Saturday, June 09, 2007

Rake Blog Launching Soon

I am still waiting for the launch of my new blog, which I expect will happen sometime in the next week or so. Ann Bauer and I will be writing for The Rake's new food and dining website - check here for details, or go to In the first few weeks, I'll have reviews online of Fogo de Chao, Bank, Shiraz Fire Roast Cuisine, and Cafe BonXai.
Cafe Levain and Cafe Maude are both opening on Tuesday, June 12. Cafe Levain takes the place of the late, lamented Levain, around the corner from Turtle Bread. Unlike its pricy predecessor, Levain, Harvey McLain's new French bistro keeps things simple and affordable: the menu in the window shows entrees such as coq au vin and beef short ribs, all priced under $20. I have less information about Cafe Maude, at 54th and Penn Ave. S., but the restaurant's website,, promises "civilized leisure." Cafe Maude will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

In Case You are Wondering...

In case anybody is wondering why I haven't been posting any new reviews recently, here's the explanation.
Mainly, it's because I am going to start blogging soon for The Rake. Look for more details in this space in the next week or two. But in the meantime, I am saving up reviews for the launch of the new website. I figure that if I write about all the new restaurants in town - like Fogo de Chao, and Shiraz Fireroasted Cuisine, and Cafe BanXai and Amazing Thailand - for this blog - then I won't have anything fresh and new to write about when I start blogging for pay.
So I have been racking my brains trying to come up with interesting places to write about that I won't want to review for the new publication. And that's not as easy as it sounds.

First I went with a couple of friends to try the parillada at El Paraiso, the Mexican restaurant at 35th and Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis. A little conjunto of drums, guitar and accordion was playing Norteno music inside at decibel levels that precluded conversation, so we moved to the outdoor deck. The parillada is a tabletop grill piled high with your choice of meats, seafood or a combination. They're priced around $45 and are big enough to feed 3-4. We opted for the combination, which included thinly sliced steak and beef ribs, and ample quantities of shrimp, squid, mussels and oysters, plus imitation crab and lots of grilled peppers and onions. The presentation was impressive, and portions were generous, but the reviews were mixed: it was just a little too greasy. One of my companions pointed out that on a really hot day, with a lot of beer, we probably would have been a lot more enthusiastic. True enough.

Otherwise, our recent dining has been a little nibble here, a little nibble there. On Thursday, Carol and I had a farewell lunch at Saffron, 123 N 3rd St., Minneapolis, with our friend Sami Rasouli, former owner of Sinbad's Deli and Market, before he flies back to his native Iraq. I don't think the owners Saad and Sameh Wadi knew who I was, but it turned out that Sami was a friend of the family, and so what was supposed to be a simple lunch turned into something more elaborate. Chef Sameh sent a whole series of mezze (small appetizer plates) to the table, ranging from lamb meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, and green olives with cracked black pepper, to chickpeas with feta and a delightful little salad of carrots and raisins in a dressing of saffron and rosewater. (The mezze aren't on the lunch menu, but they are on the dinner menu, and available for lunch on request. ) After all of that, I could barely finish the lunch entree I had ordered - the frittata of the day, oven baked with lamb confit, feta cheese and oyster mushrooms.
Sunday through Wednesday, all Saffron's wines by the bottle are half-priced.

By the way, Sinbad Deli & Market is still going strong - with a new owner, Freddy Jiryis, but the same talented chef, Hayat Jermanous. Hayat prepares a sprawling and savory lunch buffet($7.99) Monday through Friday, featuring gyros, chicken dishes, plus a variety of traditional Middle Eastern fare: olives, feta, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, homemade pita, and much more. A variety of Sinbad's prepared foods are now available at Cub Foods and local food coops. of salads and vegetarian dishes.

Today for lunch, Carol and I walked over to Tin Fish on Lake Calhoun. The line at the counter moved quickly, and our order was ready in about ten minutes: the Tin Fish Combo, of four pieces of fish, three shrimp, to jumbo scallops, and a sprinkling of calamari rings with fries and coleslaw for $14.95 - easily big enough for two. It took a little effort to persuade Carol to order a fried entree, but the cornmeal breaded seafood and fries weren't the least bit greasy, and the scallops were the sweetest I have tasted in a long time.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

First Look: Cafe Ena

Photos by Aaron Fenster
Fans of El Meson will be delighted to discover Cafe Ena, which opened last week at 46th and Grand in south Minneapolis. It's owned by Hector Ruiz and Erin Ungerman, who also own El Meson, and named after the couple's young daughter. The family resemblance is undeniable, but there are differences. Prices are just a notch higher at Cafe Ena, and while El Meson concentrates on the Caribbean, Ena looks to Mexico and South America for inspiration.
Ena has all the same charms as its sister: lively flavors, imaginative preparation, colorful presentation. The congrito salad is typical: ample quantities of crab, tossed with fresh romaine, diced mango and cucumber. I was less impressed with the queso fundido: it's a sort of Mexican saganiki without the flames and opa, but I enjoyed everything else we sampled. Other starters range from arepas, the traditional corn cakes from Venezuela and Colombia, prepared either with shredded chicken or chili con crema; to chile en hogada, a roasted poblano pepper filled with ground beef, raisins and almonds, and served with a walnut apple sauce.
Entree prices range from $15.95 for the lomo (stuffed pork loin), chicken Negril (chicken breast in Jamaican habanero sauce), or pabellon criollo (Venezuelan-style beef stew), to a five-peppercorn crusted filet mignon ($25.95). An ample assortment of seafood dishes (most priced at $17.95) is also offered, including oven-roasted halibut over a mofongo of yucca, and atun, coriander-crusted tuna served over a hominy red pepper cake. Garlic lovers will be pleased with the camarones al Ajillo, a generous serving of large shrimp in a spicy cascabel garlic sauce. I also liked the corvina, a firm-fleshed white fish steamed in a banana leaf wrapper, which seals in much of the moistness. For dessert, don't miss the flan, a classic version done to perfection. There's not much on the menu for vegetarians, but a note promises that the chef will be happy to prepare vegetarian entrees on request.
Except for a couple of Spanish cavas, the wine list is all from the Mexico and South America, including a good selection of Argentine and Chilean wines, and some unusual Mexican reds from L.A. Cetto.
Cafe Ena, 4601 Grand Ave, Minneapolis,. Open for dinner Monday to Saturday; open for lunch starting Wednesday, May 16..

Friday, April 27, 2007

Al Vento

It's a little domestic drama that plays itself out everytime Carol and I don't feel like cooking: I want to go someplace cheap, and Carol wants to go someplace nice. And then we try to agree on someplace that offers a bit of both. Often we wind up at Peninsula on Eat Street, or El Meson on Lyndale, or other nearby spots like Victor's 1959 Cafe or the Grand Cafe. But last week we ventured a little further afield, and had a delightful dinner at Al Vento, at 53th St. and 34th Ave. S. in the Nokomis neighborhood.
The white linens are covered with paper, but the pale gold walls and candlelight still give the dining rooms a romantic aura. The mostly Southern Italian menu offers a few pizzas ($9-$12), a few pastas ($12-$15), plus a fresh sheet of specials that includes a pizza and pasta of the day, and a handful of entrees that ranges from Parmesan chicken breast with root vegetables ($16) to veal scallopine picatea style with porcini risotto ($20).
Those prices are pretty reasonable, but Al Vento offers a special deal Sunday to Thursday after 8 p.m.: Two pastas, two glasses of wine and dessert for $35. And on Sunday and Monday nights, bottles of wine are half price.
Al Vento must be the last restaurant in the Twin Cities where you can get a decent glass of wine - or any glass of wine, for that matter - for four bucks. Elsewhere, even the $5 glass is disappearing, and the $6 glass of wine is on the endangered list. Al Vento's featured house red, a Solopaca Rosso, from the Campania region near Naples, doesn't have a lot of complexity, but it's very drinkable - a robust red that can stand up to the flavors of a hearty red sauce. I haven't tried the Solopaca Bianco, but for $4, I would take a chance. Another white offered at the same price happens to be a favorite of mine: the Gazela Vino Verde from Portugal, a slightly effervescent, low alcohol wine that's perfect for warm weather. (Hennepin Lake Liquors has had it on sale for $4.99 a bottle; we buy it by the case.)
We started with the bruschetta sampler, crisp slices of toasted Italian bread with toppings of tomato basil, artichoke walnut, olive tapenade, and an eggplant caponata, all lively and flavorful, followed by a beet salad with hazelnut vinaigrette that was big enough to share. Carol choose an antipasto from the fresh sheet as her main course: plump black mussels steamed in white wine, while I chose a pasta special of homemade pappardelle with a robust sauce of tomatoes and wild boar sausage - a specialty of Tuscany. The flavors were lively and robust, the portion generous. On a return visit, the gnocchi with English peas, asparagus and fiddlehead ferns were the perfect spring dish, lightly cooked to preserve the freshness of the ingredients. We've only sampled one of the desserts so far: a trio of miniature creme brules, in vanilla, mocha chocolate and pistachio, a perfect finish to a simple but satisfying supper.
Al Vento, 5001 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis,.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Mysore Cafe

slide show photos by Aaron Fenster

I once traveled all the way to Udupi in Karnataka, India, in search of the perfect masala dosa. (Udupi is actually the birthplace of masala dosa.) But the opening of the new Mysore Cafe in Uptown means I can find terrific south Indian vegetarian cuisine much closer to home. My own love affair with south Indian vegetarian cuisine began at the Udupi Cafe (now closed) in Columbia Heights, where I was introduced for the first time to iddly (steamed rice patties) and uttapam (a thick pizza-like rice and lentil pancake), and rasam, the hot and sour vegetable sour.
A couple of years ago, on vacation in India, Carol and I found ourselves at the Mangalore train station one morning with six hours to kill between trains. I happened to notice that the town of Udupi was only an hour away, and so we flagged down a taxi and sped off.
Udupi, it turns out, is a temple town, with a famous temple devoted to Lord Krishna, and many striking shrines and religious sculpture. We joined the pilgrims in a long line at the temple, where Krishna is offered food every day. Men were required to remove their shirts. We walked slowly past a shrine with a statue of Krishna, and then received a blessing and a sprinkling of holy water from a Hindu priest. (image of Krishna statue from Udupi, via Wikipedia.)

Afterwards, our bemused driver led us to a small cafe near the temple, where we all ordered masala dosas, enormous crisp pancakes made of rice and lentil flour, filled with curried potatoes.
The Udupi tradition of creating special foods for Krishna has given rise to a whole culinary tradition, which has made Udupi (according to Wikipedia) synonymous with excellent vegetarian cuisine.
The Mysore Cafe, named after another pilgrimage town in Karnataka, offers 16 different kinds of dosas, with fillings ranging from onions and cauliflower to spinach and paneer (homemade cheese). (From what I gather, the use of onions in a dosa isn't strictly kosher; vedic dietary laws prohibit the use of onions and garlic.) Although most of the menu is south Indian, a limited selection of northern dishes is also offered, such as Punjabi mutter paneer (peas and cheese in a tomato onion sauce), vegetable vindaloo from Goa, and navratan dhansak, a Parsi dish popular in Mumbai. My favorites include the chilly gobi, lightly breaded cauliflower in a savory red chili ginger garlic sauce, and the bharwan baigan, stuffed eggplant in a rich and spicy sauce.

One good way to sample the variety Mysore has to offer is to order the Mysore Royal Thali ($14.99), a generous assortment of small dishes served in stainless steel bowls: choice of soup, iddly (rice patties), wada (fried seasoned lentil donuts), basmati rice, chappati (puffy flat bread), sambar and rasam, chickpea curry, pongal (a rice porridge), served with avial - vegetables in a rich cream sauce, and a dessert of payasam - a pudding of noodles cooked in milk with raisins and cashews.
Alternately, go for lunch ($7.99 weekdays, $9.99 weekends) when the buffet offers an extensive sampling of southern and northern specialties, and freshly made masala dosas are included in the price of the meal.

Portions are generous, and prices are extremely reasonable: except for the thali combination plates, nearly all dishes are under $10.
Mysore Cafe, 2819 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis,. Closed Mondays. No alcohol.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Spill The Wine - Early Days

photos by Aaron Fenster

I hesitated about posting these first impressions of the new wine bar/ restaurant Spill the Wine, which opened three weeks ago. Back when I worked at the big paper, we had a rule that we wouldn't critically review a restaurant until it had been open for at least a month.
But then I realized - hey - I don't work at the big paper any more. This blog has a readership somewhere in the double digit range, so a frank discussion of the restaurant's strengths and weaknesses isn't likely to do much harm, and it might do some good. Within a couple more weeks, Rick and Kathie and Dara and Andrew, Peter, etc. are all likely to pay their visits, and this might be a useful wakeup call.
Actually, my very first impressions weren't bad at all. The dining room has old brick walls and original art and track lighting, and somehow captures the sleek urban sophistication of an art gallery. We each selected one of the wine flights, - three two-ounce tastings of selected wines, presented in a spiral metal holder, priced from $9 to $12 - no bargain, but a nice presentation, and decent wines.

Our starter, the garlic shrimp parcel, was a purse of fried wonton skin stuffed with baby shrimp and sauteed carrots, served on a bed of raspberry chili sauce. My companion noted that it was at its heart a Chinese eggroll ($10), taken apart and reassembled, but I still gave it high marks for creativity, and decent marks for flavor. I enjoyed the entree that followed - moist and flavorful free-range chicken beautifully presented, over roasted potatoes and grilled red onions ($15). Carol's ravioli stuffed with spinach and mozzarella ($14) might have been a factory product, but the fresh tomato basil sauce was lively and the combination satisfying.
On our second visit, things fell apart. Our wine took forever to arrive, and then we slowly realized that our server had forgotten our appetizer order of iron skillet mussels. We inquired, and our server at first told us that s/he had intended to bring everything out at once, then forthrightly acknowledged that s/he had forgotten it. By now, Carol's Caesar salad topped with fried calamari was sitting on the counter of the open kitchen, slowly getting cold, and we were getting grumpy. These kinds of mistakes can happen - I made plenty of them during my short career as a waiter.
Eventually, our courses arrived - first Carol's salad, then my "sampler flight" ($23), and finally the mussels. I expected black mussels, but these were the big green-lipped variety, typically imported frozen and cooked from New Zealand. Oddly, they were presented over a layer of under-baked wedges of pizza Margherita, which quickly became soggy as they sat in the pool of flavorful garlic and white wine broth. The Caesar salad was a bust - the croutons and dressing seemed to be the kind that come in a box and a bottle, and the cold morsels of calamari were more breading than seafood. My entree sampler offered generous portions of beef tenderloin, two jumbo seared scallops, and several big chunks of boneless chicken breast, all served over the same chunks of pan-roasted potatoes. (Ordered separately, these all have different accompaniments, and are given much more creative presentations).
Only two desserts were offered: cheesecake or vanilla ice cream, both served with raspberry sauce, but by then we were tired, and ready to go home.
Our bill arrived, served in a wine glass, with a small bookmark advertising Spill the Wine's prix fixe dinner special for Twin Cities Restaurant Week (a fundraiser for local libraries): three courses, including the beef tenderloin, and a glass of wine, for $35. If we had known at the start of our visit, I might have ordered it.
A later lunchtime visit produced mixed results - a terrific Cobb salad ($10), with generous chunks of flavorful roast chicken, fresh greens and crisp bacon, topped with slices of ripe avocado, plus an uninspired Greek pizza, topped with Kalamata olives, capers and feta.
All that said, I still think Spill the Wine has a lot of potential. But it had better get its act together soon - the critics are on their way.
Spill The Wine, 1101 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis,,
photos by Aaron Fenster

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Saffron Restaurant and Lounge

The terrific new Saffron Restaurant and Lounge in the Minneapolis Warehouse District gives the lie to the old saying that East is East and West is West. The twain do meet at Saffron, in dishes that combine the flavors of the Middle East and North Africa with the presentation you might expect from a restaurant of the caliber of La Belle Vie or Solera. It turns out that chef-owner Sameh Wadi worked at both of those top restaurants before teaming up with brother Saed to open their own restaurant. Together, they have created an lushly romantic crystal and white linens dining experience that takes Middle Eastern cuisine to a level far beyond kebabs and tabbouli.

And the cultural distance isn't nearly as great as it first appears: one section of the Saffron menu is devoted to mezze, the small plates that are popular throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, from Turkey and Greece to the Arab world, where they are a traditional accompaniment to ouzo, raku or other local spirits. Mezze are a close culinary cousin of tapas, the Spanish bar fare served at Solera.

The composition of the mezze sampler ($12) changes from day to day, but when we visited, it included green olives marinated in harissa, a hot red pepper paste from Morocco; a roasted beet salad topped with feta and drizzed with pomegranate essence; a simple salad of chickpeas blended with feta; kofta meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce; and the sublime Turkish eggplant dish, imam beyaldi, literally "the imam fainted." There are two theories about why the imam fainted. One school holds that was he overwhelmed by the sheer sensuous richness of the dish, while the other theorizes that he swooned thinking about much expensive olive oil his wife had poured into the dish.

Other highlights included a small plate of three large pan-seared scallops, served with morsels of deep-fried artichoke and clams atop a saffron cream sauce. I have become reluctant to order scallops, because they are so often either bitter or flavorless, but these had the signature sweetness of the very best.

The half-dozen entrees ranged from roast chicken with sumac, roasted onions and pine nuts ($19) to a beef strip loin with smoked potato gratin, oyster mushrooms and Taleggio fondue $29. I was delighted with my choice, a braised lamb shoulder, cooked until fork tender, served over a savory bed of chick peas ($27). The idea of a salmon "stew" had my companion on her guard, but the tagine of salmon and clams with roasted peppers, olives, fennel and saffron worked beautifully.
In lieu of baklava, the dessert menu offers less overpowering sweets, ranging from a simple banana tart with curry caramel and candied ginger ice cream, to a date walnut cake with cardamom-yogurt ice cream.
The wine list is helpfully sorted into three categories: "softer, fruity, lively"; "semi-dry, medium-bodied, lush"; and drier, bigger, bolder, intense," with most bottles priced between $30 and $40. We stayed with the wines by the glass, where we found a bargain-priced favorite: a Ken Forrester petite Pinotage, for $6 a glass.
Service was friendly and knowledgeable, well-versed on both food and wine. Saffron will celebrate its grand opening on Friday, April 27, with food and beverage specials, starting at 8 p.m., with live music, a belly dancer and a special three course, $33 dinner special.
Saffron Restaurant, 123 N. 3rd St., Minneapolis,. 612-746-5533.