Category Archives: Gal pals

Restaurant Alma

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.

Restaurant Alma on Urbanspoon

My Weekend (In Which I Discover Lillet)

Weekend, where did you go? I had three days off, which is just enough to set my world almost right again. On Saturday, I headed to the country to meet my childhood friend Carrie at her house in Somerset. We packed up her daughters Zoe and Jamie a took a trip to Fawn Doe Rosa. Look at this beautiful girl (and my new best friend). It’s eerie and sweet to see her face, given that I have known Carrie since I was two years old and Zoe looks so much like her, both then and now.

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I spent the drive home daydreaming about the party I’m throwing on Friday. In my first draft of the party (the one that doesn’t take cost into consideration), I make about eighteen different “Le Cakes” as seen in Gourmet with ample aperitifs to go with them. Alas, a bottle of Lillet is 23 dollars, so my petit aperitif obsession will have to be a semi private affair. But it’s so good, especially with a Nicoise salad, and especially imagining a French man serving it to me.

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Sunday, Angela and I went bumming around the new Uptown Market. For better or worse, we didn’t get a hot dog from the Magic Bus, as good as that might have been. We went to Bryant Lake Bowl instead. I had a colorful mess of huevos rancheros.

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I’ve never been let down by the food at BLB — but I have been let down by the service a few times, hanging out for forever while all the tables around you get their food. A restaurant/bowling alley is not a good place to complain about practical matters, though, even though I might try. The organic maple syrup offered to the table cost an extra buck fifty, and the server never says you’ll be charged. I don’t mind spending the money, but come on. It’s the principle of the thing. The crowd is a bunch of progressive urbanites eating granola pancakes — of course we want the organic maple syrup. Factor it into your operating expenses and serve everyone the good stuff. We’re discerning customers, and totally worth it, given what an institution BLB is.

Bryant-Lake Bowl on Urbanspoon

BYOL (Bring Your Own Levain)

On a recent Friday night, I sped my way to Cafe Levain with anticipation. I was looking forward to catching up with Jamie, my friend who recently moved to Brooklyn from Minneapolis, and I was late. levain menuThe 46th Street exit on 35W-S is closed (still) and I haven’t learned (still) to get off earlier. Thankfully, I was able to backtrack and steer myself to my destination, one of those south Minneapolis neighborhood strips with quite a few things going for it. I couldn’t find the restaurant as I drove by, but the address was right, so I parked my car and hoped to find it all the same. Around the corner from a wood-burning pizza place, Turtle Bread, a bar, a movie theatre, a Mexican restaurant, and various other amenities sits Cafe Levain, tucked away on a side street patiently waiting for you to arrive.

levain kitchen

It’s very welcoming to step inside this warm, Midwestern bistro, slightly French in spirit, with its large space, hardwood interior, yellow walls, and open kitchen. I just wish I new how to pronounce the restaurant’s name. “Levain” is a challenging French word, isn’t it? I would love to say it with all the guttural verve I know it deserves, but I cannot, so I settle for a flat American approximation thereof, plain old Leh-vahn, spoken like a tired breadmaker who ran out of yeast.

Jamie gave me a big hug and kiss, as this was one of the few nights we’d be able to spend together while she was in town. When we settled in and asked the server what people are ordering, she said “everything,” which makes me a little skeptical. Even if the menu is a masterpiece, every restaurant develops a reputation for a few items. I’m confident that Cafe Levain has a few such entrees on its menu, but unfortunately, I don’t think that we ordered them that evening.

I may not get all the details of these meals right because I am writing from memory. The restaurant posts its menu online, but it changes frequently, and those things we ate weren’t posted when I visited the site. levain salad

We started out with a memorable salad (simply called the Winter Salad), a long platter of Brussels sprouts, bacon, poached egg, frisée, and whole pistachio nuts. This was a fantastic blend of texture and flavor with something masterful about it. We shared our way through the salad with many rave reviews and gulps of wine.

I ordered ribeye steak with mushrooms with a side of potato puree, hearty and fulfilling comfort food made even more appealing with local meat and vegetables–something your grandma would make, but never quite this good.

ribeye

Jamie ordered chicken with beans (I think they were flagolet) and sausage and a side of pearl barley. The chicken was crispy and juicy at the same time, and probably as delicious as any chicken could be. In comparison, the beans were lacking personality, unless you ate them with a piece of sausage, and the pearl barley was suspiciously flavorless. Did something go wrong? Did the sous chef forget to add something to the barley that night? We each had one bite, but the rest of the side dish went completely uneaten, which is a shame, as that’s one of the big things Cafe Levain has going for it. The entrees are priced in the comfortable 16- to 20-dollar range, and on top of it, the portions are more than ample and you also get to choose a side to accompany your meal. I love how this generosity sets Cafe Levain apart as a true Midwestern bistro.

chicken

In addition, I also loved the double rows of two-person tables that graced the long wall opposite the kitchen, making this a flirtatious date option, and a lot of people are raving about the prix fixe Sunday Supper.

It’s ironic though, that even considering these obvious charms, the restaurant seems to be lacking that which I cannot pronounce. Levain, a leavening agent, something to infuse it with a little extra gusto and that mysterious spark that marks a restaurant’s sign of success. I’ll be rooting for this place, and hoping that those things Cafe Levain does well will be the leaven that helps it rise as well as it should.

Cafe Levain on Urbanspoon

Bobotie, Coming Soon to a State Near You

Given that I’m a somewhat recent transplant to MSP, I’m still amused by the peculiarities indigenous to the state of Minnesota. As I see it, the main differences between Wisconsin (my home state) and Minnesota have to do with handguns and booze. Classy, right? When I first saw the signs in MSP that read HANDGUNS BANNED ON THESE PREMISES, I was more than a little freaked out. I lived in both Chicago and a not-so-lovely corner of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvesant, and no one talked about handguns there!

We’re forthright about our handguns, but we’re more than a little weird about our booze, with three-two beer (which even my lifelong MSP friends don’t understand entirely), grocery stores that can’t sell liquor, and a ban on liquor sales on the most spirited day of the week. I’m from working-class Milwaukee, where there is a bar on every residential street, we take brewery tours just to guzzle down free beer afterward, and the in-store liquor selection at Pick ‘n Save is just as vast as the produce section.

Of course, as we all know, once you cross the border from Wisco into Minneso-ota, another peculiar thing happens. Casserole turns into hotdish. I’m no stranger to casserole. The dish I remember most from my mom’s homey collection of recipes is something called Super Supper: a bubbling, baked collection of whipped potatoes with sour cream, beef seasoned with pre-packaged BBQ spices, corn, and pre-shredded cheddar cheese. This is straightforward if not also rib-sticking delicious, even though half the time she didn’t even put the corn in because my brother wouldn’t eat it. It shows you just how exotic we were. photo(2)

Last weekend, when I made bobotie for Lisa’s South African-themed dinner party, I couldn’t help but be charmed by all the unique ingredients that go into this meal. This is a traditional South African recipe with 1,001 permutations that reveals just how much our food says about who we are. Compare South African traditions (bright, spicy, exotic) and Midwestern traditions (creamy, packaged, and hold those spices and the wild fruits!). Bobotie is your Midwestern grandmother’s hotdish hallucination.

I followed this recipe I found at Gastronomy Domine, which I highly recommend. It contains the following.

Beef and white bread. (I used half beef, half veal for variety.)

Milk and eggs.

Lemon juice, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, bay leaves, curry, AND garam masala.

Dried apricots, sultanas, and chutney. (I substituted pineapple for chutney, which works nicely.)

This is all pressed into a baking dish and topped with an egg/milk combination that forms a savory tent of custard on the top when baked. Whew!

bobotie and yellow riceTo accompany it, I made yellow rice a la Emeril, which I have made another two times this week. I stock the leftover rice and love using it to make my own renditions of fried rice with whatever fresh stuff I have on hand.

To drink, we had a few bottles of Pinotage, which Stefanie and I mostly enjoyed but couldn’t pinpoint what we didn’t love about it. DSC01203

For dessert, Lisa made soetkoekies, which are traditional South African sweet cookies. Given her wild crush on desserts, she didn’t love the subtle flavors. Lucky for me, because I did, and she sent me home with plenty of cookies, which I ate not-so-judiciously with coffee the next day.

In fact, I write this with a stiff cup of coffee and a soetkoekie this morning, a little taste of the exotic here in the homey Midwest.

The Amazing, Uncategorizable Barbette

DSC01121Can you feel that, my friends? That cold wind that gets under your skin and makes you dance around like an idiot in the streets? When I left my place this morning, I was pelted by hard rain that could almost be described as snow. I suppose this icky precip is what Mary Lucia calls “frickle” (freezing drizzle, right?), and what weather.com refers to as a “wintry mix,” which sounds more like a nice, creamy winter cocktail than this face-stinging frickle nonsense.

In all fairness, I don’t mind winter. I know it’s controversial, but I’d go so far as to say I like it. Snow and wind are the great democratizers of the Midwest, pitting man against nature and proving time and again that we’re all in this together, kind of like street parking or gynecological exams. I also adore the style of the season, which I refer to as Minnesota Chic: everyone goofed out in scarves and hats that make us look like cast members from the Muppets. At the co-op today, I saw an older man with a front-tied scarf around his neck wearing a wool alpaca hat with colorful flowers on it. He was laden with groceries and dodging the frickle on the way back to his car. This is the kind of stuff I like. Take that, delusions! Nice try, unpreparedness! It’s hard to be foolish or pretentious when you’re from Minnesota.

Anyway. My radiators are finally humming, my car is cracking, and last night, Lake Calhoun looked like an exquisite portrait of itself, as you can see in this picture I took. I also had a guest in town. My author-friend Ronelle came for a visit from Portland. This is a woman with her wits about her. She arrived with hiking boots, wool coat, hat, and scarf. Together, we looked like poster girls for Minnesota Chic. We wandered around Lake Calhoun until our toes got cold then went to Barbette for dinner. DSC01123

I have to center myself and sigh deeply before I can tell you about Barbette. I feel slightly transformed every time I walk in this place. Imagine being welcomed by a round gold table, deep red banquettes, jewel tone accessories, a decadent reclining nude (on the wall, of course), vintage circus posters, and colorful hanging lights that look like bubblegum on a stick. I love my urbane corner of St. Paul, but this atmosphere makes me want to pack up and move. Romance such as this is best experienced as an easy pied-à-terre on your favorite corner, a joyful whim you can come to love.

We ordered frites to start, because who should do without them? This is the half order, which our server advised would be more than enough. She was right. There wasn’t enough mayo, but that’s OK. And I would have loved a bit of cracked pepper, but that’s OK, too.

DSC01125Ronelle ordered grilled Fischer pork loin with pear currant compote, Wisconsin wild rice, pine nuts, braised greens, and raisins. 

I ordered one of the specials. Braised Minnesota beef daube Provençal with organic root vegetables, nicely served with two pieces of white bread for mopping up and eating every last drop of the sauce.

Barbette’s classic French cooking is so faithful and sure of itself that it allows the experience of living, dining, and DSC01126discussing to be the real star of the show. When great food, gracious service, and an imaginative setting come together this seamlessly, you have found a restaurant that can take you somewhere. Mid-evening, I looked around and noticed that the place had reached a pitched equilibrium, with every seat taken and no one waiting to get in. The buzz was high and the crowd consisted of packs of suits, ladies of six, and one particular table of two sitting next to us – a man and a woman so drawn to each other they just had to be physically enmeshed. At Barbette, that’s perfectly all right. Barbette makes me want to date intensely, fall in love, or broker a really big deal. The setting transports you, and the food makes you remember who you are. Maybe this is why the place is named after a circus act, something that is kind of exotic, but kind of dorky – and as I see it, thoroughly Minnesota Chic.

Barbette on Urbanspoon

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

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.