Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Blood is thicker than… warm vino?

Since the last place I went to eat was Sweeny's, I'm not even going to bother with a write up. (It sucked, but the patio's nice. You already knew that.) Laura's much more glamorous than I am, dining out with mysterious men in far flung corners of the metro area:

I feel bad ripping even the smallest detail of my cousin Shay’s restaurant because a) she’s family and b) we’re not that close. The back story: I suspect she has resented me from age 9 when I got a bloody nose while she babysat five of us little hellions thus ruining her theretofore sweet gig. Yes, we were rough-housing in the basement to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (on cassette!), yes, we were jumping off the stairs into the pile of cushions we were specifically told not to put on the floor and yes, we knew someone would get hurt. Who knew it would sweet li’l ol’ tattletale me?

With her babysitting career ruined, my cousin Shay worked in Twin Cities restaurants in some capacity for nearly 20 years including managing the likes of The Local and JD Hoyt’s. Then she and her good friend Mandy decided they had enough of working for other people and in May of 2006 bought the old Nordeast hippie-dippy artist hangout Mill City coffeehouse. They made a few tweaks, got a liquor license and a chef and in October 2006 had a spectacular grand opening. The several times I’ve dropped in on the weekends they’ve had a brisk cocktail and brunch business. The Strib’s
Rick Nelson even stopped by with nary a complaint except for the too-loud and lame live music. (It’s hard to hippie-hippie shake those guitar-strummin’ wailers.)

Well, dear friends, the gild is off the lily. My grandpa (not our shared grandfather) and I decided to have dinner there on a weeknight. I roll up and see her business partner Mandy taking a long drag on what looked like her last savior of a cigarette. She probably looked worse than she should have because it was gloomy and drizzling and she was wearing a thin t-shirt, track pants and pink flip-flops. This is the proprietor, the owner, the Chief Operating Officer if you will. Flip-flops may have their place in society but not on the owner of any establishment, let alone during muddy March and certainly not at a place where food is to be prepared and consumed. I say hi not receiving any sort of enthusiasm in return. I continue on to find Shay behind the bar, looking tired as well. We start talking above the Latin music CD and remarking about the one other table of diners in her 20-table establishment. There’s a maximum of seven people in the whole place and we’re practically shouting over the music. Why, Shay? Why? She finally turns it down as Grampy arrives and we sit in the back so he can hear me when I shout into his good ear.

Grampy and I have a lot in common, not the least of which is our enjoyment of a glass of red wine. Shay serves it Italian-style in some chic and blessedly oversized table glasses. But Shay is not a wine drinker. I know this from observations at family gatherings and from the fact that the wine was served room temp the day after a freak heat wave. Ick. Even Grampy was all, “WTF?” (Not really but wouldn’t that be funny?) Seriously, for $10, a glass of Valpolicella should not drink like tepid bath-water. The flavors were blunted and the weight became oppressively heavy. This is so simple to get right: a small wine cooler costs $100 at Home Depot; get one and set it at 61 degrees. Done.

Our meal of crab cakes and a green salad was most delightful – dare I say flawlessly executed? The cakes were moist and tender with perfect markings and flavor from the grill. They actually tasted like crab – a rarity even at better restaurants – and were flecked with the tiniest bits of red pepper that had been briefly sautéed before being combined with the rest of the mixture. Brilliant! A just-spicy-enough red-pepper sauce was artfully drizzled across the plate as were swirls of (Joy, help me here) some green non-spicy/non-truffle oil. (JOY: I have no idea. Garnish oil?) Our salads were served on giant plates heaped with mounds of baby lettuces lightly dressed in a balanced balsamic vinaigrette. Hiding among the tender leaves were spiced nuts and plump, not-SunMaid-brand raisins. Shaved atop were even slices of Parmesan and a grind of black pepper. I tend to be vehemently against salads but this one was different: tasty, nuanced. I can only complain about our bread basket: four tiny, sad pieces of sourdough-like baguette disparately arranged – if you can call it that – served with a cup of what I can only describe as scrapings (shards?, fragments?) of cold butter.

Grampy lives for desserts: a trait that he has passed indelibly to his granddaughter. Our turtle torte dessert was delectable and elegantly plated with swirls of amaretto-caramel sauce, chopped nuts, and a dollop of whipped cream (from the can – boo!). Grampy got his decaf and I rationed my water. (Oh, just leave the carafe at the table – we’re family! I can pour it myself!)

Mill City, the food is incredible! They chose wisely when they hired their chef (who is nameless for whatever reason). However, Shay and Mandy are their own worst enemies. Throughout our meal, I could see Mandy (in those $@#! flip-flops) dragging cardboard boxes and the trash can back and forth to the alley. The music, vino and butter are missteps these two veterans should be getting right. Our candle was not lit. Shay and Mandy are doggedly trying to attract the neighborhood crowd but Nordeasters don’t eat like this; condo dwellers do. I’d love to see them do some advertising or promotions with The Onion or Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine. It’s a shame that this adorable owner-operated place that’s easy to find and serves good food isn’t attracting more devotees, especially with all the condos that have sprung up on the NE side of the river. The prices are fair and with the details attended to would almost be a steal. Please go and enjoy the food at my cousin’s restaurant – ‘cause she can’t go back to babysitting.


At 1:07 PM , Anonymous Andy said...

Green oil? Maybe it's leek oil like we had at Heartland.

At 2:12 PM , Blogger Joy Estelle said...

I had the same thought. Remember, the server guy didn't even know. Oh, excuse, me not server guy, the future Mr. Andrea Lien


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