February 17, 2011
Just beyond a shallow front yard, a pair of red Adirondacks, and the old two-lane highway lies Superior, the largest of the lakes, taking up more space than my eye is able to hold. It’s so vast, its interior so mysterious, I don’t know how to begin to imagine what’s inside. I decide to stop wondering about it and simply appreciate it for what it is.
Inside the New Scenic Cafe, I sit with a menu and a good friend, contenting myself with easier calculations. It’s quiet and calm. We choose what to have for lunch and share stories as we wait for the food to arrive at our table. There’s real depth to what we say, about lost loves and family hardships, many stories too old to fully understand, or too fresh to truly explore. I think of the deep lake outside. I look at the families around us eating together and wish I had one of my own. I wonder if I should live closer to nature as I try not to think about the long interstate that will soon take us back home.
I hear a happy sigh as she takes the first sip of her black coffee. She’d been raving about the New Scenic for the past two days as we drove through Minnesota and would’ve been disappointed if we hadn’t come. She and her sisters eat many meals here when they come to the North Shore, and I know plenty of people who love this place just as much as they do. This was my first time eating at the New Scenic and I can easily see what all the excitement is about.
I had a salad and a starter — at least, I thought that’s all I was having until the dessert menu came along. Everything was so well executed, I wish I’d eaten more to experience a wider selection of what this restaurant can do.
Artichoke and apple salad: Artichoke flan, granny smith and honey crisp apples, fennel, ponzu, grapeseed oil, marcona almonds.
Butternut squash ravioli: Cream, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, pesto, pecans, romano.
Pumpkin goat cheese cake: Ginger tuile, madeira fortified white figs.
Did you get a load of this dessert? Even the language compels me. I love that there’s an incorrect space in the word “cheesecake” so no one will think the chef is offering “pumpkin goat cheesecake.” I wanted to know what tuile is (it’s the architecturally impressive cookie acting as the cheesecake crust). And I was so pleased the drunken white figs are called “fortified” — and that there’s even such a thing as white figs at all. This is the best dessert I’ve had in a long time.
The New Scenic is what your weekend cabin would be like if you had an interior designer and a great chef in your family. The menu is sophisticated, but not fussy. The menu is farm-inspired, but doesn’t draw attention to itself because of it. The local art on the walls is inspiring. Long, thin tree branches placed throughout the corners of the restaurant bring the spirit of winter inside. And, if you’re so inclined, the New Scenic is also just a wonderful place to sit, spend some time, and think about your own particular place in the world.
August 31, 2010
After glancing at Bill Ward’s wine map at the Strib the other day, my eyes lit up. I’ve been craving more wine bars and, by the look of the map, we appear to be living in an oenophile’s land of plenty. But strip away the wine stores and the wineries and zoom in on the city proper, and a less exciting picture takes shape. Minneapolis is home to all of 6 places that call themselves wine bars: Riverview, King’s, Lucia’s, Toast, Spill the Wine, and Bev’s.
Population of Minneapolis: 368,383
Number of wine bars: 6
And that just doesn’t seem right. Isn’t wine the new beer? Malbec the new Merlot? I wish Ward’s map included restaurants and bars with fantastic wine selections and flights to give us more options. But maybe that’s OK, especially since one of these wine bars seems to do the job of 20.
Lucia’s wine bar is a stand-out place — and it seems to get better over the years. It’s a Minneapolis institution. B and I went on a quiet Sunday evening and enjoyed everything immensely. The place has a warm glow, European charm, and great taste in music, which seamlessly alternated from sultry old jazz to electronic Radiohead.
To start, we ordered a salad: mixed local greens with beets, Farmdog blue cheese, and hazelnut vinaigrette. I don’t remember saying we were going to share it, but one of us must have, as it came divided on two plates. Perceptive — and perfect because otherwise we would have had to count each morsel of blue cheese and chunk of beet, and how territorial would that be? The cheese was fresh, delicious, and oh-so funky blue, made in Fairbault by PastureLand. (Here are the other places you can enjoy this cheese.)
We had pizza with chicken, black beans, pepper jack cheese, tomato, cilantro, and habañero sour cream. It was prepared almost to perfection. We just needed a fresh crack of sea salt and black pepper to put it over the top. It took forever for our server to come back, which was our only complaint of the evening. (All staff should take lessons from the gracious tall blonde who doles out plates and glasses with the utmost of charm.)
We had “artisan” pasta with pesto, cream, onions, parmesan, and toasted walnuts. This appears to be a simple suspect, for sure, but this humble plate of pasta could be described as the Platonic ideal — every attempt to make pesto pasta should be this satisfying.
We also had JoJo potatoes dusted in paprika and a little something hot (I think the server said a bit of chili), served with plum ketchup.
The slightly spicy potatoes and unexpected plum sauce were a great foil to the other more traditional flavors on our table and contributed to the experience of the wine. I had a glass of Chardonnay, which was completely trumped by B’s delicious Carmenere — which brings me back to the other thing I love about this wine bar. Wine is served in 6 ounce and 3 ounce glasses. So often, one glass is empty before your meal is through, but two would have you stepping cautiously to your car. For round two, B and I each had a 3-ounce glass of Carmenere to see us through.
I’ve been to Lucia’s wine bar with friends. I’ve been there on business. I’ve been there on sweet dates such as these. And Lucia’s never lets you down. We should see about getting a wine bar even remotely as fine as Lucia’s in every Minneapolis neighborhood.
August 7, 2010
One of these past Mondays, B invited me out to King’s Wine Bar. It was a peaceful summer evening and I was supposed to turn him down, but I couldn’t — and he wasn’t supposed to ask me out, but he did. We couldn’t resist. It seems the only problem between us is how selflessly we act toward one another.
As we drove to King’s, anticipating another dinner together, something enticing caught the corner of my eye. It was Cafe Ena, humming seductively on the corner of 46th and Grand. I didn’t know it was there, and the unassuming neighborhood location surprised me. The whole place just buzzes. It’s in an old brick grocery with a plant-strewn patio, vibrant purple mosaic-like sign and awning, and an homage to Frida Kahlo gracing the door. In the split second it took to register its many charms, I had the insistent taste of red meat and Malbec in my mouth and South American romance on my mind.
But we were going to King’s, recently voted best wine bar. We took a seat by the window and looked through the menu in the quiet Monday air. We couldn’t find anything we wanted. From the small plates, the scallops looked good, but $13.95 for three seemed expensive, and the entrees didn’t seem special enough for the wine, or maybe for our mood. We passed on the food and settled in with flights of wine, red for me and white for him.
In a quiet corner full of setting sunlight, we read the descriptions of all eight glasses out loud, alternately taking a sip of each.
“This is what I’ve learned about wine,” I said, giving him my Malbec and French wine at the same time. “French wine tastes like gum.”
“Or like formaldehyde,” he said. “Try this.” He gave me the glass of New Age white, a total charmer, usually served on the rocks with a slice of lemon, like a South American aperitif.
We emptied our glasses as we sorted through the bigger questions at hand, happy to be saving our appetite for other things.
“We may be tipsy, but I think it’s safe to cross the street,” I said, leading us to Cafe Ena, where we got a perfect table in the corner of the beautiful dining room. The ultra-charming server came by and chirped hello, telling us Monday is half-price bottle of wine.
“You know what that means,” B said, ordering a bottle of Famiglia Meschini Malbec, made by a family from Minnesota who happens to run a winery in their spare time. I admired his daring move.
The perfectly poised server seemed to be smiling along with us, making me want to blush. He said the beef and the scallops dishes are very popular. “Let’s get those,” I said, “but we have to order guacamole, too.”
Am I glad we did. This impressive structure was among the best guacamole I’ve had, with fresh avocado, yellow and red tomatoes, red onion, roasted tomato salsa, micro-cilantro, and homemade chips.
The Argentine steak (bife de chorizo) came smothered with gorgonzola, with the garlic herb fries, sauteed artichokes, asparagus, and red peppers drizzled with chimichuri. The steak was well prepared, but I had to wonder why it was hiding so completely under all that strong cheese. It seemed to add too much Midwestern sensibility to the restaurant’s sexy Latin fusion.
The scallops (conchas) are crusted with cardamom and coriander and served with coconut risotto, sauteed spinach, and pineapple salsa in a lime beurre blanc. This meal surpassed my expectations. The bold flavors perfectly complement one another and make your tastebuds soar.
As we ate, I thought about how the exterior of Cafe Ena perfectly embodies what you find inside. It promises great food and romance, but not in a stereotypical way. Cafe Ena is full of a European sense of romance that infuses all of life, not just the special occasions between two people. I thought I’d tell B something I’d been meaning to share for quite awhile.
“You know, one of the many things I like about you is that you know a good thing when you see it,” I said. It seems pretty clear that I do, too.
April 29, 2010
I opened my email the other day to find an enticing little note sent by B. “What’s your schedule like this coming weekend? I’ve been thinking about your love for beets, and I’m told Café Maude has something yummy along those lines.”
This was the first date idea he offered out of the blue — and I must’ve clapped a little bit when I got his invite. It’s pretty clear he knows the path to my heart is strewn with funky vegetables.
Off we went for a 6 pm table at Café Maude, a restaurant best known for how hard it is to eat there. Even at that early hour, we sat in a far, not-so-ambient corner near the kitchen, a flash of light uncomfortably lighting up B’s face every time the door swung open. I was looking forward to the charming cocktail list. To B’s dismay, This Charming Man was no longer on the menu, but he asked for it anyway. Nothing was going to come between him and a drink that could make him sing a little Morrissey tune. The bar obliged. I had Ivan Putski, a dirty vodka martini with olives, onion, and black pepper.
We ordered our meal in a sort of unplanned give and take, throwing out suggestions and narrowing it down one by one. We shared everything. We didn’t decide we would, we just did. Plate after plate, the server paced our meal, and B and I kept everything in the middle of the table, slowly eating and sharing our opinions of the food.
The salad of red and golden roasted beets, mache, frisee, chevre, walnuts, and truffle champagne vinaigrette was perfectly lovely. The house-cut fries were great, but the truffle-mahor “fondue” (a.k.a., room temperature dipping sauce served in a ramekin) was lackluster — and I still don’t know what mahor is. We were pleased but not impressed by the roasted Brussels sprouts with rosemary brown butter, onions, and granny smith apples. Same for the Tuscan rice and parmesan croquettes with asparagus cream, basil, and pancetta. They’re great alongside a cocktail, but not especially memorable, and the asparagus cream didn’t taste like the vegetable it was named for.
The last course was glorious enough to carry every other plate of food that crossed our table: PEI mussels (that’s Prince Edward Island for those of us not familiar with island acronyms) with shallots, garlic, white wine, sweet tomatoes, chives, and grilled baguette. It just sang. The only problem is they served it with one lonely slice of thinly cut baguette, which doesn’t make sense, not on any island.
“I love eating with you,” B said. “When I go out with other people, we don’t share and it isn’t nearly as much fun.”
He’s right, I thought. Have you ever eaten with friends who get territorial about their meal? Those solitary souls eat by themselves, no matter how many people are at the table. Not only did B and I share this time together, we shared the same experience.
“And eating with you reminds me of that scene in Julie and Julia,” I said, “where Julia and Paul eat their first meal in Paris together, enjoying it so much they can barely keep their mouths shut.”
We ordered dessert, and after the server left, I posed a question that had been on my mind for awhile. “Would Julia have been the same without Paul? I mean, would she have been nearly as successful without him?”
B replied, “Of course not.” It’s true. It was all the eating they did together that filled her with such passion.
After cheesecake and a chocolate pistachio torte, we drove off to Magers & Quinn for books and Golden Leaf for tobacco to continue the pleasures of the evening, two bon vivants not exactly taking over Paris, but at least enjoying (and sharing) our own little corner of the world.
March 27, 2010
Somewhere along the line, Anthony Bourdain described the Twin Cities as having some of the best Vietnamese food in America. I wonder if he has eaten here enough to know, or if he knew just enough to feed James Norton, the hungry interviewer, a good answer. I can see him cooly ambling into Quang, lanky white guy in a tattered black coat slurping it up with the Vietnamese locals.
I’m not exactly an expert in the matter, so I’ll let him form the strong opinions. Last time I went to Jasmine Deli, I awkwardly missed out on the banh mi and I fell for the urban myth of the pho.
After I posted my review of the deli, I got an unexpected email from M, a close friend who had lost touch with me. It was pictures of the ingredients I made for homemade banh mi for a party I threw last year. Bright, snappy, and sweet pickled carrots and daikon radish, which I fell for and gladly ate for weeks after serving them to my friends. I still don’t know why he sent these to me. Maybe my review brought up some good memories, a bit of a Proustian moment among the madeleines, a memory of pain perdu.
Here’s the baguettes Angela insisted we pick up from Jasmine Deli. Someone in the owner’s family (was it a brother or a cousin?) makes them fresh on a daily basis, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
A couple days later, shopping for food at Midtown Global Market, I spotted this sign. I had no intention of eating anything, but I had to stop and finally order a banh mi.
This charming sign is perched on the counter at Pham’s Deli, a bright spot in the middle of the market near the central tables. Pham’s beckons you in with cheerful signs and a tidy operation. There’s quite a few workers back there, although it’s this guy at the rice cooker who seems to run the show. I wonder if it’s Trung Pham, owner of this family-run operation. Check out their adorable website. “Think fresh, think Pham’s.” I like this place.
He studiously made my banh mi and, with a swish of his hand, twisted it in a plastic bag and delivered it to me with a smile.
All of the needed ingredients came together to make the sandwich every bit as fulfilling as I thought it would be. A mouthful of pickled veggies and bread on the outside, a mouthful of meat and cilantro further in. “This isn’t that spicy,” I thought to myself a moment before I ate a eye-watering jalapeno, seeds and all.
The one thing I’m not sold on is the addition of butter (as described in the sign), which has that characteristic slippery feel in your mouth, much unlike mayo, which effortlessly complements the riot of tastes in a banh mi. If it were up to me, the sandwich would be laced with creamy mayo, Sriracha, and boatloads of pickled carrots and daikon.
March 15, 2010
Last week, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Peter Lilienthal, one of the restaurant reviewers for Minneapolis-St Paul magazine. I was introduced to him through a friend given my love of writing about food. Next up on his list of restaurants to review was A25, so Peter graciously asked that I grab two hungry souls and come join him.
A25, which opened a few months ago, is the newly reincarnated version of Anemoni, the former sushi outpost of Thom Pham’s Azia Restaurant. A25′s website dares you to imagine yourself stepping off a train and into a back alley of Tokyo, where you are delighted to find a mix of vendors selling delicious street food and wicked infusions. A25 is positioning itself as an edgy, cosmopolitan reprieve within the frenetic city.
And I can’t help but say that there’s something pretty darn cute about this — especially in Minneapolis at 6:30 on a Monday night. After all, how much time do we really spend ON the streets? Among the four of us Minneapolines at the table, we had four cars parked outside and spent about 30 seconds on the pavement safely jaywalking our way inside. Our train travels above ground from the city to the mall, stopping traffic on the way, and everyone knows about the missing street food of Minneapolis.
Come evening, though, I can see where the street starts to kick in, especially if you are enjoying the oasis of nightlife that corner of the city has to offer. Inside A25′s clever subway-inspired door, ambient paper lanterns hang from the ceiling, corrugated metal surrounds the sushi bar, the exposed brick walls are covered with torn broadsheets and graffiti, and the elevated DJ booth evokes the fire escape of an East Village walk-up. I half expected Mimi to swing down from the balcony in torn fishnet stockings howling about going oooo-ut tonight.
Dining with a restaurant critic is an exercise in conviviality. Rather than studying the menu, Peter socratically posed questions to the server to coax out the real scoop on the best stuff to eat. She did a stellar job with everything while Peter alternately asked us what our favorite restaurants are, taking notes when we said something memorable about the food.
“This place serves chef-inspired street food,” I said, and Peter wrote it down.
“This tastes like pork-flavored bubble gum,” B said of the pork belly, and Peter wrote it down.
We had a round of cocktails and two bottles of white wine. The unique calamari tempura fried with cream honey aioli and glazed pecans had a strange hold on me, while the lamb lollipops kept my attention only because of the toasted sweet potatoes they were served on.
The unassuming steamed buns were my favorite part of the evening. I think steamed buns are usually enclosed, but these looked like a little sandwich, with the spicy, rich oxtail meat sticking out of the perfect snow white bun. The oxtail was richer and more enjoyable than the pork.
Kabocha dumplings with ginger soy tasted typically delicious, while the pork belly was all but a failure. I’m a omnivore who winces at certain cuts of meat, but in the spirit of the thing, I wanted to try pork belly, which seems to make quite a few food lovers rhapsodize. Not at A25. We could barely get our knife through it. I stole some of the accompanying fried egg and spinach and we all left the majority of the plate behind.
For sushi, we had BBQ yellow tail, shrimp tempura, and botanebi — that is, B, the daring sushi-eater of the group, had the wide-eyed, whiskered botanebi. Sushi? Delicious. What else can I say.
For dessert, we had fried bananas with ginger ice cream, which is too good to fail, and rice pudding with coconut ice cream, which was too bland to succeed. The ice cream was served on top of a bed of dense rice that tasted totally unsweetened.
Given how much concept is driving A25, the food has a lot to live up to, and for the most part it does a fantastic job. Street food should be a fix. With A25 as your dealer and so many creative items on the menu, you just have to figure out what you need to order to get yours.
March 8, 2010
The only banh mi I’ve ever eaten were the ones I made with my own two hands. It’s a little backward to first try this amazing Vietnamese sandwich by making one for myself (and for a few others, too), but it was a darn good approximation. After julienning the daikon and carrot, gently pickling it in a glass jar, sweetening the mayo, marinating the pork and tofu in lemongrass, and picking up the bread from Jasmine Deli, the ingredients and I were close pals and I was able to create more or less the pinnacle of banh mi deliciousness.
Ever since then, I’ve been daydreaming about banh mi, about grabbing one from Jasmine Deli after work or finding a good reason to head over to University, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it. When B asked me out on a third date, I got excited when I realized I could suggest Jasmine Deli, a small restaurant on Eat Street known for having one of the best banh mi in town. His new apartment is across the street from the MIA and walking distance to the deli. At last, the banh mi would be mine!
B and I, both well-versed in the menu and reviews before we arrived, walked inside the small storefront relieved to see there were plenty of places to sit. It was late and we were hungry. The owner, a friendly guy named Luke who I knew only through their adorably empty facebook page, came by and offered us a seat. Talking a little under his breath, he said, “We’re out of veggie eggrolls and bread” and simply ducked away.
Wait. “Did I hear him right?” I said to B, aghast. No bread? I called out after Luke.
“Not so fast! Did you say that you’re out of bread?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. It’s late in the day and I order for freshness.”
And with that, my little dream was unceremoniously dashed. No banh mi. I recovered by consoling myself with the fact that there was always pho, so I decided to pick one. The menu listed about 32 kinds of soup, and within the forest of heavily accented Vietnamese, I didn’t see the word “pho” anywhere.
Luke came back to take our order. “Everyone raves about your pho,” I said, “but I don’t see it listed on the menu. Are all of these soups pho?”
He corrected me in broken English. “I don’t serve pho. Ask everyone in this restaurant what they think my soup is, and they’ll say pho. But pho is made with beef broth. All my broth is made with vegetables or chicken. I suggest the chicken. It’s mild. Everyone loves chicken.”
Now that was too much information for my hungry head to handle. I asked Luke for a few more minutes and turned to B. “Let’s go over that again,” I said. “Everyone is wrong about the pho?”
“Yes,” he said, eloquently recapping what Luke just told us. Knowing my hopes were dashed again, B kicked in and conquered the menu.
“You don’t like mild, so let’s not get the one he recommended. Let’s get this one,” he said, pointing to the rice noodle soup with BBQ pork, chicken, shrimp, fish cake, and calamari.”
“What else?” B said. “I don’t want to disappoint you by ordering something that you aren’t into.” I said I wanted to get the classic Vietnamese combination of beef, cucumber, cilantro, and rice noodle. We found it on the menu: vermicelli noodle salad with charbroiled beef.
We also decided to get two appetizers, tamarind tofu and crispy pork egg rolls.
Dear Luke came back yet again to take our order. I rattled off our choices and asked for bubble tea, which B was excited to see on the menu.
“Sorry, I don’t have bubble tea either. . . but you can go to my new cafe,” he said with a charming smile, pointing to the north, knowing at this point he sounded like a salesman.
Simultaneously amused and defeated, B and I placed our order and settled in over two glasses of water, satisfied that we divided up the menu the best we could.
We loved the sweet tamarind tofu, especially when contrasted with a bite of something spicy. The pork eggrolls were good, but we didn’t see anything special about them. The soup was fulfilling and fresh, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t order it again. Too many proteins for one bowl (or for one girl). The vermicelli noodle salad was the clear winner, with the charbroiled bits of beef playing nicely off the cool noodles and fresh herbs. As B kept grabbing the best bits of charred meat and giving them to me with his chopsticks, I noticed something was wrong.
Luke came by to ask how everything was. “Good, I said. But why are there no cucumbers in the vermicelli? That’s the best part.”
“Must be out of those, too!” he said, at this point probably as amused by the evening as we were.
B and I had a laugh together and finished off our meal. “You know what I like about you?” he said, leaning in. “You understand how food is related to everything else in life. You don’t look at it as a separate thing.” And I didn’t realize until later what I great reply that really was.
February 24, 2010
I finally got to enjoy what is often voted the best Greek food in town. I went to Christos on a Saturday afternoon with J, with whom I was going on a second date.
A few weeks back at The Muddy Pig, he got my attention by declaring his love of utilitarian furniture. With a tone that sounded like the lovable Julia Child met the refined Martha Stewart, he said, “If I could have my way, my house would be full of credenzas. There’s just so much you can DO with them!”
Last weekend, he proposed we get lunch and check out Josef Sudek’s photography at the MIA. I chose Christos right away given the museum’s brilliant proximity to Eat Street (and because a certain food critic at MSP magazine suggested as much). It was a great choice.
Christos at noon on a Saturday looks like a Mediterranean getaway. It has a large, comfortable dining room with an open kitchen, and the tall ceilings, white walls, ample plants, and big windows bring in lots of sunshine, like you’re hanging out in the courtyard of your seaside hotel (wearing a sweater and snowboots to ward off the Minnesota winter, of course). The place was busy, and at that hour, you get to eat alongside lunching ladies and families young and old. There’s something very “of the city” about it, and it couldn’t be any more different from their location in St. Paul’s neoclassical train station, Union Depot, which makes you feel like you have but a few minutes to feed your lifelong love falafel and grape leaves before dashing off to meet your train.
In any case, my date and I shared spanakopita, mousaka, dolmathes (grape leaves), melintzanosalata (roasted eggplant dip), avgolemono (soup described as “traditional egg-lemon delight”), and milopita (glazed apple slices baked in phyllo with ricotta and cream cheese).
All of the food was fresh, served at the perfect temperature, attractive, and satisfying. It looked and tasted like the Platonic version of Greek food. The only thing I questioned was the phyllo dessert served sitting in a pool of syrup, which is not my favorite place to keep a flaky pastry. Is this how it’s supposed to be?
We also had Retsina with our meal, the allegedly harsh tavern wine that gets its pine flavor from the resin traditionally used to seal whatever vessel wine was stored in. I’d never tried it before and was clearly curious, so the server offered a taste of the two types served by the glass: Tsantali and Achaia Clauss. (They have three more kinds served by the bottle.) I was impressed with how easy it is to drink. We settled on Achaia Clauss and drank it right down.
At one point, I casually said something to J about the music I play while I cook. For a long time, I cooked while listening to records — Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King. Stuff like that.
Thinking nothing of it, J said, “Ella Fitzgerald is my cooking music” as he dug into another portion of our meal.
And I think it was at that point I knew he was someone to pay attention to.
December 16, 2009
There’s an abstract quality about living in the Upper Midwest, and Minneapolis specifically, that makes me feel innately at home.
I grew up in Milwaukee. I’ve lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Chicago. I’ve visited Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I’m an urbanist, a lover of cities, and an adaptable person, so I would probably bloom wherever I was planted. Yet despite my semi-regular fantasies of living elsewhere (say, Europe), the Midwest is permanently in my blood and my bones. Minneapolis has become my Mini Apple. It’s my not-quite Chicago and my bigger-than Milwaukee. To borrow from the French, Minneapolis is my terroir – and I like it that way.
The most elegant way to live is to consider yourself an essential part of where you’re from. It’s the same for cooking. Food is life, after all. It comes from the ground beneath our feet and responds to the seasons just as we do. Last week, I had a fantastic experience at Restaurant Alma, a much-loved restaurant in Minneapolis serving hand-crafted food made with fresh, seasonal, organic, and local ingredients. Alma nails local elegance on the head.
My food-going friend Angela and I enjoyed two hours of conversation and three courses on a cold Friday night. At first, the name struck me as arbitrary, even a little incongruous. Alma means “soul” in Spanish — and the restaurant isn’t Spanish in any way. It’s elemental and sophisticated, and although influenced by food from around the world, I would call it farm-inspired American — and thoroughly Minnesota chic. (Hey, that’s my term, so don’t steal it. I first used it last year, which you can read about here if you’d like.)
The crowd was culturally interesting — lots of ages and races and pairings of dates, families, and friends. I especially loved the older folks there in suits on special occasion dinners with their spouses and kids. (I’m the daughter of a truck driver. What can I say?) The staff was pleasant and professional and our server mentioned she had been working there for nearly 10 years.
The menu, thoughtfully curated and presented, is organized into three courses. For 45 dollars, you can choose one plate from each course, though if you have any sense about you, it will be torture to choose just three. I started with a mixed lettuce salad with roasted beets, buttermilk dressing, salsa verde, and pine nuts. Beet lovers like me, rejoice. Red and golden beets, and plenty of them.
Secondi, I had the ricotta gnocchi with fricassee of vegetables, black truffle butter, and parmigiana cheese. If pillows of ricotta pasta weren’t enough, the black truffle butter made the plate sing.
And finally, I had seared scallops with spiced chickpeas, roasted squash, wilted spinach, and lemon preserve — a generous and honest plate of food with three perfectly browned scallops.
By the end of the night, I started to see the brilliance behind the name Alma. Restaurant Alma serves the soul of the Midwest. The food is elegant without a hint of fussiness. It’s generous, yet well-conceived. It’s affordable fine food — and also the perfect spot for a date, by the way, but save it for the third or fourth. This kind of culinary intimacy would be a shame to waste on anything less than romantic. Or, if dating just ain’t coming your way, grab a great friend like I did and have yourself a memorable (and soulful) meal.
July 18, 2009
You might think me odd, but until last week, I could count on just a few fingers the number of times I had been to Chipotle. Now I need to add one finger — and I suspect I’ll eventually eat there enough to run out of fingers and move on to my toes. Me being me, that’s a high compliment for the national burrito chain with more than 800 stores.
I have a bumpersticker on my car that reads “support your local independent everything.” I used to twitch a little bit whenever I went to the suburbs (and sometimes still do). I’ve even gone so far as to declare that all of my favorite restaurants don’t have parking lots. That’s why I love the deliciously ironic dinner I ate last week on Chipotle’s outdoor patio overlooking the parking lot of Ridgedale Mall. Someone had to put me in my place — and that someone is Steve Ells, Chipotle’s CEO.
Why did I go? I was invited by Michael Fuller who works in marketing for the restaurant. I also went because Chipotle is no longer owned by McDonald’s — and hasn’t been for a few years. Whether or not this actually makes any difference is negligible. Even though Chipotle drew away from the cheeseburger behemoth, Michael tells me that Steve Ells’ vision of serving real food has never been compromised. Ells calls it “food with integrity.”
Learning about Ells and his philosophy fundamentally changed my perception of Chipotle. There’s a guy with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America who speaks my language at the helm of a fast food chain. Chipotle is a nationwide, publicly-traded fast food chain making tremendous progress in popularizing local, sustainable food as part of the supply chain.
The Chipotle in Minnetonka, Minnesota where I ate last week is one of two LEED-certified branches in the country. Both the front and back of the kitchen are extremely clean and tight, and not one Chipotle across the country has a freezer. As of this month, the chain’s produce buyers are sourcing 35 percent of at least one bulk seasonal produce item from local farmers, a 10 percent increase over last year. But you wouldn’t even know these numbers, as Chipotle simply does what is right without any fanfare, as reported by the Washington Post. Ells works with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (that wonderfully upright and uncompromisable farmer from the movie Food, Inc.) and is sponsoring a series of free showings of the film around the country. (Here’s a great article by Sarah Gilbert with a video showing Ells and Salatin mucking it up with the pigs.) Better yet, Chipotle buys the majority of its pork from Niman Ranch, an alliance of 650 independent farmers and ranchers spread throughout the country. As the story goes, every time Chipotle opens a new restaurant, Bill Niman can add a new farm to his network.
Then there is the food, which is fantastic. I tried everything on the menu so now I know that the barbacoa is the best item, hands down. The meat is spicy and warms your mouth with heat and toasted cumin. I was impressed by the addictive tortilla chips, which are fried on-site every day, squirted with lime juice, and covered with just the right amount of chunky sea salt. The guacamole is fresh as green grass.
All in all, the coolest thing I read about Chipotle is this quote from Ells: “We decided long ago that we didn’t want Chipotle’s success to be tied to the exploitation of animals, farmers, or the environment, but the engagement of our customers.” This is so wildly different from the typical exploitative model of corporate America. Steve Ells is spreading good karma one burrito at a time, and that’s something I can get behind.