Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dining Out Winter 2009

Everyone likes to read about dining out, it seems. In fact, the words often sound better than the food tasted. It’s a form of poetry that we all understand. Yet the sad truth is that it’s difficult to think about food without also thinking about money. Expensive meals don’t necessarily taste better than cheap ones, but they’re likely to. This money dimension tends to be not very poetic, however, and it effects our reactions to food too. In fact, it seems a little gauche to make reference to it here. But the numbers you see at the end of each section represent total cost, including wine and tip. It may be that I have friends who drop $200 at a restaurant without thinking much about it. Others may consider a $100 meal a once-in-a-lifetime blow-out. I don’t know and I don’t care to. But it would be disingenuous to ignore that aspect of the dining experience altogether.

Late last summer Hilary and I ordered two or three appetizers and three glasses of wine (we split the third one) in the narrow wood-paneled bar of the Heartland Café in St. Paul. The bar menu carried the type of things that I find very appealing, many of which fall into the category of Charcuterie. I ordered a plate of various rabbit pates with tiny crusts of toast and some cranberry glazes—hardly more than daubs on the plate—but the flavors were so intense and so delicious that I went away well-satisfied.

The Heartland takes pride in using local organic sources whenever possible. I don’t know whether this is an act of virtue or good cooking technique but the results were very fine.
To give you better idea of the type and range of things they offer, I’ve copied a few items from their current bar menu:

Au Bon Canard duck breast prosciutto with white wine-poached red Anjou
pears, stone fruit catsup and sweet potato crisps $12

Duroc pork fromage de tête with bull’s blood beet sprouts, honeycrisp apple mustard and pickled golden watermelon rind $12

Money Creek ranch wild boar-free range veal terrine with baby frisée, wild boar bacon-hazelnut vinaigrette and preserved cipollini onions $12
It was quiet in the bar—just us and a mother-daughter pair in the corner. I was wondering how long the restaurant would survive (maybe they should lower their prices?) but my concern vanished when we decided to exit through the restaurant proper. The place was packed with couples and larger groups of well-heeled urbanites, and they all seemed to be having a very good time. ($88)

We met our friends Rick and Laura Sennott at a corner restaurant in SW Minneapolis called Pierre’s. It sits in the midst of antique shops and lighting stores in an urban neighborhood that lacks the big money of the suburban Edina conurbation just down the street, yet holds more than its share of sophisticated diners, perhaps. The rooms within the urban storefront are narrow, and painted a cheery golden yellow. The night was cold and it was warm inside—and the restaurant has a parking lot.

There is something I like immediately about a restaurant that carries a wine list very similar to what we often drink at home—Macon- Village Le Charmes, Vermonte Sauvignon Blanc, Verdillac white, Napa Ridge Cabernet, etc. You might remark that it would be more fun to try new things—but in my opinion the world of restaurant wines, where everything is grossly overpriced anyway, is no place to experiment.

The restaurant also smelled good. The bread was mediocre—little footballs in the shape of baguettes—but the rest of the food was very tasty and the portions were almost ridiculously large. Rick’s pork medallion turned out to be a single lump of pork tenderloin, perfectly moist and topped with a superb onion-balsamic chutney. After our waitress had described in detail what cassoulet—one of the evening specials—was, it took everything in my power to resist informing her that I had tasted the cassoulet of both Castelnaudery and Carcassonne, the cities where cassoulet was invented. Nor did I inform her that I had been responsible for preparing (and for a large group) one of the most disastrous cassoulets in modern history. Keeping both my vanity and my chagrin to myself, I simply ordered the dish.

Hilary and Laura ordered walleye and salmon respectively (the salmon was topped with an olive tapenade). We all enjoyed the meal. My dish had been lavishly endowed with chicken, sausage, duck confit, tomatoes, and white beans, and it gave me that heavy greasy feeling in the stomach that is the hallmark of a good cassoulet. It lasted through the night.

As we left the restaurant several hours later, we passed Pierre himself—a former shepherd from Haute Provence, or so I’m told—holding court with two middle-aged ladies at the bar, an ample snifter of cognac glowing in front of him. ($100)

After only a single visit, it may be unduly bold of me to suggest that the perfect lunch can be had at Prima. But we stopped in with friends after a visit to the nearby Russian museum, and I was impressed with both the flavors and the portions of the various dishes we sampled together. At $6.95 the roasted garlic appetizer looked like a meal in itself, with two heads of garlic, ample toast, tasty pear chutney and several slices of delicate cambozola cheese. The penne dish I ordered, with grilled chicken breast, wild mushrooms, roasted peppers, toasted walnuts, and gorgonzola cream sauce, was perfectly diverse in its range of flavors, as was Hilary’s pasta dish with kale, bacon, roasted butternut squash, mushrooms, pepitas, and goat cheese. I must say that the penne with house-made Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, oregano, and red pepper cream that our friend Rocky ordered was no less interesting. And everyone left with a doggy-bag. ($50)

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