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.