Monday, December 21, 2009

Portland

Tuesday
The remainder of our trip we spent in Portland, staying at Sarah and Mike’s and celebrating Thanksgiving with them and Josh’s parents. The first night there Sarah took us to a little taco place called Porque No? that was both tasty and relatively inexpensive. Afterward Sarah and Mike took Josh and I to a brewpub called Lucky Lab, where you can actually bring your dogs. My friend, Lynn, who lives in Portland, was able to meet up with us briefly. We then stopped at The Hub, where the other three got the beer sampler – of 10 mini glasses of beer! I played it safe and got a great merlot called “The Velvet Devil.” Sarah & Mike had planned a few other brewpubs for us to stop at, but it had been a long day and we were eager to go to bed, so home we went. Nicely – and unnecessarily – Sarah and Mike gave us their room the whole time we were there. I’m sure they were quite happy to have us go :)

Wednesday
We grabbed breakfast someplace and then went and toured the Japanese Garden. Very beautiful, serene place. Also stopped by the rose garden since it was right there, but since it was late fall there really weren’t any roses. We did a little window shopping and lunch in the 23rd & Hawthorne District, then headed back to Sarah’s for a nap. On the way we stopped at VooDoo Doughnut and I have to say the experience was somewhat underwhelming. Portland is a much larger city than I expected – much larger than Minneapolis-St. Paul, and seemed very crowded to me.

We went to Belly Timber for dinner, where we celebrated Fay’s birthday. The drinks there were excellent. Doug had something on his plate that none of us could identify, but all tasted it and most thought it was earthy but good. Turns out it was blood sausage. None of us ate it anymore after that! Stopped at Cold Stone for dessert and then back to Sarah’s for wine.

Thursday
Thursday was Thanksgiving – and Fay’s birthday. Luckily for most of us, Sarah and Fay decided to do all the work preparing the feast, so we all got to go out and play! Mike took us outside of the city to Maltnomeh Falls and Horsetail Falls, and took us on the Washington side of the Columbia River. It is really a gorgeous area and they have the coolest trees – both the giant cedars and also these cool, mossy trees. Almost seemed like a fairy tale, with lots of cool fog. We didn’t even mind bumming around out in the rain. Sometime I’d like to check out the Oregon Trail Museum here. When we got home dinner was almost ready and, I might add, delicious.

Friday
Friday was wine tasting day in the Willamette Valley. Mike’s parents joined us. We stopped off at the Columbia store first to do some shopping on Sarah’s employee discount, but neither Josh or I found anything we *had* to buy, so we didn’t. The first winery we stopped at was Montinore Estate. Josh and I made a real point of trying lots of pinot noirs this day – 1) that’s what this valley is known for producing, and 2) we aren’t very familiar with pinot so it was a good opportunity to learn. The staff at Montinore were kind of pills, except for the gal who was pouring the dessert wines. We bought two bottles, an unusual white and a dessert. (Sadly, we will probably never get our wine as we assumed Sarah could ship it to us and we left it with her, but apparently shipping wine out of Portland isn’t as easy as shipping it out of Napa Valley. We left her with kind of a hassle and feel badly about that.)

Next up was Whistling Ridge, a small, family-owned winery that Sarah and Mike are big fans of. The family was all very down to earth and easy to talk to. Next up was Stag Hollow, which was probably my favorite place. You got nine tastes and the ninth one was mindblowing. It was also like $240/bottle or something. Rightly so! Our last stop before Mike and his parents had to leave was Lenne’. Again, almost all of the wine pourers we talked with were so nice and helpful and laid back. Such a good time! (Josh probably liked Lenne’ the best because all the women there were gushing about his purple pants!)

Last stop of the day was at Willakenzie Estate, where Sarah is a member. We had a number of good wines there but I think this is the only place where Josh and I didn’t buy any. Not sure why – I think our tastebuds were on grape overload at that point. We stopped for burgers on the way home and otherwise had a mellow evening.

Saturday
Mine and Josh’s plane didn’t leave until late afternoon, so we had a little time to mess around in Portland. We went to breakfast with Sarah at a place called Jam. Good food but ridiculous portion sizes. Four people could have eaten off my plate and there still would have been leftovers. Next we went to the Saturday market, which is kind of like our art fairs but is there every weekend. They had a lot of neat stuff and I bought a necklace, a piece of pottery and a print. I could easily have bought more but behaved. They also had kind of a junky, trinkety part of the fair, but we didn’t hang out there much.

We headed back to Seattle with plenty of time to spare so we didn’t have to worry about any unexpected traffic. We had time to grab an early dinner someplace and decided to try and go back to Paseo, the Cuban sandwich place Kyle had told me about. It was absolutely packed and only took cash, so we walked a few blocks until we found a grocery store with a cash machine. Lucky break as it also carried Dry Soda, something we had seen advertised in Seattle and wanted to try. I bought a bottle of lemongrass and a bottle of quince, and we went back to get our sandwiches.

Kyle did not lie. The sandwiches at this place are heavenly. I had the midnight Cuban, as recommended. (To quote Kyle: “Do you want to have the best sandwich you’ve ever had in your life?”) It is a Cuban roast pork sandwich with banana peppers, smoked ham and Swiss cheese melted together in a hot press. Also giant onions that I picked off. It is a huge sandwich and a helluva bargain at $8. SO. GOOD. We ate our sandwiches and drank our dry soda sitting on a bench outside, and it was a very good way to end our trip! Add to that a Shocktop Belgian White Ale at the airport and we were good to go. Goodybe, Seattle! We had a great time!

Monday, November 15 (Seattle/Woodinville)

Monday we drove north of Seattle to Woodinville to go wine tasting for the day. Our first stop was Chateau Ste. Michelle, the largest and most well-known winery in that area. We chose it not because of its fame, or because we can’t get their wines at home, but because they opened an hour before anyone else!

CSM has a huge property and the first thing we saw as we were parking were two peacocks. We made our way to the tasting room and wandered around a bit as it is fairly large and has lots to look at, from your typical wine food and accoutrements to various arty crafty stuff to, of course, lots of wine. We eventually bellied up to the tasting bar where Renee helped us. She was very nice and was impressed that we actually know a little bit about wine, could pronounce things properly, etc. Apparently that doesn’t happen too often ;) Renee, like many pourers who you get to chatting with, also gave us tastes of some wines not on the list. We love that!

We got two tastings and shared – the (basic reserved?) tasting and then the dessert wines. We were surprised to learn that while CSM is widely distributed, there are plenty of bottles that you can get only through their winery. We were also surprised to learn there really aren’t any grapes in Woodinville – all of the vineyards are in the eastern part of the state, and there are just tasting rooms in Woodinville. CSM started this trend some 30 years ago to capitalize on its proximity to Seattle, and many other wineries have since followed suit.

A woman popped in to grab a couple of bottles of wine for her Thanksgiving dinner and we thought – how nice would it be to just be able to pop into your local winery for a few bottles of wine? We just don’t have that kind of proximity in Eden Prairie. We did buy three bottles there, and if our money supply was unlimited we probably would have bought more. We did make a point of buying whatever we wanted on this trip, as we always talk about how we wish we had bought more wine on our honeymoon trip to Napa Valley.

Our next stop was Januik-Novelty Hill, which is actually two wineries but share a tasting room. It could not have been more different from CSM. Whereas CSM is very classic elegance, J-NH is extremely modern in style/design. We liked it a lot; especially this cool horse grass they had lining the exterior of the building. It was very slow in there and the wine pourer had plenty of time to chat with us. There was just one tasting menu, but it had a lot of options and we could each pick four wines to try, so we selected different options and then traded off with each other. Apparently Monday mornings are a good time to get business done, because the wine maker was in, the artist whose paintings were on the wall stopped in, etc.

We then went to Silver Lake, mainly because it was on our way to where we thought we might be heading for lunch. We figured we could fit in another few glasses of wine before we absolutely *had* to get food in our stomachs! Silver Lake was a much more commercial operation run by “Uncle Rick.” An older gentleman, but a total shyster who laid the whole wine membership sales pitch on pretty thick. Despite that, he was entertaining and we had a good time. In addition to Silver Lake wines, they also carried bottles from several other wineries.

We definitely needed to have lunch at this point! We were debating between Red Hook Brewery and a place called the Barking Frog. The Barking Frog sounded a little upscale for what we were looking for, but all the locals recommended it so we decided to go for it. It was an excellent choice! The wait for a table was insane, something like 40 minutes. For lunch. On a Monday. We were told we could eat at the bar if we wanted to, and snatched up that option! And what a great deal this place turned out to be. For $15, you could get a three-course lunch – appetizer, main entrée and dessert. For another $12, you could get a wine pairing. For $27/person, we had an excellent midday meal! I believe I had scallops, ??, and a caramel apple cake of some kind. Josh had a ? salad, pork belly and a flourless chocolate torte.

Next up was Matthews Estate, which we had to hit up for obvious reasons – even though they spell the name wrong ;) Imagine our surprise when the “estate” was a trailer. Hot. Still, their wines were very good – albeit pricey. Went to J. Bookwalter next, as it was just up the road. Turned out to be a good move as the guy asked us where we had stopped throughout the day, etc., and I mentioned I had wanted to hit up Dusted Valley but (according to their website) they were closed. He said no, he was pretty sure they were open, and made a call to confirm. Yes, open! So, we hung at J. Bookwalter a bit and were then on our way.

Dusted Valley is a little storefront in a strip mall, which may not lend itself to being super cool. I had wanted to go there because on their website their wine club is called the Stained Tooth Society and had a cool skull logo with vines growing out of its mouth. I was hoping they would have Tshirts and they did! DV is owned by two guys from Wisconsin who are a bit younger than us. Apparently they were both working corporate-type jobs, decided it wasn’t really what they wanted to do with their lives and said “Screw it. Let’s make wine.” They seem to have a good sense of humor, handing out toothbrushes with membership to the Stained Tooth Society, etc. The girl at the counter was very laid back and fun, which is true of most people you find behind a wine counter. I think it’s one reason Josh and I enjoy wine tasting so much – it’s a great way to have conversations with people in a fun, casual setting.

We had to get back to the city eventually because we had 8 p.m. reservations at Canlis, but we decided to swing by Red Hook Brewery. I just got water, but Josh got the beer sampler. I was already full from drinking wine all day, plus I was driving. And, I really didn’t want to be stuffed for Canlis.

I really debated cancelling our reservations to Canlis. We were both full and tired and not super motivated. But, we kicked ourselves in gear to go and I’m so glad we did! Although we had a ton of trouble actually FINDING the damn place, it is a beautiful, beautiful restaurant. Definitely special occasion, like this is where you get engaged or celebrate your 25th wedding anniversary or something – i.e. valeting your car is the only option.

When we got there, the place wasn’t full but the host (Brian Canlis, of the Canlis family) asked if we could wait a few minutes while they got our table ready. I thought that was odd, but whatever. As it turned out – great idea! We probably had one of the best tables in the whole place. I never did decide if they had initially given us a crappy table because we reserved our table on OpenTable and they weren’t sure what kind of riffraff we would be, or if that table just happened to open up right before we got there and they decided hey – might as well give these people the best we have available.

Canlis is very old school elegance. Supper clubby, almost, but in the best, most elegant way. There was a piano player and everything was very dim candlelight, classy linens, fireplaces, etc. The best part, however, is the view. The front of the restaurant basically juts out over the bay (?) in Seattle and it is all windows. Absolutely gorgeous.

They had a tasting menu, but neither of us ended up getting it. I think the debauchery of the day was taking its toll. I had seared scallops to start, with butternut squash, hearts of palm and chorizo. I think Josh had the crab cake. I considered the chicken terrine with black truffles and hazelnuts, but was so glad I asked further about it with our server as she explained it’s a cold dish that, to me, sounded really, really disgusting. I instead got the handmade wild mushroom ravioli with mascarpone and vin jaune. These were absolutely delicious and I am amazed, as I get older, that I am really starting to like mushrooms and their earthy flavor. I was a little shocked that, at $36, I only got three. That being said, I only ate 2-1/2 of mine. What was up with that? Anyway, I can’t complain too much because I know you are paying, in part, for that great view and excellent customer service. Josh had the King salmon with figs, chanterelles and pinot noir jus.

We skipped dessert and called it an early night. Somehow we found our way directly home, which in no way was the case for getting there. All in all, if I were to choose between Rover’s and Canlis, I’d probably pick Rover’s for the food, though Canlis wins in the atmosphere category.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sunday, November 15 (Seattle)

I broke my first rule of traveling and ate at a place we had already tried. I usually scorn people for their lack of adventure for doing this (falls in line with my anti-Applebee’s law), but Piroshky Piroshky was just too good and, may I mention, cheap! This time I got the beef and cheese one that Josh had yesterday, and I can’t remember what Josh had.

After trekking up to Pike Place Market for piroshkies, we headed back where we came from and to the Seattle Underground tour. Pretty interesting stuff, the initial settlers of Seattle basically built on a flood plain and, being too stubborn (or stupid) to move, just let their business district flood every day, twice a day, for years. Big sinkholes formed in the streets, kids drowned, etc. Eventually a fire destroyed most things, and they ended up building the city on top of what was left of the old city. You can go underground and still see walkways, decrepit storefronts, etc. Another interesting fact we learned was, back in the day, the male-female ratio was something like 10:1 and so you can imagine what most of the women’s professions were. When a census was taken the city had an inordinate number of “seamstresses” who, oddly enough, didn’t have any sewing machines in their homes. The city fathers didn’t mind so much that the majority of its women were prostitutes; rather, they wanted to make sure they were making some money off of it. So, they created a seamstress tax of $10/month.I can’t remember the exact number, but at one time something like 90 percent of the city’s funds were from prostitution.

After the tour we decided to go check out the Space Needle. It costs like $20/person to go up, but we thought we would be clever and just go up to the revolving restaurant instead and have a drink at the bar. Yeah, they were way ahead of us. Since it was Sunday, they have a Sunday brunch that costs $45/person. We decided to skip the Space Needle.

We did, however, decide to check out the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum next door. Tickets were $13/person (we had a coupon) and we felt we got way more out of it than we would have from a ride to the top of the Space Needle. The only bummer about the EMP was that they have a lot of interactive stuff to play with, but people were already playing with everything so we didn’t get to. Darn kids.

After that we decided to drive over to this Cuban sandwich place for lunch that my coworker Kyle had told me about, but when we got over there it was closed. Bummer. So we headed back to our hotel and had a snack in the hotel bar. It was already 3 p.m. or so, and we didn’t want to eat a ton since we had dinner reservations for Rover’s at 7. We did go to the hotel happy hour again and had a nice conversation with a man and his wife who were living in Portland but he was contemplating a job in Milwaukee. He wanted to know if it gets cold and sucky and icy there, and I said yes. Turns out he is in the construction trade so we ended up talking about unions and whatnot. The couple from Sacramento was also there, and fortunately little Miss Starbucks was not.

Next stop – Rover’s! Josh found out about this place on yelp.com. Interestingly, he actually let me drive most of this trip. So we drove over there and it’s a little hard to find. It’s set back off the street in this small gathering of what looks like dentist offices, chiropractic places, etc. So we’re walking up slowly like, “Is this the right place?” It looked like a nondescript stucco house from the outside. But yes, we had the right place!

It’s a small restaurant and, while it is elegant, it is also not at all stuffy. Nice combo. Apparently it’s something of a special celebration place, because it seemed like everyone there was having a birthday. Josh and I think every day is a celebration when it comes to good food, so we fit right in. They have three tasting menus available, or you can order anything a la carte (also a vegetarian tasting menu). One is an eight-course menu, one is a five-course menu, and the other is also a five-course menu but it is classic French food in the style of Julia Child.

Josh and I both got the five-course menu, though I substituted out the salmon course in mine for the beef bourguignon course off the Julia Child menu. I had made beef bourguignon at home recently and wanted to see how my first attempt compared. We also got the wine pairing.

We were served an amuse bouche, but I’ve already forgotten what it was. I feel like maybe it was a small cup of delicious mushroom soup? First course was a diver’s sea scallop with marinated beet, celery root-apple salad and harissa aioli. I’m still amazed there is a seafood I actually like, but scallops are yum-mee! Next up was pork belly with parsnip puree, lacinato kale and Meyer lemon confit. Tender and tasty. Next Josh had the Bristol Bay salmon with butternut squash, matsutake and saffron butter, and I had the beef bourguignon – essentially a rich beef stew with red wine, pearl onions, carrots and mushrooms.

I can definitively say my beef bourguignon is better! Josh agrees. We were trying to figure out why, and we came up with a couple of possibilities. 1) It took me about 4 hours to make, and maybe a restaurant doesn’t have time to spend four hours on one dish. 2) I followed Julia’s recipe exactly, and maybe this chef put his/her own twist on it that just wasn’t as good. 3) Perhaps I used a better cut of meat. Who knows?

Next we had a verjus-huckleberry sorbet to cleanse the palate, and then moulard duck breast with celery root, herbed faro and thyme sauce. I find duck is one of those things I never order on its own, but when I have it I always think it is delicious.

To end the meal we had a “symphony of desserts,” which I don’t really remember but I think we had three things – maybe a crème brulee, a flourless chocolate torte and something else – you know, the usual dessert suspects. Caramel or spice cake or something. I almost wish I had gotten the chocolate soufflé instead – I really wanted to try it! The meal ended with mignardises, which I believe were classic French macaroons.

There was wine in particular that I liked - an unusual white – and I have the label at home so I can track it down again. All in all, we had a lovely evening – as we almost always do. After that, back to the hotel and to bed. Monday is wine tasting!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Saturday, November 14 (Seattle)

I’m a little remiss in writing about our trip to Seattle/Portland the last week of November, but here goes:

Our plane was to leave Minneapolis at 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning, November 14. Since we were taking our car to a friend’s house to leave there prior to our flight, this meant we had to get up at 3:30 a.m. Josh was not a happy camper. In fact, I got so much harassment for the early hours that he is now in charge of making any future travel arrangements. Fortunately, we were both able to sleep on the plane.

On the plus side, leaving so early did mean we were in Seattle before 9 a.m. (The other flight option that day would have gotten us there in later afternoon, and I wanted to spend as much time there as possible.) By the time we got our rental car and found our hotel, Pike’s Place Market was open and we had a full day ahead of us.

We stayed at the Alexis Hotel right in Downtown, just a few blocks from the market, the sports fields, the shore, etc. I felt we were in an ideal location. The bummer part was that, in addition to our room fee, we had to pay parking at $36/night – sucky. However, it was valet parking and we could come and go as much as we wanted. The valet staff was incredibly nice and helpful and it was all very convenient. The best part was that, since I had reserved the room under my name, Josh got called “Mr. Madden” all weekend. Hee hee!

I loved our hotel – very artsy and boutique-y and beautiful. Really great vibe and I would stay there again… except. Except our room was approximately the size of our bed. Which meant trying to open suitcases or sort through anything or move was nearly impossible. Note to self: Pay for a bigger room next time! It was beautifully decorated, the bed was hella comfortable and they had these fun orange leopard-print robes. Down sides were no place in the bathroom to set anything, like a comb or toothbrush, fridge was full with minibar stuff so couldn’t use it, and no shelf or anything in the shower. Clearly whoever designed the room never actually stayed in it to see how it works for real travelers.

I guess it sounds like I didn’t like our hotel that much but I really did love it. The customer service was excellent at all times. Every night from 5-6 p.m. they have a free wine happy hour, which is a fun way to meet fellow travelers. They also supply postcards and watercolors so you can paint postcards and they will mail them for you. Just a fun, quirky touch.

Walking around Pike’s Place Market was cool. We just don’t have anything like that in the Cities. I guess it’s like a combination of our Farmer’s Market, Midtown Global Market and maybe some nifty area of town that I can’t think of. We need some street food vendors around here!

One of the first things we did was stop by a tiny little shop called Piroshky Piroshky. Josh had a beef and cheese piroshky and I had a chicken, mushroom and rice one. They were both DE-licious!! After eating we just walked around a lot, walking through the craft market and the food market areas but not really going into any of the shops. I bought a Christmas ornament but that’s about it. They had a lot of really nice stuff had I been in a shopping mood. We didn’t see any fish being thrown, but the patter of the fish guys was fun. “Everyone’s shopping, nobody’s buying. Did anyone bring any money?”

After the market we decided to head back in the direction of our hotel but walked well past it (intentionally) and eventually ended up at Pyramid brewery around 2 p.m. We ordered some standard bar food that was pretty gross, and we each ordered the beer sampler. I think we got six beers each. My favorite was the apricot ale – would be very refreshing on a summer’s day! The beer was sold in super cute mini glasses that we decided we had to have. Josh kept me out of jail by buying a set for $2/each at the gift shop. Money well spent!

On our way back to the hotel we saw a sign that said Sake Tasting and we thought – why not? We’re on vacation. So we stopped in to Sake' Nomi and tried four different sakes (all of which, in my opinion, were gross). We talked with the owner, a guy about our age who had taught English in Japan after college, met his wife there and fell in love with sake. He now has his own sake pub and knows the guy who owns moto-i in Minneapolis. He seemed cool toward us in the beginning but really warmed up by the end and was very chatty.

Next stop – our hotel and a short nap! Couldn’t miss the free wine happy hour. We met a nice, albeit somewhat quiet couple from Sacramento, and a couple who currently live in the area. The husband was real nice but the wife thought she was way cooler than she actually was. She was bragging about working HR for Starbucks and the massive layoffs she’s been in charge of. She’s originally from Iowa but all she did was talk about their nanny, how important she is at Starbuck’s, etc. I was over her fast.

On the plus side, she did give us a recommendation for a great restaurant called Purple. When she said it was in walking distance she neglected to mention four of the blocks were straight up a steep hill. Good thing there was wine at the end! In keeping with the theme of the day, we each got a wine flight – I got one of sparklings/champagne, and Josh did reds. We also got a cheese tray plus pasta. By the time our food came I was pretty full with cheese/crackers/wine, but we didn’t care. We had a blast!

Next was back to the hotel and to bed. Goodnight!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Double Date with Jon and Lauren

Saturday ended up being a gorgeous fall day, which is nice since we actually got to spend portions of it outside… or, at least in a bus looking outside :)

Jon and Lauren are friends of ours with whom we planned a double date for Saturday. It was a mystery date of sorts as we girls made the plans and the boys eventually learned what we were up to and got to come along ;)

We were to meet at noon for the St. Paul Gangster Tour. The gist of it is that you hop on a bus for two hours as they drive you around the various sites of Saint Paul that were well known back in the day for various gangster activity. The tour was at noon and Jon and Lauren were to meet us there. Josh and I didn’t have any plans before that, so we decided to head down an hour early and take in the tour of the Wabasha Street Caves. The caves are well known in Saint Paul and I had long wondered what they were like, so we figured $5/person was well worth it.

Surprisingly, there were probably 40+ people on the tour! I seriously thought the number would be closer to 8. It was pretty neat to see the caves and fun to learn some of its history, plus it would be a terrific venue for an event. It’s a relatively short tour and if you’re looking for something different to do on a Saturday morning, I recommend it. Plus, grab a vanilla chai at the little coffee shop nearby – yum!

Jon and Lauren met up with us at noon and we headed toward the bus. Our tour guide was dressed up as a gangster’s moll and had a great accent. She was giving all the people in line a hard time, which made it fun. Four older ladies were there dressed up in gangster wear and one had a plastic Tommy gun with sound effects. Fortunately, they weren’t too annoying.

Our tour guide’s name was Dawn but she played the role of Katy Kelly, George “Machine Gun” Kelly’s wife. She had a bustier and a replica Tommy gun and shared St. Paul’s gangster history with a good amount of jokes and sass. The bus was full and ran the gamut of ages. We felt it was a well spent $22/person. (For info. on Saint Paul's gangster history, I recommend John Dillinger Slept Here by Paul Maccabee. It's terribly interesting, especially when you learn how corrupt the St. Paul cops were back then and how they aided and abetted gangsters in just about every way they could.)

After the tour we stopped at Great Waters Brewing for a late lunch (get the meatloaf!) and then drove to Flat Earth Brewery for a tour. It is a microbrewery and, again, I thought there would be far fewer people than were actually in attendance. It is in no way set up to accommodate such a large group, so we basically had a free beer, listened to a 5 minute spiel by the owner and went on our (less crowded) way. Decent beer but I wouldn’t recommend the tour.

After that we went our separate ways and Josh and I went home for a few hours before the KISS concert at Target Center. Yes, we’re ’80s throwbacks, what can we say?! It was a fun show with lots of pyrotechnics and other special effects. Sitting next to me was a kid who was probably 11 or 12 and who was with his dad – I’m sure they were making a great memory together. Next to Josh was “Dave from LaCrosse” who seemed to really, really like Josh and even hugged him when we left. Why? The world may never know!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cloudy with a chance of food and drinks

Wine Bar
Breaking news. Eden Prairie has a wine bar. I repeat, Eden Prairie has a wine bar!

The excitement of this news is tempered a bit, I suppose, by the fact that it appears to be a coffee shop whose owners merely decided to keep it open later, add some snacks and a wine list, but still! Something in E.P. that’s not a chain – this is welcome news!

Josh and I checked out JJ’s Coffee Company and Wine Bar last Saturday when we were feeling mellow, and it was the perfect venue for a quiet night. It is located in a strip mall off Mitchell Road, but once you get inside you are lulled (in a good way) by the neutral tones and general coziness. We sat in the (faux) leather club chairs next to the (faux) fireplace, had several glasses of wine, a flatbread pizza and some nachos. Next time I’d skip the nachos (not enough cheese) but the wines I had were all very good (I got a flight of reds). I’d go back, especially on a night when I was feeling like going out but not overly ambitious about it.

Nicollet Island Pavilion
Wednesday night Josh and I went to an event at Nicollet Island Inn sponsored by Mintahoe Hospitality Group. It was basically an open house to show off their company, which meant free food, free drinks and free entertainment. I even made some business networking connections, so it was a hit in many ways.

They had various food stations, including noodle bowls, kebabs, barbecue, turkey with a Riesling sauce and garlic mashed (my favorite), tortilla roll-ups, a dessert bar and more. They had a signature drink of St. Germain elderflower liqueur, white wine, soda and lemon. In a word, YUM. I have become a big fan of St. Germain in the last six months. They also had red and white wine as well as a table sampling various beers. Josh and I both tried Widmers, mine was a traditional ale and his was a hoppy seasonal.

They had caricature artists and we got ours done – a good laugh. They also had casino tables set up, tables showing off linens, flowers, centerpieces and other things you need to make an event spectacular. They also had a band. I hadn’t been to Nicollet Island Pavilion in some time, and I forget what a beautiful space it is. I definitely recommend hosting an event there if you get the chance. Events like these are one of the things I really love about living in a city – or at least close enough by in the ‘burbs that you can still get to them!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Oktoberfest

Kay and Chris came up from Mankato Saturday night to celebrate Oktoberfest with dinner at Gasthof in NE Minneapolis. Although I had been to the Mario Keller bar downstairs many times I had never actually eaten at the restaurant, and Josh had never been there at all.

We were glad we had reservations because the place was a zoo! We got seated quickly and started on several large beers and ginormous platters of German food. I was drinking Hacker-Pschorr Alt, Josh was drinking hefeweizen and Chris was drinking Murphy’s Irish Stout. Kay, oddly enough, was drinking diet Coke.

We all got salads and ordered a cheese and cracker platter, so had plenty to eat even before our food arrived. Kay and Chris got a multi-food platter to share, and had enough left over for probably a couple of more meals, Josh ordered a single platter and managed to finish most things except for the spaetzel, and I – not being a big fan of German “cuisine” (as I learned when I was in Munich back in 1999) – ordered steak (which, I have to say, was awesome). I ate some off of everyone’s platter, though, so still got the meat and beet experience.

Gasthof is always a blast, because in addition to eating and drinking until you burst, the other general goal is simply to have a lot of fun. This is accomplished by drinking bier, clinking your glasses, doing apfelkorn shots, maybe trying snuff for the first time (Josh!), listening to “Sesame Street” on the accordion or yelling Ziggy Zaggy Zicke Zaki hoi hoi hoi whenever you get a new round of shots and/or someone – anyone – finishes a boot of bier. The waitresses are dressed in dirndls and you always see a few customers decked out in lederhosen. Downstairs and occasionally outside, you polka.

After dinner we went outside to the tent since they were celebrating Oktoberfest. It was darn cold but we played a round of Hammerschlagen (where you try to pound a nail into a piece of wood with the narrow end of a hammer in one stroke) before we bailed for the tent and warmth. Although we had several biers in the restaurant, we hardly drank outside because we were so full from dinner.

Stayed for a while but eventually decided to bail. Checked out Donnie Dirk’s Zombie Bar since it was close by and on our way out of NE. It’s a little off the beaten path from the other NE bars but has fun decor inside. I actually got talked into ordering a gin drink that, while it smelled like gin, was creamy and had no pine tree taste whatsoever. All in all, probably not a place I would go out of my way to hang out at, but I’m glad we stopped by. It was opened recently by the woman who owns Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge (tiki hut kitsch bar) in NE and Saint Sabrina’s Parlor in Purgatory (tattoo/goth shop) in Uptown.

The four of us drove back to our place where we popped the cork on a bottle of Kuleto, kicked back and chatted. A good night with good friends!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Sip 'n Sample

Last night Josh and I went to our first Sip ‘n Sample event. Sip ‘n Sample basically arranges tasting tours at local restaurants and gives you an excuse to get out, have a drink, eat some good food and maybe meet some people. We did all of the above.

In a rather strange coincidence, this Sip ‘n Sample event was at The Minnesota Room, which we had just been to for the first time last week. They touted it as a “chef’s battle”, and I thought that meant we would get to watch the chefs cook in front of us, using the same or similar ingredients, and that we would get to judge whose food was better. That wasn’t really the case at all.

We got there a bit early but at least they had a couple of wines to try. Josh and I drank a tempranillo whose name I am forgetting at this moment, but which I really liked. They also had passed hors d’ouevres, which included tomato bruschetta and a caramelized onion/goat cheese crostini. Both were good. Even more fun, our friend Shaun, who is taking classes at Le Cordon Bleu, was serving apps. It was fun to see him in his chef’s toque and hat.

Once they opened up the dining area, we grabbed a table. Two women asked if they could join us, and at first I thought maybe they were mother and daughter, but later I decided perhaps they had just met in the hallway. I really liked Erika, who works for Target Corp and was probably a bit younger than us. Amy, the older woman, was quite the character. For instance, there were many typos in the materials and she edited them all and gave them back to school administrators. I was kind of like, “Go, AMY!” because I always want to do that but usually keep those urges under control. She had something to say about everything, which was both annoying and something I really appreciated about her. I definitely want to be the older lady who doesn’t give a damn and just says what she thinks.

The wines they were serving were a chard and a pinot from Sterling Vineyards, which we visited when we were in Napa. We both had the pinot, of course, as we generally favor reds over whites. I don’t drink much pinot, but this was the first time I really made that connection of, “Ah, yes. This is what pinot tastes like.” It was kind of neat. Even so, I preferred the tempranillo over the Sterling Vintner’s Collection Central Coast Pinot Noir.

Instead of a “battle” we were basically served three courses and asked to complete a survey about flavor, consistency and presentation for each dish. There was no head-to-head competition and there was no “winner.” Still, I’m sure it was good to have feedback for the chefs and students who made the food.

The first course was a roasted root vegetable soup garnished with fried leeks and crème fraiche. This was very good! Carrot soup is probably not something I would ever order if I saw it on a menu, but it was really delicious. In addition to carrots I tasted parsnip; I’m not sure if there were any other root vegetables in it. The fried leeks gave the soup a nutty flavor and the crème fraiche gave it just the right zip. I would recommend it to anyone.

There were two “meats” to choose from for dinner – salmon or pork loin. Since I don’t do seafood, I had the pork and Josh had the fish. Overall, the entrees were the most disappointing part of the meal. Mine was roast pork loin with chanterelle mushroom polenta and grilled brussel sprouts. The pork loin was quite rare in some spots, but the cooked parts tasted good. I like brussel sprouts anyway, so it’s hard to go wrong there. I’m not a fan of polenta any time, and this was cooked unevenly as well. Parts of it were creamy and parts of it were overcooked. I didn’t eat most of that.

Josh had dill and goat cheese ravioli (delish) with artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes topped with seared salmon and finished with a white wine lemon sauce. There were bones in his salmon and it was overcooked.

For dessert we had buttermilk and cinnamon panna cotta with apple gastrique, apple chip and apple chutney. VERY good. The panna cotta was rich and creamy and had just the right touch of cinnamon. The gastrique was delicious and really added another layer of flavor. (I am not a foodie, but I play one in my mind.)

Two students did a demonstration of bananas foster, one of whom was our buddy Shaun. We couldn’t really see it, though, because servers kept standing in our way. I did learn that cinnamon will spark when tossed in a flame, which I did not know before. Kind of makes me want to set some cinnamon on fire! We got a bite of the bananas foster, which was tasty (hard not to like bananas, rum, butter and brown sugar!).

You didn’t have to leave a gratuity, but we did because all monies were again going toward student scholarships. Gotta support those great chefs of the future!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Deal of the Century

Josh and I stumbled onto the deal of the century last Friday. I’m not even sure how I heard about it, but students at the Le Cordon Bleu school run a restaurant for weekday lunches as part of their hands-on learning, and anyone can go and have lunch there. We thought it sounded cool and, despite not knowing too much about it, made reservations at The Minnesota Room.

Le Cordon Bleu classes are held at Brown College in Mendota Heights. Therefore, the “restaurant” is basically converted classroom space. They have jazzed it up with curtains, paintings, ambient lighting, etc.

The menu includes your choice of three appetizers, three entrees and two deserts. I had the fowl consommé with brunoise vegetables and dill spatzel and Josh had the nicoise salad with poached egg and tuna. The other option was veal sweetbreads with apples and cipollinis (who in their right mind would intentionally eat sweetbreads is beyond me). My soup was very good, especially the dill spatzel. Josh enjoyed his salad as well.

For an entree I had the meatloaf au jus with potato puree and Josh had the sautéed skate with white beans and romesco salad. My meatloaf was a bit dry, actually, and not out of this world by any means. I’ll give the meatloaf award to Great Waters Brewing in DT Saint Paul any day of the week. The pureed potatoes and au jus were good, though. Josh liked his skate, and even though I do not care for fish I tried it. I thought it was edible but not liking seafood is really a texture thing for me, and it definitely had that seafood thing going for it. The other option was roasted chicken with butternut squash risotto.

For dessert I had the apple financier with caramel sauce and Josh had the chocolate tart with crème anglaise. I liked the apple cake better, but we shared pretty evenly. We both agreed the chocolate tart may have been *too* chocolate-y.

Our server was extremely nervous, which made me feel nervous in turn. She did fine, though. In addition to your meal you can get a glass of wine: Josh had a J. Drouhin-Macon Villages chardonnay and I had a Luzon-Jumilla monastrel-merlot blend that was quite good.

It was a very good lunch and I was curious to see the bill because there are no prices listed anywhere. We were guessing maybe $30/person or so. The total was something around $40 total. What, you say?! How is that possible? The lunch itself is only $12.50/person. Can you believe it?! Really good food and such a deal. The wine was $6/each, and then add in sales tax. We tipped extra because all tips go toward student scholarships.

At the end they ask you to fill out a quick and painless survey, give you a chocolate mint and send you on your way. All in all, I’d recommend anyone check this out!

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Saturday started out well enough – and ended okay - but it certainly had its moments!

The evening began with us heading over to the W Hotel in Minneapolis to celebrate Joe’s birthday (Joe being a friend and former co-worker of Josh’s). Josh was looking stylish with brown wool pants with a thin white pinstripe and a bold mustard-colored shirt. I looked pretty cute myself :) I hadn’t been to the W yet (in the Foshay building) and it is pretty swanky. The party was up on the 27th floor in the Prohibition Bar, which is all the rage with the downtown party-goers these days. Overall, I have to say I was more impressed with the lobby bar, but I’m sure that’s just a sign of age ;)

Joe is a nice/funny guy and I really enjoyed meeting his friend Nicole. We are now Twitter friends. Drinks and apps were ridiculously expensive there, but at least they had a very good happy hour special. Our waitress was barely clothed.

We stayed for about 2 hours but had tickets to see Mike Birbiglia at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul at 8, so we bailed at 7 so we’d have time to grab some fast food before the show. Swung up to University Avenue to McDonald’s, and were in DT Saint Paul by 7:30. Imagine our surprise when there is a block party on the street just outside of the Fitzgerald; it turns out Garrison Keillor is giving some sort of free outdoor concert. Had we known, we would have skipped Mickey D’s and gone in for the $5 meatloaf and mashed potato dinner, or perhaps the mini doughnuts.

We wander around outside for a bit but head into the theater at about 20 to 8. Josh grabs a beer at the bar there and I run to the restroom. There aren’t a *ton* of people around, but there are some, and I make the assumption that people are staying out at the free concert as long as they can because, well, this IS Minnesota and it IS Garrison Keillor. We find our seats and sit down, but it gets to be 10 minutes to 8 and we are still about the only people sitting in the theater, though there is a crew up on the stage tinkering around. Josh notices the stage doesn’t seem to be set up for a comedy show and asks me if I have the right night for the event. I say yes, I am positive, but we pull out the tickets to check. Yes, it’s Saturday, September 26. Yes, the show starts at 8 p.m. Imagine my horror when I realize the show is ACTUALLY at the State Theater in Minneapolis.

I am *hugely* upset. Here we had just been in DT Mnpls, and left a party early to come to Saint Paul – where we weren’t even supposed to be. I considered chucking the whole damn evening and just going home, but we decided to hightail it out of the theater and see if we can’t sprint over to Minneapolis, which we do in fairly speedy order. I spent the entire car ride praying there was a first act and trying not to burst into tears.

We get BACK to Minneapolis and valet at Chambers, flying down the sidewalk to the State Theater. We ask if we can be seated (because sometimes they won’t let you interrupt ongoing shows) and the usher says yes, and that they will be going to intermission soon. And I think – YES! At least we will be able to see half of the show. We get to our seats and it is *not* Mike Birbiglia performing on stage, which means there was an opening act and we didn’t miss the important part of the show at all. YAY!!!!!!!!!!!

The opening act sounded pretty good, what we caught of him, and then I thought Mike Birbiglia was just great! This was a mystery date I had planned for Josh, so I am glad it wasn’t totally ruined. Although it is funny now, and makes for a good story, I was supremely UNamused as it was happening.

After the show we popped into Solera for a beverage and a snack, then home and to bed!

A "grape" time

Friday wine tasting
Friday night we went to a wine tasting event at International Market Square that was sponsored by City Pages. We had gone to a similar event in the spring, and we both thought this event was more lightly attended and, fortunately, had more food available to help soak up the wine. There were 64 tables, I think, with probably 50 of them being wine tables, and the others were random – Crispin or beer, massages, movie theaters, etc. I tasted 40 wines (some of which were just a sip out of Josh’s glass). I think we skipped the last 6 or so tables because we were just *done.* We had some good conversations with people and met a guy who reminded me a lot of Dave Llamas, which was fun. We got there right at six and bailed by probably 8.

My favorite wines were a Columbia Winery Cellar Master’s Riesling, Castle Rock Zinfandel, Gascon Malbec, Crios Malbec, and a Mionetto il Moscato. I tried a few pinots in preparation for our trip to the Willamette Valley this fall, but mostly stuck to things I’m pretty sure I’m going to like – red zins, malbecs, rieslings and moscatos. I guess that’s not really the point of a wine tasting, but so it goes! Most of the wines have a really decent price point, ranging in the $12 or less category, and all are available at MGM Liquor.

Grape picking
Josh’s alarm went off at the ridiculous hour of 6 a.m. I had set my alarm for 6:30 a.m. and, not realizing Josh had set his, kept trying to shut mine off – unsuccessfully. We peered outside to determine if we *really* had to go or not since it had been raining throughout the night, but we decided that even though it was foggy and damp, there was probably no getting out of it at this point. So, we hauled ourselves out of bed and I made us a hearty farm breakfast of biscuits and gravy. Pretty tasty, if I do say so myself! We put on plenty of layers, tracked down iPods and sunglasses and gloves, and were on our way.

We get to Parley Lake Winery outside of Waconia by 8 a.m. and are given some basic instructions. We are going to pick the gray block, half of which was picked the previous day. We got a pruning tool and told to hold clusters by the stems. You are to gently lay the grapes in the lugs (yellow carrying boxes), not just toss them in. Each lug can carry about 30 pounds of grapes, though they said new pickers generally do about 22 pounds per lug. I’m guessing mine were closer to the 30 pounds, ’cuz mine were FULL. You have to pay attention when picking grapes to watch out for half clusters or other detritus you don’t want in your wine. It was easy to miss clusters hidden behind poles, etc., so you had to go slow and have a careful eye.

We worked until 11 and, all in all, I thought it was a great time. Don’t get me wrong – it is hard work, and I have a whole new appreciation for farm workers who do this daily for hours and weeks at a time. They for sure deserve big bucks, which most of them likely do not get. I was starting to fade out a little by 10:30. I picked about 4.5 lugs, which should have been about 135 pounds of grapes. Go me!

I was glad to be in the Marquette grape fields, where the grapes were netted, because they had loud “bird in distress” calls over some of the other blocks, which would have driven me out of my tree. It was an absolutely beautiful day, and I’m glad we did the morning shift because it started getting pretty warm later in the day. There were probably about 10 of us working. Josh, me and one other guy ended up working about half an hour longer than anyone else because our last row was simply LADEN with grapes – e.g. I filled almost an entire lug with grapes from one six-foot section. Crazy! It is fairly dirty and wet work, plus my thumb is still purple from the grape juices. On the up side, you could eat as many grapes as you wanted and they were delicious. They were at 25 brix, or 25 percent sugar content. I suspect they will make some darn good wine!

Our "reward” for our hours of free farm labor was a bottle of wine and two wine glasses each (even though the LAST thing we need in our house is more wine glasses). We also got a free lunch, which was a hotdog. Oh well. I was annoyed that when we turned in our tickets for our free wine/glasses that the winemaker’s wife didn’t even bother to thank us for our time. I might have been a little more grateful if I were her.

The winemaker was starting to crush the grapes we had just picked before we even left, and we will have to buy a bottle of the Marquette wine when it is ready, in hopes that some of “our” grapes are in that bottle :)

As we were leaving Josh asked if I had noticed the vehicles of the other volunteer grape pickers – I hadn’t. Josh said they were all nice, yuppie-type vehicles that seemed to clearly indicate their owners were doing this just because it seems fun. Other than the expensive car, what does that make us?!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Happy Anniversary to us!

Friday
Well, we didn’t win the lottery.

Friday was mine and Josh’s first wedding anniversary. Since the traditional first anniversary gift is paper, I bought five lottery tickets and put them in a card for Josh before I left the house this morning. Alas – no luck. We decided it’s too bad, because it would have made a great story for the media.

Our anniversary weekend was good. Josh had Friday off from work, so he came and had lunch with me in Saint Paul. We went to Salut on Grand, and had a nice table outside in the shade. Dining al fresco reminded us of many of our meals in Napa Valley on our honeymoon, so even though we didn’t have wine for lunch, it was a nice break in the day.

After work we had an appointment for a couples massage and then went to Chatterbox I in South Minneapolis, site of our first date. Had burgers and beers and played a few games of Yahtzee. Came home and popped open a bottle of Cabernet from Kuleto that we have been saving for the past year. It was… pretty terrible. Turns out it tasted *much* better after it had been allowed to breathe for a bit.

Also busted into the top of our wedding cake, which I was positive was going to be disgusting but somehow was not. I opened the tin it had been in for the past year and was very disappointed to see the cake hadn’t been wrapped up in layers of plastic at all, like they tell you to in all the wedding propaganda. It was just placed in the tin, which was far from air-tight. I had never bothered to open it because I assumed the wedding venue had packaged it properly. Anyway, I was fully expecting to take a bite and toss it directly in the garbage can. However, it tasted pretty darn good! Almond torte with strawberry filling.

Josh and I also exchanged gifts. I had found an artist on Etsy to pencil sketch one of our wedding photos (again, sticking to the paper theme) and had it framed up along with an Emerson quote: “People destined to meet will do so, apparently by chance, at precisely the right moment. – The Law of Spiritual Gravitation". Which I think sums up our meeting and courtship pretty well. Josh went the paper route as well, getting me a wine poster print by an artist I had expressed interest in a while back. Both pieces are now hanging in our home.

Saturday
Saturday we planned to recreate our honeymoon in mini form by visiting two wineries. The first was Crofut Family Winery near Jordan, which we had never been to, and the second was Morgan Creek Vineyards near New Ulm. While this was a great idea in theory, New Ulm is a bit of a drive from E.P., and even from Jordan, and it ended up being kind of a long day. No matter.

Crofut was having a little event, which included grape stompers, a little flea market and music. The wines were better than expected and we bought a bottle of their La Crescent. I thought the grape stomping would be great fun, but nobody really “stomped” – they just kind of casually walked in the grapes, so it wasn’t much of a show. Still, I would like to do that some time. The flea market was dreadful, and there was a chef who was attempting to make cayenne chocolate mousse, and everything that could go wrong did – the power kept going out on his mixer, the cream curdled, etc. He seemed to take it pretty well in stride.

It was a long drive down to Morgan Creek but at least it was a beautiful day. The tasting room was pretty crowded when we got there so we waited a little bit. We bought a bottle of their Zeitgeist and wandered outside to sit by their bonfire. They have a really nice outdoor area, it’s a farm and so they have this huge lawn with a red barn and a giant tree that we both love (we had briefly considered getting married here). After we finished eating our wood-fired snacks (and a few we snuck in) we wandered down to the tree, drinking our wine and sitting on the wooden swing they have there. It was a pretty nice way to spend the afternoon.

Sunday
Sunday we planned to go to this Oktoberfest celebration down on St. Anthony Main in NE Minneapolis, along the Mississippi River. I had never been but they had been advertising it as this three-day event, so we figured it was worth checking out. It wasn’t. There were about a handful of booths and probably even fewer people there. Strange. Maybe it will get off the ground in a couple more years. Fortunately, Josh had suggested taking the motorcycle so we just drove past and kept cruising. Got back to the house and watched the last half of the Vikings game. Took a nap, made dinner and otherwise had a leisurely night.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Labor Day weekend

Overall, we had a very nice and stress-free Labor Day weekend. Earlier in the week I had done laundry, and Friday I stopped at the grocery store directly after work, so no real chores or errands had to be accomplished. We ate dinner outside – cheeseburgers on the grill, sweet corn and roasted peppers – and otherwise had a leisurely night.

Saturday we hung new curtains in the bedroom and made BLTs and spaghetti squash for lunch. We then decided to get on Josh’s motorcycle and take it to a couple of wineries west of the Cities that we had never been to before. First up was Woodland Hill Winery just outside of Delano. We only came across this place when we were looking up the other one, but since they were relatively near each other and it was a nice day to be out on the bike, we decided to hit up both. Since we had never heard of it, I assumed it would be a pretty small family operation. Not at all – we pull up and the place is packed to the gills. In addition to the regular tasting, they were having a small art fair with about 20 booths, as well as music and some fair-type food – pork chop on a stick, mini doughnuts, what have you.

The tasting room was packed, but we sidled up to the counter pretty easily. It was $5/person to taste 6 wines – 2 whites, 2 roses, 2 reds. We didn’t care for the reds at all, and liked the first one we tried the best – an apple-y white called Autumn Sky. The tastings were done in 1-oz plastic cups and we had hardly picked up the first cup before she came by to see if we were ready for the next one. People were about 3-deep at the counter, so I couldn’t blame them for rushing us. After tasting Josh bought us each a glass of the Autumn Sky and we wandered around the fair for a bit. They have several nice sitting areas including a bonfire, and it seems as if they have fun events there frequently. Too bad it’s not a *bit* closer to us! We bought a bottle of the Autumn Sky on our way out and headed to the next stop.

The next winery was Parley Lake, near Waconia. It was the grand opening weekend for this winery; their first vintages. I thought they had pretty good traffic for being relatively unknown. The tasting here was also $5/person, but in real wine glasses that you got to keep (I think that brings our wine glass count up to at least 353). The girl who did our tasting was very nice and we enjoyed talking to her. It did start getting a bit crowded so we left to wander around outside. The winery is on a farm, so you could visit rabbits, goats and horses. They also have an apple orchard on the property, so you could buy apples and apple products. We didn’t end up buying any wine there but had a nice time.

Came home, took a nap and made dinner – homemade pizza. Otherwise, just hung out with the TV/computers/books, and I finished “My Life in France” by Julia Child. Fast, easy read, and really makes you wish you could have known and hung out with Julia and Paul Child back in the day. They seemed to have fabulous lives!

Sunday we didn’t have a plan and I was restless. I bailed out of the house around noon to run a few errands and Josh took his bike out for a while. I was back in the house by 2 because my back was acting up again. I spent the rest of the day on the couch, nursing ibuprofen and a hot pad.

Monday we decided to run to Macy’s to get Josh some jeans since his are falling off of him. Got him a belt and two pairs of jeans, plus went to Express and he bought the brightest orange shirt you have ever seen. After that we went to Patrick’s – Josh had a chicken wrap and I had a fruit tart. Came home and packed up to go to Staring Lake. Josh packed his disc golf equipment and I packed a book and a blanket. Really a nice day; perfect weather all weekend.

Came home and Josh decided to watch a movie and I decided to try my hand at Julia Child’s beef bourginon. The recipe is rated difficult and gives the active cooking time of 120 minutes. I wouldn’t say it was especially difficult, but there were a LOT of steps to it (it is a 3-page recipe). All in all, it took about 4 hours of my time AND I think I dirtied every dish in the house. The end result, though – my, my, my. It was absolutely delicious, and very, very rich. It should be, since you use, among other things, nearly an entire bottle of wine. I personally think a few steps could have been cut out/modified, and next time (?!) I’ll use regular bacon instead of salt pork, but it was very, very good.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Porter & Frye

On Monday, we met a friend of Josh’s, who lives in the Chicago area and was in town on business, for dinner at Porter & Frye in downtown Minneapolis. Little did we know there was construction going on so it was very unclear how to actually get *in* the place. Turns out you had to go through the hotel it is attached to; all three of us ended up walking around the building. Let’s get some better signage, people!

I was super jazzed to try this place because it has a reputation of having amazing chefs (all of whom have recently left: Steven Brown, Joan Ida). Anyway, we walk in and it’s kind of a random space. I was expecting a high-end look from its reputation, but it really wasn’t that way at all. It had the industrial-type ceilings, which would have been fine if they were tall, but since the ceilings were low it was more odd than anything. The tables and bar area were okay, but there are four huge columns in the middle of the room that block your view of most of the dining area. When we got there the room was nearly empty and yet the hostess put us at a table right next to the only other table of people in the room.

The drinks were very good. I had two martinis – first a Ginger Mule (Georgia Mule?) and then a raspberry “Come back, lover” or some similar name. Both were solid but I’d pick the Ginger Mule every time – peachy and gingery, refreshing.

For dinner I had the arugula salad with fennel, pear, ginger and prosciutto. The prosciutto was very crispy like bacon and made a nice addition to the salad. I also had the risotto with smoked chicken, fava beans and cauliflower. It tasted fresh, but not as fresh as the food at Spoonriver. And, while the risotto was good, it wasn’t great, such as what you can get at Risotto or, if I may blow my own horn, the dirty risotto I make at home courtesy of a Giada de Laurentiis recipe.

We skipped dessert as none of the options blew our skirts up, and called it a night. All in all I’d say it was very nice to meet Sarah, but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to go back to Porter & Frye.

Catching up on August

I guess I have been kind of a slacker on the whole blogging end of life lately. Here's what you've missed:

August 16 – Had brunch in Uptown with Chris & Melissa. We ate at French Meadow Bakery, which was it’s usual Sunday morning zoo. Still, it was good to see the Byrneses, as next time we see them Baby Morgan should have joined the outside world.

August 19 – Had drinks with the SPA girls at W.A. Frost’s. We had hoped to sit outside on their fabulous patio, but the weather was once again not cooperating. Always wonderful to see them, even though we tend to dwell too much on the past when we are together ;)

August 20-21 – I was in Duluth for work for a couple of days. Thought everything was highly interesting and I learned a lot. The best part was getting to meet people from throughout our 4-state region, put names with faces, etc.

August 22 – Chris & Mark invited us over for a grill out at their place. Good food, good friends. We played several rounds of Apples to Apples and For Sale before we all decided we are old and tired and had to go to bed.

August 23 – Dee, Dan and JenO came over to our place for a little potluck and sangria. Good times! We definitely need to invite people over more often.

August 29Minnesota State Fair! We managed to eat at least three things in the first half hour alone! A fun day of walking around, eating and people watching. We enjoyed watching the infomercial-type sellers and even caved to one and bought a handheld tile cutter for me. Now we just need to go tile shopping…

Everywhere at the Fair we saw people wearing these lime green Boston Scientific Tshirts with square black and white cows on them that said "I've been spotted at the Fair." They were so cute and I really want one! We even asked a family how/where they got theirs, but it was an employee promotion thing. Darn it! Why don't I have any juice at Boston Scientific?

Went to the Lynyrd Skynyrd/Kid Rock concert in the Grandstand and nearly froze to death. I was so glad when the music started so I had an excuse to jump around and get the blood moving. We had absolute crap seats, second row from the back, but at least we were dead center of the stage and it was still better seats than, say, anything you can get at Target Center (crappy venue). I was surprised I knew as many Skynyrd songs as I did.

Kid Rock was a good performer/entertainer. What he is *not* is a particularly talented singer or rapper. I always thought he has a nice voice on his ballads, but judging from the concert I’d say quite a bit of that is studio work. Still – he put on a good show, whipped the crowd up, etc.

We took an express bus to the State Fair from E.P. for $5/person, and it was totally worth it to be able to sleep on the way home and let someone else worry about getting us there. Will definitely do that again in the future!

Food musts:
bull bites from Axel's
strawberries and whip cream
ice cream from the dairy building

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Book recommendations

In no particular order:
The Red Tent, Anita Diamant
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
The Little Book, Selden Edwards
The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Monday madness

Praying on the side of the road
My Monday night turned out to be *quite* interesting! First off, I had a work event in Oakdale that I was a little nervous about attending as I knew I would know very few people there. The event was fun and interesting with a lot of Democratic bigwigs in attendance so I was glad I went. About a mile from the place as I was heading home, I hear a horrible scraping metal sound so I pull off the road, certain I have a flat tire. Imagine my confusion when I get out of my car and all of the tires are perfectly fine. What? So I get on the ground and what do I see but what appears to be my entire exhaust system laying on the ground. Awesome. And I was so mad at myself that I didn’t have a tow truck number in my phone, because my car has been acting up for the last six weeks, and I have pretty much been waiting for it to strand me someplace inconvenient.

I end up calling my insurance company for a tow suggestion and she asks for my car’s VIN to look up my policy. Amazingly, I have that info. at my fingertips, but when she types it into her computer they apparently don’t have a policy for my car. What?? Turns out she was wrong, but I did panic for a moment.

So I am waiting for the tow truck to arrive when all of a sudden an older gentleman pulls up next to me on a motorcycle and asks if he can help. I tell him I have a tow truck on the way, but he asks if it is okay to look and I say yes. He figures he can rig the muffler, etc., enough to get me home to E.P. and starts digging in a bag of random metal bits. The tow truck guy comes along and kind of laughs at the scenario but gets down and helps the guy. I’m in the mix as well in my dress and heels, laying on the ground and holding a flashlight as cars are whipping by at 9 at night on 494. Good times!

They were both nice and manage to cob together bits of metal and wire to attach the muffler enough to get me home. (Mental note: put a damn wire hanger in the car!) I offered money to both but the older man did not want anything and the tow truck guy is covered by my insurance (particularly as he now doesn’t even have to tow me).

Everyone is getting ready to leave and my Good Samaritan gestures for me to come over. I was thinking – great! Is this where he kills me a/o steals my purse? No, he wants to pray. So there we are, 9:30 p.m. in the dark on the side of the interstate, praying together. Once I was back on the road he followed me for a bit, and then suddenly he was gone. That freaked me out for a minute in a Twilight Zone kind of way, but then I realized he took an exit. Dee de dee de dee de dee de…

Redecorating
I ended up taking Tuesday off to get my car fixed, and actually had quite a productive day at home. First off, the car got fixed for under $150. The guy told me – unprovoked – what good condition my car is in, and I almost laughed in his face given that it has been in one shop or another repeatedly during the last six weeks. I was sort of hoping the exhaust falling off and getting fixed would also somehow magically fix the underpowering problem, but no luck there.

Anyway, I got quite a lot done while I was home. I hung a new curtain rod in the bedroom (the other was falling down), caulked the bathroom sink, finished rearranging the living room, finished putting new knobs on all of our closet doors and put the bookcase back together in the basement. I also taped off the basement entryway that was hot pink (Josh says it is cranberry) and primed that to a nice, dull shade of beige. Two coats, and I should be able to paint it tomorrow. I actually felt a sense of relief to see the bold color toned down so significantly.

Future projects include painting the bedroom, which I already have paint for, painting the upstairs entryway – which we still need to decide on a color for – and finish rearranging the basement. I also have to clean out/rearrange some closet space since I want to turn our upstairs coat closet into more of a shelving/pantry type storage area. Always some minor little thing to plan for/think about. I’m sure I drive Josh crazy, but fortunately he puts up with me!

The Modern Café
For dinner we met Ted and Natalie at The Modern, a little place in NE between Erte and Northeast Social Club. Josh and I got there first and on first viewing I was a little skeptical. On the plus side, it turns out Tuesdays are half-priced bottle of wine nights. Yay! We split two bottles, a Super Tuscan and a Malbec.

Ted and Natalie got there and it was great to see them! I really enjoy meeting up with them and we don’t do it nearly often enough. Ted is also preparing to do some tiling in their bathroom, so I told him I am waiting to start tiling our basement entryway until he has done it so I can call on him for help!

The food was really tasty. Josh and I ordered fries as an app and Ted and Natalie ordered seasonal squash. For dinner I had their pot roast, which they are well known for, Ted and Josh both had a shrimp chorizo stew of sorts, and Natalie had split pea wonton raviolis. Mine came with a big dollop of white stuff that I thought looked like cottage cheese. I thought that was odd and took a big bite to see… nope. It was a big forkful of horseradish! Good stuff, but better in smaller bites! For desserts Ted and Natalie had mango panna cotta and we had chocolate pots de creme.

All in all, it was a very good place and much better than what my first impression thought it would be. Between the three – The Modern, Erte and NE Social Club, I’d pick the NE Social Club every time!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Northeast Social Club

I am beginning to have serious doubts over whether our economy is in a recession or not! Last night I was at Northeast Social Club (in NE Minneapolis, natch) and, much like Risotto, the place was packed wall to wall with people – and their patio was full. Crazy!

That being said – I totally get why! I had a wonderful time in every way!

It’s in a great location, just down the block from Erte’ and The Modern (note to self: must check out The Modern). It’s small with great décor – kind of a French blue textured wall paper, tin ceiling look, some pretty weird paintings on the walls that I kind of dug.

I was meeting JenO and Dee to celebrate my birthday and I got there a bit early so I grabbed a seat at the bar. The bartender seemed a bit slick and gave a “If you need help navigating the wine list, I’m an expert” kind of line. I thought – whatever, you aren’t as cool as you think you are – and ordered the Opolo Mountain Zin (red, of course. Not white. Never white!!). He was pretty excited about what I ordered and said it was his favorite. He handed me the glass – and topped it off with extra “for luck,” he said – and I smelled, swirled and tasted. Oh. Yum. Yum yum yum yum yum. It may be my new favorite as well.

When Dee came, she wanted wine as well but something very smooth, and he says, “Silky smooth?” And at the same time we go, “You'll love the Cline Cashmere…” (Clearly, we both have fabulous tastes - HA!) Overall, I was really happy with their wine list. It’s short, but all stars from what I could tell. We ordered a different bottle at dinner – a red Italian blend, can’t remember the name – that was also great.

We managed to grab a table and ordered welsh rarebit and scallops for apps. Did you know welsh rarebit is basically a cheese fondue over crostini with blue cheese? I always assumed it was some random meat of some kind. The scallops came on a bed of lemony sweetcorn and both dishes were delish! (Not a huge menu selection, but everything sounds and tasted just amazing.)

For dinner JenO had walleye and garlic mashed. I didn’t try the fish but the potatoes were excellent – tasted like they had been made with chicken stock. Dee had the short ribs with a smoked tomato sauce and au gratin potatoes – delicious. And I ordered the chicken hash, which I wasn’t sure about – hash just doesn’t sound that appetizing and gnocchi is always a sure thing. But, I went for it and it was awesome! Moist and flavorful. For dessert we ordered the key lime pie, which was tart and wonderful.

As you can see, I may have a new favorite restaurant! Knowledgeable wine guy, good overall vibe, excellent food and darn good service. I can't wait to take Josh there!

Most importantly, I had such a great time with Jenn and Dee. They are wonderful, wonderful friends!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Risotto in Uptown

For my birthday we went to Risotto in Uptown. We had happened upon this place accidentally earlier this summer, and I had made a mental note to get back there sometime. Then, in the last few weeks it seems like it was getting positive reviews all over the place – Metro magazine, Mpls-St Paul magazine, Minnesota Monthly, City Pages, the Strib and Pioneer Press. Add that to the fact the chef formerly used to chef at Arezzo, which I always meant to go to but never did, and I decided to move it higher on my list of places to check out!

The night we had stopped in to look at their menu earlier this summer was a Saturday night and the place was dead. We walk in Monday night – a Monday night! – and it is wall-to-wall people with not one empty table. (Granted, there are only 15 tables in there and maybe a dozen bar seats, but still – the place was hopping!) Apparently they were as surprised as we were, because they were seriously understaffed. I think I only saw three people the whole time, and Josh was pretty sure one of them was the chef.

First impression is I like the décor and it would be a great space for a wine bar (which, incidentally, it used to be). There is no maitre de’ stand and so, on a busy night, you aren’t really sure where to stand or go to let them know you want a table. Last, its location on Lake Street isn’t ideal, mainly because it’s a little tucked away and I don’t know that you’d think to go there if that wasn’t your destination. In other words, I hope it lasts longer than anything else seems to in that space, all of which seems to fold in under two years.

It took a few minutes for it to slow down enough for anyone to notice we were there, but it was busy and we totally understood. Our server didn’t know crap about wine, which is fine if she had just said so. Instead, she’s like, “Well, this one’s good because it’s $50…” Whatever. As someone who came across as a part owner/manager (“I wish I had staffed more people tonight”), she should know more about the kind of wines they serve. As it was I picked a barbera, and unfortunately it was pretty awful. WAY too tannic. Ah well, sometimes you miss!

Josh had scallops for an app that had good flavor but was overcooked. I had a salad that was absolutely blah. The bread – when it finally came halfway into our meal after repeated requests – was your basic crusty bread, but nothing fabulous. And, Italian restaurant or no, I really prefer butter with my bread, not olive oil.

All that being said… the reason we went there was for the risotto, and it was really, really delicious! Josh had a saffron and sausage one, and I had a mushroom and chicken one. I am usually not a big fan of saffron as people tend to use too much of it, but it was very subtle and good. Mine I was less sure about at first, I think largely because it looked like the insides of a pot pie, which grosses me out to no end. As I got used to the earthy flavor, however, I found I really, really liked it. Last night I gave it a 6.5, but as I am eating leftovers this morning for breakfast, I give it an 8.

The restaurant overall was a 5. I’m not in a hurry to go back, though I do think it is likely a much better restaurant than what we saw last night.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Home Improvement

Although there wasn’t the usual restaurant hopping we like to engage in over the weekend, overall I’d say I enjoyed it quite a bit! I’ve created a list of minor home improvement opportunities that I’ve been bugging Josh about – nothing major, just little things that I think will make a big difference - throwing away broken blinds, painting, etc., and we finally started to get on top of doing some of them!

The problem, of course, is that I watch far too much HGTV, which will give anyone ideas. One of my latest ideas was to replace our bathroom mirror, which is industrial-sized and not particularly homey. I purchased an oval one that Josh was convinced was too small for the space and I was convinced was perfect. So, Thursday night we tore the mirror off the bathroom wall (and some of the wall off the wall, if you know what I mean). Held up the oval mirror and, of course, it is far too small! Lesson #636 in listening to my husband.

The rest of the night was me surfing the Internet looking for another oval mirror in a larger size. No dice. How is this even possible, when I am positive you can find everything one needs on the Internet?

Next morning I get the idea to look on the HGTV “Rate My Space” bathroom pages and I see several large round mirrors, including one from IKEA that I think will work. I email a link to Josh, he agrees, and we make plans for an IKEA date. At IKEA, we find the perfect mirror, and it is only $20. Twenty bucks!! I am thrilled.

On the way home we stop at Cold Stone Creamery where I try the new chocolate pudding ice cream with caramel sauce. In a word, scrumpdillyicious! Also peeped into Pier 1 and bought a new rug for our entryway. Got home and decided the new mirror will fit perfectly, so Josh started spackling the wall.

Meanwhile, I had also been bugging Josh to put some hardware on our kitchen cabinets. The only sucky thing is all the hinges (all 30 of them!) are gold, but we wanted some kind of silver knobs or pulls. Which means instead of just adding hardware, we also had to change out all of the hinges. And by we, I pretty much mean Josh, and it was an all-day job.

I have to say, the cabinets look fantastic! It is amazing what a difference hardware can make. I honestly feel like we have brand new cabinets.

I took time out of my Saturday making raspberry truffle cheesecake to run to Home Depot to take a tiling class. I was the only student so I got to ask all the questions I wanted. Took a million notes and got to do some hands-on grouting and tile cutting. Actually, I’m not so hot at the tile cutting, mainly because I’m not strong enough to score the tile properly. But, I am pretty sure I can do the thin-set and the grouting, and maybe if I get a cool new tool like a wet saw I won’t need to worry about having the muscle to operate the paper cutter-style. (Tools! I loves them!!)

I did decide even a small tiling project like our basement entryway (a space maybe 3x4 feet) could get expensive quickly by the time you buy all the tools and whatnot. The tile is actually the cheap part in a small space!

Besides Josh doing all the cabinet work on Saturday, we painted and sanded and re-painted and re-sanded the bathroom wall so we can hang the mirror. Next project? Probably finding a new light fixture and/or faucet for the bathroom sink. Then, I’ve got to start painting again – the bedroom or the front entryway, I think. Josh says chocolate brown is too dark for the entryway… should I listen to him this time?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Seidelcamp 2009

This past weekend was the fifth annual Seidelcamp down at Chimney Rock Campground near Decorah, Iowa. It was a much smaller group this year, with just 16 or so people (compared with last year's 28). It was nice to have a smaller group, though, as it felt more cohesive. Also, each food group was responsible for only one meal, which was a treat.

Josh and I got there around 7 Friday night, set up our tent and hung out at the fire with everyone else. Dave's food group had made pulled pork sandwiches and pasta salad. Had a few cocktails but went to bed reasonably early.

We were the first ones up Saturday morning so we got the fire going and cleaned all the beer cans up from around the fire pit area. Jim and Bethany's group made breakfast of biscuits and gravy. I had absolute faith the sky would clear off for a sunny day of canoeing, but that never happened! I wore sweat pants and a fleece jacket on the river. Other than that, it was warm enough, if not sunny, and thankfully nobody tipped their canoes.

Jim let me putter around in his kayak for a while, and I think I will go that route next year. It's a lot less work, more fun and you can get yourself out of tight spots a lot easier.

Saturday night our group made burgers, brats and hot dogs. Josh manned the grill and I didn't do much as most of my work had been done in advance – potato salad, beans and bars. Another fun night of sitting around the fire with a group of really good people.

Sunday morning Chuck and Betsy's groups made pancakes and sausage, and then we packed up and headed out. At least it didn't rain this year, but sure am hoping for some sun next year!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Visit with Josh's parents

Josh's parents got into town about 4 Friday afternoon. We hung around the house until 7:30 or so, and then headed over to The Strip Club in Saint Paul. We got there about half an hour before our reservation, and the place was very crowded and noisy. Luckily, we were able to grab four chairs at the bar so the wait was tolerable. Fay ordered an appletini that was more cider than pucker; it would have been nice if they had explained it was not your standard appletini. However, the service was very good and attentive.

For apps we ordered the poutine, and what I would call an upscale version of the corn dog, which was Thousand Hills sausage with corn breading and bacon ketchup. Fay and I ordered the "Love you long time" New York strip, Josh ordered the "Shrimp Trampi" strip and Doug ordered Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce, which he said were delicious. As good as the steaks at The Strip Club are, it might be impossible to beat their carrots. Carrots come on the side of every steak and I actually made a point of finishing my carrots over the steak - that's how good they are! The four of us were stuffed but still decided to share a dessert called the candy bar that was quite good.

Saturday morning we got up and I made breakfast, with Josh giving me a hard time about cooking the entire time. I had made a hash brown casserole thing since Josh doesn't like eggs, but it still got called "crap". It will be a sad day for him when I stop cooking entirely! Also made honey wheat pancakes (out of a box) that came out pretty well on the griddle Fuzzy gave me a while back. May have to dig that out more often.

First stop was the Japanese Garden at Normandale CC, which is such a great, serene little place. We then headed up to Chisago City to Winehaven, a family-owned winery that Josh and I had never been to. They were having a festival of sorts to introduce their latest batch of raspberry wine. The wine tasting was free, and there were maybe eight fruit wines, six whites and six reds to taste. We tasted pretty much all of it, though later I saw a note that said to limit your tastings to six. Oops. Fay and Doug picked up a couple of bottles they liked; Josh and I didn't purchase any.

We also did the tour. Our tour guide was a Mr. Peterson, who owns the farm/vineyard. He has a great Minnesota accent and you could tell he was really invested in his business. It was fun to listen to him talk.

We then drove down to Stillwater to have lunch at Smalley's Caribbean BBQ. Overall, a disappointment. The apps were good – corn fritters and sweet potato fries – and I had a great rum punch, but I thought the food was blah at best. My pulled pork sandwich hardly had any sauce on it at all, and our server didn’t stop back to see if we needed anything. No one else was overly flipped about their food, either. Josh did have a "Walk the Plank" rum flight, two of three of which were very nasty in my book. On the plus side, we did have a great table outside in the sun, but I can't say I would recommend ever going back there. Which is unfortunate, because it is co-owned by Tim McKee, who also owns La Belle Vie, which is absolutely fabulous. I realize they are very different types of restaurants, but you think the quality would come through on both.

Next stop was St. Croix Vineyard. Tastings were $5/each and our pourer was a young kid named Chris, who was nonetheless very knowledgeable. I didn't think their wines were as good this time as they have been other years, but I still liked the vignole and the raspberry dessert wines the best. But, we didn’t buy any. With the 30 bottles of rioja we have right now, it is hard to justify buying another bottle of wine that we have no room for.

Next stop was home and a quick nap. Josh and I meant to cook burgers on the grill, but we were all too stuffed. We were in bed by 10 and Josh's parents left first thing in the morning. All in all, a nice – if too short – visit.