Monday, April 28, 2008

H&S Restaurant Week: 112 Eatery

On the Monday night of H&S 3rd Annual Restaurant Week, we visited an old favorite: 112 Eatery. It had been awhile—over six months—since we’d last eaten here. The food had begun to seem predictable and a little heavy. But I was craving the ambience—exposed brick walls, warm lighting, shotgun-style layout. Another reason 112 was an inspired choice: executive chef/owner Isaac Becker had recently been nominated for the James Beard Foundations’ Best Chef: Midwest award. The strength of Becker’s menu lies in upscale but unpretentious food, such as blue prawns with rooster mayo, grilled lamb scottodito with goat’s milk yogurt, steak tartare, a Vietnamese-style duck pate banh mi, and more.

This snowy, windy, cold April evening invited the comfort of my all-time favorites.

To start, I ordered the radicchio and duck salad—crispy, bitter radicchio and supple, dreamy duck confit are each shredded and dressed with a miso vinaigrette and garnished with slices of hardboiled quail eggs and buttery breadcrumbs. The kitchen used to send this salad out in a cup, but the portion has recently grown to fill a bowl. I shouldn’t complain about getting more of a good thing, but the cup was more elegant and better suited to being a starter—i.e., piquing the appetite rather than serving as a small meal.

Hambone took the white anchovy crostini with avocado, as beautiful and delicious as always.

My main was the stringozzi with lamb sugo—handcrafted, shoelace-thick pasta tangled in a rich, long-cooked sauce.

Also enamored by the pasta offerings, Hambone ordered the tagliatelle with foie gras meatballs. You heard correctly: Foie. Gras. Meatballs. The meatballs were so meltingly rich, the noodles seemed like a silly addition.

We shared the tres leche cake, to fortify ourselves for the treacherous drive back to Saint Paul. Wink, wink.

Chef Becker and 112 Eatery still deserve the accolades. Occasionally I feel as if we’ve eaten everything that interests us on the seldom-changing menu. Then I’ll take a closer look to see that there is an entire section I’m missing—the tweaked bar food, which includes the 112 cheeseburger with Brie, the bacon egg harissa sandwich, the gougère and fried mortadella sandwich, Chinese eggs, and, well, that should keep us busy for awhile.

Friday, April 25, 2008

H&S Third Annual Restaurant Week: An Amuse Bouche

In early April, Alpha and Beta spent their spring break at Grandpa and Grandma’s house in South Dakota. While they were away, Hambone and Spice imposed a restaurant week upon ourselves—an extraordinary treat with no need to pay a sitter ($10/hour is the going rate in these parts) or mind the sitter’s curfew. We dined out each night, in as leisurely a fashion as possible, and were able to snag a table wherever we chose, making the Cities’ hottest reservations more attainable.

Since Hambone and Spice have been on a tear lately, ticking off line items on our list of the newest and/or most popular Twin Cities’ restaurants, we decided to address our cravings and revisit our favorite restaurants. Herewith, a teaser (sorry, no photos):

La Cucaracha
After handing over the boys to Gpa and Gma, Hambone and Spice made a beeline to the Mexican restaurant nearest our house. As we pulled into La Cucaracha’s “parking lot,” we tried to recall when we ate here last. It had been a long time—late August 2006—and we had such a disappointing meal, convincing me that the end had finally come to decent Mexican food in St. Paul.

Serving solid Mexican fare—enchiladas, burritos, tacos, margaritas, and cervezas—La Cucaracha is a St. Paul institution. Hambone and I have been eating here for a long time. We'd started dating when we were each just out of college, biding time at trivial jobs during the first Bush recession, which left us plenty of time to have existential conversations at the coffeehouse. Spending $10 on an entree and $1.50 for a cervesa at La Cucaracha would have signaled a splurge.

The menu, which hasn’t changed much in twenty years (though, yes, inflation has driven up the prices slightly), still holds a few go-to items for me. Dishes such as Gina’s Yucatan tostadas—corn tortillas layered with savory black beans, sprinkled with tangy feta cheese and crisp onion slices, then garnished with creamy avocado slices—are pure heaven to me. That said, there is only one way to start a meal at La Cuc—warm, salty queso dip, slathered on homemade tortilla chips and chased by large, sweet margaritas. On this visit, I tried an item I've never before ordered: the pork guisado burrito with tomatillo sauce. Perfect in its porkiness, brightened by the salsa verde, this burrito has quickly catapulted up my list of favorites at La Cucaracha.

The decision to eat at La Cucaracha was spontaneous. I didn't have my camera with me. I didn't pull out my notebook to capture the subtleties of the meal, the ambience, or the service. And what I took away from the experience was a reminder that La Cucaracha remains a lively, comfortable restaurant, serving delicious, uncomplicated food. My faith has been restored, and I look forward to returning with Alpha and Beta.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

local food writing roundup

Dear Dara reports that, like D'Amico & Son's family-friendly Sunday dinners, the Parasole Group has rolled out an $8.95-a-person, kids-eat-free Sunday supper at three of their restaurants: Salut Bar Américain in Edina, Pittsburgh Blue in Maple Grove, and Figlio. Works for me, as the Grand Avenue location of Salut opens in June!

Also, check out Dara's eloquent review of The Strip Club. She's spot-on about the duck, and I couldn't have said it better myself.

At City Pages, Rachel Hutton has a delightful look at Lynne Rossetto Kasper's new book, How to Eat Supper.

At the Star Tribune, fourteen local restaurants join the tap water brigade and Rick Nelson profiles local CSAs.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Saga Hill Cooking School

Marianne Miller, the former executive chef at Bobino and Red whom I recently learned about on Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl's blog, sent me an e-mail, with encouragement to check out the April schedule for Saga Hill Cooking School, which she runs in Wayzata.

Now you have to go check it out, too, because what Miller is doing is very interesting and smart. This is not your mother's cooking school. One of the coolest things SHCS offers is corporate team building through cooking. Sessions include a wine and cheese tasting and a timed, Iron Chef-style competition, which sure beats a relay race of coworkers waddling down a beach with an inflatable between their legs. The April schedule includes a mother-daughter high tea, a kitchen basics class targeted to girlfriends (clever and timely), a class featuring French wine and cheese pairings, and a class celebrating the eight hottest ingredients for 2008.

I've taken a few cooking classes around town, and while they've generally been good, a certain element of fun is missing. Participants are quiet. Instructors often seem like they just want to get through the long list of things they're hoping to teach you. Miller's innovative cooking school clearly puts fun and camaraderie at the heart of learning.

Alpha and Beta, if you're looking to give something to someone who has everything—your mother, for instance—consider the gift of a cooking class. Let me be less subtle: I'd love to take a cooking class from Marianne Miller in that beautiful space overlooking Lake Minnetonka.

Saga Hill Cooking School
307 East Lake Street
Wayzata, Minnesota 55391

Sunday, April 06, 2008

back in the saddle

It’s 10 p.m., and our house still smells really amazing. Rich, meaty, warm. Here in St. Paul, we had our first rainy day of spring, and I took an opportunity to braise some meat. I had two very pink veal shanks, each weighing in around a pound. They were dredged in flour that had been seasoned with s & p, and then browned on all sides in a few glugs of olive oil and butter. When the shanks had reached a golden caramel color, I removed them from the Dutch oven and added the aromatics—chopped onion, carrot, and celery, parsley, bay leaves, and thick strips of lemon peel.

After the vegetables had softened, I made little nests for the shanks and added them back to the pot, covering the mixture with a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and setting to simmer for half an hour. Beef broth, hand-crushed whole tomatoes, and salt and pepper went into the pot before it was covered with a lid and placed in the oven at 375 degrees for an hour and a half. The lid was removed and the shanks remained in the oven for another thirty minutes, during which time I made a gremolata* (toasted pine nuts, garlic, an anchovy filet, orange zest, and parsley) and Alpha made perfectly creamy mashed potatoes.

While the veal shanks were doing in the oven, Hambone and I watched the Tour of Flanders, a one-day cycling race set against a backdrop of falling snow and slick cobbled hills. But mostly we participated in aromatherapy, breathing deeply the scents wafting from the kitchen. It felt so good to be cooking again after more than a week of eating in restaurants.**

As for the osso buco, I shredded the meat from the bone to make serving four people easier and to appease two children who were a little uncertain about the large bones and the rustic sauce. The mashed potatoes were a great vehicle for the silky meat and the delicious gravy, which positively glistened. And, we drank an outstanding 2003 St. Emilion from Chateau Gaillard. Still, Hambone and I concurred that for the expense and the reputation of veal shanks, they should be better, less scary. Even after nearly three hours of cooking, the veal shanks still exhibited a fair amount of connective tissue, which I did my best to remove. But fat is fat—and it wasn’t great.

I’d like to eat osso buco in a restaurant, where I imagine the dish would be a little more refined, but I’m not likely to make them at home again. Pork shanks and lamb shanks, however, may get a nod.

*I loved the gremolata. The little bit leftover will garnish another meal this coming week.

**The kids were at my parents’ for spring break and while they were away, Hambone and I partook in our third annual restaurant week. More to come.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

local food writing roundup

Rachel Hutton reports on Pan-Asian Otho in City Pages: The first fine-dining restaurant in a gentrifying neighborhood has its share of hits and misses.

Dear Dara has the best news I've heard this week. She says that spring starts this Friday—because that’s when Sea Salt, the wonderful seafood restaurant in the Minnehaha Falls Park Pavilion, will open. Hambone and Spice and their offspring had some of their best meals of 2007 at Sea Salt. And, some of their best memories as it's where Alpha fell in love with calamari, tentacles and all. Forget about all the fancy and hip restaurants where we've dined this week, just give me Sea Salt. Oh, happy day!