Category Archives: Tete a tete (That’s French for “dating”)

This Is My Madeleine

This Valentine’s Day, I’m more than a little confused. I can’t tell if something important in my life has ended or has just begun. I was going to make oeufs en meurette for someone, but we’re planning to not see each other for awhile, even though everything between us feels so wonderful and right. Some days, the newfound freedom feels exciting and full of potential. Other days, I feel like the 4-year-old version of myself who lost her precious teddy bear named Charlie and wailed at the top of her lungs until my mom had to take me back to the store to figure out where it had gone.

This morning, I did the only thing that felt right. I woke up early, cleaned the kitchen, and made madeleines. I’d been collecting madeleine pans each time I saw them at the thrift store, and I delighted in it, as though I was rescuing lost puppies from the pound. I have five of these beauties now, both small and large, all of them weathered and old.

I’m not sure what I like more about madeleines, their literary history as a vessel for Proust’s childhood memories, or that I find the scallop-shell shape so pleasantly reassuring. Venus was born in a scallop shell, a full-grown, sensuous woman perfectly beautiful from the moment she took her first breath. Madeleines are like that, and I’ve always thought about Venus to remind myself that I am too, no matter what life might take away from me.

I found comfort in madeleines this morning, following Patricia Wells’ recipe, creating the perfect shape, what Proust called “the little scallop shell pastry, so richly sensual under its religious fold.”

I love madeleines because they are so plainly beautiful, so simply and exactly what they are. Maybe I was drawn to them as a reminder. Don’t lose yourself, don’t change for the sake of someone else, and certainly don’t worry about what’s to come. One day years from now, I’ll make madeleines again one morning. I have no idea what kitchen I’ll be in, or who I’ll be with, if anyone. I have no idea what I will think about how I feel now. But I’m confident the madeleines will bring in a flood of wonderful memories, as I’m a person who will always be happy with whatever shape my life has taken on.

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 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.

Lucia's on Urbanspoon

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

How to Poach Risotto

Only once in my life have I acted on a deliciously unethical impulse when it comes to food. I poached a man’s risotto, and I don’t mean in a bath of lightly boiling water. I stole it. A guy made risotto for me and I took it out from under him and served it to another man.

It was our third or fourth date and this guy and I decided to have dinner at my place. I figured I’d contribute whatever was in my fridge at the time, somewhat wistfully imagining us dividing up a recipe together, chopping and prepping together at the kitchen island. But I guess collaborating is not what he had in mind. He showed up with every ingredient he needed to make risotto and a couple cuts of meat to eat along with it. He even brought his own knife.

He took the helm of my kitchen as if he had cooked there hundreds of times before. He grabbed a perfectly sized All Clad pan, tossed in some butter and a few turns of olive oil, and sauteed the onions he’d finely diced. He added the arborio rice, patiently allowing it to toast and then slowly soak up the white wine, salt, chicken stock, butter, and parmesan cheese, transforming it stir by stir into the plump, creamy texture it is famous for. He seared the meat and served it alongside a heaping portion of risotto the fine color of a delicate bird’s egg.

Unfortunately, none of his efforts in my kitchen that night did anything for me. We ate this great meal with nothing all that great to say. We eventually ended the evening with a sober salutation at the door and the leftovers of his heavenly cloud of Italian starch cooling in my fridge.

Dear reader, this is where I argue the risotto entered the public domain. It’s not as though I sat back with twisted fingers concocting a clever plan for what to do with the decadent offspring of a failed date. An opportunity simply came along.

The following night, I had a date with B, who also loves to cook. In getting to know each other, we talked about the food movies we’d like to watch together, like Mostly Martha, Ratatouille, and many others. That night, we decided to watch Big Night. A smile spread broadly across my face as I flashed from the risotto in my fridge to Primo the chef’s enduring passion for the familial risotto recipe that wends its way throughout the film. B and I burrowed next to each other on my couch with two plates of our bounty and two glasses of wine as Primo passionately dished out plates of risotto from the back of his kitchen.

Since then, I’ve decided every home chef should be able to make risotto without following a recipe. It’s your ace in the hole, an adaptable base that will convey most anything you’d like to put in it. Martha Stewart sums it up by saying a well-made risotto is a “culinary feat. Small, firm grains of rice float, suspended, in a rich, creamy sauce.” Is that sensuous enough? I would describe the full process, but I couldn’t do it any better than Mario Batali and Mark Bittman in this charming video. Follow the recipe once and try to look at it never again.

Marla’s and Me

I must admit. Something happened that feels as completely incongruous as stumbling on a snowball on a summer’s day. I’m seeing someone. Regularly. Who I met online. A fellow I mentioned a few times, who I’ve called B, has showed me the value of online dating. That’s right. Meeting him online has not only been enjoyable — it’s been rewarding. All of those questions, answers, boxes, pictures, headlines, and quizzes that are usually so tortuous have proven, in this case, to be illuminating, flirtatious, and fun.

Somewhere, a little mud-soaked pig who thought he was forever stuck on terra firma is sprouting a set of wings.

B’s pictures were full of character. We each gave each other 5 stars. He got me to answer more than a couple hundred of those dreadful questions that force you to answer a totally complex question in only one of three possible ways.

His profile charmed me, as well.

“I love substantive and offbeat conversations.”

Swoon.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about… making and keeping a home.”

Sign me up!

“I would like to explore some new culinary horizons.”

Alright, boy, then come with me.

Because explore new culinary horizons we do. One restaurant we ate at recently has proven to be a strong favorite to us both — Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine. This place is only a couple blocks away from me, but still, I always dubiously drove past it on my way to and from the gym. I didn’t think it looked special, so I somewhat smugly never went to Marla’s.

Score: 0 for delicious Caribbean food. 0 for the hungry critic who lives inside my head.

With perfect timing, however, Citypages came out with their “best of” list and declared this: Best Take Out 2010: Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine

And this: Marla’s Doubles: 100 Favorite Dishes

After that, one thing was clear: I might be wrong about Marla’s.

B and I have eaten there a few times since then. While the experience is consistently quirky, the food is always flat-out delicious. As we were happily eating in the spartan dining room, I flashed back to B’s profile.

“You are delighted when you judge a book by its cover — and are proven entirely wrong.”

Oh, sigh. Few things could be more true. I was so wrong that I’m delighted by how wrong I was! From the unique beverages to the killer plantains, Marla’s truly delivers a great meal.

There’s ginger beer.

Or a curious and refreshing sorrel soft drink.

Here’s those doubles Citypages raved about. Curry chana between two fried bara. Get your hopes up — they really are that good — just leave a little room for your hopes to be dashed. The first time I went, they had no doubles. The second time, the server said they still didn’t have any, but the chef shouted out that they did (after I had a minor, although eloquent, thing that could be likened to a tantrum).

The plantains are among the best I’ve ever had.

The roti are almost impossible not to order. Here’s dhalpourie roti with curry chicken. Dhalpourie is a soft flatbread filled with finely ground yellow split peas.

While we nearly inhaled it, it still wasn’t as good as the paratha roti with beef we had another day. Paratha is a soft flaky flatbread made with butter. Next time, I’m getting the flaky paratha with this lovely and fragrant chicken curry.

Here’s a rich, comforting plate of dumplings with beef stew. The menu, which is sparse on details, might lead you to think you’re getting a plate of filled dumplings similar to a dumpling appetizer. Not at all. The dumplings are plain and mounded high, ready to be eaten with bites of the filling stew, grandmother style.

While I don’t have a picture of the Jamaican jerk chicken, B and I agreed that the charred and spicy jerk was the best thing we had. At the same time, we’re also both aware that we haven’t yet eaten at Harry Singh’s, which Citypages declared the best Caribbean in the Twin Cities. Given our love of Marla’s, B and I are both skeptical, yet true to form, ready to be proven entirely wrong.

Marla's Indian & Carribean Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Ms. Dalloway’s Party

It still amazes me just how much it takes to throw a good party. You have to quite completely throw yourself at it to make it seem as if you did nothing at all — caring deeply to be nonchalant, working all hours to appear effortless, choosing recipes carefully to discreetly impress. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf reported wryly on a boring English luncheon, saying “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes,” as if slipping into the voice of my favorite hostess Mrs. Dalloway whispering into the ear of a well-dressed guest nibbling appreciatively at one of her parties. I see the ladies conspiring in unison before a beautiful party spread, “No, no. Indeed, it does not. Now please serve me more of that beautiful trifle, my dear.”

The lamp in the spine lights on French cheese wrapped in paper and globe-shaped green olives you can pop on each of your fingers and eat one by one, on strange combinations like the sweet snap of peas blended with almonds, and on long-loved ones like squash, nutmeg, and heavy cream. It lights on minor collisions of tastes that contrast with one another, like the piqued tartness of citrus against the reassuring simplicity of bread. It lights on champagne citrus punch with white wine, and always on a simple bottle of beer.

More or less, that was my philosophy behind the food I made for my May Day party last weekend: Cilantro-pea spread with almond butter (from Chocolate and Zucchini). “Les cakes,” French savory cakes with black and green olives, parmesan, roblochon, and pancetta (from Epicurious). Squash bread pudding (from Food & Wine). Cucumbers with four types of roasted peppers, three types of citrus, feta, and cumin (from me). Globe grapes with chevre, crushed roasted pistachio, and mint (from me). Champagne citrus punch with Chardonnay and pomegranate (also from me). And lots of beer.

As I throw more parties, I’m essentially learning how to make the food disappear, even before it is eaten. It should recede quietly into the background among the flowers, plates, linens, and candles, offering a sense of something I can only think to call grace. There must have been about 50 people at the party. Tracing the connections we share would look like the New York City subway map, with many intersecting strands of friends and family, including many people I never met before. In introducing myself to one of these strangers, he said, “I never met you, but I heard the food here would be good, so I had to come.” I’m pretty sure that’s what I meant by grace.

In the end, the best part of a party is the noise of the door closing after the last person leaves. It’s so quiet you can actually hear it click, and you hope you are lucky enough to have that one favorite person there with you on the couch to take apart the evening, to avoid the mess with you, and to fall asleep with you. I wonder what Mrs. Dalloway did on those quiet evenings when all the guests had gone. She had married her husband Richard to be practical. Did she wish it was her lost love Peter with her when she closed the door, the man who saw the whole world in her eyes, who was filled with excitement every time he saw her, always saying, so affirmatively, “For there she was. There she was.”

Beet of My Heart

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.