30 December 2014

KwikPick: Burger, Beer, Warm Welcome at Pig & Fiddle, Edina

On a frigid Saturday night, the 4:40 movie had just ended, and people were surging toward the restaurants at 50th & France (Edina’s ‘downtown’ neighborhood). We saw crowds packed into the entry of several places as we shivered for a block and half from the theater to the Pig & Fiddle. Much to our surprise, we got right in. A few minutes after we got our table, the place was full.

Food: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Ambiance: 5/5

Value: 4/5

After the movie, we just wanted a good burger and something to drink. We’d been to the Pig & Fiddle before and enjoyed it. It strives to be a neighborhood pub for the 50th & France area. It’s actually on the Minneapolis side of the line. I wonder if that’s why it took a while after the movie to fill up. Maybe there’s some kind of psychological barrier to crossing from Edina into Minneapolis.

In any case, it was exactly what we wanted. Pig & Fiddle has a varied menu of traditional pub food, I think mostly selected to accompany the great selection of ‘American craft beers.’ I considered several menu items, but we had set out looking for a good burger, and that’s what we both ended up ordering. I got mine with fries ($2 extra). Otherwise the burger and sandwiches come with house-made chips, which are pretty good too.

I usually have a pretty good idea of what beer I want. But my wife is not a regular beer drinker, and she needed some guidance. Our server was very knowledgeable and helped her pick something that she enjoyed. Overall very good service.

We asked for a table in the dining room. We like the ambiance there better than the bar. (In the bar, the ambiance has a more typical pub feel, a little noisier and with TV monitors showing various sporting events.) The dining room has nice stained glass windows and a big fireplace.

In terms of value, I thought Pig & Fiddle was very reasonable. Our total was $57 including tip.

Recommendation: I would definitely go back for a casual dinner after a movie.

Click here for an explanation of my KwikPick rating scale.

29 December 2014

KwikPick: Christmas Eve at Mill Valley Kitchen, St. Louis Park

We used to avoid going out on major holidays like Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. But we wanted to spend the evening with some friends, we weren’t interested in any of the new movies, and eating Chinese seemed like such a cliché. So we made a reservation at Mill Valley Kitchen. It was a very enjoyable meal.

Food: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Ambiance: 3/5

Value: 3/5

The only other time I’d eaten at Mill Valley Kitchen (MVK), it was a group celebration dinner with some friends. I remembered it as a pleasant meal, but hadn’t hurried back. My wife has had lunch there a few times. But I have eaten a couple times at its sister restaurant downtown – Marin. I wrote a review of that a year ago. The two restaurants are very similar, though I think I like Marin better.

Like Marin, MVK prides itself on top quality, very fresh food that’s prepared very simply and healthfully. The food we ate on Christmas Eve certainly lived up to the restaurant’s goal. My wife and I split a kale salad to start. The menu specifies that it’s ‘baby’ kale, but we didn’t really expect the small tender leaves that we were served. It was good, but we were expecting more robust crunchy leaves of kale. My wife had scallops which is a favorite of hers. The tomato-fennel sauce was spicier than she expected, but she still enjoyed it. I had duck breast with black lentils. I thought it was excellent.

Our actual server was pretty good; I probably should give her a 4. But we did have an issue with being seated. At first they directed us to a table in the bar, but that was not the ambiance we wanted for our dinner. There were open tables in the dining room, but the first one they took us to was near the door leading out to the patio, and while it was not a frigid night, it was still Minnesota winter, and it was a bit drafty by the door. So we asked to be moved again, and this time the table was just fine.

In terms of value, we had a nice meal, we each had a glass of wine, and the total with tip still came out below $100. That’s not bad, but it’s also not inexpensive. I gave a nice tip because the server was working on a holiday. (At least I thought it was nice.)

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a self-consciously health-oriented restaurant, and you don’t want to hassle with downtown parking (to go to Marin), I’m sure you’d enjoy Mill Valley Kitchen. I still would probably prefer Marin.

Click here for an explanation of the rating scale.

27 December 2014

KwikPick: Celebration dinner at Murray’s Mpls.

It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten at Murray’s. But a friend picked it for a special birthday dinner, and I’m glad he did.

Food: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 5/5
Value: 3/5

Comments: You go to Murray’s for steak, right? Sure they’ve got fish and seafood on the menu, and I’m sure they’re good. But it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we’d be eating steak. Murray’s offers several different steaks at several different price points … all of them expensive. In that regard, it’s not much different than any other high-end, expense account steakhouse. But I like the fact that it’s a locally owned independent restaurant. That gives it a nice ambiance.

The guys started with martinis. Excellent. Murray’s has an excellent wine list; we had a couple of bottles of Frog’s Leap Merlot that went great with our steaks. We also ordered a few side dishes. They were a little on the small side, but tasted very good. The steaks were outstanding and large. Two of the guys worried that medium rare would be too well done, but didn’t want to order rare. The server proposed ‘rare plus.’ That’s what they ordered, and the steaks were just right. (I ordered mine medium rare, and it was just how I like it as well.)

I guess when you go to a restaurant like Murray’s you expect near-perfection, and for our group they delivered. Still, it was very expensive, so it’s hard for me to give it a high ranking on value.

Recommendation: I don’t know if I’d pick Murray’s for my own birthday dinner. But if any of my friends did, I wouldn’t hesitate to say ‘Yes!’

Click here for an explanation of my rating scale.

26 December 2014

Neighborhood ambiance, creative cooking at Sparks Mpls.

This is the second post on neighborhood restaurants in Minneapolis. The first post was about a special wine dinner at Victory 44. It was a really great experience, but not the typical experience at V44. This review of Sparks, on the other hand, is very typical of what you can expect for the restaurant.

According to Sparks web site, the owner decided to open the restaurant when he moved to the neighborhood, which is Bryn Mawr. (He also owns Rinata, an Italian restaurant in south Minneapolis.)

We’ve eaten at Sparks twice. The first time (several months ago) was with friends. We ordered and shared several small plates from the menu. The menu for small plates, pizzas and salads offers a lot of variety. We liked that experience very much, but never found an opportunity to return.

Until, that is, a Saturday night in mid-December. We just wanted a casual, no-fuss meal and thought of Sparks. So glad we did.

Sparks has expanded since our first visit. We were seated in the expansion space. While you can tell the difference from the original dining room, they did a good job of joining the two rooms and making them feel seamless. There’s a huge mural on one of the walls featuring a stylized painting of the Minneapolis skyline. (I guess one of the significant differences between Sparks and Victory 44 is that the Sparks neighborhood is very close to downtown Minneapolis and so is sort of downtown oriented. Victory 44 is more of a destination in and of itself.)IMG_0975

We had a great server. She was friendly, attentive, and knowledgeable. Her recommendations on the menu were right on. She also was very patient and accommodating as we tried to decide on a bottle of wine. Sparks offers a fun wine list (as well as a nice selection of local beer on tap.) And the wine prices are very reasonable. We picked a Spanish red wine and loved it.

We started our meal with a couple of small plates. The cauliflower au gratin was excellent. The cheeses were smoked gouda and cheddar, and it was seasoned with paprika. It was a nice variation from roasted Brussels sprouts (which we often order as a starter, and was on the menu at Sparks as well). Our second starter was Cuban black beans. I would normally expect that Cuban black beans would be flavored with ham or bacon. But this was a vegetarian version served with cheesy tomato sauce and scallions. Delicious.

For my entrée, I ordered Madras lamb shank. The lamb was braised, moist and fork-tender. It was seasoned with curry, mint chutney and yogurt. A very unusual preparation of one of my favorite meats, and I loved it. My wife had Amish roasted chicken seasoned with herbs and lemon juice.

It was a great meal and one that showed the creativity that’s evident in some of the neighborhood restaurants in Minneapolis. We’ll definitely be back.

18 December 2014

Victory 44 Mpls wine dinner shows off chef’s skill & Italian wine

This post and the next one explore some of the creativity that’s occurring in neighborhood restaurants in Minneapolis. Victory 44 is in the Victory neighborhood of North Minneapolis near where my son lives (in Lind-Bohanon). It isn’t a neighborhood that you’d think of as being a destination dining spot. But Victory 44 has been winning kudos and drawing people in while still maintaining an ambiance as a neighborhood restaurant.

I’d only been there once before, with my son for lunch. (Click here to read that review.) I always intended to go there again. So when I saw a Facebook post about a wine dinner in early December, I made a reservation. I took Ben again because I knew he’d enjoy it, and because my wife isn’t so fond of tasting menus.

One of the things that appealed to me about the early December dinner was that the food courses would be paired with Italian wines. Nebbiolo was the featured grape, and the six wines were selected to show the variety of ways the grape could be used in wine-making. To date, my only experience with Nebbiolo has been in a couple bottles of Barolo that I’ve had. So I thought this would be a fun way to sample a range of wines made from Nebbiolo, including Barolo.IMG_0114

The first wine we were served was Poderi Rosato, a rose made from Nebbiolo. It’s sort of an unusual way to use the grape. The winery is Poderi la Collina and the rose isn’t even listed on its web site. It was good but not noteworthy, a nice way to start the meal. It was served with a selection of ‘amusements’ served on a slate slab. The second one from the left is ‘trotters’ with a mustard seed ‘caviar’ topping. I think a lot of people thought the chef said ‘fritters’ and didn’t realize we’d been served pigs feet. The crostata on the far left with thin-sliced radishes was my favorite on the plate.

So that’s how the meal began. I’m not going to post a photo of every course, only my favorites. But if you want to see some of the plates that I don’t post, go to Twitter and search for #NebbioloWineDinner.

The next wine was a Nebbiolo varietal from Vigin winery. It was a nice choice for the next two plates – shaved beets with powdered raspberry, crème fresh and blue cheese and a deconstructed pepperoni pizza. I’m not a big fan of beets, but the pizza was delightful.

Next came two Barbarescos, one of the two classic wines made from Nebbiolo (along with Barolo). The two wineries were Sottimano and Moccagatta. Both were excellent, and it was interesting to taste the variation that different wineries produced. The four plates served with the Barbarescos were:

  • Green eggs & ham – the egg was slowly cooked until it just barely curdled;
  • Foie gras – shredded and served with figs. The chef asked if anyone at the table objected to foie gras; no one did;
  • Boudin Noir – blood sausage. This was the only course that I just didn’t like.
  • Chocolate pasta with walnut Bolognese – I thought this was extremely flavorful and creative. The pasta was not at all sweet, and the walnut Bolognese was great.IMG_0130

The final two wines were Barolos, what I’d been waiting for. The first glass was from Mauro Molino and the second was from Fratelli Revello. I loved both; I might have slightly preferred the Revello, though that might have had more to do with the fact it was the last wine of the evening. With the Barolos, the chef served his version of a rib eye steak. It was a small medallion of beef, seared, and served with charred potato and onion. It was my favorite plate of the evening.

My only quibble about the meal was that he served three dessert courses with the Barolos. The wines were still enjoyable, as were the desserts. But they didn’t really compliment each other like they should have. The final three courses were (I call them desserts):

  • Pumpkin granita with cranberries
  • Beer and Bread Porridge
  • Chocolate Raspberry

Of the three, I really liked the porridge. The other two were good, but I’m not big on either pumpkin or chocolate.

All told, this was a very enjoyable and unique experience, just the kind of thing you wouldn’t normally expect to find at a small, unassuming neighborhood café. The explanation for the dinner was that Victory 44 is planning a new restaurant in the Linden Hills neighborhood of South Minneapolis. He wanted to try out a few concepts as well as refresh the menu at V44. Cool. I was glad we could participate in his culinary experiment. IMG_0968

At the end of the dinner, I took this photo of my son and the chef, Erick Harcey.0

The Nebbiolo dinner was actually the first of four wine dinners planned. Regrettably, I don’t think I’ll make it to any of the others. But I am looking forward to trying the new Linden Hills restaurant when it opens.

11 December 2014

Ice Skating: How Do I Know When to Quit?

When I decided to go ice skating last week, I knew I was going to fall down. The only questions were ‘How long will it take’ and ‘How badly will I get hurt?’

I never was a very accomplished skater. I never played hockey. I couldn’t master skating backwards. But when our kids were little, I used to go skating with them a few times every winter. Eventually they grew up and I stopped skating. When we moved to our current house – 18 years ago – I put my skates out on a table for our garage sale. I marked them $1. No one bought them. When we moved, a box with my skates and a few other unsold items went into our garage. IMG_0032

Last week my wife and I took care of two of our grandchildren while their parents took a well-deserved vacation. We went down to the park one day and discovered that the ice rink had been flooded. The kids loved ‘boot skating’ on the ice.

So the next day, I went into the garage and dug out my skates, laced them up and brought them along to the park. The first day went pretty well. The kids were impressed that I could glide around the rink pretty smoothly. They didn’t notice my tentative movements or my frequent wobbling when I nearly toppled.

I enjoyed it. I remembered how ice skating was pretty good exercise. I’d work up enough body heat to have to unzip my winter coat and sometimes take off my mittens. I can use the exercise. But I was concerned about falling.

The next day, when we went to the park again, I brought the skates again. And that’s the day I fell down.

I’m not a big fan of Garrison Keillor. But I remembered an essay he wrote in 2009 about his brother. He died at age 72 when he fell down while ice skating and cracked his head. Other than dying, I wondered if I’d break a bone. I think I’m still pretty resilient. But I am 63. How do you know if your bones are getting brittle until you break one?

The falling down part felt like slow motion. I started to wobble as I was making a turn. I remember thinking, “I don’t think I’m going to regain my balance this time.” And then the next thing I knew I was on the ice. I don’t think I swore. A guy walking his dog on the nearby path asked if I was OK. I said ‘yes’ even though I wasn’t at all sure.

I landed on my left hip and caught myself with my left arm. My hip hurt. I could feel right away that it was bruised. My elbow also hurt. At the time I didn’t even notice that I jammed my wrist as I tried to catch my fall. Now, several days later, my hip is still tender but getting better. My elbow is just fine. But my wrist still feels sore and is sensitive to pressure. Maybe I should have gotten an x-ray. I didn’t, mainly because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of a broken bone. (Ah yes. Dr. Denial is my primary physician.)

As I think about it, I wonder if I should have fallen differently. Would it have been better if I’d fallen flat on my tush? I don’t think so; I think that would have hurt more and increased the chance that I’d fall backward and hit my head. I wonder if there’s a class to teach older people how to fall?

I’m not going to quit skating. My grandchildren are getting to an age when they’re likely to strap on skates pretty soon. I think it will be fun to glide around the ice with them and help them master the skill. I hope they’ll be better than me.

For myself, I found a workout app for my iPad. I’m going to focus on exercises to increase balance and flexibility. But the question still remains: How will I know when I should quit? I don’t know. Just not yet.