Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Brasa in Northeast

This is my bonus Mama, also known as Matt's very own mother. As you can clearly see from this picture, the woman is awesome. She and Matt absconded with me around 11:30 and headed to Nordeast. Many times I've eyed the bright yellow Brasa sign, but had never had a chance to go in.
We were the first group for lunch and able to score the best table outside. It was shaded with a faint breeze whispering through the trees above us. We were eager and I was starving.

The way the menu is set up, you order an amount of meat (Quarter/Half/Pound)and however many sides you wish (sizes of sides feed either 1 - 2 or 3 - 4 people.) There are sandwich options, but wanting to maximize the food I could taste, we went for the meat and pick the sides option. Ever the democratic group we each ordered a different meat and agreed to share with the table. I called chicken because there was no way I was sharing any crispy skin with anyone. Matt got the beef and Carol got the pork.

I'm very thankful for the glorious day and the opportunity to fully catch up with Carol, but my Lord did that food take forever. All the other tables that were seated after us were served before our plates finally arrived (considering the short menu list, I really don't get how we were last.)

Our first arrival was my chicken.

(Guess who finally remembered her real camera?)

I ripped all the skin off the thigh and stuffed it into my mouth. Herbs sang past my tonsils and down to the gullet. Smokey paprika and thyme partied hardy with the succulent juices dripped off the edges. I stabbed at the potato salad that was the special side of the day, creamy and studded with hard boiled eggs.

I'd also ordered one of the corn cakes. It was so lightly sweet, dressed in shiny honey butter and flecked with corn kernels. The texture was crumbly soft and surprisingly moist. It was like an early dessert that came to hang with the rest of the meal.

Matt's beef arrived next.

This wasn't an easy picture to snag - he wouldn't get his hands out of the shot, immediately shoving the fried yucca into his mouth. They were like a modified French Fry. Crispy on the outside, downy on the inside.

He'd also requested a little fried masa cake. We've been enjoying the fried masa goodness so much at Los Ocampos lately. It was toasted all around, but still soft and warm inside. The firey sauce that topped the masa crackled on my taste buds and punched his poor mother in the mouth, "It's not that hot," he lied.

The meat was smokey and zingy as well. It was tender, falling apart and dripped with sauce. Smokey in a Mexican flavored barbecue kind of a way. The creamy cilantro dipping sauce worked equally well for the fried yucca and my chicken.

Carol's pork arrived just after Matt's beef. She'd chosen yellow rice and beans as her side. The pork was husky and tender, incredibly moist. The rice and beans were sophistication and comfort, simplicity and brilliance. By tasting exactly like wonderful dense black beans and fluffy rice the flavor was what I always read the great chefs strive for - incredible simplicity raised to greatness because of the caliber of the ingredients.

My fork darted from beef to yucca to chicken over to the rice. I was eager to have more of each flavor, floored by the straight forward flavors and the gluttonous harmony they created. Building, racing, stretching until my stomach hit the crescendo like the height of A Day in the Life by the Beatles.

I picked away at my half eaten muffin. Sweet low final note. Satisfied and refreshed for my work afternoon we tried to flag down the waitress for the check. We wouldn't see her again for another 20 minutes and although Matt's iced tea was said to come with free refills, he never got a one.

Everything we found on the menu was sourced locally, from the butter to the meats. The freshness was apparent. Like the ability to taste the soil that encourages the grape in a great wine, each bite was Southern inspiration, but still reminded me of the wild woods smell of the forest where I grew up, the lapping waves and late night warm winds carrying loon calls. Everything tasted like home, but better.

Once we had finally settled up we'd been at the restaurant for over an hour. As much as I enjoyed the flavors, I think the service might have been a little better. It's not the sort of day that should be hurried, either. The bit of humidity softly brushed the back of our necks, while the occasional breeze eased the heat. It would have been a wonderful afternoon to sit back and enjoy all day, but not me. Oh, no. Unlike some people I know who are retired or on summer break, I've got a job to do. So, sadly, and eventually, I made it back to the office still humming.

Fresh From Your Grocer's Freezer Isle!

Bulldog NE - we need to talk.

Okay, I know that things have settled into a nice pattern of business for you. The kids are pouring in on Fridays and Saturdays and you're getting a decent happy hour business from nearby workers. Maybe it's not necessary to try to tinker with good ol' bar food any more. I know that the original menu seemed to push the idea that straight up burgers and fries could be brought to new heights by tweaking ingredients and playing with expectations. And, boy, that was fun wasn't it?

But now, that crazy mustard spouting chef that started it all has been gone for a while and the new hot spot shine has worn to a comfortable glow. Why not just sit back and bask in the consistent business? I understand - innovation is hard work. You're exhausted. Here, have a seat. I get it, I feel you, but I need you to hear something.

When I order the black bean burger, I do not think that it's acceptable to give me Morning Star Farms® Spicy Black Bean Burger with a Sriracha mayo, a handful of sprouts and a mealy pink tomato. Why I expected that the vegetarian burger would be house made, I don't know. What says dining experience better than being served something that could be microwaved at home in under two minutes? Worse, I get the truffled tots which arrive with no truffle oil. So, basically I just got a meal that I could have made at home for about $1.95 and am being charged $10 plus tax and tip? Don't you think that's just a wee bit lazy, Dog? Yet, somehow, I can't entirely blame you because I'm the idiot that's still coming here after numerous mediocre visits.

And while I've got you here, that bacon you're putting on top of those burgers? Yeah, don't. No. Seriously, bacon should never taste like someone accidentally dumped an entire bottle of liquid smoke over it. I love bacon - bacon is love and you've ruined it for me! That's why I didn't order the usual Junk burger in the first place. That bacon tastes like plant processed burnt leather!

So, I'm gonna give it straight to you. Either get a real chef back into that kitchen or drop the act that this is a real restaurant anymore. It's a bar that serves bar food. Haul out the Heggie's pizzas and call it a day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nibbles at Salut

Sunday arrived as unsure as the weather. It had been a weird weekend. Matt worked Friday and Saturday nights. I'd gotten to spend some really great time with Laura, but missed my usual partner in gross misdemeanors. Because we only had this one day to cram all our fun into, we couldn't figure out what to do.

One minute, it would be raining and gray outside, then the clouds would break and there was a glorious summer day. Soon, the wind would pick up, the sun would disappear and the fat droplets would explode on the sidewalk.

We eventually cleaned the house and made up errands to run - FUN. Stupid being a grown up and the stupid stuff to keep ones house from descending into hovel-like conditions.

Around 2:30 I decided we needed to capre some part of this diem before I had to return to cube life the next morning. I knew that the new Salut had opened up on Monday and figured that now was as good a time as any to scope it out.

The patio that had once been Sydney's faded '80's color was now surrounded by a tall wooden fence and populated with tables. They looked inviting, but there was the random rain thing to consider. We walked inside. The hostess and waitress guarding the podium had a very lengthy discussion on where to put us before sending us to a nice little table at the edge of the wall that opened up to the patio. It was wonderful to be able to enjoy the warm air.

There was a gaggle of servers lounging in the booth across from us. Reluctantly, they left their spot to get back to work. It must have been a slow afternoon.

We decided to order a small plate of the mussels and the pommes frites. They boldly advertise that they were elected the best fries in the cities. Well, we'd see about that!

More appetizing than the food menu is the drink menu. There were so many delicious sounding options. So, because it was a special Sunday and because this was the closest thing to a date I was going to get out of the weekend, I ordered a specialty drink. Our waitress, who was wonderful, quickly brought it over to me. It was fruity without being cloying and boozy without knocking me on my rear. It was Currant liquor and fresh juice and for the life of me, I can't remember the cutsie name given to it. We sipped out of our two straws, the adult version of a milkshake date.

The fries arrived with a frothy side of Bearnaise sauce. The mussels were steaming, wafting a luxurious roasted garlic and fennel perfume. They were tiny little guys and so succulent. Our waitress brought us more bread for the wine wine sauce at the bottom of the plate. Sadly, there was very little of it. Smearing the roasted garlic on the baguette helped ease my disappointment.

The fries were tasty and fresh. The Bearnaise was brightly acidic and lusciously downy from the butter. I wouldn't say that they are the absolute best fries in the cities (that has to be jP's) but I would say they are the best fries on Grand Avenue.
I'm thrilled that the new Salut is here. The bar space is much more open than the Minneapolis version and all that outdoor seating is going to be lovely in this warmer months. I've long lamented that there weren't any restaurants that I loved on Grand. What is there has always felt a little homogenised to me - even though, I know, most are not big chains and this restaurant is brought to us by the Parasole group. Still, it feels different and very right for this area. The prices are a little out of my dinner range, but so are a lot of things on Crocus Hill.
Just then the sky opened up again and all the poor suckers seated out on the patio got drenched. Ha! It's good to feel superior. I sipped by boat drink and hummed Foux du Fafa.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sweet Summer Getaway

The rains seem to have finally lessened and the sky opens up blue and bright these days. I think it's safe to say that Minnesota has finally reached summer, or at least the close approximation of warmer months here that pass from gorgeous, mosquito drenched to unbearable humidity. These past few days, though? It's been breathtaking. There are these cardinals that have been hanging out around my house and every morning I wake up to hear them calling to one another. I'm so thankful not to have to worry about warming up my car, or getting that squeaky windshield wiper replaced. I simply don my new Marc Jacobs sunglasses and glide outside. (Currently obsessed with these ridiculous glasses. I stalked them at Marshall's for about a month before the price finally dropped to something more reasonable than $120. Mwa ha!)

Despite the soaring gas prices, I can't just let that car of mine sit unattended in the garage, we had to take her out for the first no destination summer drive. I clenched my jaw and hummed my I'm-Getting-Away-With-Something tune (Doo, doo, doot, do dooo) and filled up the tank. It still cost slightly less than the sunglasses.

We had the top down, my tresses tamed by an old floral scarf and Matt's nose slathered in SPF 35. We took Hwy 55 out and eventually turned the car towards Red Wing. It was late afternoon and our stomachs started to rumble. Matt knew the perfect spot to go. He'd once been home on a summer afternoon watching the Food Network when he saw this place on a food destinations show. He's immediately gotten in the car to go investigate. We've been back a couple of times since and it is such great discovery.

What you do is drive through historic downtown Red Wing and take the Wisconsin turn. The minute you get over that bridge, hang a left (follow the bikers.) There's a sign for a Fireworks stand that has since relocated. You twist and turn down the short, swampy road and arrive at the Harbor Bar. It a decent dive inside, lots of space and rocking Aerosmith tunes, but outside is where the party is at.

There's a dock out back and it's right next to a camp ground, so the atmosphere is very come as you are. There are hammocks and hanging chairs for seating and a glorious view of downtown Red Wing, just across the river. Reggae music pulses through the air and soon you find yourself feeling down right irie.

I took a seat in a brightly painted chair while Matt bellied up to the bar to order us a couple of drinks. I looked to the big grill where there is usually a one legged Jamaican guy tending the meat. "What do you want?" Matt asked.

"Summer Shandy," I responded. I'd gone back to the Leinenkugel's brewery in Chippewa Falls in mid-May and found that they do make one variety of beer that I find tolerable. I thought it might be a nice summer drink.

"No, no, that's okay - that's okay - no - really..." I looked over at Matt who was waving his hands around. Standing up a bit, I was horrified to realize that the one legged man was actually the one tending bar. Here he was upended at the back of the bar, digging under boxes and boxes of beer cans to try to find my request. Matt finally convinced him that we'd be fine with two waters and came back to the table. I guiltily sipped from my plastic cup.

A waitress approached us with some menus. For me, there was no doubt what I would be ordering. With the mouth watering smells wafting off of the grill, how could I order anything but the jerk chicken? Matt got the steamed grouper, touted as a Jamaican specialty. When the waitress came back I requested a Blue Moon, since that was listed on the menu as a beer option. I wasn't going to puff a fattie, but felt that there needed to be some sort of imbibing to properly appreciate this summer locale.

She granted my request and I leaned back and put my feet up, soaking in the sun. Kids were running around, playing and the adults were leisurely sipping their afternoon drinks. Every so often the whirr of the blender would break the easy lull. Nothing like a long drive to a slow moving destination to allow for the proper appreciation of a summer afternoon.
Then, our food arrived:

I had a whole half a chicken doused in their Jerk sauce accompanied by red beans and rice and a cabbage side. Matt's grouper was covered in what he called a Jamaican Gihardinara. There were all matter of peppers, veggies and incredible flavor. It punched up the fairly boring slab of fish that lay beneath it.

My chicken was a wonderful combination of sweet, savory and spicy. The blackened skin sang from the earthy coals that it had crisped it into oblivion. The tender meat, slightly pinked tinged from the long, slow roast just fell off the bone. It would have been a little dry, were it not for the extra swab of Jerk slathered over the top.

While I can't go so far as to say it's the best jerk you can get around here (that honor goes to Toney at the Whistling Bird in of all places, Gilbert, MN.)

It was, however, the furthest I've ever gone after only having been in the car for around an hour. We talked about maybe, one of these days, taking a vacation down to the Florida Keys. We've never really gone on a real vacation, out of state, involving an airplane together. Maybe we could go to the Hemingway house and see the cats.

Knowing the likelihood of this happening, I starting musing, instead that we need more destination dining options. We have road tripped to the Monarch just for one of their fabulous burgers and would drive up and back to Duluth were it not for the fact that my family is there and I can't just dine and ditch. These gas prices are kind of difficult to manage, but who knows how many of these glorious sunny days that I'm going to get before either my convertible dies (it is a Volkswagen) or the weather craps out on me again?

Bellies full, fingers licked and sunscreen depleting, we climbed back into the car and pointed it Northeastern, we had some back country Wisconsin roads to traverse and only so much sun left in the day.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Sea Salt Eatery by Minnehaha Falls

What a glorious weekend. The sun was shining, the temperatures finally felt like summer is a possibility and I got to spend some time with my favorite dining companion. Matt & I had not seen each other conscious for three days straight. I did get a nice, quick dinner at the Strip Club in last Tuesday, but that was about it for together time. Once Saturday rolled around I was just dying to see him smile at me.

We spent a lot of the day driving around in the convertible and beaming at each other. For dinner, we decided to give Sea Salt another try. We'd been there for lunch over Memorial Day weekend and it was nice, if crazy busy. The food had been good and the atmosphere couldn't be beat. That had been mid-day on a Friday, though. I was worried about attempting to find a table on a Saturday night on a gorgeous early summer day.

There was a long line snaking through the restaurant interior. Rolling Stone's Hot Rocks was blaring and a few ladies couldn't help but shake their hips to Jumpin' Jack Flash as they waited for their turn to order. We ordered a pitcher of Bell's Oberon, a crawfish po' boy, the crab roll (a special that night) and two oysters on the half shell.

Matt carried the beer as we set out to find a place to land. At the front of the building a man was setting up a mic and a guitar who soon broke into Neil Diamond cover songs. We wandered over to the side of the building where there were many tables with no chairs. Every available space was occupied by young families. The little kids were all so cute in their baby Tevas or Crocs. I pointed to a bench and suggested that we just hang out and watch for a table. One couple and their baby girl were just digging in to their food. I doubted that they'd linger, and hoped we'd get a table in time for our feast.

There was this long haired guy in front of us selling hammocks that looked suspiciously unsteady. "You want a seater or a layer?" he asked the guy that approached him. We watched as his wife convinced him to sit in the display model. He promptly freaked out as the guy helped wrap him in the flimsy material. "Wait, wait, feet first, don't fall dude." The guy was extracted, his wife barely containing her smile. She gestured for him to try the "layer." As he sat down is sank nearly to the ground.

"Man, does that look uncomfortable," I noted. His wife was openly laughing at him now. Needless to say, the poor hippie guy didn't close the deal.

There was a distant wail of storm sirens. "Oh, far out. Here comes the weather!" He smiled at us, "Drippity drop - drippity drop!" He began to disassemble his operation.
It was hard to believe that there was weater coming in. The skies were still bright and sunny and a slight breeze licked our bare toes.

The young couple had just finished their food and were packing up. I asked if they minded if we moved to their table, just as our food had arrived. I realized that the breeze had stopped. Maybe there was something to this rain business after all. I looked up over the pavilion. Brooding gray cloud chugged up behind it. We had to eat fast.
We dabbed the oysters with a little horseradish and a bit of their cocktail sauce and slurped them down. They were huge - way too big to just take in one bite, but that was just fine. They were tender and salty as the sea. The fresh taste was like no other oyster I've ever attempted to eat here in the Midwest.

I greedily dug into my po' boy. The roll was toasted on the grill, charred and crusty. The sweet, tender fried crawfish were splashed with a bit of hot sauce (I added a little more.) The spicy tang, mellowed against the crisp greens, juicy tomato and creamy mayo - the whole thing pounded out a little Zydeco in my mouth. I couldn't believe how much flavor those little bugs held even after being fried and competing against all those other flavors.

Matt's crab roll was good - but my sandwich was better. It was big enough for two, so we shared it. The shrimp remolade salad that I'd had on our other visit was also good - but just nothing compared to this po' boy.

The clouds were tumbling in as we finished the sandwich. We grabbed our pitcher and glasses and headed back to our bench as the storm broke. Fat raindrops exploded onto the washed out wood on the deck. Soon there were mud puddles and gushing streams of water pouring down from the gutters. It wasn't windy, so we were able to just sit there, sip our beers and enjoy the weather. A couple of little girls kept running up to the edge, splashing, getting their hair wet before squealing and running back to their mothers.

Soon, the clouds broke and the sun began shining. The rain didn't let up, though. There was a rainbow over the park and we were treated to a sun storm.
Eventually the clouds drifted away and the raindrops shrank in size before ceasing to fall. Trees shook remaining droplets onto the pavement. People spilled out of the shelter and danced in the early evening sunshine.