Monthly Archives: October 2008

Ngon = delicious

DSC00836 When I visited Ngon (pronounced like the word “long,” but with an n), I felt like I stepped into a culinary border town that was quietly waiting for me to arrive. It was eerie and calm, but steadfastly ready, as though I had just missed whatever major dust-up had just rolled through. Oh wait — was it the flurry of reviews I kept seeing online, praising the creative owners and calling the pho and many of the appetizers and entrees among the best in town, from bloggers, to Rick Nelson, to Dara, to Iggers? That’s quite some high-falutin’ talk for Vietnamese food on University Avenue.

Stepping into Ngon reminded me of happily stumbling into a classy restaurant in the not-so-classy corner of Brooklyn where C and I once lived roughly known as Bedford-Stuyvesant (or, more appropriately, Bed-Sty), where the diners would be eying each other suspiciously as though the white tablecloth could be yanked out from under the foot of the restaurant at any given moment, mercilessly tossing them back on crusty Myrtle or DeKalb Avenue. Yes, Ngon is a place C and I would have visited enough times to thoroughly experience their considerable menu. That is an understatement, I’m sure. Ngon screams “delicious, reliable, intimate neighborhood restaurant absolutely perfect for you and your food-loving boyfriend especially happy that a fabulous menu came to the cheap part of town. See you again soon!”

But that’s just me. On a more universal scale, I think that everything about Ngon contributes to a juicy feeling of possibility. It has a crisp French colonial decor on a street better known for its neon. The servers were friendly and always at the ready. The menu mixes pricier upscale fusion alongside less expensive classics (a brilliant, move, I think). The owner and another guy were hanging out together at the bar. Best of all, Ngon hopes to “break the chain,” sourcing as many local products as it can and hosting a localvore’s happy hour every day of the week with a cool beer and wine list.

I went with Angela and Lisa, two of my most culinary friends, and conquered the menu along with the help of our gracious server. We ordered a fine sample and shared a bit of everything. We thoroughly enjoyed what we ate, but there were some mixed opinions and a little ambivalence, so I can’t say that we were equally enthused. Also, the appetizers and entrees came altogether too quickly. At a slower pace, we would have been able to ease deeper into our own conversation and foster a sense of expectation for our meal.

DSC00838 Wild Acres Duck Spring Rolls. Braised duck with organic spring greens, sprouts, cilantro, mint, and vermicelli. This was OK, but seemed to be missing something. None of us were terribly enthusiastic about this appetizer.

DSC00839 Sweet Potato Shrimp Croquettes. Lightly breaded sweet potato and shrimp, fresh herbs, and a spicy aioli. This disappeared in an instant. The thick, crispy coating belied the whip-soft sweet potatoes inside, and it wasn’t especially shrimpy. A wonderful balance.

DSC00845 Poussin Kadegen. Free range poussin marinated in pho spices with sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, and braised pork belly with a shiitake curry sauce. Lisa said it was tasty, but not extraordinary, and didn’t seem to deserve a 17-dollar price tag.

DSC00840 Pho Tai Ribeye. Rice noodles with a generous portion of tender ribeye cuts. I ordered this along with the Bun Bo knowing I would have two days of leftovers. Highly recommended. The pho was the star of the show, with a complex, spicy broth so tonguey that felt like it could lick you right back. And yes, tonguey is the perfect word for what I am trying to say. It leaves a lingering kiss of star anise on your cheek to tease you when you get back home.

DSC00841 Bun Bo. Rice vermicelli with lemongrass, onions, and ribeye. Vermicelli! I love this stuff. This meal was perfectly easy and comforting. Is this what Vietnamese parents feed their picky children?

DSC00843 Com Tam Tau Hu. Broken rice with ginger glazed tofu and fresh shitake mushrooms. This tofu was delish, given the glaze, and the frying. Angela, you didn’t say much about your meal overall. Were you ambivalent about it?

Some reviewers say that Ngon’s classic Vietnamese dishes rock the French colonial house, but their more imaginative (and pricier) entrees aren’t as memorable. This seemed to be true the night we went, but let’s not jump to any conclusions. With a restaurant that begs you to love it as much as this one does, you have to go at least twice to get a full opinion, whether you are in the neighborhood or coming from across town. Boyfriends, take your girlfriends, and your boyfriends too, and let me know if Ngon is a restaurant that lures you back again.

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro on Urbanspoon

Almost-Vegan Date with a Side of Mixed Emotions

Level: Intermediate

Active time: 6 hours

Servings: Two

Ingredients: 1 man. 1 woman. Many good intentions and a healthy dash of ego.

Directions: Mix everything together and hope for the best.figs

Ten minutes ahead of schedule, DW called and said “I’m standing outside by a beautiful cathedral.” That meant he had arrived, so I went downstairs to let him in. We hadn’t seen each other in awhile, and with the prospect of this dinner date, there was a good spark in the air that continued throughout the evening . . . or at least most of it.

Given that our connection was new and we weren’t eager to define anything, we never put any terms to our relationship. I knew he had a date earlier in the week, so I was planning my playful inquisition to get some of the details. I would wait until the end of the meal.

For the night’s menu, I instinctually decided to use figs as my guide. They’re so sweet and sensual, and on some level I thought their history as a sacred fruit might appeal to a literary bohemian who doesn’t eat meat or cheese. And I was right. He even got nostalgic when he saw the package. He said he used to eat figs all the time, but considered them empty calories and decided to eat nuts instead. Go figure. He also eats eggs raw because it is faster and healthier than cooking them. (And with that disclosure, he suspiciously seems like a guy who has no need for a chef-girl in his life, dDSC00846on’t you think?)

One of my favorite food combinations is white beans and sage, so to start, I made pan-fried white bean fritters. I mixed a batter of flour and cornmeal with cannellini beans, peppadew peppers (I love those things), and sage. I pan-fried it by the tablespoon on high heat. With a dusting of salt, I had a flirty fall appetizer. Share, dip, repeat.

To dress up the sacred fruit, I made fig and fennel pizza starting with a creme fraiche base that included lemon zest, cinnamon, cayenne, and a little sugar. On top of this base, I added fennel (sliced thinly and caramelized in balsamic), steamed spinach, figs, garlic, and rosemary. This combination proves strange enough to get anyone’s attention but satisfying DSC00850enough to be eaten indiscriminately.

Toward the end of dinner at what seemed like an appropriate juncture, I decided to say, “So? How was your date?”

He paused. “Do we have to talk about that now? I think we should just enjoy the moment,” he said, diving back into his meal.

Uh oh.

Nutritional information: On a short-term basis, the undefined Almost-Vegan Date is very good for you. Long-term potential should be defined in traditional terms for maximum health benefits.

On Burgers and Bohemians

It’s late October, and I’m feeling like a seasonal creature, like a weathervane, almost, responding to the seasons as they come. All summer, I spend my extra cash hanging out on patios around the city with my friends. As summer fades, I end up spending all my drinkin’ money, so to speak, on a weekly supply of luscious heirloom tomatoes. Seriously, I need an extra allowance to support my habit, as I take them home pound by expensive pound. But if time is money, as they say, then why should I resist? Heirloom tomatoes are so ripe with satisfaction that the time it takes to slice them open is all you need to make a fantastic meal. I mixed one up (raw, of course), with pasta, fresh spinach, and a little cheese melted in some pasta water.

good

Now that the scarves are on and the fleshy heirlooms will soon be gone, I’ve entered the next phase of hibernation. I bought a bunch of stuff for the kitchen. In one transaction, I bought all of the practical things I have been craving for months. The granddaddy of the purchase was a mandoline. I read that the OXO Mandoline Slicer is the best of them all, and after seeing Mario Batali describe it on the product’s Amazon page, I was hooked.

On the social front, I had a last hurrah to warm weather on the patio at Salut with Nathan, the bohemian woodworker. When I lured him over to this side of the river, I used the juicy lucy at The Nook as my bait. Unfortunately, so did everyone else. There was a 40-minute wait. As we drove around thinking about where else we could go, he kept teasing me by saying “The Nook!” oh “The Nook!” as though I was a Greek siren who lured him to eternal damnation in genteel St. Paul. Where else could I take my incorrigible friend?

I have strange reservations about eating at restaurants that feel even a little corporate, and Salut does, with its smorgasbord menu and concept decor. It wouldn’t be out of place next to P.F. Chang’s and Maggiano’s over at the mall. However. I’m getting older now, and who am I to complain? With Salut, there’s now a French restaurant with great service and a happy bustle bringing extra life to a busy corner of St. Paul. And I was eager to try their burger. Dara Moskowitz included it in her now-famous 20 burgers you must eat before you die list. So off to Salut we went.

We ordered a bottle of red called la piquette, which translates into “nasty wine,” and Le Cheeseburger Royale with aged cheddar, lettuce, and tomato on grilled ciabatta with hand-cut fries. Yeah, it was very good, but I couldn’t quite determine if it was list-worthy. I might say it lacked a certain je nais sais quoi, a certain God-knows-what. But did it matter? The fries were perfectly crispy and my company was among the finest. I would go back to Salut (almost) any time.

Salut Bar Americain on Urbanspoon

Planning an Appropriate Dinner

I had a long and productive late-night conversation with DW last night, and at the end of things, we decided we’re happy to continue seeing each other. “You know what this means,” I said. “I’ll have to make dinner for you.” The connection between us has been fun and carefree. We’ve gone for walks and attended book events, but not once have we been to a restaurant or shared a one-on-one meal. If he could, he might live on literature alone, with a big side of guitar.

One night at his place, he decided that he wanted to fix us a snack. In a few minutes, he showed up in the living room of his apartment with hummus (“Egyptian homos,” he said like an American, pointing to the package and laughing, imagining a group of gay men from Egypt), pita, and a few stalks of raw asparagus poking out of each of his clenched fists. This was an endearing moment, standing next to his canon of serious books like a happy kid with something to share. He gave us three stalks each.

“I’ve never really ate raw asparagus,” I said, more surprised than anything. He enthused about its virtues, telling me to chew it for a long time for better enzyme action, and apologizing that he accidentally bought white pita. What a curious guy, I thought. He’s not all that interested in food (and doesn’t eat cheese or much meat), but he is concerned about whole grains and discussing the finer points of digestion.

So back to last night, as I tried to fall asleep, mostly wide awake and disoriented from the late call, I put aside the bigger questions of the evening and wondered what this guy might want for dinner.

The Ghetto Gourmet (A bunch of "crazy plates")

A recent article in the Times, The Artful Dodger, has quickly been marked as one of my favorites. Diane Root so casually writes about a family meal she shared as a young girl in Nice, France, with no one other than . . . Picasso.

First, she describes their meal: pissaladière, mounds of moules Ghetto Girlsmarinières, a flurry of pommes frites, brandade de morue (the “requisite” ratatouille), aioli to slather on bread, and multiple bottles of pélure d’oignon, a regional rosé.

Then, she writes about Picasso’s antics. As they ate, he mischievously distracted her with his charming drawings as he, of all things, quietly stole food right off of her plate!

When her father later asked what she thought of Picasso, she said, “He’s one heckuva pique-assiette.” I think this translates directly into “crazy plate,” and indirectly as “one who eats from other plates.”

GG1 our serverOh, if we all could be so famous for our mischievousness. It makes me think of the crazy cast of characters LRK channeled at the recent event where I saw her speak, and of the ambitious, semi-subversive plans of The Ghetto Gourmet. Have you heard of it? When Angela, my food-loving pal, and I got wind of it, we quickly adopted the Minneapolis-St Paul chapter, the GGMSP. “The Ghet” has a few mottos and taglines worth noting.

  • The Ghet is “a dinnerparty network for lovers of fine cookin’, cool art, and new friends.” The idea is to eat well and impishly mix together new people through the elixirs of wine, music, food, and art.
  • “Hold on to your forks!” Diners must hold on to their forks because the meals, which serve dozens, take place in people’s home, studios, galleries, and other spaces. In other words, forks are at a premium. Don’t let yours be bussed away.
  • “All sinners welcome.” Well. Whatever the story is behind this one, let’s try not to complain.

In the spirit of the thing, GG1 tableat the first dinner, Angela and I cooked a five-course meal for 18 friends and strategically paired personalities at the tables. Along with the gracious attentiveness of our server, Michael, we turned a vintage apartment into a rockin’ restaurant for the night. (The other thing about The Ghet is that diners pay for their meal. We squeak by through asking for 20 bucks per person.) We ate butternut squash and green apple soup with curry garnish. Pink lady apple cups with celeraic cherry slaw. Argula salad with fennel, baked ricotta, and saffron. Cassoulet (with white beans, tomatoes, lamb, duck, and sausage). And pots of chocolate with orange polenta cookies.

All of this is made from scratch by us, of course, the Ghetto Girls. We go through quite a round of collaboration before deciding on the menu, meeting over cookbooks, emailing recipes back and forth, and often making courses we never saw recipes for in the first place.

At the second one, we intended to transform a backyard into a romantic dinner garden, but the rain interfered with our plans. Retreating to Plan B, we gathered inside and ate carrot coconut soup. Butterleaf salad with feta, Medjool dates, orange slices, and pistachios. Roasted garlic and butternut squash spread with pear and Parmesan. Mini toast with ricotta, fig, Marcona almonds, and honey. Seafood stew (mussels, Chilean sea bass, and salmon) in creamy white wine sauce. ApplGG2 tablee upside down cake with vanilla ice cream.

Both of these dinners were fun. Lots of tasty, chatty, liquored-up fun.

At this point, ambitions intact, we’re looking to stir things up by inviting new people, as any gathering is only a reflection of the people you invite.

We’re also hoping to find a better venue. We have quickly hit our limits in terms of kitchen space and seating. Given that we are two crazy plates ourselves, we wonder if anyone in MSP may have similar ambitions. We’d like to meet a dinner benefactor, of sorts, an instigator, someone with access to a kitchen and accompanying large seating area.

Also, could we invite a local chef? Could we feature local products at a discount? Could we host a group of burlesque dancers to spin turns around the tables?

Also yet, could we be hired to host your own dinner party? We’re not sure yet. The only thing we know is that there seems to be a lot of potential behind the idea of creative people coming together to meet, eat, and get to know one another at the level of an intimate meal. Raise your hand if you’d like in on the next one.

Spinach Is the New Meat

I thought I was going to keep it simple tonight. I was going to make a spinach salad with apples, Parmesan, and the remaining Marcona almonds from the Ghetto Gourmet. Fast, fresh, and raw.

But do you know what happens once the fridge door opens? All of the food starts to dance around for your attention because it wants out of there. It’s as bad as seeing the cute kittens trapped at the shelter, and before I know it, everything in my refrigerator has been freed, and now I’m toasting bread, grating Gouda and Parmesan cheese, chopping garlic, poaching eggs, and searing salmon on high heat. On top of that, Orangette’s Pleasantly Sogged post is whispering in my ear, and now my spinach, the curliest, thickest I’ve ever seen that I was looking forward to eating raw (I know it’s not kale, but is there a such thing as dinosaur spinach?), has been boiled until soft and kissed by garlic and olive oil.

All this talk about what I did leads me to something else I wasn’t going to do. Share pictures of the food I cook. It feels too precious and self-important. Food is meant to be cooked, so why are we so impressed when we <gasp> cook it?

Can someone answer a question for me? Do the French take delightfully staged pictures of their dinner to share with their food-loving French friends? See, I’ve heard that cooking comes naturally to them, and that eating well is a way of life. I wonder if they just cook it, eat it, and call it a day. Thanks. I’ve been wanting to know.

How to Make a City Love You

How long do you think it takes for a city to get you with its charms? When I lived in Manhattan, it happened the moment I walked out of my apartment and realized that Bleecker Street, Washington Square, and two-dollar falafel sandwiches were just around the corner. I was so excited. It was so easy to live at large.

When I lived in Chicago, it took longer to feel that connection. My job was located in the deep burbs (equally as inhospitable as the “deep south”) and I spent way too much time in my car. It wasn’t until I got to know a particular urbanist, Joseph DuciBella, that I was let in on the secrets of the city and started to feel truly at home.

If we created a simple list of charms, the Twin Cities wouldn’t easily stack up to the rest of my geographical resume. But still. After three years of living in St. Paul, I feel an almost surreal sense of having been here a long time. When I went to Manhattan, it was about a degree. When I went to Chicago, it was about a relationship. This town has been all about me. And that, of course, is an education unto itself. I feel like cultivator, layering people, stories, and experiences together in a way that makes sense to me. It helps that I have a cool job and great friends, and also that I am single. A few bars, neighborhoods, and restaurants have quickly become classic, and both cities feel like a foundation on which we all can do most anything we please. I often see people I know, and the baristas serve me without asking what I’d like. In MSP, everything always overlaps. I feel like I’m starting to live at large again, but this time in a totally personalized sort of way.

To make a city love you, you must first fall in love with something it offers. I started with those things that seemed special about MSP: coffee shops, co-ops, and Magers & Quinn. I’ve discovered some of my favorite books at Magers & Quinn as though they were shelved there specifically for me, and as an editor, I’ve attended a number of my author’s readings.

oct16aLast week, I went to Magers & Quinn to see Steve Lerach read from his new book Fried: Surviving Two Centuries in Restaurants. I also brought a date, which is another way to make a city love you. See a lot of people. My date asked the best questions during the Q&A, and after the reading, he introduced me to three or four of his friends who happened to be in the crowd. There was the quirky academic he used to work with at the Black Forest Inn, and they told some hilarious server stories. There was also the cool duo who co-host the Wednesday Spoken Word show at KFAI (where my date is a DJ).

The whole night became a reflection of the book we went to hear about. Part of why Steve Lerach is credentialed to write Fried is that he has lived and cooked in Minneapolis for thirty years. Thirty years! He told us how his book started out as a master’s thesis on the history of restaurants as far back as the French revolution. But the more he dug into the past, the more he saw parallels to the people he has worked with throughout his career, and this cast of cooks and sous chefs took over the focus of his writing. Eventually, his story became their story instead. Their story demanded to be told.

And that’s another way to make a city love you. Let the story of its people become your story, too, whether you have lived there for three or for thirty years.