Friday, May 22, 2009

Take me out to the ballgame…

Wednesday was a mystery date planned by Josh. We took the day off work and had a leisurely morning of sleeping in, walking down to our nearest lake and generally hanging out. We left the house around noon to go to the Saints game, St. Paul’s semi-pro baseball team. We had great seats, directly behind home plate and four rows back. The awesome thing about Saints games is you can get these seats for $12 apiece!

Since it was a mid-week day game, it was not remotely crowded. We ended up sitting between two season ticketholders who knew pretty much everyone who walked by. They were nice and we chatted with them a bit.

It was a HOT day – in fact, it hit 97 degrees and broke a record for being 8 degrees warmer on that day than ever before. And, it was windy – thank goodness, because without the wind it would have been miserable. On the down side, a fair amount of dirt ended up in our beer, hair, teeth, etc. Gritty.

Saints games are always super random and I don’t think I’ve seen an entire inning even once in all the times I’ve been to one. There is always too much to do, from getting another beer to watching eyeballs chase each other around the field, commenting on the trains going by and people watching. Oh, and the pigs in tutus, of course!

Wednesday was no exception as the power went out for several innings. No scoreboard, no PA. People just passed the word along. #17, third baseman John Doe is up to bat. Funny.

We had to leave during the sixth inning because we had an appointment to make beer and wine. Our new friends were sad to see us go. The Saints were behind, anyway, and ended up losing the game.

Josh had booked a 4 o’clock appointment for us to make a batch of beer and a batch of wine at Vine Park Brewing. We have both made beer there before, but never wine. We’ve been saving our bottles at home!

We got started on the beer first, since that takes longer. Measure, boil, mix. Pretty simple and there’s a lot of down time in-between. So we hung out, read the paper and drank the free root beer. We go back in two weeks to bottle the Summer Wheat.

As for the wine, it couldn’t have been easier. They have a bucket of water and you stir in a packet of clarifying agent, two packets of oak, a box of grape juice and a packet of yeast. (I had no idea oak came in powder form!) It will sit there and ferment, and then we’ll go back in six weeks to bottle it. I was surprised that’s all there was to it. Once we get our rioja back (makes 30 bottles), we will have to store it for six months before it is ready. We’ll have to have a “come try our wine” party!

After that we swung by Shamrocks for their juicy Nookie burger and fries (in a word, YUM!). Then, home again for a nap and a shower. All in all, an excellent mystery date!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Another Mystery Date

Another busy week! After Wednesday’s malbec tasting, I had the Keith Urban concert at Xcel Center in downtown St. Paul Thursday night. I met up with Dee Dodge and her brother beforehand for drinks/snacks at Pop!!, the successor to the Pop! Restaurant in NE. It took over the old Fhima’s space and did a nice makeover. Their food is nothing amazing, but it is darn cheap on happy hour special. The concert was, of course, awesome, and I am looking forward to seeing him again in Milwaukee in June.

Friday night we went shopping for light fixtures as, for no apparent reason, our townhouse has hardly any ceiling lights so we have been living primarily by lamplight. We finally decided to get smart and hire an electrician to put lights in four rooms. Shopping for lighting fixtures was fun; for the first time ever in my life I “got” the allure of the home improvement center! Al put in two of our lights Saturday and will finish the other two tonight. We are unbelievably excited to have light in our house!!

On Sunday we had a fairly lazy day, which included going to see Angels & Demons (not my fave), massages at Elements and naps! But on Saturday…

Mystery Date
Saturday night was one of my mystery dates, which was essentially a tour of St. Paul. First up was dinner at W.A. Frost, in the Cathedral Hill area. Frost’s is classic St. Paul, but I had only been there before once on their patio and once in the bar, so going to dinner was a different experience. (Mind you, one should always hang out on their patio on a nice summer day!).

They had a 6-course tasting menu, so we decided to go for it. Josh got the regular tasting menu, and I got the vegetarian one. Not because I don’t like meat (love it!), but because it was fun to get something different and there were several yummy-looking pasta items on the vegetarian menu, which is always good in my book. We also got the wine pairings. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for a copy of the menu on our way out, so I’ll have to recreate as best I can.

My amuse bouche was a single mascarpone ravioli in a sweet pea/mint puree. Very good and fresh tasting, though you really couldn’t taste the ravioli. Josh’s was a short rib in an jalapeno sauce.

Next up was a corn bisque with a sweet chili oil drizzle. Mine had a poached egg in the middle and Josh’s had shrimp and chorizo croquettes in it. The bisque was delicious, mostly because the chili oil kept things interesting.

Next I had an herb and mushroom gnocchi. It was good, but almost seemed as if it was served too hot to get much flavor from it (maybe it didn’t have much flavor to begin with). It reminded me of onion-flavored tater tots and I feel like they were overdone compared to other gnocchi I have had. Josh’s dish was skate wing with cabbage in a foie gras juice. He said the skate wing was pretty fishy tasting, so I didn’t try it. My newfound willingness to try seafood only goes so far!

My main entrée was a raspberry risotto with walnut topping. I didn’t eat very much because it was fruity and therefore very dessert-tasting to me — almost like a rice pudding or something. Josh’s was some kind of lamb, very tender and buttery and tasty. Mm, lamb. Baa.

We sort of missed out on our next two courses as we had to get moving on to the next stage of the mystery date. A little bit of poor planning, I guess, except we didn’t know we were going to get the tasting menus! We should have warned the server we were on a schedule and didn’t, so I felt bad about that.

The fifth course was a cheese with a lavash cracker. The sixth course was dessert, with samples of three things: creme brulee, a warm chocolate cake with crushed orange (candy?) on top and an almond torte of some kind. Hard to remember since we took about one bite of each thing and got the heck out of there.

Wine-wise I know we started with a (cava?), which was quite good, went on to a pinot gris, then a couple of reds. The last two – again, which we barely tasted, was something liquorice-y (blah) and then a basic port. I wasn’t too sad to have missed out on those two!

Phase Two of our date was to see comedian Steven Wright at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul. We skated into our front row seats all of about 60 seconds before the lights went down and he came on. Steven Wright is famous for whipping off one liners one right after another, which he did for 90 minutes straight, except for a random song or two in the middle. It was entertaining and he had some good jokes. I was surprised there was no opening act. I also decided I would be pretty scared to meet him in a dark alley based on appearance!

After the show we went to the bar at Kincaid’s, mostly to kick back. We did order the Kobe beef meatloaf sliders, which were three for only $4 (happy hour special). Even though Josh thinks turning Kobe beef into anything as mundane as meatloaf is sacrilege, they were darn good! Josh had a vanilla sky martini and I had a moscato, and then it was home and off to bed!

Malbecs at Morton’s

Josh and I do manage to be busy people (even if what we are up to doesn’t always make the blog!). Last week we went and saw Clinton Kelly (from TLC’s “What Not to Wear”) do a fashion makeover show at Southdale (and picked up a few new duds for ourselves) and we also went to a screening of the new Star Trek film. Despite not knowing too much about the Star Trek franchise other than the names of a few main characters, I really enjoyed it!

On Wednesday we went to a malbec tasting at Morton’s, an old school steak place in downtown Minneapolis. We almost didn’t go because when I called the restaurant to see if they had spaces available nobody seemed to know what I was talking about. Luckily (for them, and us), they at least took our number and found somebody who knew what the scoop was call me back. Apparently they only do this sort of extra event quarterly, and not all staff was up on it.

Malbecs. In a word, yum! As Josh says, they are real tooth stainers – in other words, they are pretty much a red wine you are going to *know* you drank! Argentina, I believe, is the world’s largest producer of malbecs, even though it is originally a French grape. Other countries, such as Chile, also produce malbecs.

The first one we tried was actually a white — who knew?! It was a Trapiche Torrontes (Trapiche being the #1 wine grower in Argentina, according to the wine distributor on hand). It smelled like a moscato but tasted more like a chardonnay (not the oaky, buttery kind). Had what I call a “bright, hay” taste with a light citrus flavor.

Next up was a Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec, which we have bought and drank at home several times. This is a seriously awesome wine, particularly if you like that delicious campfire smoke taste in a wine. YUM. Allegedly this is the #1 malbec in Argentina, and I see no reason to disagree!

Next up was a Michel Torino Don David, which we had never tried before. It is a dry and smoky wine. Also tried the Broquel, which I am pretty sure we've had before. It was not as dry or smoky as the others. I’d say it was a solid wine, but a pretty run of the mill red compared to the others – not awesome (and smoky!) like you expect from a good malbec. Last was a Trapiche single vineyard Adriana Venturin. In a word, smooth. And tasty :)

Our wine host told us that Argentina used to churn out some crap wines, getting 7 tons of grapes to the acre (I think). The standard is 5 tons, so they were using basically anything that came off the vine. They have refined their practices, though, and are turning out some really good stuff.

Beyond the tasting, Morton’s served up some snacks for us. Your basic cheese and crackers, of course, but also large scallops and a skirt steak with chimichurri sauce. Yum and yum. I am seriously going to have to re-think my whole anti-seafood thing, at least as far as scallops go!

Neither of us had ever been to Morton’s before. I didn’t realize, but it is actually a story below street level. It had a cool vibe, very old school, kind of like Murray’s. It looked small but we were off in one area so didn’t really explore the joint. Their menu looked pretty good, as did their bar area. I kind of expected Frank Sinatra to come waltzing around the corner.

These wine tastings can be a little random since Josh and I usually come by ourselves and don’t know anyone else. However, two girls ended up joining us at our table and they were very fun. We even ended up staying past when the tasting was over just to keep talking a little longer. Wine – it will make friends out of strangers!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

La Belle Vie

Bowl of Goodness
Josh had this great idea that we create a “bowl of goodness”. In other words, we write down the names of all the restaurants we want to try out on slips of paper and put them in a bowl, and whenever we are stuck for a date night idea we can just draw from the bowl. We decided earlier in the week that we wanted to go out Friday night, so we got to draw from the bowl for the first time. The winner? La Belle Vie.

La Belle Vie
La Belle Vie is just outside of downtown Minneapolis, across from the Walker and edging Loring Park. It used to be in Stillwater, but came to Minneapolis in 2005. The location used to house another high-end restaurant, Groveland 510, which we also had never been to.

I had heard the food was outstanding at La Belle Vie, but that it was better to go to the Lounge instead of the formal dining room because the food/drinks was just as good but better prices. Josh had heard the mixologist, Johnny Michaels, was known throughout the Cities for his cocktails, so we were pretty excited to go.

La Belle Vie, I have decided, is my new favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities!! Love it, love it, love it. How have I never been here before?!

The lounge is cool. Total old school décor, but a really laid back vibe. Very diverse crowd, too, people of all ages and from casual to more formal dress.

I hardly looked at the wine menu because the cocktail menu looked so darn tasty (plus we figured we had to check out Johnny’s prowess). Let’s just say his reputation is well deserved! Sadly, I can’t remember what the first drink I had is called. It was a pomegranate ginger martini of some kind. Fruity up top, ginger-y on the bottom. Great layering of flavors. Josh had a Black Pearl, aka a “sparkling blackberry cosmo” – it was delicious, and I liked his better than mine. However, my next beverage was a Parlez Vous (raspberry vodka, pineapple juice and cava topped with orange-passionfruit foam). In a word – YUM. I could have had a glass of just the orange-passionfruit foam and been just as happy. Johnny = two thumbs up!!

The service is pretty good. Our waitress was pretty busy, but there are all sorts of other people popping by your table to bring you bread, refill your water, bring your food, etc., so we didn’t feel neglected. They had three kinds of bread – white, maybe a 7-grain, and something that tasted like it had raisins in it. That was my favorite!

Tim McKee is the chef. He is renowned throughout the Midwest and is always winning some award or another, most recently the 2009 James Beard Award. He and business partner Josh Thoma also own Solera (yummy), Barrio and Smalley’s Caribbean Bar-B-Q in Stillwater (both also in our bowl). He has recently taken over the kitchen at Cue, the floundering Guthrie restaurant. I’m sure he’ll manage an amazing turnaround.

The nice thing about eating in the lounge is you can still order off of the dining room menu. So I ordered my salad off the dinner menu and my entrée off the lounge menu.

My salad was a warm goat cheese tart with tomato confit and tapenade vinaigrette. I guess it’s a pretty simple dish, but it was wonderful, which I guess is the point. If you do everything perfectly, it doesn’t matter if it is simple. For dinner I had a truffled crêpe with jambon royal, brie d’eaux and slow-cooked egg yolk (okay, I wasn’t that excited about the egg yolk, but the ham and brie crepe was pretty darn good!).

Josh had the Lounge tasting menu with the accompanying wine selection. First course was a pan-roasted langoustine with ramps, Meyer lemon, langoustine brandade and trout roe. I believe it was accompanied by a dry champagne, though I don’t know what kind. The only think I tried was the trout roe, which was a burst of fishyness. Blech.

His second course was braised rabbit and fava bean risotto with black truffle and slow-cooked quail egg. The risotto was creamy and delicious. I believe he was served a pinot gris with this, which was pretty good.

His next course was an herb-crusted lamb ribeye with black olive gnocchi and roasted artichoke. I tried the gnocchi, which was good. I don’t know what wine came with this; I didn’t try it.

Before dessert we ordered the cheese plate, which included five cheeses. All were very good, and a couple were pretty strong (pungent).

Josh’s dessert was a dark chocolate cake with milk chocolate panna cotta and cava sherbet. I don’t remember this one bit! I was pretty full at that point, though, so maybe I didn’t have any? Their pastry chef is well renowned as well, but I was too stuffed so just ordered a glass of icewein. It was good, but not as good as Josh’s moscato.

As a random anecdote, the guy who brought our food (and described each dish with flair and expertise) had a total Telemundo voice. Very funny!