Monday, March 30, 2009

Busy Weekend

The nice thing about living in the Cities is you can be a day away from the weekend with no plans at all, and then suddenly your schedule is pretty full. Saturday night we met JenO and Ken for dinner in Eagan at a little neighborhood joint not far from their house. Bibo was formerly Vivo Italia, and was taken over by the i nonni people of Lilydale. Their wine list is a bit unusual for the casual drinker, but plenty of good stuff on there. I had the brachetto, which is a red sparkling and darn tasty! Their menu is not deep, but there is enough to choose from. I *highly* recommend the mostaccioli dish - it was wonderful. They also have a deep-fried grilled cheese app (or similar) that was quite good. It's nice to have a neighborhood place like that in walking distance - something E.P. does not seem to have.

On Sunday, we went for brunch at Spoonriver in downtown Minneapolis, right next door to the Guthrie. The wonderful thing about Brenda Langton's place is that everything tastes like it was fresh-picked out of the garden about five minutes before it arrives on your plate. If you are going for brunch, I definitely recommend the hash browns.

Next up was "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Guthrie. "Two Gentlemen" was Shakespeare's first comedy and therefore not one of his best, but the staging was interesting in that it was set in the 1950s. Some of the character actors were more engaging than the leads. In a nice twist of events, our tickets were free as they were donated to us by a former colleague of mine. Yay!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Food & Wine Show

Josh and I volunteered to pour wine at the Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience Sunday, March 1, at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I heard about the opportunity through a Twin Cities “Uncorked” wine club email and we jumped on the opportunity. Tickets to the show are normally $70/person, but if we poured wine for three hours then we got to hang out the rest of the time for free. Sounded good to us!

We had to be at the show at 10:30, so we decided to hit up Blackbird for breakfast beforehand. Good food, decent prices, kind of a random space. If I lived in South Minneapolis I would probably go out of my way to eat there a little more often. As it is, the Original Pancake House in E.P. is okay by me!

We had to be there at 10:30 and work until 2, but from 10:30 to 11 was set-up and we mostly stood around, and from 1:30-2 was a mandatory pour break so we basically just stood around and drank wine and chatted with people until our replacements came at 2. From 11-1:30, though, we were BUSY! We had eight different wines to pour and people were lined up! And since we manned the booth by ourselves, we had to answer a lot of questions – some of which we knew the answer to, some of which we didn’t. Fortunately we both know enough about wine to wing it, but I have to admit I probably just made things up a time or two.

Our booth was sponsored by Trinchero Winery of Napa Valley, but was not actually Trinchero wines – instead, ours were wines distributed by the same guy who distributes the Trinchero stuff (there was a Trinchero wine booth in the main area and also in the reserve room). Our wines were from 4 different northern California wineries, including Napa, Mendocino and Amador, a county about an hour east of Sacramento. All of our wines were sustainably farmed, packaged, transported, etc., although only one of them was certified organic.

Our eight bottles included two standard corks, four twist-off caps and two Tetra-pak juice box-style packaging. We had four whites and four reds: a lightly oaked chardonnay, an unoaked chard that came in the juice box, a muscato (yum!) and a pinot gris. My favorite was, of course, the muscato. It was not as sweet or as syrupy as many moscatos are, but if anyone asked for a sweet wine we gave it to them and almost all agreed with our description of “liquid candy.” Hardly anyone went for the unoaked chard, and I believe that’s because if you like chards then you expect them to be oaked. The unoaked chard tasted very un-chard-like (a plus in my non-chard liking book) and was in one of the juice box-style packaging.

For reds we had a barbera, a merlot, a cab blend and a 100 percent cab. We ran out of the barbera pretty quickly, 1) because it tasted so good and 2) because it is a grape many people were not familiar with and they wanted to try it out. (Same with the muscato.) The straight cab was in the juice box. I think Josh liked the cab blend the best, and I liked the barbera.

People didn’t seem to be as anti the Bandit in the juice box as I thought they would be. Josh was good about recommending them for parks, boats, rivers and other places you can’t have glass, plus there is the environmental aspect – they can load what would be 26 trucks worth of glass bottles onto one truck’s worth of the juice boxes. Plus you get a full liter instead of 3/4s in a bottle, so it’s economical, too. And, not bad wine.

Brad, the distributor, lives in Waconia and sent us home with 8 bottles of wine of our choice for helping him out. Rock on! He was a darn nice guy and Josh even emailed him later that night and said if he ever needed help again, we are more than happy to volunteer! Although it was busy and tiring, it was also a lot of fun chatting people up and being on the inside of a pretty cool industry (even if it was only for a few hours).

After we were done working we walked around the show ourselves. Fortunately, we were able to leave our coats/wine at the Trinchero booth. In addition to lots of wine tasting booths, there were also cheese and other food booths, a decent-sized beer section and other random stuff to look at, eat, taste or buy. All in all, I don’t know that $70/ticket is unreasonable. You leave fat, happy and as tipsy as you choose to be.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Surly Brewery
On February 13 we went to the Surly brewery tour in Brooklyn Center. (We can’t be wine-centric all the time now, can we?!) The tour is free but you have to sign up in advance, because the tours fill up pretty quickly – even though there are about 100 people in each tour.

Tours start at 7 but by the time everyone gets wrist bands and has a drink or two, it’s 7:30 before the tour even starts. The owner, Omar Ansari, has a great story to tell but needs to work on his presentation skills. The tour got a little long for us and since it’s not the first brewery tour either of us have been on, we bailed out early. (Other tours to check out: Summit in St. Paul and Lake Superior Brewing in Duluth.) You do get tickets for five free beers, and they don’t pay much attention if you turn your tickets in or not, so you can easily try one of every beer if that is your goal.

My favorite beer is the Cynic, which tastes kind of like a Blue Moon if you need a frame of reference. I am not a fan of the Furious, which is too hoppy for my tastes. Also not so hot on the Bender which, to me, tasted like coffee. There is also one called Coffee Bender, which I didn’t try for obvious reasons. I also tried a Mild, which lived up to its namesake, and a 3 which, if I remember right, tasted like a garden. My advice? Go for the Cynic!

Best of the Best
On February 16 we attended the “Best of the Best” party at the Guthrie. Last year it was at the Walker and we had an absolute blast, so we decided to go again. It is sponsored by Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine and consists – allegedly – of 25 different “best” restaurants handing out samplings of their food. Josh only counted 16 this year, and one of those was Caribou, which I don’t exactly count as a high-end restaurant. But, it was still a fun event in that you get to try a bunch of food, get free wine and teeny ’tinis, and get to check out what everyone is wearing. Many of the restaurants also handed out coupons, which I attribute in part to our down economy.

Last year’s event was way more fun in that there were more chefs, it was a more festive atmosphere, more space to move around in and there was an overall theme to the party. In every area there was a different take on the theme, so maybe it was the 1950s and there was an Elvis impersonator and everyone got Elvis sunglasses, or it was a ’60s room and there was a Beatles cover band playing. Last year there were also photo booths, martini luges, etc. This year didn’t have any of the special stuff, although there was a band. The Guthrie just wasn’t as good of a venue to hold it in because all they really have are those converging fourth and fifth floors. I’m sure we’ll go to it again next year, but I hope the event incorporates a little more of last year’s flair than it did this year.

The Strip Club
We had been talking about going to The Strip Club, a steak place on the East Side of St. Paul, for a while now, and finally decided to go one night when we were going to be in the area for a concert. It is in a surprising area of town, almost residential. The place is pretty small, but the ambience is instantly cozy and cool. Our server was none other than owner Tim, and his wife was also working that night. It’s a small staff and a small place with a huge amount of charm.

First thing to know is, if you don’t like steak, don’t bother going there! Steak is the heart and soul of their menu, and if you don’t order the steak then you are a fool. The primary steak they serve is – of course – a New York strip steak. You can get it “plain,” or you can purchase one of the sauces, which include sassy names like “Whip me, Beet me” and “Shrimp Trampi.” Josh got the Love You Long Time, which was an Asian blend of ginger, soy, etc. I got the Moulin Rouge, which was a red wine glace with mushrooms and rosemary. The steak also comes with exceptionally tasty buttered carrots.

The steak is about $30, so it’s not a cheap place, but well worth it. I thought my steak was out of this world delicious – until I tried Josh’s. As delicious as mine was, his inexplicably managed to be 50 times even more so. Seriously – go to this place!

Last, when you go – and I do *not* mean IF – get the poutine of French fries, gravy and cheese curds. The State Fair never had it so good! (Josh recommends drinking lots of red wine to counter-balance the heart attack on a plate.)

Monday, March 02, 2009

Mystery Dates

Okay – Josh and I do have pretty cool lives sometimes, if for no other reason than we actively seek out and make plans to keep life fun and interesting.

One cool thing we started doing when we were dating is something we call “Mystery Dates.” One person plans a date but doesn’t tell the other person what the plans are. Our mystery dates have included going to the Roller Girls, seeing B.B. King in concert and going to a performance of “Schoolhouse Rock.” In February, it just so happened that we planned mystery dates for each other in the same week.

Josh’s date was first and he booked us to participate in a chocolate tasting sponsored by Surdyk’s, a wine shop in NE Minneapolis. It was nice timing because it was the week of Valentine’s Day, and who doesn’t want to do a chocolate tasting then?! Since we had time to kill before the class we stopped to have dinner at Erte, also in Northeast. Erte has a peacock bar and a nice ambience in the dining room. The food was decent enough, but not awesome.

We get to the chocolate tasting (Chocolate: The Taste of Luxury) at 7:15 for our 7:30 class, only it turns out the class started at 6:30, while we were killing time at Erte. Oops! So we missed the more educational aspects of the class, but still got to try all of the different chocolate — which was, of course, the important part! We did learn a few things from our neighbors, including things you should look for in chocolate like a smooth texture, a good snap when you break it, no white, waxy color and that it should smell good. We learned the term “conch,” which means to grind down the chocolate particles, and that darker chocolate has more nutrients than milkier chocolate. Our instructor claimed that caffeine does not exist in chocolate, but I am not sure I believe her.

We first tried chocolate nibs, which were bitter and not too tasty. Then we tried 7 different chocolates from various parts of the world, and it is amazing how different chocolate can taste. Even without additives some chocolate tastes fruity, others taste nutty. And, depending on the process, some are smooth and creamy and others are grainy.

My favorite was a Vosges Haut Chocolat Goji Bar, made in the U.S. It had a salty texture and an interesting taste. Next was the Dolfin Dark Chocolate with crystalized orange peel from Belgium. Very orange tasting, creamy. Next I liked the Valrhona Le Noir Cacao from France, which to me tasted like high quality chocolate chips or Hershey’s Special Dark minis. Then I liked the Michel Cluizel Plantation Maralumi from France, which was creamy and had a tang at the end. The Patric Chocolate Madagascar Sambirano Valley from Columbia, MO, was also tangy, and almost fruity tasting. Next was the Rogue Choclatier Rio Caribe, made in Minneapolis. It had a coffee/nutty/cheese flavor, a creamy texture but was not sweet, though it had a long finish. My least favorite was the Taza Stone Ground organic chocolate from Somerville, Mass. It was not creamy at all, but granular with an almost air pocket texture. It was fruity and tangy.

Along with the chocolate they served a couple of wines, including a dessert wine called a black muscat that Josh and I had never tried before. We’re fans! It was almost like a port, syrupy sweet with a floral nose. All in all, I thought $40/person was kind of expensive to taste chocolate, and I’d rather buy a bunch of chocolate bars from Lund’s and do a tasting at home with Josh or friends. The point, I guess, is you never actually DO those things, so I’m glad we took the class. It did open our eyes to some different chocolates that are out there and we’ve even bought a couple of different bars to try since based on our experiences.

My mystery date was next, and I had enrolled us in a pasta-making class at Kitchen Window in Uptown. Despite having lived in Uptown for five years, this is maybe one of the most fun things I have done there. Kitchen Window is in Calhoun Square, and we got there about an hour early. We met up at Famous Dave’s and had a beer and some apps in the bar area. I think the whole thing cost less than $20 – all in all, a cheap date. We were reminded that they have a Sunday blues brunch, which we’ll have to check out. Also made a mental note to come back sometime for their nightly entertainment and to go to this year’s Rib Fest.

So we get to Kitchen Window and the classes are, of course, upstairs. The class was $60/person, which I didn’t think was bad since you eat while there and have plenty to take home. Kitchen Window has a variety of classes, from demonstrations to full-on participation. This was a participation class, which meant we all got aprons and actually made our own pasta. It was fun!

Carl Antholz was the chef, and he showed us how to mix the 1-1/2 cups flour and 2 large eggs together to make the pasta. (Can you believe that’s all there is to it?!) Kneading it is the tough part; I don’t think any of us kneaded it as long as we needed to. We made two batches each – plain pasta and a flavored pasta. I made a red pepper pasta and Josh made a spinach pasta. Along with the listening and working in class, you can order beer, wine, etc. Nothing like learning how to make hand-made pasta while kicking back a few glasses of sparkling wine

After we made our pasta, we could make it into recognizable shapes. First we had to flatten it out using a pasta machine, and then Carl taught us how to make ravioli and tortellini (Venus’ bellybutton), or we could make it into strips of linguini, etc. You have to flatten it a LOT, and we considered buying a pasta machine because this was pretty fun. They are about $100, though, and it’s a lot of work, so we decided we couldn’t justify the cost for something we probably wouldn’t do very often. For pasta fillings we had butternut squash (my favorite) and also a yummy cheese mixture made of gorgonzola, asiago, heavy cream and chive.

The class was two parts – in the first part we made the pasta, then we took a short break where you could conveniently shop in their store (at least they give you a coupon). Part two of the class is you actually cook your pasta and eat it. Nobody was going up to put their pasta in the water, so finally I was like – we’ll do it! So ours was done first, which meant we got to eat first. Yay! While we were rolling out our pasta, Carl and his helpers made a fettuccine sauce, a meat sauce and a pesto sauce that we could use on our cooked pasta. He also made a lasagne we could eat. All in all, there was lots of food!

While we were eating Carl gave a demonstration on how to make gnocchi. The cool thing is we got recipe packets for everything, even the things we ourselves did not make. (And we got boxes to take our leftover pasta home in.) I’m pretty sure we’ll look into taking another class there sometime.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Napa Valley

Another thing that got me thinking about this blog is when we were pouring wine at the Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience this past Sunday, we met a couple who are engaged and planning to honeymoon in Napa Valley this coming December. We just honeymooned there in September, so we were eager to share our experience with them. And now, dear reader, I’ll share our advice with you:

First of all, if you haven’t read the book “A Moveable Thirst” by Hank Beal and Rick Kushman, DO! We based almost our entire trip to Napa off of information we got in this book. The first half is like a guy’s road trip story, giving information about the different wineries, wine and the people who work there. The second half of the book is all factual information - a listing of each winery, details about the winery, what kind of wines they serve, and a ballpark on tasting fees. (I say ballpark because the book was written a couple of years ago, so some prices have changed.) You can find current information on websites of many of the wineries, and sometimes two-for-1 or other discount coupons. Use them!

The nice thing about Napa is that really nothing is very far away. Even if you’re in Napa proper, most things are a straight shot up Hwy 29.

Food: For most of the “fancier” restaurants, I definitely suggest making reservations. Our favorite place was Bistro Don Giovanni. Relatively inexpensive and the food was amazing!! There are lots of little delis around where you can pick up a sandwich or salad for lunch, which is nice because the food is great and relatively cheap. We went to Sunshine Foods in St. Helena, Oakville Grocery, Dean & DeLuca. There is a cute town park in St. Helena where you can grab a picnic table and eat.

Restaurants: We ate at Martini House in St. Helena. Expensive. The food is good and it has a nice vibe, but for some reason neither of us much cared for this place. It’s worth having a drink in the cozy bar downstairs, though.

Bistro Jeanty. We went there for lunch and I think it is really more of a dinner place. Food was good, though.

Bouchon, a Thomas Keller restaurant (guy also owns the world-famous French Laundry. We tried to get reservations there but couldn’t). Bouchon was solid but not super amazing.

Rutherford Grill is a decent lunch place.

Bounty Hunter - a little bar/restaurant in Napa. Good food, great prices. Nothing fancy at all. We both had the pulled pork sandwiches - tasty!

Zuzu, a tapas place in Napa, was good.

Mustard’s Grill seems a little random, but the food was excellent.

Our favorite wineries, in no particular order:

Spring Mountain Vineyard. This place is called a wine “plantation” and the grounds are amazing. If you are old enough to remember the nighttime soap “Falcon Crest," they used the exterior of this place as the house in the TV show. They trellis their grapes,
which is unusual, and also hand-pick all of them. Our tour guide was Patrick and he was awesome. We did our tasting in the barrel room, which was cool. I think the tour was $25/person and you had to make reservations in advance, but it was worth it.

Frog’s Leap. I don’t think you have to pay for this tour but you DO have to make reservations. If you go to this place, know that even with Mapquesting it is hard to find. There isn’t a big sign or anything, just a white gate with the name written in small black letters. I think we drove past it 4 times. Anyway, the story behind this winery is pretty cool and they are so welcoming. Our tour guide was Mindy.

Kuleto Estate. Seriously, if you have the time and the money, you *must* go to this place! It’s a little off the beaten path and I swear 2 miles straight up a mountain. The drive scared the hell out of me and I made Josh drive us back down But the view is A-MAZ-ING!!!!! The tour is kind of expensive, $35/person, but they refund that money if you join their wine club (this is the only wine club we joined and we don’t regret it for a second!). The wines are good - especially the reds - but you really gotta go for the amazing view. You will want to move into this place. It has 13 pizza ovens on the property! It is owned by Pat Kuleto, who is a a restaurateur who designed, among other places, Martini House. Our tour guide was Dan.

Overall, we enjoyed the wineries we toured at
more than the ones where we only went and tasted the wines.

If you are into sparkling wines at all, I recommend you go to at least one of the sparkling places. We went to Domaine Carneros, Mumm and Domaine Chandon. We did the tour at Chandon and it was pretty interesting. Also, good and inexpensive wines! We didn’t go to Gloria Ferrer, but I had several glasses of their stuff while I was there so I want to check that place out next time we are there.

We went to Artesa, which is really sleek and modern. We didn’t do a tour but had the best wine pourer. His name is Dan May and I’d ask for him by name if you get a chance. He was so nice and friendly, gave us tons of tips, and let us try three wines that weren’t even on the list. The two wines we bought from there weren’t even on the tasting menu.

Random note: We mailed home one case of wine and packed probably another six bottles in our suitcase and we STILL wish we had bought more. So if you see something you like, buy it!

Sterling Vineyards looks cool from the road, has a great view and you get there by tram. Wines there are good. The only bummer is the patio where you do the tasting is surrounded by trees so you don’t get the view. We used a 2-for-1 coupon for this place. It was okay; not my fave.

Terra Valentine is a drive up the mountain. Okay place, not my favorite. Best part is they let you punch down the cap on wine they are making.

Darioush - It’s a pretty place and their Persian-style pistachios were awesome, but it’s spendy and we weren’t too flipped about their wines.

Hess - we got there kind of late so didn’t have time to tour their art gallery. It’s a pretty drive thru curvy roads, though - especially fun if you rent a convertible like we did Their wines are tasty and Leslie was our server. Get them to let you try their cabernet fudge sauce and the moscato.

St. Supery, Beaulieu and Peju - went to all 3 and nothing stands out to me about any of them. I know we did buy a bottle or maybe even two at St. Supery.

Silver Oak. They were just finishing building a brand new tasting room while we were there so it’s probably pretty nice (we tasted in a double-wide trailer). The wines are darn good. Kind of an expensive tasting, if I remember right, but you get to keep your wine glass.

Opus One - This is a big deal winery because it was a partnership between Robert Mondavi and the Rothschilds. You have to make a reservation and it’s $30/person AND you only try their one wine. I guess it was cool to say I’ve had Opus ($190/bottle) but this isn’t - in my opinion - a must do winery. If you do the tasting, you might as well do the tour ‘cuz it’s only $5 more and it is interesting.

Robert Mondavi - as far as I’m concerned, this is another one you can skip. Obviously it has the big name, but it’s pretty commercialized.

Franciscan has good wines and, surprisingly, I really dug their port. We weren’t able to get in on their sensory tasting, but we wanted to.

V. Sattui is popular because it has nice picnic grounds, a deli, etc. We stopped but it was far too crowded, so we bailed.

Non-wine stuff:
If you are thinking about checking out the “Old Faithful Geyser”, don’t bother. It’s $8/person and SO cheesy. We did it because we had time to kill between things, but I pretty much wish we hadn’t.

We did a mud bath at Golden Haven Spa. It totally rocked the ’70s vibe. We got a cheaper deal through their website than is available at their front desk. It’s a pretty strange experience if you’ve never done it. I can’t honestly say if I recommend it or not.

We took a hot air balloon ride, which we’d recommend if you’ve never done it. Dress warmly and in layers. We also got a cheaper deal on this making advance reservations on their website. The company we went with was Balloons Above the Valley, but there are several. I don’t mind heights but, even so, it was surprisingly un-nervewracking.

Last pieces of advice:

1) Make sure you eat throughout the day! Even if you are just tasting, you will drink a fair amount in a day. Keep something in your stomach.

2) You will get sick of wine. Have an occasional beer!

3) Don’t feel you both have to get a tasting at each place. They don’t mind if you share. They often offer several different tastings, so I would get one tasting menu and Josh would get another and then we’d share, so we would each get to try, say, 8 wines at a place.

And, advice from my husband:

You always hear about how bad the traffic is in Napa. We were there in late September, and I didn’t notice it at all. This probably varies in the spring/summer on the weekends however.

I’m not usually a big planner or scheduler of my vacations, but we did on our honeymoon. We started with a list of wineries and food spots we wanted to go to. Mapped them out, and then clustered them by day. So one day we were tasting and eating in Napa, the next in Oakville, the next in Rutherford, etc. It sure saved us a lot of time and headache driving.

If you like food, at least try to get a reservation at the French Laundry (realize this will cost you hundreds of dollars for one meal). Don’t be disappointed when you can’t get in. They start taking reservations at 10 a.m. for a day exactly 2 months in the future. They only have 27 tables and only do two servings a night, so it’s very tough to get in.

If you go while it’s warm, buy a cooler and ice to store your newly bought wine so it doesn’t get damaged while sitting in your hot car all day.