06 April 2017

Recipe: Tagine de Legumes du Cafe Aion

When my wife and I spent a few days in Boulder in March, my favorite restaurant was Cafe Aion. We had great French food at Brasserie Ten Ten and great Italian at Via Perla. But the lunch we had at Aion was so delicious and memorable that I'd have to say it was my favorite.

As I wrote in my original blog post about Aion (click here for the full post), I liked the vegetable tagine so much that I sent an email to the restaurant requesting instructions on how to replicate it. I got this quick reply:

"Roast vegetables with a little olive oil and salt - high heat in the oven. (we use carrots, butternut squash & cauliflower)
"Make the mix: sauté equal parts of chopped ginger & garlic in olive oil. when they are starting to turn golden add in ground cumin, coriander, cinnamon, chili, bay leaf & saffron, stir briefly to release aromatics Then add in canned tomatoes and let simmer until it has thickened a bit. Then add in cooked chickpeas, the roast veggies and let the whole mess simmer for a bit (might need to add a little bit of veg stock)  to really come together! 
"We like to top ours with fresh chopped herbs (parsley, cilantro & mint) as well as preserved lemons & fresh chilies."

That was good enough for me to give it a try. I made it for our family Friday night dinner recently when my sister-in-law and her husband joined us; he's a vegetarian. I basically liked how it turned out, and I'm using my experience to suggest a recipe. I did consult some other posted recipes for tagines and particularly for vegetable tagines. The New York Times Cooking web site has a very useful and instructive post on how to make tagine. I'd recommend it. 

When I made this tagine, I think I used too much saffron. I used two healthy pinches of saffron threads, and the resulting dish had a very pronounced saffron flavor. Usually, I think saffron should be more balanced with the other spices, as it was in the tagine I had at Aion. So in the recipe, I've called for less saffron. I did saute some chopped onions before I added the canned tomatoes. I envisioned the garlic and ginger and spices to be the basis for a tomato sauce, and I just thought some onion would be good. 

I used home canned tomatoes from my mother's garden. They tend to have quite a lot more liquid than commercial canned tomatoes. The instructions I got from Aion suggested adding vegetable stock if the tagine seems too thick. With the home-canned tomatoes, I didn't have to add any more liquid. But I think that might be necessary if using commercial canned tomatoes. 

My version of this dish has more chickpeas than what I was served at Aion. I liked having more chickpeas in the dish, and they helped make it more substantial for the vegetarian. I served the tagine with brown rice. Aion serves it with pita bread. 
My version is on the left. I was trying to replicate Aion's on the right

Since I'm making the recipe up, I took the liberty to name it. But I also believe in giving credit when it's due. So I'm calling this: 

Vegetable Tagine from Cafe Aion

Roasted vegetables
1 small to medium head of cauliflower, cut into florets
1/2 large butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (2-3 cups of cubed squash)
3-4 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about the same quantity as the squash)
Olive oil
Salt

Sauce
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced (about equal to the amount of garlic)
Olive oil
3/4 tsp. cumin
3/4 tsp. coriander
3/4 tsp. cinnamon 
3/4 tsp. chili powder
4 bay leaves
1 large pinch saffron threads
1/2 large onion, chopped
28 oz. canned tomatoes (or 1 qt. of home canned tomatoes)
Salt & pepper (as needed)
2 c. cooked garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
Water or vegetable stock as needed 

Garnish
2 tbsp. minced fresh parsley
2 tbsp. minced fresh mint
1 preserved lemon (discard pulp and mince the rind)

Combine vegetables in a bowl. Coat veggies with olive oil and season lightly with salt. Spread vegetables on a large baking sheet. Roast in 400 degree oven until tender and beginning to brown (30-45 minutes). 

Saute onion in a 3-quart Dutch oven until soft and translucent. Add garlic and ginger and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Stir in spices; cook for an additional minute. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, and saffron. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the tomatoes start to thicken (15-20 minutes). Taste the tomato sauce and season as needed with salt and pepper. Add garbanzos and roasted vegetables. Cover and continue to simmer to blend the flavors, another 10-15 minutes. Add water or vegetable stock if the tagine is getting too thick. The finished consistency should be like a thick stew.

Pour the tagine into a large serving bowl or platter. Remove the bay leaves. Garnish with chopped fresh herbs and minced rind from a preserved lemon. (You can see in the photo that Aion uses the bay leaves as an additional garnish.) Serve with garlic toasted pita bread or rice or couscous. 

04 April 2017

Fish sandwich praise proves to be restaurant bait

Our local restaurant reviewer has a blog that he calls Burger Friday. Each week, he writes a post about a different burger served in Twin Cities restaurants. I do keep his comments in mind when considering different restaurants around town. But truthfully, I seldom order a burger.

This past Friday, however, his post was about fish sandwiches. (Click here to read it.) I do have a favorite fish sandwich, which I've noted in a previous Kriks Picks post. (Click here to read it.) But when I was downtown at lunch time today, I thought about his blog post and decided to try the fish sandwich at Sea Change. I've written several posts about Sea Change. It's one of my favorite special occasion restaurants. (Click here for my most recent.)
Fish sandwich at Sea Change

When I reread my previous post about Sea Change, I realized that this wasn't the first time I've had the fish sandwich. I did like it both times. The fish is thick and moist and flaky. It's served with a slice of yellow cheese melted over the top. That component to the sandwich is totally unnecessary. The fries served on the plate are very good. They're also optional. My server told me I could substitute a salad if I preferred. (I didn't.)

I asked for a wine recommendation. He suggested a Gruner Veltliner from Austria. I'm not very familiar with that variety, and I almost opted for a Pinot Grigio from Italy. But I decided to go with his recommendation, and I'm glad I did. The wine is very crisp and powerful. It balanced the sandwich very well.

The ambiance at Sea Change is relaxing, at least for a later lunch. I arrived at about 1:15 and there were only 3 or 4 other diners in the restaurant. Service was prompt, attentive, friendly, and knowledgeable. 

03 April 2017

Lunch in Winter Park before Disney immersion

In early February, my wife and I took our daughter and her family to Florida. We attended a family wedding in Boca Raton and then drove to the Orlando area to take them to Disney World (grandchildren are 7 and 5 years old).

It was a long and somewhat grueling ride. There were six of us with luggage jammed into a Chevy Tahoe. I'm not used to driving a vehicle that large. Of course, we never could have fit into any smaller vehicle. But it still was crowded and a long drive from Boca.

My daughter went to college in Florida. She had made plans to meet a college friend for lunch. So before driving to our Disney resort, we side-tracked to Winter Park. They met at a casual cafe on Park Avenue, right across the street from Central Park. We didn't want to intrude on their reunion. And besides, we wanted to walk around a little to stretch out the kinks after our long ride. Oh, and we wanted a nice quiet place to relax and have a glass of wine before going to Disney World.
My half of the crab cake sandwich

I suppose that Park Avenue is Winter Park's downtown. Anyway, it's quiet and quaint. As we moseyed through an alley, we spotted The Bistro on Park AvenueThe ambiance of the Bistro was appealing and the menu looked tempting. So we got a table.

I had a glass of pinot grigio. My wife had prosecco. We split the daily special, which was a crab cake sandwich. It came with a small side salad with blue cheese dressing.They did charge a plate fee to split it. But they also split the lunch in the kitchen for us. (Often, we find that restaurants will provide you with an extra plate for sharing, but don't often actually split the meal for you.) 

It wasn't a big lunch. But we enjoyed it. 

17 March 2017

Travelogue: A short hiking vacation in Colorado

I never really liked Colorado very much. That is, until we went there in early March of this year. Throughout my career, I only went there a few times for business meetings (in Denver and Colorado Springs). On those trips, I didn't see anything appealing enough for me to return. My wife and I went to Denver in 2015 for a family wedding. It was a fun wedding, but still no desire to vacation there. But when the invitation came for another family wedding in Denver, my wife and I decided to take a couple of extra days and go to Boulder with her brother and his wife.

That trip completely changed my attitude. Not only could I see making a return trip (to Boulder, that is), I'm eagerly thinking about when that might be.
Day 1 hiking in Chautauqua

In early March, there's still plenty of skiing in Colorado, at least at the hire elevations. We're not skiers. We were looking for some scenic hiking. We found plenty of it in Boulder.We rented a cabin at the Colorado Chautauqua Association. We specifically picked it because it's located right on the hiking trails for Chautauqua Park, and it's only a little more than a mile to downtown Boulder and the University of Colorado campus. (More on our lodging below.)

Shortly after arriving and having lunch, we went to the ranger station at the Chautauqua Park trail head. The ranger helpfully assessed our ability . He recommended an easy introductory hike to help us get acclimated. The route took us across a meadow, relatively flat, and then into the trees and slightly higher elevation at the foot of the Flatiron rock formations that are a distinctive feature around Boulder.

The next day, we drove a short distance to South Boulder Creek and parked at the West trail head. No ranger here to advise us. But there was a good map available and the trail is pretty well marked. This time I remembered to start the Strava app on my iPhone. (Strava maps your route and tracks statistics such as elevation gain, total distance, and heart rate if you're wearing an activity monitor.) The route we took started by following the creek through a large meadow. It was pretty flat, but the trail was quite rocky. After about 2 miles, we connected to the Mesa trail that circled a large hill. We did take one wrong turn that took us about a quarter of a mile out of the way. But we doubled back and completed the circuit of the hill. Along the way, we saw a herd of mule deer grazing on the hill above us. According to Strava, our total distance was 5.6 miles with an elevation gain of 640 feet. We reached a maximum elevation of 6115 feet.

On our last morning in Boulder, my brother-in-law and I decided to take a more challenging hike. One of the popular features of Chautauqua Park is Royal Arch. On our first hike, we saw the trail sign directing hikers to the arch. We greeted another hiker who was on his way down. He advised us that the trail was very icy and slippery. "It's a challenging hike anyway, and the icy conditions make it even more difficult," he said. But we decided to try it.

He was right. As the trail gained elevation, we encountered increasing amounts of snow and ice. Some of it had been packed by other hikers. (Some of it had been polished by hikers who felt the only safe way down was to slide on their butts.) We did see some hikers with ice crampons on their boots. In the end, we didn't make it all the way to the arch. We rested at a point in the trail with great views and decided we'd had enough. Besides, we anticipated (correctly) that the descent would be treacherous as well. Our total distance on this hike was 2.9 miles with an elevation gain of 1019 feet. Our maximum elevation was 6793 feet. Good enough.
View from 6800 feet

The final hike of our trip was on Saturday morning before the wedding. We found the Bluffs Regional Park Trail a short drive from our hotel in Englewood. It was good exercise - a 3.5 mile loop (including side trails to scenic overlooks) and a total 200 feet of elevation gain. The views of the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains were nice. But it really was an urban hiking experience and nothing to compare to our hikes in Boulder.

Lodging:
In Boulder, we rented a cabin from the Colorado Chautauqua Association. As I noted above, the main appeal was proximity to the hiking trails. We had a two bedroom cabin, two bathrooms, a porch, a living room, and a kitchen. We shared it with my wife's brother, his wife, and their adult son. It was not at all luxurious, but it was quaint and comfortable and convenient. I would definitely stay there again on a future trip to Boulder.

In Denver, we stayed at the Inverness Hotel in Englewood. Compared to Chautauqua, it was big and modern and luxurious. But it isn't really the style of hotel that I generally choose for myself. It was the designated hotel for the wedding guests, and one of the pre-wedding dinners was held there. I guess the two big deals about the Inverness are the golf course (I don't golf) and the spa (we went hiking and didn't use the spa). There was one feature, however, that I did really like. Downstairs from the lobby is a pub called the Spotted Dog. It was really fun. They have good craft beer and pub food. One evening we joined several of the other wedding guests in the pub where there were pool tables, table shuffleboards, darts, and other games. It was really fun.

Dining:
I've written three posts about restaurants we ate at in Boulder - Via Perla, Brasserie Ten Ten, and Cafe Aion. All three were very good.

Chautauqua has a dining hall, and we ate there 3 times - one lunch, one breakfast, and one happy hour. The food is really quite good. They don't have an extensive menu. But you can easily find something to suit almost any preference. The meals in the dining hall are a reasonable value. They're not cheap, but also not expensive.Breakfast for two people was $26. The Happy Hour - 4 beers plus a couple of appetizer plates was $22. And, if you don't want to spend that kind of money, you can always use the kitchen in your cabin.

Happy house: Elk sausage (left), Brussels sprouts, and beer

16 March 2017

Cafe Aion lures me back to Boulder

I don't know if or when I'll ever come back to Boulder. But if I do, I'm for sure going to come back to Cafe Aion. I had my favorite meal there during our fairly brief visit to Boulder in early March.

We spent two nights in a cabin at Colorado Chautauqua. On our final morning, I took an early hike with my brother-in-law. Then my wife and I packed our car, checked out, and before returning to Denver, we decided to explore University Hill (or just The Hill) at the edge of the University of Colorado campus. We anticipated that it would be a funky commercial area like Dinkytown at the University of Minnesota campus.

We made a beeline to Starbucks because we hadn't had coffee yet. While we were relaxing and checking emails, we struck up a conversation with a friendly local. He had lived previously in Minnesota and after comparing notes about Minnesota, we chatted about things to see and do in Boulder. He asked us where we planned to have lunch. Up until then, we had planned to try a burger joint on The Hill. He made a face and offered an alternative - Cafe Aion. The way he described it, we thought it sounded good. So after we finished our coffee, we strolled by to check it out. From the outside, it looked fairly nondescript. But being adventurous, we decided to give it a try.

After exploring the campus for an hour or so, we made our way back and got a table for lunch. All I can say is, "Wow." What a great lunch it was.
Lunch at Cafe Aion

The ambiance is very casual, as you probably would expect near campus. The cafe was fairly busy for early afternoon on a Friday. But we got a table quite quickly. The style of food is Spanish tapas and Moroccan small plates.

Probably influenced by our initial intent of finding a burger joint, my wife ordered the burger. It was Colorado beef with brie and pickled onions on a delicious brioche bun. It came with sweet potato fries. It was fantastic.

I had a hard time deciding on what to order off the tempting list of menu items. I finally chose a vegetable tagine. It was roasted squash, carrots, and cauliflower with garbanzo beans in a sauce flavored with ginger and saffron. It came with two lovely pieces of flat bread. I liked it so much that later in the day, I sent an email asking for guidance on how to replicate the dish in my own kitchen. I got a prompt and helpful reply. Watch this space for a future post on my effort to cook the tagine.

We both had a glass of wine with lunch. Linda had a Spanish Sauvignon blanc from Naia. She liked it so much that I'm going to try to find it retail to buy for home. I had a garnache which was very good as well (though I probably won't try to buy any for drinking at home).

So this was a truly excellent and satisfying way to end our stay in Boulder. I noted, regretfully, that Aion has live music on Thursday nights plus a 'burger and beer' special - the burger that Linda ordered plus a beer for $15. What a deal!

There was only one problem with our experience there. Service was slow and inattentive. For us as vacationers, that wasn't a big issue. But I could see that some of the other diners had schedules to keep and were frustrated by slow service. Of course, I don't know if the problem exists at dinner. But for me, it's not a deal-breaker. I would definitely come back for either a lunch or dinner.

13 March 2017

At Brasserie Ten Ten in Boulder, the food is 'tres bon'

When we planned our early March trip to Colorado, I anticipated several meals featuring either beef or lamb. Turns out, I only had lamb once in any of the restaurants where we ate. But wow! It was great.

The restaurant was Brasserie Ten Ten in Boulder. We picked it based on good reviews on Trip Adviser and when we looked at the menu online, it looked very appealing. When we arrived for our 7 p.m. reservation (on a Thursday night), the place was jam packed. But our table was open and waiting for us.

When we took our seats, we worried a little about how noisy it was. We asked about another table, and in short order, a manager appeared and escorted us to another table. Now honestly, it still was quite loud. But to me it showed how committed the restaurant is to keeping its customers happy.

We ordered a round of drinks while chatting and deciding on what to eat. The top item on the cocktail menu looked good to me. It was called the Metropolis - vodka, cynar, Cointreau, and bitters. I'd never had a drink made with cynar previously. I knew that one ingredient was artichokes. That's true. But it really doesn't taste anything like artichokes. To me, the cocktail tasted like a variation on a Negroni with the cynar being the bitter alternative to Campari. Since I like Negronis very much, I enjoyed this cocktail as well.

So like I said, the menu is great. Before dinner, as we strolled along Pearl Street, when shop keepers would ask us where we planned to eat, when we said Brasserie Ten Ten, we got lots of encouraging approval for our choice and lots of advice on what to order.

My wife and I started out by splitting a 'hache' salad. Hache, I found out, is the French word for chopped, but this wasn't really like any other chopped salad I've eaten previously. This salad had shredded Brussels sprouts and chopped frizee greens topped with black currants, toasted walnuts, shaved Parmesan and dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. It was very good.
Braised lamb shank was a highlight

For my entree, I couldn't resist ordering the braised lamb shank. The meat was braised to perfection, very moist and tender, releasing effortlessly from the bone (which was decorated with a sprig of rosemary). The shank was served on vegetables, I assume from the braising liquid. On the rim of the bowl were three dollops of mustard. Wow! The mustard was very pungent and provided an excellent complement to the lamb.

My wife ordered steak frites. The steak was lean and nicely cooked. The potatoes were thin and crisp. Delicious.

Very appropriately, Brasserie Ten Ten has a good wine list populated with lots of French wines and supplemented with some very good California and Oregon wines. I ordered a Bordeaux red to go with my lamb. It was very enjoyable.

I was very pleased by our meal here and would readily recommend it to other visitors to Boulder.

11 March 2017

Via Perla offers delicious Italian fare in downtown Boulder

When I saw cacio e pepe on the menu at Via Perla, it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would order it. It immediately called to mind the meal I had on our last night in Rome on our Italian vacation in May 2016. Still, it was not an easy decision. There are a lot of tempting items on the menu of the restaurant.

We got a reservation at Via Perla on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. It's located at the edge of the Pearl Street Mall (hence the name 'Via Perla') in downtown Boulder. When we were there (7 p.m. on a Wednesday night in early March), the restaurant was busy but not overly crowded.

The ambiance is very comfortable. The warm interior lighting complements the wood, stone, and brick decor. The service is friendly and accommodating. Our server greeted us with a hearty 'buona sera' (though she later confessed that she's Hispanic and not Italian.)
Comfortable ambiance, good Italian food at Via Perla

As I noted at the beginning, the menu has a lot to offer. My wife and I decided to split three items. We started with the finoccio salad. This was thin-sliced fennel with orange and avocado on a bed of arugula and radicchio dressed with a Dijon and basil vinaigrette, shaved pecorino cheese and hazelnuts.

Next, I got the cacio e pepe, which means cheese and pepper. It's a simple dish. (Despite being enamored by the meal I had in Rome, I still haven't tried making it at home.) The version served at Via Perla is served with ricotta whey and olive oil, topped with pecorino cheese and cracked black pepper corns. I would have to say that it was not as rich as the Roman version, nor was it as peppery.

My wife ordered pesce bianco (white fish). It was flounder gently sauteed and topped with capers, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, pine nuts and lemon. The plan was to split our two dishes. But she wasn't particularly thrilled by the cacio e pepe, and while I thought her fish was good, I was happy to let her eat most of it while I enjoyed the pasta.

So overall, we thought the food at Via Perla was very good. But it wasn't a real knockout in terms of being impressive. As I've already noted, there were other items on the menu that I would have liked to try. For example:

  • Under the Antipasti, they have a plate of roasted cauliflower that sounds excellent;
  • They also have a cauliflower soup that sounds very interesting; 
  • Other salads that sound good include zucchini crudo topped with mint and goat cheese and charred lemon vinaigrette and a Caprese salad that also sounded good.
  • As an entree, Via Perla offers chicken marinated in Lambrusco wine. I would have liked to try that dish.
  • The other entree that really appealed to me was brasato made with short ribs of beef. Traditionally, brasato is beef braised in barolo wine. That's what I had during our stay in Piedmont last May. I had two versions of brasato there, one good the other excellent. I would have liked to compare them to the brasato at Via Perla.
The wine list at Via Perla is truly impressive. They have an extensive selection of wine from every region of Italy and a wide range of prices from easily affordable to outrageously expensive. We enjoyed a bottle of Chianti classico that was very reasonable and very good. 

I felt that the prices at Via Perla are reasonable and provide good value for the meal. I'm not sure if I will be returning to Boulder any time soon. But Via Perla would definitely deserve a return visit.


20 February 2017

Lela, Bloomington, MN: The kitchen can't do it alone

There's lots to like about Lela, the classy Italian restaurant at the Sheraton Bloomington Hotel. The food ... is amazing. It's creatively prepared and beautifully presented. The flavors are fabulous. The decor is comfortable and modern. The space is open and bright.

Yet, despite all that's attractive about it, my wife and I were let down after our belated Valentine's dinner. It was not a busy evening. We had a reservation for 7:30, but it would not have been necessary. There were many open tables available. (I hope that's not a telling sign.) Still, somehow, the service was slow and inattentive.
A glass of Prosecco and deviled eggs

At first, I dismissed my wife's impatience. We planned to go out to hear music after dinner. But we weren't really in a hurry. So when it took longer than necessary to get a couple glasses of Prosecco, I just said we should relax and go with the flow. Unfortunately, it wasn't just slowness.

We started with an order of Lobster Deviled Eggs. They were so lovely - creamy white eggs, topped by a basil leaf and lobster with a dollop of tarragon aioli. I suppose we both could have eaten off the serving plate. But we asked for individual plates instead. Our server expediently snatched plates from the empty table next to us. That's ok. But for some reason, he seemed compelled to complain to us about what a poor job the busboy had done by not having set our table properly with individual plates. That seemed unprofessional.

Next we ordered a salad to share. It was the Haricot Vert Salad, and when we placed the order, my wife inquired as to whether it contained any cilantro. The server assured us there was not. But it only took one bite to detect the not-at-all subtle sharp pungent flavor of cilantro. Neither of us like it, and she is very sensitive to it. So we always ask and specify "No cilantro." While cilantro wasn't a primary ingredient of the salad, it was topped with micro-greens that included the offending herb. We sent it away and a replacement came back without any of the micro-greens. Oh, and by now, the plates we had used for the deviled eggs had been taken away, new ones had not been brought with the salad, and we had to ask for some.

Not an auspicious way for the meal to proceed. But the salad was excellent. And the presentation was so attractive and unusual. It was served in a wreath-like ring circling the plate.


Happily, our entrees were served without incident. My dish was called carrot agnolotti. The house-made pasta was tender and excellent. On the plate with the pasta was a mound of brilliant orange pickled carrots. The whole thing was delicious. My wife had lobster truffle gnocchi. The gnocchi were fluffy pillows of ricotta bathed in a rich sauce with bits of lobster and beech mushrooms. She enjoyed it very much. While not a large serving, because it was so rich, she couldn't finish it. So she brought some of it home, and I had the pleasure of having it for lunch the next day.

I do have one more complaint. I know it's not the restaurant's fault. But some of the other diners came into the restaurant looking very shabby and unkempt. This is a nice restaurant, not inexpensive, that's trying to maintain a sophisticated appeal. It's not a hotel coffee shop. It would be nice if people would take the effort to dress up a little bit; at least change out of your sweatpants.

I have been to Lela for lunch a couple of times. I don't recall having slow service either of those times. Maybe it was just an off night. Or maybe this is one of those restaurants that's just better for lunch than it is for dinner. Unfortunately, our city does not seem to be a place where sophisticated Italian dining can thrive. I hope Lela makes it.

Agnolotti with pickled carrots
Haricot Vert Salad

13 February 2017

The Commodore, St. Paul, serves a nostalgic journey

My wife and I used to go to the Commodore when we were younger. That would have been in the mid-1970s. For us, the main attraction in those days was live music in a venue that recreated the feel of a classy jazz club. If I remember right, we used to hear the Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra play there. Sadly, the Commodore closed in 1978 after a gas explosion and fire.

Dining room at The Commodore, St. Paul
So when the Commodore reopened in late 2015, we were excited to give it a try. But, you know, life happens. So it took us more than a year to finally make our way to St. Paul. We went on a Saturday evening in February with 4 other friends. I'm happy to report that it appears to be successful. It was hard to get a reservation, and the tables were full of enthusiastic diners when we were there.

Any review of this renovated and reinvigorated establishment has to begin with the decor. It's amazing. There are 3 different lounge areas, each with its own bar. Consequently, each lounge is cozy enough to feel intimate. It's easy to contemplate relaxing in any of the lounges, sipping a cocktail, while waiting for your table in the elegant dining room.

Cocktails at the Commodore, by the way, are excellent. They can serve up a classic drink just fine. But the menu features several creative and inviting concoctions. My drink was called Stormy Weather. It was scotch-based with sweet vermouth, a touch of amaro to add a little bite, and something called 'root liqueur.' I was afraid that 'root liqueur' was a code name for root beer, and it did have a root beer essence. But the overall drink was well-balanced and satisfying. It was served in a beautiful coupe glass that had been rinsed with absinthe to give the drink some floral tones.

My wife had a cocktail called 'Dorothy Parker.' She saw it listed on the menu online. But when she perused the menu, it wasn't there. She asked the server who said of course the bartender could make it for her. Apparently the cocktail menu changes regularly, so if you have a favorite that's not on the menu, just ask. My wife's drink, by the way, was served in an elegant martini glass.
Selection of appetizers with cocktails

With the drinks, we ordered several selections from the appetizer section of the menu. We had Parmesan fried risotto, polenta & green tomatoes, and bacon-wrapped dates. All were very creative, attractively presented, and delicious.

Most of us at the table had a salad. Thoughtfully, the Commodore offers a choice of a half serving which is very nice, especially if you've started with some appetizers. I had a wedge salad, which was served with shredded carrots and turnips, thinly sliced radishes, and sesame seeds. It was good, but not particularly memorable. I felt the best salad at our table was the butter lettuce salad, which was excellent.

Everybody at our table was very pleased with their entrees. I had the evening special of braised beef on potato puree. It was excellent.

We all agreed that the Commodore is a great addition to the Twin Cities food scene, and well worth coming to St. Paul to enjoy. The only thing missing - they need to bring back live music. According to some of the news reports when it opened, that is part of the plan. And our table was right next to a stage that would have accommodated a trio or quartet. But so far, the stage is empty. I'm hopeful that we'll see live music there again soon.


Butter lettuce salad tasted as good as it looks

25 January 2017

My Czech Family Vacation, Part I: Plzen and Poland

Great grandfather's house in Karizek
When my brothers picked me up at the Prague airport, there was no time for dilly-dallying. We were already an hour late due to my flight delay in Amsterdam. Nobody was blaming me, but there were plans and schedules to keep. So we made a quick stop at our hotel. I dropped off my luggage. (I was too early to actually check in.) Then the rest of the family loaded into the van and we were off. (If you need some background about the people on this trip, read my Prologue post, click here.)

Our immediate destination was a little town called Karizek, located about 22 miles west of Plzen. That was the town where my great grandfather Josef Krikava lived until the 1870s when he emigrated to the USA. The house where he lived - No. 2 Karizek - is still there. In fact it's still inhabited by members of the family that bought it from Josef. My Mom and Dad had found it many years ago while doing genealogical research. I had never seen it, but I think all of my siblings had seen it on some of their previous trips to the Czech Republic. In fact, they all had been there on this trip before I arrived. But Mom wanted a photo of all of us in front of the house. So that was our mission, and "Mission Accomplished!"

By the time we got done with the photo, it was time to find a place to have lunch. Not far from Karizek (population 45) is the town of Kariz (population 648). My brother Jim told me that Karizek means "little Kariz." A suburb I guess.

We found a cafe called Restaurace U KroftuWhen our family entered the restaurant, we were welcomed by a staff member who was pleased to have an opportunity to practice his English. It was good. But my brother Jim speaks fluent Czech and my Dad's Czech is pretty good. So we got along just fine. Soon I had a mug of cold Czech beer in front of me and a plate of some kind of Czech comfort food. I think it was a beef patty in the middle of a plate of gravy, topped with some sour cream and with a row of hearty bread dumplings along side. This wasn't the best meal I had during my week in the Czech Republic. But it was good and it certainly was very typical of the Czech cuisine that's served in little bars and cafes outside of the major cities.
My 'welcome to Czech' lunch in Kariz

After lunch, we made one more stop, in the town of Beroun. It had a very pretty town square and though it was getting late in the afternoon, there was a market in the square and some of the vendors were still selling. We shopped for a little while and then drove back to our hotel.

In previous blog posts, I've emphasized that when my wife and I travel, we usually prefer to stay in the central city. But for this trip, my family chose a hotel in a Prague suburb of Nebusice. It's the suburb where my brother lives, and we used it as a base for our day trips into the countryside. 

The hotel is Dolce VillaIt is convenient to the Prague airport. I found it to be comfortable and the price was very reasonable. Many of the other guests were English speakers, and Jim told me that the Nebusice suburb has a lot of expats living there. So the hotel gets business from visiting friends and relatives. Consequently, the staff at the hotel, including the restaurant, is used to English guests and I had no trouble being understood. The breakfast each morning was very good with a nice variety of choices on the buffet.

For dinner that night, we ate at a nearby restaurant called Restaurace JeneralkaThe food was good. The décor was fairly plain. But the staff was friendly, and it was nice place to relax after a day of travel. I had goulash with potato pancakes. I would have rated it higher. But over the next week, I ate at several authentic Czech restaurants, and I came to realize that while my meal at Jeneralka was good, it wasn't really any better than the meals I got at many of the other cafes I ate at during my trip.
Shopping for Polish pottery

Our itinerary for the next day was pretty ambitious. The plan was to drive north across the border into Poland, to a town called Boleslawiec, which is known for its many shops selling painted pottery. Getting there, however, turned out to be quite an adventure. It's supposed to be about 2.5 hours from Prague. But along the way, we discovered that a major bridge was closed and we took a very circuitous detour that actually took us into Germany before crossing the border into Poland at the town of Gorlitz. It ended up taking us about 3.5 hours to get there. 

Fortunately, our GPS system was accurate. But along the way, we drove on some pretty rustic roads and through some very tiny, but quaint, towns. I'm just glad we didn't have any car trouble. 

Shopping in Boleslawiec was fun. We visited several shops and all of us bought beautiful pottery to bring home and use. After a long drive and serious shopping, we all were ready for some lunch. A friendly shopkeeper pointed us toward Piramida, a short distance away. What a great recommendation!

As we entered, we were greeted warmly and seated at a nice table. The host spoke good English, which was fortunate since none of us speak any Polish. The menu offers much variety and lots of tempting choices (and a few odd ball choices, like crocodile steak?!?) To start, Joan and I split a plate of herring with sour cream and onions. These were not wimpy little herring cutlets, like you see in America. No, these were whole fillets, and so delicious. 

As my Mom perused the extensive menu, she was disappointed to note that they didn't have pierogi. "Ah, but madame," our server said with a smile. "It's not on the menu, but we will prepare some for American guests shopping in our town." What a line! My brother and I split a plate of pierogi. They were served with a side plate of salads - carrots, shredded cabbage, cucumbers. It was an excellent meal. I would recommend Piramida to anyone who ventures to Boleslawiec.
Joan and I shared a plate of herring in Poland

For the drive back to Prague, since we knew about the closed bridge, we were able to choose a better route. It still took a long time to get back. At one point, we were driving through a mountain pass and it started to snow. 

When we got back, we all were exhausted. We had dinner that night in the hotel. I had a light meal of fried goat cheese on a salad of lentils and couscous with greens and tomatoes. It was very good. 

My Czech Family Vacation, Prologue

As I trudged out of the Prague airport terminal with my luggage, on a bright sunny morning last November, I spotted two of my brothers waiting in a van to pick me up. I was the straggler, arriving a week late to join my siblings and parents on our first ever whole family vacation.

You see, I'm the oldest of 5 kids. I'm 65 years old, and I'm 17 years older than my youngest brother, Richard. Some of us have traveled together in the past. We even had family vacations before Richard was born. But I left home for college shortly after Richard was born, and we never had a family trip with the 5 siblings and our parents.
At the Prague airport returning home, minus Jim who left earlier

The Czech Republic, really more specifically the region of Bohemia, is our ancestral homeland. All of us have been there in the past; just not all together. Our parents, who are now 88 and 85, traveled there twice a year for 20 years after they retired. One of my brothers, Jim, has an apartment there and lives there much of the time. Jim and another brother, Michael, were in Prague in November 1989 when the Velvet Revolution occurred.

My wife and I have been to the Czech Republic twice, both times before I started writing this blog. The first visit was during hers and my first ever European vacation in 1999. On that trip, we stayed one night with Jim. But since he lives in a suburb (Nebusice) and we prefer to stay in the center city, we moved to a pension after that first night. On our second trip in 2005, we went with my parents. We saw Jim again on that trip, but didn't stay with him. We also took a day trip to Plzen. After I got this blog started, some friends asked about recommendations for Prague. So I wrote a post about those two trips. Click here to read it.

As my parents got older, they eventually quit traveling overseas. So it occurred to Michael and my sister, Joan that they might appreciate taking a trip where they didn't have to worry about the nitty-gritty details. Joan and Mike started to plan the trip and picked a time when Jim would be in Prague. As the plans developed, Richard said he'd like to go too. So now everyone was going to be on the trip except me. 

Unfortunately, on the dates they picked, I already had a trip planned with my wife, and I could not cancel out of it. (That was the trip to California that I wrote about in December. Click here and here to read about that trip.)

And so it was that I flew home from California on the last Sunday of October and the next day left for Prague. Obviously, it's taken me quite a while to figure out how to write about this trip. I think this is the first time in 42 years that I've taken a vacation without my wife. We always plan our trips together. But for this trip, Joan and Michael (and my Mom) did most of the planning. I finally decided to divide the trip into three posts. The first post covers our day trips from Prague. The second post covers an overnight trip we took to Moravia at the far eastern end of the Czech Republic. The third post covers the final day of the trip, the only day I went into Prague.

If you don't want to bother reading the other posts, you can look at a Facebook album I posted after the trip. It's got some commentary along with the photos. Click here.

22 January 2017

Icehouse, Mpls: Inventive music complements inventive menu, drinks

Here's a venue that really has it all.

Located on 'Eat Street' in South Minneapolis, Icehouse is a surefire winner whatever your mood. For my wife and me, the Saturday night dinner show is our usual attraction. The music starts at 6:30 p.m. There's no cover charge. It's usually a duo, occasionally a soloist. The music is restrained enough to accommodate dinner conversation. But the line-up of locally renowned artists assures that you're going to hear some good music as well. When we came last Saturday, the performers were Patrick Harison and James Buckley. Harison plays the button accordion and Buckley plays acoustic bass. They performed a wide variety tunes, mostly jazz, some with Middle Eastern harmonics.

As a music venue, Icehouse is intelligently designed. The stage is in the middle of a big, two-level dining room. We've only ever been seated on the ground floor where there isn't really a bad table for hearing and watching the performers. There may be some tables upstairs where the sight lines are not ideal. But the sound fills the room nicely, so no worries about hearing. There is a back room where we've never been seated. For sure you wouldn't be able to see the band from that room. I don't know how well you'd hear the music from there either.

But Icehouse is more than just a nice music venue. They have a creative drink menu. On our most recent visit, I had a cocktail called Smoke on the Water. It was a scotch-based drink with cynar and other ingredients. I tried looking up the recipe online. But it turns out that "Smoke on the Water" is a fairly common name for a cocktail, and there's quite a wide variation on how it's made. Most of the recipes I saw didn't even include scotch. My wife's cocktail was from the "Rocks" portion of the drinks menu. These are called "sipping shots" and cost only $5. Yes, it was smaller than my cocktail (which cost $13). But it still was an ample drink. Her drink was called "Satan Laughs & Spreads His Wings." She had it on a previous visit and really enjoyed it. That time, for a coaster, the drink was served on one of those little evangelistic religious pamphlets. But last Saturday, it was served on a regular paper napkin.
Duck Platter with a nice Barbera

After we sipped our drinks for a while, we ordered dinner. Honestly, the food menu at Icehouse is equally as varied and creative as the drink menu. We ordered a plate of roasted squash, which we sort of intended to be a starter. But it was was served as a side dish with our meals. The squash was sweetened with maple syrup and sprinkled with smoked nuts which added some nice texture to the dish. For my entree, I ordered a duck platter from the 'Main' section of the menu. It featured 3 different preparations - duck confit, roasted duck breast, and a duck liver foie gras style. These were served on a bed of spaetzle. I thought all 3 preparations were very well done, though when my wife tasted the confit, she felt it was too fatty and she didn't like the foie gras. She picked her meal from the "Sides & Snacks" part of the menu. She had BBQ brisket "burnt ends." It was a smaller portion, but adequate for her, especially since we also had the squash starter. Her only complaint was that the menu indicated that there would be "brussels" which we assumed would be Brussels sprouts. At most, there were only a few leaves from a sprout.

I did have a glass of wine with my duck. Icehouse has a nice selection of wine by the glass as well as by the bottle. I chose an Italian Barbera. It was very good. We've had Barbera in the past that has pronounced tannins. This one didn't and it went very well with the duck.

We found the service at Icehouse to be very accommodating. Our server was attentive, and when we asked for some time to sip our drinks and listen to the music, she left us alone. When we did get around to ordering food, she was very helpful and enthusiastic about the items on the menu.

We left around 9, when the dinner show ended. After dinner, Icehouse transforms into a music bar. Food is still available. But the entertainment tends to be more high energy and not so suited to conversation.