Friday, July 16, 2010

Update Your Bookmarks, please!

Gooooooooood afternoon, Twin Cities!

I'm happy to announce that I've got a new webpage for you. Please click on over to and see what I've got in store for you! It's a whole new world and I'm even bribing you to come over. There's one of those obnoxious webby giveaways over there. Just do it! Plus, it's much prettier than this page. Now go!


Friday, June 25, 2010

Chef Shack @ Mill City Farmer's Market

On a recent gray Saturday, I made my way over to the Mill City Farmer's Market. Parked fifteen miles away and still at a meter, I was starving by the time I met Eric there.

Yeah, he was excited, too. And hungry. We tried hunting around for ingredients, duck eggs, lamb steaks, beautiful goat cheeses and early pinky green strawberries with grumbly tummies. We couldn't ignore the half mile long line in front of the Chef Shack
. I'd been looking forward to trying their food after reading a bunch of their positive press in the local media.

(this lady only looks cranky because she isn't eating donuts.)

Like little kids at the county fair, we discussed the various menu options and our best strategy, convinced we were starving enough to eat it all. The benefit of the long line was that we had the chance to watch everyone else walking past us with their steamy treats. A young girl clutched her paper boat captained by a soft shell crab and asked her mom, "What is that?" pointing at a little green curly hat perched on what used to be his little crabby head. Her mother's brow furrowed, "I'm not sure honey." I had to hold my hand down to keep myself from shaking it around in the air, jumping up and down, "I know! I know! I know! FIDDLEHEAD FERN!!"

We decided we must get one. We'd get the nachos, soft shell crab sandwich and the donuts. I could smell the sugary, fried little nuggets beckoning us like the tickle of a little crab claw under my nostrils. Must.Have.DONUTS.

We got our food and sought shelter from the spitting rain under the long, blue arm of the Guthrie theater. The nachos were dressed with smokey pulled pork, vibrant tomato salsa, black beans and creamy luscious guacamole. The chips were warm and crispy. I shoveled a couple into my mouth before making a greasy fingered grab at Eric's sandwich.

This was a little piece of heaven on a bun. The crab actually tasted crabby. We both marveled, realizing that we'd never actually had a soft shell crab that we really liked before. Usually, they're difficult to eat, greasy, gritty with cornmeal, or a soggy disappointing heap. Often, the most appealing this is attempting to gross out your dining companions by eating something so similar to a giant sea insect. (I get the same effect by eating calamari when out with my friend Andy, and making the little tentacled bits dance on the edge of her plate. It's a wonder I have friends.) This was the antithesis. The crab was lightly battered, crispy and tasting of fresh sea water - jolted to life with the zing of the pickled ramp tartar sauce. The grilled fiddleheads were a grassy, earthy flavor anchor. The charred fresh bread was crispy on the outside, plush on the inside. It was pretty much the ideal sandwich. Eric had to yank it back before I finished it off.

Then we got going on the donuts and that was pretty much the end of me. I couldn't talk or function properly until the bag was empty, drained of all donuts and the sugary coating leftover at the bottom. They were sweet, cardamomy (one of my favorite spices) and with just enough salt on them to ensure that they are utterly addicting. We ate the whole bag and had to get in line for more. They were fried crisp, crunchy and irregularly shaped, encapsulating the just sweet enough dough and kissed with the crackly sugar, spice salt mixture. Hot, fresh and wonderful.

I couldn't even tell if the rain was still falling. I was sucking on the wax paper bag when Eric jumped up, like being suddenly awakened from a wonderful dream. "Meter! I'm 10 minutes late!" We raced back to our respective cars. Well, I'm assuming he raced. I trotted for a bit before giving up. I am not a runner. I shambled up to my car, now sporting a soggy white envelope tucked under the wiper. I was still on such a happy food high, the $40 ticket didn't even phase me. I carefully licked my fingers again before touching the offensive little spitwad and chucking it onto the floor of the car. I closed my eyes and went to my happy place full of jaunty little crab sandwiches and dancing donuts.

I've since been following Chef Shack on Facebook and was delighted to see that they've been approved for serving food on the streets of Minneapolis. Follow them and find out where they're headed next - either to 5th & Hennipen on Monday, today at MPR, tomorrow at Mill City - just do it! You'll thank me. I'll happily except all kisses of gratitude in the form of little fried circles of spicy sweet yum yums.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Heartland on St. Clair

It's the end of an era for Heartland restaurant. On Sunday, they'll be closing their current location before opening an incredibly ambitious new operation down in Lowertown. I've heard some comments about chef Lenny Russo's possible insanity relating to the move - the overhead! The non-existent St. Paul foot traffic! Fhima! To that I say, if anyone can do it, it's this guy. Who would have ever thought the restaurant, tucked into the Mac Groveland neighborhood at a relatively quiet intersection would ever draw a fine dining crowd? He did. And he was right.

I have to admit, I've never eaten on the fine dining side of the restaurant. The prices and pressure to actually order two entrees is too great for me. I've always loved grabbing a stool in the often crowded, hallway-like wine bar next door. This is where I found out my friend Eric was getting married - that was a great night. I almost fell off my barstool with excitement. Then he surprised me with a bunch of spices that he'd brought me back from overseas. Love that man.

This is where Matt & I have celebrated our anniversary and any special "whoa, we actually have a little bit of money" occasion. So, fresh from his first paycheck at his shiny new REAL job (where he doesn't, not ever, have to crack open a cheap bottle of beer for anyone.) We went one last time to say goodbye.

I'd expected them to be packed with sentimental well wishers like me, but they were actually pretty quiet. Then again, it was 6:30pm on a Wednesday night. Not exactly a hip hour to be dining. I never claimed to be hip - just mildly delusional in a way that some people find kind of cool.

I ordered the pinot noir, he got a Schell's and we tucked into the menu. There was a lot of pointing and gasping with delight. One of the things I love about eating at Heartland is the experience of it. I've ordered things I never would have thought I'd consider eating before, but I put my trust in Russo and his staff. They churn out the weirdly wonderful.

The amuse we were served was a tiny cup of asparagus and fresh peas tossed in a horseradishy dressing.

The flavor was pretty strong to start out the meal with, but we still ate it all.

The little bread served looked like a little football and was made with wild rice flour. It was also just about as tender as a pigskin, but the inside flavor was deliciously sourdough-y. I think it would have been wonderful smeared with butter, but Matt ate it all. Cause he's a big jerk.

I comforted myself with the cheese tray, which I didn't have a chance to take a picture of. Suffice it to say, it was cheese, on a plate, and somehow in this lighting it would have come out looking like some kind of blurry, drunk valentine postcard for Wisconsin. (Honestly, I don't know what the lighting does to my camera.)

Because it was a special event, and because the bartender gave us the dining menu, we went off course. Usually, we'd be splitting a bit of house made lovely from the charcuterie section of the menu, but on this night we actually ordered an entree. We got the lamb chops with caramelized shallots and ramp mashed potatoes. (And can I just say that ramps are the new greatest thing ever? The last three years I've become one of those swooning, tooting converts, scouring farmer's markets for these little harbingers of spring? The oniony/garlicky flavor is incredible! And they're so versatile. Plus, there's the added living on the edge danger where if you eat too many, you get the winds something fierce. As a lady, this is something I've never had to endure, but it's always, always funny when it happens to Matt. Unless I'm stuck in the passenger seat of the car with the windows rolled up. That isn't very funny at all. See? Big jerk.)

The chops were cooked a perfectly pinky medium rare and the mashed potatoes with the sugary, rich shallots were just incredible. It was so velvety and rich, an incredibly decadent, almost desserty style entree. I licked the plate. Hand to God, I did. I had to! It was that good, and heaven only knows when I'll have a chance to eat this food again!

To balance my sweet entree, I ordered the most meaty sounding of the desserts. Matt had a chocolate marquis that was just... yum. It was so good. I had a spice cake that was just a little bizarre, but that's half the fun of eating here. The bartender confirmed that the pastry chef, is a little nuts. I love that. My Rhubarb-mustard seed spice cake with ginger anglaise, barley malt glazed black walnuts and wild grape-high bush cranberry jelly was insane. The cake was zingy and spicy. The walnuts? Were footy. They were really... challenging. The ginger anglaise however was just incredible, subtly sweet and a smooth, coolness that harmonizes with the zing-zang-POW of the cake.

It was so much fun. Looking around the room I wondered what would stay and what would go. Personally, I'm hoping the 80's inspired wallpaper border around the room dies a slow and tacky death. The wonderful wine, amazing service and inspired food is what I look forward to seeing again, once they're settled in Lowertown.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Coffee News

I love it when stumble upon a little gold star menu item in a place I'd never expect. Coffee News is a cute cafe over by the Macalester campus off Grand Ave in St. Paul. It's great for coffee (no surprise there - try the iced Chai) and a neighborhood stop for good breakfast. What you wouldn't expect is that they serve one of the best fish n chips platters in the Twin Cities.

It's long been our secret lunch spot. When classes are out, there is plenty of seating inside and out on the busy sidewalk. Matt has always gotten either the hummus platter or the fish n chips. I've not been nearly so loyal with my choices and usually flit around the menu like a bored hummingbird, until finally, he insisted I try the fish.

I'm loathe to admit that I'm not a big fish person. It would seem to me that someone who grew up on a lake would somewhere along the way have learned to love a fish or three, but no. Except for a brief, youthful love affair with the Gorton's Fisherman, I'm just never been able to get down with my finned friends. They're usually too... fishy. This dish, this one right here, is my exception. It's amazing. Unlike a traditional fish n chips platter this is made with catfish, breaded in nuts and panko and quickly fried so that there is no trace of oil. Not only is the dish not overly fishy, or at all greasy - it's highly flavored. The superb crunch of the nuts and crispity bread crumbs burst around the flaky, tender fish fillets. The caper and cornichon flecked tartar sauce is good, but wholly unnecessarily. In fact, for me that's usually just an extra condiment for the fries.

Oh, man, I haven't even told you about the fries yet! Hold onto your hats, kids, because these are possibly some of the best around. Really. That rumor about the killer fries at Salut? Lies. Totally. These are freshly fried potatoes that they then sprinkle with freshly minced garlic before serving. Granted, sometimes they can be a little snarky, not fit for Twilight fans, garlicky. Usually, though they are highly addictive. I remember when I introduced my friend Heather to these puppies she quickly went from, "Sure! I'll share with you!" To, "Oh my gosh - I can't believe I ate them all." She did. She ate them all. I held it against her for moments. (Bad share-er!)

Now is the perfect time to go check this out. The kids are gone, the sun is shining and I'm sure there's room outside for you to loll away what should have been a working afternoon, munching hot garlic fries and unbelievably good fish.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sea Salt

Spring is certainly here once the patio is open and bustling at Sea Salt by Minnehaha Falls. Sunday started unlike any other day I've had this year. This day was Mother's Day - and for once, I was on the right side of this flower driven holiday. After years of poking my fingers on limp necked roses, cobbling together pathetic homemade cards from old photo albums and crayon sketches (I was 24 - not 4 last time I tried that one) or desperately phoning my mom's house phone, cell phone and then my sister's number at 3 in the afternoon to say, "Seriously! I love you! I do! Thank you! You're awesome! Seriously!"

year, I slept in as late as I wanted without guilt or even a hangover. I smelled coffee already brewing for me and heard the chirps of my own little bird as his father struggled to remove the poo sodden diaper from his bum. This year I am a mother! And I deserve... STUFF. Oh hell yeah, I can get on board with this.

Of course, once up and caffeinated, I couldn't quite figure out what to do with myself. I was give carte blanche with my day and oddly, all I wanted to do was spend it with my son and husband. Weird. Usually, I'm crashing into Starbucks for a mocha, or rumaging through some store for shoe discounts. Spend the whole day with... boys? Boys that tend to accidentally yank down my shirt and tug on my hair? Boys that can occassionally smell? Weird. Grownups are weird.

After I opened and cherished my adorable cards, and coaxed my boy in the hopes that he'll say, "Foie Gras," as his first words (his constant babble of Da-DEE doesn't count), I decided we might as well leave the house.
There was much debate and an aborted trip to the Arboretum (duh - PACKED. Mother's love flowers. What was I thinking? And Chanhassen is FAR.)

We decided to chance a trip to Sea Salt. I haven't been since I was largely pregnant and had to sneak sips of Matt's beer under scornful eyes of passers by.
We astoundingly enough found a parking spot within walking distance of the falls.

We unloaded my dapper little fellow and headed over to the spot. Even more amazing - the line wasn't even out the door! Matt took his place in the queue and I strolled the kid around, swelling when I heard one woman remark, "Oh, look at
that one! He's so cute!" You bet your bippy, lady. Cutest baby here. I also chose not to look in her direction on the off chance she was instead examining a "caterpillar" she'd been talking about - really just an army worm. Those things were everywhere.

We seated ourselves out back and watch the people. It's great people watching with families of all shapes, sizes, nationalities and social circles. Gutter punks, little Hmong ladies, sparkly Mexican princesses, suede elbowed college professors and football tossing sk8ter boys all roving around the park. Everyone seemed to be with a mom and each one was beaming.

I was too, the minute Matt arrived followed by our food. We've tried out a lot of dishes at Sea Salt, but the absolute best thing has to be the crawfish po' boy.

Each succulent little sea (swamp?) creature in cornmeal batter fried to crispy perfection and jazzed back to life with a little Tabasco sauce. The cool lettuce and creamy mayo melt against the dark charred toasty bread - all coming together into one of those mythical creatures of the deep. The Nessy of Cheap Eats - the Perfect Sandwich. It's zippy, crunchy, crispy, creamy, smokey, bright, fresh and fried. It's all I could ever ask for and more.

And there was more! More in the way of a really good cup o' beer. They were serving Moms a free cup and I got a rich and carmelly Surly. God bless the good beers. He'd also ordered a couple of oysters on the half shell. They were so good - so fresh. The concrete feeling of the jagged shell on my lips as I sucked down the cool tasty mollusk, spiked with cocktail sauce and a dab of horseradish. It was like swallowing the cool mist of the Atlantic coast that I haven't felt against my cheek since I was a toddler. All in all, I could seriously get used to these kinds of days. I enjoy being on the other side of this holiday.

It was just about then that I realized I hadn't yet talked to my mom. I took another long pull off my Surly and knew she'd understand.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bin Wine Bar

When I first heard the concept for Bin Wine Bar on Mears Park in downtown St. Paul I knew they were singing my tune. The plan was put together by a woman who lived in one of the lofts in the Lowertown neighborhood. She wanted somewhere she and friends could walk to, enjoy some little bites, good wine in a comfortable chic atmosphere. This was exactly what I was looking for! She could be me.

(Except of course having money and living in a snazzy loft. In fact, when we were looking to move I tried to find somewhere in downtown. I imagined being the super hip type of urban couple that could luxuriate in a brick and lumber lined loft, gleaming stainless steel appliances and glittering granite counter tops smiling at me every day. In fact, I had found one place just like that listed on Craigslist. I eagerly requested a showing and received an email that said, "keys after you sends us a check for $100. We are good cristans diong the Lard's work in Nigera misson. We will sends you tehdesposits. We loev our home and want a good Jessus follwing family to care for our home. We when receives teh mones, we send you teh keys." Yeeeah, as much as I
do believe in the "Lard" I reported them as a fraudulent listing. The $800/mo price tag for the luxurious loft should probably have tipped me off, but I was feeling optimistic. Probably drunk or something.)

So, although I didn't live in the area, I wanted to visit and I wanted to try some wine (and maybe have a little commune with The Lard.) After a couple of failed attempts, I finally made my way over there last Saturday with two very good girlfriends. We arrived at exactly 3:01pm and they open at 3. Yes, I am always the lame-o at the party that shows up the exact second you tell me to be there. I am never cool enough to last to the end and I will always be that big of a dork.

"First ones in!" I exclaimed, my voice echoing off the empty bar fixtures. We sat ourselves near the front of the restaurant overlooking the park. I was lovely. Something about the place reminded me very much of a woman I used to know - P.W. Rich reds, brassy fixtures and opulent booths. I should call her.

We ordered a bottle of the Toasted Head "Untamed Red," a bottle I know I've seen at local wine shops, but had never tried. We also ordered a plate of the charcuterie.

A beautiful meat plate. The marinated olives were revelatory. The salty, fatty salami paired beautifully with the rosy pickled onions. There were little dots of salty almonds, tender, chubby little hunks of tar tar and spicy sopressata. Buttery, salty cashews, pickled spicy dilly beans and crisp fresh cucumber chips rounded out the plate. It was delightful to eat with plenty of little tastes and flavors to pair with the toasty wine. The bottle went quickly, although I wouldn't say it was a wonderful choice. It was completely drinkable, but nothing all that fantastic. It didn't taste like $30 worth of wine.

So, of course we ordered another bottle. This time, at the suggestion of our server, we ordered the Root: 1 Carmenere. I liked this one a bit more. The flavor was more supple. Soldiering ahead, we figured we should probably try some more food and ordered the cheese platter.

We were served a young Wisconsin Gouda, Northern Lights Blue and an English Gloucester cheese, more delicious olives, rye crisp crackers, craisins cocoa dusted almonds, incredible Marcona almonds and a little side of pickled beets. The almonds were a fantastic match for the cheese. The cheeses themselves were a nice pairing, all creamy, but varied in flavor from the meek Gouda, the soft, smooth blue and the snappy blue and cheddar combo. The rye crackers were very dry and chock full of nuts - hard to pair with the mild Gouda. They overpowered the taste. After asking for a side of bread, we got a basic if slightly stale baguette that was a better match.

We babbled, sipped, gossiped, giggled and occasionally snorted with laughter. The setting was instantly familiar and comfortable. A little more room on my credit card and we probably could have stayed there all day. If I lived in one of those loft apartments, this place would be a dangerous addition to the neighborhood. I could see myself cultivating a seriously addiction to the reasonably priced wine, fun little plates and outstanding company I'd settled in with.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Toast to Old Friends

This guy - old two fister - went ahead and got himself hitched this weekend. I'm so glad. See the attractive blond on the left there? That's his beautiful bride. See the slightly skeptical look on her face? I'm going to guess that wasn't the last time she looked at him that way. (And see that guy in the background? Alien Nation fan. Huge.)

Jim and I used to work together - along with a whole cast of interesting characters. There were plenty of happy hours and a whole lot of good times. Some of which I can even remember.

I've been looking forward to getting to celebrate this day with them for ages. Well, at least for as long as I'd known I was actually invited. I knew I'd see some of our old crew there and I knew it would be an outstanding time.

As we were desperately combing the suburban streets for the wedding I saw another car driving hastily two blocks ahead of us. I guessed correctly that they were also going to the wedding. Even more accurately - there were my old work peeps. Of course we'd be arriving moments before the ceremony was scheduled to start. We clattered into the (St. James church, of course) adjusting skirt hems and checking tie knots.

There was Jim in the entry way, looking cool and jovial. I momentarily reflected on my state of mind on my wedding day (harried at best - homicidal at worst. Matt threatened to strangle me at the reception if I didn't chill out. And that, dear friends, is how you build a successful marriage to me.) Conversely, my friend was happily hugging guests and having what appeared to be a great time.

The ceremony was beautiful - although nothing can compare to the bride. Her wedding dress was stunning. She looked flawless, not a hair out of place, serene smile on her face. Gorgeous. I'd show you a picture, but of course my camera isn't working. (OF COURSE.)

Immediately after the ceremony, our crew bolted past the receiving line and headed straight to Crave. I'd heard good things and thankfully, it was happy hour. I ordered a rail rum and Coke made with Cruzan rum - not bad. Not bad at all - especially for $5. We also got the loaded fries with cheddar cheese and bacon as well as some Korean chicken nuggets. The fries were good and the little nuggets were tasty - not too sweet. I didn't really detect much of a miso flavor, that the menu suggested, but they were fried tasty nuggets. It was kind of a no brainer. I'm going to have to go back for another try.

We got caught up, ("WHO is getting married? WHAT? Nooo." "Are you sure he never served any time?" "Literally hit by a dump truck?" "I can't believe he never got fired. I tried to fire him, but he was too engrossed in solitaire to hear me." "He's working where
? No kidding." or my favorite, "What are you going to do with barrels full of pig fetuses!?")

It was time to hit the reception (and for me, the free wine, because really? Would you expect anything less of me?)

Soon after we found the bar, we saw Jim pour out of the back of the limo with his entourage.

He was clearly having a fantastic time.

We all made our way into the dining area to find that we'd been sequestered at the back of the room. Table 25. Clearly, the troublemakers. I kept making, "Nobody puts baby in a corner jokes until I thought for sure they were going to kick me off the island.

They also had a photobooth in the back of the room. Matt and I made total fools of ourselves there as well. The night came to an end for us all too soon - baby sitter needed some assistance. Apparently, our kid had learned to spontaneously combust while levitating and it was freaking her out a bit.

I predict a decent happy hour soon - one where I actually take a picture of Jane. Right now the only one I've got of her was taken very late at night and there may have been a feather boa involved. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Meritage - St. Paul

Heaven is a lofty palace built upon layers of pork and duck fat spiked Cassoulet. As I greedily dipped my spoon back into Matt's dinner I couldn't stop exclaiming, "Lovely! Just lovely!" like some kind of hopped up Holly Golightly.

Last Friday night Matt and I had the fortune of trying to decide how to spend an evening with just the two of us. We'd been lucky enough to have a little financial windfall, which of course needed to be spent entirely on food and liquor. We considered our options carefully. Really, there was only one place to go.

The problem with being a recovering food blogger is that I'm way too opinionated on where and how one should spend an evening dining out. Worse, slightly out of practice food blogger - and old (don't forget drastically aging) recovering party girl means I'm painfully aware that there is a myriad of new dining destinations that I have yet to try.

We were leaning towards an attempt at dining at the new Piccolo. It's hard enough to part with a dollar these days, it's more nerve wracking to do so at a very new restaurant that's rumored to be a bit pricey.

There was no question, we needed to go to Meritage. Meritage is a gem for Saint Paul. While the street it's on is lined with other, mediocre restaurants, this chef owned destination always highlights seasonal cuisine with sultry French accents. The service is top notch and the view is always lovely. It's my favorite date night spot.

We sprung for the $10 valet fee and were whisked inside to a lovely little table, despite our lack of a reservation. We could look out the frosted glass to see the ice skaters beyond. Twinkling white lights decorated the nearby parks for the Winter Carnival.

We began our meal with the steak tartare. The plate arrived with the steak molded into a little tower in the center, flanked by a small salad, cornichons and grilled bread slices. The meat was achingly tender and expertly dressed with just a little creamy sauce dotted with briny spikes of capers. Each component enhanced the beefiness of the steak, the texture of which was not unlike sushi grade tuna. It positively melted on the tongue. The buttery, smokey toasts and the little greens just kissed with a honeyed vinaigrette begged for more of that delicious, exquisite meat.

I tried to pace myself by sipping my glass of Boomtown Cabernet Sauvignon. I'd unknowingly ordered the perfect foil to our appetizer. It had deep woodsy notes with a hint of tobacco balanced out by the big fruit flavors of Cabernet. Needless to say - I was pretty much in heaven. Despite my best attempts at being polite company, my eyes rolled back into my head and I started to kind of happily convulse in my seat. It was so goooooood, ugggghhhhhluululughhhh. The icy looks from other diners brought me back into the moment.

We'd all but licked our appetizer plates clean while we waited for our entrees. I had that anxious feeling of not wanting this fleeting experience to ever end and yet thrilled at the prospect of more food, more flavors and more of this exquisite adult feeling. I was drunk on the possibilities of the evening, loving my husband, my surrounds and every moment I got to savor everything.

This was when Chef Russell Klein made the mistake of stopping by our table. I'm all but ransacked by the afterglow of an evening out, yet randy for my next go around, and here's the unexpected business owner meeting my bleary eyed gaze.

"How is everything this evening?" He asked.

A fair question, but one I couldn't accurately answer in the space of a couple of minutes. "Really good," Matt enthused.

"It's just wonderful - we love everything," I licked the corners of my mouth, trying to think of some concise way to explain to him that NO - I'm not your every day diner - I GET you, man. I know. All I came up with was, "LOVE the winter menu!!!" And then I wanted to crawl under the table. It wasn't so much the simple words, as the overly enthusiastic sputtering of them.

"Uh... yeah, I need to change that. Thank you." He wandered away to the next table.

Thankfully, our food then showed up to distract me from my idiocy. (I carried a watermelon? Oh, GOD.)

Matt had ordered the afore mentioned Cassoulet and I had the moules frites. His meal was served in a little clay pot, topped with a confit of duck leg and a crust of browned bread crumbs.

My mussels were in a bowl, where the lid was removed so I could chuck the shells into it, alongside a cone of fries. The ink colored shells glistening in their wine and heavenly buttery sauce. Studding the sauce were porky nubs of pancetta. The fries were perfectly crisped on the outside and puffy, airy on the inside. It didn't hurt that they were served with an herby Bearnaise sauce for the dipping. Again, there was more of that awesome grilled bread. I was so excited to find one piece, already under the mussels bathing in that luscious broth, wait for me to slurp it down.

The mussels themselves were ideally medium sized. They weren't so big that they were tough or chewy, but not so small that I worried about getting an appetizer under the entree guise.

Meanwhile, Matt was moaning his way through the hunks of pork and duck. He dined on a supposed peasant's dish that I know I could never pretend to recreate. The duck confit was gone in minutes and each bite scooped from the pot contained more happy wonders of luxurious foods. The creamiest white beans I've ever had, with a delightfully hammy, garlicky sausage with big fatty hunks of pork. It was comforting, familiar and yet like nothing we'd ever had before. The portion size was not at all precious, either. We were able to take it home and both have enough for lunch the next day.

We ate until our chairs groaned in protest. The prospect of desert was too much, but we decided to head out for one more cocktail. A toast to our fantasy world where we could afford such luxuries, and belonged to a world that doesn't include any of the usual January drudgery.

We strolled down the cold sidewalks, watching skaters laughing, wobbling on the ice. Young girls draped in sashes, arms linked, scampering from one building to the next, their laughter echoing in the tiny white lights. The ice sculptures in the park sparkled under the blue lights and families towed sleds from the park to their cars.

We ended our evening at the St. Paul Hotel for two expertly crafted cocktails and just a couple of more moments of sweet, lovely perfection, lulled by all that we've been lucky enough to have and hold this icy wintry season.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Feliz Nachodad

Ohhhhh-kay. I think I can finally move from the after effects of that Thanksgiving dinner. I might have made too much food. The upside was that everyone got leftovers - the downside is that I tried to eat them all before admitting defeat and busting out the Tupperware.

Of course, the minute the Thanksgiving holiday passes means that my second most favorite holiday of all year has arrived - my very own Birthday Month! YES - skip that pesky Christmas crap (or Chauhnukah Chrap. Kwanza Kwap...)

Matt & I decided to go old school and get in the car for a good ol' fashioned road trip. The only problem was this was our first wintry road trip, which made the destination decisions difficult. Usually, we'd throw back the top on the car and hit the sunny open roads for some where specializing in cheap booze and fried foods - usually somewhere in Wisconsin. The decision for a December trip involved a lot of waffling on my part. I made and canceled reservations for Madison. I love Madison. The problem is that the hotel I wanted to stay at was prohibitively expensive (considering this was being funded by the Holy Bank of Our Mothers) and it's really far. In the convertible, the trip is most of the excitement. In my maroon mom-mobile, it's better either get there in a hurry or go off-roading with the 4 wheel drive.

Besides, while Matt and I make an extraordinarily attractive couple when gussied up, we're more prone to cheese dip stains and bacon breath. Fancy hotels aren't really our style.

Finally, we decided to hit Mankato. I absolute love the landscape of southern MN and we happened to know someone who lived down there. Matt's friend Mark had moved a while ago and was running several restaurants. I figured I owed it to him and my stomach to go check it out. Besides, I reasoned, it's a college town. The drinking should be plentiful and cheap! Woo!

I got us set up at the Mankato Hilton Garden Inn, which was downright luxurious by our standards - they had a POOL and the rooms didn't come in dead hooker scent. After a nicely leisurely drive down we found ourselves in the cozy room overlooking the Verizon logo on their hockey stadium. Classay!

We called Mark only to find out that the Gophers and the Mankato State... guys were playing hockey at that very stadium that night. His restaurant Number 4 was about a block away and they expected to get slammed for dinner rush. This is how I ended at Number four at about 4:30 pm. We are beyond old. Old people at least wait until 5 to have dinner. This was not making me feel better about the impending birthday number. I tried to think of it as a really late lunch, but I know me. My eyelids were propped up with toothpicks by the time we got there and I just hoped I didn't pass out in the bread basket.

Our 19 year old waitress was adorable. She commiserated with Matt and Mark about how the restaurant business can burn you out. "I've been doing this since I was fifteen..." Wow, how'd you make it that long? Sweet. I'm OLD. Sigh. Okay, I'll try to move past that.

I loved the decor of the room, all rich red and blacks. Very stylish and dimly lit. The overhead music was swinging and sounded like icy martinis. It was a welcome reprieve from the annoying Christmas jangly butcherings of standards that seem to be playing everywhere these days.

We started off with some mussels in tomato fish broth. Matt couldn't get enough of them. I wasn't crazy about them. I'm not wild about fish flavor. Matt love
s to eat anything that swims, so I took his word for it that they were wonderful.

Meanwhile, I dove into the pork wontons. They were delightfully crisp and light. The minced pork interior was teased to life with cardamom that snapped into my mouth with the jazzy little ponzu dipping sauce that tasted like a dressed up Hoisin sauce. I only let Matt have one. I ate the rest. And half of the French fries that came with the mussels which also tasted wonderful dipped in the sauce.

Because I gorged myself on all those, the time for the entrees came and I wasn't that hungry. Idiot! The menu for the evening sounded spectacular - venison medallions in particular sounded amazing. Between the almost full stomach and the already nearly empty wallet we decided just to split the Torta. I'm so glad we did.
It was a revelation of a sandwich. The slow roasted beef was meltingly tender, tucked into the crusty bread with soft, ripe tomato and the zippy little crumbles of feta. The bottom of the bun was spread with velvety guacamole with a soft burning heat. I couldn't believe how perfectly the guac and cheese complimented each other. Who would have ever thought?

I waved down our girl for more wine. I was drinking their house red that was a ridiculous $3.50 a glass. Honestly, I wouldn't have ordered it if I'd known how cheap it was. I'd have been skeptical and screwed myself out of a tasty treat. It was just a red blend, but it was really well balanced. There were hints of berries with a soft oak and jammy finish. I could have easily taken down a bottle by myself.

I blame the cheap wine for what happened next. After we finished our dinner and wished Mark the best - the room was filling up fast, we wandered across the street to a little bar called the Sugar Room. Once the hockey goons cleared out I found myself happily tucked into a fantastic bar. The door advertised Charlie Parr playing that night - I've only seen him once before, but loved his music. Perfect music for a chilly December night. Unfortunately, he wasn't playing until like 9 o'clock and it was now about 6. Yeah. 6 pm and I'm working on my buzz.
Then again, it's never stopped me before. When I saw my favorite rum behind the bar I settled into to watch (such a dork) Wayne's World on their flat screen TV. Some people might have been upset that there was no hockey, football or competetive bocce paralympics on The Ocho playing overhead, but I was thrilled the lack of sports drove those people out.

Before I knew it, it was like 9 or something. Yeah, really late. We went back to the bar, fixed ourselves some more cocktails and settled into the hot tub for a good, long soak. Things get blurry after that.

I spent the next day praying for death or at least relief to one of the worst hangovers I've had in a while. That's what happens when I start before the happy hours even have a chance to kick in. We decided to cruise over to New Ulm, which is both cute and enough to kill me. The sun was shining extra bright and I had a new nasueous sensation I'd never experienced before. I was car sick. I tried to page through my high brow reading material, but that obviously didn't help.

We drove past the Schell's brewery. It's gorgeous. I'd have loved to take a tour, but of course being Minnesota we couldn't actually buy any beer and that wouldn't do me any good. Every hill we drove down made me want to vomit (uphill was okay, though.) Twisty roads were fine, but Herman the German's staircase made me positively green. We also passed what had to be about five Taco John's, all advertising Nachos Navidad and all making me alternately depraved with hunger and utterly disgusted. Plus, as a special torture, I got the radio commercial stuck in my head, which meant Matt was subjected to me singing a wavering "Feliz Navidad - and from Taco Joooohn's!" (There was also a rousing rendition of Melikalikimaka for good measure. Am eveeeiiill.)

Eventually, we could take it no longer and we had to drive through. I had all my hopes at redemption pinned on some softshells. The poor kid that served us had the most pathetic teenager attempt at a mustache and yellowed pointy teeth that I almost lost my cookies again. Then my tacos were there. Sweet, sweet grease and pulverized meat product. Come to mama!

After a few more hours of attempted recovery and another hour or two in the hot tub I was finally feeling human enough to venture out into the world.
We walked over to the Pub 500. For a small(ish) town they sure seem to have a good amount of upscale pubs. It's a beautiful, large and warm room with lots of oak and high top bar tables. We ordered some Schell's Dark and a plate of their peanut spicy wings.

The beer. It was the beer that saved me. The bubbles, the caramelly toasty foam and the ice cold pint glass. I downed it while waiting for our wings and ordered another. The wings were wonderful. The peanut sauce wasn't overly thick and had a serious ginger zing. It was almost better than my Thai peanut sauce I make at home. I could've eaten a dozen by myself, but tried to hold myself back. Had I learned nothing from the excesses of the night before?

Apparently not.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Anchor Fish & Chips

I can only live the life of the monk for so long. I mean, really. Barring the need to sign up for food stamps I'm not going to be staying in every night. Finally there are some new spots out there that I've been able to get to. J.Lo and I hadn't gotten together in ages - partially due to my bemoaning of expenses and partially due to a misunderstanding over the quantifiable dreaminess of Anderson Cooper. It's a story better left untouched.

A new little pub called The Anchor Fish & Chips has set up shop just down the street from Laura's childhood home. We converged there Friday evening. They'd just swung open the doors and already it was teaming with a hungry mix of neighborhood folks. On either side of the high top table she'd snagged for us were people taking pictures. The guys behind us were attempting to capture the magic of the Shepard's pie. "No, no... don't poke the carrot... gently roll it over. You don't want to get holes in it." Wise words, Ace -like finding Ray Brower on the side of the train tracks.

The menu is small, smaller still is the wine list. I had a choice of red or white, but at least it was organic. Better to stick to the beers at this spot. The toasty foam from the Bell's Oktoberfest tickled my upper lip like a handlebar moustache. After much debate, Laura decided to get the ubiquitous fish n chips while I opted for the hamburger with chips and a topping of Irish cheddar.

After just a few moments the food arrived. Her breaded cod was the size of a small human forearm.
She kept saying that it tasted like a doughnut. At first, this seemed like a positive assessment, but as she dragged on through her beige on beige meal, it waned. The breading was thick and crisp. The fries were clearly made in house and quite yummy. The crispty outer shell gave way to pillowy warm depths of potato yumminess. The fish was greatly enhanced by the tarter sauce that Laura had to ask for a couple of times. It closely resembled my mom's home-made, tasting of Helmann's mayo and lemon juice.

The burger was good and juicy, dripping pink juices down my grubby little fist. I felt lucky that I prefer my meat cooked medium rare. I know people that would have mooed at it before turning seven shades of pale and tipping off the bar stool. The flour dusted bun was nicely slathered with butter and toasted. The best thing on my plate were also the fries with the generous sprinkling of Kosher salt.

What absolutely did not enhance anything was the vat of gravy I paid extra for. It was hard to resist - I am a sucker for fat on fat (note more beige on beige - with the drizzling rain outside, it did feel rather English - but more the food they were known for a few years ago before gastropubs started sprouting like gilded beacons of tasty sanctuary.) It arrived warm and soon was cold and congealed. It tasted familiar. I closed my eyes and pictured a warm house, stuffed to the gills with family - all talking at once and... making copious Simpson's references. It tasted exactly like the grocery store deli gravy I'd used the first Thanksgiving that I cooked for my in-laws.

We were happy to toss our napkins into our baskets and head out just as the capacity of the place began to brim. The neighborhood was screaming for a great little spot for some decent, cheap-ish food. The Anchor Fish & Chips defintely fills the bill. Still, I was ready to meander down the street and belly up elsewhere for a grown up drink and some good conversation.