Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Taste of Thailand Downtown Minneapolis

Who's got two thumbs and likes to party? This guy!
(Notice, how every picture I have of him involves a beverage.)

My occasional drinking buddy and often time cancel-er of the fun plans ditched out on me for drinks tonight. He's got to go watch his nieces dance in their recital. What single, bass fishin', basketball playin', Financial type dude does that? Well, he has been with his lovely girlfriend Heidi for quite some time now. She keeps him honest and was the one who helpfully reminded him that he'd committed to being in two places at one time.

To make up for it, he offered to bribe me with free lunch. I should have suggested Vincent, but instead offered up Taste of Thailand. I've been there a few times for lunch before and the food was always yummy. The problem is the service is so bad, it's kind of comical. This visit was no exception.

We arrived at about the same time and were promptly seated. I ordered a Thai iced coffee and he a Diet Coke. We hadn't seen each other for a while and had a lot of catching up to do (and I was mercilessly teasing him about canceling the happy hour.) The waitress came back three times to take our order, but we were too busy gabbing to decide. She brought me back a Thai Iced tea, which was not what I wanted, but I figured - coffee/tea, not a big difference. Suck it up and drink it. It was really watered down and soupy. Not as good as the times I've ordered it previously. Oh, well.

Kro ordered a simple stir fry, veggies and chicken. I ordered number 44, the shrimp in curry sauce on a bed of lettuce. About 10 minutes later Jim's Diet Coke finally showed up. This is when the two server girls seemed to completely lose control of the room. A plate of food came out and was placed at the large table next to us. Then, another. Then they both disappeared into the kitchen. The entire time we were there, I only saw these two young, punkish girls working the entire place, which was pretty full for lunch. Eventually, another plate came out to the big table. I noticed that what they were bringing out to the big table were not appetizers, but entrees.

By now, I'm about ready to gnaw my arm off. I hadn't had much for breakfast and our catching up time had really screwed up our ordering. I need to remember - order first, talk later! When our food did show up, I couldn't believe what I got. It was, in all fairness, exactly what I ordered. 7 shrimps, in curry sauce, on four pieces of wilted iceberg lettuce. I don't know what I was expecting. I guess, for the $12.90 the dish was priced out at, I thought that there'd at least be a bell pepper or something to punch up the food factor. They set down one small ramekin of rice and practically ran away. Jim looked from me to the rice to my plate to the rice again. "Is that supposed to be for you or for me? Because... I could really use more rice than that."

The one girl came out and put down another plate of food at the big table, while I was waving at her. The guy at the end of the table looked at her mournfully. He was the only person who had yet to get any food. About half the people were already done with their lunches. I felt bad for him as the waitress promised she'd get his food and disappeared again.

I went back to eating my shrimps. The stomach growled and rolled over. Jim skewered a broccoli floret and tried not to watch. His abundant bowl just sat there, mocking me.

Eventually, I was able to get us another little bowl of rice and had enough rice to make the growling stop. The tab had been brought to us shortly after our food was laid down, but we'd again been talking too much and missed our opportunity to pay.

When we approached the front of the restaurant, I was wondering why this large group of people was staring at the blank plasma TV on the wall. It was actually that they were mobbing the one poor waitress trying to work the credit card machine. It was like something out of a George Romero movie. I'd already seen one guy just walk out of the restaurant. Another angry customer was waving his bill around, "Could you please just take this? We really have to go. Wait - here's cash."

"That probably won't be any faster. We don't have any change." She took his bill and credit card.

I nudged Jimbo, "You know... We could probably just go..." Honest Abe looked at me. My heart rate picked up. "They'd never know.... We could be at Cold Stone Creamery drowning our despair..." He scowled at me, but I could tell he was considering it. I have only once in my life dined and ditched and it took me about 3 years to get over the guilt. Still, the thrill trickled down the back of my neck. Just then, the other girl popped out of the kitchen and took his card. Dammit!

I watched the guy who was the last to get served at the big table. He was standing at the back of their group, holding a large Styrofoam container. I think I saw a tear in the corner of his eye.

She came back with the check. "So, how was everything?"

Jim said, "Fine."

I said, "You know, I think $12.90 for seven shrimp on a piece of iceberg lettuce seems a bit much. I know you don't have anything to do with that but..."

"Yeah, I'd never served served that before... It looked a little deflated." Jim's pen hovered over the tip line as she stared him down.

"You guys sure seemed busy." I offered.

"Yeah, we really need to get someone else in here. Your service was a little... slow?"

"Yeah, we really have to get back." She was intently watching Jim and sort of leaning over toward him. His hand shook as he finally scribbled down a number and ran out the door.

I was laughing as I caught up with him, "You have to appreciate her tipping technique."

He's so far told at least 7 people about this experience. And, with that giant pissed off mob from table 9, I wonder how much longer this place can limp along? I predict that by the end of the year they'll be forced to close. I would like to think they'll get it together, but there have been problems every single time I've dined there. Oh, well, there's always sword wielding Brazilians next door, happy to serve you.

(Up next, I eat at Fogo de Chao. Will I over load at the salad bar and be too comatose to appreciate the mounds of red meat? Will my trademark clumsiness lead me to being impaled by the Prime Rib server? Can I get through the meal without laughing at the puffy pants? Stay tuned...)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Greatest Lunch of the Year

It's really a crime that I had to work at all yesterday. I haven't even gotten the convertible out for a proper tool around town! Still, dedicated employee that I am, I toiled away at copying competitive ads for a good 8 hours straight. At noon I bounded out the front doors into the glorious sun. I was actually a little warm and wished I hadn't worn my black t-shirt, but instead chosen something a little splashy - a sassy raspberry top with puffy sleeves, or that blouse that looks like Cinco de Mayo threw up on it.

I hiked out of downtown and over to Nordeast where Surdyk's was waiting for me. I picked up some green grapes, Levain bread from Rustica and a French imported brie. I hiked back to a little spot over looking the Mississippi and unwrapped my feast. The luscious brie was oozing over the waxed paper. I the crusty bread exploded as I tore an end hunk off. I dug it into the soft cheese and popped it into my mouth. The slight sourdough tang of the bread melted into the creamy cheese. I followed that with a super sweet grape that burst into my mouth and coaxed just a little more flavor out of the cheese.

Below I watched a Coot and a couple of Woodducks navigate the debris hung up in the fast current. The only thing I was missing to make this the perfect midday meal was that split of champagne.

Monday, April 21, 2008

jP's American Bistro

Remember that thing I said about maybe not moving back to the Minneapple? I think I must have still be drunk from the Mt. Gay tonics, because I went back to Uptown and all I can say is, "Baby! I have missed you." While all my complaints about the traffic and the people volume still stands, it's still true, that no where else feels so much like home in these fair cities. The neighborhood we're in now is safe and thankfully close to Jay's and the Strip Club, but it's not Uptown. There are no facial piercings or Lake of the Isles. There is a shortage of hippies and an over abundance of 4 wheel drive vehicles.

It's a great 'hood - it just doesn't quite fit. Maybe it's just too close to my hometown that I fled after high school. (Because they can't hold me back, man! No one here gets me. I'm outta heeeeere.)

After work on Friday, I hopped the number 4 and headed down Lyndale. I couldn't get over how nice the bus driver was. The seats were comfortable and graffiti free... No one was loudly discussing how that M*tha Effa was gonna get - whatever. It was quiet. It bore no resemblance to my usual bus ride home. There was, however, snarled traffic as we approached Lake Street. It seems as though this construction has been dragging on for eons. The last three blocks could have been walked twice as fast as they were driven.

I happily bounded off the bus and into the lemony exterior that houses jP's American Bistro. Matt grinned at me from the end of the bar and hugged me. The woman next to my stool happily scooted over and welcomed me. Everyone was incredibly friendly and warm. The Merlot covered walls were studded with these gorgeous Impressionistic style paintings. My favorite was one with a sprightly little chickadee. Chickadees remind me of my mom for some reason.

Wise husband that he is, Matt had taken the liberty of ordering their frites. Moments after I ordered my glass of wine a paper cone filled with autumnal colored stips of fried potatoes arrived with a little cup of creamy aioli. The first one I grabbed was about the length of my forearm. I slathered it in garlicky mayo and bit in. I chewed slowly trying to identify that oh, so familiar and sumptuous flavor. Bacon! They tasted faintly... bacony! Incredible. I grabbed another one.

"You know what these taste like?" Matt studied the cone's contents.

"Bacon!" my guttural response as I tried to breathe through my full mouth in a vain attempt to cool them down. Way more than the bacon ketchup at the Strip Club, the flavor combination of the smokey paprika that covered the fries and the abundantly garlicky, eggy, tinged with barely noticeable acid all married together into that whiff of that first dechiperable thing on a Sunday morning. That which draws you from a comfortable slumber that could easily last all day. The memory of mom in her worn robe bending over, Grandma shuffling by or Dad in his saggy whites.

At Matt suggestion, I had ordered the Pinot Noir. Its light berry flavor melded perfectly with the lusty flavors from the fries. The best part about fries at this hour is that they're on the happy hour menu. I ventured a look outside. The spring gray skies hung low over the orange construction barriers and equipment. It's sad to think that patio won't be open any time soon. My gaze moved across the street to the Herkimer. I cursed my small minded stupidity. I've been meaning to get to jP's since they opened. The website now proudly announces they've been here for five years. Five years! Five years! Where have I been wasting my money in all that time? How many times have I sat down inside Herkimer only to be underwhelmed by the food, occasionally satisfied and always desperately trying to remember which beer was the one I hated, but always accidentally ordered. (It's either the brown or the red one.)

All the while, there is this gem with the gorgeous dining room and lovely bar. Friday night, we were sticking to the bar and trying to limit the funds spent. I was throwing a party Sunday for a dear friend of mine, and really wanted to conserve for that. After both digging into an empty paper cup, and furtively licking off salty fingertips we figured we'd better order something else. Even I cannot subsist on French Fries alone.

While we were studying the menu my eye caught the zippy bartender. He was constantly on the move - shaking, delivering, pouring, laughing. He was showily preparing a cocktail for the couple next to us. "This is amazing - you'll love this. I've muddled fresh blueberries, raspberries and strawberries with some mint and a simple syrup." He popped the glass pint glass into the metal base and began shaking vigorously. "Then I added plenty of white rum." He cracked the seal and poured most of the contents into a martini glass and the rest into a low ball. He garnished with mint sprigs. "Here you go." He gave them the martini glass, but slipped us the lowball as he was walking by. I couldn't believe my luck. Complimentary tasting cocktail! Okay! He was right, it was delicious. The berries tasted so fresh, and it wasn't overly minty or overly sweet. I could taste the Bacardi, but just subtly. The entire thing was a sublime summer concoction. I glanced longingly at the street again, vowing the minute the weather turns warm and that construction is gone, I'm setting up residence on their sidewalk.

Another table had ordered the berry mojito and another lowball glass appeared before us. I love this guy! We might have to get him and Dan, my other favorite bartender (well - besides Matt of course) into some kind of a cocktail toss off or something. That turn of phrase doesn't quite work the way I meant it to.

We had ordered jP's rustic pizza with more bacon (because, really, why not) and a cashew currant pesto. Next, I saw the bartender, who I think I caught his name as Jason (either that or Joel), dipping in to what I recognized as a pickle juice jar. I know because my sister and me being pickle fiends, there are often empty jars with mysterious ingredients still floating around in our fridges. Now, a martini glass was placed before us. "This is a sweet and sour martini with Hendrick's gin and just a bit of habinero pickle juice." I think I actually squealed with the delight. The smooth martini taste gave way to the conifer, floral taste of the Hendrick's quickly followed by a soft punch to the back of the palate from the vinegar pepper juice. It was hot, but it was so good. All the ingredients blended softened then sharpened against one another. It wasn't too spicy and nothing was out of balance. I couldn't believe my luck that he was sharing all these treats with us. I wonder if they're about to roll out a new spring cocktail menu or something?

Just then our little pizza arrived. It was happily misshapen and crusty. I took another sip of my martini and dug in. The flavors hummed and then crescendo'ed like a well rehearsed symphony of flavors in my mouth. The low, drumming creaminess of the cooked cashews, the salty, spiked picollo of bacon, the sweet trumpets of pesto and the cymbal crash explosion of each sweet little currant exploding in my mouth. Would it have not been so embarrassing, I would have popped out of my seat into a standing ovation. Bravissimo!

All of this during a busy happy hour and only two tiny courses! Amazing! And yet, the room was so relaxed and comfortable. I could hear the servers asking people if they needed to make it to the show and then swiftly moving along their meals to make the 8 o'clock curtain at the Jungle Theater next door.

I propped myself up on the bar, placing feet on the base of my bar stool and peered into the dining room. Oo, it looked nice. Soft, Meyer lemon lighting and glinting accents. I wanted to go in there. Sadly, we were at the end of the budget. I felt guilty about not paying for more drinks. I vowed we'd be back. It was a promise I had to make myself, before my feet would agree to lead me back outside. I smiled at the chickadee and threw on my jacket before allowing Matt to lead me back.

Monday, April 07, 2008

An Evening with Nellie and Gnocci at The Dakota

My dear Andy - Queen Drrty Martini, went out and had an amazing night at the Dakota and wanted to share:

My turn! I’m finally asking to be a guest blogger for Eating the Minneapple after accompanying Joy on many an adventure…but rarely venturing out on my own for a newsworthy evening of epicurean delight. Last evening, I wasn’t on my own but asked our friend, Eric, if he cared to take in a show by Nellie McKay at The Dakota - the opener of her three-night engagement in Minneapolis. Eric and I have a history of sharing music. We go back farther than many in our group of comrades, somewhat unbeknownst to even ourselves. Only looking back through old pictures from 1993-1995 is it verifiable in concrete evidence that the flashbacks I have of seeing him as a fellow 10th grader in All-State Choir are, indeed, flashbacks and not hallucinations. Then, we (re-)met again in college and sang together in the concert choir (sigh…we’ll always have Europe). I can recall him accompanying me as I feebly sang “The Phantom of the Opera” in a dorm’s common room, now to only be somewhat reenacted when I have too much wine and make him accompany me on “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” a much more pleasant song with which to assault on-listeners.

Back to the point. When attending a Holly Cole concert last month, it was brought to my attention that Nellie McKay was to be gracing the Minneapple with her presence. Excellent! I’d stumbled upon her on a tribute to the 40th Anniversary of the Beatles’ “Rubber Sole,” and have since been delighted by her chanteuse-meets-Broadway style and sound. Even more importantly, though, I was looking to apologize to my palate as I’d shirked eating any food at the Holly Cole concert due to a Diet Night during which I balefully watched plates of appetizers, entrees, and desserts walk past me to other, more deserving (or less stupid) people. Tonight, with Nellie and Eric, I would eat, drink, and be merry.

The Dakota had opened up its entire space for the evening, unlike when we were squished into only half of it for the intimate performance by Holly Cole. I was only able to get us seats in one of the booths near the back of the lower dining room, but we found that they were preferable to the closer-up, but closer-together, tables. We were able to sit back and relax without having to make sure our skewed chairs (for better sight-lines) didn’t make our outer shoulder the next big obstacle for the parade of servers and their steaming dishes. Instead, we only had to worry about getting there before our anonymous booth-buddies in order to get the half of the booth that faces the stage. The unfortunate aspect of going as a twosome to a concert at The Dakota is that if the only tables available are for four, you may find yourself sitting with strangers, which may or may not be savory conditions under which to eat, drink, and be merry. I was hoping that we might end up with a twosome that involved at least one straight, attractive man who likes jazz and food. I can’t complain about how it turned out - our boothmates were no-shows. We had the whole place to ourselves and spread out as our bounty arrived.

The drinks. I’d already perused the drink list while waiting for Eric who was only slightly later than me due to the fact that he scored rock-star parking at a free meter just outside the club. The Minnesota Martini with its Shakers and Alexis Bailley looked delicious, but how could I remain Queen Drrty Martini if I didn’t try one here as well? I ordered mine with Grey Goose (I’ve decided that Ketel One makes them too bitter) and Eric ordered a pomegranate martini which, upon tasting with its sugared rim, was a nice blend of sweet and sour but made me feel slightly sticky the remainder of the evening. The Drrty Martini was fantastic--not too briny or vodka-y--but had only two, empty Spanish olives for garnish. Maybe the ones with pimentos were too expensive, mine were just sad. As we waited for our drinks we studied the menu. It was time for some small dishes and we zeroed in on what we both seemed to be hankering. The server appeared with our drinks and I piped up,

“We’ll take the gnocci...and the fries with béarnaise.”

The server never even flinched but repeated as any good Kindergarten teacher would: “An order of the ‘no-kee’ and fries? Certainly.” I shook my head clear. Did I just order “no-chee?” God, what a gracious man to issue a very gentle correction for which he gained my trust and admiration, (unlike the time my architect-boss ridiculed me for pronouncing the leather furniture line Natuzzi like one would say “Jacuzzi,” rather than as it should be said: “Nah-toot-see.” Can’t we all just agree on our mispronunciations for consistency’s sake?). Eric and I then clarified that we’d rather wait to order so as to enjoy an evening of slow eating to good music…and that we’d decide upon our entrees as we nibbled our fries and “no-kee.”

Nibbling, it was not. Dredging, drooling, scarfing, and swooning ensued. The little brown potato dumplings with black truffle and Pecorino quickly became our shared mistress. The gnocci, chard, and turnip had a buttery texture and nutty flavor…and were smothered in a celery root velouté. Okay, I had to look that up this morning…what was that divine dressing? All became clear when I read its description--velouté is one of the Five Mother Sauces of the French Cuisine. Mon Dieu. Made from a blond roux (I admit, I puff up with pride at the blond reference), this sauce held together the dish without overcoming it like the cheese sauce over hashbrowns at Denny’s. To continue the love affair with our butter-based decadence, at one point we decided to forgo pouring the little creamer-pitcher of béarnaise sauce over our fries, eschewing that technique for just taking a few fries between our fingers, sticking them down the neck of the pitcher, swirling them around, and sending them straight down the gullet. When you’ve got it good, you’ve got it good. If we could’ve decided which one of us would get to lick the pitcher, I’m sure one of us would’ve cast aside decorum for this delicacy.

I should mention the music. As we gobbled our tubers and butter, we had the fortunate opportunity to listen to Nellie’s opening act, The Tropicals, made up of Peter Lawton and Craig Wright. Upon hearing their names, I immediately recalled their performance with Dan Wilson on the CD “Dan Wilson Live @ the CCC,” and a smile crossed my face. Any guys who sing the song “The King of the Yellow Butterflies” were friends o’ mine. I admit that our lack of seeing each other recently meant Eric and I chatted a bit too much during their act, but I’d like to think that we were able to coexist in harmony with our surroundings.

We ordered our entrees with a bottle of Rex Goliath Pinot Noir. Eric ordered the Cobb Salad Burger with bacon, avocado, hard-boiled egg, blue cheese, and some sort of chutney. I decided to get the chef’s special, a beef steak that was coated in a bourbon reduction, and accompanied by a fresh salad and sweet potatoes. We received our wine and entrees during the lull between the opening and main acts. Perfect. We were able to munch and discuss without missing or disrupting the show. Eric’s burger was topless (I didn’t think The Dakota was that kind of place). No top half of the bun only two onion rings as a crown. Interesting. Since we were going halfsies on the entrees, I tasted one of the rings. Sigh. They were a disappointment. Onion rings are sacred and these were blasphemous. Why? It was encrusted in cornmeal…without seasoning or much of a sense of moisture. It was like an Ore-Ida baked onion ring, but not even. Hmm. Suspect. Well, there were only two of them so fifty percent of the offense had disappeared. Eric could fend for himself against the other ring. The Cobb Salad portion of the burger was excellent--almost like a sweet salsa, with bacon and avocado interspersed but not overwhelmed. I took pause, though, when I sliced through the patty and saw red…literally, but not figuratively. I was a little taken aback that “medium” was a deep shade of pink. Thankfully, the low lighting helped to pull the wool over my eyes and I ate what I normally would not--red red meat. Eh, it was worth it. Even Eric thought it was a bit too pink to be considered medium, but we enjoyed the burger nonetheless. *

My slab of beef, on the other hand, was surprising. Perhaps it was too thin of a cut to be ordered medium-well, as it was a little tough.** The sauce had a kick to it, not in a bad way…but in an Andy Way as my Scandinavian taste buds were left somewhat shell-shocked. Good glazing, good flavors, deep and rich and spicy. Not to be left out was the side of al dente grated sweet potatoes with singed edges and their own hint of heat. As reprieve, the fresh side salad of arugula, vinaigrette, and what I believe to have been white cheddar chunks and crisped pancetta flakes was perfection.

Nellie took the stage as Eric had finished his half-bunned burger and I was mopping up the sauce of the steak. Coffee and dessert were in order and we were going to sit back and enjoy the show. The last time I was at The Dakota for the Holly Cole show, my friend ordered the Fallen Chocolate Chestnut Souffle, but rued the fact that she didn’t get the cheesecake with pistachios, white chocolate, and red wine pear compote. So, we made sure to get that last night--I needed closure. The cheesecake was creamy and not too sweet. The pistachios were toasted slightly, and the presentation was punctuated by a nest of spun sugar that was a playful distraction for the two of us. Nellie’s sweet sounds paired with this sweet dish made for a sublime time, though she punctuated her performance with political jabs that rivaled the sour ting of the pears. Particularly of note was her rendition of “Zombie Walk” during which she portrayed the different political candidates as zombies. She’s quirky, but dead-on as far as commentary is concerned. No complaints here, other than that I should pay more heed to the coffee-slurp-to-forthcoming-one-liner forecasting.

All in all, the company was stupendous, the food was wonderful, the service was perfect, and the ambiance was enchanting…much like the chanteuse, herself. Hopefully, our forthcoming evening at Brasa before the Jesse Mallin concert on Thursday will be just as pleasing.***

*JoyEstelle - I'd just like to say that the meat's requested doneness by our guest blogger has no relation to how I believe a proper burger should be ordered.

** Trying not to be sarcastic, but yes, I think you may have stumbled on what happened there.

*** I can't believe you're going to Brasa without me! I expect another post. Thank you so much for sharing. Sounds like a wonderful night!