Our Way to Eat at Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Pot Du Creme at Alma

(612) 379-4909 528 University Ave SE Minneapolis, MN 55414 www.restaurantalma.com

There wasn’t a lot of forethought before our 9 p.m. decision to go to Restaurant Alma for dinner the other night.  We’ve never been there, and it was on the list of places to try.  A quick call while en route from Saint Paul confirmed that there was no wait for a table for two.  This was not surprising at 9 p.m. on the first bone-shocking -12 degree night of the winter.  Restaurant Alma deserves anticipation, but this is how dining out decisions tend to go for us:  it had gotten late, we were hungry, interested in the place and there was a table available, so why not?

Alma is a nicer restaurant, but I found it immediately comfortable because of its unpretentious atmosphere.  Not being “on the list” was not a problem, and our server was down-to-earth, friendly and attentive.  We came in from the blustery cold night into the warm, open room and were immediately seated. Our server greeted us, and we told her that we had not been there before.  She gave us a helpful overview of the restaurant’s approach.  The menu changes seasonally and ingredients are locally sourced to the extent possible.  The restaurant offers a three course tasting menu, with both meat and vegetarian options.  Alma embraces the tasting menu concept because it allows the small kitchen to operate efficiently, and lets you try a number of dishes and dine at a relaxing pace.   Eating three courses sounds like feast, but the portions are sized correctly to allow you to enjoy the variety without feeling over-fed.

Celery Root Flan at Alma

Even though the restaurant was nearly full, service hummed along at a calm, pleasant pace.  At the server’s recommendation, we both started with the Celery Root Flan – warm julienned celery root salad topped with caviar, served side-by-side with a silver dollar-sized truffle-oil brushed toasted brioche with a small, round flan. The flan and celery root salad were pleasantly bitter as would be expected with celery root, the garnish –itty-bitty chopped chives subtly balanced it.  The challenge of this course was getting the celery root and caviar part of the dish into your mouth, I had some success when I piled the salad on top of the tiny piece of toast.  The flavor and texture combination of smooth flan, salty bursts caviar and crunchy toast was unexpected and tasty.Poblano and Salsify Soup at Alma ourwaytoeat.com

For the second course, I ordered the Salsify & Poblano Cream Soup.  The ingredients arrived in the bottom of my bowl – poblano, salsify and some nutty sautéed mushrooms.  Mushrooms replace the chorizo in the meat-eaters version of the soup which is also on the menu.  Salsify is a root vegetable that looks like a pale, dirty carrot.  When cooked, it has the texture of a carrot as well.  I found it innocuous– its lack of popularity is probably due to the fact that it has little detectable flavor.  The server poured the light, creamy soup base over the vegetables from a small pitcher.  Again, there were minuscule chives which provided a faint, but pleasant oniony-ness, that along with the flavorful mushrooms and poblano, balanced out the creamy base of the luxurious soup.  When the server came to check on us, I told her the soup was “lovely” a word which I used to excess by the end of the meal.  Carolina Grits at Alma ourwaytoeat.comFor Bjorn’s second course, he ordered Carolina Grits served with pork broth, shrimp, shiitake mushrooms and garnished with scallions and fresh grated horseradish.  He loved this dish. Taking the southern classic of shrimp and grits infusing Asian elements of pork broth and shiitake made the dish interesting and new.  The horseradish provided heat that was noticeable without being overpowering.  Bjorn described the dish as “excellent, a mouthful of flavors.”

Duck Two Ways at Alma ourwaytoeat.com

For Bjorn’s main course he ordered the duck which came two ways:  confit and pan roasted.  The duck was served with roasted parsnips, oyster mushrooms and “cumin mojo.”  He reports that it was awesome.  To the untrained, vegetarian eye, the duck looked tender and perfectly cooked.  Squash Migas at Alma ourwaytoeat.comIn a rare moment of boldness I broke with my habit to order the pasta as my main course, and instead tried the Squash “Migas”.  I should do that more often.  The Migas were a heap of bread and tortilla crumbs with small pieces of squash made into a hash piled atopt charred chili puree and garnished with fresh cheese, and topped with a soft poached egg.  I enjoyed the dish– it was spicy, flavorful breakfast food.  I found the chili puree to be a bit on the salty side, but I have a salt-sensitive palate, so it may have been fine for others.  The fresh cheese was mild, with a flavor and texture similar to queso fresco.  I loved the poached egg- it tasted amazingly fresh.  I wish I could find where they buy these wonderful eggs and learn to poach them perfectly– keeping the white tender and intact and finishing the yolk to creamy-perfect doneness as it was on my Migas.

Pot Du Creme and Tea at Alma

Throughout the meal, neighbouring tables ordered desserts that looked intriguing, but I usually don’t have dessert unless it is going to be extremely special, so I ordered a small pot of chamomile mint tea.  Bjorn ordered port and a desert, a Honey Chocolate Pot du Creme with honeycomb candy, grated chocolate, chocolate angel food cake and honey sabayon.  Fortunately, he was willing to share.  The dessert was phenomenal and probably my favorite part of the meal.  All of the textures and flavors were luxurious, but not overly rich, and mildly sweet.  Following a bite of creamy chocolatey honey goodness with a sip of port, the nutty, vanilla flavor of the port came alive and left us warm and sleepy.  A perfect ending to a LOVELY meal.

I would recommend Restaurant Alma, and will certainly go back.  It it a perfect place for an intimate, relaxing meal for a small group, especially a mixed group of vegetarian-omnivore eaters.  I loved the fact that the vegetarian menu followed the regular menu closely.  Thoughtful substitutions of mushroom for chorizo in the soup, and squash for lamb in the Migas meant that I could sample the most interesting dishes on the menu.  Some nice restaurants make the vegetarian menu feel like a special cause, and many others don’t have vegetarian offerings at all.  I like having intentionally meat-free dishes to choose from, but at the same time I’d rather eat close to what everyone else gets to eat.  The classic elements of the dishes we sampled at Restaurant Alma were adeptly executed, and the dishes as a whole were infused with thoughtful and imaginative international flavor elements, making for a special and memorable dining experience, late on a cold winter’s night.


Christmas Decorating Ideas at Arhaus in the Galleria

You would have a hard time convincing me to spend my free time wandering through stores most of the year, but at Christmas time, I find it becomes a little more fun.  I enjoy spending some time in decorated spaces, listening to recordings of Christmas carols, and in the midst of crowds of shoppers out to pick out the perfect presents for everyone on their list.  I do most of my actual Christmas shopping online, because it is just so much easier and more enjoyable to actually –shop- in the calm environment of my home, sitting by our Christmas tree.  Decking the halls is an important part of most people’s Christmas traditions so I wanted to share a peek at a recent excursion I made to Arhaus, a furniture and home design store that is a new arrival to the Galleria in Edina, Minnesota.   Cloche and Finials I recently discovered that Arhaus which has other locations around the country is full of inspiration for home decorating ideas, for the holidays, or any time of year.

Interesting Plate Bust Oval Frame Arrangement

There are vignettes throughout store, such as this interesting juxtaposition– a Greek or Roman bust, an ornate frame, a vase of dried greenery and flower-shaped plates mounted on a faux-painted wall.  Not everyone would want to recreate this display in their home, but it certainly gives ideas that grouping seemingly random items together can be an interesting way to display statement pieces along with items that might be hiding in the cupboard.

Moss, Silver Pinecones and Golden Pear Centerpeice at Arhaus

An ornament-adorned chandelier above the dining table topped with moss-lined bowls filled with silver pinecones and golden pears makes a stunning holiday tablescape and is an accessible idea that anyone could recreate at home.

Rooted Twigs in a Bottle

Employees are quick to explain that Arhaus employs shoppers throughout the world who acquire their one-of-a-kind, reclaimed items that are sold alongside their new, custom furniture and decor.  A piece of time-worn ornate Victorian trim makes an eye-catching shelf below a barnboard-framed mirror.  I love the simple bottle of rooted twigs sitting on the shelf.  I have a bottle just like this, and I have twigs, but encouraging twigs to root in a bottle is a fascinating decorative touch that had not occurred to me.

Seasonal Planters Outside the Galleria in Edina

Speaking of twigs, the planters outside the Galleria were done up with seasonal greenery, dried hydrangea, birch, huge pinecones and red twigs and are surprisingly similar to the planters outside my front door.  The only difference from my display is that my spruce branches, birch logs, dried stonecrop and red twigs were all scavenged from nature and saved when necessary garden and tree-pruning took place earlier in the fall.

Upside down Christmas Tree

The first time I saw a Christmas tree hanging upside-down from the ceiling, it bugged me, because–that is just not how Christmas trees are done–.  This manner of displaying a tree has grown on me.  This upside down ornament-adorned tree was grand and really lit up the room with Christmas splendor.

Watering Can Decor

Another unexpected display were these aluminum watering cans hanging from the ceiling in an irreverent display above a bed.  This isn’t going to work in everyone’s bedroom, but it could perhaps work in a sun porch or a mudroom, or outdoors outside of potting shed?Winter Scene in a Green HurricaneEveryone and their brother are making little winter scenes with tiny trees and animals nestled knee-deep in “snow,” which is sugar or fine sand in the bottom of vases, and in lids of upside down jars this year.  I think it is cute, cozy, homespun, vintage Christmas touch.  I won’t deny that I picked up a few, very reasonably priced little trees at Menards to make a winter display myself.  Aren’t we all trying to channel Christmas at Grandma’s house, into our homes around the holidays?  This tray topped with a green hurricane vase with a winter scene, pinecones, a glass bird and a grouping of other sparkling ornaments is another accessible Christmas design-idea that a trip through Arhaus afforded me.  Arhaus is a fun place to visit for fascinating home-design ideas for decorating at Christmas and throughout the year, and is worth the trip whether you want to shop or just browse.  What are your favorite sources of inspiration for home decor ideas?


Dining at the counter at Bar La Grassa –Hip-n-Homey

We’ve been to Bar La Grassa a handful of times.  It is one of my favorite places to go out to share a special meal.  Why?  I am universally pleased by fresh pasta and that, combined with Bar La Grassa’s bustling atmosphere makes for an enjoyable dining experience.

When it is just the two of us, we usually choose to sit side-by-side at the long counter that separates the kitchen’s front line from the central dining room.  An open-kitchen in a nice restaurant is no longer uncommon, but spending the meal perched directly at eye-level with the kitchen staff in the midst of busy preparation makes for a fascinating, voyeuristic experience for a diner who is interested in the process behind the product.

To me, the front-row vantage point is a marvel.  There is constant, well-choreographed motion.  Each person moves though the rhythms of their kitchen duties with the calm agility that comes from practice and repetition.

This kitchen’s output is impressively efficient and quite tasty.  Bjorn has occasionally ventured into somewhat adventurous territory, ordering the braised rabbit and sweetbreads that make their way on to the menu.  Tonight, we decided to share a few small plates, so he stuck to the meat-free options.

Everyone and their brother crows from the rooftops over the Lobster and Soft Egg Bruschetta at Bar La Grassa.  I have no doubt that its is amazing.  I’ve found that the other somewhat uniquely topped bruschettas are also fun to try.  We sampled the Gorgonzola Picante Bruschetta with Peperonata.  The thick slices of bread, grilled before our very eyes are rustic and ample, and the slight char is lovely.  For once, a bruschetta that has enough bread to hold its toppings!  It’s the little things in life, isn’t’ it?

We decided to share two small pastas, the first, from the “fresh pasta” column on the menu, Silk Handkerchiefs with Basil Pesto.  I thought this pasta was tasty, but to be honest, we both agreed my homemade Mandilli de Saea al Pesto is far better!  This dish is at its best when a silky, almost transparently thin fold of pasta is just cooked, then gently coated with a melting, creamy pesto that covers each fold in a thin, uniform, glistening green.  Rolling delicate mandilli and grinding pesto to the texture of cream is a bit of a persnickety process.  It is not conducive to speed or mass production.  Bar La Grassa’s noodles were thin, but a little too soft, and the pesto tended to the chunky and too-oily side.  It is somewhat a matter of execution, but more a matter of taste and preference, and of course, the effort that goes into making it at home makes it better.  I am not the only one who thinks they can pull of this dish just as well meal at home…

Our second pasta selection, from the “filled pastas” category on the menu was the Mushroom and Tallegio Agnolotti.  We both liked this dish though by the end, I thought the mushrooms were over-salted.  The wrapped-candy-shaped Agnolotti were tender and filled with a perfectly lovely Tallegio.  This was Bjorn’s favorite dish of the meal.

One of the feats Bar La Grassa has somehow managed to accomplish is to be at once swanky and unpretentious.  To me, this is the perfect combination of characteristics for a restaurant in the Minnie Apple, the hip-n-homey heart of the Midwest.  The the restaurant has the typical “see and be seen” vibe of an upscale restaurant yet the hosts are welcoming and always find us a place even when the median fashion sense of the restaurant’s clientele eclipses ours.  I have, in fact, seen and said a quick “hello” to Minneapolis food personality, Andrew Zimmern during a previous visit with Bjorn and my mother.  In contrast to the overall swankiness, I’ve dined next to a couple decked out in Minnesota Golden Gopher gear from head to toe.  The highfalutin to homespun contrast also comes through in the restaurants serving ware.  If you are looking at your plate, you might think you are dining in the humble kitchen of an Italian Grandmother rather than the spacious dining room of Isaac Becker, a James Beard Award-winning chef.  All the food comes out on heavy, standard-issue restaurantware plates with all varieties of patterns. There is also the pleasant contrast between the kitchen’s credentials to price.  The head chef and the restaurant have received plenty of accolades, however, it is possible to have an appetizer, a few small plates and a few glasses of wine or beer and dessert, and still spend under one hundred bucks.  And to leave totally satisfied.

We don’t often order dessert, but because of sharing small plates, we still had room.  We selected the luscious, Dark Chocolate Pot de Crème with a Hazelnut Nougatine which was a magnificent finish to our meal.  I love the fact that it was served in a little canning jar.  I stole this idea from Wise Acre Eatery and used it all summer to serve individual portions of salad and condiments.  I loved the Pot de Crème.  What a treat.

We have found that Bar La Grassa consistently offers a solid Italian dining experience.  Bar La Grassa’s execution and noble parentage thoughtfully contrasts with its “room at the counter” welcome and good value.  Given the opportunity to gawk into a high-end kitchen while dining from a menu curated by a James Beard award-winning chef, will we go back?  You betcha.

*For the record, I used my phone without flash to capture these quick shots, so they are a little lower in quality, but I’m not going to be that person who totally irritates her dinner date and other guest by noticeably photographing her meal.  But really, who isn’t documenting absolutely everything these days?  If Adam Roberts from Amateur Gourmet does it, why can’t I?

Barrio in Saint Paul and Minneapolis

We’ve been to the Saint Paul location of Barrio, next to the Bulldog on Mears Park and the Nicollet Avenue location of Barrio a handful of times in the past few years since they opened.  There has been a long lull since our last visit, and we made up for it recently by making it to both locations in one week.  

We had a heavy snack / sort-of supper at the Saint Paul Barrio location the other night after attending the 25th Anniversary Party at Summit Brewery.

This meal reminded me that I love the corn chowder with roasted poblano peppers and queso fresco at Barrio, and I sure do wish that one single quesadilla, taco or enchilada on their menu was made without meat.  With the first trip to Barrio in a long time taking place over the dinner hour behind me, I realized that the winning reason for a vegetarian to visit Barrio is for a snack and a drink.  Thankfully, I had the opportunity to do just that at the Nicollet Mall location a few days later.

Bjorn and I planned to meet at the downtown Minneapolis Barrio location after work the other night to enjoy a summer’s end, last hurrah patio happy hour.  I arrived before him and ordered a Caesar Chavez, Barrio’s “Champion Margarita” made with Traditional Reposado tequila and served in a heavy tumbler on the rocks with ice and a big wedge of orange and lime–very refreshing.

During both September 2012 Barrio visits, we’ve delved into Queso Fundido.  It is a gooey-melty cheesy extravagance served hot in an oven-proof dish along with a basket of warm tortillas.  Fortunately, the rich Fundido is not served in an over-abundant portion if you share it among a few people.  The tortillas are soft, fresh and arrive warm with zig-zag char marks, having kissed the grill before being tucked into a woven basket and hurried to the table.

We are used to the ubiquitous “Chips and Salsa” served for free or cheap at Mexican restaurants.  Chips and Salsa are great for staving off hunger but can be accidentally filling and fairly ho-hum if the salsa lacks character or the chips aren’t fresh.  At Barrio, the chips are house made and are a little on the too-salty side–chug your water, not your cocktail…  Their redemption is that they are served with an assortment of 3 house-made salsas, ranging from hot to moderately hot, and a salsa verde which proved to be interesting, plenty kicky and fun to eat.

In both the Saint Paul and Minneapolis Barrio locations, the atmosphere is something to behold:  Mexican wrestling masks, a towering wall of tequila bottles, glittery graffiti-style paintings adorning the walls, candelabras drenched in dripping candle wax and a shining welded-metal toro presiding over it all…Barrio means neighbourhood, this ‘hood is relaxed and lighthearted, yet hip, with a funky edge.  

And, it sure is a great place for a snack.