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!!"


At 5:21 AM , Blogger Erinclot said...

After reading this I was certain that a 5 minute trip through the 8th floor would be better than our usual Sunday trip with the long lines jam-packed with strollers. This didn't seem to be an option until my husband came home from a doctors appointment with a note saying he had to stay home from work for 3 days...
You can bet your ass I bundled him up good and promised him as much Hot and Sour soup as he wanted when we got home. He was thrilled we didn't have to wait in line and even more thrilled no little kiddies were underfoot the entire walk through.
So our annual 8th floor trip is complete. Usually it starts with breakfast at French Meadow, but today it ended with Chow Fun, Hot and Sour soup and Spring Rolls. New tradition?


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