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



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.

09 May 2012

Graffiato DC served great celebration lunch

I had a lot of travel to DC in March and April. It was a lot of hard work, and I got a lot of help from a great team. So when I went back during the first week of May, I offered to treat the team to a celebration lunch.

My DC-based lobbyist picked the venue – Graffiato in Chinatown. It’s a restaurant with a story. The chef/owner is a guy named Mike Isabella. He’s picked up a fair share of accolades in his career so far. He was named The People’s Best New Chef for the Mid-Atlantic region in Food & Wine’s survey. He did a stint at one of chef Jose Andres DC restaurants Zaytinya. But possibly he got most of his public attention by being seen on season 6 of TV’s Top Chef (a show I don’t watch).

Graffiato has a nice ambiance. Our group (7 of us) were seated in the upstairs dining room. The room had high ceilings and was comfortable, bright, and open. Our server was friendly and patient. (You know how it is with groups. They sit down and start to chat, and it’s difficult for the server to know when they’re really ready to order.)

One person at the table commented that she wished there were more choices on the menu. But our group didn’t have much trouble finding things to order. Our server advised us that the menu items are Italian small plates and suggested we order two per person. We ended up ordering a few plates to share and each person had an entrée.DClunch

Highlights of the starters: I picked ‘blistered sweet peppers’ which was a nice serving of red and yellow peppers with olive oil, capers, and smoked paprika; I thought it was very good. A couple of people had the green salad. Another had burrata with honey-glazed onions. I didn’t take a taste, but she said it was great. We also got two orders of flatbread for the table. It was served with a spicy pepperoni sauce and was very good.

For entrées, a couple of people had ‘crispy potato gnocchi.’ The photo (above) doesn’t do it justice. It was served with fava beans, mushrooms, and stracciatella which is a soft Italian cheese.

A couple of people had fish, and I think there was at least one order of roasted chicken breast. They all said their meals were good. I had risotto with lobster and mascarpone (photo below). I liked it. I thought it was good. But I’ve written in Kriks Picks in the past about how my wife says that the risotto I make at home is better than anything that we get at restaurants. In this case, I guess I’d agree. It was good, but if I go back to Graffiato, I’ll have something else.DClunch2

We were celebrating, so of course we had some desserts. There was one order of the chocolate tart that was declared to be decadent. Other guests ordered gelato, and there were several interesting choices for flavors, including blood orange and caramel sea salt. I don’t mean to be boring, but I had espresso. I like it, and this one was good.

07 May 2012

Yet another fabulous DC Italian restaurant

I’ve said this so often that I could start a whole new category of blog posts titled ‘Why can’t we have Italian restaurants like this in Minnesota?’

I had lunch at Potenza when I arrived in DC last week. I didn’t really know very much about it before walking in (no reservation). It wasn’t recommended by anyone. I’d noticed it on previous trips to DC. Anything I’d seen about it had been favorable. But I just decided to give it a try – someplace new. I’m so glad that I did.

Potenza has a very extensive lunch menu. I could have had a salad and pasta. A lot of other diners were having pizza, and they all looked good. I decided to have the weekly special for Wednesday – branzino. The entrées are a little expensive, but they’re a full meal.

The fish was delicately sautéed. It was moist and tender and was served with a wonderful brown butter sauce.

Served with the fish on the plate were two beautiful ravioli stuffed with minced and sautéed mushrooms. They were artfully draped over a mound of fresh spinach that was lightly flavored with thin slices of garlic.

I did have a glass of wine with my lunch. I don’t know Italian whites very well, but there was a trebbiano on the menu that looked interesting. It was crisp, light, and refreshing. It was a nice complement to the branzino. As much as I liked the wine, I was a little taken aback by reading the Wikipedia description of it. It says that trebbiano is not known for making very distinctive wines. So maybe I have unsophisticated tastes when it comes to Italian white wine. Or maybe I got lucky with a good trebbiano. Or maybe it just went well with my fish.

Anyway, here’s another DC Italian restaurant that I thoroughly enjoyed and would comfortably recommend to anyone.

05 May 2012

Belga DC serves delicious Belgian food, beer

I ate at Belga once before. It was a few years ago, just as Barracks Row was establishing itself as a locale for good food. I liked it then, so when a friend suggested having dinner there after a reception on Capitol Hill, I readily agreed.

It was a warm spring night, maybe just a little humid. There sidewalk tables were full, so we were seated inside. That probably was better for conversation, but a sidewalk table would have been a fun spot to watch the hustle and bustle of 8th St. SE. There even was a pair of street musicians playing New Orleans jazz across the street. (I tipped them after dinner.)BelgaDC

The menu at Belga offers a lot of variety. You could make a light meal out of starter plates and side dishes. But it’s not really a ‘small plate’ menu, the entrées are too good to pass up.

One of my friends had an evening special cherry gazpacho. The accommodating server provided extra spoons, and we all got a taste. The soup was bright red. If you didn’t know it was cherries, you’d have sworn it was beets. We all wondered if it would be sweet. But it was not; just pleasantly tangy. It was served with a spoonful of cucumber sherbet which was unusual and refreshing.

I started with a salad, which was good but not particularly memorable. It was a little bland. I should have asked for a little cracked pepper.

For an entrée, I had braised short ribs. They were fabulously tender and served with a rich, dark sauce. They were served with a spoonful of soft polenta which readily lent itself to mixing with the sauce and shredded forks of beef. The plate also featured a mélange of vegetables which were very good and nicely complimented the rest of the meal.

My friend who had the gazpacho ordered coquilles Saint-Jacques for her entrée. It was beautifully plated, and she said it was very good. Our other friend (who actually was the host for dinner) had the evening special entrée. It was a salmon roulade filled with lobster. Like the cherry gazpacho, it was an unusual and very creative combination that she liked very much.

The only thing was, none of us had mussels. They have a nice selection of mussels on the menu prepared different ways. None of us ordered them. Maybe we should have had an order and shared them. But like I said, we had come from a reception and just didn’t want to eat that much.

The ambiance of Belga is casual and comfortable. Our server was friendly and made helpful suggestions. I felt the prices were reasonable for what you get, but then, I wasn’t picking up the tab. I was happy to be back for my second visit. I’d gladly make a return visit in the future.