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.

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