22 December 2015

Adieu to Vincent: A Restaurant


I don’t think I’ve ever purposely gone to a restaurant knowing that it was about to go out of business. I certainly never have written a blog post about one. But today I couldn’t help myself. I had to have one last visit to Vincent on the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. The restaurant’s last day of business is Dec. 31. I went there for lunch.

I have been to Vincent several times in the past. My wife and I have celebrated special occasions there. Once, I was the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by the person who was my current boss and three former bosses to commemorate my 35th anniversary of working at Land O’Lakes. (Here’s the post I wrote about that experience.)

It also was a great place for business entertaining. I’ve commented before that my favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities is Meritage in St. Paul. Like Vincent, it features French food. But the ambiance at Meritage is more casual bistro. The dining room at Vincent was big and open with tall ceilings and tables nicely spaced so that you felt comfortable talking business over dinner. That would be difficult at Meritage where the guests are kept cozily close, encouraging interaction (but not so conducive to private conversation).

Our Star Tribune food writer, Rich Nelson, in eulogizing Vincent (sorry for the melodrama) has lamented that that beautiful space will be transformed into a Caribou Coffee/Einstein Bros. Bagel shop. Somehow, I can’t imagine coming into the shop on a late evening to find the conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra munching a bagel and sipping coffee after a concert at Orchestra Hall across the street. (That happened one time when we dined at Vincent.)

So, what to have at my last meal at Vincent? I thought about ordering a burger. I must admit that I’ve never had Vincent’s burger, despite receiving nearly universal acclaim as one of the city’s best. (Here’s Rick Nelson’s tear-stained tribute to the burger.) To be honest, I’m not big on burgers at nice restaurants. Seems like kind of a waste. And besides that, apparently chef Vincent Francoual will be moving on to become Culinary Director of Cara Irish Pubs, and perhaps his famous burger will show up on the menus of The Local, The Liffey, Cooper, or Kieran’s.

I also considered ordering steak frites. A classic French dish like that would have been fitting.

Instead, I opted for red wine braised beef short ribs with risotto. Here’s the photo. It was delicious. So was the baguette served with a pot of creamy butter. I confess, I ate all four pieces in the basket and nearly finished the pot of butter. I also had a glass of red wine, a blend of tannat and cabernet Franc by French vintner Madiran, Chateau de Viella 2011. That’s going on my list to try to find at local wine shops. And I splurged by ordering dessert. I wish tarte tatin had been an option. Instead, I had a walnut tart with caramel sauce and caramel ice cream. And an espresso.

So, au revoir Vincent. Thanks for the great meals.

17 December 2015

La Grolla, St. Paul: A pretty good reason to cross the river

There’s a lot of hype and excitement about all the new Italian restaurants opening in the Twin Cities. (Check the third paragraph of Rick Nelson’s year-in-review article for a list.) I’m excited. I’ve often lamented that so many of our Twin Cities Italian eateries just don’t match the quality and creativity of meals I’ve eaten at in other cities.

So really, it’s my own fault for not having discovered La Grolla sooner. Partly, it’s my parochial attitude about going to St. Paul to eat. There are so many good restaurants west of the Mississippi that I usually don’t consider driving to St. Paul. But, I must admit, it seems like my list of ‘exceptions’ – St. Paul restaurants that are worth the trip – has grown to the point where I may have to change my attitude. (See especially Meritage (my favorite Twin Cities restaurant), Ngon Bistro, Muffuletta, and the St. Paul Grill (for lunch). Also, there’s Caffe Biaggio which is a really good Italian restaurant in St. Paul, and somehow I’ve never written a blog post about it.)

So now, add La Grolla to the list. We went with friends on a Saturday night, to have dinner before going to the new jazz club in St. Paul, Vieux Carre. (The jazz club was really fun. Worth checking out.)

The ambiance in the dining room is very pleasant – warm, friendly, brick and plaster walls, high ceilings. We got a table near the front. Our server was friendly and knowledgeable about the items on the menu. She was not particularly attentive, however. After our meals were served, we didn’t see her again until she checked to see if we wanted dessert.

La Grolla has a very nice wine list with an interesting variety of Italian wines. We opted for a Sangiovese, an excellent choice that fit the variety of meals that our group ordered.

My wife and I started with Insalata Bianca. It was a large plate of Belgium endives tossed with fennel, hearts of palm and shaved Parmesan cheese dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. It was very tasty. Our friends also split one of the other salads. One of the quirks at La Grolla, the menu states that there’s a plate charge for splitting an item. We didn’t bother with ‘splitting’ our salads. We just positioned the salad plates so that each of us could reach and share. The salads were quite large. Ours was $9. I suppose if you didn’t want to share and didn’t want such a large salad, you could order a small salad for $6.

Another little quirk – the menu states that there’s a $4 charge for a second basket of bread. The bread was good and the amount we were given in the bread basket was adequate. We didn’t want a refill anyway.

For an entrée, I ordered one of the nightly specials. It was house-made pappardelle noodles with a delicious, briny fish and seafood sauce. The sauce included salty anchovies, fish and seafood with cherry tomatoes and cream. The pasta was tender and tasty. The whole meal was excellent. Here’s a photo of it.  

Two people at the table ordered grouper. Both plates looked very appetizing, and the food was very tasty. But the fish was served with the skin on. One of the meals, the fish separated cleanly and easily from the skin. The other meal, the skin stuck to the fish and was difficult to eat. Was this an indication of uneven preparation in the kitchen? I don’t know. But here’s where we wished the server had been more attentive and checked to see if everyone was satisfied with their food.

The fourth person at the table had veal scaloppini. As much as I liked my pasta dish, I think her meal was the best of the evening.

So, while we had a few concerns, overall it was a very nice experience. I think La Grolla ranks among the best Italian restaurants I’ve eaten at in the Twin Cities. I’d have to say my current favorite still is Trattoria Tosca in Linden Hills. And I owe myself a return visit to Caffe Biaggio. But I certainly would welcome a return visit to La Grolla next time I feel like driving across the river.

09 December 2015

Yes, it’s true. Spoon & Stable is fantastic

I almost didn’t write this review. There have been so many raves about how great Spoon & Stable is, what more is there to say?

Spoon & Stable definitely deserves the accolades. Still, there are a few highlights worth noting.

First of all, they take reservations. Yeah! Not that they’re particularly easy to get. No matter how eager we were to dine there, we weren’t going to show up at 5:30 to get a table or eat at the bar. We tried several times during the fall and finally got a table at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend.

Next, it’s a beautiful room – warm, comfortable and inviting. You enter into the bar area where you’re greeted by a bustling buzzing bar scene. We were on time for our reservation, and the hostess assured us that our table was being set – 5 minute wait at the most. One minor quibble – it’s one big open room. The dining room opens into the bar area with only a waist-high divider. Our table was in that first row adjacent to the bar. At one point, the overflowing crowd at the bar resulted in patrons leaning against the divider and actually brushing against my wife’s hair. Not a big deal, but a little annoying.

So let me get my other quibble out of the way now. The other thing is the tables seem quite close together. So, when the server was waiting on the people at the next table, his butt was right at the edge of our table.

Service, by the way, is good. Our server was well-informed about the menu, helpful with suggestions, attentive and friendly without being annoying. 20151129_022703469_iOS

We started with drinks. I ordered a Manhattan No. 2, the house variation of a classic Manhattan. This one had both rye whiskey and calvados and sherry instead of sweet vermouth. It was recognizable as a Manhattan but unusual enough to be memorable. It was, needless to day, delicious. My wife was in the mood to try something different. Our server advised us that the bartender makes a daily special cocktail. On this particular evening, it was a stylized Grasshopper. With some hesitation, she decided to order one. This variation was quite different from a classic Grasshopper. In fact, the only similarities were the shocking green color and mint flavors. She liked it. But it really should have been an after-dinner drink rather than a pre-dinner cocktail.

Now on to the food. From the ‘Garden’ section of the menu, we decided to split an order of the Roasted Carrot Salad. It was excellent. On the plate were three different kinds of carrots, roasted but still a little crisp. The dressing was a maple vinaigrette which added nice autumn tones to the dish. It wasn’t particularly large. Perhaps diners with a heartier appetite would order a second starter. The Duck & Foie Gras Terrine looked good to me. Or one of the side dishes would have been nice as an alternative.

For my entrée, I ordered braised lamb shank. I love lamb shanks, and this one was fabulous. It was not too fatty and was fork-tender. On the plate with the lamb was a medley of vegetables and beans. They were a nice accompaniment and did not detract from the lamb, which was the star. The menu says it also has preserved lemons, but I didn’t detect that flavor.

Visually, my lamb shank was appealing simply as a big chunk of meat with a bone sticking out (as you can see in the photo). My wife’s entrée, on the other hand, was a work of art (see photo below). Her dish was called ‘lightly Smoked Steelhead Trout.’ It was probably a little more rare than she had anticipated. but the flavors were amazing. The plate had a few Brussels sprouts, a rutabaga puree, and a citrus vinaigrette.

We decided not to order dessert. But not to worry. The server presented us with a box of four bite-sized sweets to nosh while paying our bill. Very nice. In terms of value, I thought our meal was quite reasonable. It wasn’t inexpensive, and the portions were moderate. You could spend more if you added dessert or more starter plates. But we were satisfied with the amount of food we ate and the price we paid.

So we definitely would go again. It probably would be for a special occasion … if we can get a reservation.

Here’s my wife’s Smoked Steelhead Trout

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01 November 2015

The Jaguar Question: New or Classic? Answer: Yes!

If I had discovered Jay Leno’s Garage on YouTube sooner, I might be driving a different car today.

As I’ve written in a previous post, I bought a Jaguar when I retired. Easy to say. But after I finally decided to do it, I had to decide whether to get a new car or a restored classic. I fairly quickly discovered that the price would be pretty close to the same. You can pick up a classic E-Type for less than I paid for the new XK that I was looking at. But then I’d have to pay for restoration (because I have neither the ability nor inclination to do the work myself, not to mention no garage to do the work in or tools to work with). So a nicely restored E-Type would have cost about the same as the new car.

Ultimately, I let ‘practical’ considerations carry the day. Now, I know it’s probably a stretch of the definition to say that buying a Jaguar is a practical thing to do. But my considerations all were practicalities about what I needed in my retirement car. I only have a two-car garage at my house. So ‘my’ car had to be one I could rely on and drive anytime I needed to go somewhere when my wife was already out with ‘her’ car. That also means it has to be mechanically reliable. I’d always heard how temperamental the E-Types used to be, and I didn’t want to get caught in a situation where the car would be disabled by mechanical problems. ApplePicking Jaguar

So I decided to buy the new one. So now I have a mechanically reliable car and one that will maneuver through our Minnesota winters (with snow tires). It had been a while since I’d bought a new car, and I have been amazed and delighted by the electronics and how they enhance the driving experience. I was pretty skeptical about the back-up camera and parking assist. But I’ve become a convert. Now when I’m driving my wife’s Honda CRV, which does not have a back-up camera, I’m constantly twisting around to make sure I’m not backing into something, something that the camera and parking assistance in my Jaguar would detect and alert me to. And that’s just one example. I really am impressed by the electronics in new cars these days.

I probably never would have entertained second thoughts about my decision if it hadn’t been for my experience driving a 1987 Alfa Romeo Spider. (If you want to read about that, click here.) There were a few things about that car that made me really start to wonder: What did I miss out on by not buying a classic E-Type? Despite my fascination with modern new car electronics, I was totally enthralled by full instrumentation in the Alfa. So tell me – with all the fancy electronics, why can’t they have a virtual dashboard in new sports cars? And it was a roadster, so for two days my wife and I had fun tooling around town with an open top. Again with practicalities, regardless of my decision of new vs. old, I planned to get a coupe in either case.

The whole experience with the Alfa made wonder what it would be like to drive a classic E-Type. So where else would you look to find out? The internet.

That’s how I stumbled onto Jay Leno’s Garage. He has several Jaguars in his collection. The first video I watched, he was proudly showing off his 1963 Series I E-Type. Leno tells the viewer that the car is original and unrestored. As he’s showing it off, he remarks at least twice that the dashboard clock still works! During the program, he makes a comment along the lines that the E-Type really was a reliable car, at least in its day. (Of course, he has a staff of mechanics to make sure the cars stay in good running order.)

Then he takes the car for a drive. Wow! As he drives along, he delivers a steady patter of tidbits about the car and his views about the Jaguar and cars in general and car culture especially as it was in the early to mid 1960s. For me, it was totally enthralling. I know if I had seen it before I retired, I would have more seriously considered finding a classic.

Now, my bottom line, I have no regrets about the 20014 XK that I bought. It’s a great car. But, if I ever win the lottery, I’m getting an E-Type. And as much as love the coupe, it’ll be a roadster, like the one below.

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28 October 2015

A Peachy Outcome from a Musical Encounter

I always said that while Krik’s Picks is mostly about food, it also would include thoughts about other things, such as music and politics. (And lately, cars too.) But this post ties together several different strands. Kinda what makes life interesting.

So let’s start with music – Edina Bands. You may know about Next Door, the online social network for neighborhoods across the nation? My neighborhood, Parkwood Knolls, participates in Next Door. One day in early August, I got an email alert from Next Door about a kid selling peaches as a fundraiser because he was going into the Edina Marching Band in the fall.

Ok, as a band kid myself (Albert Lea High School band, 1968-70; University of Minnesota Marching Band, 1970-74) I was sympathetic to his appeal. My own children graduated from Edina High School, but they weren’t band kids. But the clincher (and segue to the next strand) – I saw that he’s the grandson of a former Member of Congress who I knew fairly well – David Minge. I had met the student’s parents at another Parkwood Knolls event, so I knew they lived in the neighborhood.

David Minge served in Congress for 8 years. I was an ag lobbyist before I retired. Rep. Minge represented a very rural agricultural district in southwest Minnesota and he served on the Ag Committee. I got to know him quite well. But more importantly, I had a very high degree of respect for his sincerity and commitment to public service. There was no question that Rep. Minge was in Washington to serve the interests of his constituents and the nation.

He lost his re-election bid in 2000 by 155 votes. It was the final year of Bill Clinton’s Presidency and a tough year for Democrats. Minge knew he’d have a close race. It’s often the case that if Congress has not finished its business by October before an election, they’ll take a recess and come back after the election to finish up (in a Lame Duck session). Unfortunately for David Minge, Congress held votes all thru October, right up until a week before Election Day. I, for one, am convinced that if Minge had decided to skip votes and campaign in Minnesota, he would have gotten the votes he needed. But instead, he put the people’s business ahead of his political interest, stayed in Washington, and ultimately lost the election.

Unlike many defeated politicians, David Minge did not stay in Washington and join a lobbying firm. A year after he lost his election, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed him to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. He retired from that position in 2012. 20150916_235325701_iOS

So with that little political side note, and my predisposed sympathy for band kids, I ordered a case of peaches from David Minge’s grandson. $30. The case had 45 peaches. They were big beautiful and lusciously ripe. We ate a lot of them just straight, and we gave some to each of our kids’ families.

Here’s what I cooked with the rest of them:

Grilled Scallops with Peaches, Corn and Tomatoes: I grilled the scallops and the peaches on a stove-top grill pan, not a charcoal grill. But it still turned out great. Here’s a photo =>

I made a Peach Vinaigrette. I had a recipe for a salad that called for it. But I can’t now find that recipe. But here’s the recipe for the vinaigrette. It was good, but not something I’d make regularly.

Ginger Peach Jam: This turned out really nicely. Definitely worth making again.

Sam Sifton’s Perfect Peach Pie from the New York Times. This was my first time making a peach pie; I usually make apple pie. I really liked how it turned out. But I substituted a butter crust from Land O’Lakes. This is my favorite pie crust, and I routinely use it instead of whatever other crust might be called for in a recipe.

Peach and Coconut Macaroon Cake: This has been in my recipe file for so long I almost forgot where I got it. But it’s from the Washington Post. I love this cake. But even more importantly, my wife loves it. I made it for her birthday cake in September.

Of course, all of this is sort of moot, since it’s long past the season when you can get fresh peaches in the market. Sorry. I think you could use frozen peaches for the cake and for the jam. Otherwise, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until next summer when peaches are available again.

By the way, here’s a picture of the peach pie:

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18 October 2015

La Fresca is a breath of fresh air in S. Mpls.

There are so many good restaurants in the Twin Cities. Yet I still get excited when I find another one that’s truly delightful. As my wife and I walked out of La Fresca with a couple of friends, we were already talking about when we could plan a return visit.

Not that we should have been surprised. La Fresca is the self-described ‘nouveau Mexican’ iteration of Chef Hector Ruiz family of restaurants. ‘Family’ is a good term to use. Each of the restaurants in his small group (now numbering 4) shares familiar similarities – Latin influences and creative combinations in generally small neighborhood locations that appeal to local residents and, yes, families. But like a family, each individual member has it’s own distinctive features.

Café Ena, where we have enjoyed many delicious meals, is ‘Latin fusion’ with influences from South America and Central America. Click here for a previous blog post.

Rincon 38 features Spanish and Latin small plates, tapas if you will. We’ve enjoyed dropping in to enjoy its exciting variety by sharing several items on the menu with a glass of wine. Click here for a previous review.

El Meson, now sadly closed, was the grand dame of the family. But a newcomer, La Ceiba, that opened early in 2015 promises to satisfy fans of El Meson’s Caribbean inspired dishes. We haven’t been there yet, but it seems like we should.

I can’t really explain why we haven’t eaten at La Fresca sooner. It’s been open for a year and a half. But we just hadn’t gotten there yet. But after last Saturday’s meal, I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite of the group (while reserving the right to change my mind whenever we try La Ceiba.) 20151018_014603004_iOS

Like the others, La Fresca does take reservations. (Thank you for that courtesy.) We arrived on time and had a very short wait for our table to clear. The dining room is smaller than Café Ena, maybe about the same size as Rincon 38. But the tables are not crowded, just comfortably cozy. There also are a few seats available around the bar where wine and beer are served.

For a starter, my wife and I split a small plate called Puerto Morelos. It was a lobster and shrimp medley on a block of avocado polenta and topped with roasted corn cream sauce, jicama and cucumber slaw, and fried leeks. It was small, but delicious. Our friends split a salad from the ‘segundos’ part of the menu. It was roasted squash and beets with mixed greens, a light dressing, and crumbled goat cheese.

The entrées from the Terceros part of the menu run heavily toward fish and seafood. There are beef and pork and chicken and vegetarian choices. But we all opted for seafood.

My wife ordered Aguascalientes, pictured above. It was pistachio crusted halibut on potato gratin and served with roasted king oyster mushrooms, baby spinach, cauliflower puree sauce, and fried leeks. It was fantastic.

Across the table, one of our friends ordered Yucateco, which was sea bass with a Mayan sauce, zucchini, squash, charred corn, leeks, radishes, scallions, and onion. I didn’t get a taste, but it looked great.

Our other friend ended up with the most fantastic meal of the evening, the Mariscada. It was a fish and seafood soup with red snapper, shrimp, calamari, scallops, potatoes, onion, carrots and celery all swimming in a flavorful pepper broth. First of all, it was a very generous serving; he couldn’t finish it all. But he was surprised that it didn’t come with bread to soak up the wonderful juices. However, our resourceful server managed to find a baguette and brought it to the table.

I chose the evening fish special. It was coconut crusted grouper also served on a block of avocado polenta. It was accompanied by roasted zucchini, corn, onions and tomatoes. Excellent!20151018_014607549_iOS

If I had one quibble about the evening, it would be timing. We ordered a round of drinks (sangria, wine, and a beer). Our appetizers came very quickly after the drinks were served. But then it seemed like we had a long wait for our meals to come out of the kitchen. We were having a nice conversation and were not in any rush. So we didn't complain. But the wait was noticeable.

So once again, Chef Ruiz has provided delightful neighborhood restaurant that was thoroughly enjoyable. We do have to plan a return visit soon.

11 October 2015

Lunch overlooking the scenic St. Croix at Dock Café

In a recent post (click here) I wrote about a day driving an Alfa Romeo sports car. As our destination, my wife and I took the car to Stillwater for a late summer lunch. Our only requirement was that our restaurant had to have a view of the St. Croix River.

Actually, we’ve been to Stillwater often enough so that we had a pretty good idea where we’d like to go. The Dock Café was the first place we checked.

For a mid-week lunch we had no problem getting a table right away. We chose a table on the patio. The weather wasn’t the most pleasant (overcast and a little damp from overnight rain). But it turned out pretty nicely for us anyway. You actually can’t get any closer to the river. From the Dock’s patio, the river bank slopes steeply to the water. You’re right there with nothing to block your view. IMG_0689

The lunch menu at the Dock offers a lot of variety. There are several appetizers and small plates. More than a dozen sandwiches, salads, soups, and combo plates are available. And for heartier appetites, a handful of entrées.

I ordered a walleye sandwich with fries. The fish was lightly breaded. It was moist and flakey, topped with a lemon-caper sauce plus a slice of tomato, onion, and greens. Sandwiches come with kettle chips, but for $2 you can get fries, which is what I did.

My wife ordered a grilled scallop salad. It featured four nice-sized sea scallops skewered and grilled. When I cook scallops at home, I don’t usually grill them. It’s so easy to overcook scallops so that they get tough and rubbery. The scallops on this salad at the Dock were done just right. They were cooked through, but remained moist and tender. The salad was a generous plate of mixed greens, asparagus, sundried tomatoes all topped with a Champaign vinaigrette.

Service was friendly and relaxed. I suppose if you were pressed for time, you might want the server to be a little more prompt. But we weren’t in any rush. We had a very enjoyable time eating our lunches and watching the river.

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07 October 2015

Bogart’s Doughnuts trigger happy memories

I love doughnuts.

I have a particular happy memory about doughnuts. When I was in the University of Minnesota Marching Band (oh so many years ago) we had a couple of food rituals. One was apples. We always got apples in the stands after the halftime show. The other was doughnuts. After the game, we’d march back to Northrup Auditorium (the band office was in Northrup in those days) and there’d be boxes of doughnuts (and apple cider) for us in our main rehearsal room. (I think it was Room 5, if I remember correctly.)

I have no idea where the doughnuts came from. I particularly liked the cream-filled ones, either the vanilla cream or the chocolate cream. I didn’t particularly like the lemon filled doughnuts, which perhaps should be more properly called a Bismarck or Berliner. (Check the definitions from Serious Eats: Click here.)

Any of my old band mates who happen to read this post are welcome to fill in the blanks or correct my memories. But, I loved the marching band, and I loved the doughnuts after the game.

As much as I love doughnuts, I don’t eat them very often. I tried to make them several years ago; too much work. (Although, last year I found a recipe for Apple Butter Baked Doughnut Holes. They were fairly easy to make and turned out great. I served them for dessert after a Friday night dinner with our kids and grandkids. But a baked doughnut hole just isn’t the same thing as a crispy, hot fried doughnut.)20151006_145050384_iOS

Earlier this year, I became aware of a neighborhood doughnut shop in South Minneapolis – Bogart’s Doughnut Co. “Hmmm,” I thought. “That would be a fun biking destination. It’s about a 7-mile ride. I could ride over, eat a doughnut and ride home.”

Well, you know how it is with good intentions. (The road to Hell is paved with them, they say.) So here it is October and while technically I probably could still be riding my bike, it’s starting to get cold (and dark) in the early morning when I ride. So, it’s probably not gonna happen.

But the other day, I happened to be in the neighborhood around mid-morning, and I just parked my car and bought a doughnut. They have a vanilla bean and butter cream filled doughnut made from brioche dough. I was tempted to see how it compared to my memory of the vanilla cream doughnuts from my marching band days. But instead, I opted for the Nutella filled doughnut (also made with brioche dough). It was great, and nothing like the chocolate cream filled doughnuts that I liked in my band days.

Bogart’s gets a lot of favorable press. They deserve it.

30 September 2015

Italian fantasy–behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo

When my wife and I were in Italy (April 2013), we rented a car for a few days of driving around Tuscany. It was a Fiat Punto. It was a nice little car. In Italy it’s classified as a ‘super-mini.’ Here in the U.S. I guess it would be called a subcompact. It was reasonably fun to drive while visiting the medieval hill towns. On the highway, it would cruise along fairly easily. I think the fastest I pushed it was 120 km/h (72 mph).

But, it was basically just transportation. And being on vacation in Italy, I couldn’t help but wish for a more stylish ride. AlfaRomeo1

Fast forward to 2015. I had an opportunity to drive a 1987 Alfa Romeo Spider ‘Quadrifoglio.’ One of our auto dealers in Minnesota has a collection of ‘heritage’ cars available to rent. (Check out Morrie’s Heritage Car Connection.) When I first heard about it, I wondered why ‘heritage’ and not ‘classic’ cars. At least according to Wikipedia, the most common definition of a classic car is 25 years or older. (An antique car is 50 years or older.) At least according to that definition, the 1987 Alfa Romeo I checked out from Morrie’s would qualify as a classic. But some of the other cars available are newer than that.

But I wasn’t so much interested in whether or not I was driving a classic. I’d never driven a sports car like the Alfa. I was just interested in the experience. It was great!

When I started planning the outing, at first I thought about taking a day trip along the Mississippi River to Red Wing for lunch. But within a few hours of picking up the car, I changed my mind. A trip to Red Wing would involve too much highway driving, and for this car, I wanted more of an engaged driving experience.

Morrie’s recognizes the character of the car. On its web site description it says that the Alfa “may not please your inner speed demon.” That’s true. The car has a 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine. Again, the web site says it best: “It needs to be coaxed a little to make the most of it.” But the coaxing is fun. The engine revs eagerly and shifting is quick and smooth.

When I picked up the car, I drove it around the parkways and lakes in Minneapolis, just to get a feel for its personality and to get used to driving a stick shift again. When I learned to drive, the car had a manual transmission. And since then, I’ve driven manual transmission cars, like the Fiat in Italy. But I don’t do it every day, and it does take a while to get back in the swing of it.

There were a couple of notable things about the car. First of all, it was a convertible and it was small. We kept the top down thru the whole time driving it, only putting it up at night. It made a big impression on me how close everything seems while driving it. For example, backing up – I twisted around to see where I was going, and the back of the car is right there. I could reach back and put my hand on the trunk. And driving down the highway, even small American cars seem to loom over the Alfa. IMG_0685

Another thing that I really loved was the dashboard. The car had full instrumentation. Besides the speedometer, tachometer and fuel gauge, there were little gauges for oil pressure, water temperature, and ammeter. That was another flashback to my early days of driving. It used to be that those instruments were important things to watch, to make sure things were running smoothly and you didn’t overheat the engine.

Like I noted earlier in this post, I abandoned my original plan to drive to Red Wing. Instead we drove to Woodbury and then cut across country to Afton. Then we followed the river road north to Stillwater where we had a nice lunch overlooking the St. Croix. It wasn’t exactly like driving through Tuscany. But it was fun.

And really, that’s why you’d rent a car like this. Or own one, if you have the garage space and if you have the mechanical ability to tinker with it. (It is, after all, an old car. It had 91,000 miles on the odometer. It rattled a little bit on rough roads.)

You’d also drive one to be noticed. That worked for us, too. As we were cruising along the freeway, in the middle lane, 60-65 mph, there was a steady stream of cars in the left lane zooming past us. We saw a few look over with a combination of curiosity and (dare I say) envy. One of the cars that blasted by was a Maserati. I’m sure I saw the driver ease up a bit as he passed us and give us a respectful nod.

28 September 2015

Riverview Wine Bar, Mpls., hits the right notes

Sunday of Labor Day weekend seems to be lucky for us. (Yes, I know. Labor Day was almost a month ago. But keep reading.)

We were just looking for a relaxing place to have a light bite and listen to some live music. Several years ago, that’s how we discovered Nikki’s. (Now sadly defunct.)

There aren’t a lot of places in Minneapolis that offer live jazz on a Sunday night. So it’s a wonder why we hadn’t discovered the Riverview sooner. It’s a cool and inviting locale in the Longfellow neighborhood. It was just what we were looking for.

The interior is warm and comfortable. Customers can choose to circle the bar or take a table. There is a fireplace which I can imagine would add a lot of ambiance on a cold evening. At about 7 p.m. on Sundays, the band sets up in a corner by the door. Looking at the Riverview’s online entertainment calendar, it appears that the Zacc Harris Trio plays nearly every Sunday. The trio’s music was very engaging and easy to listen to. RiverviewWineBar

Riverview’s menu offers a lot of variety. They have a nice selection of cheese and charcuterie and a lot of small plates. If you have a heartier appetite, they do offer 6-8 full-sized entrees. They also have salads, sandwiches, and flatbread/pizzas. Prices are very reasonable, ranging from $6-$15 for the small plates and $15-$25 for entrees. All of the pizzas appear to be $12. Their burger is $12 and three-cheese grilled cheese is $13 and comes with a choice of salad or soup.

We started with duck pate from the charcuterie menu. It was rich and smooth and delicious. It was served with bread, spicy mustard and cornichons.  Next we split a ‘Figaro’ pizza with figs, caramelized onions, almonds and chevre cheese. It was excellent. We tend to be light eaters, so that’s all we ordered. But I think most diners would probably order one or two more small plates. The menu offers a lot of intriguing choices including spinach and artichoke spread, caramelized Brussels sprouts, mussels, seared scallops, and mushrooms. Lots to consider for our next visit.

Of course, it is a wine bar, and it has a very extensive and interesting wine list. I felt the wines were pretty reasonably priced. Not inexpensive, but good value. Since we planned to spend the evening there, we ordered a bottle of wine to go along with the food and continue sipping while we listened to the music. I saw several interesting Italian wines, but unfortunately, they were out of most of them. Still, we ended up with a Valpolicella that we liked quite a lot.

So for us, the Riverview goes down as a place to definitely return to. Especially if we’re looking for music on a Sunday night.

30 June 2015

French cuisine, charm on the table at Le Diplomate in DC

In my many years traveling to Washington, DC for work, I’ve enjoyed many delicious French restaurants. I’d always heard good things about Le Diplomate but somehow never went there. It’s not that it’s out of the way. But I seldom had a need to stay in the Logan Circle neighborhood, and so just never made a point of eating there.

That changed a few weeks ago. I had a meeting downtown and got a good price for a room at a Kimpton Hotel (The Helix) near Logan Circle. So on Sunday night, I wandered over to Le Diplomate to see if I could get a table. There were plenty of people there on a Sunday night. But I didn’t have any trouble getting a table.

Le Diplomate has a very appealing menu, offering a wide range of items from small plates to classic bistro cuisine. It has a list of nightly specials. On Sunday night (at least this summer) the special is ‘coq au Riesling.’ I don’t usually order chicken at a restaurant. (We make chicken often enough at home.) And I’d never had coq au vin before. (My wife had it once in Paris. It was tough, tough, tough.) But my server made it sound appealing (braised for hours, meat falling-off-the-bone tender). Also, it was served with spaetzle. That was the clincher for me, so I decided to get it. IMG_1271

But first, I ordered radish crudité from the hors d’oevres section of the menu. Take a look how beautiful it was. And delicious … yum! The radishes were fresh and crisp, sprinkled with sea salt. They came with thick slabs of lightly toasted bread and a pot of butter. It was fabulous and a generous portion, enough for two people to share. Somehow, I managed to eat it all, however.

The coq au Riesling as good. Maybe not quite as tender as the server lead me to believe. But very flavorful. I loved the spaetzle. They were delicious.

The ambiance at Le Diplomate is friendly and casual. My table was on the edge of the outdoor tables, so I could enjoy the warm, humid DC air. (I did enjoy it. May in Minneapolis was quite dreary, and the weather in DC in early June was not oppressively hot yet.)

So I’m sorry that it took me so long to try Le Diplomate. I’m glad I finally did. It certainly lived up to the favorable comments I’d always heard about it.

29 June 2015

Dinner at Fiola makes a delicious trifecta

Almost three years after my first visit to Fiola for a staff celebration lunch, I finally made a return visit for dinner. It was as marvelously fabulous as our team lunch and fully lived up to my (high) expectations. IMG_1264

This was also the third dinner I’ve had at Fabio Trabocchi’s fantastic Italian restaurants in Washington, DC. And as the headline for this post implies, they were three grand events. I wrote about Casa Luca earlier this year (click here for that post). I reviewed Fiola Mare a year ago (click here for that post). And just for the record, here’s my original 2012 post about my lunch experience at Fiola.

My dinner at Fiola was on a warm Saturday evening. I debated whether to take an outside table, and finally opted ‘yes.’ The restaurant’s outdoor tables are on a wide plaza along a lightly traveled street, but just a block off of Pennsylvania Ave. It was very pleasant.

My server was great. Since I had just flown late in the afternoon, my reservation was a little later than the usual dinner time. I don’t know if that was a factor, but he was very accommodating and helpful in his advice and recommendations.

To start, I ordered a burrata on pesto topped with asparagus, a parmesan crisp, and beets. I almost didn’t order it, because I’m not particularly fond of beets. But it was delicious. (The beets, by the way, remained on the side of the plate uneaten.) As you can see in the photo, my server also brought me an ‘amuse’ from the chef, a demitasse of gazpacho. It was great. It has motivated me to find some gazpacho recipes to make this summer when vine-ripened tomatoes are available at the farmers market.

For my entrée, I ordered agnolotti stuffed with lamb and served with mushrooms. The house-made pasta was fresh and very tender. The agnolotti were served in a flavorful sauce. When I asked if it was a cream sauce, my server informed me that it was simply butter and little pasta water. Fabulous. (Something else I’ve got to try at home.) IMG_1267

I was tempted by dessert, but decided not to. However before I got up to leave, my server returned with a jug of limoncello. Only this limoncello was the color of blood orange. Very impressive, very good, much appreciated.

So the headline reference to ‘trifecta’ implies some kind of horse race and begs the question of what order would I rate them. Of the three Fabio Trabocchi restaurants, I’d rate Fiola Mare as No. 3. It would be tough, however, to choose between Fiola and Casa Luca. The food and service at each was equally impressive. Both are expensive even by DC standards. Because of that, I suppose either one would be considered a special occasion dinner spot. Luca purports to be a family friendly osteria. So to that extent, it’s somewhat more casual (though you would not feel over-dressed if you were wearing a suit). But for an over-the-top celebration dinner, I guess I’d opt for Fiola.

24 May 2015

Lemon Poppy Seed Cake w/ Strawberry Frosting

Well, it’s a rainy Sunday on Memorial Day Weekend. Perfect for baking. I improvised this recipe from a couple of different sources. First, the cake recipe is from the Beth El Women’s League “New Kosher Cookbook.” The recipe as printed is a Bundt cake. I’ve made the recipe many times, and it’s a favorite. I only made one modification to the recipe, but as you’ll see in the directions, this time I baked it in a loaf pan rather than a Bundt pan. My modification, I included some fresh lemon juice and lemon zest, simply because I had half a lemon in the fridge from another recipe. I’m not sure if the cookbook is available. My wife got it as a bridal shower present … that would be at least 41 years ago.

The frosting is from Go Bold With Butter, a dairy industry web site to promote butter. The recipe was for Strawberry-Lemon Sandwich Cookies. I made a batch of those and had quite a lot of the strawberry frosting left over. So my plan was to make the cake and fill it and frost it with the frosting.

I’m serving the cake tonight. We’re having some friends over to play canasta after dinner.

Lemon Poppy Seed Cake with Strawberry FrostingIMG_1249

Cake:

  • 1 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 c. butter
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 tsp. lemon extract
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 1/3 c. poppy seeds
  • 2 1/2 c. flour
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Soak poppy seeds in buttermilk. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form, then set aside. Cream butter and sugar. Add egg yolks and lemon extract. (I only had a half teaspoon of lemon extract on hand. So at this point, I also grated in some lemon zest and squeezed in about a teaspoon of lemon juice.) Sift the dry ingredients and add alternately with the poppy seeds and buttermilk. Fold in the beaten egg whites. Grease a loaf pan, and pour in cake batter, filling to about 3/4 full. (Depending on the size of your loaf pan, you may have additional cake batter. I made six cupcakes.) Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Then carefully invert the cake from the loaf pan onto a rack. Cool completely. Split cake horizontally. Cover the bottom half with a generous portion of strawberry frosting. Cover with the remaining half and then frost the rest of the cake. (Note that since I was using leftover frosting from the cookie recipe, I only had enough to fill and frost half the loaf.)

Strawberry Frosting:

  • 3 ounces strawberries, rinsed, hulled and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar

Place strawberries in food processor or blender. Process until pureed. Use electric mixer on medium speed to beat butter until light and fluffy. Add strawberry puree and mix until combined. Gradually add confectioners’ sugar and continue mixing until combined and spreadable.

Note that I used farmer-owned co-op products – Crystal Sugar and Land O Lakes Butter.

19 May 2015

Hymie’s Vintage Records truly is the best!

I do like buying things online. If I know what I want and it’s just a matter of price and availability, buying online is quick and easy. But this month, I had an experience that demonstrates what true customer service is all about, and I can’t imagine it would ever happen online.

For Record Store Day in April I went to Hymie’s Vintage Records. We seem to have a pretty robust vinyl scene in Minneapolis, and Hymie’s is often cited as one of the leading vinyl purveyors. The owners, Dave and Laura Hoenack, put on a pretty great block party. Besides that Dave is one of my son’s best friends. IMG_1246

I bought a few things in the store, and as I was checking out, I asked Dave if he had a copy of Cannonball Adderley’s Fiddler on the Roof recording. (Another friend of mine said he’d heard it on the radio recently and it was great.) It is available online. Amazon, just for example, has it as a CD, MP3 download, and even used vinyl ($20). But, I’ve been listening to vinyl in my home office recently, and I thought if Hymie’s had it in stock, I’d buy it.

Unfortunately, Dave told me that he didn’t think he had a copy in the store. So I paid for my other items and kinda forgot about it.

About a month later (just last week as I write this), a parcel was delivered to our door by the mailman. It was from Hymie’s. Sure enough, Dave had remembered my inquiry, and when he found a copy of the album, he sent it to me.

Wow!

By the way, when I set up my home office, I decided to get a record player. I still have quite a few records from my college days. I even still have my old turntable. But it’s beyond repair. So I did quite a lot of research, and the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB gets high marks for being an affordable, high quality turntable. I did buy it online; I can’t remember if it was Amazon or Best Buy.

30 April 2015

Spanish culture thrives at La Cosecha, Paso Robles, CA

When my wife and I planned our California vacation in March, we considered how to break up the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I suppose we could have done it in one day. But there was no need to hurry (it was a vacation after all) and there are plenty of things to see and do in the nearly 400 miles between the two cities. I’d always been curious about the Paso Robles wine region. We have friends who recommended it as did some of my former associates at Land O’Lakes.

Our hotel was the Paso Robles Inn, located right on the town square and easy walking distance to several restaurants. A friend had recommended Il Cortile for excellent Italian cooking. But when we called for a reservation, we learned that Il Cortile is closed on Tuesdays. However, they recommended La Cosecha, also right on the town square and owned by the same chef. We enjoy good Spanish and Latin food, so it was an easy decision to give it a try.

I’m glad we did. It was delicious, relaxing, and very enjoyable.IMG_0364

Since we’d spent the afternoon wine tasting at several area wineries, we decided to have cocktails before dinner, rather than a bottle of wine. The restaurant offers an intriguing array of craft cocktails. My wife had something called the Jabroni, like a Negroni only made with cachaca instead of gin, Cynar, white vermouth, and amaretto. She doesn’t normally like the bitterness of a Negroni. In the Jabroni, the Cynar gave a hint of bitterness. But it was mellowed by the white vermouth and amaretto. She liked it.

My cocktail was called ‘A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That.’ It’s not on the regular menu; I think it was a special concoction of the bartender. It was made with bourbon, iris liquor, Fernet and amaro. It was sort of like a Manhattan though the iris liquor gave it a flowery essence like a Sazarac.

As I’ve mentioned before in my blog, my wife is sensitive to cilantro. So we asked the server to steer us away from anything that would have cilantro. Ceviche is a house specialty. We knew that would have cilantro, but I wanted it anyway. It featured shrimp and scallops, and it was great. My wife ordered a salad for her starter. When it arrived and she took her first bite, she detected the distinctive cilantro flavor. The server was genuinely dismayed; he had told us no cilantro in the salad. He took it away and brought her a fresh one, at which time he informed us that the first one had micro greens as a garnish, and that included some cilantro sprouts.

For her entrée, Linda had chicken roasted with mushrooms and white sweet potatoes. We had never encountered white sweet potatoes before. Our server actually brought one out from the kitchen to show us.

My entrée was braised bison short ribs. They were excellent, very tender and very flavorful. They were served on top of a celery root puree. I did have a glass of wine with my dinner. I ordered a Turley Old Vines Zinfandel. It was one of the wines we had tasted at the winery earlier in the day. I wanted to see how it paired with the meat. It was excellent, as you’d expect. La Cosecha has a very interesting wine list, with many locally produced wines as well as a selection of Spanish and South American wines.

The ambiance of the restaurant was very laid back. There were a couple of large groups in the restaurant that night. I thought it was interesting that the groups were all men. I assume that they were in Paso Robles doing business, and most likely that business was wine.

Our server was very friendly and helpful. He quickly and efficiently took care of the slight misstep of the cilantro greens on my wife’s salad, and otherwise, he was great.

With the prevalence of Hispanic culture in California, I suppose it makes sense that a town like Paso Robles would have a great Spanish/Latin restaurant. I’m glad we found it.

28 April 2015

Groovy lunches at The Third Bird, Mpls.

I’d have to say that for me, The Third Bird was an acquired taste. As a fan of Kim Bartmann’s Café Barbette, I anticipated good food, comfortable ambiance, and maybe a little quirky style and ambiance. So the first time we went there, on a Saturday night last winter, I was disappointed.

Wait. Disappointed is too strong. The food was good. The vibe of the restaurant was energetic. The service was fine. But part of why we went there in the first place was to try it’s bison burger, which had been getting rave reviews, including from my wife. Much to our chagrin, we were told that the burger wasn’t available that evening. I think that the server could have handled the situation more diplomatically. But we left fairly nonplussed.

I can’t really explain why I decided to try it again for lunch this spring. I guess I was still curious and certainly was willing to give it another try. But over the course of three lunches in March and April, I’ve gotten over my initial concerns and have become a fan, at least for lunch.

Each time I’ve been there, it’s been later than normal for lunch. I arrived after 1 p.m. and found myself almost alone in the restaurant. That would be a negative for some diners. But I didn’t mind. I guess after years of business travel, I’ve gotten used to eating alone anyway and I used the lack of distractions to focus on the menu, the food, the wine, and the ‘groove’ of The Third Bird. IMG_1170

Lunch 1: My server informed me that there had been a substitution for the fish entrée listed on the menu. It sounded good, so I ordered. It was pan roasted trout with thin sliced, pickled radishes, tender herb shoots, peas, and slices of sautéd turnip. It was simple, light, and delicious. It was a little pricier than I expected ($21), especially since there was nothing else on the plate. But I’m a big fan of trout. It’s not easy to prepare well, and this lunch was great. I also had a glass of rose wine - Côtes de Provence Clos Cibonne Tibouren 2012. It was a nice reminder that spring was on the way, despite Loring Park being covered in late March snow.

Lunch 2: Having had a good experience on the first lunch, and now being more familiar with the menu, I planned a lighter lunch for this visit. I opted for the parmesan omelet. The omelet is cooked flat, not folded over. The flavors were great - buttery eggs and pungent cheese. It was served with a simple salad on the plate with the omelet. I had a glass of white wine with this lunch. The menu listed it as Jacquere Vin De Savoie Abyme. I don't know if that's the grape and the region, but it was very good. It may have been a bit over chilled when served, but by the time my food arrived, it was the right temp. It was bright and acidic and very fresh. It went very well with the omelet. It also was a very generous pour, probably 6 ounces (maybe more).

Lunch 3: Now I felt I was on a roll, and I was looking forward to the third lunch toward the end of April. This time, I had my mind made up before arriving; I was going to order the legendary bison burger. But, oops, I waited too long. My server informed me that the bison burger was no longer a regular item on the menu. They would have a burger on the menu all the time. But the bison burger would take a turn in the rotation, and it was not available that day. Well, I came in planning to eat a burger, so I ordered the one that was offered that day. It was a double patty stuffed with cheese and topped with crisp fried onions. The burger came with a small bowl of a very good barbecue sauce. There’s no way you could pick up the burger and eat it like a sandwich. I attacked it with fork and knife, dipping it in the sauce (though the burger was so moist and flavorful that it didn’t really need a sauce). The burger, like all sandwiches on the menu, comes with malt vinegar chips. For a $2 up-charge, you can get fries, greens, or soup. I stuck with the chips. I considered ordering beer with the burger. But the wine list at The Third Bird is very creative, and so I ordered a glass of red wine instead. I had a robust Montepulciano, recommended by my server.

So the food and wine experience for lunch was very good. Since I was there late and without many other diners, the restaurant was very calm and laid back. I don’t know if that would still be true during a busier lunch time. Certainly my one dinner experience was a more energetic vibe. But at least for my three lunches, the servers were all very friendly and helpful. I like the ambiance of the restaurant. And each time, there was some very appealing music playing over the sound system. My favorite was my second lunch. The mix was mostly classic rock and roll, but with some more contemporary rock mixed in.

Now that I’ve gotten over my initial hesitancy, I’m eager for a return visit for dinner. I see that they have music occasionally. That might be fun to try.

19 April 2015

KwikPick: Sonora Grill, Mpls., great Southwestern cooking

My wife and I have become fans of Record Store Day. It started because our son’s best friend bought a record store in the Longfellow neighborhood of South Minneapolis. At the time, I thought that it sounded like a risky decision for a young father. But Dave Hoenack and his wife, Laura, have made Hymie’s Vintage Records a focal point for the revival of vinyl recordings in Minneapolis. And we look forward to attending the block party that they throw as part of Record Store Day. We’ve gotten in the habit of finding a local restaurant for dinner after the festivities at Hymie’s. This year, another couple of friends joined us for dinner at the Sonora Grill, located only 6 blocks from Hymie’s.

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

The back story on the Sonora Grill is that it started out in the food court at Midtown Global Market in 2011. A couple years later, they opened the Grill in an old Embers Restaurant several blocks east in the Longfellow neighborhood. I’d been there once before for lunch, shortly after it opened. I really enjoyed the food at lunch, and that’s why I suggested it for our Record Store Day dinner.

The food was great. For a table of 4, we got one order of their whole baked chicken, one order of paella, one order of beef short ribs, one order of eggplant fries, and one of their daily salads. The salad turned out to be more of a dinner salad with slices of chicken on it. It was very good, but not really what we were expecting. Besides that, everything except the paella came with vegetables on the plate. The chicken asado was fantastic. We expected that it would be enough for two people; it actually was enough for three. Besides the chicken, the plate included flour tortillas, beans, and a potato salad. My plate of short ribs included a slaw of shredded cabbage and a tasty salsa. The short ribs were cut ‘flanken’ style. I thought they were a little dried out and tough, but others at the table really liked them. The paella was very good, with large tender shrimp, mussels, chorizo, and chicken on top of delicious saffron rice. And we all loved the eggplant fries which came with a spicy aoli.

Service for our table anyway was a bit of a disappointment. Our server was friendly and helpful with advice about the menu. But he also was very slow and inattentive. However, we noticed that the server for the next table was very prompt and attentive, so it may be just the luck of the draw as to how good your server is. As far as ambiance, no complaints really, but as I mentioned above, this is a repurposed Embers restaurant. So the ambiance is comfortable but plain. We actually ate on the patio outside, and that was very nice.

I rated Sonora Grill high in terms of value. We got a lot of really good food for a very reasonable price. We only had one round of drinks – three glasses of wine and one beer. I was the beer drinker. When I inquired about the beer on tap, the server mentioned a dark Mexican beer that wasn’t even listed in the menu. It was great with the food, and was only $5 for a pint glass.

After dinner, we all agreed that Sonora Grill deserves a return visit. After this experience, I think I’d skip the short ribs, and maybe order a selection of Sonoran tacos (called ‘caramelos’). They’re priced at only $4 and the menu lists an intriguing variety of fillings, such as shrimp, beef tongue, roasted mushroom, and fish.

Anytime you’re looking for a place to eat in the Longfellow neighborhood, I’d heartily recommend Sonora Grill.

Click here for an explanation of my KwikPick rating scale.

31 March 2015

Oh me, oh my–tracking my vacation steps

While my wife and I were on vacation in California (see the next post in my blog), we walked A LOT. I know that because I wore my activity tracker throughout the day. We logged 11 miles of walking on two consecutive days in San Francisco. I think even my wife was surprised by that.

One day, we took a city bus to Golden Gate Park. We walked around in the park, and then we walked to Haight-Asbury and then all the way back to our hotel in the Financial District. According to the tracker, that was 11.32 miles, 24433 steps. The next day, we walked from our hotel around the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, and then continued up Van Ness to Union Street. There we shopped around, had lunch, and then walked back via the Wharf and North Beach. That was 11.41 miles, 24861 steps. Whew!

I bought the activity tracker in February. My wife questioned why I needed one, and I probably don’t. I don’t use it to motivate myself to exercise more. I have a pretty regular exercise schedule and I’m disciplined about sticking to it.

But there were a couple of things that I specifically wanted. First, I used to have a heart monitor, and I found that useful for pacing my workouts at the JCC. That was an old system that required a monitor that straps around my chest and connects wirelessly to a wristband/watch. The thing that appealed to me about the new activity tracker was that it’s all integrated into a wristband. It’s kind of amazing how it works. But I’ve been able to determine that it’s pretty accurate.

The other thing I wanted the activity tracker for is to help me understand how much exercise I get from working around the house and yard and walking with my wife. (The walks are part of my exercise regimen.)

While I was trying to decide which device to buy, I looked at several comparisons online. I quickly narrowed it down to either the Fitbit Charge HR or the Mio Fuse. (Both are Editor’s Choices in PC Magazine.) At the time I was shopping, they were both the same price. I liked the style of the Fitbit, and it had a couple of nifty features. For one, when it’s connect via Bluetooth to your iPhone, if you get a call on the phone the Fitbit displays the caller ID so you don’t have to fumble for the phone to decide whether to answer. It also tracks stair steps. That would be very helpful to an office worker who wants to take the stairs to get exercise.

But in the end, I opted for the Mio. (Is it pronounced My-oh or Me-oh? I still don’t know.) I don’t really need either of the nifty Fitbit features. I’m retired, and I don’t climb office stairs anymore, and I don’t answer my phone while I’m exercising. The Mio is more waterproof than the Fitbit (not that I’d wear either while swimming). But more to the point, it was available immediately while the Fitbit was on back order.

Frankly, the hardest part about using the activity tracker is remembering to wear it. The Mio is a little bulky so it doesn’t fit comfortably under long sleeve shirts, so lots of times when I’m just working around the house, I don’t remember to put it on. That kind of defeats the purpose.

As best as I can tell, it’s pretty accurate in measuring heart rate and distances. The default setting for tracking steps taken is 10,000 steps daily. So who decided that 10,000 steps is an appropriate goal for daily exercise? When I take a 4-mile walk with my wife (which is her daily routine), that totals about 9000 steps, so I hit the goal easily on those days. But when I do a workout on the elliptical machine, I know I burn a lot of calories and get a good cardio workout, but it doesn’t tally the equivalent number of steps. I’m eager to see how it works when the weather warms up enough for riding my bike.

Lastly, it now links to the Health app on the iPhone. So I’ve started to accumulate data there. First of all, it’s interesting to note. We’ll see how useful the info is over time.

30 March 2015

2nd Best California Vacation Ever!

In March, my wife and I spent 8 days in California. It was kind of an ambitious trip. We covered a lot of ground, starting in Los Angeles, then to the Paso Robles wine country, ending in San Francisco. It was a busy trip. But probably because we’ve traveled to California many times in our married life, we had things pretty well planned out. At least part of it was the weather. California’s climactic misfortune – an extended drought – meant that we had generally gorgeous weather the whole time.

I’ll post more details about some of the restaurants we visited. But here’s an overview of the trip.

Los Angeles: Like our trip last year, we started in Los Angeles where I had a board meeting for Mazon, the anti-hunger advocacy organization that I serve on. We stayed again at the Hotel Palomar near the UCLA campus. I’ve said it before, I’m a big fan of Kimpton Hotels. But after this second stay, I’m tempted to say that the Palomar is my favorite of all. It certainly is an ideal location. It’s a one-mile walk to Mazon’s office where the board meeting was held. And it’s close to the restaurants, entertainment venues, and sights that we wanted to visit. IMG_0338

  • Sculpture garden on the UCLA campus.
  • Botanical garden, also on the UCLA campus. Besides being a peaceful oasis in the busy city and bustling campus, we were fascinated by the turtles we saw swimming in the little creek and sunning on its banks.
  • Holmby Park – This was our walking destination on the Sunday after we arrived. It’s an easy walk from the Palomar, and a nice little park. On a Sunday morning, with record high temperatures, the park was busy with people walking their dogs and families with their children. But we continued past the park into the Holmby Hills residential neighborhood where we oogled the fabulous mansions located there.
  • Will Rogers Beach – After our walk, we drove to the end of Sunset Boulevard to have lunch at Gladstone’s. We’ve been there before; here’s the link to the review I wrote in 2007. I won’t write any more about it. It’s outrageously expensive (like $25 for a plate of fish and chips). But the view is fantastic, especially on a hot sunny day. And the food is quite good. After our lunch, we walked the beach and even waded into the surf to get our feet wet.
  • Besides Gladstone’s we had a return meal at AOC. Like our past meals there, it was fantastic. But still no celebrity sightings.
  • The other restaurants were ink and Pace. Our meal at ink was the most unusual of our vacation – small plates, wonderful flavors, unusual but appealing combinations. At Pace we enjoyed fantastic Italian fare in a comfortable setting with a jazz combo enhancing the ambiance. I plan to post more detailed reviews about both, so no more about them now.

Paso Robles: After LA, our plan was to drive up the coast to San Francisco. To break up the drive, we decided to check out the Paso Robles wine region. It was a fairly easy drive after we got out of the LA traffic. We picked up picnic fare along the way and ate at one of the wineries that we visited. We enjoyed the wineries very much, better than the Santa Barbara wineries that we visited last year.

  • Wineries – Turley, Opolo, Brecon, and Halter Ranch. We especially liked the wine at Brecon, Halter Creek, and Turley.
  • Paso Robles Inn – We wanted to stay near the town square in order to get a feel for the town and be close to restaurant choices. (The alternative would have been to stay at a winery B&B, which sounded like fun, too.) The Inn is very comfortable and moderately priced. It’s located right across from the town square. The Inn consists of several different buildings surrounding some very nice grounds and gardens.
  • La Cosecha – This was the restaurant we chose for dinner in Paso Robles. After tasting wine all afternoon, we enjoyed having a cocktail before dinner. The restaurant has a great drinks menu. The food is primarily Spanish. I especially enjoyed the ceviche of shrimp and scallops that we had for a starter.

San Francisco: This was our final destination. We stopped to have lunch with relatives in Los Gatos. Then finished the drive into The City. Before turning in our rental car, we drove out to Lands End and Seal Rock. They’ve built a very nice visitor center there since the last time we were in SF. Our hotel was the Galleria Park, a Joie de Vivre located in the Financial District. We’ve stayed at other JDV hotels in the past and found them to be very pleasant. Our room was quite small. Fortunately, we’re not large people. But I could imagine a bigger person feeling very cramped in the tiny bathroom. The hotel was ideally located for our planned activities and restaurants.

  • Golden Gate Park – No vacation in SF is complete without a visit to Golden Gate Park. Besides the beautiful trees and plants, the park is home to the De Young Museum and its fantastic sculpture garden. I was disappointed to have just missed an exhibit of work by Keith Haring. But there was one of his sculptures on display near the entrance to the museum. Despite having visited the Park on many occasions in the past, this was our first time walking around Stowe Lake and onto the little island on the lake. We ate a picnic lunch lakeside. The ducks and gulls shared some sourdough bread with us, after we were done eating. The only disappointment from this visit was that the rose garden had just started blooming and wasn’t at full color yet.
  • Farmers market at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero – The variety of fresh, local food that’s available at the market is astounding. We shared a smoked brisket sandwich from Shorty Goldstein’s Jewish Deli booth at the market. Delicious.
  • Chinatown – Sure it’s a cliché. It’s jam-packed with people and stores and shops overflowing with knick-knacks, souvenirs, and cheap toys. But it’s an integral part of the culture of San Francisco, which makes it worthwhile to visit, even just to walk through and take in the sights and sounds.
  • Jewish Museum – I really like this museum. But it’s a small museum, and its exhibits are thematic. On this particular visit, the exhibits were more cultural than artistic. They were instructive, but not as enjoyable for our preference.
  • Restaurants: On this trip, we revisited two old favorites and two new experiences. IMG_0381
    • Kokkari – This is our favorite restaurant in the city. I’ve reviewed it before, and don’t really have anything new to add. Only to say that we like it so much, it’s probably the only restaurant that’s on our ‘must eat there’ list for future trips to SF. Here’s my review from our first dinner there, in 2008. Here’s my second post about it.
    • La Mar – We’d eaten here for lunch previously. We liked it so much that we decided to try it for dinner this time. It was fantastic, as we expected. The only thing is, my wife is sensitive to cilantro, and a lot of the dishes are seasoned with it. However, the menu is very extensive, and we did not have trouble finding other dishes for her to eat.
    • Piperade – Totally new to us, and wonderful. I’d heard about it and had it on my list of restaurants to try in SF. It features food from the Basque region of Spain. I’ll write more about it on another post. But it fully met our expectations.
    • Waterfront – We’ve eaten here for lunch and dinner. It’s a very good, nothin’ fancy fish and seafood restaurant right on the Embarcadero. It’s not as touristy as Fisherman’s Wharf. We decided to have our last night’s dinner here. The photo above was our dinner at the Waterfront; what a beautiful view of the Bay Bridge! It was a perfect choice.

It’s hard to imagine how this vacation could have been any better. Just for the record, however, our No. 1 Best California Vacation Ever was 40+ years ago … our honeymoon.

13 March 2015

Casa Luca makes DC dining choices complicated

I planned my dinner at Casa Luca in DC for almost a year. I had previously eaten at Fabio Trabocchi’s other two DC restaurants. I had lunch at Fiola in 2012. It was fabulous. (Click here for the review I wrote.) Then a year ago, I had dinner at Fiola Mare, specializing in fish and seafood. Great food and beautiful venue, but I had trouble with the service. (Click here for that review.)

For me, the appeal of trying his third restaurant was partly curiosity. I wanted to see what the chef did differently from his other two places. It also was partly because I so enjoyed the Italian cooking served at his DC restaurants, quite different from what’s served at Italian restaurants in Minnesota.

So I was in DC alone on a Saturday night. My plane arrived early evening, so I made a later dinner reservation. I didn’t have any trouble getting a table. But in retrospect, I think that was because it was a little later than the usual dinner rush.

When I got there, Casa Luca was hopping! It seemed like there were two large parties ahead of me. When I checked in at the reception desk, I was told that a table was just being cleared and it would be a couple of minutes. As an alternative to waiting, I was offered a single seat at the bar. But that wasn’t the dining experience I wanted, so I declined. There was no hint that they were trying to push me to take a seat at the bar. I think it truly was intended to avoid any wait at all.

(This was quite a different reception from the dinner I had at Fiola Mare. In my review, I speculated that perhaps my service was below par because I was a table for one. In any case, that experience was not replicated at Casa Luca. In fact, the manager stopped by my table to personally apologize for the brief wait that I experienced, and she stopped back periodically throughout the evening to make sure everything was going well.)

On its web site, Casa Luca is described as a family-friendly ‘osteria’ – a place to relax and enjoy a casual meal and a glass of wine. Well, maybe … maybe with my adult kids. But I don’t think I’d take smaller children there, and maybe not teenagers either. It’s not that casual. And it’s also pricy. Maybe not quite as expensive as Fiola or Fiola Mare. But I’d consider it more of a special occasion restaurant rather than a place for a family gathering.

One more comment about the ‘casual’ thing. I wore a coat and tie. I didn’t have to. There were a few patrons wearing jeans. But most of the diners were fairly nicely dressed.

So far, so good. Welcoming reception. Relaxing ambiance. Now for the menu.

I spotted a cocktail on the menu that sounded intriguing. It was called Il Palio, made with bourbon, vermouth, and orange bitters served over something called Campari ice. I liked it and jotted down the ingredients to try to replicate it at home. But I wasn’t sure what they meant by Campari ice. So when I got home, I did a search on the internet. I was pleasantly surprised to find the recipe on the Saveur web site, crediting the bartender at Casa Luca for inventing the cocktail. (Click here for that recipe.) I haven’t tried it yet, but I will soon.

My wife always feels bad for me when I tell her I ate alone. I really don’t mind. But the main problem is that you either end up trying several things on the menu and ordering too much food, or you just order what you’re hungry for and only get to sample a couple things. I only got a couple items.

The menu at Casa Luca starts with a listing of ‘piccoletti’ described as small nibbles. I saw a farro salad that looked interesting and ordered that. It was more than a nibble, I can attest to that. In fact, it was a nice portioned starter and could have been split between two people. Along with smoked farro, the salad had artichokes, red peppers, and a generous portion of tender lobster meat. It was excellent.

For my entrée, I went with a daily special, described as a grilled lamb shoulder rack. It’s a cut I don’t think I’ve heard of much less eaten. I’ve had shoulder roast before, and my server said that this dish starts out being roasted and then cut into chops and finished on a grill. It might have been slightly more fatty than rib chops or loin chops. But it was delicious and very tender. There was a portion of roasted cauliflower served on the plate with the lamb, and that also was delicious. I’ve read that cauliflower is the new ‘in’ vegetable.

I had looked at Casa Luca’s wine list online and was eager to try a glass of one of their Italian reds. I opted for a Vajra Langhe Rosso, a blend of nebbiolo and barbera. It was perfect with the lamb. (On our next trip to Italy, I’ve got to visit the Piedmont region where this wine came from.)

So you can tell, I’m raving about this restaurant. I’d love it if just one of Trabocchi’s restaurants were in Minnesota. But alas, I’ll just have to wait for future trips to DC. Of the three, I think that I still like Fiola the best, and I really ought to try it for dinner. Then I’d rank Casa Luca as my second favorite. I’m probably being too harsh about my service complaints from Fiola Mare. The food was good and the setting is beautiful. But I just don’t have any compelling reason to go back.