21 January 2012

Fresh pasta, friendly ambiance at Lavagna, DC

I read about Lavagna last summer in Roll Call. Roll Call is a newspaper that reports on Congress and also serves as sort of a community paper for Capitol Hill. It’s well written and I sometimes get insights about life on the Hill that lead to fun or unusual experiences (at least for a business traveler like me).

Unfortunately, if you tried the link for the Roll Call article, you discovered that you have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing. And quite to my surprise, I couldn’t find a review of Lavagna in the Washington Post. There are some reviews on Yelp. I wrote one, and gave it a better review than the average.

One of the things that intrigued me about Lavagna is that the owner, Stephen Chueng, is Asian. The Roll Call article explains that he got his start in the restaurant business at his parents Chinese restaurant. I thought, “That’s kind of interesting. I wonder how he does with Italian food.” (I suppose that’s an unkind stereotype. Sorry. I’m not Italian, and I do pretty well with Italian food, so I guess I shouldn’t have wondered. But I did.)

So on my first trip to DC in 2012, I had a free evening. So I invited a colleague to join me and give Lavagna a try. We both really enjoyed the experience.LavagnaDC2

I’m not sure, but I think the host who greeted us was the owner. It was early (6:30) on a Wednesday night, and it wasn’t at all crowded. He offered us a table at the front of the restaurant by the window, looking out onto the street. Very nice ambiance.

Lavagna, you quickly learn, is both an Italian town and the Italian word for slate. All of the menus are hand-written on individual slates. When I told my wife about it, she wondered how come the chalk didn’t rub off or become illegible. Well it wasn’t written in chalk but some kind of marker that I assume would wash off the slate.

Our server was very friendly and helpful. The previous week was Restaurant Week in DC. She told us that Lavagna had extended their Restaurant Week deal – three courses for a fixed price plus an up-charge for a glass of wine.

That’s what my friend had. Her starter was a cheese and olive plate. It had a nice selection of cured olives and a cubes of a couple different hard cheeses. For her entrée she ordered rigatoni with Italian sausage and vodka sauce. I got a taste and thought it was very good. For dessert she ordered bread pudding made with brioche. The portion sizes were very generous, and she took about half of the meal home.LavagnaDC1

While I was tempted by the Restaurant Week deal, the chef’s special tasting menu featured osso buco, and I can’t resist ordering it when I see it on the menu. My starter was a ravioli stuffed with pear, cheese, and walnuts. The fresh pasta was very tender and delicious. I loved the osso buco. (I just realized that osso buco usually is served with a gremolata on top. But that detail was missing at Lavagna.) It was served with saffron risotto that was very flavorful. My dessert was gelato flavored with espresso and toasted almonds. I’m not normally a big fan of ice cream, but this was very good.

I ordered the wine pairings that were selected for each course. I think it was about a 2- or 3-ounce pour for each kind of wine. I liked their choices, but I probably would prefer to select my own wine in the future.

Lavagna is a friendly, casual restaurant with a welcoming and relaxing ambiance. I probably would not choose it for a business dinner. But anytime in the future, when I have a free evening to dine with friends in DC, I’d definitely consider a return visit.

16 January 2012

Classic French cuisine stars at Vincent, Minneapolis

A trio of my bosses invited me to dinner to commemorate my 35th anniversary of working for Land O’lakes. Nice.

I chose Vincent in Minneapolis. It’s one of the most highly rated Minneapolis restaurants. I’ve been there before. I’ve entertained there before. But this was different, being the guest of honor.

So with 7 people around the table, we had quite a nice selection of items.

Several in the group had the house salad. I didn’t taste it, but it looked very nice. I had the pot-au-feu, and I must confess, I didn’t really understand what that would be. The menu described it as containing baby root vegetables and shaved duck breast. Sounded good to me. But I was somewhat surprised that it turned out to be more like a soup. It had a rich brown broth with vegetables and several thin slices of duck. I thought it was good. But like I said, it wasn’t what I expected.

My wife had duck rillette pate. The server described it as duck confit, shredded and combined with other ingredients and formed into a coarse pate. It was served with crisp pieces of toast. It was really good. I would order that in a minute.

For entrées several guests ordered the steak, a couple ordered scallops, one ordered corvina, and I ordered rack of lamb.

Everyone liked their food. The person who ordered the corvina was probably the least satisfied (though he didn’t complain, and he shared some of his wife’s scallops). It looked good. It just didn’t look to be exceptional. Those who ordered the scallops seemed to be very pleased.

Those who ordered the steak also were very pleased. The menu didn’t specify, but it came with Brussels sprouts. My wife was delighted. Others at the table were not.

I had rack of lamb. It was great. The person next to me, who had steak, said he wished he’d ordered the lamb. The meat was excellently prepared. It was served on a medley of squash, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts.

The service was pleasant but perfunctory. My wife thought the server was pretentious. Maybe. I don’t have any complaints about the service, but also I wouldn’t rave about it.

The ambiance of the restaurant is great. Most tables have a spacious view of Nicollet Mall. It’s very open and comfortable.

I think Vincent is one of the gems of downtown Minneapolis restaurants. I’d happily choose it again for another special occasion or for business entertaining.

14 January 2012

Hooray for soup!

There’s a poster at work (Land O’Lakes) that says January is National Soup Month. OK, so the weather this winter is unusually warm. But soup is still a good idea.

In the past I’ve posted two recipes for soup. So in honor of National Soup Month, I’m offering them up again for you to try.

The first one goes back to the year I started Krik’s Picks – 2006. I wrote a post about my parents’ garden and the luscious tomatoes they grow and then can for enjoying year ‘round. Then I posted my wife’s favorite recipe for homemade tomato soup. Click here to read it.

I posted the next recipe in 2009. I wrote about how my kids used to like having fresh soup and homemade bread on Sunday mornings when they were growing up. Their favorite was a cream of spinach soup. Click here to read it.

That cream of spinach soup was a Land O’Lakes recipe. I can’t find it on the web site, but they do have several good soup recipes there. Check them out.

Stay warm.

10 January 2012

Let’s do something about food waste

Most of my Kriks Picks posts are not particularly time sensitive. Really the only posts that are time sensitive are ones about restaurants that have since closed.

But this one is about a fairly immediate topic.

On Jan. 14 and again on Jan. 15, the Food Network is airing a special called The Big Waste. (Click here for details.) It’s about how much food gets wasted in America. I caught most of the special when it aired earlier this week. It’s both fascinating and appalling.

The set-up  for the show was interesting. Four chefs compete to prepare a banquet using food that is going to be thrown away. For the most part, the food that they find is perfectly good food that is either unsalable or otherwise rejected because of minor imperfections or excessive variation in size or quality. (Examples: We see a butcher who is going to toss the odd-sized ends of beef short ribs after trimming them all to a uniform size. We see a farmer with a field of pick-your-own sweet corn who can’t sell it because a wind storm knocked down the stalks and now people won’t buy it.) As part of the set-up, a food safety inspector checks it all out and except for one item, approves the whole salvaged banquet as safe.

I’ve had some exposure to the issue of food waste. Anyone who’s worked on the hunger issue quickly becomes aware of how extensive food waste is in America. This show illustrates the problems that make food unsalable. But there’s also a lot of consumer waste – people who toss leftovers, or who buy more than they can eat before it goes bad, or who toss perfectly good food because they don’t have a realistic understanding of how long it can keep.

The show initiates the first step toward finding solutions by educating people about the problem. But that’s where it stops. It doesn’t do much to find ways to change behaviors.

After the show, I did some online investigation, and I discovered a blog called Wasted Food. It’s by an author who wrote a book called American Wasteland. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m planning to download it to my new iPad.

The blog does include facts about food waste. It provides tips for consumers on how they can reduce waste. And it stimulates discussion of what can be done about food waste.

Please watch the show and think about what you can do to stop wasting food.

08 January 2012

Dinner with friends at Naviya’s in Linden Hills

The Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis is the perfect home for Naviya’s Thai Brasserie. The neighborhood is quiet, relaxed, and unpretentious. It’s a place where neighbors stroll, kids ride bikes, and visitors to nearby Lake Harriett can find an eclectic choice of restaurants to enjoy. Naviya provides the Asian option for neighborhood dining.

My wife and I had some experience with Naviya prior to our Saturday night dinner with friends. My wife had eaten lunch there. We also had take-out when we came to our daughter’s nearby apartment to babysit our grandson. (She and her family have since moved to a house in the Armatage neighborhood several blocks away.) None of the four friends we were dining with had been there before. IMG_5217

We did have a very favorable experience. The food was delicious. The ambiance was friendly and relaxed. Our server was very friendly and helpful. And everything was reasonably priced.

Our dinner did start out with a glitch, however. My wife and I were the first to arrive, and when we checked in, the host said he didn’t have us down for a reservation. The entryway was jammed with people waiting for tables, so I worried that we weren’t going to get in.  But he was very accommodating and within 15 minutes, he had us seated.

We started out with some appetizers. The calamari was particularly noteworthy. It was unusual in that the rings of squid were fried in a tempura batter. They were very tender and tasty. We also had an order of crispy vegetable and shiitake spring rolls, which we enjoyed. Another unusual item on the appetizer menu is ‘shrimp in a blanket.’ The shrimp are wrapped in rice paper and fried. I thought it was a clever spin on ‘pigs-in-a-blanket’ party finger food.

The entrées we ordered all were good and very well prepared. I ordered tofu pad Thai and was very pleased with it. The noodles were firm and flavorful, the vegetables were crisp fried, and the tofu was firm and absorbed the flavors of the sauce. We had a couple orders of broccoli beef. The broccoli was very fresh and crisp. The beef was thinly sliced and very tender. We also had an order of a spicy shrimp dish, which I liked quite a lot.

Now, some of the people at the table, me included, like some spicy items with an Asian dinner. But the shrimp was really the only entrée that had any ‘heat’ to it at all. The menu said the pad Thai was spicy, which is unusual. But as it turned out, it wasn’t really spicy at all.

As we finished our meal, we struck up a conversation with the host. We learned that he is the co-owner with his wife who is the chef. He was very friendly, and as I noted earlier in the review, was very accommodating and eager to please. It turns out that Naviya actually started in Grand Marais, Minnesota. When it moved to the Twin Cities, it’s first location was in Richfield. He said the Richfield location was did not generate very good walk-in business.

But Linden Hills provides the ideal mix for a restaurant like Naviya. It can develop a clientele of neighborhood regulars, and it can be ‘discovered’ by visitors to Lake Harriett. I think that the restaurant has found its niche and based on the steady stream of people still coming in as we left, it should enjoy a successful tenure in the neighborhood.