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.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Naviya's Thai Kitchen of Grand Marais and Richfield

Naviya's Thai Kitchen of Grand Marais now has a Richfield outpost. The former Puhket Thai restaurant at 6345 Penn Ave. S. has been stylishly remodeled, and now serves what is billed as "the only restaurant in the Twin Cities serving cuisine based on Oriental Medicine!" Naviya and Kim LaBarge (she's Thai, he's not) opened their first restaurant in Grand Marais three a few years ago, and opened their Richfield outpost earlier this year.
The menu explains that "in traditional Oriental medicine, it is believed that the human body is made up of five essential elements. Associated with each of them is a category of flavor derived from Natural foods...One way to insure good health is to include in the diet a cuisine which uses a consistent balance of natural foods representing the five flavours: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and pungent (hot). Because Thai cuisine utilizes all five, almost to an equal degree, it is perceived as a perfect health-enhancing cuisine."
Well, maybe. But every Thai restaurant in the Twin Cities offers that combination of flavors, and unfortunately, the menu makes no effort to explain how the traditional medical principles are applied in any specific dishes. Actually, the menu offers a limited selection of the same dishes you can find at any Thai restaurant, ranging from red and green curries to pad Thai and holy basil supreme, plus a few non-traditional items such as crab Rangoon and cream cheese wontons.
First impressions: generous portions, attractive ambience, but quality seemed about average, and prices are distinctly higher than most local Thai restaurants: most entrees are in the $14-$17 range. The Bangkok style fish cakes were superb: fried deep brown on the outside, firm and flavorful on the inside, and with just the right hint of kaffir lime. But the red curry with fried tofu lacked the complexity of the best versions I have had elsewhere.
The buffet ($ 9.95 at lunch, $ 16 dinner) offers a sampling of many of the appetizers and entrees also offered a la carte: coconut lemongrass soup with chicken, vegetable spring rolls, cream cheese wontons,Thai chicken wings, crab Rangoon, and about 10 different entrees, ranging from sweet basil seafood, pork prik khing and cashew nut chicken to red and green chicken curries and pad Thai. Desserts include sweet sticky rice with Thai custard, coconut flan, and several flavors of mousse cake (presumably not a Thai dish.)
But there may be more to Naviya's Thai Kitchen than first meets the eye. Without knowing who I was, Kim LaBarge struck up a conversation, and mentioned that the menu offers only a small sampling of Naviya' culinary repertoire. Diners who call ahead with a party of eight or more can arrange for special off-the-menu dinners. Prices start at $25 per person. I'd like to try that sometime, but I think I'll wait until Naviya's gets its wine and beer license - expected before the end of the month.
Naviya's Thai Kitchen, 6345 Penn Ave. S., Richfield,.