Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Seven Lunches

I don’t eat out enough to get a proper perspective on the restaurant scene, but I did stop in at a few cafes in recent months, nearly all of them good. Even one sitting can give you the feel for a place. The food is only part of it, of course. The shape of the room, the demeanor of the waitress, the direction of the light coming in, the music...

1. Blackbird (38th and Nicollet) I like the very tall ceilings, the cheery décor, and the sunny east-facing window. Their sandwich special had bean sprouts on it—also good. A good place to stop for lunch following a visit to the Art Institute, which is almost right down the street.

2. La Chaya (45th and Nicollet) We parked right in front and as I stepped out of the car I felt like I was back in California. It’s a good feeling. It must have been the fanciful wrought-iron railings and waxy green boxwood shrubs ringing the delightful brick terrace. Whatever it was, the effect was enchanting. The food was also good—semi-hot Mexican fusion.

3. King’s Wine Bar (46th and Grand) I ordered a chicken salad sandwich and a bowl of asparagus soup. The chicken salad was dominated by chevre and a very tasty vinaigrette rather than the chicken, the bread was toasted to perfection—or more likely fried in butter. The café is furnished with black chipboard furniture—the IKEA look, I guess—but there’s nothing wrong with it. Yet it was high noon, and we were the only people in the place, while Patisserie 46, right across the street, was packed with people.

4. Victory 44 is located in an obscure corner of North Minneapolis, just south of Victory Memorial Drive and west of Henry High School. The place is noted for chef-waiters, small portions, and very flavorful food. I can still recall the macaroni and cheese I had there—though they called it something entirely different. It was so tasty I could hardly believe it. I also remember the three perfectly sautéed scallops I had on another visit. Come to think of it, I also remember the little potatoes in the shape of footballs they served on the side, and the swizzle of glaze in the shape of a raspberry red Z across the top.

On the other hand, the lamb paté was about the size (and color) of an old-fashioned rectangular pencil eraser, and the rabbit sausage, sliced into two pieces at a very sharp angle (to create an optical illusion, I guess) and served on a bed of greens, didn’t amount to much.

I went there for a bite to eat with a friend one evening and had the privilege of sitting on one end of a long padded bench. A heavily pierced young woman sat at the other end, about fifteen feet away. She and her boyfriend ordered the Tuesday night “date” menu, which at $30 for five courses (for two) seems like a very good deal. The top of the bench was only loosely fastened to the base, and we inadvertently played a game of teeter-totter all night long, without really thinking about it, as we shifted in our seats.

5. Travail, in downtown Robbinsdale, offers a similar menu, similarly exquisite charcuterie, similar small portions, and perhaps even cockier chef-waiters. It’s fun to sit against the wall looking across the room at the open kitchen. A friend and I arrived on morning just before noon and there were ten or twelve people waiting outside the door for the place to open.

6. The Republic, which replaced Sergeant Preston’s after all these years at Seven Corners, has a remarkable open-air Happy Hour. The chips are notably flavorful and ungreasy and the $5 grass-fed-beef hamburgers come in several modes, from garlic confit to red wine reduction and brie to aged cheddar and caramelized onions. Three dollar craft American taps.

7. The best sandwich I’ve had in years came from the Northern Waters Smokehouse in the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace out on Canal Street in Duluth. It’s called the Sitka Sushi, and it has Wild Alaskan Sockeye gravlox with cucumber, shredded veggies, pickled ginger, cilantro, chili sauce, and wasabi mayonnaise on a hero roll. Wow!

8. The best blue-plate special I had recently was at the Pease Café, located in (you guessed it) Pease, Minnesota. (It’s just south of Milaca.) Low prices, genuinely “home-cooked” food. And I can assure you, it isn’t difficult to eavesdrop on what the locals are talking about at a place like that.

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