Wednesday, April 25, 2007

City Pages Best of the Twin Cities 07

City Pages, our weekly free newspaper, published their annual best of the Twin Cities list today. Always debatable, always funs. Here is a link to the restaurant list, compiled by Dara Moskowitz. I'd like to comment more when I return from NOLA. Until then, have fun reading. I'd love to know your opinion—feel free to leave comments here.

Experiments in Jambalaya: A Baseline

In roughly 24 hours, I will be boarding my connecting flight from Memphis to New Orleans. I’m meeting my friend Krista to help her celebrate her birthday at Jazz Fest. That’s right—three days on the jazz mother ship. In order to prepare my palate for the corresponding three nights and four days of authentic Creole and Cajun food, Hambone and Spice made jambalaya, that sultry rice dish involving the trinity, meat, and a sauce (an inevitable result of roux, stock, and occasionally tomatoes).

First to define a few parts. The trinity is, essentially, Creole/Cajun aromatics. Forming the basis of many dishes, it is onion, celery, and green pepper. In jambalaya, the trinity is often sautéed, then cooked further in a roux. According to my source, meat includes chicken and any combination of shrimp, sausage (likely andouille), crawfish, rabbit, alligator, or duck to name but a few. More information can be found here.

Since I just wanted a taste of Creole food that would perk up my taste buds, making an authentic jambalaya wasn’t necessary, but I did want something that approximated the dish. I happened to run across a recipe for quick jambalaya, torn from a back issue of Martha Stewart Living. The technique was a little odd, in that after adding the uncooked rice to the vegetables, meat, and liquid, you cook for five minutes. Then you are to put on the lid, turn off the burner, and let it sit for thirty minutes until the rice has absorbed the liquid.

Hambone and I were more than a little suspicious—okay, we were downright doubtful that the rice would cook. But, figuring the recipe made it through the strict MSL test kitchens, we would follow the directions. After thirty minutes, liquid remained in the vessel so we turned on the burner and stirred, as if for risotto, until the liquid was more absorbed. The rice was more al dente than I like, but, overall, the meal was very good. The spicy andouille sausage, the tender chicken, the trinity, Old Bay seasoning, and tomatoes, all yield a quick, easy, and tasty jambalaya that I would be happy to make for friends.
So, when in NOLA, I hope to eat more jambalaya, etouffee, po’ boys, oysters, and beignets, to name just a few food items. And, we have a reservation at Cochon, Donald Link's restaurant that is all about the pig and is a James Beard Award nominee for Best New Restaurant.

Quick Jambalaya
Martha Stewart Living, February 2007
Serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
1 pound andouille sausage, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (my grocery store makes a good andouille)
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups homemade or low-sodium store-bought chicken stock
3/4 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 can (14 ounces) crushed tomatoes with juice
1 cup long-grain rice

1. Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Cut into 3/4-inch pieces; set aside.

2. Add vegetables to pot. Cook, stirring 5 minutes. Add sausage; cook 3 minutes. Add garlic; cook 1 minute. Stir in stock, Old Bay, tomatoes, and 1/2 cup water; bring to a boil. Add rice and chicken. Reduce heat; simmer 5 minutes. Cover; remove from heat. Let stand until rice is tender and liquid is mostly absorbed, 30 to 35 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Resolutions 07: Eat Out

La Belle Vie

Generally considered to be the best restaurant between San Francisco and Chicago, La Belle Vie is pretty high on my to-do list. People used to drive from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Stillwater, about 30 miles away, to eat from this French-inspired menu. About a year and a half ago, La Belle Vie moved to Minneapolis and now occupies the grand 510 Groveland, site of the former 510 Restaurant.

Hambone and Spice have been waiting for the right moment to cross the river for our inaugural La Belle Vie meal—even the name of the restaurant sings (especially true if you call to make a reservation and hear the particular lilt with which the voice mail lady says "la belle vie"). And, we seized the moment when Alpha and Beta were on yet another of their whirlwind vacations with Spice's parents.

Good timing, too, as executive chef Tim McKee is a James Beard Award nominee in the category Best Chef Midwest (winner to be announced May 7). So, this was a highly anticipated meal.

We ate in an undeniably gorgeous dining room with high ceilings, ornate crown molding, and the requisite room-enlarging mirrors. Fashionable art punctuates the space between tall windows and French doors. The space was made for prom dates, wedding proposals, and business dinners, but was absolutely hushed on a Sunday night. Naturally, we would be seated next to a loud and obnoxious party of eight. While we've become fans of dining at popular restaurants on off-nights (i.e., not Friday or Saturday), it does come with a price in the midwest—you really miss the ambience that comes from a packed, lively dining room.

You can take a tasting menu with optional wine pairings, which is something we like to do, but nothing on this evening's menu intrigued us, so we went a la carte (not really a hardship).

Here's my meal in pictures:

To Start: chilled yellowtail jack with roasted beets, horseradish and flying fish roe
(The beets and horseradish were great together, but really obscured the vibrancy of the yellowtail jack. My biggest complaint was the temperature, which was beyond just chilled, not quite to frozen.)

Salad: mache and arugula with baccala, soft-poached egg, and salsa verde
(a traditional French bistro salad deconstructed—and with a twist, the salt cod replacing lardons)

Main: pan-roasted moulard duck with foie gras, red cabbage, and Alsatian spices
(I'm not sure what Alsatian spices are, but if I had to guess I'd say caraway. The duck was as tender and juicy as any I've eaten. The foie gras was divine if a little meager, though at it's best when it melted in the duck juices to enrich the sauce. The duck breast and the foie were grown in Minnesota. And, I loved the red cabbage, which was tender with a little crunch so you know the cabbage was transformed from a raw vegetable, and just ever the perfect amount of vinegar.)

Dessert: rice pudding tart, dried pineapple, pineapple sorbet
(For the most part, the tart shell served as a dish for the fine rice pudding. The dried pineapple was the real start, with very concentrated fruit flavors—I could find myself pining [pardon the pun] for it in days to come.)

Andrew Rich sauvignon blanc, which was selected from an extensive, but severely price marked-up wine list. This white had aromas of grapefruit and strawberry, and was pleasantly honeyed on the palate. We managed to stretch out one bottle over the course of the meal; skipping cocktails helped as did the wine/bourbon/scotch hangover.

Hambone had caramelized foie gras with porcini, sweet potato-chestnut gnocchi and marsala to start (the foie gras was shamefully veiny); warm goat cheese tart with tomato confit and tapenade vinaigrette for his salad course; sautéed arctic char with razor clams, squid ink ravioli, and bibb lettuce as a main.

Petit fours were a wonderful parting gift: coconut curry truffle, homemade marshmallow, frangipane, and pistachio biscotti. I wish I had a photograph of the petit fours plate because they looked like gems.

In all, I think the food was very good, the service was impeccible, and the dining room was gorgeous (if not a little overwrought), making it a complete package for fine dining. Does La Belle Vie deserve the hype? Absolutely not. Is it worth the extravagant price? No way. While I wouldn't hesitate to place it in my top five local restaurants, Hambone and Spice both found it a little pretentious. Would we return? Of course, especially to see the seasonal-food card played.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Resolutions '07: Shop

Yes, let's get this establishing fact out of the way—I'm the last American with a pulse to visit Trader Joe's.

Both Hambone and Spice knew of the store by reputation as being a great grocery store where food items prepared with a twist, often healthy and organic, and with low prices. We’d heard it described variously as fun, hip, cool, cheap. We know West Coasters who do all their grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s and rave about items, such as the pre-cooked, frozen rice, that makes dinner preparation so much easier. Of course, there’s the Two-Buck Chuck, but we don’t go in for swill. And, we’ve had intentions to visit this emporium of unique foodstuffs since the Twin Cities’ first location opened last year (shortly after New York City received their first Trader Joe’s outpost).

Finally in January, when Spice’s parents were visiting, her father expressed a desire to visit Trader Joe’s. Seizing an opportunity to cross something off her food resolution list, H & S piled the little boys into the car on the coldest day of the year and convoyed with Gpa Ron and Gma Margaret from St. Paul to St. Louis Park, by way of Lakeville (the scenic route).

Located in a chaotic, suburban condo complex, the tiny store was packed on a Saturday with yuppies and grups, almost every one of whom was cranky, owing to the unbearable cold weather or, possibly, the inability to find a parking spot. This location has, seemingly, fewer than 50 spots, which, I’ve read somewhere, is part of the Trader Joe’s experience.

When we finally got our bearings, I realized that we were in snack and prepared food heaven. You can get any manner of wonderful cereals and granola bars, seasoned nuts and chocolate-dipped items, including but not limited to sunflower seeds. You can also find frozen meals in bulk—lobster ravioli and other exotic pastas to name a few.
But where is the life-sustaining, rejuvenating real food? The stuff that has naturally occuring fiber and built-in vitamins and protein? Nowhere to be seen.

The produce section was shameful. The meager selection of fruits and vegetables looked pathetic or were suffocating in plastic bags. No meat, fish, or deli counters exist. How do people do all their grocery shopping here? More to the point—who are the people who have the time or energy to do two-stop shopping?

I get the fuss about Trader Joe’s, especially if one’s diet is restricted to prepared foods or snacks. And, how can you deny the pick-up-able nature of Joe’s packaging and their zesty marketing.
Hambone made me promise that I wouldn’t insist we trek across the city to visit the store again. He might change his mind, though, after he tries the milk chocolate-dipped banana chips. The chocolate-covered pretzels were tasty enough (though not as good as Nestle’s), but I can’t stop eating the banana chips and I normally loathe banana chips, picking them out of granola and trail mixes when they deign to appear.

We also purchased chili-lemon pistachios (slightly reminiscent of those we picked up at the Berkeley Farmers Market, but Trader Joe’s version was neither as redolent of chili or lemon nor as fresh), Trader Joe’s signature Thai lime-chili cashews (again, the nuts tasted a little stale under their powder coat), frozen chocolate-dipped bananas, some organic free-trade whole coffee beans (only superficially roasted, yielded a less than full-bodied coffee), and honey-sesame cashews.

While we had fun with our purchases, at the end of the day—because, honestly, who doesn't like high-quality snack food?— I wouldn’t drive twenty-five miles for any of this stuff. For years, we’ve buying authentic Asian snack foods at United Noodles, and nothing Trader Joe’s offers holds a candle to the chaat or the shrimp chips or the frozen potstickers and shumai, to name a few diverse and delicious snacks.