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