Davanni’s Hot Hoagies to Welcome Home

We’re back!   We spent time abroad, off the grid –away from email, Facebook and our blog–with some of our best friends, seeing a fascinating new corner of the world.  We came back revived, our eyes opened, and something I am calling our “sea mind” awakened.  We had a superb vacation.

We remain fully inspired by our travels upon arriving home.  At the same time, an 18 hour travel day to get here, Bjorn’s suitcase spending the night in Paris without us and diving back into work jet-lagged has had us in “catch up” mode for a little while.  Our “welcome home” meal was a good old sub sandwich, a Hot Hoagie from Davanni’s, to be exact.  Davanni’s is a low-key pizza and hoagie joint that started in our neighbourhood in 1947.  They deliver, so we are frequent customers.  This particular evening, we dined in.  We both ordered our go-to sandwich, a Turkey Bacon Chipotle for Bjorn and a Veggie on wheat for me.  We enjoyed these tasty, simple sandwiches served on a plastic plate and washed them down with a bottle of 3.2 beer.  Travel and time with friends clears out mental fog, reminds us of who we are and want to be, renews appreciation and gratitude for friends, our house and garden, our lives, our hobbies, traveling, jobs and family time immeasurably.  I plan to share it!  To make that easier, in development are a dedicated Facebook page, a private host for the blog, and a renewed desire to enjoy life to the fullest and keep it simple.  We’re glad to be back.

A Taste of the Birchwood Cafe

Birchwood Cafe – 3311 East 35th Street, Minneapolis, MN Telephone:  (612) 722-4474

I think a taste of one of our favorite neighbourhood restaurants will serve as a fitting end to this series of posts of our recent restaurant experiences.  I am reasonably certain that Birchwood Cafe is one of the most-mentioned local restaurants on this blog.  That is because we like it, we go there a lot and we find the food at the Birchwood to be reliably good and often inspiring.  The Birchwood is just the sort of restaurant we are so glad to have only a few minutes from home.

The Birchwood Cafe is nestled in the Seward neighborhood, a primarily residential area just across the Mississippi River from our neighbourhood in Saint Paul.  In addition to its quiet neighbourhood vibe, there are a few things that make the Birchwood a major draw for us.  They use and highlight local produce, they serve great local beer and they offer inventive, in-season food that suits a vegetarian-omnivore couple to a T.

The Birchwood’s permanent decor is spare.  There are a few quotes that aptly convey Birchwood’s philosophies permanently visible on the windows and wall.  Otherwise, the walls are plain white, and display works by local artists that are rotated periodically.  Currently on display are paintings by WACSO, an artist that I recognized immediately from a few posts that have appeared on Heavy Table, a wonderful Twin Cities blog about restaurants, food blogs and all things food-related in the Cities and around the region. 

WACSO stands for Walking Around Checking Stuff Out.  WACSO’s art captures Twin Cities places and happenings and the people enjoying them in brilliant colour and just enough detail to accurately convey the motion, mood and feeling of the moment portrayed.  I hope I’ll own a WACSO some day, or at least be one of the sketched figures in one.  I recommend checking WASCO art while it is on display at the Birchwood if you are in town.

We do quite like the Birchwood.  While the list of the Birchwood’s merits is long, there are just a few characteristics about the Birchwood that aren’t necessarily my favorite that I suppose I will mention.  The first is, you stand in line and place your order at the counter.  Maybe the Birchwood has chosen not to serve customers at the table due to space constraints.  I can see that.  I can also understand having customers come by the deli counter where there is a moderate selection of prepared salads, artisan-quality grocery items to take home and ready-to-eat items that they want you to see.  For me, I always order something from the menu, very often the nightly special, and so there isn’t a lot to gain, and some relaxation is lost in the experience of standing in line to order, paying, getting my drink, not forgetting my table marker and finding a table and then settling down to enjoy being out to eat.  I will say that the servers who bring out your food almost make up for the lack of table service by being consistently efficient and friendly.  The other issue we’ve run into and learned from is that the place is popular and rather small so it gets pretty jam-packed.  This has all but eliminated us as breakfast and brunch diners on the weekend — we just aren’t people who enjoy the madness of waiting for a table while others slurp their orange juice, Surly Coffee Bender and down their muesli and perfect scrambled eggs in order to clear out and give us a seat.  At the end of the day, I compare a good neighbourhood restaurant to a person you love who isn’t perfect (meaning everyone) — you take the good with the bad, you accept idiosyncracies and unique attributes and overall you are always way more pleased to have them in your life than not.  Great people and restaurants don’t have to be perfect to be exceptional and well above average.  

What in the world am I waiting for?  How about the great meal we had recently at Birchwood’s weekly Saturday night Pizza Party!?  The deal is this:  2 pizzas and a pitcher of beer or a bottle wine for $30. These are artisan-made pizzas with fresh, local toppings and high-end local brews, so let me tell you, this is a great deal.  Above is Bjorn’s delicious pizza, topped with house-smoked turkey breast, carmelized onion puree, mushrooms, cauliflower, kale, cheddar and provolone.  I thought it looked yummy, cheesy and full of plenty of interesting toppings.  Bjorn thought it tasted as good as it looked.  

My pizza was topped with spring vegetables: fiddleheads, asparagus, red beets, garlic spread, cheddar, provolone and a sprinkle of tangerine oil.  I loved this pizza.  Other than garlic, I have never tasted any of the ingredients on a pizza before.  Cheddar and provolone are two of my favorite cheeses, they aren’t on pizzas very often, but they really worked.  It turns out that they all belong on a pizza and they all make me want to top our homemade pies a lot more irreverently.

The most noteworthy of the toppings on my pizza were the fiddleheads.  Fiddleheads, ramps, and morels are all the rage in the Twin Cities foodie-world and blog universe.  I have yet to try ramps.  I have eaten morels, and while I love going to check my secret spot for spoils, I don’t honestly love them as much as other mundane mushrooms.  Fiddleheads?  Now that is a wild crop that I can get behind and seriously work at foraging to eat.  I’d describe a fiddlehead as a tiny curled end of a fern about to unfurl; roasted on a pizza it had the flavor of mild asparagus and texture more pleasant and tender than roasted asparagus or green bean.  One more reason to get going on transplanting some of my Mom’s abundant ferns from her garden to ours!

As we walked away from the familiar Birchwood Cafe onto a quiet neighbourhood street, I thought of how glad I am to end this series about our recent restaurant experiences at one of our regular spots, that I confidently recommend and am glad to have close by.  The Birchwood Cafe does vegetarian and omnivore-friendly local food right, and we’re so glad to have this place in town.  If you are one of our regular readers, thank you.  It will be a quiet few weeks while we voyage far and wide to see good friends and new horizons.  Come back in early June to see what we have to share!

A Taste of Madison, Wisconsin – Ian’s Pizza, Graze, The Tipsy Cow and the Student Union

I’ve been posting about restaurant experiences we’ve had in recent months, the series wouldn’t be complete without a road trip.  Recently, I needed to travel to Madison, Wisconsin for a work-related reason, so of course, we made a fun weekend get-away out of it. 

Ian’s Pizza 115 State Street, Madison, Wisconsin Telephone:  (608)257-9248

Our weekend in Madison began where our previous visits ended:  at Ian’s Pizza on State Street, eating a huge slice of Mac & Cheese Pizza.  Our previous visits to Madison took place when we were still students, extending our adolescence as far into our 20’s as possible.  Our good friend Jenn brought us to a Badgers homecoming Football game in 2006. Yes, we wore red, and yes we did Jump Around.  We experienced as much of the glory of a Big Ten homecoming as we could pack into a weekend; highlights included being in the crowd when the Badger’s football team won Paul Bunyan’s Axe from the rival Minnesota Golden Gophers, the sheer madness of State Street and an end to the evening that seemed totally appropriate — a slice of pizza topped with Mac & Cheese.  A year later in August we stopped for the evening in Madison en route to Milwaukee to see the Brewers play the San Francisco Giants with Bjorn’s brother and our friend Mark.  Again, our night ended with a stroll down State Street singing our best rendition of Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl by Broken Social Scene and a legendary late-night slice of Ian’s Pizza.  To be sure that we still have a finger on the pulse of what is hip in Madison, we began our recent visit to Madison by recruiting Bjorn’s cousin Patrick who is a second year student at UW to show us where to eat.  We met him at the Student Union, and sure enough, he guided us down State Street to Ian’s Pizza.  The big discovery I made this trip to Ian’s is what an amazing salad they can toss together.  The salad is made-to-order and served perfectly dressed in a bowl with your choice of fresh vegetables and salad toppings, including cheese or meat.  The thin slices of tender, milky, fresh mozzarella in my salad at Ian’s was some of the best I’ve tasted in recent memory.  Bjorn and I enjoyed a bottle of Lake Front IPA, a hoppy brew from Milwaukee with our meal.  It turns out a big slice of pizza covered in creamy white sauce, Macaroni noodles and melted cheddar cheese is still as good as it sounds, even in the early part of the evening.

It seems that I missed out on how pretty Madison is in my earlier visits, probably because I was only out on the town at night.  This trip I was amazed to see the gorgeous tulips and daffodils that were blooming all over the city.  The tulips above are planted outside of the Capitol.  Different colour combinations are planted outside of each wing.  I have to imagine that the colour-combinations have a certain meaning, but I don’t know it.  All I know is that Madison is a beautiful place to visit in the daytime.

Graze — 1 South Pinckney Street  Madison, Wisconsin Telephone:  (608) 251-2700

The next stand-out meal that we had in Madison was lunch at Graze, a farm-to-table restaurant right outside the Capitol in the heart of downtown Madison.  We also have Patrick to thank for this recommendation.  The restaurant’s name is a nod to the proprietor’s shared belief that animals should be fed grass and allowed to roam.  A map of Wisconsin by the restaurant’s entrance points to the sources of the locally grown and produced fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, fish and poultry used throughout the menu.  The lunch menu contained a variety of salads, snacks and sandwiches.  Bjorn ordered the Perch Sandwich, described as Great Lakes panko-breaded perch with avocado, tomato, onion, lettuce and chipotle aioli on ciabatta bread served with mixed greens, SarVecchio cheese and Champagne vinaigrette.  I ordered the Beet and Walnut burger and a cup of pureed celery root soup.  Having had very little experience with celery root I expected the soup to have some bitterness, something like a turnip.  Instead, it was smooth with a pleasant, mild celery flavor.  The Beet and Walnut “burger” patty was deep a magenta hue, and was soft, and moist without being crumbly and had a pleasant beetiness.  It was topped with veggies that were tasty and noticeably fresh including cherry tomato, cucumber, red onion and arugula as well as feta cheese, lemon Greek yogurt and oregano vinaigrette, all piled generously on a pepita-topped eggy brioche bun.  The feta, Greek yogurt and vinaigrette were a bright flavor contrast to the mellow beet, and a soft counter-point to the vegetable’s crunch.  The Beet and Walnut burger was fabulous and I want another!  I would love to see a Beet and Walnut burger replace the ubiquitous, tired and unexciting Garden Burger where it stands as the stalwart vegetarian option on menus at countless restaurants.  It was simple, delicious and the options for topping it would be virtually endless.  We have some wonderful farm-to-table restaurants in the Twin Cities, I only wish more of them were as casual, affordable and accessible as Graze.

Every day in Madison we seemed to walk past and sometimes through the capitol building.  We live in Minnesota’s capital city, and the contrast between the capitol building’s place in the capital cities of Minnesota and Wisconsin is hard to ignore.  Saint Paul’s impressive capitol building faces up toward the residential Summit and Crocus Hill, and towers over downtown and the river bluff below.  While it is focal point when you are downtown it is an island, removed by several blocks from any of the action of the city.  In contrast, Wisconsin’s Capitol building is the heart of the city, and streets leading out from each wing in all directions are alive with museums, shops, businesses and hundreds of restaurants.  The capitol grounds serve as a central park.  There is constant pedestrian traffic, movement and activity at the Capitol in Madison; you feel the city’s lifeblood emanating from this central spot.  In Minnesota’s defense, Bjorn tells me the inside of our capitol is actually more impressive in its art, marble and architecture than Wisconsin’s which I thought was quite nice and adequately opulent.  I have never been inside our capitol.  (oops).  It seems that people who grow up here or in states nearby visit our capitol on a 5th Grade bus trip (even kids from Western North Dakota, like Bjorn) never again to return.  For as many times as I’ve driven by our capitol, looked at it from the end of Summit Avenue and thought that it is breathtaking to have the beautiful Cathedral and capitol building standing in stately prominence in the middle of my very own city, in the 9 years I’ve lived here I have managed not to enter it, while I entered Wisconsin’s capitol building at least twice in 3 days.  I should make a point to get inside one of these days.

The Tipsy Cow — 102 King Steet, Madison, Wisconsin Telephone:  (608) 287-1455

One of my favorite things about Wisconsin is its enthusiasm for beer and cheese.  A cab driver recommended the Tipsy Cow for a mid-afternoon snack so we decided to check it out.  We must have blended into the wall for at least ten minutes after being seated before anyone acknowledged us.  We probably managed to catch the servers during the time that usually represents the afternoon lull.  We shared cheese curds and sampled Hopalicious APA by Ale Asylum which was an easy-drinking hoppy beer that seemed to be the hottest tap in town.  To be honest, the curds at the Tipsy Cow were only okay, certainly not the best that Wisconsin has to offer.

We saw a lot of Madison on foot.  Here are some scenes from State Street.  With UW and the crowds of students who are unmistakably present in Madison, we spent a lot of time reminiscing about our college days.  I don’t think either of us would change a thing about our undergraduate experiences at state schools in smaller cities, but we could definitely see the appeal of being an undergraduate student here where the university dominates the town.

The next surprising discovery we made in Madison was what a cool place the UW Student Union is to visit.  It is a hang out for students and the entire community.  You can sign up for a guest pass and gain the privilege of buying a pitcher Hopalicious beer to enjoy while seated on the waterfront.  How has no one told me about this before?  Every University of Wisconsin alum I know is fairly convinced of the superiority and awesomeness of their university experience, and I’m starting to understand why.  Sitting on the lake in a crowd of people who are all out to relax and enjoy the spring sunshine was one of the highlights of our long weekend in Madtown.  As much as Minnesota and Wisconsin have their rivalries, there is no denying that Madison is a vibrant city with a lot to offer a visitor or a college student.  I highly recommend a road trip.

A Taste of Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis

This is the third post in a short series about restaurant experiences we’ve had around the Twin Cities in recent months — in this post, I will share a little taste of the Midtown Global Market.

Sonora Grill – Midtown Global Market 920 E. Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN, Telephone: (612)871-1900

I will begin and end this post with the same question:  If you haven’t been to the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis for sight-seeing, shopping and a meal, what are you waiting for?!  Midtown Global Market is an indoor market located at the intersection of Chicago and Lake Street, housing interesting sights, sounds and tastes around every corner.  I will cut to the chase and say that the area it excels most in is food.  To begin, there is the Sonora Grill.  Sonora Grill appears to be a totally unassuming taco stand.  I don’t blame you if you confuse the signage for a Chipotle knock-off.  The presentation is casual and the price-point is similar, but the comparisons stop there. Sonora Grill is in fact the place in the Market to head to directly, if you like the thought of a chef who cut his teeth at Bar La Grassa, Solera and Barrio running his own show and serving up inventive, tasty South American and Spanish food all from scratch, and with zero pretense.  When I first read about Sonora Grill, we had already been to the Market a few times.  Our first attempt to eat at Sonora was a fail — we got to the market too late on a Sunday.  More on that later….  With better planning, we finally made it for lunch at Sonora, and my eggplant Carmelo, a “Sonora style taco” consisting of breaded, fried eggplant, chimichurri aioli, roasted pepper and sautéed onions on a double layer of corn tortillas was super delicious. On its own the eggplant Carmelo has the power to beckon me back to the Market… possibly this weekend.  For their size and price ($2.50 a pop) you can easily eat two or three Carmelos.  I had one, but only because we had chips, black beans and rice on the table to share.  If eggplant isn’t your thing, Carmelos also come with pork, chicken, tilapia and beef skirt steak for the same price.  

Bjorn ordered a Pork Guajillo Bocadillo ($8.50) which is described as a Spanish and South America-style guajillo-marinated pork sandwich with sautéed onion, Chihuahua cheese, tomato and arugula, served with fresh-cut french fries and cilantro aioli.  My cousin Alice who dined with us had the most impressive looking meal: a Pork Pincho ($8.95), which is a skewer of guajillo-marinated pork shoulder served with guajillo beans and Peruvian rice.  Let me emphasize the high quality that comes with the inviting low prices and casual atmosphere of Sonora Grill.  The Head Chef Alejandro Castillon and his small band of hard-working sous-chefs show up early so they can do things like make the aioli from scratch beginning with eggs and marinate the meat.  They buy their buns at the Salty Tart, a bakery in the market, and their tortillas from another local maker nearby.  

What to drink with your Carmelos, Brocaderos and Pinchos?  A  bottle of Jarritos soda ($1.25) of course!

After our meal we strolled around to see what interesting things we’d find in other shops and stands around the Market.  We ran across Smoked Trout and quail eggs.  I have never tasted a quail egg, and I am going to buy some the next time I make it to the market.  I am not sure how I feel about eating duck and quail eggs; I am reserving judgment at least until I’ve tried them.  We browsed through Fiesta in America, a shop full of bright colour, Mexican souvenirs, decor and an extensive selection of candy from Mexico.  Then we headed over to Holy Land, a Minneapolis-based Middle Eastern Grocery and Deli with a large presence in the Global Market.

I have yet to eat at the extensive buffet at Holy Land, but I always find something interesting at the grocery store.  Pictured just above is a selection of cheeses, including Bulgarian Feta and Egyptian Cream Cheese for sale from behind the deli counter.  Holy Land Hummus and Pitas are available in grocery stores all over the Twin Cities, and I often try a new flavor of hummus, or pick up a bag of pitas.  In my opinion, Holy Land sets the standard upon which to judge all pocket bread and hummus.

Holy Land also sells olive oil and Basmati rice in large-volume packaging, for those with a serious appetite for Basmati.  Or, for restaurants, I’m guessing.

A La Salsa Restaurant Mexicano and Bar — 920 E. Lake Street, Minneapolis (612) 872-4140

We also have eaten at A La Salsa in the Midtown Global Market several times.  When you are at the market, it is a great place to choose if you want to sit down and be served at your table, if you want a beer or a margarita with your meal, or if you are like us and you get to the Market late and other stands are closing.  Most importantly, visit A La Salsa if you enjoy authentic Mexican food.  A La Salsa has an extensive menu of traditional Mexican dishes that are delicious and well-priced.  Pictured above is Bjorn’s plate – Flautas de Pollo – ($8.50) Three tortillas filled with spicy-seasoned chicken, rolled, fried and topped with refried beans, crumbly, moist queso fresco and crema.  Flautas are served with lettuce, guacamole, pico de gallo and a dollop of sour cream.  I ordered Chille Relleno ($5.50) and a vegetarian tamale ($2.50) a la carte, which were delicious, but did not photograph well.

Along with our main plate we were served a generous side plate of mildly spiced black beans.  I love black beans and crave them at breakfast and supper alike.  A plate of black beans with their comforting smooth and pleasant soupyness and a mild, cumin flavor makes certain that you won’t leave A La Salsa hungry. 

The Midtown Global Market is a fun place to visit to eat, shop and sight-see and grab a quick, casual meal with your family.  This taste of Sonora Grill, Holy Land Middle Eastern deli and grocery and A La Salsa only scratches the surface of the vast shopping options and eating establishments available at the Market from around the world.  As I said before, if you haven’t been to the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis for sight-seeing, shopping and a meal, what are you waiting for?!

A Taste of Cat Man Do, The Sample Room and Basil’s

This is the second in a short series of posts about a few restaurant experiences we’ve had around the Twin Cities in recent months.  
Cat Man Do – 1659 Grand Avenue, Saint Paul, MN Telephone:  (651)528-7575
I read about Cat Man Do a few months ago on a local food blog that I like to visit and knew it was a place we should try.  Cat Man Do is a cozy restaurant in our neighborhood that offers authentically prepared Nepali food.  Its menu is filled with interesting choices for vegetarians and omnivores alike.  We have now eaten there twice, and we enjoyed both meals.  After our first visit, I woke up the next day craving another Samosa, a savory pouch stuffed with potatoes and peas, served with a spicy-sweet sauce (not pictured) and considered going to the lunch buffet solely for the purpose of having another one.  On our first visit, I tried the Chow Chow noodles with vegetables with medium spice.  The noodles were pleasantly spicy, but I wouldn’t be shy about ordering them hot in the future.  Bjorn tried Mo Mo, a steamed dumpling, shaped into a little coin purse stuffed with seasoned meat.  On our second visit, Bjorn ordered Chow Chow with chicken, and I ordered M.A.P.P. curry with mushroom, asparagus, potato and peas which had a wonderful balance of warming seasonings.  On both occasions the dining room was nearly full, about half of the diners were college age and half were couples in their twenties through middle age.  This is both a fair representation of the neighbourhood’s residential composition and a testament to the tasty, enjoyable and interesting menu choices, and the reasonable price point at Cat Man Do.  Cat Man Do has earned a regular spot on our Saint Paul dining rotation.  We enjoy the satisfying, well-seasoned dishes at Cat Man Do.  Cat Man Do offers different flavors and preparations than the food we make at home, with results that are no less homey, craveable, and comforting.
The Sample Room – 2124 Marshall Street NE, Minneapolis, Minnesota Telephone:  (612)-789-0333
One rainy Sunday we went out for a drive in North East Minneapolis.  We had no particular destination in mind, but we knew dinner would be involved.  There are many solid options that we’ve enjoyed in visits to this neighbourhood, Psycho Suzi’s, The Modern Cafe, Northeast Social, Mill City Cafe, The Red Stag, and The Bulldog Northeast are all reliably good.  On this particular evening, we ended up at the Sample Room.  We’ve driven by many times on our way to listen to music at 331 Club, and finally managed to stop in for a meal.
I started by ordering a flight of wine.  When it arrived I stopped taking pictures.  Oops.  The aptly named Sample Room offers small plates of cheese, charcuterie, pasta, salads, meat, seafood and vegetables and a variety of interesting condiments, made in-house.  We started by sharing a house salad of mixed greens, aged ricotta, red onion, radish and pepitas with a red wine vinaigrette and a “Pickled Plate” which included pickled egg, an assortment of pickled veggies and mustard.  For my “main” I had the fresh fettuccine with wild mushrooms and kale in a sauce of chive crème fraîche, butter and white wine garnished with shaved parmesan and cracked black pepper.  I liked the fettuccine, but I didn’t love it.  I am pretty spoiled these days when it comes to fresh pasta.  Between living down the street from Scusi where you can get a killer fresh pappardelle any night of the week, the wonderful bowl of egg fettuccine with green garlic and grape tomatoes I recently enjoyed at Broder’s Cucina Italiana, and the pretty darned good pastas I’ve been rolling out at home, I have a high bar for fresh pasta.  Maybe I’m being too hard on the noodles, the real issue I had with the pasta was the kale.  I’m afraid to admit this for fear of losing all of my vegetarian cred, but I’m not sure that I’m sold on kale.  Admittedly, I haven’t made much of an effort to fall for this frilly, dark, cabbage-like green.  The kale on my fettuccine makes a good example of why I have a hard time jumping on the kale bandwagon — it had a mineraly-metallic taste that almost reminds me of meat.  The difficult flavor and texture of kale overpowers whatever feel-good vibes eating this super-nutritious green gives me.  In further damage to my vegetarian rep, I feel the same about collards.  I’ll stick to spinach, thank you very much.  I can’t blame the Sample Room for my personal views on the vegetable in a dish I opted to order, unless they sautéed the kale in a cast iron or aluminum pan which would be the cause of the pervading iron / B Vitamin flavor in the dish.  Bjorn had crab cakes and the Bison-Pork-Beef Three Meatloaf with smoked tomato ketchup, which was recently named the “Best Meatloaf in the Twin Cities 2012” by the Citypages.  Bjorn liked the meatloaf and as wonderful as it probably is, I cannot believe the Best Meatloaf in the Twin Cities isn’t made by somebody’s mother!  My mother’s meatloaf would surely be a contender if she made it in the Twin Cities and I hereby give it an unofficial nomination for Best of the Twin Cities 2013.  What is more, I cannot believe “Best of” rankings include meatloaf!  It seems like we’re going a little far with that, but I wouldn’t have been shocked if “best bike rack” made the list, so I guess meatloaf deserves its place.  The Sample Room gives you the opportunity to sample a variety of their local charcuterie, house-made pickled things, unique condiments and interestingly prepared meats and seafood offerings without committing to a massive portion or price.  It is another solid spot to add to the list of reasons that that Northeast Minneapolis is one of our best ‘hoods.
Basil’s Restaurant – 7th Street & Marquette Ave, Minneapolis, MN Telephone: 612.376.7404
Next on our Twin Cities tour is a lunch I had last week by myself at Basil’s, a slick restaurant circa yesteryear in the Marquette Hotel in Minneapolis, overlooking the Crystal Court in the IDS Center.  For out-of-towners, the IDS Center is the tallest building in Minnesota, and provides office space to scores of law firms, stockbrokers, venture capital firms and consultants of every ilk.  I chose Basil’s blindly, wanting to eat a salad in a calm place where I could write at noon on a Wednesday.  I found my way to Basil’s on the third floor taking the elevator in the hotel lobby and requested a table for one.  The host honestly seemed a little freaked about my request and spent several minutes nervously scrolling through his computer screen, uttering “uhhhh.”  I didn’t know how long this would continue so I interrupted to ask if the restaurant was booked with reservations.  He finally took the cue and showed me one of many open two-seater booths, which was in fact, kind of perfect for one person.  I chose to sit with my back to the kitchen door, instead of facing it where he had directed me.  There were a few more “uuuhs” and he told me to sit on whichever side I felt comfortable sitting.  I got the feeling he was maybe a bit uncomfortable with me having lunch by myself.  I waited quite a while before my presence was noted by a server.  By now, my discomfort was mounting.  I looked around the room and realized that the only escape was the elevator bank past the host stand, so there was no turning back on lunch without even more awkwardness.  When my waitress arrived, she was warm, experienced and didn’t seem at all bothered to serve a table of one.  I quickly ordered and enjoyed a few stolen moments of quiet to do my own thing.  Soon my Grilled Caesar salad arrived.  It was no more or less exciting than I expected, but it was totally good, and I immediately felt better about lunch.
I have noticed that nicer Italian restaurants are now grilling a head of romaine lettuce, and serving it whole in a deconstructed Caesar salad, rather than chopped or torn, with all elements combined.  Nowadays, said Caesar salad is probably going to arrive with either a whole anchovy, perhaps some chopped kalamata olives or some crunchy, lacy, toasted Parmesan cheese and an artistic crouton somewhere on the plate.  Maybe grilled romaine is standard everywhere else, but, it is my position that it is a newer offering in Minnesota.   I surmise that serving the lettuce grilled and the salad deconstructed challenges diners and adds enough interesting possibilities for presentation and accoutrements to allow the chef to keep the ubiquitous Caesar salad on the menu without feeling like they’ve given up on their dreams.  Basil’s and the grilled Caesar are both trying to be fresh.  The grilled salad did so more convincingly than the aging power-lunch spot — an out-of-step microcosm in the surreal universe of the IDS Center — where silver-haired suits hesitantly broker the passage of a torch forged of intensely-burned midnight-oil during long absences from home in the western ‘burbs to smartly be-spectacled nouveau-yuppies in short trousers and argyle socks poised to board a bicycle bound for South Minne at 5:01 p.m.  Me?  I just wandered here looking for a salad and to seize a minute to write in the middle of a downtown workday.

A Taste of Broders’ Cucina Italiana, Pazzaluna and Ngon Vietnamese Bistro

As much as we love to cook and eat at home, we also enjoy going out for dinner. It is nice to get out, relax and eat a meal without any prep or cleanup.  I bring home new ideas and often just plain feel inspired.  We are fortunate to live in the Twin Cities where there are so many great restaurants to choose from, and to be able to enjoy a meal out quite often.  I have mentioned that I can scarcely make a cheese sandwich without whipping out my camera to take a picture.  The same goes for restaurant meals.  Even with this slightly obsessive hobby, I don’t want to bother other diners, so I snap photos quickly on my mobile without flash.  They vary in quality, but they are sufficient to give a taste of a few dishes at restaurants around town that we’ve enjoyed in recent months.  Beginning today, and for the next few posts I’m going to share our dining adventures around town.  I hope you will be inspired to try out a new place.

Broder’s Cucina Italiana – 2308 West 50th Street, Minneapolis, MN, telephone: 612.925.3113

A few weeks ago, we found ourselves driving around in Minneapolis on a rainy day, becoming hungry.  I was navigating with my mobile phone and so it should come as no surprise that we ended up at an Italian restaurant, Broder’s Cucina Italiana, a casual Italian deli-counter with dining tables.  It was crowded.  We stood in line and ordered and the chefs had time to prepare and hand us our plates of food before we even had a place to sit.  We learned that the restaurant had been featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network a few days before, and it was rainy, and most importantly, they serve good food.  The busy-ness is justified.

I had the pasta special of the day which was egg fettuccine with local green garlic and grape tomatoes.  The fresh pasta had a nice chew to it, and the green garlic was oniony and mild.  It was dressed in olive oil with a shot of lemon juice and shaved Parmesan cheese.  It was at once hearty and refreshing.  I loved it!

Bjorn had the Italian Meatball sandwich on a baguette with mozzarella and sugo Betti.  Sugo is an Italian sauce, and this particular sugo follows a recipe that was handed down to Tom Broder, of Broder’s, from his friend, Betti, hence the name.  Bjorn said he liked the sandwich, but I think his enthusiasm about the meal may have been dimmed by the woman at the table next to him who didn’t seem to think the space she was taking up at her table was enough.  She leaned sideways and took up some of Bjorn’s space throughout the entire time she devoured a huge slice of pepperoni pizza with gusto.  He didn’t mention anything about it, but that is what I would have felt if I were seated in his chair. Pazzaluna – 360 St. Peter Street, Saint Paul, MN Telephone: (651)223-7000 

Keeping with the Italian theme, a.k.a. where we dine when I’m choosing, the next meal on our Twin Cities tour are two plates of pasta we shared a Pazzaluna.  For some reason even though we’ve both lived in Saint Paul for almost a decade, neither of us have eaten at this downtown Saint Paul fixture.  We decided to split two pastas so we could try more than one dish.  I ordered the Ravioli di Magro, a spinach and ricotta-stuffed ravioli made in-house tossed in butter and sage, and served on sugo pomodora. [sugo again!  It means sauce!]  Bjorn ordered house made Gnocchi Quattro Fromaggi, at least that is what we thought he ordered.  We were a little surprised when both our pastas came out with a tomato-y sauce.  I don’t think there were 4 cheeses on the Gnocchi.  Nonetheless, the Gnocchi was light, and nothing like the dull thud of a dough-ball some places try to pass off as Gnocchi.  We liked each other’s selections better than our own.  Unlike the lighter than average Gnocchi, I thought the house made ravioli was indiscernible from any other spinach ravioli I have tried, frozen or fresh.  Needless to say, we by no means exhausted our options at Pazzaluna.  It may not be a fail-proof menu, but we’d consider giving it another try, someday.

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro – 799 University Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota Telephone: (651) 222-3301
We first heard about Ngon because it has a large selection of craft brewed Minnesota beers on tap.  This restaurant was one of the places where a keg of Surly Darkness, a, limited edition Minnesota beer by Surly Brewing Company has been tapped.  Having 10+ taps of exclusively Minnesota beer hints there is something special going on and that was all the convincing we needed to give Ngon a try.  If we initially went for the beer, we keep going back for the food and the beer.  The food is very good.  Ngon uses seasonal and local produce and meat throughout its traditional Vietnamese dishes and dishes with a contemporary twist.  Bjorn has been all over the menu, trying everything from Pho and other soups to the house-made pastrami sweet potato Hash and Eggs, and a selection of house-made and local Charcuterie.  I haven’t gotten through much of the menu.  The first time I went, I ordered the Hủ Tiếu with vegetable broth and egg noodles, and I have had it every time since.  I realize that Hủ Tiếu by definition should contain tapioca or rice noodles, because Hủ Tiếu is the name of the noodle, as well as the dish.  I don’t care.  I really like egg noodles, and they give me the option, so that is what I get.  The vegetable broth is amazing.  It is a culinary feat of flavor and balance that I wish I could achieve at home.  It is so clear!  So flavorful!  So well-balanced!  I am sometimes sad about how dark and dull vegetable broth can be–this broth is very light and hits all the right notes, and nearly steals the show from the generous portion of chewy and skinny egg noodle curlicues and the variety of tender-crisp seasonal vegetables in the soup.  The soup invariably contains bok choy, grape tomatoes, daikon, and often brussel sprouts, green beans and whatever vegetables are in season.  The soup arrives with traditional garnishes, lime wedges, bean sprouts and jalapenos, and I usually pile on all three.  When I want something warming and satisfying, but still refreshing, it is this soup that I crave.  Hủ Tiếu and all of the soups and Ngon come in huge bowls.  Sometimes I bring home leftovers.  When we’re hungry enough for an appetizer we split Vietnamese Tofu Lettuce Wraps or Crispy Vietnamese Egg Rolls which come with either pork or veg, but we’ve found that usually the soup is enough.  Ngon is a bright and airy space decorated with local art that changes from time to time.  They have long panel curtains from Ikea and the draft tower at the bar is a focal point.  It is itself a work of art which totally suits an establishment known for their fine selection of local brews.  Ngon is well-established in our restaurant repertoire, and I highly recommend giving it a try.

Un Morceau de Montreal – A Morsel of Montreal

A few weeks ago, we spent a long weekend in Montréal, Québec visiting a dear friend I grew up with.  We stay close despite the many miles between the places we live.  We enjoyed our little get-away immensely.  We balanced our time between catching up with my friend and her husband and getting to spend time with their two darling, sweet, smart and loveable little boys, and seeing some sights around a vibrant French city in my home country.  The best meals we ate over the long weekend were in my friend’s home.  My friend is an omnivore, and her husband is vegetarian, and they are conscious of eating healthfully.  We dine well together.  I was so busy being entertained by the two little guys at the table that I didn’t remember to whip out my camera during those meals, so, a fabulous Quinoa and Beet Salad, Roasted Pork Tenderloin and the best Indian food we’ve ever eaten will have to live on in our memories. We happened upon a few tasty bites when we went out exploring, and so I will share a little peek at what we saw and ate around the city.

This is my second visit to Montréal, and Bjorn’s first.  The first afternoon of our visit we set off wandering from the campus of McGill University and headed toward the Old Town of Montréal.  It turns out this colourful building, which could be a museum of modern art, is in fact a convention center known as Palais des congrès de Montréal.  It also contains shops, restaurants and a metro stop.  What a surprising structure to house a convention center.  It serves a vital purpose in the city, and the higher cause of being public art.

We didn’t have to wander long before we became thirsty and peckish.  I had a short mental list of things to show Bjorn and for him to try in Montreal.  Trois Brasseurs in Old Montréal, or Vieux-Montréal, if you are local, was a good place to check Poutine off the list.  

Poutine, which consists of French fries, topped with cheese curds melted by gravy goes very well with an afternoon beer. 

We wandered our way through Vieux-Montréal, and stopped to buy a print from a gentleman with a temporary stand set up at the corner of Rue Saint-Vincent and Rue Saint-Paul.  We live in Saint Paul, so we thought a picture of this street corner was a perfect souvenir.  We will add it to a little framed collection of art that we have purchased from similar street-corner stands in Czech Republic and Italy on display in our house.  I have learned to buy the souvenir I want right away when I see it. When I put off buying it, I never come across what I want again.  

The City of Montréal holds a parade in honour of Saint Patrick’s Day, the day after Saint Patrick’s Day.  Our city, Saint Paul, Minnesota is a very Irish and Catholic city, so I am used to a pretty big celebration of this day.  Montréal does it big too.  The parade goes on for hours, and is a massive party, to say the least.  We spent a few hours at the parade with my friend, her parents, and her almost three year old who loves marching bands.  We were all satisfied after twenty-or-so marching bands and a few hundred floats went by and so my friend and her parents headed home for nap time and Bjorn and I headed out for lunch.  We ended up at a bistro.

I had a “Caprese” sandwich on a baguette with salad made of a tomato, cucumber and red onion.  The unique twist on the caprese was that it contained brie instead of fresh mozzarella.  So very French.  

Bjorn had a roast beef panini and a bowl of chicken noodle soup.  No, it doesn’t look terribly exciting, but it was a totally solid, satisfying lunch.

When we are travelling and have no idea where we are going and we end up with a lunch of baguettes and paninis with brie, we’re doing alright.

Lunch revived us.  We headed toward le Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.  Montréal seems to have art on every street corner for the enjoyment of the public.  Just above is Coeur Jumeax, a sculpture by Jim Dine.  

After taking in the Musée des beaux-arts, we were thirsty, and so we stopped in to a little shop to buy something to drink.  What a place!  I could not believe the variety of all manner of prepared foods, produce, dry goods and wines that lined the shelves in this tiny, urban grocery store.  The coolers and shelves were positively packed with salads, sliced vegetables, plates of fruit, Babybel cheese, marble cheese, greek yogurt, cups of sliced fruit, and cantaloupe sliced in half, and wrapped in saran wrap with plastic spoon all ready to be grabbed and eaten on the go.  The place was packed with people, so I had to move fast which is why the pictures are a bit blurry.

Behind a deli counter, there were colourful bowls containing a marvelous variety of salads: top left, salads de Thon (Tuna), front left, Salade Greque (Greek), and front right, Legumes Grille (Grilled Vegetables).  

Also behind the deli counter, there were bowls of hard-boiled eggs, sausages, Salad D’Orizo Epicée (Spicy Orzo Salad), and baguettes and bagels prepared with dinde et fromage (ham and cheese) and saumon fumé (smoked salmon) all of which were selling like hotcakes to the masses of people recovering from Saint Patrick’s Day parade revelry.  Clearly, this store exists to meet a need in this neighborhood.  It appears that real, ready-to-eat food is a go-to meal of choice for Montréal’s many University students and bankers who are natural regulars in this neighbourhood.  I sometimes daydream about being a proprietor of a general store with a lunch counter.  There may not be enough foot traffic to support a store like this in my neighbourhood, but it is fun to see a city that depends on independent neighbourhood grocery stores.  Montréal feels European.  

Every day in Montréal we managed to find some high place to climb.  One day it was Mont Real, the next was up the shaky elevator shaft in Stade Olympique, or Olympic Stadium, constructed for the 1976 Olympics.  It felt like we stepped into an anachronism visiting Olympic Stadium, which sits seemingly untouched, unused and un-updated since the late ’70s.  

The final high point of the trip elevation-wise was up the steps to visit the impressive Saint Joseph Oratory, or Oratoire-Saint-Joseph du Mont Real and its grounds.  As you can see here, Bjorn was determined to get a head start.  
We thought the insignia on the facade of Oratoire-Saint-Joseph above the entrance also seemed anachronistic being so modern in the context of an immense old building.  Perhaps it was added closer to the building’s completion in 1967, not in 1924 when construction began.  
Another must-try food item on our list was a pastry.  Along with neighbourhood grocery stores, it seems like there is a quaint boulangerie on every block.  We enjoyed some delicious pain au chocolat and almond pastries with a latte at Au Pain Doré, a really nice boulangerie near my friend’s house.  
Also on the Montréal food “To Do” list was bagels.  We grabbed some sesame seed bagels with cream cheese just before we boarded the plane to go home.  We didn’t make it to one of the “must visit” bagel shops, but the bagel we found was still way better than average*.  Our visit to Montréal was so nice.  It was a refreshing little get-away.  We struck the perfect balance of friend-time, and seeing new streets.  I highly recommend a visit in conjunction with a trip to Quebec City as a great two-stop tour of French Canada.
*And that is saying something.  I didn’t even eat mine until lunch time at work the next day.

Tostadas – A Satisfying Meal in 5 Minutes

Pop quiz, hotshot.  You are starving.  Your interest in cooking is nil, but you want something tasty, now.  You, or someone who is depending on you to cook for them, are well on their way to a hunger-induced meltdown.  What do you do? What do you do?  In my imagination, when you are in culinary school there is a day that the teacher singles out a student and poses this question in a maniacal tone reminiscent of the lunatic bus-bomber in the movie Speed.  Like Keanu Reeves in the third-best film in his acting career,* I have a cool head under pressure, and the perfect response that you aren’t expecting:  Tostadas!**

I think every home cook needs to have a few quick, tasty ideas up her sleeve for hunger that’s gone too far.  There are many correct answers, but the key is to have the idea and the ingredients at the ready when there is either a hostage situation and your response will save the city, or for when you and yours just need to eat now. 

There are a few fairly obvious guidelines to succeeding at the preparation of a good meal in 5 minutes.  The first key is simplicity.  Tostadas are extremely simple.

My favorite Tostadas in the world come from Red Pepper in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and they are nothing more than a tostada with melted cheese and hot sauce.  In fact, Tostadas began appearing at our house as an homage to Red Pepper Tostadas, and are frequently eaten on evenings when we’re tuned in to University of North Dakota Hockey on T.V.

We have Tostadas with just cheese and hot sauce as a snack or side dish, but when Tostadas are the meal, I rifle through the pantry and the fridge for a few extra ingredients to round them out.  This is the second key to 5 minute dinner prep:  it must be flexible.

I’ve made tostadas with sliced black olives, canned black beans that have been rinsed, jalapenos or with vegetarian refried beans, which is one of my favorites.  You could use chopped tomatoes, frozen corn, onions, or leftover taco-seasoned beef or chicken.  The assembly simply involves topping a Tostada shell with your Mexican-inspired ingredient of choice, and melting the cheese.  Often, I just zap the tostada in the microwave until the cheese melts.  Occasionally I have used the grill, or placed the tostadas in the oven at 350 degrees.  It only takes a few minutes for the cheese to melt, and the beans to be warmed through. 

An added bonus of using the grill or the oven is it lets the cheese get a bit brown, and the Tostada shell toasty.  If you are truly can’t wait for the oven to heat, by all means, microwave the Tostada.  It will be great.

The third key to 5 minute dinner prep is that it must be something you can make easily for one person, or for a crowd.  If you heat your Tostadas in the oven or on the grill, you can make anywhere from 1 to 10 at a time.  The microwave cooking method would get a little bit tedious if you were making more than 4 Tostadas at a time.  We’ve made cheese Tostadas as a side dish for the meal we prepare and deliver every other week to an Emergency Safe House for homeless youth in our neighborhood.  We wrapped the Tostadas individually on a paper plate, which is the same way they are served at the Red Pepper.

While the Tostadas are heating in the oven or in the microwave, there is just enough time to throw together a quick salad to make Tostadas into a proper meal.  Shredded or torn leaves of lettuce, slices of tomato or olive, jalapenos, onions, and slices of avocado with a squeeze of lime juice, a little sour cream, and of course hot sauce are all perfect for a salad, and are tasty when piled on top of the Tostada.

Now, all that is left is to dig in.  Give me 5 minutes and a few pantry staples and I can take you from a little too hungry to human again.

*In my opinion, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey are the best flicks starring Keanu Reeves in a leading role.  In order to make a fair comparison, I should probably have seen that movie that forever changed effects in movie fight scenes to include slow motion flight through the air with flailing legs…what was it called?  The Matrix?  But, I give myself enough credit to review the key performances in  the height of Keanu Reeves’ acting career because I saw him live as Hamlet in grade 8.  I have now said everything I will ever say about Keanu Reeves on this blog.  I am somewhat in disbelief that I managed to say even this much about him.

**I know you were expecting a slick, action-movie –like response to the question “What do you do? What do you DO?” line of questioning, but I can’t think of any way to make a parallel between Keanu’s response that he’d “shoot the hostage” and solving a garden variety household hunger emergency.  Ok, now I’m really done discussing Keanu Reeves, forvermore.

2 Brunches in Tangletown at Wise Acre Eatery

Two weeks ago, late on Saturday morning we went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see the Sports Show, a collection of sports-related photographs, television and movie clips related to sports in society, both a pastime and a spectacle.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d be into the show, but I’ll go see any kind of art.  It turned out to be fascinating.  Stanley Kubrick, Andy Warhol and Frank Lloyd Wright took sports photographs — who knew?  

After a few hours of art, we thought we deserved lunch.  It was a beautiful sunny day, so we wound around city streets in South Minneapolis with no particular destination in mind.  We drove down Nicollet Avenue, passed on Corner Table and Blackbird and when we reached 35W we turned around.  When we were about to give up on South Minne and head toward more familiar territory, we drove past a shining, silver auto mechanic’s shop with a brightly lit sign that said Wise Acre.  I commented on the name, not knowing for sure that it was even a restaurant, but Bjorn was familiar with it and heard it was good, so we decided to give it a try.  

From the moment we approached the door, I was glad we happened upon Wise Acre.  Wise Acre is located right next door to Tangletown Gardens, a fancy garden center with a yard that is bursting with creatively arranged garden goods, potted twig, branch, leaf and pine arrangements, statuary, flower pots and bird baths.  It just so happens that the two businesses are under the same ownership.  This means that Wise Acre is abundantly decorated with art and unique potted arrangements, both inside and out.  I was completely agog at the creative decor.  The restaurant was packed, so we opted to sit at the bar, which is made of dark lacquered wood.  There were potted arrangements of moss, birch bark, faux succulent plants, twigs and pinecones on the bar and on every table.

Behind the bar, heavy shelves made of dark-stained, weathered wood and thick glass held wine bottles, glasses and wooden framed geometric ephemera collages.  I am gathering ideas for shelves to hold pots and pans in our kitchen, and I was intrigued by this idea, and inspired by the cool collages.  In the main part of the restaurant, hanging high along the walls were fabric bags with all types of leafy plants and moss growing out of them, right up to the ceiling.  Mechanic’s work lights — single light bulbs attached to wooden handles and protected by a wire cage were suspended from the ceiling by long chords of various lengths, to provide lighting throughout the restaurant and above the bar.

I sat gawking at every detail of the decor and the waitress had to come back twice before I remembered that I was there to eat.  Wise Acre observes a farm-to-table philosophy in every sense.  Beef, Pork, Poultry, Eggs and vegetables raised at Tanglewood Farms, a 100 acre farm located in Plato, Minnesota are served at the restaurant.  Their motto, “the shortest distance between the earth, the hand and the mouth” rings true.  On the weekend, only brunch and dinner are served.  I was tempted by the chowder of the week when I spied a bowl containing hearty chunks of carrot and potato, served with bread.  It contained ham, so I opted for the Egg and White Cheddar sandwich on a Brioche Bun and a mixed green salad.  I had already eaten eggs for breakfast, but when brunch is the only option, and it is 2 p.m, an egg sandwich sounded better than pancakes.

My sandwich came with ham, and I asked for it on the side so that Bjorn could eat it.

The sandwich came with a Dijon Mustard spread on the delicious, grilled Brioche bun.  The mustard was punchy, but makes sense on the sandwich, since the sandwich usually contains ham.  It had kick, and I liked it.  The sandwich was very good.  It was great to have the eggs I had for breakfast to contrast with the Wise Acre eggs.  Hands down, the egg on the sandwich was more fresh and of better quality than the eggs we had at home.  We need to start buying better eggs again!  Friends and family with chickens, take note, we’re in the market for fresh eggs!

Bjorn ordered the grass-fed beef burger with bacon and brie which was served with hand cut fries, a small jar containing pickley cole slaw and little glass of apple chutney.  Bjorn said the burger was good.  It sure looks amazing.  I think the little jar used to serve cole slaw is the cutest thing I had ever seen.  I will be using this idea for serving salads at our backyard BBQ’s this summer for sure.  I tasted a french fry and noticed how remarkably un-greasy they were.  The apple chutney was an interesting condiment.  It is not the new ketchup, but it was fun for a change.

This isn’t the first time a photograph from the inside of the woman’s bathroom in a restaurant has appeared on this blog.  I couldn’t resist snapping a shot of these permanent arrangements of faux and real moss, twigs, leaves and pinecones sitting below romantic sentiments stenciled on rough wood.

Nor could I resist documenting the pine cone and faux succulent plants in clay pots and framed seed collages that decorate the ladies’ room.

This is the first time a photo from the Men’s room has appeared on our blog.  After seeing the ladies room, I had to see the men’s.  I managed to convince Bjorn to head into the restroom with the camera on my phone to do some research.  Sure enough, it too contained cool, artistic decor.  We left feeling well fed and inspired, so inspired that we decided to bring my parents to try Wise Acre the very next weekend when they were in town for a visit and to attend the Minneapolis Home and Garden Show.

Last weekend, after a few hours at the home show, we again headed south on Nicollet toward Wise Acre.  I had the Cheddar and Fried Egg Sandwich on Brioche Bun with Dijon again!  I am a person who has their “go-to” selection in every restaurant.  Typically, as a vegetarian I am accustomed to having only a few choices on most menus.  It makes it easy to decide.  When I return to a place, I tend to have a certain meal in mind.  I know I should live a little, but this is how I like to eat.  Bjorn and my Mom tried the breakfast special, described as a German breakfast, a Wise Acre Bratwurst wrapped in a blanket of light puff pastry, served with a fried egg, sautéed cabbage and salad of apple, fennel, and hoophouse greens tossed in a Furthermore Knot Stock Black Pepper Ale and Mustard vinaigrette.  It looked great, and they both reported it to be good.My Dad had the beef, bacon and brie burger with fries and slaw.  Still love that little jar for serving the slaw….

Butter, Milk Cream, eggs and house-made condiments are sold at Wise Acre.

After lunch we wandered over to Tangletown Gardens to look around.  It is a great garden store, but most items were out of my price-range.  We picked up a dozen of the delicious Tangletown Gardens eggs with pretty green, blue and brown shells for $3.50.    

There is an abundance of inspiration at both Wise Acre, and Tangletown Gardens, and that comes free!  I like these nifty paper flowers cut out of newsprint.  What a great idea.

I always enjoy a little restaurant swag, and this little box of toothpicks from Wise Acre was a nice touch.  I recommend a trip to Wise Acre and Tangletown Gardens.  The farm-raised vegetables, meat, house-made condiments and baked goods are noticeably fresh, well prepared, and are of quality, local origin.  The cool decor adds so much interest to the overall dining experience at Wise Acre.  We didn’t go back a third week in a row, but we surely will return.

First trip to Pizzeria Lola

If you happen to live in Minnesota, and pay attention at all to local food media, you’ve probably heard mention of Pizzeria Lola.  Every food blogger worth their salt has already been there, snapped photos and gushed about the Sunnyside [here, here and here].  I know, I know–this place has been around for a couple of years.  It’s been said!  It’s been done!  But I consider myself to be a passionate participant in the local food scene so I have to grab a few eager eaters from my circle and harness the energy to drive 20 minutes to check it out, snap a few pictures with my mobile phone, [no flash of course!  I don’t want to ruin the night for others] so that I can add my two cents to the dialogue about this hip, wood fired neighborhood pizza joint.  Without further adieu, our first trip to Pizzeria Lola.

As I alluded above, every blog entry that I have found dives right into gushing about that Sunnyside pizza.  From me, this will come later.  For me, the first trip to Lola started with swag.  I love fun restaurant swag.  I don’t expect it, but when a restaurant sets out a fridge magnet, an interesting business card, a poster or a book of matches for their patrons, I’ll take it and save it to make a collage.  We walked in the door and I helped myself to a business card and a box of wooden matches, which have been useful for lighting candles and a fire in the fireplace, thank you very much.  All of the tables were full, and we were told there would be a wait.  My brother-in-law bought a round of beers and I purchased a couple of trips to the photo booth.  I love photo booth snaps.  I consider a photo booth to be a medium for producing spontaneous and lighthearted art.  We were supposed to leave our contact info on the back to the photo booth passes, and a few pictures on the wall, but there were already an entire wall full of very nice photo booth pictures so we, as a group decided it would be better to keep all of the above photos for ourselves so we could all have some.  Somehow I still have all of them.  Oops.

As usual, the wait wasn’t bad.  I am always optimistic about restaurant wait times, though I do appreciate when a host makes a worst-case-scenario prediction about the anticipated wait time.  It never fails to give me a lift when I wait for 20 instead of 40 minutes.  When we were seated, we started by sharing the Lola Antipasto Platter.  It came on a large bamboo cutting board and contained house made bacon from Hidden Streams Farm, grainy Dijon mustard, a few slices of natural casing pepperoni, La Quercia Prosciutto twisted into rolls, a dish of mixed olives, some kind of olive-loaf-type bologna thing,* a dish of cashews, slices of toasted bread and a few wedges of a creamy cheese. **  This was an ample appetizer for four of us to share, and even though I didn’t eat the meat, I thought the antipasto platter was great.  It was probably my favorite part of the meal, along with the Surly Furious.

I enjoyed the intersection of Korean and Scandinavian touches throughout the restaurant.  I don’t know of any other restaurant that thoroughly references these two cultures in its decor. This is a plate that is perched in the ladies room.  Girls iss funny tings vot?  I agree.  Girls are funny.

We ordered our pizzas, and then the server brought plates for us to eat from.  Mine is pictured just above reads Var så god.  When I was little, after my family finished eating a Sunday roast beef dinner, my Grammie, who moved to Norway to marry my Grandfather taught me to circle the table and curtsy, and clasp hands with the hosts [my parents] and say “Takk for Maten!” which translates to “Thank you for the food!”   Each person would reply Var så god! which translates to “There you go!”  but means “You’re Welcome.”  Pizzeria Lola, you may not be my new favorite pizzeria of all time, but you had my heart at Var så god!

I see on the website that posters by Aesthetic Apparatus are for sale.  I am not sure if Aesthetic Apparatus made these fun I Heart 피차  design that appears on the matchbooks and posters and throughout the restaurant.   I have several band posters by Aesthetic Apparatus in my collection, and I Heart Pizza too.

I am going to be honest and say that I am not going to rave about the pizza I ate at Pizzeria Lola.  That isn’t the pizza’s fault.  I wanted a pizza with mushrooms on it, so that is what I had, a Pizza Margherita, which comes with Italian red sauce, fior di latte, olive oil and fresh basil with the addition of sautéed oyster and cremini mushrooms, which is available on all pizzas for $2.  I get it, foodies.  When I go to a place that uses good ingredients, and creates things artisanally, I should order dishes from the menu as they are envisioned by their creators.  But a plain pizza with no veggies doesn’t do it for me and, tonight I just didn’t feel like a Forager, a mushroom pizza without sauce.  I have a penchant for controlling the things I eat, and I’m pretty much obsessed with mushrooms.   I won’t apologize for customizing my pie.  I know that even though it was not my favorite pizza of all time, it was good.

My cousin and brother-in-law both tried out one of the night’s specials.  Above is Alice’s pizza.  It was described as Russian.  It contained slices of sausage and red and green peppers.  I think Alice liked it, but maybe liked my pizza a little bit more.  She is also a fan of mushrooms.

Brett’s pizza was also a special that evening, and it contained some kind of meatballs that look a lot like crumbled fennel sausage to me.  He has been to Lola before and sampled the Lady Za-Za, a pizza topped with House-made Korean sausage with kimchi, serrano peppers, soy chili glaze, scallions and sesame oil.  This pizza was a little less adventurous than the Za Za, but he reported both to be good.

Pizzeria Lola is known for a great pizza crust.  The creator is a certified pizzaiola, trained at the International School of Pizza in San Francisco.  I liked the crust.  The dough was a little bit sweet and had the charred crunch and slight chewiness I’ve come to know and love in a wood fired pizza.  We have several strong options for pizza cooked over coal or wood fire in the Twin Cities.  I’ve been to Pizza Nea, Blacksheep and Punch Neapolitan Pizza.  Punch in Highland Park is in my neighborhood, I have been there the most.  The meltingly thin Neapolitan wood fired crust, with San Marzano tomatoes and Mozzarella di Bufala with basil and added mushrooms is impossible to oust as my favorite wood fired pie.  For me, Nea just didn’t have enough cheese, and the oddly topped, dry pizza I had at Black Sheep didn’t win my praise either.  For me, Lola comes in second for pizza, but probably tops all 3 for beer selection and has a great atmosphere.

And the moment you’ve all been waiting for… The Sunnyside.   I first experienced a soft egg on a pizza when I was 14, visiting my cousin in Leysin, Switzerland.  There, the egg was fried, sunny side up and placed in the middle of the pizza, which was topped with otherwise typical western pizzas toppings.  Bjorn ordered Lola’s Sunnyside.  Of all of the pizzas at Lola, I think the Sunnyside has received the most media attention and praise.  It is topped with La Quercia Guanciale, pecorino, cream, leeks and soft eggs.  These days, it seems that soft eggs are everywhere served with vegetables, pastas and meat dishes.  The one I think sounds the best is grilled bruschetta with soft eggs and lobster at Bar La Grassa.  The warm, running egg yolk has achieved show stopper status in the food world.  Let’s face it, there is something undeniably rich in the simplicity of a perfectly poached egg.  I appreciate restaurants employing simple creativity, but I’m not dying to have more soft eggs in my life.  What can I say?  I like mozzarella, tomato and mushrooms on my pizza, and soft eggs with salt and pepper on toast.  Even so, I applaud restaurants for challenging our palates and expectations by putting together unique flavors and artisanal ingredients, and so I’m glad we tried it.

We shared our pizzas around the table, and ended up with leftovers which were wrapped for us to carry away in puffed up paper bags.

The check arrived to our table in a vintage tobacco tin.  Another unique and interesting touch!  I give atmosphere and presentation at Pizzeria Lola A +.  And for the pizza, I will go back and try another some day–probably when I am more in the mood for a mushroom pizza without sauce, and definitely to try the Calabrian Chili Roasted Cauliflower which sounds yummy.  I bid Pizzeria Lola belated welcome to the Twin Cities.  When you are feeling up for wood fired pizza with a great crust and toppings that are just a little bit off the beaten track, I encourage you to try it.

*I am sorry, I cannot identify that meat.  The server described the antipasto platter rather quickly, and I missed that part of the description.

**I also cannot identify the cheese.  It was mild in flavor, creamy and soft.  I think it may have been a toscano fresco, a delicious sheep’s milk cheese from Tuscany.