsful over pasta, spreading evenly (layer will be thin), then top with 1 layer of eggplant, cutting rounds to fit if necessary. Make 1 more layer each of béchamel, pasta, ricotta, and eggplant. Spread with 1 cup béchamel and cover with remaining 3 pasta sheets. Spread remaining cup ricotta mixture over pasta, then spread ricotta with remaining cup béchamel and top with remaining eggplant in 1 layer (you may have a few slices left over). Sprinkle Parmigiano-Reggiano over eggplant and scatter with reserved chopped hazelnuts.

Tightly cover baking dish with oiled foil (oiled side down), then set dish in foil-lined pan (to catch drips) and bake lasagna 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake until golden and bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes more. Let lasagna stand 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

Serve lasagna drizzled with pesto.

26 August 2012

Father/Son bonding at Masu, Mpls.

My wife was out of town this weekend for an annual get-together with college roommates. So this was a prime opportunity to go out for sushi. To be fair, while Linda doesn’t like sushi herself, we’ve got a couple favorite Japanese restaurants (Raku in Edina and Wakame in Minneapolis) that she likes. She orders a Japanese entrée and I order sushi.

I invited my son to join me in trying Masu Sushi & Robata in Minneapolis. He eagerly agreed. It’s a restaurant that we’ve both heard a lot about. We had a great experience.Masu1

I arrived at Masu a little before Ben. I went inside to scope it out. There are two general dining areas – several high top tables in the area by the bar and a bunch of regular tables near the kitchen. When Ben got there, the hostess seated us at a high top in the bar near the pachinko machines. I considered asking for a table, but I’m glad I didn’t. Some Yelp reviewers commented that the noise level in Masu is ‘energetic.’ I was afraid that it would be loud in the bar. But it was not.

Some reviewers complained about slow and inattentive service. But that was not our experience. We wanted to try several items on the menu, and our friendly server was happy to spend time with us describing several items and making recommendations.

So let’s get to the food. The menu is divided into several themes – ‘izakaya,’ sushi and ‘makizushi’ (rolls), robata, and noodles. Masu2

Izakaya are small plates. We had three. Tuna tataki was a salad of seared tuna on greens dressed with roasted garlic vinaigrette, and a layer of smooth avocado on the bottom of the plate. Next was ginger duck gyoza with a spicy plum and soy dipping sauce. I didn’t know what gyoza was, but it turns out to be a steamed dumpling. The third small plate was called sweet miso eggplant. It was Chinese eggplant with jalapeno and scallions, and it was served with a soft poached egg in the middle. You break the egg and everything gets covered with this warm rich yolky sauce. Delicious and unusual, but a little hard to eat with chopsticks.

Next we had four different robata. These were small skewers of grilled meat or vegetables. The ones we selected were one skewer of Japanese mushrooms (kinoko), one of scallops (hotate), one of pork belly (buta no kakuni), and a plate of Korean cut short ribs with house made kimchee. The short ribs were not on a skewer and we both enjoyed the kimchee very much (I’d never had it before, and Ben said this was good). I didn’t try the pork belly, but the mushrooms and scallops were good.

We’d both heard a lot about Masu’s noodle dishes, but they were full meals, and by now neither of us were up for anything filling. So we skipped the noodles and finished with two sushi rolls. One was ‘poke’ – tuna, seaweed, avocado, scallions, cucumber, and sesame seeds. The other was called rainbow, and as the name implies, it consisted of five or six different kinds of fish and seafood rolled together and when it’s cut, each piece displays a ‘rainbow’ of different colors.

Ben and I agreed that the robata probably was our least favorite. There was nothing wrong with them, but but they were fairly ordinary skewers of grilled food. We thought the rolls were good, but nothing out of the ordinary. What we really found to be delicious, unusual and memorable were the izakaya.

We had somewhat different perspectives on value. For what we had to eat, I felt the total price was reasonable – $63 for the food (not including two cocktails and a flight of sake). Ben thought that was a little pricy for him and his wife. But he definitely wants to take her there sometime, maybe for a special occasion, and try one of the noodle entrées.

As for me, I enjoyed everything very much and would gladly make a return visit, if I can convince Linda to come. At first I thought she wouldn’t like the menu at Masu. She wouldn’t eat the sushi, and she’s not particularly fond of noodles. But as I was remembering the menu as I wrote this post, I realized that there were several things that she would like on the izakaya side of the menu and the grilled robata might also appeal to her. So who knows.

By the way, I didn’t have my camera with me. The photos I inserted into this post are off of Masu’s web site. I hope they don’t mind me using them.

23 August 2012

Delicious Ecuadoran food at Chimborazo in Minneapolis

A fellow diner at Chimborazo is going to be disappointed that I wrote this review. He sort of implied that he preferred if people didn’t know about this wonderful gem in northeast Minneapolis.

I’ve had lunch twice at Chimborazo. The first time was with my son. His Father’s Day present was to have lunch with me, one on one. I asked him to recommend a place. He’d eaten at Chimborazo with his wife and kids and thought I’d like it.

When I arrived, I walked in with another couple. They were seated at the table next to Benjamin and me. Their meal came first, and we commented on how wonderful it looked. They said that they lived in the neighborhood and really appreciated having a wonderful, authentic family-run restaurant that they could walk to. Then the guy said – I hope it doesn’t get discovered and overrun with customers.ChimborazoLunch

I sort of understand his point of view. I remember Café Havana when it first started out as an authentic family-run Cuban restaurant. It was great. Eventually, it became so popular that it moved downtown and tried to become a hot spot for the in-crowd. Eventually it burned out and now is out of business.

However, I think the reverse is a bigger threat. Without spreading the word about how great Chimborazo is, it could whither and fade away. So here’s my review.

Chimborazo is great. On the visit with my son, I had two appetizers for my lunch. One was the beef empanada. It was served with a spicy sauce that reminded me of Argentine chimichurri sauce. The second appetizer was called ‘llapingachos.’ This was very unusual and very good. It was three cheese-filled potato pancakes, sort of like a knish only without the pastry. They were served on top of a fried egg and it came with a very tasty peanut sauce.

My son had the daily soup and sandwich special, which he liked very much. Overall, I liked Chimborazo so much that I suggested it as a place for a lunch meeting with a co-worker a couple weeks later. This time, I had the soup and sandwich special. The sandwich was a spicy chicken and was very tasty. My co-worker had a shrimp dish called encocado – shrimp in a coconut sauce served with rice and a plantain.

It’s easy to rave about Chimborazo. The food is great and the prices are modest. I really want to return again and try it for dinner.

19 August 2012

Dinner at Eat Street Social Club, Minneapolis

My wife and I have a friend who says that you can get into any restaurant you want during the summer in Minneapolis. Her theory is that Minnesotans are so distracted by summer vacations and weekends at ‘The Cabin’ that you don’t really need reservations at a restaurant.

We weren’t so confident as to try totally without a reservation. But when we made quite last minute plans to see a movie and eat out on an August Saturday night, we were able to get a 7 p.m. table at Eat Street Social without any problem at all.

One thing we were confident about was the food. We’d eaten at the original Northeast Social Club with friends. We thought the menu offered lots of choices depending on mood and appetite. Based on things we’d read, we were confident that the new Eat Street Social would be equally as diverse.

We didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what to eat when we arrived. As we enjoyed our cocktails, my wife saw a server bring out the grilled sirloin. She thought it looked fabulous, so that’s what she ordered.

I, on the other hand, wanted to try a couple smaller plates. I ordered a watercress salad with duck confit, fennel, sweet spicy roasted peanuts, and mustard lemon vinaigrette. With it, I ordered a house made grilled beef sausage.

We both thought our food was excellent.

Eat Street Social earned a place on our list of reliable casual restaurants. We’re sure to be back.

25 July 2012

Tasting menu at Equinox, DC

I’ve written about Equinox before. In fact, it’s the second restaurant I ever reviewed on Krik’s Picks. I’ve always been happy with the meals I’ve been served there. The dinner I had in mid-July was no exception.

I arrived in DC a little late on a Monday. It was beastly hot. I was tempted to just stay in the hotel and eat at their restaurant. But I took a minute to look through a restaurant guide in the hotel. It noted that Equinox had a new chef and had revamped its menu. So I hopped in a cab and went over there. DSC00018

There were several tempting items on the menu. But I decided to go with the ‘Ode to Summer’ tasting menu. It appeared to be a pretty reasonable deal. There were six items on the menu. You could have all six for $60, or you could have any four of the six for $40. I didn’t feel like I needed six courses. Besides that, there were two that didn’t really appeal to me. So I went with the four-course menu.

I’ll start with the two items I rejected. One was a pork loin – no thanks. The other was a milk chocolate almond bar with coconut sorbet. I’m not very fond of chocolate, so that also was an easy one to skip.

So here’s what I had:

Compressed heirloom summer melons – This was the most visually appealing dish of the meal. The compressed cubes of melon were like shimmering jewels in the bowl. Then the server poured a cucumber emulsion over them. It kinda spoiled the ‘shimmering jewel’ appearance. But the soup was very flavorful and refreshing on a hot summer night.

Next was cured king salmon. The tender, tasty salmon slices were served with apricots and a fennel cream. Like the melons, it was light and refreshing.

The next item was called corn flour tagliatelle. The pasta was fresh and tender. I did not detect any particular corn flavor. The pasta was served with some pieces of lobster meat and summer squash. The whole presentation and effect was a delicious pasta course, well balanced and unique.

My dessert item was Italian gorgonzola piccante, which is a style of gorgonzola cheese. It was served with roasted plums, pistachios, and a flakey toasted honey phyllo.

I think my combination of choices for the tasting menu might have confused the server. At one point he came back to verify that I did not order the pork loin. My guess is that most guests who ordered the four-course tasting menu got either the melons or the salmon for a starter, then got the pasta and the pork loin for their main meal, and finished with either the gorgonzola or the chocolate.

But I loved my choices. Each item was memorable and delicious. While the servings were small, it was enough for me to leave satisfied. And $40 is no bargain, but it also was a reasonable price for the meal.

Thank you Equinox for another great meal!

23 July 2012

Pasta & Canasta at home with friends

When we had our anniversary dinner at Restaurant Alma, one of the courses we had was orecchiette pasta with lamb sausage. I was really impressed by the dish.

During the evening, as we chatted with our friends about the food, I mentioned that I had gotten a pasta machine and had started making fresh pasta. One thing lead to another, and we ended up inviting our friends to our house for a dinner of fresh pasta. We all have joined the canasta craze, and we thought it would be fun to end the evening with a game.

So as I thought about what to make, I decided to try to replicate the flavors of the dish we had at Alma. The first thing I did was search the internet. Lo and behold, there was a recipe by Emeril Lagasse for lamb sausage ragout with Portobello mushrooms and fettuccine. Click here for Emeril’s recipe. His recipe called for fettuccine instead of orecchiette. And Alma’s dish didn’t include Portobello mushrooms. But it looked interesting. LambSausageRagu

The pasta recipe I use is pretty reliable, so I decided to use that recipe (click here) for the fettuccine. (Emeril’s recipe didn’t specify fresh pasta. Actually, quite ironically, Emeril’s recipe online calls for rigatoni, even though the title of the recipe says fettuccine.)

I put lamb sausage on my shopping list. I wasn’t sure how difficult that would be to find. Well, turns out it was quite difficult. Finally I just bought ground lamb and figured I’d improvise.

When I got home, I went back to the internet. I was relieved to discover that there actually are a lot of recipes for homemade fresh sausage on the internet. The one I finally settled on was another Emeril recipe. His called for pork butt, but I had already decided to improvise, so that was no problem. Here’s his original recipe.

So here are my modifications. Starting with the sausage, I used ground lamb instead of cubed pork butt. Also, his recipe called for paprika; I used Spanish smoked paprika. Then, for the ragout, I did not use pepper flakes. I had a fresh jalapeno which I minced and sautéed with the rest of the vegetables.

I was somewhat perplexed by Emeril’s serving instructions. He said to put the grilled Portobellos on the platter, then put the pasta over them and top with the ragout. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to use such large mushrooms. But I felt they were way to big to put on the platter whole. So I sliced the grilled mushrooms into 3/4-inch wide slices.

It all turned out great. Probably the most fun for me was making the homemade sausage. I’m definitely going to do that again.

We ended the evening with a nice game of canasta. Our friends won, but it was close.

15 July 2012

Bachelor Farmer needs to lose the attitude

It wasn’t easy getting a reservation at The Bachelor Farmer on a Saturday night for six friends who wanted to experience this trendy new restaurant in Minneapolis. They could fit us in at 8:30. We felt lucky to get the reservation. After all, the restaurant was a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best New Restaurant Midwest. President Obama dined here when he was in Minneapolis earlier this year. So we were excited.

My wife and I decided to go early and get a drink at the similarly acclaimed bar downstairs – Marvel Bar.  The connection is a little unclear. It appears that the ownership  is the same, but management may be different. (Bachelor Farmer has its own bar adjacent to its dining room.) Our server, way cooler than both of us put together, was friendly and helpful in figuring out what we’d like from the creative cocktail menu. The drinks were good. But then came the first glitch. I asked him if he’d take a photo of us, and he politely declined. “We’re not supposed to take photos,” he said. I didn’t press him to find out why.

At 8:30, we headed upstairs and joined our friends who were already seated and had started to peruse the menu. As I looked over the menu, there was a caution not to take photos using a flash. So I guess they just don’t want their customers taking photos. Must not be the cool thing to do.

Our group tried a lot of items on the menu. Some were good. Some missed the mark. Of our starter plates, I particularly liked the duck liver pate and the dill-cured bass with crème fraiche. They were served with wedges of toasted bread. I’m sure that’s the really cool way to do it.The pate was smooth and creamy and had an excellent liver flavor. The dill-cured bass tasted fresh and light.

I had high hopes for the scallops and smoked salmon sausage, but didn’t really like how it all came together. We had hoped to try the mushroom ragu, but sadly, they were out of it by the time we ordered it. Our friends ordered the beets cooked in duck fat and served with fresh cow’s milk cheese. It looked very nice, and they all seemed to like it. But neither my wife nor I particularly like beets, so we didn’t try it.

Other reviewers on Yelp commented that there aren’t many choices among the entrées on the menu. We found that to be true as well. My wife and I both ended up ordering duck confit. It was very flavorful, but also not very distinctive – good but not memorable. I’d just had really great duck the last time we went out with one of the couples. If there had been more options on the menu, I might have ordered something different. (If they had a steak on the menu, I probably would have ordered that. But I guess steak isn’t cool.) The duck was served with a turnip puree which was fairly bland and too runny. However there were some carrots and snap peas also on the plate that added some texture to the puree.

One of our friends had the market fish. She pronounced it good but not exceptional. Another friend had roasted chicken. He liked it quite a lot. Another friend ordered the roasted pork sausage. He liked it, but I tasted it and didn’t think it was particularly flavorful. His sausage came with a potato salad and roasted cauliflower with a cider vinegar bacon dressing. I tasted that as well, and thought it was just a jumble of flavors that didn’t blend well together.

The last person just didn’t see anything on the list of entrées that she wanted. So she just ordered a side of roasted cauliflower. I didn’t get a taste of it. But my wife, who is a cauliflower connoisseur proclaimed it to be delicious.

We also ended up ordering five of the desserts. My favorites were the French macarons (it was Bastille Day, after all) and the blueberry galette. I thought both of them were simple, straightforward preparations, tasty and satisfying. We also had the buttermilk cornmeal cake with olive oil ice cream – nobody thought that was particularly good. My wife had a scoop of raspberry sorbet – good but ordinary. The last dessert was chocolate Bavarian cream – I didn’t take a taste of that since I’m not much of a chocolate fan.

The ambiance of the dining room was comfortable. Our server was efficient and helpful. Yet as we talked about our experience, none of us felt like we could recommend the restaurant to our friends. Maybe it just didn’t live up to the hype. Maybe our expectations were too high. Maybe we just aren’t the right audience for experimental Norwegian cuisine.

We’ve been to other restaurants that have taken chances on unusual flavor combinations and preparations. The most successful of them find a way to engage the diner and make the experience fun, so that even if a particular dish misses the mark, the diner has the feeling that they were part of a fun experiment.

At Bachelor Farmer, I felt like the attitude was: “Here’s what we serve. If you don’t like it, it’s your loss. Maybe you’re not cool enough to eat here.” In any case, I guess we aren’t cool enough because none of us plan to eat there again anytime soon.

03 July 2012

Anniversary dinner at Restaurant Alma, Minneapolis

I don’t know why it took us so long to finally go to Restaurant Alma. After all, it had been recommended to us by many of our friends. It’s one of the top rated restaurants in the Twin Cities. In 2010, the chef was named the Best Chef Midwest by the James Beard Foundation.

When we finally decided to dine there for our anniversary late in June, we were talking to some friends who also have a June anniversary. Turns out they’d never eaten at Alma either. So we all went together.Alma

So here’s the short version of my review. We had an almost perfect meal. The food was fabulous, and we discovered a new wine. Restaurant Alma easily earned a spot on my list of favorite, special occasion restaurants in the Twin Cities. But it wasn’t perfect. And while it’s one of my top three, it’s not my absolute favorite.

Restaurant Alma features a three-course tasting menu. All of the menu items have an ala carte price listed. But for $48, you can pick one starter, one middle course, and one entrée. (For the same price, you can get a four-course vegetarian menu, but none of us went for that.) We discussed whether to have the tasting menu. We weren’t sure if it would be too much to eat. But we figured the servings were small (they were) and after all, we were celebrating. So we all had the tasting menu.

For starters, my wife had the bison carpaccio and I had a parmesan flan. Our friends both had a young lettuce salad. I’ll start with their salad. It was very attractively served. It featured fava beans and a sheep’s milk cheese. The dressing was sweetened with a truffle honey. They thoroughly enjoyed it. My wife really loved the bison carpaccio. It was very unique and so tender it practically melted in your mouth. The menu said it was served with thin slices of jalapeno. She didn’t want the heat from the peppers, and the kitchen accommodated her by leaving them off. My parmesan flan was very good and also very unusual. It included crispy artichokes and salty black olives. It was slightly sweetened with maple syrup.

For the next course, the guys both had orecchiette pasta and the ladies both had a crispy bean pancake. The pancake was excellent, not at all heavy and with great flavor. It was served with small bites of tender prawns on top and a sesame scallion sauce. One word – delicious. I really loved the pasta that I chose. The orecciette were tender and fresh-tasting. It was served with a spicy lamb sausage ragu and peas. There was a little mint mixed into the ragu that provided a light refreshing flavor.

Now at this point, we really were feeling like two courses would have been enough. The servings were small, as we expected. But the food and the sauces were really quite satisfying. It’s not that we were full. It’s just that we probably could have got by with only two courses. But the reality is that the ala carte price on two courses was almost the same as the tasting menu price. And like I said, we were celebrating.

For the entrées, we all had something different – one trout, one halibut, one short ribs, one duck. Our friends had the two fish items. They both really liked their food. I didn’t try either one, but I thought the halibut looked more interesting than the trout. My wife had braised short ribs, and they were wonderful! They were topped with a rhubarb compote. The menu specified that the dish came with asparagus. My wife asked if she could have cauliflower instead which they did with no fuss. So again, very accommodating to the diner’s preferences.

My entrée was the duck. It consisted of a roasted duck breast and a leg of duck confit. Both versions of the duck were excellent. The breast was cooked medium rare and was tender and flavorful. The leg was similar in texture to a braised preparation with the meat easily separating from the bone. On my plate with the duck was a serving of spicy chard and some wonderful smoked mushrooms.

I mentioned that we found a new wine. We all prefer red wine, but we wanted something that would not be too heavy with the fish. We looked at the malbecs and noticed a blend called Alma Negra. We decided to try it, and we all liked it very much. We liked it so much that the next day, I found a source to buy it online and ordered a case to split with our friends.

The only real glitch occurred when we decided to have dessert. We considered not having dessert. But, we were celebrating. So we ordered one peach crumble pie to for all of us to share. Then we started waiting … and waiting … and waiting. Finally after waiting for 20 minutes we signaled our server and told her to cancel the dessert. At that point, she sheepishly admitted that it had been served by accident to another table. So, I’m sympathetic to her dilemma. No one likes to admit making a mistake. But we all felt she should have been more forthright and told us sooner and given us the choice to wait or to cancel the dessert. As it was, the dessert came out just a few minutes after talking to her. She didn’t charge us for it, and we ate it anyway.

But even setting aside the dessert incident, I still can’t say that Alma is my favorite Twin Cities restaurant. There are a couple of other special occasion restaurants that my wife and I probably would choose more often than Alma. Part of it is overall ambiance. Alma is located very close to the University of Minnesota Minneapolis campus. The room is large and open and airy, and not at all formal. There were a lot of people wearing jeans. I wore a short sleeved shirt and Dockers. It’s not that you wouldn’t see someone wearing jeans at our other favorite restaurants. It’s just that more of the diners would be a little dressed up.

Really, though, that’s just quibbling. I would happily return to Alma for a delicious dinner. And I readily recommend it to others.

30 June 2012

Farewell lunch at Sea Change, Minneapolis

I wasn’t going to blog about this lunch. I’ve posted several items about Sea Change. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the Twin Cities. But the desserts that we had at the end of this particular lunch were so noteworthy that I decided to write a post anyway.

So here’s the back story. I invited a co-worker out to lunch as a farewell gesture, since she’s leaving Land O’Lakes. I picked Sea Change. After I made the reservation, I realized that she’s not a big fan of fish and seafood. I asked her if I should pick a different place, but she said that she’d looked at the menu online and it would be fine. SeaChange

Like I said, I wasn’t really expecting this lunch to be much different than other lunches I’ve had there. The truth is, I was a little disappointed by the menu. The offerings on the menu all looked good. But there just wasn’t much of a variety to choose from.

She had a cobb salad. I had a fish sandwich. She really like her salad, and it looked good. I thought my fish sandwich was very good as well. The fish had a light batter. It was very flavorful and the fish was moist and flakey. It was served on a brioche-style bun. It had some very good fries on the plate. They were thin and very crisp.

Since we were celebrating, we decided to have dessert. For me, the desserts were what kept this from being a rather ordinary lunch to being one that was memorable.

Jeanne’s dessert was a lime pudding cake. It was so light and refreshing! On the plate with it was nice, dense pistachio cake that I thought was fabulous. (She let me have a taste.) She also had a generous scoop of sorbet on the plate.

My dessert was a frozen passion fruit soufflé. The soufflé was not a very prominent component of the dessert. It was sort of hidden by three or four large cubes of angel food cake. The most prominent item on the plate were two nice scoops of hibiscus granata. It was so delightful and refreshing to take a small spoonful of granata with the cake. Yum! Along with all of that were four hazelnut crisps.

I hope Sea Change is doing all right. When we arrived promptly at noon, there was only one other diner in the room. By the time we left, there were no more than a dozen tables taken. Maybe it’s just not a popular lunch place. But it remains one of my favorite Twin Cities restaurants, and I’d be sad if its business is sagging.

23 June 2012

Big Island Happy Hour 2012

In mid-June, my co-worker and I hosted a happy hour to benefit the United Way campaign at Land O’Lakes. She’s actually the host since the event is held at her family’s cabin on Big Island in Lake Minnetonka. I just come along and help with the cooking and drinks. We auction the event during the United Way campaign in October and then pick a mutually convenient date for the event – usually in late May or early June. We held the first one in 2008. I didn’t blog about that one. But I did do posts on the 2009 event (click here) and the 2010 event (click here). I don’t remember why I didn’t do a post on the 2011 event. BigIsland1

For the menu this year, Lydia (my co-worker) reprised her specialty – grilled shrimp with Gianni’s dipping sauce. She also made ‘Super BLT Bites with Tarragon Mayo.’ They were very tasty. The tarragon mayo really made the dish. But she complained that they took so much time to assemble that it kept her from enjoying the conversation with our co-workers. I know how she feels. That’s happened to me in previous years.

This year, however, the recipes I prepared all lent themselves to advance preparation.

From the Washington Post food page, I made a goat cheese and pesto bombe. This had to be made in advance so that everything could thicken up and the bombe would hold its shape. I think the pesto was too runny, too much like a pesto sauce rather than a paste. So instead of having this pretty white hemisphere with a green stripe, it turned out to be more of a white hemisphere on an emerald green pesto puddle. Flavors were great, though.BigIsland4

I also made brie and pear quesadillas. These I prepared totally in advance in my own kitchen and just transported them out to Big Island. I kept them in the fridge until ready to serve, then just lightly grilled them before serving.

My final recipe was cucumber and smoked salmon rolls. I did assemble these at the cabin. The hardest part was slicing the cucumber so that I could roll up the cream cheese spread and slices of smoked salmon. My mandolin cut them thin enough, but it’s not a professional mandolin, and I had trouble getting the strips of cucumber long enough for the rolls. Also, I did prepare these about an hour before the guests arrived, and by the time I served them, the cucumber had started to weep and get limp. Still, I loved the way they turned out. It was probably my favorite item of the evening.

So that was it for 2012. It was very gratifying to see how our co-workers appreciated the whole experience. Honestly, I had fun doing it, and we raised a nice chunk of change for our United Way campaign, so it really was for a good cause.

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28 May 2012

Great dinner at Rare Steak & Sushi, Mpls.

The neighborhood we live in has a neighborhood association. It’s primarily a social group. Activities include parties, a gourmet club, community festivals … things like that.

There also is a magazine for the members of the association. One of the things that the publisher of the magazine does is arrange dinners for us at different restaurants. Most of them are in Edina or nearby suburbs. In exchange for putting on the dinner, the participants will rate the restaurant and the magazine will run a photo spread of the event. The restaurant gets some publicity. We get a meal and an evening of socializing.

Most of the restaurants that we’ve gone to as part of this group have been pretty casual. The food has been good, but nothing noteworthy. Of course, the restaurant is motivated to make sure we have a good experience because they know that a review is going to be published.

The most recent restaurant that my wife and I went to as part of the group (Parkwood Knolls Association) was Rare Steak & Sushi in downtown Minneapolis. It was, without question, the best restaurant we’ve been to as part of this group. Like I said, I’m sure they gave us exceptional service because of the review. But in this case, it was really over-the-top in terms of quality of food, friendly hospitality, and enjoyable experience.RareMenu

So I’ve included an image of the menu. It gives you a pretty good idea of the range of items that’s available at Rare. I can honestly say that everything on the menu was very good. The mixed sushi and nigiri plate was particularly noteworthy. A few either had never had sushi before, or hadn’t enjoyed it when they had had it. This plate really made them rethink their previous aversion to sushi. Rare really should put this plate on its happy hour menu. It would have been great for a couple of people to share with drinks.

The tuna ‘tataki’ and the beef ‘tataki’ were two preparations that I had never tasted before. They both were good. I preferred the tuna between the two of them. But these weren’t my favorite items of the evening.

Then we got to the entrée samples. In a word – yum! They served two steaks, a hanger steak and a filet. Personally I thought the hanger steak with fries was better, but both were excellent. There also were two fish preparations – sea bass and salmon. I preferred the sea bass with an orange sake reduction. But the salmon also was good, served with a drizzle of lemon caper butter sauce.

By the time we got to the dessert offering – apple and pecan bread pudding – we all were too full to really do it justice. I thought it was good, but I’m not normally a bread pudding fan. So I probably would order something different on a return visit.

My wife and I agreed that this is a restaurant that we would eagerly come back to and enthusiastically recommend to others. I also think this would be a fun happy hour locale.

We should only be so lucky to have another experience like this at the next Parkwood Knolls dinner.

21 May 2012

Lunch at Cava Mezze in DC

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Mostly by coincidence, I tried several restaurants on Capitol Hill this spring. They are located east of the U.S. Capitol, near Eastern Market and on Barracks Row. Before this year, I was a fan of Montmartre, located near Eastern Market. But I wasn’t very familiar with many of the other restaurants, despite a growing reputation for good dining in that neighborhood.

Then, over the course of several business trips to DC, I hit Lavagna, Belga, Acqua al 2, and the subject of this blog post – Cava Mezze. I went there on the basis of a recommendation of a friend. After our dinner at Lavagna, we walked by Cava, and she recommended it. So when I had time for a lunch before leaving DC in March, I decided to give it a try.

Mezze are Greek small plates, very similar in concept to Spanish tapas. Cava offers an appealing variety of mezze. My server recommended ordering two for lunch. It probably would have been more fun to be with a small group to sample more different plates. But I was happy with the two I ordered for lunch.

I started with a dish called lamb kapama. It was braised lamb shoulder shredded and mixed with orzo pasta and ‘Kefalograviera’ cheese. It was very flavorful and really quite substantial.CavaDC1

My second dish was chickpeas ‘3 ways.’ I thought it was a very creative dish nicely presented. It consisted of four balls of fried chickpeas served on a bed of pureed chickpeas and topped with whole cooked chickpeas that had been marinated in a vinaigrette dressing. The fried balls were like falafel. The chickpea puree was like hummus. And the marinated chickpeas were, well, like you’d serve on a salad.

I liked Cava and I would happily return, either for lunch, for happy hour, and I’d also like to try it for dinner sometime.