Friday, March 28, 2008

Second Trip to the Strip (Club in St. Paul)

It was not a fluke. These guys are good. If possible, my second trip in was even better than my first. The worst thing I can say is that the parking can be a bit hairy. That's it. Really!

While Matt was parking, I walked up the street, observed an ambulance about a block and a half up dealing with a gentleman who appeared to have made a career out of drinking and was now dealing with some of the ill effects. He was sideways in a lawn chair flailing about. The paramedics were standing around, none too concerned. They appeared to be trying to talk some sense into him. "Interesting..." I muttered and walked in the door.

Dan was behind the bar and gave me a wave and a thumbs up. I didn't know if he remembered me or if that was just kind of his new thing. I kind of waved back and nodded. I had no idea what I was agreeing to. It was really warm in there. Really, really warm. The sun must have been heating up the black exterior and the heat had been seeping in all day.

A friendly young guy approached me and asked if I had a reservation. I said no, and looked around. It was pretty full and the space is quite small. I was worried that we wouldn't be able to get a table. I knew I'd been craving this place all day! Why didn't I call? Curses. He checked the computer system and returned, "We have that lovely table for you right up there." He pointed to a small table for two at the edge of the balcony.

"Perfect." I walked up and was happy to relieve myself of my coat and sweatshirt. Matt stepped in and I waved him up. He was wearing his puffy Land's End coat and a thick brown sweatshirt. "I hope you're wearing a T-shirt under that." Thankfully, he was, and it wasn't the "Rainbows are Gay" T-shirt that his brother had gotten him for Christmas a couple of years ago.

"Welcome back!" said our server. I didn't remember seeing him working the last time we were there, so that kind of startled me. "Can I start you off with anything to drink other than the water?"

"Thank you! Do you know if Dan's started stocking Mount Gay rum down there?" All the more thankful that Matt wasn't wearing the afore mentioned shirt.

He said he didn't think so, but he would check. Matt was fine with just water. We lustily scanned the menu. Once again, everything sounded wonderful. I was starving. We immediately ordered the Devil's Eggs to chase away the desperation hungries and I asked for a glass of wine since the waiter didn't think they carried Mt. Gay. Sigh. Fine.

I loved our vantage point. We could watch everybody without them realizing it. There was a photographer taking pictures of everything. There was a foursome in the front window and one of the guys sort of looked like This American Life host, Ira Glass. There was a table of gentlemen behind us that we could not figure out. They were all dressed in similar blue dress shirts, all the same age, clearly moneyed and educated, but not financial types. It couldn't be looked like Ben Kingsley. Matt guessed that maybe they were architects. I thought they might be old St. Thomas alumni. We're so nosy.

Our eggs arrived, three were your garden variety deviled eggs and two were a lovely pink hue. Our waiter (whose name I forgot to get) explained that the rosy ones were actually pickled in beet juice. He warned us that they would have a somewhat rubbery texture, but in a good way.

Just then Dan came bounding up the stairs and presented me with a cocktail. "What's this?"
"It's what you asked for." And with that, he was gone. Who was that masked man?

He'd gotten the rum in! He mixed it up with his home made tonic water and it was outstanding. The tonic was lemony with a little ginger, kind of a cinnamony finish. It was cool, crisp, light, bright and really refreshing. This is the kind of drink to be sipped out on the back porch on a hot summer afternoon listening to Big Daddy tell one of his stories about the days before the war.

And this time, I remembered to take pictures. Look at it! "AHHHHHHH!!" Doesn't it just sing? It was just before I took this picture, that the sun started to dip behind the horizon and they opened all the blinds up. The room immediately began to cool off.

The photographer came upstairs and took a picture over us. Then he went behind the table of guys we couldn't figure out and opened up the fire place. It's a secret passage. This place is so cool! And that photographer is a little weird.

Again, we couldn't decide on just one entree, so we decided to get another round of the small plates. We got the fried oysters, fries (with the ketchup - bacon! Yay!,) escargot, the ladies night out shrimp scampi and another round of the drinks.

The oysters were again wonderful and the frisee salad served underneath them was fantastic. The dressing that they use some how managed to taste light and creamy at the same time, shallots, Dijon and possibly red wine vinegar. The escargot were lovely little balls of garlic, buttery heaven with an herby, anise note.

This was a better batch of bacon ketchup. It tasted bacony and tomatoey. They were really wonderful and studded with big rocks of sea salt. (Matt's not really that swarthy, there's something odd going on with the light.)

The scampi were bathing in a super lemony, light butter sauce. I usually love a more traditional and tons butter and hunks of garlic, but all that brightness made it taste almost like it was something healthy for me. The shrimp were sweet, fresh and they actually crammed a ton in there. Happy little shrimp delights.

While I was sucking them down, Tim Niver came up to ask us how are meal was. We raved about everything from the food to the service to darling Dan down at the bar. We thanked him for bringing something like this to Saint Paul. He did his best not to look embarrassed for the raving lunatics and thanked us for coming.

After we were done eating, I felt really bad about making the waiter and the plate runner girl come up and down those stairs so many times with all of that stuff that we went down to the bar. Plus, this gave me the perfect chance to talk to Dan. (Love Dan. I'm thinking about getting some buttons, T-shirts and starting a fan club.)

Immediately, he poured me another glass of wonderful and set it down before me. "What's this?"

"Try it! I made my own version of Sprite."

Again - exquisite! It did taste like lemon/lime, but also of a bright kicky little hunk of crystallized ginger. He was enthusing that he's also working his own version of Cherry Coke. "It should be ready... well, it might be ready now. Definitely by Monday."

"We'll be here Tuesday," Matt said. And he wasn't kidding.

This is the first restaurant that we've found in St. Paul that has that Minneapolis neighborhood place buzz. You know, it's not fair, really. Minneapolis gets Corner Table, Al Vento, Barbette, Cafe Maude, Broder's - the list goes on and on. There are tons of little gems nestled into these great neighborhoods. While, I do love a lot of the places we frequent around our own zip code, the amazing pizza at Red's Savoy, Skinners, of course, those types of joints. It's great, but it's also very close to what I grew up with. Great American food, just not very adventurous. There is the artistry of Heartland, but I can only afford to go there once in a blue moon and there's Jay's, which I love, but it's only one tiny place that isn't open on Tuesdays, when Matt and I often have our date night. Here, we have all this talent oozing out of this beautiful Gothic structure. And it's all Saint Paul. With this restaurant just down the street from me, maybe I won't be moving back to that Minneapple any time soon.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Problem solved

Just got the below email from Pat:

Patrick wrote:

I gave a full uncut response to Open Table's requeston "how was your lunch at P&F". I'm sure they'll get it all squared away.

I'm sure those tough nuts at will go on over and crack some bad service skulls.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Cafe Maude

Despite my hopes, there were no Bea Arthur photos gracing the entry way. Eric and I arrived at Cafe Maude at the exact same time (a rarity.) Seeing him walk towards me, squared off shoulders, familiar, but matured smile, made my shoulders and nose scrunch up. It'd been too long. Where we used to dine together. Not too long ago, Eric was my number one dinner companion. Funny how married life changes things. I hugged him tightly and we walked inside.

The noise level was bustling and every table was packed. We were early for our reservation and there weren't any tables open. Luckily, there were a couple of spots at the bar. We sat down and ordered a bottle of wine and the fries. Everyone that had even glimpsed Maude's menu had suggested the fries.

Moments after we sipped our slightly heavy (but in a woolly blanket kind of way) wine a booth in the back of the restaurant by a large table of women celebrating a birthday.

I'd been sitting on my purse with my phone set to vibrate when Laura called. It was an unnerving sensation. She said she'd just finished up drinks with a friend and wanted to know if we'd mind if she joined us. Firmly believing in not only, is more better, but another mouth meant we could order more food, I told her to move it down to 54th and Penn.

The fries arrived while we were waiting for her. They were delicious, house sliced potatoes dusted with sea salt and what seemed like fried parsley accompanied by a little dish of melted cheese. We dug in. "Oh...?" Eric said.

They had a kind of unexpected flavor. We mulled it over- "It's white truffle oil!" I proclaimed.

"Really," he frowned at his fry. "You know they say most truffle oil isn't the real thing - it's artificially flavored. You can't get real truffles in olive oil for only $10." I raise my eyebrows at him. "Okay, maybe you get the real stuff, but mine at home doesn't taste like this. Pierre has banished it from the kitchen." The real stuff, thank you very much, is a pronounced, distinctive flavor that was now slowly rolling over my palate. Besides, I only spend my money on ridiculously high quality and mostly unnecessary food products.

(Here's a picture of Eric maowing down the fries and our first wine.)

The fries were excellent and at $5 a great little start to the meal. They were also a distant memory by the time Laura arrived looking more gorgeous than anybody has a right to at 8 o'clock on a Tuesday night.

The entire time we caught up and mulled over the menu, our waiter was near at hand, but never intrusive. My wine glass was never empty and I knew that once we did finally decide on what to eat, he'd be right there, ready.

We couldn't decide on whether to order lots of small plates, or our own entrees.

"I want the beet salad." Eric's always been partial to beets. "I don't care what you guys want. I'm having the beet salad and the lamb skewers." That decided it - we went for a few small plates to share. We ordered, sipped and chatted.

Suddenly, food seemed to be materializing out of thin air. Everything arrived at once. While we mused, it might have been nice if things had come out more staggered, we were already threatening each other with the tines of our forks. The first thing I tried was the mac and cheese. It was wonderful. A nice little bed of penne pasta wrapped in downy blankets of creamy, cheese sauce. The top was crusty and accented with croutons. Laura declared that this - THIS is what you're looking for when ordering fancy mac and cheese." (We'd been burned before.)

At the moment I couldn't be bothered though, because I was slicing into my first croquette. The crusty, brown outer shell gently gave way to the creamy risotto and the gooey little bit of cheese tucked into the center. The mouth combination was exquisite. Gooey, creamy and crispy, with just a little how-do-ya-do from the red bell pepper, just a little added veggie sweetness.

"Ohmygodyouguysthisissogoood!" I shoved the other half into my mouth for another texture explosion. I imagined that if I was lucky enough to have grown up Italian that I would so totally have been made this by my loving mother from the previous nights leftovers. "Manga! manga!"

Eric was happily nodding at his lamb skewers that were ground, spiced lamb meat. He offered me a bite with a bit of the coleslaw accompaniment. It was spicier than I expected, but in a really good way. There was a little bit of heat, corriander and it was all cooled off by the sweet, crispy, creamy cabbage. The yogurt in the dressing gave it just a bit of a tang, but it was the perfect cool compliment to the racy little lamb skewers.

Laura was moaning and pointing to the tuna, "Oh, oh - oh, my God you have to have one of those." On little wedges of grilled bread there was a tiny bit of an avocado mixture and on top of that was a small hunk of just barely seared tuna. I popped half of one in my mouth. The crispy bread folded up, and abated like a wave, unleashing the creamy avocado and the fresh, ambrosial tuna. There's something about the pairing of the flavors of the green, smooshy avocado and the tinny red tuna that pairs so well together. (wine lovers note - do not accompany this by a sip of your Grenache, or what was once beautiful will devolve into fish tank grodey flavors in your mouth.)

I gaped at our plates trying to determine what to approach next. What would be my favorite? I stabbed a bit of Eric's gorgeous beet salad. It perfectly dressed. The golden beets radiated from the salad plate like the promise of spring. They were expertly prepared tender crisp and lovely. The goat cheese that dotted the salad was also wonderful.

Still, for my money, I'm going for real cheese. I stabbed at the penne, around Laura's arm - she'd clearly picked her favorite. And soon it was all over. Croquette, Ahi, Ahi, mac and cheese, croquette, croquette gone! There was a collective sigh of disappointments (can't we just keep eating) and satisfaction, (I want to live here.) Bit by bit, our empty plates were taken away until all that remained was the dessert menu.

I'm not usually much of a dessert eater, but my companions are. Eric claims to have an entire dessert compartment. They ordered the Chocolate Pistachio Torte. Oh, why don't I eat dessert more often? It was a beautiful dessert, pictured here, but prettier in person. It was artfully dolloped with creme de menthe. The ice cream, chocolate and crunchy little nuts came together and sang the taste buds home. The chocolate was dense and supple, the nuts were slightly toasty, but still had that distinctive pistachio meatiness to them, the light minty, syrup flavor cut through the whole thing that otherwise, would have been awfully sweet and rich.

It was decadent, wonderful, captivating, delightful and full. Just like us.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Porter & Frye

So, of course, with all the controversy, I just had to go check it out. Luckily, my attorney and occassional brother in law, invited Matt and I to meet him for lunch this week. Even though I was lucky enough to get today off of work (Spring Day! WOO HOO!), I had no problem making the trip into downtown Minneapolis for the chance to dine at Porter & Frye in the Ivy. There was no menu available online and every review I've read thus far has been for dinner. I had no idea what to expect.

We're experiencing this annoying March snow storm. The heavy, wet snow is beautiful, but it's also everywhere. I think we're supposed to get 9 inches in all. We parked accross the street from the restaurant in what had been for a very long time, that abandoned builded accross the street from the parking ramp attached to the orchestra. "God, I've always thought this was the ugliest building," I said.

"Really? I've always thought it was really cool. It looks so old and different. It's always been chillin' doin' it's own thing."

"It's a giant rock collection. It's pavement." I squinted and was sloshed our way accross the street to the entrance. "Please use the Ivy entrance" the sign informed us. So, we aimed for the next nearest door. It was locked. Great, the Ivy's entrance was around the corner and practically about a block away. It was sopping wet and cold. My shoes were soaked. What was I thinking wearing the cute ones on a day like today?

The double doors slid open and there were four black clad men standing there. Heads still down, we marched towards the lobby. One guy broke away and was trying to stand in front of us, "Hello, how are you doing today?" Fine (cold, wet and hungry, but fine.) "May I help you with anything today?" No... no we're good. Please stand aside - I need food!

"Hello, how are you today?" Two women were blocking the entrance. "Yeh, hi - there he is!" Matt said and we tried to weasel our way around them and get to the table where Patrick was waiting for us.

"Oh, your party has already arrived." Like he's a VIP or something? "May I take your coats for you?" Okay, yes, that was nice.

We settled into our seats. I looked around the room. It was nicely lit and pretty. Despite the concrete surroundings, exposed piping and walls, mostly painted off white. The wood was dark and polished on the tables and chairs. There was a little divider between the dining room and the bar. There was a gorgeous flower arrangement there. We talked to Pat about his work day - he was excitedly looking foward to suing some people this afternoon. He really likes his job. He asked after my good friend, who is a paralegal. I said she's good - getting married this summer, we're all happy for her. Matt was telling him about some of the classes that he's taking at the U - he was explaining some of the different directions he could end up going - watershed management would most likely be involved. Back off ladies, this one's taken.

Not in any of this time does anyone show up at the table and offer so much as a glass of water. After a couple of attempts, I finally grabbed a guy and said, "Can I get some water?" I was really parched.

"Oh, no one has brought you any water yet? Do you have a server?"

"No," what kind of a question was that?

He grabed a guy that was walking past and steered him to our table, he put his hand on my shoulder, which, for some reason felt creepy.

"How are we doing today? May I get you something to drink?"

"Yes. Please. I would like some water."


"Just tap is fine." Finally somebody showed up with a cold pitcher and I downed it fast. It's been like 20 minutes so we were more than ready to order our food. I wanted the Chicken Little sandwich and the chowder to start with. The chowder wasn't clam, but prepared with shrimp and sausage. Matt ordered the Ceaser salad and the arctic char with jalepeno sofrito. Pat had the Greek salad and the gnocci. When the waiter took our menus the wine list in the middle knocked the tiny salt shaker over for about the fifth time. I thought, "Hey, I don't have to work. Why not?" I started to look over the list when the waiter grabbed the menu out of my hand. "Um, I was reading that."

"Oh," he handed it back.

They continuted to talk family stuff while I started studying the other tables. A man and woman that had walked in after us were tucking into their salads. Hey, was that bread? I looked around. Hey! They have bread! And it looks good... We're past the half hour mark and I'm sipping my ice water jealous of bread. At this point, I'm getting crabby and thinking of all the other first impressions that I've read of this place. Yes, it's still a new place, but come ON!

Our waiter reappeared, "I am so sorry. We are all out of the shrimp roll."

We looked at each other and all re-ordered. "And I had the chowder and chicken sandwich." He crossed out French Onion and wrote down c-h-o-d-e-r.

I went back to reading the wine menu. It was a different set up than what I've seen before. There were four different catagories, each listing red, white and sparkling wines. Each different catagory has a different price. You can order 3 oz, 6 oz pour or a bottle. I grabbed the waiter guy and requested a 6 oz pour of a middle priced red. Matt did the same.

We went back to waiting. Fifteen more minutes of breadless waiting. I couldn't even pay attention to what they were talking about at that point. "I don't want to be an asshole," it felt odd swearing in such a nice restaurant, "but am I going to have to go behind that pour my own glass of wine?"

"Yeah, what is going on with this place?" Pat asked. I think he was a little relived that I was ready to drop the charade and acknowledge that this service was terrible.

The waiter re-appeared on cue carrying a tray with two glasses, a wine bottle and a glass of Coke on it. He strolled over to another table, delivered the Coke and seemed to be having a lovely little chat. What.the.hell. Seriously. Eventually, he came over to our table. "Would you like a bottle, or just the two glasses?"

I wanted to hit him. Matt laughed in his great disarming way.

"No, we'll just go with the two glasses," Matt said.

A nervous young man set a white bowl full of sliced bread in front of us.

"We do get bread!" Pat squealed. We lobbed the little balls of butter at each other and began stuffing them into our faces. I was starting to get worried about Patrick. He had to be in court later this afternoon. I wondered if he was ever going to be able to get fed.

Just then our first courses arrived. Matt was presented with a plate of charred romain covered in cheese. Patrick got this really odd plate with a wedge of Iceburg lettuce, a peeled whole tomato and two little ribbons of curled up cucumber. I got this wide plate with a little hole in it filled with what looked like cooked merpoie, sausage and these little teeny tiny shrimps. What the hell? Where was the soup part? A guy leaned over me and poured a cream colored broth into the hole. The waiters vanished and Matt dug into his lettuce with a concerned look on his face.

I picked up my butter knife and fork and looked at Pat, "What's wrong with this picture?" He covered his mouth and started laughing. Matt lept from his chair to chase down someone - I think he practically went into the kitchen - requesting a spoon for me. He seemed kind of mad. Aw, chivalry is not dead.

Our bumbling waiter laid a gigantic spoon next to me. I picked it up and stared at it. This had to be a joke - it was a serving spoon! And it was an odd shape, kind of rectangular. Here's a picture with my butter knife for scale.

It was HUGE - and it's unweildly nature made it impossible to eat with. I kept spilling soup all over the white expanse. The shrimps were those little teeny kind and tasted like they had until recently been frozen. The broth was pleasant and not overly creamy. The sausage had a lovely, smokey flavor, but kind of overwhelmed everything. After a couple of ladle fulls I just quit. It was kind of stupid and mediocre.

I tried Matt's salad. It was wonderful. The whole thing was covered in this little crumbled, mild cheese. The flavor combinations were delightful. It was served with four slices of heavily buttered and grilled bread that was also fantastic.

"I'd let you try some of mine, but I can tell you what it tastes like," offered Pat. "It tastes like bland." Honestly, I didn't want to taste it. I couldn't even tell you what was Greek about it. The peeled tomato looked a little green and there was all these little black things all over it. They weren't poppy seeds, not seasame seeds... maybe little shaves of black truffles? I ask you this, when was the last time that you thought to yourself, you know what I"m really craving? Man - I could go for a whole head of iceburg lettuce! Yeah.

I waved down the server and handed him my plate. Patrick just kept staring at his plate blanching. Matt was hungrily gobbling up his lettuce and mopping up the cheese and dressing with his buttery toast.

Two waiters, our gomer and the first guy that I had approached. They looked at the finished plates in front of the guys. I could see the other guy looking at gomer like, "Aww, man - you moron!" Still they served them, while Matt and Patrick held the old plates aloft. I was guzzling my wine. The wine was delightful and thankfully distracting.

Chicken little:

The toasted warm bun was yummy and the chicken had a delightful citrusy flavor. The problem was trying to eat it. I had to keep shoving the wilted, warm lettuce, watery tomato and Munster cheese back into it. On my third bite the entire contents shot out of the bun and across my plate. It was annoying and no where near worth nine dollars, but tasty. The fries were super salty and doused in malt vinager. At first I liked them, but the salt started to get to me. I had to dip them in ketchup to cut the saltiness.

Matt's arctic char was beautiful and served in this huge bowl/plate thing.

(And notice the appearance of the bread "basket." All slices of bread had odd dried fruit in it.)

The fish looked fine, but not being a huge fan, I didn't try it. The odd beige pastey lump was pretty good. I have no idea what it was. Really, we tried. Was that supposed to be the sofrito? I dunno. Matt enjoyed it and I avoided any more bites. The wilted greens were delicious. Cooked down and delicate, with a delightful spicy and lemony notes. Really good.

Pat's gnocchi was good, but not great. "It's good, but I think I've had better at Pazzaluna."

The picture didn't turn out very well, either. (Hey! Nice tie!) There seemed to be a sauce of sorts made out of sundried tomato and it was topped with a cheese that tasted like Humbolt fog. It had a rind and tasted a little bit like crumbly goat cheese. It was good, but the gnocchi were completely bland and a little rubbery. Meh, it was okay. Man, for the guy that was picking up the tab, he was really geting screwed over.

We weren't even done eating when Matt asked for the check. The guy came back, dropped it with Pat. Pat gave him his credit card. After a few minutes he returned and dropped the bill on the ground. God, this guy was so bad that it was just getting really uncomfortable now. He picked it up and laid it on the table.

"May I get you anything else?" he asked.

"How about my credit card?"

He fumbled about a bit, when the other waiter came up behind him and handed him Pat's card. "Ahhh... Then I'm going to need to run that again."


Finally, we got it, Pat paid and agonized about the tip. He didn't stiff the guy, but it kind of hurt to give him much. The guy was terrible. What were they thinking? I was anxious to get the hell out of this place. I wanted go home. I wanted tons more of that wine, but somewhere else.

So, I don't care if it's still too early to judge this place, or if it isn't fair to judge after just one trip - I wouldn't ever eat there again, even if it is on somebody else's dime.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bloggers Blogging about Blogs

Yesterday I fell down another rabbit hole thanks to Andrew Zimmern's blog. Say what you will about his personality or TV show, but this guy's blog has become ground zero for inside news of the Minneapolis food scene. It was on here that the big kerfuffle between him, Anne Bauer at the Rake started.

This post was in response to Kathie Jenkin's "Small Bites" review of the new Steven Brown venture at Porter & Frye. There's this perception that Kathie Jenkins is a lazy writer. I've also heard before that she seems to have it in for fine dining. I'm torn because Kathie is probably the only food critic in town that would ever bother wandering into Skinner's and finding that it's actually a great little neighborhood joint with good pizzas and, as she discovered, the most ludicrously sized nacho order in the metro.

Also, she liberated me from feeling like the only person who didn't get what the big deal was about Russell Klein's food was when he was at W.A. Frost. All three times I went there, I was so disappointed by my meals that I either wanted to cry or throw those stupid cracker bread sticks at somebody.

But that's neither here nor there, unlike most of the commenters after Andrew's post, I know nothing about the inside business of running a good restaurant. And, unfortunately, nobody pays me for this, so I do write a bit like Kathie, in that I usually only go to a place once before reviewing it.

But you don't come here for the professionalism, do ya? Nah - I'm lucky if you come here at all with the serious lack of writing and insight I've been giving you lately. There were all kinds of $ tumult at our little St. Puddlian home. Things have calmed down now (and I won't be moving back to Mpls this year), I can go back to eating out on a semi-regular basis and I will try to continue to give you the completely biased, lazy writing you've come to expect from me.

Just one more thing. Lenny Russo and Doug Flicker are fucking rock stars and anyone that doesn't agree with that is a moron.

What Russo has done for Saint Paul is a gift from the culinary Gods. The man is crazy enough to take the local eating thing so seriously that he creates art out of what most people would have considered provincial country folk food. What he has created, does and is committed to nurturing is something so outstanding, so precious that even hyperbole fails me. All this - and I can't even afford to eat in the main dining room! I have to take small plates over at the wine bar and still - STILL I'm always charmed by what arrives before me. I can wonder what a wild boar fromage de tete is, but have faith that the plate that is placed before me will contain something to make my every taste bud sing. The man is a mad genius. He actually makes me proud to be on this side of the big river. And if Kathie Jenkins can't recognize that, then she probably does need to have her head examined.

Sigh. I feel so much better now.