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

Jasmine Deli

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.

Advertisements

Christos

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.

Christos on Urbanspoon

A Beet Lover’s Confessional

I must admit, I rang in 2010 tucked away in the outer boroughs of New York City with R and a large tub of fresh artichokes, which he taught me how to cook based on his grandfather’s old recipe.

R adores artichokes. He lights up every time he talks about them. When he was a kid, he wouldn’t let anyone talk to him if he was eating one of the artichoke dishes his large Italian family would put in front of his face. Given how full of life he is, I think they started to use it as a strategy.

You can see why I was surprised when R claimed I have an equally passionate relationship with beets.

“Your beet is my artichoke, Obry,” he said, going so far as to claim I have a fetish for them. It’s hard to describe just what it is about them. Beets make me sigh. Of all the stuff in the produce section, they’re the most fun to bring home. They’re so awkward, with their and crazy tall greens and peculiar long tails so animated it looks like they could scamper away.

I roast beets at least once a week and eat them with any combination of greens, grains, and cheese — or just straight on their own. I rarely buy bare beets, as the greens are delicious to eat with nothing but sea salt, shaved raw garlic, and a swing of olive oil.

And what else can you do with that beet meat? I had a loaf of Rustica’s whole grain bread and homemade hummus in the fridge, which led to this lovely combination — a roasted beet and hummus sandwich.

R, just so you know, the beet lover in me honors the artichoke lover in you. 😉

Eat, Pray, Poach

What with one thing or another, this weekend went by without a moment to spare. My column for the co-op was due, which in itself is enough to keep me blissfully engaged for 72 hours. For every column, I develop a new recipe, test it 2 or 3 times, write my heart out, and take a bunch of pictures. In this case, I made a wonderful French dish, which I won’t say more about until the article is out in February. However, the detail crucial to the arc of my weekend is that I must have poached, medium-boiled, and soft-boiled about 82 eggs.

Food photography is not yet my strong suit. I went to Ace to get a flood light, hoping it would help me take salacious pictures, but it only threw a red-orange light on everything, and it certainly didn’t get better when I knocked it off its makeshift ledge and broke the bulb on the floor. C’est la vie! Julia Child, if you were born in the digital age, what would yooooouu have done? After you mastered the art of French cooking, would you have mastered the art of blogging about it? In the end, I scored best with those pictures taken in natural sunlight. (Click on it. You know you want to.)

 

In addition to making a infernal mess in the kitchen, I also met my favorite gals for our short fiction discussion, attended back-to-back holiday parties, and went on not one, but two dates. Remember those?

I ended up at a strip-mall cafe in a suburb I don’t recall sipping Ethiopian coffee with a computer systems analyst. My philosophical disposition was already understood, so he asked me a ton of questions about my understanding of relationships. I responded with even more questions, deconstructed the whole yin/yang affair, and felt like I applied the Socratic method to dating as we reached the limits of our provisional knowledge. I suspect I wasn’t so graceful, though, when I stepped out of the cafe, looked around, and asked, almost incredulously, “Now… where are we?”

Better yet, I also ended up drinking tea at cozy and dimly lit Uncommon Grounds with an intelligent, curious, and curly-haired psychologist with a PhD. He had read my blog before we met, and one of the first things he said after we sat down with our tea went like this. “I told my friend I was meeting Carrie…” (pause, given that this is my name), “like Carrie from Sex & the City. She might write about me!” It was clear he was being playful, although I also decided then and there that his statement would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. (wink)

We had a nice, slow volley of a conversation and I liked his habit of alternately looking at me or staring pensively out the window at Hennepin Avenue while he spoke. Before I knew it, we were done talking and he was kicking my butt in a board game I had never played before. If dating isn’t enough to keep you on your toes, trying playing a breakneck game of Bananagrams while you do.

I suppose there are some things in life, like poaching eggs, snapping pictures, or playing board games while dating, that a girl’s just gotta learn how to do.

Life on My Own Terms

Lately, I haven’t been writing as much as I want to. Since I moved, I’ve been spending my time unpacking, painting, and finding all the right things I need for my new/old home. I also go to the gym, hang out with my friends, work from 9 to 5, freelance after hours, and try to follow my favorite blogs, catch the news, and read at least a few pages of good fiction before bed.

It feels like I’m always busy. To maximize my time, I haven’t been cooking in my usual style. I buy the same few things from Seward co-op and cook simply, almost sparely, with no fanfare and rarely a picture taken. No dinnertime Tweets. No facebook updates again declaring my love for beets. Just the simple act of making myself something to eat.

The other thing I haven’t been doing lately is dating, which puts a cramp in my favorite habit — going to restaurants. As I describe in my tagline, I love writing about how the city, dating, and food come together in amusing ways. For the last two years, I filled many posts with my renderings of boy meets girl and they go out to eat. But somewhere in the middle of my extended experiment with sociability, something inside me shifted and I pretty much lost all interest.

Do I want to find someone to spend my time with? Of course I do. In so many ways, I think I’m meant to be in a relationship. But at this point, the possibility feels so remote, I can only look at other people’s relationships and marriages with “bemused incomprehension,” to use a phrase from Tim Kreider’s wonderful post at the New York Times. He calls marriage and parenthood “an entire dimension of human experience undetectable to [his] senses.” When I think about relationships, and dare I say marriage, I imagine a vast foreign country I may never get to visit, usually somewhere near Morocco, with beautiful, distant horizons, rare luxuries, exotic spices, roasted flatbreads, and a mutual love so sweet even the hardships are painfully romantic. But if I close my eyes, I can almost feel it.

In some ways, I’m not concerned about the sizing-up, reckoning-day thing Kreider calls “the referendum,” where the personal choices we make in life are discreetly judged by the people we know. If I were, I’d be actively hunting for my perfect partner and trying to build four happy walls around us both. I’d also be checking the dial on my biological clock and wondering why I seem to be immune to its ticking.

In other ways, the referendum has come to visit. Hell, it’s set up shop in my heart and I rarely think about anything else. For me, the referendum is about personal fulfillment and finding the resolve to confront a bewildering abstraction that lives right in the middle of my life. Some people find themselves through marriage and children. Some through buying a house or a condo. Some through making a dent in the corporate world. I’ve learned that I will fully become myself through the act of creativity. For me, before anything else, I’ll be satisfied once I find my personal expression and get it out there in the world.

I just need to figure out what that is. I see a manuscript, a menu, and some old table linens. Flowers flirt together in a small glass vase on the table. I’m writing and editing at my own desk and cooking in a big kitchen. There’s open windows and exposed brick. There’s also an exhilarating sense of freedom because I know that the life I’m jealously peering into is my own.

In Case Anyone Asks

Although I can see how the conclusion might be drawn, I certainly didn’t grow up in the kitchen. I didn’t eat long, lavishly home-cooked meals at the table with my family. We ate things like meat, potatoes, corn, and peas and seasoned our meals with salt, pepper, mustard, and ketchup. The division of labor in the kitchen was just as simple as our food. My mom cooked every one of our meals. My dad’s only job was to show up, mash the potatoes, and eat.

It wasn’t until I was in my first relationship that food naturally became a major part of my life. Unlike my parents, my partner and I built a strong bond through food. We subscribed to a CSA and experimented with cooking based on whatever vegetables the farm sent our way. We ‘d bring backpacks from our apartment in Bed-Sty on the train into Manhattan to load up on groceries from Murray’s Cheese, the Chelsea Market, and other specialty stores. We’d reference our favorite cookbooks (primarily Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone), write down our original recipes, and play Beatles records while we perfected the sauté.

One day, his mom asked me where I learned how to cook so well. I was so surprised she asked this question that I didn’t know how to answer. Somewhere along the line, I had learned how to cook.

I often ask myself why I like cooking so much–and every time I come up with at least 12 answers. Here’s one of them. Cooking is something I can commit myself to.

julie_julia03

I think about that fantastic scene in Julie and Julia when Julia Child, played so joyfully by Meryl Streep, and her husband Paul first arrive in Paris. Over an impossibly charming dinner, she emphatically poses a question to her diplomat husband about how she will spend her time in France: “But what will I doooo?” she implores. All she knew was that she loved to eat.

The rest is history, I suppose. Child committed herself to cooking, transformed her life, and fundamentally changed American kitchens.

So in case anyone asks, that’s why I love cooking. Creativity, passion, and determination all come together when you set out to cook a wonderful meal. It’s also something wonderful to doooo.

W.A. Frost and the First Snow Fall

282972413_4551d95c75_o

In one of his short stories called Winter Dreams, Fitzgerald perfectly describes the scene that fell on his hometown of St. Paul this weekend. “The days have become crisp and gray, and the long Minnesota winter has shut down like the white lid of a box.” photo(2)

Intrepid gal that I am, I didn’t let the first big snow fall of the year box me in. This weekend, I hung out with friends at 20.21, The Craftsman, and Riverview Wine Bar. I caught the British Advertising Awards (tell me please, what’s the big deal?) and the new Woody Allen movie. I walked to Nina’s twice, once to meet Nathan for breakfast and book-shopping at Common Good. The second time to meet a new gal named R, who proved to be a fast friend with a considerable interest in the city. I also went to the gym, made soup, did lots of freelance work, and bought a new sweater at Macy’s. (Remember, there’s always free parking on Sunday!)

As if that wasn’t enough for one weekend, I also had a second date with PS. Last week, we met at Eli’s and had a nice time chatting at the front table by the window. On Sunday, he called to ask me out again. Rather than the usual back-and-forth that can be so characteristic of these situations, this guy simply said, “Hey, I made a reservation for us at W.A. Frost at 7.” Now that, I love. No asking. No dalliance. Just good, old-fashioned datemaking. I graciously accepted.

But Frost? Truth be told, I was hesitant to go to there on a second date, given that it is fabled to be the epitome of romance. But when the dating gets tough, I suppose the tough get dating. I flipped up my hair, put on the new sweater and my snow boots, and crunched my way there in the snow.

282977658_bee1fd19ac_oI know that W.A. Frost has won many awards for its food. I know it used to be one of those creepy old pharmacies. I know Fitzgerald probably stopped by for an ice cream and a bottle of Coke, and that perhaps Nina herself used the corner of Western and Selby to pick up some of her brothel’s clientele. But as beautiful as that patio, high ceiling, and lovingly restored interior is, when I’m at Frost, I just don’t feel like I belong there. Maybe I’m a little too much like Fitzgerald, living in flat after flat, moving from town to town, not so sure whether to accept or reject the landed gentry living it up in all those prestigious Summit Avenue homes. Or maybe I just need to spend more time at the bar rather than the dining room.

I finally confided in my date. “It feels kind of . . . pre-theatre in here, if you know what I mean.”

“Of course I do. We’re the hippest people here,” he said, not missing a beat.

And so it goes. To date well is to be a curator of moments, collecting those that stand out and tell a story about an individual. I liked this particular moment. It said he understood.

I ordered pan-roasted Norwegian salmon with goat cheese risotto, bloody mary consomme, and petite herb salad. Everything about this entree came together nicely, especially the moat of consomme around the meal. PS ordered braised Fischer Farms pork belly with sauteed brussels sprouts petals, Vine Valley Farms butternut squash and miso broth, bacon-braised grits, and pickled pear. He also spoke highly of the bright rim of orange squashy stuff that surrounded his meal. The thing I like about Frost’s traditional plating is the always unexpected line-up of ingredients that accompany it. Bloody mary consomme? Pickled pear with a squash miso broth? Having a meal at Frost is a little like finding a wild outfit in your grandmother’s stately closet.

The entrees, though, were mere appetizers to the extraordinary dessert that followed. We shared a Meyer lemon cheesecake with gingersnap crumb crust, toasted pine nuts, Ames Farm honey, and candied Meyer lemon zest. Woo boy. I’m a lover of all things savory, and this dessert was almost like a third entree that was satisfying on so many levels. “Make sure you get a pine nut,” PS said. No problem.

I think I’ll be returning to Frost to sit on the patio in the summer or to meet the bartender, who seems to have a good reputation. I’ll be using it as a wine bar that has a most impressive list from around the world. I’ll be sitting by the big bar windows to watch the snow fall in such a lovely part of town. It’s a perfect winter spot, which also reminds me why I like the snow. It’s fun to say goodbye in. PS and I parted gracefully on the street corner as I donned my hat and walked back home.

W.a. Frost & Company on Urbanspoon