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.