Monday, July 23, 2007

Celebrating Eric & Pierre

I'm back! I'm here! I live! Really! I'm just exceedingly broke and uninspired by my restaurant options. I'm in a Muddy Pig/Skinner's kind of a rut. I've just been going with the usual. (Although the usual now includes Ma Po Tofu from Little Szechwan about once a week. It's like crack, but with tofu!!)
So, I'd been saving my pennies for the opportunity to go out with my fantastic newlywed friends Eric and Pierre. Long time readers will know that Eric is my foodie soul mate and we've been cooking and learning about food together for years. He's also one of my biggest food fans and often plies me with lovely bottles of wine. Earlier this month - the 3rd to be exact, they exchanged vows in what looks like a gorgeous ceremony in Quebec (Pierre's home.) Where it's legal and everything! (Stupid government.) I could not be there because I am lame, poor and kind of unenviable. The best I could do was to organize a dinner of a few close friends.
So, where did I take my wonderful friends for this once in a lifetime toast? Craftsman. I know, I know! I just went there! We sat at the bar and had potato pizza and a fantastic martini. Couldn't I come up with something a little more original for such an important occasion? Apparently not. I couldn't! It was in a good location and I knew we'd get to sit and enjoy the gorgeous patio.
I made the reservation like a month ago, knowing that some of us would be stuck here and not celebrating in Canada (ey.) But, when I called the day of to secure the patio, I was informed that there was no reservation in my name! Ack. I panicked a little.
"It's not Jensen?"
"Kara Jensen for six?"
"No! That's not us! Is there any way that you can fit us in?"
"For 8?"
"No, 6."
"Well, we don't usually do two big parties in one night.... What time?"
"Well, we could fit you... but the service might be a little slower than usual."
"That's fine."
"But you can't sit outside."
"I was really hoping we could. It's so nice today and it's kind of an important dinner for us."
"Well, I guess.... We can put you outside?"
"Okay, for 6 people at 7:30 for Jess."
YES! Hey, who am I to correct at that point. Four gray hairs and a shot up in the blood pressure later and we were set. Andy was cabbing me over to the restaurant (did I mention the martinis?) She arrived at my house with the cake that she'd special ordered from Buttercream. We'd gotten the strawberry Chantilly and she had a lovely script added - very personal to the grooms. She and I decorated the top of the cake with some hydrangeas and clover from my garden. Gorgeous. We headed down, 10 minutes early. Plenty of time! We're ridiculously punctual and everyone else in the crew is perpetually tardy.
We arrived and were seated at the large table under the big canopy. Gorgeous! Martini? Why not! Andy had the Minnesota Martini, one of my personal favorites, while I ordered the raspberry martini. YUM. They do everything seasonally! This replaced the rhubarb martini that I'd had back in May when I was last there. I'd sucked it down and was plucking out the little berries at the bottom of my glass when everyone else finally arrived.
It did take us forever to order because there were lots of pictures to look at and stories to tell. I'm tell you, I have got to get my ass to Canadia. Seriously, if nothing else for the poutine. Oh! Canada! My home and native laaaaaand! And that's all I know. Somehow from there the song fades into From glen to glen and.... Yeah. Wrong song.
So, anyway, the night was dimming and Scottie was about to eat the arm off the waitress. She still hadn't even brought us the bread yet! Yeah, I was pretty hungry, too. But, she was bringing us out drinks at a healthy interval so you know, in my book it was love. We all decided to go with the burgers because I've had such poor experiences with the entrees. The burgers are always outstanding and the turkey burger is my favorite thing on the menu. I can't remember what Eric and Pierre ordered, but I do know that Pierre's had bacon because he gave me a piece. (Oh, my God was that some good, porky bacon. I'm drooling on the keyboard right now. LOVE Pierre.) Andy had the potato and chevre pizza and Scottie had the venison burger. As usual, the burgers were outstanding. The turkey burger has the tender consistency as if it's made with breadcrumbs and maybe some shredded onion. The little micro greens on top were crisp, sweet and flavorful. The aioli was outstanding. I want to lick this stuff off the bacon while swimming in a vat of butter cream.
Scottie's venison burger was out of this world, too! It had such an amazing flavor and depth. Venison can be a little gamey and growing up in Northern MN where deer hunting is required by law I have eaten some nasty road kill tastin' bucks. But, this! This was luxurious and tasted as though they'd ground the bacon with the meat and rolled it all together with garlicky, oniony heaven bits. It was perfectly executed.
Unfortunately, Andy's pizza was super salty and under cooked. The potatoes were really crunchy in a not very good way. (This is where Aisha shared the mildly disturbing tidbit that she has been known on occasion to eat a raw potato. Aish, please feel free to explain in the comments section below.) Unfortunately, the advice I'd given earlier is still true - the best food to get at Craftsman is the burgers.
After dinner the server brought out the cake. It was pretty late at this point, but they could still read the script (awwww!) Andy whips out a knife and shows us all that she has an extraordinary flare for cutting a cake. The slices were perfect! This was after red wine an martini's! There's a talent to have.
Where do I begin with this cake? How about the butter cream? Light, fluffy, creamy, thick and lightly sweet. If you could pluck a cloud out of the sky and swirl it warm summer night on the beach and sprinkle with a touch of a child's dream - that's what this would taste like. The cake was light and spongy with a comforting vanilla hint, whispering giggly secrets. The butter cream in the layers was mixed with fresh sweet strawberries as perfectly ripe as the setting sun. I think I was actually floating up out of my seat. This is what a wedding cake should be! Take note - if ever I do something really, really great like save a litter of kittens from rising flood waters or turn 40 - I.want.this.cake. Oh! Bright light summery touches of lemon zest hovering over the thick, weighty butter making a direct line for my hips. I don't care! Take me! Do what you will with me! I deserve that cellulite, because this cake LOVES me!
I can't believe I didn't take more home with me. Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!!
From there, our night went on as we headed out for cocktails and a better lit patio area. It's so funny to look at what these last few years have brought me and my friends. I'm coming up on two years of being married! TWO YEARS! When did that happen? Aisha and Scottie are getting married next summer and Eric and Pierre had this year. And it's not that I'm really as skeptical or crabby as my sense of humor might let on. I'm just so happy and thankful for the new group of friends we've formed. Aren't the best changes brought about by love? Aisha and Scottie, their passion for music... and just general passion, these aren't people that enter into something half-assed or without huge appetites for life and adventure. There's Eric and gorgeous talented Pierre who makes Eric's eyes shine in a way that I've never seen. Even Andy's got Grendel (dog) crazy, wild eyed, lovable little imp. I hope we all grow old together. Old and really fat.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Matt's Birthday Meal

Saturday was sweltering, but also the day that we'd chosen to celebrate the beginning of Matt's next year on this planet. We spent parttof the afternoon watching Ratatouille in the blissfully chilled movie theater and went for an early dinner at El Patio. I can't remember what used to be there, but this is a new(ish) restaurant right across the street from the Downtowner Woodfire Grill on West 7th by the Xcel center.
Even though we went in at an odd hour, there were still a few customers. The bar area is large and the patio would have looked quite inviting were it not the surface temperature of the sun outside. Right after we sat down, we were served a small cup of soup, chips with fresh salsa and some kind of salty cheese dip as well as glasses of water with lemon. I couldn't quite imagine what the soup was all about, so I tasted it first. It was a lovely chicken broth, filled with cilantro and a small odd lump of meat at the bottom that I'm fairly certain was pork. Fairly, and from what part of the pig, I couldn't tell you. I slurped it down. When I'd been sitting in the car marveling that my knees could sweat that much, I never would have believed you if you'd told me that I'd be sucking down hot soup - happily, moments later, but here I was.
As an appetizer we ordered the Ceviche - which makes much more sense. The shrimp was diced, soaked in plenty of lime juice and mixed with fresh tomatoes, red onion and cilantro all on a crispy little tostada and garnished with thin slices of avocado. It was a bright little dish; cool and refreshing, very straight forward.

And the whole time I'm eating it, I'm trying to pay attention to Matt and what he's saying, but I can't stop staring at this TV behind the bar. I should address the noise level in this place. It's pretty loud. Not loud, like my friend Aisha's Mexican relatives at a reunion, but still a din that I think would make her feel at home. There was a draw down screen by the door playing MTV Tres, overhead music and then this TV. All were loud, all at different parts of different songs. It was... distracting. But we'd been together all day, so it wasn't like I could possibly be missing much, right?
I wanted to split entrees because it seemed as though we had enough food going for us, but Matt was keen for some fish and I'm embarrassed to say - not a big fan. I mean, it depends on the preparation, but usually, I'm gonna pass on the little swimmers. (But I eat shrimp, they scurry, there's a difference.) When Matt ordered the waiter gently pointed over Matt's menu that this is what the fish dish looks like. Matt nodded his head. The waiter warned, "We leave the head on." Apparently, the other day there'd be a big discussion on the deliciousness of Walleye cheeks, so I think the head had really been a selling point.
Matt waved him away, "Fine. Fine."
I ordered the Chicken Devil Mary style. It's a different take on my favorite sauce that Salsa A La Salsa makes Diablo Maria/ Devil Mary Style. Same dif. (Salsa is a little better, though.)
The food came out and I tried to snap a quick pic of Matt's tilapia before it was gone. I barely made it.

Let me tell you people, he took that sumbitch DOWN. Meanwhile, I'm still distracted by the TV behind the bar. Is... Is that the Doors? Then I'd try to eat a bit of my own food. It had a nice heat and the tortilla were probably my favorite that I've ever had in a restaurant - you could tell that they were homemade. Whoa! Look at the price on that Menudo box set! How many songs did those guys have? Look at Matt go on the fish!! He's ripping it apart like a regular Dr. Frankenfish. That Monster! Wait - wait - is that Milli Vanilli? They're actually playing the entire video? What this is crazy! Whew this sauce is hot. Hmmm... sauce on the tortillas. Whoa! Matt just ate some mystery organ! AC/DC Rules!! He's sucking on the lips! Oh my God he's sucking on the lips.
OMG, Frankie Says Relax. Look at that back up singer! Gayest dude ever!! And he's got Matt's mustache! Bwa!!! This is great!
Oy, soon my neck and stomach were sore. It was so much fun. Matt picked every edible part of that little fish off and ate it. All that was left was a pile of bones looking like something out of a Sylvester & Tweety bit. There were a couple of down sides in that the amount of black flies was a little annoying and an extra waitress asked us no less than five times if everything was okay. ("YES!!!!") Meanwhile, Matt had gone through two stacks of cocktail napkins and his original cloth napkin. He declared the birthday dinner a big success.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Somebody has gone done and lost her damn mind. What other explanation is there for the woman who writes rhapsodies about wine lists is reviewing DAVE & BUSTERS? Sweet Jebeszuz, what is this world coming to?
And then there's me that hasn't been to a new - or even new to me restaurant in weeks (Chippewa Falls does not count.) The problem is that there isn't much anywhere to go and I got me a Weber Grill. Gratuitous Meat Shot:

That's alright baby - you can drool. Hmmm hmmmm. That's what I'm talkin' about. That's a whole lot of porky sweetness right there.

So, savor for a moment. Soon, I'll find an interesting tale to tell.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Now THAT'S a Tablescape

Eat your heart out Sandra Lee.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Chippewa Falls Revisited

I don't even have any pictures to add because the trip was completely spontaneous. Matt & I woke up Saturday shiny and happy after a fantastic night before. It was Aisha's 30th birthday and after a lovely dinner we spent the rest of the night basking in the glow of a bonfire in their backyard.

Still, my food at Amore Victoria was not that great. (Actually, it was putrid, but everyone else's food was fantastic and the service was impeccable.) I hadn't eaten much and was starving by sunrise. And... I'll admit, the multiple glasses of Southern Comfort on the rocks might have been fuelling my desperation to fill the void with something serious and greasy as soon as possible.

We drove down West 7th to the not-downtown Mickey's. The waitress was sweet and I had about fifteen cups of coffee and 4 glasses of water. I ordered the One Eyed Jack. It's slab of ham, pepper jack cheese and a sunny side up egg sandwiched between two pieces of wheat toast, fried on the buttery grill. This was hangover heaven. Seriously - we've got the salt, the grease, the butter, a little lard, potatoes and cheese - all the important components for making the dogs stop barking in your head. It was so good. And, of course, I ate ALL of the hash browns. Mickey's makes the best hash browns by shredding russet potatoes and frying them in lard. Oh, so what if lard has fallen out of fashion? I don't care what they say - it's good. Lard = Yummy Flavor/ Hangover Heaven. No wonder Matt's buddy Mike suffers the worst hangovers on the planet - silly vegan.

Matt had the Everybody's Favorite All Day Meal - eggs, sausage, hash browns and toast. That's what I would usually order, but now I'm not so sure I'll ever be able to turn my back on my buddy Jack. Maybe that's what we'll have to name our first born... It's a pirate name and great food! That'd be so cool!!

So, we're sitting there and the caffeine has finally wandered over from doing his job of stopping the shakes to inducing a nice buzz. SO WHATER WE GONNA DO NOW!!???

Matt gave me a sly smile and slowly stroked his 'stache. "Well, now... I have been thinking about that all week." It was a perfect day so far... It was time for little time in good ol' Sconnie. Now, I still contend that Wisconsin is all things Minnesota, but better. No lousy rules about buying sh*t beer at convenience stores on Sunday and EVERYBODY eats pork sausages and cheddar cheese on a regular basis. (Then again, I wouldn't want to live there, don't get me wrong. No matter how kick ass Madison and Milwaukee can be - they ain't no Twin Cities or Duluth.)

So, we peeled the top down, gassed up Speedy Marie and headed on down the highway. I had both the Wisconsin and the Minnesota road maps out, but mostly we just drove. Slathered and glistening in SPF 45, feeling the wind whip my hair into knots that might never come out, I slid on my shades and did my best Lana Turner.

Because of the gravity of our respective breakfasts, we didn't even realize how late in the day it was until our stomachs started growling. We had to drive through three more little small towns before we finally found one with a roadside restaurant. We had a couple of ginourmous cheese burgers. I'm not even sure what town we were in at that point. It was a cute little roadside place and the burgers were smothered under about three slices of American cheese. It was filling enough, if not overly satisfying.

We were heading back down the state when we decided that maybe it was time to pay a visit to some of our old friends in Chippewa Falls. We rolled into town on Highway 124 right to the front door of the Glen Loch. We were happy to see the same folks were there from last year and luckily, they had a room for us. (I can almost hear Tom Beaudette now.) It's been almost exactly a year since the last time we were able to visit. We started out our night in the same place that we did before, the Filling Station. Again, the bartender was a really young girl. This time, we found out that the bar itself is so old that they don't have one of those soft drink guns that are ubiquitous in bars. Odd. They also didn't carry soda water. "Charged water?" asked Matt, as if maybe that's what the young kids were calling the fizzy unsweetened water these days.

"No..." answered the girl. "This place is sort of what you'd call... 'ghetto.'" But it wasn't! It's one of the tidiest places we'd been in there. So, Matt wandered down the street to the LiQuor store and bought his own.

By this time we were just getting a bare inkling of hunger again. We didn't really know where to go this time. We attempted to enter Loopy's, but we're too damn old for that place. Or maybe it's just that we don't like to try that much. Most of the people in there were youngish - early 20's and had obviously been out on the water drinking all day. They were burned and on the fast track to an angry drunk that I remember all too well. She's gonna be crying because he's not spending any time with her and he's going to get in a fist fight with that other guy over a spilled beer. Oy, no thank you. There's usually and underage or DUI following those nights around like a bad mood. Plus, it was hot and no one seemed interested in serving us.

We drove back to town and saw the James T. Sheely house on the way back in. This was one of the two bars in all of Chippewa Falls that we didn't make it to last year. It looked like they sold food. We approached the upstairs door marked "Restaurant." I hoped the door and there was a melodic little twinkling of delicate bells above me. Before me was a Victorian style chair reupholstered in Chintz and delicate pink wallpaper borders tracing the wall. I stepped inside and the door closed behind me. I caught a glimpse at the little white tablecloths and conservative people seated before them before I turned around.

I opened the door and looked at Matt, frozen on the entry way. "What - "

He just shook his head and whispered, "I can't."

I raised an eyebrow as one corner of my mouth turned down, "You what?" I asked.

He spun on his heel and started heading for the car.

"What? They serve food!" I said walking behind him. Sure, he was right, that was no place for us to be. I mean, by now my head was wound up with all these little pickaninny strands of matted brown hair haloing my face. But, I am his wife, it is my duty to make things more difficult than they need to be.

"I'm not going in there!! I took one look at that chair and knew I couldn't be in there." He was right, too. Matt's nothing if not dependably clumsy. That chair wouldn't have stood a chance.

"Look, there's a saloon in the basement of the place. I'm sure they serve food."

Okay, he agreed.

Behind Door number 2 was a scene much more familiar to us. The stairs led down, I felt the original bricks and mortar under my fingertips as we descended into the cool dimness of the bar. The floors are the original French imported tiles, worn down, but still a lovely deep mud and black colors. The pressed tin ceilings are also original and the walls are decorated with old advertisements. Oh, yeah. As soon as we entered the main bar area I saw a couple digging in to large plates of food. Perfect. We sat at the bar and the bartender was before us as soon as we settled. His effortless service and great personality made me silently promise to return before I'd even taken a sip of my first drink. On the TV's before us there were competing movies of Das Boot (there's a real pick me up... or a real leave me laying on the bottom of the ocean HA!! ha... ha.... okay, the one person who's suffered through that sweaty movie reading this thought that was hilarious.) The other movie was National Treasure a movie I'd never seen, nor wanted to see, but had no problem following despite the lack of sound.

Since we weren't exactly starving after the Mammoth Burger of Norther Wisco, we decided to order a couple of appetizers. I got the ham and mozzarella rolled up in an egg roll and deep fried. It was a simplistic dish that was probably the cheapest to make thing on the menu, but they were tasty none the less. Sort of one of those super easy, why haven't I ever made these myself things. Matt got the crab cakes. And, as I mentioned in the Grand Rapids post, I'm not a huge fan of crab cakes. Perhaps this is the summer that finally changes that for me. These things were terrific. Were I a huge crab cake fan, I might not have loved these so much. There was huge hunks of meat barely held together with some jalapeno, red bell pepper, onion and Parmesan cheese that were then all friend to crispy perfection. They weren't the dense cake that I usually imagine, but more like a light little.... crispy cracker type deal, but with crab. Hmm... It's hard to explain. And dammit why didn't I have my camera!? Or at least my notebook? You know, I bought a little notebook just exactly for these sorts of things when I stumble onto good food or other genius ideas? But, no, there I was at the bar, furiously scribbling little notes onto the back of the motel receipt. At least, here's a picture of where I was sitting.
Thrilling, I know. For all you know this could be any bar in the country. But, honest, this was where I was sitting.
We'd inhaled the cakes before I remembered that I do have a camera phone. We had originally planned on cutting out after the food, but this place was so great. Eric Clapton and BB King were playing overhead and the bartender was such a chatty friendly fellow. He told me that Jim Bloms is the owner and the chef - he was to blame for the tasty little treats and is a Stout grad. I did see a couple eating sandwiches, and they really didn't look quite as good as our food had, but they seemed happy.
Eventually, it was time to wander back up the road. We were both exhausted from all the sun and fun times. Still, we dropped by the Glen Loch bar for a couple. Wouldn't be very neighborly to be in town and not swing in to say hi. It's still a nice little dive. The father/son duo were still working there. I was relieved. There had been a For Sale sign outside the place the last time we'd been in. Matt loaded up the jukebox with Willie, Merle and Waylon as we settled in for just one more one more.