Monthly Archives: August 2010

Lucia’s Wine Bar

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 habaƱero 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.

Lucia's on Urbanspoon

Eggplant Pesto, I Suppose

I spent the weekend kicking around the kitchen with some good books, a bag of rice, and the few vegetables needed to make Indian food — potatoes, cauliflower, and eggplant. I learned the proper ratio of spice to use in making saag aloo and found a recipe for the perfect basmati rice, which just about bowled me over when the 20 minutes passed and I was finally able to open the lid.

In other words, I put the thrill of spontaneous cooking aside and dutifully followed some recipes. It was fulfilling, like mastering a sequence of yoga poses. You just have to put your ego aside and do what the nice recipe tells you to do.

I’m not a natural when it comes to following recipes, but I do have a knack for writing them. Last week, I almost won an award for my recipe writing. The Symposium for Professional Food Writers is an impressive, although expensive conference, so I applied for one of their scholarships on a whim. I was awarded a “special mention” in the Chronicle Books Scholarship for Recipe Writing. I was told the judges loved my writing, I scored consistently high, and my final score was close to that of the winning entrant.

And these wonderful writers have platforms. In my category, the winner was Ivy Manning, author of two cookbooks. The special mentions were 1.) Dede Wilson, author of 12 cookbooks, 2.) Faith Durand, managing editor of Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn and soon-to-be author, and 3.) me.

I was thrilled, especially since I never identified as a recipe writer. In fact, I never identified much as a recipe follower. My pantry is my palette. My All Clad is my canvas. Without recipes, my imagination runs free. I close my eyes and go to some higher place in my mind, seeing the color, texture, and taste of a dish take shape. If I’m creating the recipe for publication, I research the heck out of it and write it so clearly any Tom, Dick, or Harry could step up to the stovetop and give it a go.

I love this process. As a writer and editor, I take great pleasure in bringing order to cooking, a process that’s unpredictable, messy, and subjective by nature.

On any regular day, though, my cooking is whimsical at heart, even literary. Saturday, I read much of Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, specifically the essay “Alone In the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” This title was so compelling I had to do what it suggested. This is what the eggplant and I came up with.

However, like Magritte and his pipe, I would stress “this not a recipe.” A walnut is to pine nuts as feta is to parmesan, and herbs are so universally appealing it’s hard to pick just one. All I can say for sure is this is what I do when I’m alone in the kitchen with an eggplant. What do you do?

******

Eggplant Pesto

Makes about 4 cups

Now is the perfect time of year to eat eggplant, showing up all purple and beautiful at the farmers markets. For just 2 bucks, I got three of them. I used two, which yields a lot of pesto — enough for a big family or a party. I’m going to bring it to share for a weekend at a cabin. It’s great for grazing or for matching up with all manner of main courses.

  • 2 eggplants
  • one handful of walnuts
  • two handfuls of feta
  • olive oil
  • a few cloves of garlic
  • juice of a lemon
  • every last leaf on one hearty stalk of basil
  • salt, pepper, cayenne

Preheat the oven to 325 while you stab the eggplant all over with a fork. Cup one of your hands, pour in some olive oil, and slather it all over the fruit (eggplant is a fruit, you know). Put the fruit in a glass dish and roast in the oven for 45 minutes, turning once half way through. Put them in the fridge. When cool, cut off the green hat and peel off the skin with your fingers, which will slide right off, then pull out the long sinewy clusters of seeds. When you have nothing but eggplant flesh, give it all a squeeze, in batches, to release the excess water.

Put all of the ingredients except the eggplant flesh in a food processor and give it a whir. Add the eggplant and give it another few whirs while pouring in some olive oil. Add to pasta, slather on crackers and pita, or well, just about anything you’d like.

Beets and Oranges

I love listening to Leonard Cohen croon about Suzanne’s half-crazy bohemian beauty. “She’ll feed you tea and oranges that come all the way from china,” he sang. Every time I hear the song, I see them eating mandarin orange slices together and drinking oolong tea. Did she wrap the oranges and her teapot in a scarf and take him down to her place near the river, sitting on a blanket, peeling the skins with her delicate white fingers as she fed the oranges to him one by one?

I never did much like mandarin oranges though. They remind me too much of the can they come in. Instead, I look for clementines or tangerines, but always seem to miss their window — or, if I’m lucky enough to take them home, seldom remember to eat them before they shrivel up and harden.

With this recipe, canned mandarins have found a place in my kitchen, paired with my favorite vegetable — beets, canonized by Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume as “the most intense of the vegetables,” a vegetable with the fire of passion. Eating beets and oranges is like merging earth and sky — the peculiar, earth-bound beetroot and the lovable, sun-drenched orange effortlessly fall for each other somewhere in between.

I made this side dish for a dinner party this weekend, creatively and on the fly, because I had long, narrow beets in the fridge from B’s parents’ garden — curiously the size of mandarin oranges, I thought. But how could I make it special? I was reminded of the book I’ve been reading lately — The Book of Salt.

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein lived together in Paris during the heady days of American expatriatism. To Stein, Toklas was everything beyond mere bedfellow — typist, confidant, hostess, and extraordinary cook. The Book of Salt peers into their life, telling us that Miss Toklas is the kind of cook who “puts absinthe in her salad dressing and rose petals in her vinegar.”

The idea of dressing a salad with a French liqueur demanded my attention, especially since I’d heard this somewhere before. In Lunch in Paris, the young female author makes something similar for a picnic for her boyfriend — Potato and Green Bean Salad with Pastis Vinaigrette.

So back to my kitchen, I tossed the roasted beets with mandarin orange slices and a couple splashes of pastis, which added a slight note of licorice to an incredibly agreeable dish. At the end of the party, not a bite of the happy pair remained.

*****

Cold Roasted Beet Salad with Mandarin Oranges and Pastis

Serves 10 as a side dish at a party

  • 2 bundles of beets
  • 2-ish large cans of mandarin oranges (eyeball an even ratio of beet to orange)
  • Something sweet (like agave, sugar, or honey)
  • Salt
  • Canola oil and olive oil
  • Herbs

Peel and cut the beets into pieces the size of mandarin oranges. Save the greens for later.

Coat the beets with canola oil, kosher salt, and a few turns of something sweet. Roast in a 375-degree oven 35 minutes or until lightly brown, turning once halfway through. Cool.

Drain the mandarin oranges and add to a bowl with the beets, a twist of olive oil, sea salt, black pepper, and two splashes of Pastis french liqueur. Add herbs if you have them, like chives and purple basil, which I have here. Serve at room temperature.

Cafe Ena and King’s

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.

Cafe Ena on Urbanspoon