29 January 2015

New Orleans addendum

When I wrote the piece that I posted last night, about our January trip to New Orleans, there were a few details I neglected to include.

Fleur de Lys – You see it everywhere in the city. I’ve always known that it’s a common symbol of the city and that it traces back to the city’s French roots. But we had one local tell us that since Hurricane Katrina, it’s also become a symbol of the city’s determination to overcome the hurricane’s impact and rebuild.

Men’s fashion – We packed casual for this trip. We didn’t intend to go to any high class restaurants (I know that some require a jacket and tie). But I was kind of surprised to see many men wearing formal business suits even walking the streets of the French Quarter. And when I was shopping with my wife, I was excited that many of the boutiques sold bow ties and many jewelry and antique stores included cuff links and tuxedo sets for men.

As I mentioned in my original post, I did buy a bow tie. I saw it at NOLA Couture in the French Quarter. I was admiring the bow ties; I appreciated the styling and the fact that they are locally made. (Most ties I see are made in China. I don’t object to clothes made in China. I do object to paying a premium price for the ‘style’ knowing that it’s made with low-paid labor in China.) However the print I wanted wasn’t available as a bow tie. ‘No problem,’ said helpful clerk. He called the factory, determined that the they had silk in stock with the print I wanted. So they custom-made my bow tie and shipped it to me. Yeah!

I saw lots of fleur de lys cufflinks, and at one store I saw a set of cufflinks and fleur de lys tuxedo shirt studs. I was sorely tempted to buy them. I didn’t because I’m not sure where I’d ever wear them. However, if I ever get invited to a New Orleans Carnival ball, I’m gonna get them!

Sazarac – I’ve read that the sazarac cocktail was invented in New Orleans and was the first cocktail invented in America. It’s one of my favorite cocktails, and I make a pretty good one myself. Still, I did sample several during our trip to New Orleans.

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28 January 2015

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

Before I retired, every few years I’d attend an industry meeting in New Orleans. It always was a lot of fun, and my wife sometimes would come along for a few days of vacation. One of the associations had a conference planned there for winter of 2006. But in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina changed all that. The conference was relocated to Orlando, and I never made it back to New Orleans.

This winter, as we discussed where to go for a short get-away from the Minnesota winter, we decided it was time for a return trip. This time, no conference sessions to work around. It would be just good food, fun music, and warm weather.

Well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. The city experienced a cold spell during the 5 days we were there in late January. Still warmer than Minnesota. But one day, the temps stayed in the 40s. Didn’t bother us to much, but a lot of the locals were complaining.

As we planned the vacation, we did have second thoughts a few times. Our son (who lived in New Orleans for a few months in 2001) gave us a DVD set of the first season of the HBO series Treme. The Treme is a neighborhood just north of the French Quarter. The TV series portrays the lives of New Orleans residents trying to rebuild after the hurricane. Much of what was portrayed was quite bleak. Intellectually, we were sure that things had been rebuilt now. But we did have some concerns about how things would be.

Well actually, it was better than I had expected. Much better. A couple of the locals we met said that the city is better now than it was before the hurricane. (This was mentioned in a subdued voice, as though it was kind of embarrassing to admit.) We had a fantastic time. And we fulfilled our goal of enjoying good food (lots of it) and fun music (almost constantly). IMG_0294

Our hotel was the Hyatt French Quarter. It was great! Now, there are some fabulous historic and quaint old hotels in the French Quarter. I won’t try to tell you that the Hyatt is better. But, we’ve stayed mostly at boutique hotels on our travels since I retired, and the Hyatt was a really nice change of pace. It’s clean and modern and conveniently located. We got upgraded to a king room, and they comped the wi-fi. The staff was extraordinarily friendly and helpful. I’d readily recommend it.

We spent most of our time in the French Quarter, browsing through the art galleries and antique stores, shopping in some of the off-beat shops. We bought a few things (a new bow tie for me, some jewelry for Linda, gifts). On our second day, which was chilly with periodic rain showers, we stopped in at an artists co-op – Dutch Alley. When we brought our purchase to the counter, one of the artists was working on a sculpture of a young black man holding a revolver to his head with one hand and taking a selfie with the other. We chatted with him, and Linda said the piece was quite disturbing. That lead us into a conversation about guns. Linda expressed her view that she “hates guns,” and the woman behind the counter agreed. But the artist (who was black) said “As long as the bad guys have guns, I’m going to have one too.”

On one of the days, we walked to the Garden District to see the shops and galleries on Magazine Street. On our way back, we walked along Prytania Street where we saw some pretty fabulous homes and mansions. The vibe in the Garden District is much more laid back than the French Quarter, and it was a nice reminder of the diversity that’s in the city.IMG_0312

On previous trips to New Orleans, we had been to the Garden District. But on this trip, we saw other neighborhoods by taking the streetcar to City Park. It’s a huge park, very pleasant with the largest collection of mature oak trees in the world, some of them more than 600 years old. In the park is a botanical garden, a sculpture garden, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The weather that day was some of the nicest we had during our trip, so we didn’t go into the museum. But we did spend quite a lot of time in the sculpture garden, which is fantastic.

As I said, two of our goals were good food and fun music. I’ll post more about some of the restaurants we visited. But here are a few general comments.

  • Café du Monde – we went there on the first day and the last day for beignets and café au lait. The concierge at our hotel tried to steer us to an alternative for beignets, but sometimes you’ve just got to stick with the kitsch of a tourist attraction even if the local alternative is just as good.
  • Ruby Slipper Café – this was a recommendation from the concierge that we took, and glad we did. Had a fantastic brunch there before our walk to the Garden District.
  • John Besh – He’s a New Orleans chef who seems to over-shadowed Emeril Lagasse for star power and the Brennans for creative cooking. I first read about him on the New York Times food page. I even blogged about a video they have posted that made me want to experience his cuisine. (Click here to read that post and link to the video.) We went to two Besh establishments. They were two of the best meals we had during our trip.

The other goal was fun music. We really loved the music scene in New Orleans. When we raved about the music scene to our daughter when she picked us up at the airport, she was somewhat defensive of the Twin Cities music scene. Yeah, there’s usually live music to be viewed almost every day. But we can go for weeks without hearing about a performance that we want to see. And yes, New York and LA have great music, and on our visits there, we can find music we like almost any time we want. But in New Orleans, it’s all concentrated in a very accessible way. So you can listen to a set of great jazz in one club, then hear an energetic brass band on the street, and then drop in to a gritty blues club before ending the evening at another jazz venue. All without getting into a car or cab. IMG_1048

A few notables:

  • Three Muses – Not only was the music great, but we had dinner there, and it was fantastic.
  • Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub – In the downstairs showroom one night, we heard a great Dixieland band. The next night, in the upstairs showroom, was an equally enjoyable band performing more swing music. And during a break in the music, we went out onto the balcony overlooking the madness and bustle of Bourbon Street.
  • The Davenport Lounge (Ritz Carlton) and Fountain Lounge (Roosevelt Hotel) – two hotel lounges with daily performances. We went for pre-dinner cocktails.
  • Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta Hotel – my favorite. We went there twice.

Sorry that it took so long to return to New Orleans. We won’t wait so long for our next trip.

15 January 2015

Is Zentral the best restaurant in Mpls? Could be.

Whenever I’m asked what’s my favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities, I answer Meritage in St. Paul. But lately I’ve started to consider that maybe Meritage’s younger sister in Minneapolis, Brasserie Zentral, might displace her as my No. 1 choice.

Both restaurants are the creations of Chef Russell Klein and his wife Desta. There are some family similarities – a commitment to fresh and top quality ingredients, elegant (though not stuffy) ambiance, masterful preparation and beautiful presentation. But while they share familial traits, they have distinctive personalities. Meritage is French. But the menu offers some playful riffs – matzo ball soup that’s so good some of our friends have considered serving at their Passover Seders or a duck liver ‘schmear’ that’s unlike any chopped liver appetizer I’ve ever eaten.

Zentral, on the other hand, is primarily Hungarian, Austrian, and northern Italian. It’s menu features things like sausages, spaetzle and dumplings, smoked fish, and schnitzel.

About every other week, I have a study group at an office downtown. It goes over the lunch hour, and when it ends at 1 p.m., I’m ready for lunch. I’ve tried Zentral for lunch a few times now. The first time I went, I had the burger. I was curious because the Star Tribune restaurant critic gave it such a glowing review. It was very good. But it was, after all, just a burger. IMG_0273

Since then, I’ve tried more of the ethnic specialties and I’ve enjoyed them much more. I think so far, my favorite was duck Bolognese on pappardella pasta. I also really liked the gnocchi with lamb ragout and braised red cabbage.

On my most recent visit, my brother and I met for lunch to celebrate our birthdays. For this special lunch, I did make a reservation and did indicate that it was a birthday lunch. Each time that I’ve eaten at Zentral, I chose a seat at the chef’s counter, looking into the gleaming and bustling kitchen. Mike and I sat there as well. When we were seated, our server brought a complimentary glass of sparking wine to celebrate our birthdays. Nice!

One of my brother’s co-workers had recommended schnitzel. Mike was tempted by the duck Bolognese, but ultimately opted for the schnitzel. He enjoyed it, and I thought it looked very good. I haven’t ordered schnitzel so far because it just sounded like a piece of breaded meat. But the presentation was so appealing that I think I will try it on some future visit.

I ordered chicken paprikash. The chicken was braised and was so moist and tender it fell off the bones. It was served with rye bread dumplings and stewed peppers. It was fantastic.

My chicken and Mike’s schnitzel were bigger meals than any of the previous lunches I’ve had there. They easily were big enough to be dinner entrées.

So you might be wondering, since I liked Zentral so much for these several lunches, why any hesitation about saying it’s my new favorite? The answer is dinner.

My wife and I have had dinner there once with another couple. The food was great. But the service was poor. I can’t figure out why, since the service at lunch always had been great, at least for me. But other online reviewers, including Zentral’s own Facebook page, have complained about slow and inattentive service. And I recognize that things often can be different between a lunch experience and dinner. Even within the family, lunch at Meritage is different than dinner there.

So we’re going to go back for dinner sometime. After I do, we’ll see. I may be changing my best restaurant recommendation.

11 January 2015

Kwik Pick: Dinner at Ngon Bistro, St. Paul was great!

I’ve had lunch a couple of times at Ngon Bistro and really enjoyed it. I’ve even posted a blog review about one of those lunches. (Click here to read it.) I’ve been looking for an opportunity to head across the river and try it for dinner. And that’s what my wife and I did this past Saturday.

  • Food = 5/5
  • Service = 5/5
  • Ambiance = 4/5
  • Value = 4/5

As you can tell from my ratings, we liked Ngon Bistro for dinner very much. I’m not a big fan of Asian cooking. But I think that one reason why I like Vietnamese cooking is because much of it has a French influence (from the bad old days of French Indochina colonialism.) The menu at Ngon reflects this cross-cultural amalgam.

My wife, who likes Asian fare much more than I do, focused on the traditional items on the menu, especially the pho. Ngon regularly receives kudos for its pho. Besides the pho, she was very excited by the variety of dishes offered, but finally picked the seafood pho served with shrimp dumplings and mussels. I was tempted by the mock duck and by the duck pho. But I opted for one of the seasonal specials instead – duck confit served on risotto with mushrooms and zucchini. We both loved our main course meals. For starters, we had an order of sweet potato and shrimp croquettes and an order of lettuce wraps with tofu. Both were very good, though I remembered from a previous lunch experience that I’m not a big fan of do-it-yourself lettuce wraps.

Our server was excellent. She was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the food and drinks. Her descriptions of the items that we asked about were very helpful. Also, since we planned to linger for the music, she was very accommodating and let us order things at our own pace.

The ambiance in Ngon is very comfortable with tall ceilings, a big open dining room, interesting art on the walls and a very cool bar. The noise level on a Saturday night, before the musicians started playing, was moderate. We could carry on a conversation very easily without have to shout or strain to hear what each other was saying.

There’s a little bit of a back story to our visit. One of the reasons why we hadn’t gone to Ngon sooner was because we were looking for a Saturday night when they have live music. We do like to support restaurants that have live music. I knew from my lunch visits and from the web site that Ngon has music occasionally, and we kind of just waited until a time when our open Saturday night coincided with their music schedule. According to the web site, the music starts at 9 and they also resume happy hour at 9 on Saturday nights.

So we planned our evening to have dinner at 8, so that when we finished eating, we could order a couple of drinks at happy hour pricing and enjoy the music. Well, when we arrived, we asked for a table where we’d be able to see the musicians, and the hostess told us that she didn’t think there would be music that evening. She even called over one of the servers who also was unaware that music was scheduled. I told them that it was on their web site, but they still were dubious. After we got settled at our table, we also asked our server, and she determined that indeed, there would be live music. However it likely wouldn’t start until 9:30 p.m.

As things worked out, we finished our food just as the musicians were setting up, and we ordered our happy hour drinks. I had a barrel-aged Sazerac. I like a Sazerac, and I make a good one at home. But I’ve never had a barrel-aged cocktail. It was good, but I couldn’t really detect the benefit of aging the cocktail. Specialty cocktails ordered during happy hour are discounted $2. So my Sazerac was $9 instead of $11; I thought it was a fair price either way. My wife ordered a glass of the house red wine; happy hour price $5. But it was not very good. She didn’t finish it.

Recommendation: We’re already talking about our next trip to Ngon and who we’re going to bring along. But I don’t think we’ll purposely plan the evening around their music or happy hour. It just wasn’t that compelling to do it the same way again.

Click here for an explanation of my Kwik Pick ratings.

08 January 2015

Grilled salmon, mixed pepper risotto warm a frigid night

The outside temperature was 3 degrees and the wind chill was –14 as I started working on dinner this past week. But a little cold weather doesn’t stop me from firing up the Weber grill. Grilled salmon is our familiar favorite and we have it almost weekly.

I use a charcoal grill. It takes a little extra prep time to get the coals burning. But my wife and I think the flavor of the charcoal is worth the trouble.IMG_1011

For the salmon, I lightly sprinkle it with no-salt lemon pepper. It’s actually not an easy product to find. You can find lemon pepper at most supermarkets. But if you want no-salt added … that’s not so easy. I usually buy it in bulk at the Linden Hills Co-op. After the coals are hot, I arrange them toward the outside of the Weber kettle so that the fish roasts with indirect heat. Then I simply lay the seasoned fish on the grate, skin-side down. Then I put the cover on the grill and let it cook for about 20 minutes, a little longer if it’s a bigger piece or if the coals don’t seem as hot as usual.

I often serve risotto with our grilled salmon. I have a few standby recipes that I make, but for this dinner, I decided to use up a few leftover items cluttering the fridge. For New Year’s Eve, I’d bought some mini peppers, and I had several extra. So I mince one of each – red, yellow, and orange and then added some minced green pepper. I also had about a tablespoon of grated lemon peel and a small piece of leftover feta cheese. After consulting a few recipes online, I devised this recipe.

Mixed Pepper Risotto with Artichoke Hearts

  • 1/2 c. minced onions
  • 1 c. minced bell peppers, a mixture of various colors
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 c. arborio rice
  • 3 1/2 c. broth (chicken or vegetable)
  • 1/2 c. white wine
  • 1 c. canned artichoke hearts, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 c. (about 2 oz.) crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 tbsp. grated lemon peel
  • 3 or more tbsp. minced herbs (I used basil and chives), to taste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Sauté onions and peppers in olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat, until onions are soft. Stir in rice and toast for about a minute, until the rice is shiny and translucent. Reduce heat slightly and add wine; stir constantly until the wine is evaporated. Add broth, 1/2 c. at a time, stirring often; cook until the rice has absorbed each addition of broth before adding another 1/2 c. After you’ve used about 3 c. of broth, taste a grain of rice. It should be al dente, not mushy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the artichoke hearts and continue to stir in broth until the rice is cooked to your desired consistency.

Remove the rice from heat. Stir in the feta and herbs. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Notes: For the broth, I had a half cup of homemade turkey broth in the fridge. I used that plus 3 cups of instant vegetarian chicken broth (another product I buy at Linden Hills Co-op). If you use a commercial stock, you may not need to add any salt, especially since the feta is salty as well. If you don’t have feta in the fridge, you can use grated parmesan cheese instead. For the herbs, I always prefer fresh herbs. But a tablespoon of dried oregano would add the the Greek character of this dish.

Standing over a stove stirring risotto is a wonderful way to warm up on a cold winter night. Besides the salmon and risotto, my wife made a simple green salad. Very nice.