Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Holidays and the Oak Grill

Is there anything more lovely than the department store window lit up for the holiday season? A Christmas Story was on TV the other night and watching Ralphie and his little friends salivate over the opulent toy display brought on a reminiscent giddiness.
I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Duluth where there was a lacy layer of snow gracing the bare tree branches. Matt and I took a nice, if frigid walk through Chester Bowl and along Skyline drive. There's a specific shade of blue that Superior picks up when the weather turns this cold. It's a deep slate mixed with Sapphire. An old oar boat perched off the shores, waiting to load up, reminding us of where we were in this state, the red copper soil; the icy roads I'd braved to make it up to my Mom's for the weekend. That lake is so wide, deep, freezing and familiar. Winter was here and Christmas is upon us.
Back in the Cities, the windows at Macy's are brilliantly bedazzled in anticipation of everyone's list sent to Santa.
Rather than going to yoga today, which no doubt would have also done my soul - not to mention my ass wonders -I called up my oldest best friend Aisha and asked if she had time for lunch. I'm so happy that she's working downtown these days. We've been friends since the Fourth Grade and, like any friendship that's lasted so long, I sometimes worry that we might be drifting.
We're a long way from pigtails. These days, I'm actually married and she's on the verge. We're trying to get together as often as possible, in part to plan dress hems and place settings, but also to reconnect.
She's never worked downtown before, so getting together in the middle of the day is such a treat. Today I took her to my favorite lunch spot that time forgot, the Oak Grill.
There's also the annual holiday display down on the 8th floor. I remember my mom taking me to see Pippi Longstocking dangle precariously and rediscover how that nasty Ol' Grinch with the heart two sizes too small nearly stole the happiness that fateful night in Whoville. I'm a little nuts about the display and had already walked through this year's once by myself.
Once we arrived at the restaurant, we were seated quickly, despite many people roaming, waiting and pushing strollers. I recommended the pot pie to Aisha. (God bless, dear Mrs. Herring, the woman that first brought this recipe to the Dayton's kitchen.) It sounded ideal on a crispy day.
Our server was one of the nicest and most professional that I've encountered there. She was friendly, present and never obtrusive. I was thrilled so see that on their menu was the return of the Lobster Bisque. The bisque and the popovers were what won me over the first time I tasted the food at the Rivers Room - St. Paul's answer to the Oak Grill.
I ordered the soup and sandwich combo. I didn't that the bisque would cost me a little extra. Cream, seafood and sherry were worth the price of admission.
The popovers soon arrived. It was a great exercise in self control not to finish the entire thing before my lunch arrived. I really wanted to use the crispy, eggy batter to scoop up the decadent bisque, but it was so hot and fresh, the butter ever so slightly sweetened with honey was so creamy and soft on the tongue.
When the rest of our food arrived Aish was kind enough to let me gouge a steamy, crispy, savory bite out of her dish. That's what best friends do after all. The chicken was so flavorful - so chickeny. The sauce bound the dish, but in no way did it become a soppy glom that I often assume a pot pie will be. Each of the individual ingredients held their own distinctive flavor, but then floated together and asailed the tongue with their symphony - a long forgotten fuzzy blanket. Aw! Wubey!
My sandwich was perfectly assembled. I'd requested a little of the chipotle aioli be added. I usually order Nancy Silverton's open faced turkey sandwich. It's served on multi grain bread with REAL turkey - not that compressed, deli sliced, tastes vaguely of liquid smoke turkey, jarred jalapenos, the aioli with slices of avocado. It's delicious. And the pepper flaked, battered fries... Oh, and that coleslaw. I don't even usually like coleslaw! The whole meal blends into too much for me to resist. I always find a way to wander through the Home department and sometimes the third floor, too, because I've just got to walk that all off a bit.
This turkey sandwich was just the deli turkey, but still good. I couldn't get over how fresh the bread tasted. Anyone who's ever bought one of those packaged sandwiches down in the basement from the Marketplace knows what I'm talking about. It's always so chewy that my gums are puffy and my teeth are sore. This was the other end of the spectrum. The bread seemed to have been pulled from a nearby oven only a couple of hours before I arrived; tender and new.
The bisque wasn't quite what I remembered. It didn't seem to be lobster, but crab meat. The little bits of meat at the bottom of the cup were all tiny. If this was lobster as the menu advertised, it was taken from the tiny spindley legs off the tail. Teeny little red slivers that were mildly fishy, not that buttery flavor that I associate with good hunks of crustacean. My only other quibble, and these really aren't complaints because I was so happy and content - somebody was a little heavy handed on the booze. The sherry flavor was almost overwhelming. There was too much and it hadn't cooked off at all. It was a little tough to muscle the whole thing down. Luckily, I had managed to save half the popover. That cut the alcohol flavor back.
I happily surveyed the room, noting all the little puffs of gray hair dotting the room. "We're ladies who lunch!" I said enthusiastically, already plotting how our friendship will endure. We will be those little old ladies some day. The room dressed in red, green and white. We'll show up. Her, in her puffy tight little graying pincurls. Me, in my Emmy Lou Harris coiffed silver. We'll sip our soup, gnash our popovers through store bought teeth. We'll laugh and talk about how we used to raise Cain in a little logging town back in the day.
Before I rolled the Nostalgia Train back down the escalator, I decided that I'd better convince her to witness one more downtown Christmas tradition. The one eyed Godfather greeted us past the glittering purple walls and snowflakes. Clara picked up her Nutcracker. Her numbskull brother broke him. "Ahem, not unlike your pesky brother," I whispered. Aisha nodded.
There was music, mice, a prince and a sugar plum fairy. All told it took us about 5 minutes. But the aroma of gingerbread cookies had me tugging on her sleeve. "Let's do it again!!"

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nevermind about that whole Food Network Star Thing

Earlier today I went down to Macy's where Dave Lieberman from the Food Network was doing an in store appearance. The food he served was all geared towards being Autumnal - but not Thanksgiving. Close to, but not traditional Thanksgiving! He made a Pumpkin and Chipotle Chowder, Onion and Marmalade Toasts with Parmesan and Creamy Chicken Thighs and Mushrooms over Gemelli, all available from his book Dave's Dinner's or from the Macy's Great Gatherings. The corn chowder was Meh, served with a parsley garnish, when my give away recipe clearly calls for cilantro. It was like stewed squash with an unexpected burning in the back of the throat finished with some grass clippings. The little toasts were tasty, but Andy already makes a better version and the thighs were remarkably like my Faux Pheasant recipe. If he'd served it over wild rice, we might have had a bit of a dispute on our hands.
Watching him was fun, though... First of all, he's wee and compact, like my people. He seems like a genuinely nice enough guy, but oy, what a job! The crowd sat there silent and smiling. Everyone was politely waiting for their free sample. He was only asked a couple of questions. One was, "Who is your favorite chef." He pondered for a long time before answering.
"Mario. I like Mario Batali's food... and you know... his restaurants are good. I don't really have a favorite chef, though. If you want an endorsement of someone, I guess it would be him."
Again, he's only got so much to work with here, but do you think we're all sitting here waiting to run out to worship whatever chef you recommend? I mean, I don't even know where they shuffled his show off to on the network. It's easier to find Guy Fieri's face than poor Dave's on any Food Network schedule. And trust me, I know. I was home sick for the past three days and the order of appearances is Rachel Ray (at one point she was on NBC, Food Network AND I had her magazine on the coffee table. Define over exposure.) Paula Dean, That Kooky Sandra Lee and Guy Fieri. Dave's show is on at like the crack of dawn on Sunday's, I think.
I guess part of the reason I had such a sour reaction, is the very next thing out of the little guy's mouth was, "Who's you're favorite chef?"
In my mind I answered, "Oh! It's YOU David Leiberman! You're the greatest EVER."
Meanwhile, he's got a bunch of raw chicken in a pan that he suggests we all just imagine it as browned off. Then dump some onions. In theory, you'd let them sweat. Dump in some flour, stir. Bowl of whole button mushrooms and a splat of cream. Oh, yeah, looks great. Is he on a timer or something? Why is he demo-ing food when all he's doing it pouring ingredients into a pan and then desperately asking for questions. Cook something for the love of God! I would have been much more likely to launch into a silent rant had I not just spotted a lovely lady coming towards me with my free sample. The chicken thigh recipe was delicious, again finished with the grass, but not bad - hell great, considering the price.
He put the raw chicken to the side and said he was now available for anyone wanting to get their copy of his new book signed.
I watched him as I was spooning free pasta into my mouth from a tissue paper. Ladies all hugging him awkwardly, making him pose with a "Miss YOU!!!" sign. What is he, some kind of a monkey? What a terrible gig! The whole deal is supposed to be about food, but this was about manufactured celebrity and the desperate buck generated from it.
If I could read minds, my guess would be that Dave was just praying to get the hell out of the Midwest and back to New York. Is that what amounts to being a celebrity chef? That blows! I'd rather continue to pound my keyboard in obscure mediocrity than try to convince housewives from Edina to buy a $200 pot I'm endorsing by saying, "look! Holes to drain the pasta! I always forget to get the collander out, don't you?"
I'd rather play the overtly cheesey infomercial side-kicks. "You just set it... and forget it!"
"Oh, really, now! You're fooling me! It can't be THAT easy!"

Well, I still got a free meal out of it. And have you tried one of those rotisserie things?! They're genius.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Riverview Wine Bar

I checked the mail at work this afternoon and found this post card advertising the photographic talents of some guy named Randal Ford. While I'd rather not focus on exactly which rung I'm on at this agency's ladder, I'm going to guess it's not near the top enough to be picking out various photogs for our shoots. Still, I liked this thing I got. It's a side by side photo inspired by Normal Rockwell of a lady and man (with ridiculous lips) waiting for a marriage counselor. He's got a black eye and she's got a "Well, it's nothing to get too bent out of shape about" look on her face. The adjoining photo is the woman looking slyly into the camera, one gloved hand at her cheek. The irony and the iconic style add a bit of whimsy to battery. Naturally, I kept it and it's now adorning my bulletin board next to my Film Noir picture of me at Matt taken at the Turf Club.
Spousal abuse turned my mind to spousal neglect, which in turn reminded me of my Saturday night this past weekend. Matt had taken off for Duluth to spend some time with his buddy Nick and a few other dudes playing cards and practicing flatulence.
Thankfully, dear Andy didn't have any plans for the day. We met at 4:30 at the Riverview Theater for an afternoon showing of the last Harry Potter movie. We were seated in a nearly capacity theater with a lot of sneezing, coughing, fidgeting children, but the movie was really fun. Afterwards we walked ourselves across the street to the Riverview Wine Bar. I've only been there a couple of times before and each was with my friend Stacy. I hadn't sampled enough of the food to know whether I could recommend it or not. I can say that the menu is a wonderful thing. The first page is full of different wine flights that you can try. The rest is all various wines. I'm talkin' three full pages of wines to be poured by the glass or guzzled by the bottle and one piddly insert full of tasty food options.
It's a rather small room and always seems to be full. We were lucky to find a couple of seats at the window bar. I consulted the one page insert and we decided to order one of the pizzas. I got a cabernet and I can't remember what Andy ordered. Both glasses of wine were superb as was the service. My wine was a hefty wallop of chocolate, cherry, blackberry and leather. It was a sturdy winter wine and I absolutely loved it. Hers was a little lighter and less fruity, but also really, really tasty.
The pizza we ordered had about nearly everything on the menu on top of it. There was cheddar cheese, blue cheese, bacon, pepperoni - it was OUTSTANDING. Really, the crust was super crispy and the blue cheese flavor changed the wine I was sipping, making it a much more interesting flavor (and I'd liked it before!)
Another food thing that I tried was an appetizer with three different spreads. That one wasn't as good as this, although it wasn't really bad, either. One of the spreads was blue cheese and roasted bell pepper and I loved that. Oddly enough, I didn't like the tapenade. It was briny in a cheap olive kind of way. The third was an apple and brie spread that I was also surprised to find that I did not enjoy. It was too agressive of a brie. They didn't pair well as apples and cheese are supposed to. Bad brie!
This is such a little neighborhood gem. I wish I lived in one of those adorable little bungalows right off the river. I'd take up gardening! I can see me now, knelt on a tidy little gardener's pad - one I'd stitched myself from oilcloth, nifty little bandana tied over my head, working steadily on my prize wining dahlias. Matt would watch me from the door, coffee cup cradled in one hand, tattered blue robe blowing in the morning breeze and a fresh new shiner darkening his eye.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Solid Gold!

Friday night I had to wait for Matt to come pick me up at work until about 6 o'clock. It is so sad to be the last person in an entire three floors still working on a Friday night. Sadder still is attempting to silently eat a popcorn ball that was given to you as a promotional thing meant for Monday morning. I couldn't help myself! I was STARVING. Worse yet was that I was unsure when Matt would be arriving. I'd loaned him the convert to take it down to Winona to meet with a woman about his upcoming internship with the uber cool Land Stewardship Project.
Once he (finally) arrived, I was whisked away to Little Szechwan in St. Paul for a super spicy dinner. They continue to do right by me. We started with an appetizer of pork strips that were served a little cool with a molten chili sauce on top. They were slivers of sweet pork me with a thin layer of fat, glistening atop each piece. It was fantastic.
We also had the Chung King Chili Shrimp which is battered, fried and also served with a spicy sauce. These were so sweet and tender - served piping hot. It was a lovely foil for the pork. We leisurely sipped our small tea cups and I tried to squint in the bright lights to pretend it was more romantic than it was. Still, I continue to be hooked on this food more seriously than Pete Doughtrey needs a nap.
After another lovely meal, we decided to go to Mancini's for a quick cocktail. I love their bar. It's the perfect place to work up a good martini buzz and the people watching just couldn't be better. Friday night was no exception - in fact, this was the best people watching this side of the state fair.
Now, you would think, it's just a few nice older people out for a good time. Oh, no, this is the Patpong of the East Side. It started out calmly - Matt & I were the only two people occupying a booth when we first arrived. I ordered a White Russian and fiddled with my filberts. (A Caucasian is the only rival to a martini for perfect sipping drink in this room.) Soon, the musicians trickled in. The poster advertising the Midas Touch made them look like a Wayne Newton cover band, but upon closer inspection, not one of these guys had even a passing resemblance. Who photoshops a picture to look like Wayne Newton? That's like trying to pass for K Fed - why would you DO that? I was even more confused when the lead singer strapped on an accordion. What!? Did I just stumble in to Nye's?
"Would you like another drink?"
I popped the last filbert into my mouth, "Oh, hell yeah!"
This was outstanding, and soon the room began to fill. There were ladies of a certain age, either married or widowed - all probably baby boomers. And men that were mostly sporting their own hair.
The lights went down... and the band started up. The disco ball began to twirl, casting multicolored shadows on the lovely ladies faces. The men circled and the crooner up on stage opened his mouth. Holy God in heaven - who taught this guy to SING!? He'd announce a tune in the vein of Nat King Cole, but it was more like Buddy Guy was wooing a seagull! He'd swoop from crooner style to Jimmy Buffet and then over to Bobby Darin without a moments notice! And then the keyboard solo started and I lost it! I didn't want them to see me, because contrary to how horrible that picture was, we were pretty close to the stage. At the time I didn't realize that they've been doing this for years - I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings. But, now that I know that they've been appearing every Friday night since the Carter Administration, I feel a little more comfortable guffawing from afar. At the time, I just clamped my mouth shut and shook while the tears rolled down my face. I clapped loudly at the end of each song while gasping for breath.
The crowd was even better, because these people were GOOD. It began, as any dance is prone to do, with mostly the ladies taking the floor. Slowly, the men circled, in shark skin jackets and shrinking pompadours. Soon, they were paring up and swirling around the floor. I didn't see a single clumsy person except the one lone girl under 40, who was inexplicably marching in the corner. They were jitterbugging and two stepping. What a show! And the ladies were really dolled up. There was the spunky one, short and slightly stocky, I'd guess that she does a lot of power walking. She was swingin' in her skin tight taupe shirt and pants duo, accented by a leopard print belt. There was the distinguished and very popular lady in the silver shirt and black pants combo. The kooky divorcees, the charming widows and the odd marching girl, not one of them was hard up for a dancing partner.
The men were also dressed to the nines. They were funnier, though and a little more similar in looks. Gray hair - only a couple lucky enough to have any adorning the crown of their heads, though - sport jacket and khaki's. I would guess that most of them were divorced with only a few widowers thrown in for good measure.
The elegant woman sat with a friend of hers in the table in front of us. I would say by their body language that they had been friends for a very long time. The pluckiest of all the fellows was attempting to dazzle her with magic tricks involving a red pen light and a quarter. She was bemused. Another gentleman, who kept trying to rearrange the tables near the bar area, tried to get in on the act. He seemed to know everyone there, but it was still too early for him to commit to a dance partner. Meanwhile, the Magic Man was focusing his efforts a little too much on Elegance and not enough to be polite attention on Friend. I recognized this - I've been there! Granted, it was usually at the CC or Chang O'Hara's, but I've in the Friend's position about a million times. It's always funny until it gets old. The ladies were starting to tire. Magic Man seemed to get this and was pulling away from them, when he turned back and pointed at Elegance, "Don't you ditch!"
"Oh, I won't," she replied coyly before giggling at her friend.
"You're not going to ditch?"
"Oh, no." He was getting tiresome.
He approached the bar before making his way back to the ladies. He knelt down in front of Elegance and said, "Would you make love to me?"
WHAT!? Matt's eyes bulged - we were not that far away from their table and now right in the guy's line of vision.
Elegance remained coy.
"C'mon, will you? Will you make love to me? Don't worry - I've got plenty of Viagra!" At that announcement, he raised his voice so that pretty much everyone in the room could hear him.
Ah, geez, dude! Nobody wants to know that! Plus, he'd totally thrown his game off. Now, she was most definitely going to ditch him and the half a dozen other gentlemen in their approximate area knew this as well. He'd messed it up. He'd tried too hard.
I had to get another drink - I mean really - could you pull yourself away from this kind of first hand drama? Another couple sat down at the booth next to us, breathless from another turn around the dance floor to the tune of Kokomo. "Wow, it's really hot in here!" she said. "It's almost hotter than last weekend!"
"Yeah, but that was right off the main island," her friend replied. "It should be hotter in Hawaii."
"That and we did have less clothing covering our skin."
WHAT!? Did she just say that? Wait, where are the ventilation ducts in this room? Are they pumping something into this air? What is going on in here? People, it's only 7:30? Shouldn't the round up be saved until at least... well, let's say 9. I know they've probably got earlier bed times, but they just aren't we going a little bit warp speed here?
The Magic Man was back, "Oh, c'mon! One more! One more!"
Elegance demurred.
"What are you going to dance with this guy!" He pointed at a guy who seemed to be just minding his own business watching the floor, trolling. "Just look at him dressed up like Joe College!" He was wearing a navy blue sport coat with gold buttons over a button down shirt and khakis.
The well dressed guy just smiled, seeming to notice his window of opportunity. "What are you saying?"
"Look how good you look! Hard to believe he's only 80, isn't it!?" This question was directed right to me, which I was not expecting. I'm sure I had an idiot look on my face, 80? Wow, he looks good for - wait a minute! That guy's not a day over 65.
Matt chimed in, "Hey! It's a good look." He'd dressed up for his internship meeting. He was wearing, a navy blue blazer with gold buttons, a button down shirt and khaki's.
Oh my God, I married my father.
The men all laughed and us ladies subtly rolled our eyes to one another. My attention went back to the stage when he started up with a Willy Nelson song, "Maybe I didn't love you.... justasmuchasishooooooooooould HAVE!"
Matt excused himself to go to the bathroom while I continued to try to decide, do I stare or do I close my eyes and eavesdrop! There's just too much weirdness to go around!
He returned laughing.
"Ah... nothing."
"So, I go in there, right? And there's a line full of dudes all at the urinals..."
"Yeah..." I love bathroom stories.
"And they're all just standing there TRYING to take a piss." Ooooo, prostrate humor.
Oh, God, how did we get in here?
"My mom would love this place. Hey, we should bring your mom in here! She'd have to beat them away with a stick!" Both are widows and I'm telling you, they are some good lookin' ladies. They would KILL in this joint.
"Just wait until the Shalom Home opens down West 7th."
Wow. And people were worried about the smoking ban hurting Mancini's? I think these guys just might make it after all.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Happy Halloween!

I hope you're all gorged with candy and regretting nothing! I even had a Pearson's Salted Nut Roll for breakfast. Delicious and Nutritious!

Jive Town Talking

I was so cranky when I left the Town Talk on Tuesday night that I've been wrestling with whether I should even bother writing it up. It wasn't that I had an abysmal experience, it was just so far from good. Part of the problem is that I keep trying to dine out on a Tuesday - not a Varsity Dining Day. But when your date works in the service industry, your weekends can be a little packed.
So, Matt and I decided to try the Town Talk for dinner after a drive by of the new Nick & Eddie's. (I think they might be too new to judge - and the wait staff were all peering out the window like a sad little box of puppies. Creepy.)
First, there's the parking, which is why I don't usually go there. We had to park a block away. I thought that they had valet, but I'm guessing not on the JV nights. That was fine. We walked down the alley and narrowly avoided being hit by a rusted out Buick.
Our waitress seemed nervous that we were so early (it was only 5:30.) She said the specials were butternut squash soup and some kind of fish I'd never heard of. She was blushing. I decided to order one of the specialty drinks as they boast, not a bartender, but a Mixologist behind the bar. Matt rolled his eyes. What you have here is the Jackson Pollock. It's Saphire Gin, Grapefruit juice and basil oil for the dribblies. It came in a teeeeeeny glass with a shaker to keep the rest of the drink cold. It took me forever to finish this thing. It was so puckery and strong!
We started out with the Farmer's Platter. The menu explination was just that it was a selection of local meats and cheese. What we received was lovely, if confusing. On one side of the plate was sliced sausage with a sliver of cheddar cheese on crackers - three to be precise. The other side of the plate were squares of blue cheese, topped with onion marmelade also on crackers. In the middle was a glass full of white something. Either end of the plate were marinaded olives and mushrooms. Everything was wonderful, I had no idea what anything specifically was and really had no clue on the white stuff. It tasted cold and innocuous. A lot like nothing much. Matt loved it. I flagged down our waitress, "What is this?"
"Pickled fish."
Oh, okay. The whole thing was good, but not great. Matt hates blue cheese, so those three were mine, but that meant that I didn't really get any of the others, nor did I get anywhere towards feeling satisfied.
Next is where we really went wrong. Matt was jonesing for the scallion battered Carr Valley cheese curds, but couldn't decide on anything else. I wanted something less munchie and more like something that could be called dinner. While the braised short ribs really had my attention, I decided to go for something half the size. I ordered the Fearless Frank which was promised to come with all kinds of ridiculous acoutriments. It did. I got a red colored weiner drowning in sauce and topped with cheese on a soggy bun. The meat tasted really good, but only in the center of the weenie, because the rest was charred, split and dried into a leather like substance. The French fries were the usual restaurant immitation McDonald's fries, but they were sitting on a bed of salt. The chili sauce on the dog was also super salty. I looked around wondering if I was being bated for this weekend's deer opener.
The cheese curds were good, but also not outstanding. Plus, they are cheese curds, so you have to inhale them while scalding hot because the minute they begin to cool, you realize that you are eating a basket of grease. The homemade ketchup served with them was distirbing. It was room temperature on the surface, but the center was just icy cold. And the flavor was a little off putting and really overwhelmed the curds. Matt hated it. I was using it for a little bit to scrape off the excess salt from the fries, but have to admit that Hines got it right. That's what ketchup should be and as much as I am a fan of from scratch, homemade cooking - leave my ketchup alone.
After we were done eating I had the inklings of a regret that I haven't felt since my single days of trolling Liquor Lyle's. Plus, all the gin, grapefruit juice and salt was making my skin warm and prickly in a sick kind of way. I wanted to crawl out of myself.
The room wasn't relaxing either. There was a shrieking toddler at the table behind us and the nervous server. By the time we left I was so unnerved and cranky that I don't think I crawled off the ceiling until nearly the end of the night.
I remember that I did really enjoy having breakfast at the Town Talk Diner, and might do that some other time. But, I spent the majority of my ill chosen meal staring longingly at Manny's Tortas across the street. Now, there is some good food. When the Grand Slam EXTREME that Denny's was advertising in there window started to sound good, I knew I wouldn't be recovering from this meal for quite some time.