Sunday, December 17, 2006

Stay-at-Home Vacation

In late August, shortly after we returned from our vacation in France, Hambone and Spice took another little vacation—at home. Alpha and Beta were with Spice’s parents at their lake home in South Dakota, busy eating vegetables straight out of Grandma’s enormous garden and fish that Grandpa had reeled fresh out of the lake. Hambone and Spice made plans to enjoy the quiet and to eat in a restaurant each night, which was an especially attractive idea since we weren’t paying a babysitter for the privilege of fine dining without the children. Herewith, a round-up of our fabulous week on the town.

Sunday: La Cucaracha
It had been a long time since I had eaten Mexican food, and I had been craving it, completely unprompted, as we made our drive back from South Dakota. So Hambone and I drove directly to La Cucaracha in St. Paul, widely regarded as the best Mexican west of the West Side and east of Lake and Chicago (Minneapolis). To start, we enjoyed margaritas and a queso-chorizo dip, which arrived with corn tortillas instead of chips. My main course was a smothered burrito with beef and beans. The burrito was also had lettuce in the filling, which is wrong. It gets soggy and nasty from the heat of the filling. One other little quibble—the burrito wasn’t spicy. I’m just saying we needn’t return to La Cuc any time soon.

Monday: Grand Cafe
Last November (2005) Hambone and I had a fine meal of rustic French fare—country pate and cassoulet—at Bakery on Grand in Minneapolis. We ate here with friends and loved the snug dining room, established around a bakery. Our server wanted to know where we lived and where we liked to eat. At the end of our meal, the owner brought us a beautiful boule from the bakery as a gift. Everything about the evening was nice—the food, service, and dining room were unpretentious, but high quality, and I couldn’t wait to return.

As I tried to make a reservation for January, I reached a recording that stated the restaurant was closed for renovations and would open by the end of the month. I called for weeks only to get a new recording that said the restaurant was under new management and would reopen in the future.

Finally, in August I decided to try my luck and easily made a reservation at the new Grand Café (not to be confused with the Greek diner of the same name that was near Macalester College in the mid-1990s).

Hambone and I were leery of the short menu, but the deeply red heirloom tomato and fresh mozzarella salad we shared to start was incredibly flavorful and piqued our interest. And, we had an outstanding country pate with olives, pecorino, and Cedar Lake tomme. I had a chicken that was messy in its presentation but utterly delicious—juicy from its buttermilk bath, crunchy from a roll in flour then fried to perfection. The chicken was served with some garlicky potatoes and pickled onions, olives, and asparagus. With these courses, we drank an Henri de Lanzac Lirac (2003), a sirah and grenache Rhone red. For dessert I had the butterscotch pudding, which tasted sort of like an undercooked, sweetened roux.

Hambone had a beautiful salmon filet with heirloom tomatoes, shaved artichokes, and hominy gnocchi (which were notable). In the end, we were both disappointed by our meal. We had really high expectations that the new restaurant just didn’t live up to. But I liked that the kitchen was so close that you could hear dinner being made—very homey indeed.

Tuesday: Alma
Hands down, Alma is one of my favorite restaurants of all time. I’m always eager to see what is on the menu, and I have never been disappointed by the meals eaten there. Chefs Jim Reininger and Alex Roberts excel at showcasing fresh, seasonal ingredients, prepared innovatively. I love the mix-and-match three-course prix fixe menu, which has awesome pricing and flexibility. This meal was the high point of my week.

To start
Grass-fed bison tartare with shallot, capers, mustard, “egg yolk” mayo
Every time I eat tartare, I have to dump preconceived ideas about what I’m eating—don’t get me wrong, I love raw meat—and think only about flavors. There is something about tartare, which is so close to uncooked hamburger, that makes me squeamish. But, the bison had flavor in spades—here, a rich, iron tang brightened by vinegary capers and shallot—which helped to overcome any issues I take with its form.

Spaetzle with corn, hen of the woods mushroom, bacon
Stunning! Corn and bacon are my favorite late summer combination, especially when served with some sort of pasta. Now, add a meaty, earthy mushroom and I’m turned into a quivering bliss case. This dish reminded me so much of one I ate in Portland, OR, in 2002 and think about often.

Crisp rabbit confit and panzanella with capers, currants, tomato and garlic, and natural jus
I never refuse confit-ed anything, and this rabbit was nicely gamey and meltingly soft.

Wine: Cotes du rhone blanc reserve Perrin ‘04

Hambone had an amazing meal as well. To start: muskmelon and local prosciutto; pasta: spaghetti nero with seared calamari, tomato concasse, tarragon, and lobster fumet; and main: rainbow trout and prawns with “fried” green tomatoes, sweet peas, thyme, and creole sauce.

Thursday: Vincent
Vincent is one of the few fine French dining spots in the Twin Cities. Anthony Bourdain hailed Vincent as one of the great places in town to eat tail-to-snout cuisine, although it has never been our luck to see foie or sweetbreads or other parts on Vincent’s menu.

The dining room was absolutely empty on this night, except for the six-top of middle-age, middle-class suburban ladies, and it’s a large space with high ceilings–the sort of dining room where you can be seen if you’d like. The food was good, but not great. I devoured scallops, which my body rejected, like clockwork, around midnight.

To start
Pan-seared scallops, leeks, fingerling potatoes, orange sauce
Caramelizing scallops by pan-searing is always a revelation. These seafood slabs were crispy and chewy, sweet and salty. The orange sauce sang with citrus and was mellowed by butter, an ideal complement to the scallops and potatoes.

Thai snapper, flageolet beans, arugula, Spanish chorizo, almond-garlic froth
This entrée was a highlight of our gastronomic week. The snapper was flaky and moist and “of the sea,” while the arugula provided a fresh, green note to counter the spicy Spanish chorizo. The almond-garlic froth balanced the textures and grounded the flavors. In all, it was a really sensational dish.

Wine: S.Anderson, 2001 chardonnay from Stags Leap

A perfectly French trio: pot de crème, crème caramel, and crème brulee

Friday: Davanni’s recovery
We had reservations for Five, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat another rich meal without taking a break of some sort, so I cancelled our highly anticipated table. By the end of the workday, I was hungry and feeling marginally better. Since I still felt like I had a hangover, I naturally gravitated toward hangover fare. The hominess of a hot (and greasy) salami hoagie from Davanni’s was a perfect remedy.

Saturday: Nami
We have a few favorite sushi restaurants around town, and quite frankly—as with friends—we’re not looking for new ones. However, when we took a sushi course this summer, the instructor (who teaches cooking professionally) gave us a list of his favorite places, as well as the reasons why he like them. Nami was on the list for impeccably fresh fish so John and I prioritized it.

Occupying a former warehouse space in downtown Minneapolis, Nami has an enormous dining room. The post-and-beam construction features natural wood and beige paint for a New Age whitewash effect. It’s uberhip, and although we weren’t the oldest, we were the fattest, least blonde folks there.

We started with shumai. These steamed pork dumplings had a wrapper infused with wasabi, which gave their juicy, porkyness a kick and sinus-clearing goodness. Then, the sushi. We shared a hand roll with kaiware, gobo, cucumber, bonito flakes, and salmon skin. Then moved on to nigiri: Japanese tai, tuna, bincho, toro, hamachi (ethereal), anago (I love to get the sea eel whenever I can, no gloppy sweet sauce), hotatagi (scallop), saba, black tobiko (fun).

Round two, which we almost always regret ordering (because in the time it takes to arrive, digestion sets in and rice begins to fill us up), took forever to arrive. True to form, we were stuffed, but choked down California rolls and spicy salmon rolls, which were very good, but not worth the wait.

In all, it was a truly excellent food week. The weather was stunning, the days still long. And, once out of our usual routine, we were able to enjoy the city and each other's company. In the new year, I'd like to take more holidays at home.