Friday, June 25, 2010

Chef Shack @ Mill City Farmer's Market

On a recent gray Saturday, I made my way over to the Mill City Farmer's Market. Parked fifteen miles away and still at a meter, I was starving by the time I met Eric there.

Yeah, he was excited, too. And hungry. We tried hunting around for ingredients, duck eggs, lamb steaks, beautiful goat cheeses and early pinky green strawberries with grumbly tummies. We couldn't ignore the half mile long line in front of the Chef Shack
. I'd been looking forward to trying their food after reading a bunch of their positive press in the local media.

(this lady only looks cranky because she isn't eating donuts.)

Like little kids at the county fair, we discussed the various menu options and our best strategy, convinced we were starving enough to eat it all. The benefit of the long line was that we had the chance to watch everyone else walking past us with their steamy treats. A young girl clutched her paper boat captained by a soft shell crab and asked her mom, "What is that?" pointing at a little green curly hat perched on what used to be his little crabby head. Her mother's brow furrowed, "I'm not sure honey." I had to hold my hand down to keep myself from shaking it around in the air, jumping up and down, "I know! I know! I know! FIDDLEHEAD FERN!!"

We decided we must get one. We'd get the nachos, soft shell crab sandwich and the donuts. I could smell the sugary, fried little nuggets beckoning us like the tickle of a little crab claw under my nostrils. Must.Have.DONUTS.

We got our food and sought shelter from the spitting rain under the long, blue arm of the Guthrie theater. The nachos were dressed with smokey pulled pork, vibrant tomato salsa, black beans and creamy luscious guacamole. The chips were warm and crispy. I shoveled a couple into my mouth before making a greasy fingered grab at Eric's sandwich.

This was a little piece of heaven on a bun. The crab actually tasted crabby. We both marveled, realizing that we'd never actually had a soft shell crab that we really liked before. Usually, they're difficult to eat, greasy, gritty with cornmeal, or a soggy disappointing heap. Often, the most appealing this is attempting to gross out your dining companions by eating something so similar to a giant sea insect. (I get the same effect by eating calamari when out with my friend Andy, and making the little tentacled bits dance on the edge of her plate. It's a wonder I have friends.) This was the antithesis. The crab was lightly battered, crispy and tasting of fresh sea water - jolted to life with the zing of the pickled ramp tartar sauce. The grilled fiddleheads were a grassy, earthy flavor anchor. The charred fresh bread was crispy on the outside, plush on the inside. It was pretty much the ideal sandwich. Eric had to yank it back before I finished it off.

Then we got going on the donuts and that was pretty much the end of me. I couldn't talk or function properly until the bag was empty, drained of all donuts and the sugary coating leftover at the bottom. They were sweet, cardamomy (one of my favorite spices) and with just enough salt on them to ensure that they are utterly addicting. We ate the whole bag and had to get in line for more. They were fried crisp, crunchy and irregularly shaped, encapsulating the just sweet enough dough and kissed with the crackly sugar, spice salt mixture. Hot, fresh and wonderful.

I couldn't even tell if the rain was still falling. I was sucking on the wax paper bag when Eric jumped up, like being suddenly awakened from a wonderful dream. "Meter! I'm 10 minutes late!" We raced back to our respective cars. Well, I'm assuming he raced. I trotted for a bit before giving up. I am not a runner. I shambled up to my car, now sporting a soggy white envelope tucked under the wiper. I was still on such a happy food high, the $40 ticket didn't even phase me. I carefully licked my fingers again before touching the offensive little spitwad and chucking it onto the floor of the car. I closed my eyes and went to my happy place full of jaunty little crab sandwiches and dancing donuts.

I've since been following Chef Shack on Facebook and was delighted to see that they've been approved for serving food on the streets of Minneapolis. Follow them and find out where they're headed next - either to 5th & Hennipen on Monday, today at MPR, tomorrow at Mill City - just do it! You'll thank me. I'll happily except all kisses of gratitude in the form of little fried circles of spicy sweet yum yums.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Heartland on St. Clair

It's the end of an era for Heartland restaurant. On Sunday, they'll be closing their current location before opening an incredibly ambitious new operation down in Lowertown. I've heard some comments about chef Lenny Russo's possible insanity relating to the move - the overhead! The non-existent St. Paul foot traffic! Fhima! To that I say, if anyone can do it, it's this guy. Who would have ever thought the restaurant, tucked into the Mac Groveland neighborhood at a relatively quiet intersection would ever draw a fine dining crowd? He did. And he was right.

I have to admit, I've never eaten on the fine dining side of the restaurant. The prices and pressure to actually order two entrees is too great for me. I've always loved grabbing a stool in the often crowded, hallway-like wine bar next door. This is where I found out my friend Eric was getting married - that was a great night. I almost fell off my barstool with excitement. Then he surprised me with a bunch of spices that he'd brought me back from overseas. Love that man.

This is where Matt & I have celebrated our anniversary and any special "whoa, we actually have a little bit of money" occasion. So, fresh from his first paycheck at his shiny new REAL job (where he doesn't, not ever, have to crack open a cheap bottle of beer for anyone.) We went one last time to say goodbye.

I'd expected them to be packed with sentimental well wishers like me, but they were actually pretty quiet. Then again, it was 6:30pm on a Wednesday night. Not exactly a hip hour to be dining. I never claimed to be hip - just mildly delusional in a way that some people find kind of cool.

I ordered the pinot noir, he got a Schell's and we tucked into the menu. There was a lot of pointing and gasping with delight. One of the things I love about eating at Heartland is the experience of it. I've ordered things I never would have thought I'd consider eating before, but I put my trust in Russo and his staff. They churn out the weirdly wonderful.

The amuse we were served was a tiny cup of asparagus and fresh peas tossed in a horseradishy dressing.

The flavor was pretty strong to start out the meal with, but we still ate it all.

The little bread served looked like a little football and was made with wild rice flour. It was also just about as tender as a pigskin, but the inside flavor was deliciously sourdough-y. I think it would have been wonderful smeared with butter, but Matt ate it all. Cause he's a big jerk.

I comforted myself with the cheese tray, which I didn't have a chance to take a picture of. Suffice it to say, it was cheese, on a plate, and somehow in this lighting it would have come out looking like some kind of blurry, drunk valentine postcard for Wisconsin. (Honestly, I don't know what the lighting does to my camera.)

Because it was a special event, and because the bartender gave us the dining menu, we went off course. Usually, we'd be splitting a bit of house made lovely from the charcuterie section of the menu, but on this night we actually ordered an entree. We got the lamb chops with caramelized shallots and ramp mashed potatoes. (And can I just say that ramps are the new greatest thing ever? The last three years I've become one of those swooning, tooting converts, scouring farmer's markets for these little harbingers of spring? The oniony/garlicky flavor is incredible! And they're so versatile. Plus, there's the added living on the edge danger where if you eat too many, you get the winds something fierce. As a lady, this is something I've never had to endure, but it's always, always funny when it happens to Matt. Unless I'm stuck in the passenger seat of the car with the windows rolled up. That isn't very funny at all. See? Big jerk.)

The chops were cooked a perfectly pinky medium rare and the mashed potatoes with the sugary, rich shallots were just incredible. It was so velvety and rich, an incredibly decadent, almost desserty style entree. I licked the plate. Hand to God, I did. I had to! It was that good, and heaven only knows when I'll have a chance to eat this food again!

To balance my sweet entree, I ordered the most meaty sounding of the desserts. Matt had a chocolate marquis that was just... yum. It was so good. I had a spice cake that was just a little bizarre, but that's half the fun of eating here. The bartender confirmed that the pastry chef, is a little nuts. I love that. My Rhubarb-mustard seed spice cake with ginger anglaise, barley malt glazed black walnuts and wild grape-high bush cranberry jelly was insane. The cake was zingy and spicy. The walnuts? Were footy. They were really... challenging. The ginger anglaise however was just incredible, subtly sweet and a smooth, coolness that harmonizes with the zing-zang-POW of the cake.

It was so much fun. Looking around the room I wondered what would stay and what would go. Personally, I'm hoping the 80's inspired wallpaper border around the room dies a slow and tacky death. The wonderful wine, amazing service and inspired food is what I look forward to seeing again, once they're settled in Lowertown.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Coffee News

I love it when stumble upon a little gold star menu item in a place I'd never expect. Coffee News is a cute cafe over by the Macalester campus off Grand Ave in St. Paul. It's great for coffee (no surprise there - try the iced Chai) and a neighborhood stop for good breakfast. What you wouldn't expect is that they serve one of the best fish n chips platters in the Twin Cities.

It's long been our secret lunch spot. When classes are out, there is plenty of seating inside and out on the busy sidewalk. Matt has always gotten either the hummus platter or the fish n chips. I've not been nearly so loyal with my choices and usually flit around the menu like a bored hummingbird, until finally, he insisted I try the fish.

I'm loathe to admit that I'm not a big fish person. It would seem to me that someone who grew up on a lake would somewhere along the way have learned to love a fish or three, but no. Except for a brief, youthful love affair with the Gorton's Fisherman, I'm just never been able to get down with my finned friends. They're usually too... fishy. This dish, this one right here, is my exception. It's amazing. Unlike a traditional fish n chips platter this is made with catfish, breaded in nuts and panko and quickly fried so that there is no trace of oil. Not only is the dish not overly fishy, or at all greasy - it's highly flavored. The superb crunch of the nuts and crispity bread crumbs burst around the flaky, tender fish fillets. The caper and cornichon flecked tartar sauce is good, but wholly unnecessarily. In fact, for me that's usually just an extra condiment for the fries.

Oh, man, I haven't even told you about the fries yet! Hold onto your hats, kids, because these are possibly some of the best around. Really. That rumor about the killer fries at Salut? Lies. Totally. These are freshly fried potatoes that they then sprinkle with freshly minced garlic before serving. Granted, sometimes they can be a little snarky, not fit for Twilight fans, garlicky. Usually, though they are highly addictive. I remember when I introduced my friend Heather to these puppies she quickly went from, "Sure! I'll share with you!" To, "Oh my gosh - I can't believe I ate them all." She did. She ate them all. I held it against her for moments. (Bad share-er!)

Now is the perfect time to go check this out. The kids are gone, the sun is shining and I'm sure there's room outside for you to loll away what should have been a working afternoon, munching hot garlic fries and unbelievably good fish.