27 February 2012

Tosca is another Linden Hills winner

I don’t know why it took us so long to try Trattoria Tosca. When our daughter moved to Minneapolis last year and rented an apartment in Linden Hills, we used to drive by it almost weekly on our way over to visit. For that matter, we used to live in Linden Hills many years ago and always welcomed an excuse to come back to the old neighborhood. And on top of that, Linden Hills has been attracting some of the best, most creative neighborhood restaurants.

While I can’t explain the delay, I’m pleased to report that we did finally eat there this past Saturday. Our verdict – excellent. Creative, innovative, delicious, pleasant, comfortable … all of those traits apply.

The main dining room is a large room with a high ceiling. It’s simply decorated and inviting. There are a few tables in the entryway. Those tables would enjoy a view of the kitchen as well as the comings and goings of the clientele. But I don’t think that I’d enjoy dining there. I believe in the summer they also have sidewalk tables, and that could be pleasant.

My wife and I really liked our server. She was very professional and knowledgeable. We had some questions about the wine list. She accurately described the wines we asked about, and gave us some good advice. The wine list, by the way, features lots of Italian wines and most are quite reasonably priced.

When we were seated, a basket of bread with butter was promptly brought to our table. The basket also included a plate of delicious marinated green olives and a small bowl of spiced nuts. Yum.

The restaurant offers a four-course tasting menu. For $50, you get a choice of a starter, a pasta course, an entrée, and a dessert. I think that’s pretty reasonable.

But instead, we decided to make our own ‘tasting menu’ by picking and sharing a few dishes. Our server was very helpful in pacing the service so that we could enjoy the dishes and the wine and not feel rushed.

We started with a kumquat salad. The little slices of kumquat gave the salad a refreshing citrusy character. The salad was lightly dressed, and underneath the salad was a layer of goat cheese. We both liked it very much.

For our meal, we got two half orders of pasta. One was a lobster gnocchi. It had chunks of lobster mixed with light, pillowy gnocchi. The sauce was rich and creamy and was drizzled with truffle oil. Excellent! The other was pappardelle fresh pasta sheets tossed with a lamb ragu, an aged goat cheese (that to me resembled feta), cucumbers cut into matchstick slivers, and fresh mint leaves. My wife doesn’t normally like lamb. But she raved about this dish.

After we finished the pasta, we felt satisfied and decided to quit there, rather than order an entrée. Tosca offers a small but nicely varied choice of entrées. All of the plates we saw brought out looked good.

So overall, we regret not having visited Tosca sooner. But you can be sure that we’ll be back.

23 February 2012

Krik picks from the 101 ‘best’ restaurants

I came across a blog post for The Daily Meal’s list of the 101 best restaurants in America. I couldn’t help looking at the list and checking how many I’d eaten at and how many I’ve reviewed on Krik’s Picks.

Turns out not a lot. There are only two, actually, that I’ve posted on this blog. No. 65 on the Daily Meal’s list is minibar in DC. I went there in early 2010. I might argue that it should be higher on the list, but I certainly agree that it belongs there. The second restaurant on the list that I’ve reviewed on Krik’s Picks is Bouchon in the Napa Valley, CA.

Then, there a couple of close calls. The Daily Meal’s list has Frontera Grill in Chicago. I don’t have a review of Frontera, but I do have a review of Topolobompo, which is Rick Bayless’s sister restaurant to Frontera. In fact, I kind of had the impression that Topo is supposed to be superior to Frontera. But I can’t say from experience. Then the list has Jaleo in Las Vega. I’ve reviewed Jaleo in Washington, DC. I can’t imagine that Chef Jose Andres would do things dramatically different in Las Vegas compared to DC. But again, I can’t say from experience.

Then finally, there are two restaurants on The Daily Meal’s list that I’ve eaten at but never reviewed on my blog. In both cases, I wasn’t writing this blog when I at there. Since I started Krik’s Picks in August 2006, that tells you how long ago I’ve eaten at these two. The first was Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia. At the time, it was the most expensive meal I’d ever ordered. Truth is, I had a bet with my former boss (now retired) whose home was in Philadelphia. I don’t even remember what the bet was for. But I was supposed to buy him the prix fixe dinner at Le Bec-Fin. It was an amazing meal. The second restaurant on the list that I haven’t reviewed on my blog is Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. The sad postscript for me is that I haven’t been to New Orleans since the hurricane. Time to go again, I say.

So it was kind of fun to go thru the list and reminisce about these fabulous restaurants and regret that I haven’t been to more of them. But I also have to question the selection criteria. I mean, after all, not a single Minnesota restaurant on the list? When earlier this week, so many Minnesota restaurants received nominations in one category or another for James Beard Foundation awards? Seems like at least one of them belongs on the list.

I also have to quibble about some of the choices. So I concede that I haven’t been to Ben’s Chili Bowl in DC, No. 83 on The Daily Meal’s list. But I’ve read enough about it to make me wonder, if President Obama didn’t eat there, would it really be rated that high? Hey Mr. President! Come to Minnesota. I’ll take you to Al’s Breakfast or Good Day Café. If you like diner food, either one of them I’m sure matches the quality and ambiance of Ben’s. I bet you’d even find a lot of people there who plan to vote for you.

19 February 2012

Dinner for 1 at Blue Marlin, Madison

If my wife had been with me, I don’t think I would have eaten at Blue Marlin in Madison, WI when I was there earlier in February. You see, when I walked in the door, I was the only patron in the restaurant.

Now, that didn’t put me off. When I’m traveling for business, I always eat alone. I use the time to think and plan. But it was kind of unusual to be the only diner in the restaurant. And Linda definitely wants a more social atmosphere when we pick a restaurant.

I picked the Blue Marlin because a few years ago, when Linda came along with me on a business trip to Madison, we walked by and the lunch menu looked interesting. I actually don’t remember if we had lunch there. But it made my list of places to stop back and try again.

So I walked in, and they gave me a good table. (Duh.) I had already previewed the menu online, so I kind of knew what I wanted.

I started with the crab curry soup. I had checked the online reviews, and several diners had recommended it. Well, just as I started my soup, Diner No. 2 came in the door. So, now there were two of us. Naturally, they gave him a good table … right next to mine.

Like I said, when I’m on business travel, I’m used to eating alone. But here I am, sitting in a nice restaurant, and there’s one other diner in the place. How can I not acknowledge him and say hello? So quite contrary to my inclination, we strike up a conversation. He’s from Florida. First time in Madison. We have a nice chat.

After a little while, my meal arrived. I had salt baked salmon with Israeli couscous, mushrooms and brown butter, and caramelized fennel with cauliflower. It was delicious. I’ve always been intrigued by salt-crusted fish. I expected that it would be quite salty. But it really wasn’t. It was deliciously moist and tender.

The other diner ordered the grilled blue marlin (the restaurant’s namesake, as he explained). I was intrigued by the dish as well. But the primary side was beet risotto, and I’m not a big fan of beets. So I went with the salmon that I’ve already described.

Neither one of us ordered dessert. We left at the same time. No one else had arrived while we were eating. I made a comment to our server about the paucity of diners. He attributed it to mid-week dining in the middle of winter. I hope that was the best explanation. I really liked the restaurant. Next time in in Madison with my wife, I’d definitely consider going there … as long as it’s still in business.

15 February 2012

Another Valentine’s Day dinner at Meritage, St. Paul

How many times is a blogger allowed to write about the same subject? This is my fourth post about Meritage in St. Paul. I’ve written about a dinner with friends, a lunch, and I even wrote about another Valentine’s Day dinner there (in 2010). But it is my favorite restaurant, so here goes again.Meritage

I liked the table they gave us. It was in a corner. Not really private, but some of the other tables are set pretty close to each other, and this gave us just a little more room. (I think the best tables in the restaurant are along the window looking out onto the sidewalk and Rice Park and Landmark Center. Very cosmopolitan.)

The food was excellent again. They had a Valentine’s Day tasting menu. I thought it looked good, but my wife wasn’t too thrilled by a couple of the items, and they said that everyone at the table had to order the tasting menu. Besides, it was $75; probably worth it, but a little pricey.

So I started with a smoked salmon rillette, one of the $3 amusements at the top of the menu. It was fantastic – rich, smooth, with a nice smoky flavor, spread on a crisp bite of toast. I also had a salad of Bibb lettuce and radicchio. The flavors were excellent, and it was served with a nice light dressing. For my entrée I had the evening specialty, which was braised short ribs. I thought they were very good. The meat was fork tender. But I thought the short ribs that I made for Thanksgiving this year were better.

My wife started with French onion soup. That was excellent, hot and oniony with lots of flavorful melted cheese. For her entrée, she ordered the duck breast. While it was served slightly too rare for her, I thought it was fabulous, and it would have been a better choice for my meal.

So the food was up to par and met my expectations. Unfortunately, there were two glitches that were disappointing and frustrating. First, the service was spotty. After we were seated for a while, our server rushed by and promised he’d be with us in just a minute. But it actually was several minutes. Then he had a little bit of an attitude about the wine my wife ordered. “Drinkable, but nothing special.” Seems like there should be a more diplomatic way of expressing your opinion about a house wine without being so condescending.

The second problem was not the restaurant’s fault, but it was frustrating nonetheless. A party of four was seated at the table next to us, and one of the group was wearing a very strong scented perfume. It was really very unpleasant and annoying. If our tables had been squeezed closer together, as some of them are at Meritage, I’m not sure if the odor would have been tolerable.

So 5 stars for creative menu, excellent food and enjoyable ambiance. But 3 stars this time for service, and an unfortunate asterisks to denote the overwhelming perfume odor.

 

Next I got a salad. It also very good – fresh and creative with a nice light dressing.

11 February 2012

Dinner at Sea Salt, Naples, FL

I recently attended a conference in Naples, FL. My wife came along to warm up a little from winter. It’s not that we’re having such a cold winter in MN. But it’s not Florida.

Each night of the conference, there was a reception at the end of the sessions. But a group of us usually felt like getting something a little more substantial despite noshing on reception food. So one night, we made our way into Old Naples to Sea Salt.SeaSalt1

There were 6 of us in the group, and we didn’t have a reservation when we arrived at about 7:30 p.m. Nevertheless, they were able to find us a table with only a short wait. We were sort of on a patio at the transition from the outdoor dining to the main door. They had a guitar soloist performing right at the entry. He was fairly aggressive, coming right up to people as they were waiting for a table and very obviously shilling for a tip. I tipped him early so that he’d leave us alone after that. Despite his brazenness, he was pretty entertaining, and he played from the minute we arrived and was still playing when we left. Not bad for a few dollars tip.

Everyone had eaten something at the reception, but some had eaten more than others. So there was quite a range in the kinds of food that was ordered. I think about half the table ordered an entrée but no starter. Others had either a salad or a starter without an entrée.

I chose cannelloni stuffed with roasted veal, spinach and ricotta, served with roast carrot ragu. I thought it was very creative and tasty. The cannelloni was house made, very tender and light. The filling was very flavorful, and the ragu provided a nice counterpoint to the veal, spinach and cheese. As you can see in the photo, it was a very generous portion. Considering what I ate at the reception, I should have asked if they’d give me a half portion. Still, I ate it all and loved it.SeaSalt2

My wife had swordfish with asparagus, sopressata, artichoke, and lobster sauce. She doesn’t particularly care for asparagus, so she asked if she could have another vegetable instead. They obliged without objection; I think they gave her a serving of broccolini.

Our server was very pleasant, attentive, and knowledgeable. The prices weren’t a bargain, but I also didn’t think they were out of line for the quality of the food and the ambiance.

I don’t know when I’ll ever return to Naples. But if I do, I’d definitely consider a return visit to sea salt.