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