December 28, 2008
It’s me, home again from a trip to Milwaukee for Christmas. It was fun, and perhaps this is a good place to share one of my favorite memories. My mom, a quirky woman who doesn’t cook that often (but does a fine job when she does), made a roast of some kind to serve to my brother and me on Christmas Eve. Along with it, she served store-bought au jus, which was way too salty, but afforded me this adorable moment.
Passing me the au jus, mom said, “Darling, did you want the du jour?”
I mentioned the right phrase to use and talked about how it’s weird that Americans have appropriated French prepositional phrases as nouns into our culinary lexicon. To this, my brother kind of grunted/smirked at me and said, “Yeah, that’s what I was just about to say.”
In my free time after Christmas, I met two dear friends for a few drinks downtown. Kallie and Shawn are Milwaukeeans who live in New York, which is perhaps subconsciously why I suggested Elsa’s on the Park, as the Elsa’s people also own the equally fabulous Bar 89 in Soho (pictured on the right).
I have always loved this Milwaukee–Soho connection. Elsa’s and Bar 89 share a contemporary industrial vibe and a menu chock full of creative, never-pretentious burgers, chicken, pork, sandwiches, and salads. It’s as though the same lively party is going on simultaneously in Milwaukee and Manhattan. For a girl who started in one and aspired to the next, I always like to be reminded of how seamless these two restaurants are.
There’s two other distinctive traits these restaurants are individually known for. For better or worse, Bar 89 is remembered far and wide because of the loo. Everyone knows that if you are 1.) in Manhattan and 2.) want to take a memorable pee, you go to Bar 89 on Mercer. On the second floor, overlooking the open dining area, is a wall of bathrooms with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that fog up only after you step inside and close the door.
And for Elsa’s? This place is remembered far and wide for its diversity. Everyone knows that if you are 1.) in Milwaukee and 2.) craving lively and colorful camaraderie, you go to Elsa’s. One review called it “the UN” of restaurants. This picture was taken at 7, when the bar was almost full of cable-knit sweaters, long-sleeve denim shirts, and jeans (and apparently, lots of white people). By the time we left, every table, corner, hallway, and standing area was stuffed with people of every stripe, color, and fashion statement. I noted how rare it is that I get to eat dinner next to two black guys wearing full-length fur coats and heavy gold bling bling around their neck, and marveled at how any one restaurant could be so casual and fabulous all at the same time.
We weren’t there for entrees, so we shared water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and this salad. I’m pretty sure it was called Greens N’ Galette, but what’s galette about this? In any case, these flatbreads were covered with olives and bacon, the bacon was served with honey dipping sauce, and it was all so delicious followed by a glass of wine and lots of catching up with my pals.
The best part about this all? The smart people behind Elsa’s and Bar 89 also own Kopp’s Frozen Custard, which means the burgers and fries are always amazing. These restaurants are essentially two of the swankiest casual burger joints I know.
December 19, 2008
Given that I am a foodbuzz featured writer, I entered something foodbuzz calls simply “24, 24, 24.” It’s an event in which 24 bloggers produce 24 meals all within the same 24 hours anywhere around the world. The best part about it? Foodbuzz is the virtual host, so they pay for the event (with a cap, of course).
To be considered, bloggers pitched their best ideas for “the most creative way to honor 2008″ and promised to write a great post about it. Based upon the fine merits of my proposal (ahem, tossed together at the brink of the deadline), I was chosen as one of the 24 bloggers. That means that I get reimbursed to throw a party. Yes, I believe you heard that right. We eat and be merry — and foodbuzz pays for it.
With a little help from my friends (hats off to Aaron and his admirable ecofootprint), I turned our event into a challenge. I proposed a “Minnesota Chic” New Year’s Eve party showcasing as many local foods as possible — which of course might get a bit hairy here in the heart of winter. Local food, local music, and local booze — all with my favorite local peeps around me to kick off 2009.
We have quite a few ideas brewing, including a Minne-tini (Peace Coffee and Shakers vodka), risotto, soup, and trout from Star Prairie. Bread from Rustica. Tortillas from La Perla. Who knows, really. The menu is up in the air until I gather some more information.
For now, please let me know if you have any ideas to help this night take shape. I’m defining “local” in a very lofty way for the evening — as thoroughly Minnesota as possible. What local products do you love? Where will I get the grains? What dairy farmers are still cranking in this deep snow? What producers are distributing frozen produce from the growing season? What local companies have products you are proud of?
Also, if you are a local eco-foodie, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be invited.
December 14, 2008
Before the rain that spat on us today started to turn into ice and make the sidewalks impossible to walk on, there was plenty of time to take advantage of the day. I had to pick up the MFK Fisher books I had on hold at the library, get groceries, exercise, and generally get stuff done. (Speaking of practical, er, not, don’t ask me how I managed to have an eight-dollar cup of coffee downtown last night.) This particular Sunday was brought to you by…
Dunn Brothers on Grand and Snelling
If I’m on my way home from the gym or if Nina’s is feeling a little too genteel, I love to grab a seat at Dunn Brothers on Grand near St. Thomas. It has a great vibe and is probably the most social coffee shop in the area. Aside from the main counter, there is also a designated bean counter and cashier in the back of the store who packages up fresh pounds of coffee at your command. In the two hours I spent reading, about 15 people stopped to ask what was fresh and to buy a couple pounds. With the good selection, freshness, and the counter rapport, it feels like a place where the cognoscenti go to buy their beans.
Breadsmith, also on Grand and Snelling
Next door is another of my favorites, Breadsmith, close to my heart because it is a Milwaukee company. Even though Great Harvest is walking distance from where I live, I don’t like the doughy, undercooked taste of their loaves. Breadsmith, however, has it in spades, with toothy loaf of whole grain that I wouldn’t exactly call humble. It’s as wide as a dinner plate and, when you cut it open, springs up like a jack in a box ready to show off its perfect texture. To make it even better, it has a price tag of just 4 dollars.
Inspired by the bread, I suppose, I made some of the most satisfying hummus I’ve ever had. I guess there was nothing unusual about it. Maybe I just brought all the usual variations together in the most effective way. The ingredients are large can of chickpeas, 2 tablespoons of tahini, the juice of one lemon, a few glugs of olive oil, two plump cloves of garlic, salt, cayenne, and dry basil, for fun.
My two preferred tricks in hummus-making are to first boil the chickpeas until they are warm. It’s not that the beans need to be cooked. It’s that putting warm beans in the food processor along with all the other ingredients heats everything just so and brings out the life of the party. Second, I save about a half cup of the cooking water (maybe less) to add to the hummus as it processes, which ensures a nice, creamy texture.
Et voilà, a couple of drizzles of arbequina olive oil and paprika pulls it all together in the end.
December 9, 2008
In one of his short stories called Winter Dreams, Fitzgerald perfectly describes the scene that fell on his hometown of St. Paul this weekend. “The days have become crisp and gray, and the long Minnesota winter has shut down like the white lid of a box.”
Intrepid gal that I am, I didn’t let the first big snow fall of the year box me in. This weekend, I hung out with friends at 20.21, The Craftsman, and Riverview Wine Bar. I caught the British Advertising Awards (tell me please, what’s the big deal?) and the new Woody Allen movie. I walked to Nina’s twice, once to meet Nathan for breakfast and book-shopping at Common Good. The second time to meet a new gal named R, who proved to be a fast friend with a considerable interest in the city. I also went to the gym, made soup, did lots of freelance work, and bought a new sweater at Macy’s. (Remember, there’s always free parking on Sunday!)
As if that wasn’t enough for one weekend, I also had a second date with PS. Last week, we met at Eli’s and had a nice time chatting at the front table by the window. On Sunday, he called to ask me out again. Rather than the usual back-and-forth that can be so characteristic of these situations, this guy simply said, “Hey, I made a reservation for us at W.A. Frost at 7.” Now that, I love. No asking. No dalliance. Just good, old-fashioned datemaking. I graciously accepted.
But Frost? Truth be told, I was hesitant to go to there on a second date, given that it is fabled to be the epitome of romance. But when the dating gets tough, I suppose the tough get dating. I flipped up my hair, put on the new sweater and my snow boots, and crunched my way there in the snow.
I know that W.A. Frost has won many awards for its food. I know it used to be one of those creepy old pharmacies. I know Fitzgerald probably stopped by for an ice cream and a bottle of Coke, and that perhaps Nina herself used the corner of Western and Selby to pick up some of her brothel’s clientele. But as beautiful as that patio, high ceiling, and lovingly restored interior is, when I’m at Frost, I just don’t feel like I belong there. Maybe I’m a little too much like Fitzgerald, living in flat after flat, moving from town to town, not so sure whether to accept or reject the landed gentry living it up in all those prestigious Summit Avenue homes. Or maybe I just need to spend more time at the bar rather than the dining room.
I finally confided in my date. “It feels kind of . . . pre-theatre in here, if you know what I mean.”
“Of course I do. We’re the hippest people here,” he said, not missing a beat.
And so it goes. To date well is to be a curator of moments, collecting those that stand out and tell a story about an individual. I liked this particular moment. It said he understood.
I ordered pan-roasted Norwegian salmon with goat cheese risotto, bloody mary consomme, and petite herb salad. Everything about this entree came together nicely, especially the moat of consomme around the meal. PS ordered braised Fischer Farms pork belly with sauteed brussels sprouts petals, Vine Valley Farms butternut squash and miso broth, bacon-braised grits, and pickled pear. He also spoke highly of the bright rim of orange squashy stuff that surrounded his meal. The thing I like about Frost’s traditional plating is the always unexpected line-up of ingredients that accompany it. Bloody mary consomme? Pickled pear with a squash miso broth? Having a meal at Frost is a little like finding a wild outfit in your grandmother’s stately closet.
The entrees, though, were mere appetizers to the extraordinary dessert that followed. We shared a Meyer lemon cheesecake with gingersnap crumb crust, toasted pine nuts, Ames Farm honey, and candied Meyer lemon zest. Woo boy. I’m a lover of all things savory, and this dessert was almost like a third entree that was satisfying on so many levels. “Make sure you get a pine nut,” PS said. No problem.
I think I’ll be returning to Frost to sit on the patio in the summer or to meet the bartender, who seems to have a good reputation. I’ll be using it as a wine bar that has a most impressive list from around the world. I’ll be sitting by the big bar windows to watch the snow fall in such a lovely part of town. It’s a perfect winter spot, which also reminds me why I like the snow. It’s fun to say goodbye in. PS and I parted gracefully on the street corner as I donned my hat and walked back home.
December 1, 2008
Milwaukee, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Mil-wau-kee.
Oh wait, that’s Lolita. I’m getting my love letters confused!
Milwaukee, what I really wanted to say is this. You know I always loved you, but I just couldn’t stay. We had a good thing for awhile, it’s true. Maybe in my restlessness I said a few not-so-nice things about you, but we can chalk that up to growing pains. I was young and searching for something worthwhile, and I didn’t have it all figured out. I had to question our relationship because you were the only thing I knew. I would think you’d understand. We were both late bloomers with a thing or two to learn about how the world works and we kind of stumbled into it together. Plus, you had that whole thing going on with Water Street and all those silly frat boys, not to mention that little fetish for stodgy German food. You really could have done better than that. But, Milwaukee, I suppose you have.
You know what they say about relationships: timing is everything. My path has led me to Minneapolis, where I have a great life and all kinds of friends. It’s not that I don’t think about you. In fact, every time I come home, I wonder what it would be like to live in Bay View or the Third Ward. You take the best of charming historic architecture, like St. Paul, but add a wicked cool art museum designed by a world-renowned architect.
A Whole Foods the size of Texas boasting a food counter of every kind. What was it? Two salad bars, fresh sushi and wok stations, something that looked like a full-service sausage bar, more olives that you can shake a skewer at, a bakery, and an automated wine-tasting device that takes your credit card in return for samples.Even the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle in Manhattan doesn’t compare to this.
As of last week, you also have an underdog, and you know how happy that makes me. Good Harvest is a full-sized natural foods store in the Third Ward walking distance from the river, modern condos, galleries, boutiques, great antique shops, fine restaurants, and casual bars.
Not to mention the Milwaukee Public Market! You wouldn’t believe how I felt when I first heard the news. I almost came running back into your arms. You can hang out on the second floor with coffee and free Wi-Fi.
Or grab some food
and head over to Wine Thief at the heart of the market, whiling away your time watching the people come and go.
And then there is the matter of all those fabulous restaurants. This past weekend, over the holiday, I ensconced myself at the bar at Hinterland, your first gastropub, with my mom. (You remember my mom.) We had fish tacos and two glasses of red wine the size of our heads. The atmosphere was perfectly cosmopolitan and we overhead a conversation between two Chicagoans sitting amicably at the bar. They were in town for the night and choose Hinterland as their destination. They spoke highly of the restaurant and said they could even imagine living in Milwaukee one day.
Score another one for you, my friend. You’re obviously happy, which I suppose is what we both wanted all along. I only wish it was easier for us to see each other. Maybe we can meet for breakfast some day. I promise not to tell anyone.