23 December 2013

Check in at the Chambers Hotel–Marin Restaurant

I’ve only been there for lunch, so far. But I’m encouraged by the new restaurant in the Chambers Hotel. Marin is the sister restaurant to Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park. Catch the northern California parallelism? The town of Mill Valley, CA, is in Marin County.

I still miss the original Chambers Kitchen. Before it closed, it was one of my two favorite, special occasion restaurants in the Twin Cities. After it closed, D’Amico & Sons took over the space, calling the restaurant D’Amico Kitchen. I ate there several times for lunches and dinners. Quite out of character for D’Amico, each experience was uneven. There would be some dishes that were amazingly good, and someone else at the same meal would be served a dish that was disappointingly ordinary.

My first visit to Marin was with my brother for our mutual birthday celebration. His birthday is in October. Mine is in November. We’ve established a tradition of meeting for lunch sometime in between. In fact, Mike and I had one of our birthday lunches at D’Amico Kitchen. If you want to read my review, click here.

When Marin opened, I recommended that we try it. We really liked it for lunch.Marin2

Mike started with soup of the day. It was a sweet potato puree, very thick with chunks of bacon. I had grilled romaine with marinated vegetables, olives and feta. I actually question if the romaine was grilled. If it was, it was very lightly grilled. I’ve made grilled romaine at home, and I think it ought to be grilled just to the edge of charring the outside leaves. Otherwise why bother? But in any case, this was a very delicious starter. The marinated vegetables were excellent, and I loved the olives and feta.

If you wanted to turn a salad into an entrée, the menu offers to add chicken, tuna, salmon, or steak.

If I have any complaint about the lunch menu at Marin, it’s hard to put together a strategy for lunch without ordering too much food. The menu offers a selection of flatbreads. They all looked tempting, and I suppose we could have split one just to get a sample. But the sandwiches are served with a choice of a side dish, and all of them looked equally as interesting. And that doesn’t even mention a list of luncheon entrées that are available.

So Mike and I decided to go with sandwiches. He had smoked chicken with blue cheese and fig jam. It was served on two sandwich rolls that looked very light and airy; perhaps they were brioche rolls. For a side, he had Brussels sprouts with pickled mushrooms.

My sandwich was egg salad and lox. It was very good. The salty lox added a nice dimension to the egg salad. The bread was substantial enough to support the egg salad and lox without distracting from them. My side was lemon quinoa. It sounded great on the menu, and it was good. But it was a little bland. Mike’s Brussels sprouts was better; the pickled mushrooms added an interesting contrast to the sprouts. I also thought the gingered lentils on the menu would have been an interesting side. Marin1

Our server was friendly and reasonably attentive. But she was a little unprofessional. We ordered a bottle of wine. That maybe unusual for Marin’s usual clientele, but we were celebrating. Mike picked the wine, and it was great. We sipped the wine and talked for a while before we ordered the food. As it turns out, we finished the bottle before our sandwiches arrived. Mike decided to order a second bottle so we could have another glass with our food. The server seemed surprised and actually made a comment like, “Oh really?” I didn’t think that was called for.

The other quibble is the space. The original Chambers Kitchen was located downstairs, in sort of an industrial basement with eclectic art on the walls and pillars. D’Amico moved the main dining room upstairs off the lobby of the hotel, and Marin also uses that space. To me, it feels too much like a lobby bar/café for the hotel, rather than a dining destination. It may be ok for breakfast and lunch, but I’m reserving judgment until after I’ve tried it for dinner.

I will try it for dinner. As I said at the beginning, I’m encouraged. I’d love to be able to add Marin to my short list of creative restaurants in the Twin Cities.

22 December 2013

Union Fish Market addendum

I posted my review of Union Fish Market and realized that I neglected to mention one of the best parts of our meal. As you will read in the post below, my wife and I ordered the lightly grilled sea bass for our entrées. We both also ordered the lobster bisque with sweet potato as our starter.

Sometimes I worry a little that I’m sort of obnoxious when I pull out my camera to take a picture of my food at a restaurant. But oh how I wish that I had taken a picture of the presentation of the bisque. A movie, in fact, would have been better.

The servers set a bowl in front of each of us. In the bowl was the lobster meat and other bisque ingredients. Over the bowl was a lattice of what looked like spun sugar. I asked about it and was told that it wasn’t sugar but it did add just a touch of sweetness to the soup. Then they poured the hot soup over the lattice which dissolved into the bowl. So that was really cool.

The flavors of the bisque fully justified the dramatic presentation. The soup was a little thicker than most lobster bisques that I’ve ever had. The sweet potato provided an unusual complement to the generous chunks of tender lobster meat. I mentioned ‘other ingredients.’ The soup includes a small serving of smoked roe. I haven’t had roe very often, so at first I didn’t realize what I was eating. As I ate the bisque, I would see these hard little bubbles floating around. When I’d get one in a spoonful of soup, I would use my tongue to pop it and it would evaporate into an ephemeral, briny mist.

It was certainly the most unusual lobster bisque I’ve ever had. And also the most memorable … in a good way.

Hooked by Union Fish Market, Mpls.

Last summer, I posted a rave review of Union Rooftop in Minneapolis. (Click here to read it.) The rooftop restaurant continues to be a popular spot for all the reasons I cited in my review. But since Union opened, it’s street level restaurant couldn’t seem to find a following. I guess if you couldn’t get a table on the rooftop, people tended to just go someplace else.

Then in September, the restaurant shifted gears. Instead of a nondescript restaurant, it’s now a fish restaurant, and it certainly appears as though the new format is a hit. We went there for a winter solstice dinner with friends. I didn’t have any trouble getting a reservation for the time we preferred (7 p.m.), but when we arrived, the tables were full. During the evening, things thinned out a bit around 8. But by the time we left around 9, most of the tables were full again. I took that as a good sign. Also, the restaurant is getting favorable reviews on Yelp (a 1-star rating was actually for the rooftop) and a recommendation by Rick Nelson, the Star Tribune’s food writer.DSC00641

The dining experience for the four of us was great. We all agreed that Union Fish rates among the best of Twin Cities fish and seafood restaurants. It compares favorably to Oceanaire in terms of quality, preparation, and presentation and is less expensive. I think it’s better than McCormick & Schmick (which has disappointed me too often at dinner, still like it for lunch). It might be more expensive than Stella’s (which is another favorite of mine) but I like the ambiance of Union Fish much more than the Uptown vibe of Stella’s. I guess if I were to pick another Twin Cities fish restaurant that’s most comparable to Union Fish, it would be Blue Point in Wayzata.

The menu at Union Fish is not as expansive as Oceanaire. But it does offer a nice variety. There’s a tempting assortment of chef’s specialties alongside a list of traditional fish house classics (for example fish and chips and crab cake). There’s a ‘simply grilled’ section that offers a moderately sized piece of fish, simply grilled, served with a choice of sauce and a side order of vegetable or potato. Besides a raw bar selection, the menu also offers several shellfish entrées and a few non-fish items.

Our friends and we got a nice sample of the menu’s variety. One diner ordered fish and chips. It was a very generous portion of lightly battered cod served with very large potato wedges. I felt the potato wedges were too large to be called ‘chips,’ but my friend liked them. His wife ordered scallops from the chef specialties. She was served five nice-sized scallops, cooked just done but still moist and tender. The plate was decorated with dollops of pureed beets and toasted pistachios. She said they were the best scallops she’d ever eaten. She also ordered a Caesar salad. It was not a classic Caesar, but rather was made with baby kale, a soft-boiled egg, brioche croutons, and parmesan cheese. (No anchovy was offered or served.)

Usually my wife and I make a point of not ordering the same thing. But this time, we did. From the simply grilled section of the menu we ordered sea bass. It was fantastic. The fish was very fresh. It was grilled through for doneness, but remained very moist and flakey. For my sauce, I chose a sesame vinaigrette which gave the fish a bright tanginess. (I actually liked the fish so much, I ate about a third of it just plain without any sauce.) My wife chose the butter sauce. She said it made the fish taste like lobster. For our side dishes, we both chose Brussels sprouts. These were pan seared, crisp in the middle but slightly caramelized on the outside. With the sprouts were pieces of walnuts and chewy pieces of bacon.

One Yelp reviewer also wrote about the simply grilled sea bass and complained that the piece was too small for the price. But I disagree. I thought the size of the serving was ample. In fact, my wife couldn’t finish hers and brought home the leftovers. (I should note that our friend who ordered the fish and chips also brought home about a third of his dinner.)

We didn’t order cocktails, though there were some interesting craft cocktails on the menu. My wife and I each ordered a glass of a French sauvignon blanc. The friend who ordered fish and chips had a beer. I thought the wine list was very approachable with a nice variety ranging from affordable to expensive. I really wanted to try a Vouvray on the menu but it wasn’t available by the glass.

So Union Fish Market goes on our list of restaurants that we’ll recommend as well as return to in the future.

Closing note: In my review of Union Rooftop, I raved about the veal chop that I ordered that night. Well Union Fish Market has the same veal chop on its short list of non-fish entrées.

19 December 2013

Luci Ancora in St. Paul–good, but is this the best we can do?

I haven’t ranted about Italian restaurants in Minnesota lately. My dinner at Luci Ancora in mid-December gives me a chance to ask, yet again: “Why don’t we have first class Italian restaurants in Minnesots?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with Luci Ancora. I had a perfectly fine meal with a couple of former co-workers who live in Washington, DC. But when it was all over, we agreed that it just isn’t in the same class as great DC Italian restaurants, such as Fiola, Acqua al 2, Bibiana.

This was my first time eating at Luci Ancora. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. It’s in a nice location, right across the street from the campus of St. Catherine University. They have a small parking lot. I got there early enough to get a spot. It would have been easy to also get convenient street parking. But the city streets were still pretty snow-clogged, so I was glad to be in the lot.

Inside, Luci Ancora is very warm and welcoming. The modest-sized dining room is open and the tables are not at all crowded. There’s a natural wood fireplace on the wall opposite the entrance. The crackling warmth of the fire helped to take the chill out of the winter weather. We were meeting for an early dinner, and when I got there, most of the tables were open. I was given my choice of tables. I picked one near the fireplace. LuciAncora

Since I was early, I ordered a glass of wine to sip while waiting for my companions. The restaurant’s wine list is dominated by Italian winemakers, as you’d expect and as is appropriate. There’s a nice selection of moderately priced wine by the glass. I chose a barbera; $8. The same wines are available by the bottle at very reasonable prices. There’s also a good selection of more expensive wines by the bottle, again mostly Italian.

Luci Ancora offers a tasting menu – reduced size portions of daily specials. On Tuesdays, if two or more people order the tasting menu, it’s only $25. We were there on a Tuesday. The first course was crostini with tapenade. The second course was soup of the day or a salad. The soup was split pea with shrimp in shrimp broth. The pasta course was rigatoni with a lamb ragu. The fish was New Zealand salmon with radicchio and red cabbage slaw. As an alternative to the fish course, you can choose Kobe beef steak.

It was tempting, but in the end, none of us ordered it. I opted for a Caesar salad and lamb shank. The Caesar was very good, maybe a little heavy on the garlic (my wife complained when I got home), and I appreciated the anchovies. I’ve found many places don’t even offer anchovy on a Caesar because so many people don’t want it. My lamb shank was excellent. It was not at all fatty and was braised absolutely fork-tender. It was served ‘au jus’ in a bowl with tomatoes and carrots. I should have ordered more bread to soak up some of the juice, but I’d already eaten a couple of pieces with butter (wrong brand, i.e. not Land O Lakes). I had another glass of the barbera with the lamb, which was a great accompaniment.

Both of my companions had a mixed green salad. It looked good, but I think my Caesar was better. One of them had an order of the salmon special. It looked very good and was nicely presented. She ate every bite. The other person had the special pasta. That also looked delicious; I’m sure I would have enjoyed it.

So in the end, we had a good meal. But I told my wife when I got home, that I wouldn’t drive across town to go there again. We have Arezzo, Broder’s Pasta Bar, and Trattoria Tosca on the Minneapolis side of the river. And I’m still looking for a Minnesota Italian restaurant that makes me say ‘wow’ at the end of the meal.

21 November 2013

Yikes! A 9-mile hike through Manhattan

Our October trip to New York City started with a delicious meal in a French bistro and listening to some great jazz. So my wife and I awoke the next morning with the intent of seeing as much as we could during the day. Fortunately, while the temp was a little brisk, it was bright and sunny.

We are inveterate walkers. When we’re on vacation, we like to pick central city hotels and use them as a base to explore a city on foot. Linda had spent some time investigating sights to see and neighborhoods to visit. She had mapped out a route for us to take.

From our Midtown hotel, we started out down 5th Ave. As we started out one of the things I noticed in particular was the number of men wearing formal business attire. Mostly suits, but if not suits, then certainly jacket and tie. It struck me as quite a contrast to downtown Minneapolis. I came to two alternative, and complementary, conclusions. First, maybe the pendulum is swinging back toward a more buttoned down look for business professionals and away from casual, business casual, and just plain sloppy. The second is that I observed a lot of men’s clothing stores featuring business attire. Sure there were the ubiquitous Jos. Banks and Men's Wearhouse. But there also were menswear boutiques and custom made shops. Lots of choices for looking sharp and professional. (Too bad I’m now retired.)DSC00545

Our intermediate destination for the morning was the Flatiron Building, then ultimately SoHo. That was 3 miles by way of Washington Square. We shopped around a bit and then made our way through Greenwich Village and the West Village toward Chelsea Market (1.5 miles). Part of Linda’s goal was to find some fun shopping. She really wanted to find stores with unique and unusual clothing or jewelry. Just before lunch, she found a section in the West Village along Bleeker Street that appealed to her.

At Chelsea Market we met a nephew who was working in the Meatpacking District. He took us to a hip grill for lunch. (I should clarify – he took us to the restaurant, but we paid for lunch.) Then after lunch we backtracked to Bleeker Street so we could shop.

After shopping, we made our way to the southern start of the High Line, which is near Chelsea Market. (Add another mile for the jaunt to West Village and then back to the High Line.) The High Line is an elevated railroad line that’s been transformed into green space and a walkway. We walked the length of it – 1 mile.

Then we walked from the north end of the High Line to Times Square; add another mile. This was one of the few things that Linda and I really differed on. She found Times Square to be exciting and vibrant. I found it to be noisy, dirty, and unappealing. Those two things are not necessarily contradictory, I know. But I would have been just as happy to have come and gone without ever walking through Times Square.

We finally staggered the final 3/4 of a mile back to the hotel. Took a rest and then got ready for our evening. Dinner, as I mention in the next post, was at a restaurant right across the street from our hotel. But we weren’t quite done walking yet. After dinner we walked down 5th Ave. again to the Langham Place Hotel where we had a cocktail and listened to a jazz combo performing in the lounge. Log that as another 1.5 miles.

All told, it was at least 9 miles of walking that day. Good thing I have good shoes – Ecco. They’re comfortable and they look good too.

NYC Dinner #2: Fig & Olive Midtown

After a long day of walking, sightseeing, and exploring, I was glad that we didn’t have to go far for dinner. We had made a reservation at the Midtown location of the Fig & Olive. We picked the restaurant because we liked the creative menu. At the time, we didn’t realize that there were multiple locations in the city. This location was right across the street from our hotel.

One of the things that appealed to my wife and me was the prix fixe option on the menu. We tend to like that approach as long as the options look appealing. It’s sort of like a pseudo-tasting menu, only with more flexibility for individual preferences. DSC00548

For our dinner at Fig & Olive, my wife started with the house salad. Sorry if that doesn’t sound too exciting. But the list of ingredients in the salad were very appealing – fig, apple, manchego cheese, gorgonzola, tomato, walnut, olives, romaine and other greens, scallion, and fig balsamic vinegar. It was an excellent salad.

My meal started with a mushroom croquette. It was made with cremini mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, a béchamel sauce, and was dressed with a truffle olive oil aioli. The crust was very buttery and flakey. The mushrooms were excellent, and the whole dish was quite rich.

For an entrée, Linda choose tuna Provençale. The menu said the tuna would be seared. Linda expressed a preference for it to be cooked to medium. They did a nice job of accommodating her preference. The plate included some potatoes and roasted cherry tomatoes. On the side was a small serving of a roasted eggplant caviar.

My entrée was an individual serving of paella del mar. I thought it was delicious. There was a nice variety of fish and seafood on the plate, including shrimp, mussels, scallops plus vegetables – peas, red bell peppers and artichokes.

For dessert Linda ordered chocolate pot de crème. I ordered a dessert crostini with cherry, mascarpone, pistachios, on shortbread.

While we enjoyed each of the restaurants we ate at in New York, Fig & Olive was definitely the most creative. I would recommend it.

25 October 2013

Recipe: Broccoli Cheddar Soup warms a chilly Oct. day

Since retiring in July, I’ve had to start planning things to have for lunch. When I was working, I’d either have a lunch meeting, or I’d eat in the cafeteria, or I’d skip lunch (especially if I’d had a good breakfast that day). I might still choose to skip lunch, but that would mean my wife would have to eat lunch alone, and she’d prefer not to. So I’ve been planning leftovers and other dishes that I can quickly heat up for lunch.

Now that it’s October and the weather is getting chilly, soup is a logical choice. This week, I decided I wanted to make a cheese soup. I had an ulterior motive. I may have mentioned in a previous post that I had a particularly robust crop of Serrano peppers in my garden. They were ripening faster than I could use them. So I went looking for a recipe for homemade pepper sauce. I settled on the recipe I found on the Food Network web site from Emeril Lagasse. (Click here: Homemade Red Hot Sauce.) SerranoPeppers

Here is a photo of my beautiful Serrano peppers. I followed Emeril’s recipe as posted.

I decided a cheese soup would taste good with a little bit of the pepper sauce stirred in. So I started looking for a cheese soup recipe. I actually was a bit frustrated that it wasn’t easy to find one … at least it wasn’t easy to find a recipe that sounded good to me.

Finally I found this recipe for Broccoli Cheddar Soup from the Cabot Creamery co-op in New England. It’s pretty easy to make – sauté with butter half an onion and two cubed potatoes. Dust the vegetables with flour and let it cook a couple minutes. Stir in equal amounts of milk and chicken stock (I used a homemade turkey stock). When the broccoli is cooked tender, stir in grated cheddar cheese, season, and serve.

One modification of the recipe, of course, I added a scant teaspoon of the pepper sauce to my bowl when I ate it. The pepper sauce created a warm glow in my mouth while eating the soup. (Instead of the homemade pepper sauce, you could use Tabasco, New Orleans Hot Sauce, or any other kind of hot sauce that you might like.)

The other major modification was that I blended the soup after the broccoli was cooked. If you look at the photo on Cabot’s web site, you’ll see that it’s more of a chowder consistency, with chunks of broccoli and potato. I wanted more of a smooth soup with smaller chunks of broccoli in it. So I poured the batch into my blender and gave it a quick whirl. Then I poured it back into the pot and stirred in the grated cheese. It turned out great.

I did actually make one other modification. Cabot’s recipe calls for Cabot butter when sautéing the onions and potatoes. I used Land O Lakes.

Sorry I didn’t take a picture of my final version.

So here’s my verdict. My wife and I ate about half of the pot of soup for lunch. I’ll have the rest for lunch over the next couple of days. My wife doesn’t like the potatoes in the soup. She asked if next time, I would make it with only one potato. My feeling is that the potato primarily helps to make the soup thicker. By blending it before stirring in the cheese, I’m not sure it even needs the potato. Next time, I may simply leave the potatoes out.

24 October 2013

La Mediterranee NYC – good food, comfortable ambiance, jazz

My wife and I arrived in New York on a Thursday afternoon. We were looking forward to a long weekend of good food and jazz music. We did our typical prep for our trip, looking up restaurants in the neighborhood of our hotel (Omni Berkshire Place, Midtown East) and checking menus and online ratings.

For our first night, anticipating that we would be tired from traveling and not yet very familiar with our locale, we picked a restaurant that also had music. La Mediterranee was a 6-block walk from the hotel. We liked the menu (French bistro) and on Thursday nights, in addition to the house piano player (French and American standards), they also have another guest combo. DSC00544

Because we had had a late lunch, we delayed our reservation until 8:30. We arrived in time for the last few minutes of the house pianist’s performance. Sipping a cocktail and listening to him, we could tell that he really enjoyed performing. He played with intensity and enthusiasm that was easily conveyed to the diners. We were disappointed when he closed his book at 9 p.m.

While the guest combo set up, we ordered our food.

One of the things my wife and I both liked about our past trips to France was the fixed price menus that offer a three-course meal. That is one of the options at La Mediterranee, and that’s what my wife decided to order. She started with the French onion soup, which was very rich, and she enjoyed it very much. Her entrée was pistachio crusted salmon, which also was delicious. For dessert, she ordered mixed berries with cream.

I decided I wanted the beef Bourguignon for my entrée. It was offered on the fixed price menu. But the salad I wanted was not. So I decided to order off the ala carte menu. I started with a goat cheese salad with pistachios, tomatoes and orange segments. Excellent. My entrée was very flavorful and fork-tender. I was very pleased by the meal. Lucky me, my wife shared some of her dessert.

The guest combo that started playing shortly after 9 was great. We liked them so much that we asked where they would be playing the next night. (In the end, we didn’t go listen to them, but kind of regretted it.) They quit playing at 11, maybe a little early for our preference; we would have happily ordered more drinks and stayed until midnight. But not bad for a Thursday in an unfamiliar city after a day of travel.

As the evening came to an end, we struck up a conversation with the diners sitting at the next table. They were a brother and sister and their 90+ year old mother. They all were having as much fun as we were. They told us that they are regulars at La Mediteranee and really appreciate the hospitality of the owner-host. We could tell that the restaurant, perhaps not on the radar screen of the city’s Foodie scene, had an intensely loyal clientele.

It was our favorite restaurant of our visit to New York.

15 October 2013

A great meal w/ friends at Burch Mpls.

I kinda thought that I was all done celebrating retirement. But when the offer came to host a dinner in my honor, I didn’t hesitate to accept. When asked for suggestions about a venue, I offered a couple of tried and true favorites and then added Burch Steak & Pizza. I hadn’t been to Burch but wanted to give it a try. So I was pleased when the host picked that as the restaurant.

As the date approached, I asked a few acquaintances about their opinions. I discovered an interesting division of opinion. There are some people who are totally unimpressed by Burch. It’s not that they think it’s bad. But the attitude is that it’s an expensive meal and the steaks are not that special. On the other hand, I talked to others who really loved the place.

My observation is that those views are not really as divergent as they may seem. The main area of agreement is on the sides and starters. Most of the people I talked to raved about them, even to the extent of (the naysayers) suggesting that the starters and appetizers were the only thing worth the fuss. DSC00542

Our group certainly enjoyed the starters. Now, I wasn’t in charge of the meal. So I didn’t pick the starters and I didn’t get to taste everything that was ordered. What I do know is that they disappeared very quickly. Three items that I tasted and particularly impressed me were the fish starters – salmon tartar, ahi tuna, and marlin crudo.

I tasted the salmon tartar first. It’s served with shallots and kalamata olives and is dressed with a citrus-infused olive oil (called agrumato on the menu). I thought the flavors were sublime. Next I tried the ahi tuna, and it was as good as I’ve had anywhere else. Then came the marlin crudo. It was was very unique, served with peppers, onions, and pine nuts and was excellent.

One item that was in high demand was sea beans with crab. I actually didn’t get to taste any, but the consensus around the table was that they were fantastic.

Not everyone ordered a salad, but my wife and I did (and we shared with others). I thought mine was excellent. It was hearts of palm and frisee (also called curly endive) with avocado and smoked trout. I particularly liked the smoked trout – moist and delicate with a delightful smoky flavor. My grandfather used to smoke trout, and I truly loved it. But it’s a difficult thing to make without letting the trout get dried out.

As far as the sides go, Burch is known for its dumplings. Our table ordered a variety of them. They all were good. For me, the most noteworthy were the ‘Schupfnudel’ with walnuts and gorgonzola.

So at a restaurant called Burch ‘Steak’ you might wonder if they put much effort into non-beef items. Well a few at our table had fish, and they raved. In particular, the tuna that was on special that night drew big praise from those who tried it.

I opted for steak, however. Burch offers quite a variety of steak options. The menu presents multiple cuts of meat in three categories – grass-fed, prime, and Waygu. I was leaning toward the 7-oz. prime New York steak, and that is what my wife had. But one of my friends really wanted to split the 32-oz. prime rib eye. His wife said she wanted fish, so I agreed to split it with him.

The rib eye was excellent. But it reminded me that I really do prefer a leaner steak. My wife let me taste her New York steak, and I thought it was better. They do serve a small sampling of sauces with the steaks, including sautéed mushrooms. I thought they were good, but the steaks really stood on their own and didn’t need a sauce to enhance any flavors.

So going back to the views that were offered by other people, those who were lukewarm about Burch felt that it was expensive for what you got. Well since I wasn’t paying, I can’t really provide an assessment of overall value. But comparing Burch to downtown steakhouses, I would compare it favorably to any of them, and would recommend the sides and starters as truly distinguishing components of the meal.

I’d go back in a minute.

09 October 2013

Working lunch at Capital Grill, Mpls.

All right, so I’m retired. Every once in a while, my former colleagues find that they need to consult to get some background or perspective on a working matter. And I’m happy to oblige, as long as lunch is included.

So it was that I ended up at the Capital Grill in Minneapolis for a very pleasant business lunch. My colleague wanted to touch base on a few matters, and he also needed to check out the Capital Grill as a possible venue for a future business dinner. Suits me just fine. CapGrillLunch

I probably had lunch at the Capital Grille in DC more often than in Minneapolis. By and large, the chain is a good, reliable steakhouse and a nice place to have a lunch meeting. As I perused the menu, I was intrigued by the addition of a three-course lunch menu that I don’t recall seeing (at any location) in the past.

That’s what I opted for, as did my colleague.

Course 1: I started with a special soup, squash bisque with crab. Excellent.

Course 2: I was wavering between the luncheon steak or a lobster roll. If I had gone with the lobster roll, I probably would not have started with the crab soup. But the server offered me an item that was not on the menu yet – sirloin hash with an egg. That clinched it for me. I love hash.

Course 3: Green beans that were wonderfully sautéed and buttery.

At $18, this wasn’t a bargain lunch. But I liked the variety of offerings and the Capital Grille always does an excellent job with preparation and presentation.

If anyone wants to treat me to a business lunch, I’d happily return to Capital Grille.

07 October 2013

At long last! Tomatoes from my garden

I think it’s been about 25 years since I successfully grew tomatoes in my garden. I used to have great success with tomatoes as well as zucchini, snap peas, string beans, even one year Brussels sprouts. And roses, too. I grew beautiful roses.

That was in our first house in Minneapolis on Vincent Ave. I had a great garden then. I think that’s at least partially why my son has become an enthusiastic gardener. It reminds him of his childhood when he would go down to the garden and pick fresh vegetables. Now his kids do the same thing.

(A short anecdote: I also had a lot of success growing peppers, especially jalapenos. Our neighbor to the south was a very nice man, I suppose about the age of my parents. He was nice but a bit of a curmudgeon. In one of the houses abutting our backyard was a nice young family, just a little older than us. One of their kids was a bit of a rascal; nothing really bad, just noisy and rambunctious. One day the curmudgeon slyly picked a jalapeno and gave it to the rascal, innocently encouraging him to take a bite. Of course the boy went yowling home. Just a little bit of neighborly revenge in Linden Hills.)

We lived in that house for 10 years, but eventually outgrew it and moved to Edina. Our first house in Edina had a great yard. But for some reason, it was impossible to get a garden started. Nothing got well established. Not tomatoes, not roses, not even peppers. (In retrospect, I think I should have excavated a patch of grass and brought in some good garden soil. Instead, I tried to make due with what I had.)

After 9 years there, we moved again to another house in Edina, where I still live. This house has also has a great yard, but it’d heavily wooded. There’s so much shade that it’s been nearly impossible to grow vegetables. Year after year I’d buy a flat of tomato plants. Year after year, we’d harvest one or two tomatoes per plant. Sometimes we wouldn’t even get that much. My wife and I sadly lamented our $3 tomatoes. Finally I gave up.

I accepted the fact that I needed to treat my yard like a shade garden. So I put in a lot of hostas and other shade-loving perennials. In a very small plot that got a decent amount of direct sun, I planted various herbs and pepper plants. Peppers, by the way, have thrived in my garden. Especially jalapenos.

My son, as I’ve mentioned, is an avid gardener. He even starts his own tomatoes (and other plants) from seed in his basement while there’s still snow on the ground. This spring, he said that he had a few extra tomato plants and some Serrano peppers. He asked if I wanted some.

The peppers were easy. But I was reluctant to take the tomatoes. Even with free plants, did I want to risk the humiliation of a crop failure? I had a couple of trees removed and hoped that would increase the amount of light in my small patch. Against my better judgment, I agreed to take four plants. Tomatoes2013

Well hallelujah! I don’t know if it was getting rid of the trees or if the basement-started plants were more productive or if the weather this year was just right. But for whatever reason, I had decent tomatoes. All four plants grew and thrived and bore fruit – not just a few shrunken consolation prizes, but real, delectable, juicy ripe tomatoes. We’ve eaten them all either on their own or as part of salads. For my various recipes that call for fresh tomatoes (pizza, ratatouille, tomato jam, oven roasted tomatoes), I still used ones that I bought at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

Now, as autumn makes its inexorable journey, I’m still harvesting ripe tomatoes from my plants. And most of the plants are heavy with green tomatoes. I’m planning to leave them on the vine until the threat of frost. Then I’ll harvest the green ones and hope that they ripen.

I hope that my son has a few extra plants again next spring.

01 October 2013

Pizza Postscript–a Word of Explanation

In yesterday’s post I commented that despite having a pretty good experience at Pig Ate My Pizza, my wife and I likely wouldn’t trek to Robbinsdale just for pizza. The main reason is because we like the pizzas we make at home better than any restaurant pizza.HomemadePizza

So for example, this photo is of a pizza that we made a few weeks ago.

You can find pizza crust recipes basically anywhere. The recipe we use is from the New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook. I guess its out of print now. Our copy is copyright 1971. We probably got it as a wedding present in 1974. The pizza crust recipe is very basic, just flour, water, yeast, and olive oil. We like it because it produces a crisp crust that doesn’t interfere with the toppings we put on.

We topped this particular pizza with fresh Roma tomatoes from the Minneapolis farmers market, fresh basil from our garden, and supermarket mozzarella cheese (from Cub).

We most often make pizza on Sunday nights. After a busy weekend, we usually just want to relax with a simple pizza, salad, and a martini. I mix up the dough for the crust and grate the cheese while my wife prepares the toppings. (We like to have all the knife work done before pouring the martinis.)

Then while the pizza dough is rising, we relax with a martini, usually featuring olives stuffed with gorgonzola or blue cheese. When the pizza dough is ready, we pre-bake it for a few minutes, then put on the toppings and finish it off. When the cheese is nice and melted, dinner is served.

Really, this is so simple, good, and relaxing that we have no motivation to go to a restaurant for pizza. Even if that restaurant takes reservations.

30 September 2013

Pig Ate My Pizza in Robbinsdale, MN

I never ate at Travail. That was the ultra-trendy chef-driven restaurant that thrived for 2+ years in Robbinsdale. There are two reasons why I never ate there, despite enduring derisive comments from friends along the lines of: “How can you not want to go? You’d love it!”

Reason 1 (and the main reason) – No reservations. Sorry, but I feel that policy reflects a bit of snobbery as well as disrespect for a customer’s time. The word was, you had to show up by 5:30 to get a table at Travail, or contend with an undefined wait that could be hours long. And no disrespect for Robbinsdale intended, but there just isn’t that much to do while killing time waiting for a table.

Reason 2 – The other word was that if you did manage to get a table, you really had to order the tasting menu. Well, I’m probably venturesome enough to try the tasting menu. But I guess I really would like to have the flexibility to order what I want, not take what the chef feels like serving that evening (though I’m sure that it would be noteworthy). PigPizzas

There was a big hue and cry about Travail’s decision to close and reboot this spring. But the creative minds behind the restaurant had ambitious plans in the works, including a rebirth in a new location and a pizza joint in the old. The pizza joint was named Pig Ate My Pizza. I don’t know why.

But curiosity got the best of me. I needed to meet my son recently. He lives in North Minneapolis, not far from Robbinsdale. I suggested we get lunch. We considered a few options, and then I suggested Pig Ate My Pizza. Ben quickly agreed. He brought along his wife and son.

We got there right at noon, when the restaurant opens. We had our choice of tables. Ben chose a funky booth. The interior and décor is pretty rustic. The menu is posted on a couple of chalk boards. The lunch menu is somewhat abbreviated from the dinner menu, but enough choices to satisfy most palates.

For the five of us (four adults and a three-year old), we ordered two pizzas, but no salads or starters. The amount of food was ample.

One pizza was the margarita. It was a pretty classic presentation – nice chewy crust, garlicky tomatoes, and big creamy puddles of melted mozzarella cheese. This was my favorite.

The other pizza was called Blind Melon. It had arugula, prosciutto, goat cheese, and tapenade.PigPizzas2

The pizzas were creative and tasty. The service was friendly and attentive. The ambiance is relaxed and friendly.

We asked about the pizza tasting menus that were posted on the chalkboard – $60 for two people, $110 for four. My son thought it sounded good. He may give it a try. But Linda and I aren’t likely to drive to Robbinsdale for pizza dinner. Still, I did enjoy it enough to return for lunch someday.

And did I mention? Still no reservations.

20 September 2013

Parlour offers casual alternative to upstairs Borough, Mpls

My wife and I went to Borough (North Loop, Minneapolis) earlier this year. We loved it. The drinks were creative and expertly made. The food was delicious, and the menu offered enough variety so that we and our friends could find things that we liked.

When we had finished upstairs, we wandered downstairs to the ‘below street-level’ bar called Parlour. We really liked the ambiance. We bumped into some friends who were dining there, and they said it was great. So we filed that recommendation away for future reference.

Fast forward to September. We had a rare open Saturday. We decided that North Loop sounded fun. There was a Prince cover band playing at Bunker’s. All we needed was to find a place to eat before the first set. Borough/Parlour is right across the street. So our plan was – we’d go to Parlour. If we could get in in a reasonable amount of time, ok. We’d eat there. Otherwise, we’d head back west to St. Louis Park, eat at Figlio and catch some Irish music at the Cooper.

Well, much to our surprise, when we walked into Parlour, we practically had our choice of tables. We settled in to a high top with a sidewalk-level view of the street and started to peruse the cocktail menu. The special cocktails are very appealing. Linda had a hard time deciding, and the server was very accommodating with a spot-on recommendation. She chose an Old-Fashioned. I was tempted by several on the menu. But I asked if the bartender made a Sazerac. He did. That’s what I ordered, and it was great.

We planned to eat light. (If we’d wanted a more extensive dinner, we would have tried Borough upstairs.) Linda chose the burger. It was a delicious, meaty sandwich. I chose the fried cauliflower which was served with tempura-fried oysters and pickled jalapenos. We also split a plate of fries. It was just what we wanted.

Over the short period of time that we were there, the place gradually filled up. We asked our server where the crowds come from. We speculated maybe Twins games. She said ‘no.’ It’s a lot of locals and regulars.

On our way out, we struck up a conversation with the bartender. Linda commented that on our visit to Borough, she had a brandy-soaked cherry in her cocktail. We tried to replicate it, but it resulted in an over-whelming alcohol flavor. The bartender gave her a cherry to sample and talked a little about the technique of preparing a cherry for a cocktail. We were impressed by his accommodating personality and willingness to take time to talk to us.

Of course, part of our entertainment for going out is people watching. We were amused to note the difference in male vs. female attire. Most of the men at Parlour wore jeans and shirt, generally not tucked in, kind of sloppy. Most of their dates were wearing long sheath dresses.

Afterwards, we went across the street to Bunker’s. We really enjoyed the Prince cover band. But ‘Wow’! What a difference in personal style. We really got the impression that not many people walk across from Parlour (or Bar La Grassa) to spend the rest of the evening at Bunker’s.

Too bad. It’s a fun place for live music.

18 September 2013

Delicious nostalgia served for lunch at Black Forest, Mpls.

When a friend/colleague (all right, my first boss) came for a visit in September, she chose an old favorite for a lunch – the Black Forest Inn. (Why do they call it an ‘Inn?’ I don’t know.)BlackForestMpls

My wife and I readily agreed, and we specified a table in the outdoor courtyard. Now, you can never depend on Minnesota weather. But this happened to be an absolutely gorgeous, beautiful day. The courtyard has a sun screen, but we enjoyed all the amenities of eating al fresco. (The internet says that the German for ‘al fresco’ is ‘Unter freiem Himmel’ or under an open (or free) heaven/sky.)

So first of all, the venue was perfect for a co-worker reunion. It was relaxed, warm, casual, with a judicious dose of nostalgia. While I like the food at Black Forest, it’s not on our list of restaurants that we regularly patronize. It’s good and unusual enough to be noteworthy.

I had the Alsatian lunch - Slices of potato, sauerkraut and smoked sausage. Delicious.

Sausage is a specialty at the Black Forest. My friend/former boss had the daily special of two sausages. Her husband had the bratwurst lunch.

Our little group did ask for some modifications of the menu. For example, my friend’s husband wanted red cabbage instead of sauerkraut with his bratwurst. They went along with that. My wife wanted fried cabbage with her lunch. At first they resisted. But the crowd was thin and the weather was so disarming that the server relented and let her substitute.

There’s a reason why the Black Forest has been around since 1965. It’s good. We’ll keep it on our list of reliable standbys and won’t wait so long before our next visit.

29 August 2013

Not Risotto Diablo

On the rare occasion when I’m alone at home for dinner, I like to make something new or different, and something that I don’t think my wife will like. So that’s what I did in August when my wife went out for dinner with girlfriends.

The pepper plants in my garden have been particularly prolific this year. Two jalapeno plants have produced a lot of nice peppers, and my son gave me five Serrano plants that are absolutely prodigious. My wife doesn’t like hot spicy food. I do. So I set about to make a recipe using jalapenos.

My personal specialty is risotto. I have a favorite recipe for risotto with tomatoes. I decided to adapt it by adding the jalapenos and creating a dish that I envisioned calling “Risotto Diablo,” intending it to be devilishly hot. I planned to eat it with some leftover grilled salmon and carrots.NotRisottoDiablo

What I’ve done with most of the jalapenos that I’ve harvested so far this summer is put them whole on the grill. After roasting them until they’re soft, I cut them open, scrape out the seeds, and then eat the roasted peppers with my burger or steak or fish, also grilled. The peppers have tasted particularly fiery. While I wanted my risotto to be hot, I did want it to be edible. So I only used one large green jalapeno.

During preparation, I took several steps to tone down the heat. I’ve been told that the heat in a jalapeno comes from the seeds and internal membranes. So I scraped them out. I’d also been told that milk and dairy products tend to neutralize the heat in a pepper. So I finished the risotto with sour cream (instead of my usual parmesan cheese).

Well, much to my disappointment, I took too many precautions; I probably should have used at least two jalapenos. In fact, the risotto was not fiery; it wasn’t even particularly hot. Truth to tell, it turned out so mild that my wife enjoyed the leftovers with another dinner of grilled salmon later in the week.

Here’s how I prepared the risotto (and here’s a link to the original that I make often – Risotto with Tomatoes & Parmesan.) As I noted above, I served the leftovers with dinner again later in the week. In order to spice it up a little, I took a Serrano pepper, minced it and mixed it into the risotto. It still wasn’t devilishly hot, but this time it had a little more kick to it.

For the tomatoes, I used oven roasted Roma tomatoes. Every summer I buy a basket of very ripe tomatoes, roast them, and then freeze them for future use. If you prefer, you can use whole tomatoes or even canned tomatoes, but if you do, you may not need all of the broth before the rice is done cooking.

When you read the recipe, you’ll note that I used a relatively new product produced by Land O’Lakes called Sauté Express. It’s basically a butter and olive oil mixture seasoned with herbs and spices. For this recipe, I used the Italian Herb. I used to work for Land O’Lakes (now retired) and I had some in the freezer.

3 cups vegetable broth
3 roasted Roma tomatoes (click here for recipe), roughly chopped
1 cube of Land O Lakes Sauté Express (or 2 tbsp. herbed butter)
1 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 minced small onion
1 or 2 large green jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
¼ cup fresh garden herbs, minced
1 cup Arborio rice
2 tbsp. sour cream

In a saucepan, bring broth to a boil then reduce to simmer. In a sauté pan, melt the Sauté Express with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Cook onion and minced jalapeno over medium heat until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes, but don’t let them brown. Stir in the rice and cook for one minute until grains are coated and glistening. Add a ladle of broth, stir constantly until liquid is absorbed by the rice. Continue to add liquid about ½ cup at a time, stirring until absorbed after each addition.

When most of the liquid has been added to the rice, add the tomatoes to the rice along with more broth. Risotto is done when the rice is al dente (tender, but firm to the bite.)

Remove rice from heat. Stir in herbs and sour cream. Cover and let stand off the heat for about 2 minutes to allow flavors to blend; the rice will finish cooking. Add salt to taste. Serve.

26 August 2013

Duluth Grill offers creative comfort food

Most of the time when we’re at ‘The Cabin’ we don’t go into town. (The cabin is on Island Lake north of Duluth. If we don’t want to cook, we’ll walk 3 blocks to ‘The Tavern’ for a burger or fried chicken or fish.) The whole point is to get away and not substitute one city (Duluth) for another (home – Edina). But in early August, a large group of family and friends planned a dinner at the Duluth Grill, and we came along.

Several people in the group had eaten there, some of them multiple times. Those who had eaten there pretty much raved about it, and the café does get generally favorable reviews from various online sources. IMG_6114

It certainly has an extensive menu, and there’s lots of appealing offerings. Any restaurant that offers breakfast items all day is a winner in my book. As tempted as I was by the corned beef hash, I opted for the ratatouille instead. It was a good choice. The roasted vegetables were delicious. It was served over polenta. Some of the group were from Texas, and they’re used to seeing soft polenta. The ratatouille was served over polenta cakes, and I thought it was excellent. The whole dish was topped with crumbled goat cheese.

Another tempting entrée was the Lake Superior whitefish. The description of it is mouthwatering, but the presentation is even more appealing. The fish is wrapped in a spiral with the herbed butter and lemon in the middle. On the plate next to the fish is a generous serving of wild rice pilaf. It’s also served with a mixed green salad dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette. IMG_6112

I felt the plate was a little too crowded aesthetically. But that’s a quibble. The whitefish is something I definitely would consider ordering on a return visit.

My sister-in-law had the smoked salmon salad. It looked very good, and she liked it a lot. My brother-in-law ordered gyros. But instead of being meat shaved off a rotisserie, it was a whole roasted lamb shank. I think I would have liked that better than a ‘regular’ plate of gyros, but if you were expecting regular gyros, perhaps this variation would have put you off. Also, he had the Grill’s ‘deconstructed smashed potatoes’ on the plate. I don’t remember if he ordered them as a side or if they came with the gyros. Either way, they looked very good.

Not everything was memorable. My wife had a bison burger that she said was fine but nothing special. And there are a lot of items on the menu that just don’t look appealing to me. But like I said, it is an extensive menu, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t like some of the items. IMG_6113

Now for the big question – would I make a special trip into town from the cabin just to eat at Duluth Grill? No, probably not. But, if I were in Duluth for some other reason, I definitely would consider eating at the Grill.

05 August 2013

Great food w/ rustic ambiance @ Old Mill in Austin, MN

I bet there are local gems like the Old Mill Restaurant in towns like Austin all across America. But how do you find them? Mostly, I suppose, by meeting or knowing someone who gives you a recommendation. So here’s my recommendation: If you’re traveling in southern Minnesota and you find yourself in Austin around dinner time, give yourself a treat and go to the Old Mill.

Why might you find yourself in Austin? Well, maybe for business; it’s the headquarters for Hormel Foods. Maybe for tourism; the Spam Museum is quite entertaining. Maybe just because you’re driving from Wisconsin to South Dakota; you’ll pass through Austin on I-90 (which happens to be the longest interstate highway in the United States). Or maybe you have family in the area, like I do.

My parents live on a farm about 20 miles from Austin. For the Krikava family, the Old Mill has been our reliable restaurant for celebrating special occasions. In July, my wife and I went to the Old Mill with my parents to celebrate my recent retirement. IMG_0203

Part of the appeal of the Old Mill is the view of a dam on the Cedar River which flows past the restaurant. As you might have concluded, it used to be an actual mill. Really, no matter where you are seated in the restaurant, you can see out the large windows to the dam and the river and the trees. But, if you can get a window table, so much the better.

If you dine at the Old Mill, don’t expect an unusual innovative menu. The menu features a repertoire of reliable stand-by meals to suit the tastes of its regular clientele. You can expect high quality beef. They have some fish and seafood on the menu. They even have a burger and some fried food for those who are so inclined.

For our celebration dinner, I had prime rib. I don’t see prime rib on the menu of many restaurants anymore. The Old Mill offers three choices – a 12-ounce boneless prime cut, a 16-ounce Old Mill cut, and a bone-in king cut. Under normal circumstances, I would have ordered the small cut. But I was afraid that it would be cut thin, so I ordered the middle cut. I didn’t expect it to come bone-in, but it did. It was excellent. I ordered it medium rare. The piece that was served to me was a little more well done than medium rare. But it was thick and juicy and tender. I was pleased.

My wife and my mom ordered shrimp scampi. They gave it two thumbs up. My dad ordered walleye. It was moist and tender and very nicely presented.

Entrees at the Old Mill come with a soup or house salad and a choice of potatoes, wild rice, or vegetables. They have a full bar and a respectable wine list. We had no trouble finding a nice wine that suited all our tastes at a reasonable price. I noticed that they did have a few high-end wines on the menu as well, I suppose for the occasional expense account meal.

Here’s the real question – If I didn’t already know about the Old Mill, would I drive 100 miles from Edina just to try it? To be honest, no, probably not. But how can a person discover the local gems if you’re unwilling to do just that?

So in retirement, I have to resolve to be more adventuresome and get out of town to discover and try more restaurants like the Old Mill. And meanwhile, if you find yourself near Austin around dinner time, do give it a try.

30 July 2013

Summer dinner, tomatoes 2 ways

We usually grill fish at least once a week. Usually it’s salmon. But this week my wife bought a nice looking piece of mahi mahi. I had a little time this afternoon to peruse recipes on Epicurious and decide on a menu.

I found two recipes that featured roasted tomatoes.

In Minnesota, we haven’t yet reached the peak of tomato season. In fact, we have only harvested 3 cherry tomatoes off our tomato plants so far. But I have previously written about my sister’s method of roasting tomatoes and then freezing them for use throughout the year. So the fact is, I used some of the roasted tomatoes from my freezer rather than running to a market for fresh tomatoes tonight. TomatoRelish

The first recipe that piqued my interest was for Greek-Style Mahi Mahi. It all sounded interesting. But I’d already decided to grill the fish, and the recipe called for broiling it with feta, herbs, and mayo. Still, the recipe called for making a tomato relish that sounded like a nice accompaniment. So I made that part of the recipe. It was very simple, really. Instead of using wedges of fresh tomatoes as the recipe specified, I diced the roasted tomatoes and then mixed in the olive oil, red wine vinegar. We liked how it turned out, and it was a very nice accompaniment to the grilled fish.

The other recipe that I found was for Israeli couscous with roasted tomatoes and Kalamata olives. I followed this recipe pretty much as published. The interesting part of it was the dressing. It called for about half of the roasted tomatoes to be blended into the olive oil and lemon juice to make a tomato flavored vinaigrette. I liked it so much that I’ll make it to serve on salads in the future.

By the way, we were disappointed with the mahi. It tasted quite fishy despite being grilled. The tomato relish helped to cut the fishy flavor. So we were glad that we had it.

Let me know if you decide to try it.

29 July 2013

3 Things to Keep Me Busy

When I started talking about my plans to retire, the most common question was – What are you going to do with your time? I assured everyone that I had a long list of things that I wanted to do in retirement. But the top 3 are read, travel, and cook.


My last day at the office was July 2. On July 3 my wife took me to the Edina public library. Now, of course, I read a lot at work – e-mail, newsletters, periodicals, reports. But I can’t tell you the last novel I read. It had been so long that the library had deactivated my account, and Linda had to check out the book for me. The first book I read in retirement was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

After I finished the book (loved it) and got my library account updated, I took Linda’s advice and downloaded the Hennepin County Library app for my iPad/iPhone. I also downloaded Overdrive Digital Library so that I could download and read eBooks. I downloaded and now am reading the second book in The Girl series – The Girl Who Played With Fire.


The next thing that happened on July 3, my sister-in-law called and invited us to spend 4th of July at their cabin north of Duluth. We decided spur of the moment to accept. So my first retirement trip was to my wife’s hometown. My second trip (coming up in a couple days) is to my hometown, farm actually, to visit my parents.


For the July 4 weekend, we were responsible for Friday night dinner. I improvised a Bobby Flay menu for salmon from the Food Network web site. I did modify it quite a bit, however. You’ll have to read my next post to see what changes I made.

But I guess the best part about cooking in retirement is that I have the time to do something on a whim. For example, earlier this spring, I tried to make a pilaf with brown rice. But I had trouble getting the rice cooked. I was afraid that there was something wrong with the rice. Then I read an article in the current Cooks Illustrated magazine about cooking brown rice for salads. They recommended cooking the rice in an ample amount of water and then draining it and cooling it.

I decided to give it a try. What the heck, I had all afternoon, and if it didn’t turn out, I could just toss it and make something else. It was a liberating experience. In the past, I would rush home from work and couldn’t take a chance on an untested recipe because if it flopped, I wouldn’t have time to recover.

Here’s the link to the article. But Cooks Illustrated has limits on content that it posts on the web site. So depending on when you read this, the link may no longer work.

My new project is going to be sourdough. I tried sourdough many years ago, but couldn’t get it to produce the results I wanted. I gave up. But this month, my sister gave me starter from her sourdough. So I’m going to give it another try.

I’m hoping to post a success story about sourdough in the near future.

Thanks for reading!

Grilled Salmon for Friday Night at Island Lake

When my wife and I accepted an invitation to spend July 4 weekend at my sister-in-law’s cabin, we volunteered to help with cooking. Our assignment was dinner on Friday night. We decided on salmon as the main course. I went to the internet to find a recipe/menu that would be good and creative but relatively simple to make, recognizing that the kitchen at the cabin has some limitations. (And besides, we weren’t going there to spend the whole afternoon cooking.)

Here’s what I came up with: Pan Roasted Salmon Steaks with Sherry Vinegar-Honey Glaze and Spicy Tomato Relish and Parsleyed Potatoes. It’s a Bobby Flay recipe that I found on Food Network web site. But, I made a few changes. CabinSalmon

1. I decided to grill the salmon rather than pan roast it. But I mean really, Bobby Flay is known for his grilling technique. In fact, the show that this recipe came from was called “Hot off the Grill.”

2. My wife doesn’t like spicy food. So I left the red pepper flakes out of the Spicy Tomato Relish.

3. Likewise, the glaze for the salmon called for ancho chile powder. I left that out. Didn’t have any in my pantry anyway.

4. The glaze also called for Dijon mustard. Many years ago, I saw an episode of The Essence of Emeril where Emeril Lagasse made homemade mustard. The episode was filmed in 2005, and I can’t remember when I saw it on TV. But I started making it, and I decided that I would use that instead of Dijon in Bobby Flay’s salmon glaze. Here’s Emeril’s recipe for Homemade Tarragon Mustard.

The meal turned out great. I hope Bobby Flay doesn’t mind about the modifications I made in his recipe.

25 July 2013

Rincon 38: Another winner for Hector Ruiz

It’s great to have an innovative restaurateur like Hector Ruiz working in your city. He and his wife have succeeded in bringing creative, high quality Latin cooking to South Minneapolis, and my wife and I have enjoyed each of his venues.

We were quite dismayed when El Meson, his first restaurant, closed late in 2012. We had enjoyed dining there often. Besides great food, he often had flamenco music and dancing as entertainment. (Click here for a review of El Meson.) At least we still had Café Ena, his second venue, which is another personal favorite.

But we shouldn’t have worried. Not even 6 months after closing El Meson, Ruiz opened Rincon 38. It’s in the same neighborhood as Ena. The word ‘rincon’ means ‘corner.’ The restaurant is located on the corner of 38th and Grand in South Minneapolis. It’s not even a mile from Ena, which is at 46th and Grand. DSC00506

Rincon 38 is a tapas restaurant. We met friends and scored a table outside. It was a gorgeous evening and a relaxing way to enjoy the food. Between the four of us, we split 6 different plates plus 2 desserts. All of them were great, but a few really stood out.

Pulpo – braised octopus. It was tender and served with potatoes, chorizo sausage, and artichokes with aioli and drizzled with sherry. Fabulous.

Coliflor – roasted cauliflower with saffron and a citrus aioli.

The other tapas were setas (mushrooms), canoli (lobster, crab, and mascarpone wrapped in a pastry), vasco (sorry, can’t remember) and mero (roasted sea bass over vegetables and polenta).

For dessert, we split pumpkin crème brulee and tiramisu. I’m not too fond of either, so I had an espresso.

I always enjoyed the wine list at El Meson and Café Ena. Rincon 38 continues that tradition with an interesting line up of wines, mostly from South America and Spain. But they also have a nice selection of beer on tap and bottled. On this particular summer night, I opted for beer.

Since we ate outdoors, we didn’t get an impression of the interior ambiance. The service was friendly and knowledgeable. We had a great time and we definitely will be back.

15 July 2013

Post-retirement lunch at Victory 44, Mpls.

The first thing I did in retirement, after my last day at the office, was have lunch with my son. As a north Minneapolis resident, Ben is a fan of Victory 44. He’s taken my wife there, and I’ve wanted to go.
We planned lunch for a little later – 1 p.m. When I arrived, Ben had already gotten us a table. There were not a lot of people in the restaurant. A few were eating outside on the patio. But it must have been quite hot because after we’d been there for a while, a group of 5 or 6 people moved inside. DSC00503
When you go to the Victory 44 web site, you get a narrated video of the chef/owner talking about his background and approach to cooking and running the restaurant.
We started out with coffees. Ben loves the coffee specials that are available. (He teased his wife that he’d be having better coffee than she that day.) There are several options on the menu, but he opted for the ‘Barista’s choice.’ I’m more of a straight up caffeine kind of guy. I just ordered the French Press.
When the coffee was served, the barista came to our table. First he pressed and poured my coffee. Then he swished and swirled Ben’s specialty into a cup and presented him with an impressive display of barista art. Voila!
We both had a version of corned beef for lunch. I had corned beef hash served with a soft-fried egg. As with hash served with a poached egg, the soft yolk oozes through the fried beef and potatoes. But since it’s fried, the whites have more substance than the soft whites of a poached egg. The lunch also came with two pieces of excellent whole grain bread toasted Panini style.
Benjamin had a Rueben sandwich. I didn’t take a taste, but he said it was excellent. He’s had it there before. His sandwich came with fried potatoes that were topped with a white powder. Ben said it was powdered bacon. Hmmm.
The ‘Day Menu’ at Victory 44 is available until 3 p.m. Great for me since I love breakfast food like the hash. Another interesting item on the day menu that tempted me was something called salmon pastrami. I’ll have to try that some day. The dinner menu changes daily based on what’s available fresh and what the chefs are in the mood to prepare. The video on the web site describes their tasting menu, which sounds interesting to me.
So all in all, it was a great way to begin retirement. I’ll be back.

13 July 2013

Happy Hour bargains at Bar Louie, Mpls.

When Bar Louie opened in Uptown last year, my wife and I were intrigued. At the time, we weren’t aware that it’s a chain. But it sounded like a fun time especially the outdoor patio. It took almost a year, but we finally decided to try their happy hour.

Happy hour is a pretty good deal. We went intending to have one of their $7 martinis, which we did. They were good, and $7 is a pretty good price for a martini. But we actually had a little bit of a hard time deciding on which martini to order. Most of them seemed a little too fruity for our tastes, and we actually ended up getting pretty basic martinis.

For food, we got one order of calamari and a roasted vegetable flat bread. We liked the flat bread better. It had a nice crisp crust and the vegetables were very tasty. The calamari was good too, but was a little too greasy and gave my wife a stomach ache later in the evening.

We arrived early and had no trouble being seated at a table on the patio. We really liked our server. He was friendly and informative. So it was a pretty good experience, except for one thing. They do permit smoking on the outdoor patio, and there was a guy smoking a cigar two tables away. We were pretty much downwind from him, so for most of our time at the table, we would get whiffs of cigar smoke.

While we were there, we saw a flyer promoting $5 burgers on Tuesdays. The burgers on the menu looked pretty good, so we decided that for our next visit, we’d come during happy hour (for $3.50 beers) and each have a burger.

So about a month later, that’s what we did. We don’t normally go out on Tuesdays, but this was a special occasion. (My last day in the office before retiring.) We got to Bar Louie a little later than our first visit, and as we anticipated, it was busier than before. We were told we’d have to wait up to 30 minutes for a table on the patio. We could wait in the lounge area outside and order a happy hour beer. That sounded ok to us. DSC00481

We settled in and a server came around. We asked for a beer list. Don’t have one, she said. What do you like, she asked. I told her I like an amber. Don’t have one, she said. So that kind of left me up in the air. I suppose I could have walked into the bar and looked at the taps to see if there was one that I’d like. Finally she suggested a beer and we both decided to try it.

Well, before the beer arrived, our buzzer started buzzing that our table was ready. Just then our server arrived and handed us our beers. We took them to the table with us. After we got seated, another server stopped by with a bill for the beers. We asked if they could be added to the tab for our food, but no, we had to pay the first server separately.

OK fine. Our food server was much friendlier, and also better at recommending beer. I had a second beer with my burger and liked it much better. The burgers were very good. I had a BBQ burger, and my wife had a ‘Blue Louis’ with blue cheese. By the way, you get a choice of Tater Tots or fries with the burger. Tater Tots … yum!

We were asked how we liked the meat cooked. I always ask for a burger to be cooked medium, but my wife likes burgers still pink in the middle. She was a little annoyed that the burger came out cooked through. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think restaurants should bother trying to cook a burger to order. But if you give the customer a choice, then you ought to serve the food they way the customer wants it.

So here’s our bottom line on Bar Louis Uptown. It’s a fun locale. Not all of their servers are friendly. I don’t think we’d eat there during regular hours. But happy hour is a good bargain, as is the $5 burger promo on Tuesdays. So all in all, not bad.

30 June 2013

Union Rooftop does Mpls. proud

I would rave about Union Rooftop for the veal chop alone. But there are a lot of other good reasons to post a favorable review.

Rooftop dining has become a real fad. Union is unique, however, in that it’s rooftop features a retractable cover. So customers enjoyed Union’s rooftop all winter (which this year was very long in Minneapolis). We didn’t get there during the winter. However, we did look forward to enjoying a pleasant June evening with friends celebrating our respective anniversaries. UnionRooftop

Union’s menu offers a lot of variety and a wide range of options. Customers can make choices from “Snacks,” “Share Plates,” “Appetizers,” “Salads,” and “Entrees.” There were a lot of appealing items. Ultimately, we decided on salads and entrees. But here are a few of the tempting dishes that would make a return visit worthwhile:

  • Savory Donut Holes with Shallots, Bacon & a Dutch Cheese;
  • Buffalo-Style Pan-Fried Oysters with Blue Cheese & Shaved Celery;
  • Caper-Caraway Potato Chips with Smoked Salmon Mousse.

The shared plates were assorted meats (they avoided the term charcuterie), a seafood sampler, and a cheese plate. On the appetizer list, I was tempted by the lamb meatballs and the chicken liver parfait.

So that’s what we passed up. Here’s what we had:

Among the four of us, we tried all three of the salads on the menu. I had the Caesar. It featured a soft-boiled egg (instead of an anchovy perhaps?) and a garlic brioche crumble instead of croutons. It was excellent. The egg was prepared just right, so that when I cut into it, the warm rich yolk spread over the salad. My wife’s salad consisted of apples and shaved sunchokes with hazelnuts and goat cheese. She generally orders her salad with dressing on the side; she forgot this time, but said that the dressing was so good she didn’t mind. The other salad was more traditional – baby lettuce and mixed herbs with aged cheddar cheese and cider vinaigrette.

The entrees that our group ordered were creative and flavorful. My wife ordered the skirt steak with “pomme frites.” The steak was done just to her liking and the fries were crisp and delicious. The wife of the other couple ordered grilled salmon, which she liked.

The two men had the veal chop. I love veal chop, and the best I’ve ever had is served at Charlie Palmer in DC. It’s not always on the menu, but when it is, I always order it. In the past, I’ve been disappointed by veal chops served in Minnesota. They’ve always been thin and often overdone. But Union’s veal chop was excellent. It was thick and delicious. I also loved the way it was served, on a bed of barley with butter, mushrooms, and artichokes.

I do have to report a couple of glitches, however. I ordered my veal medium rare. My friend ordered his medium. I took two bites and was thinking that the veal was done more than medium rare. It was still very tender and tasty, but I asked my friend if his chop was done to his liking. He commented that his was not done enough. So we figured they switched the plates. No big deal. We just traded and enjoyed our meals.

The second glitch, however, was a little more annoying. As you might expect for a trendy downtown spot, Union attracts a pretty young crowd. I think we were the victims of profiling. When we showed up for our reservation, we saw the hostesses confer with each other, and then we were lead to a table that was under the edge of the retractable roof. We objected that we wanted to be outdoors. At first we were told that there wasn’t another table available, but we held our ground and were shown a nice table for four in the middle of the floor with nothing above us but the blue sky.

But once we were seated, the service was friendly and attentive. Everything else about the evening was great, and we definitely will be back in the future.

My retirement reception was a Rare treat

A little more than a year ago, a magazine that’s circulated to the Parkwood Knolls neighborhood hosted a dinner at Rare Steak & Sushi in downtown Minneapolis. I really liked it and wrote a favorable post (click here to read it). RareParty

We still haven’t returned for dinner. But Land O’Lakes hosted a retirement reception there for me. The experience just reconfirmed how much I like it. They gave us a very nice party room. There was a horseshoe-shaped food station in the middle of the room with appetizers arrayed around it, a well-stocked bar near the entrance, and several high-top tables and regular tables set up in the room.

The food was great. The sushi was the biggest hit. By the time I got to the buffet toward the end of the reception, there were only two pieces left. The beef tataki that I described in my original post was excellent. There was fried calamari and a shrimp cocktail platter. There also was a platter of fresh vegetables, though it didn’t look like many people had that. Same for a platter of tomato and mozzarella bruschetta.

Staff members at Rare were very friendly and accommodating. They circulated among the guests and served drinks as well as serving from the bar. We had a few special requests which were quickly handled.

Rare is still on my list for a return visit. I recommend it.

07 April 2013

Rebirth of an old friend–Figlio

Honestly. We didn’t do this on purpose. My last post was about Primebar which occupied the space at Calhoun Square where Figlio used to be. Figlio thrived there for 25 years. Primebar and one other – Il Gatto – came and went. Meanwhile, the owners of Figlio reportedly regretted giving up the space. But they have made an effort to make up for their poor judgment by reopening at West End.

It took us a while, but we finally made it to the new Figlio. We went after watching a movie (Lincoln. Loved it, though I don’t disagree with awarding Best Picture to Argo).

To start with, we really liked the décor and ambiance of ‘Figlio 2.0’ which is what the marketers call it. It’s different from Calhoun Square. But it was spacious with a lot of energy. The hostess who seated us was very friendly and accommodating. The first table they offered us was right by the servers’ station. My wife asked if they had anything else. It only took a couple of minutes and they accommodated us with a table by a window.

Once seated, we started with cocktails. My wife had an Old Fashioned, which she liked very much. I asked if the bartender made a sazarac. The server said she wasn’t sure, but she thought he could find a recipe. That should have been a clue. The sazarac she brought me was ok, but not very authentic. She asked me how I liked it. I said ok, but the bartender should to to New Orleans and get a lesson in how to make an authentic sazarac.

For a starter, we decided to split the Caprese salad. It was good. But the menu said the mozzarella was ‘hand-pulled.’ Maybe. But it was more like a commercial low-fat mozzarella. It didn’t have the soft, creamy texture of a house-made mozz. It was good, but not great.

My wife ordered a burger. She said it was very good. I asked her if it was as good as the burger she enjoyed so much last week at Primebar. She admitted that she liked the Primebar burger slightly better. But they’re closed. And this was a pretty good burger.

I remembered that the old Figlio did a great job with pasta. So I saw an entry on the menu for roasted butternut squash cappelletti, described on the menu as squash-stuffed ‘little hats’ tossed in a mascarpone sauce with fried sage, pumpkin seed oil. They were delicious, though pretty rich. It was not a big serving. But I could have split it with someone as a side and ordered a burger.

My wife and I agreed that it’s great to have Figlio back. We will definitely return again someday.