Monday, January 26, 2015

The Curious Case of the Grandview Grill

In 1996, when I became a Minnesotan, The Grandview Grill was one of my regular haunts. The breakfasts were basic, hot, and comforting. There was no aggressive trendiness. Nothing was too shiny or too stylish. It was a welcoming, semi-divey breakfast joint, and I loved it.

Then, as so often happens, someone got the idea to take something that was in no way broken and "fix" it. Now the Grandview is shiny and pretty. But it's not warm. Or particularly welcoming. And the food that I once loved feels very much like an afterthought. Call me old fashioned, but I still think a good meal is step one in the art of running a successful restaurant. I will put up with a great deal if my eyes are closed and I'm trying not to make yummy noises out loud.

On the face of it, The Grandview should have everything going for it. The location, at Grand and Fairview, is a dream. They have a whole corner of Saint Paul virtually to themselves. The menu is varied and more interesting than most. Parking isn't even too big a problem. There's no reason you should ever be able to get a quick seat. But you can. Without fail. On the weekend. Nice if you're in a hurry. Less nice if you're waiting to be wowed.

I returned to The Grandview for breakfast recently, after giving them several years to straighten everything out. I had a concert to catch over where Summit falls into the river, and it seemed like the perfect spot to grab a bite with a friend.

The first thing you notice is the feel of the place. Okay, it's the first thing I notice. You may of course sort out your own priorities. They've gone for a Shiny Diner sort of look, but the space is too big, and too open, and it misses any sort of coziness. The booths are okay, but there aren't many, and the small tables that fill the rest of the room lend it all the ambience of your junior high dining hall. One peculiar thing was a pervading aroma of chicken gravy. "Okay," I thought. "Must be the lunch crew gearing up for the day's specials." This did not turn out to be the case. More on that in a bit.

The menu promises good things. All of the usual suspects are represented. There is an extensive omelet menu. The combos and house specialties guarantee that, whatever your breakfast favorites, you'll find something here to take care of the craving. The centerpiece is a collection of specialty "Benedicts," from the traditional version to the Spicy Cajun with Andouille sausage. If all of this worked as well as it was described, I would never go anywhere else. Not for breakfast, anyway.

But this is where we get to the head-scratching part. Because, for whatever reason, The Grandview seems to have forgotten the importance of making good food. My pal, Miss Brittany, went for the Florentine Benedict. I ordered the biscuits and gravy, because when there are biscuits and gravy on the menu, I have no free will.

The spinach on the Florentine was rubbery and flavorless. The "crispy hashbrowns," in a word, weren't. They were brown on the outside, weirdly mealy and undercooked on the inside. Crispy nowhere. The sausage gravy was on the see-through side, like a cornstarch gravy more than a flour gravy. That's a choice, I suppose, but it was a disconcerting one. The flavor was okay, and the biscuits were good and fresh.

The unintentional irony of the whole meal was that the Benedicts were listed in their own section under the heading, "The Art of Hollandaise." Sounds great. Sign me up. If the Hollandaise is good, you don't have to feed me much else. Only it wasn't good. In fact, it wasn't Hollandaise. Not in anyone's book. Remember that chicken gravy smell I mentioned earlier? Yep. That turned out to be the sauce. Now I'm no chef, but if your Hollandaise comes out looking, smelling, and tasting like chicken gravy...Houston, we have a problem.

The Grandview wants you to believe that they are among the new breed of ingredient-driven, made-to-order restaurants that are everywhere in the Cities these days. Quotes like, "Every entree has been delicately crafted by our kitchens," show up on the website. (Speaking of that website- whoever thought the auto-loading mp3 was a good plan should be pilloried. Seriously. "How Fast Can I Find The Pause Button?" is not a game I enjoy playing when I'm trying to learn more about a restaurant.) Another favorite: "Our hot, organic, fair-trade coffee is picked, roasted, and flown in directly from Brazil." Is it, now?

This is the problem with the whole Heartfelt, Soft-focus, Sensitive Ingredient movement. You can start with whatever you want. It doesn't make you any less likely to screw it up. That poor jet-lagged Brazilian coffee? It's awful. Like church basement bad. And not cheap. Coffee is 95% technique. With my own equipment and a can of Folgers I could make you a better cup. So, congrats on responsibly sourcing your beans. But so what? That's not enough if you don't know how to brew coffee.

Diners don't hold grudges. Our memories don't extend beyond the last thing we tried. If you treat us well, and feed us like we matter, we will come back. And we'll tell our friends. The Grandview needs to make maybe half the things, and make those things beautifully. Okay, and maybe have someone Google Hollandaise. There is no reason they shouldn't rule the world, at least their little corner of it. I'm going to go on liking the idea of The Grandview. Because I'm an optimist, and I remember what it used to be. But until they work out this whole cooking business, I will meet you somewhere else for breakfast.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Colossal Café

My relationship to restaurants in general has been evolving for years. I suppose this is because I'm more of a grownup than I used to be. Mostly, though, I attribute the change to my devotion to bettering my own cooking. Certainly this is understandable. Your reaction to, say, a creme brulee, when you don't know how on earth it's done, is something akin to religious revelation. When you know exactly how it's done, and maybe do it just as well yourself, it's still delicious of course, but your descriptive adjectives are probably going to start shedding syllables.

Miss J and I spent last night with the crew at The Colossal Cafe in Saint Anthony Park. I have been traveling most of the last month, and a quiet night with my honey was the best late birthday present (for both of us) I could have asked for. J had been to Colossal for breakfast. It was brand new for me. And to be fair, dinner is fairly new for them. There are already plenty of reasons to love this neighborhood, and the chance to combine a trip to the Bibelot with a nice casual dinner proved an irresistible draw.

The new Colossal is a smallish, cozy space. It reminds me a lot of the old Blackbird. Lighting is dim but workable, tables might be a little close together, but not annoyingly so. The best spot in the house is the bar, which is wide and uncluttered and gives you a nice chance to chat with the staff. This is a good idea, since everyone we met was very friendly and welcoming. I have nothing but praise for a restaurant that understands the importance of just being nice to people.

Being on the road with a bunch of musicians involves a lot of food in, um, well, let's just say the Golden Brown family. When dinner after the show means something between 9:30 and 10:00, you're almost certain to end up at the bar, eating whatever deadly appetizers are available. So I, even I, ordered a salad. Gem lettuce, pecans, bacon, heirloom tomatoes and blue cheese vinaigrette. The red onion in the vinaigrette was a little heavy-handed, but admittedly I hate hate hate onions in this context, so that could just be me. The whole would have benefited from being a warm dish, but it was still quite good, and I ate all but the stumps of the lettuce. Here's what it looked like.

Next up was a trio of seared sea scallops from the small plate menu. These were smallish, but beautifully done. The presentation was surprisingly busy. Cauliflower puree, chopped almond, citrus vinaigrette, crispy pancetta, and a small side of roasted oyster mushrooms were all jockeying for space on what was indeed a small plate. The results were hit-and-miss, which ironically was a fair metaphor for the rest of the evening. The mushrooms were perfect, the vinaigrette very good, and almonds are always welcome. But the pancetta was on the tasteless side, and the cauliflower puree was really just pureed cauliflower. I'm not sure why you would go to the trouble of pureeing it if you weren't planning on adding any other flavor. I suppose the fresh stuff would be harder to balance a scallop on.

Miss J surprised me and ordered the ribs for dinner. These were served up with collard greens and maple roasted diced yams. I went for the gnocchi, in a basic tomato basil sauce with shaved parmigiano. I skipped the option for house-made Italian sausage, since I had been overloaded with meat during most of those aforementioned bar visits.

A couple of years ago I bought a charcoal smoker, and since then I have formed several rather strong opinions about ribs. As a cut of meat, ribs just aren't worth much unless they're prepared properly, at which point they become intoxicatingly good. This involves relatively low temperatures for a long time.  The ribs at Colossal had a too-strong smoke flavor, but didn't fall apart the way they should have, and dried out fairly quickly after their arrival. I suspect they were rushed, and probably at too high a temperature. The meat wasn't bad. Once everything was sorted out, the good bits, though over-smoked, were still delicious. But ribs you have to work at are problematic right out of the gate. On the bright side, both accompaniments were excellent. More dishes should include yams.

Gnocchi I generally order because I'm a glutton for punishment. To be frank, they are almost never done well. There are lots of wonderful preparations out there. The trouble is, they are rarely paired with gnocchi that are worth the trouble. What you should get are flavorful, light, fluffy dumplings. What you normally do get are chewy, heavy, over-floured, tasteless lumps of congealed disappointment. But they are so darned good when they are right that I keep trying, in the hope that one day I will have the experience I'm having in my head.

All that said, Colossal nailed the gnocchi. Seriously. They were perfect. What surprised me was the sauce. There just isn't anything tricky about a tomato basil sauce. And parmigiano? Always the right call. The sauce here was okay, and could have been great, but the whole dish was so over-salted that most of the other flavors got their savory little butts kicked.

J had a little bubbly up front and a beer with dinner. I stuck to root beer (another result of the post-tour hangover). The tap list is small but interesting, and combined with a reasonable and thoughtful wine list, should meet your needs quite well.

For dessert, I picked the Tres Leches cake. This was good, but not exceptional. The cream inside was flavored with raspberry, but so subtly that you might have missed it. The cake struck me as a little dense, but I certainly didn't have any trouble eating it.

The value at Colossal is decent. Not cheap, but good for the neighborhood. We had three drinks, one salad, one small plate, two entrées and dessert, and with tip we were out for under $100, with enough left over to put gas in the car. Service was excellent. Nice folks here. And the food that was good was extremely good. The unevenness was puzzling, and I wonder how much of this has to do with getting the hang of dinner service, but they've been at this for three months now. Sooner or later you just have to get it all right at the same time.

It's nice to have a new neighbor like the Colossal Cafe. I'm thinking they'll only get better, and they're getting a lot right now. But with Muffuletta right up the street, the consistency will need to improve, and quickly. Give them a try. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Café 128

Next time you feel like a nice meal on the town, I will forgive you in advance for not thinking immediately of Merriam Park. It's okay, I get it. But there's a lot of good food in this neighborhood if you're willing to explore a little. It is a college town, after all. Trotters is a great little café. Izzy's makes some of the best ice cream in the known world. If you park anywhere near Saint Thomas, you're walking distance to Snuffy's, Davanni's, Scusi, Coffee Bené, Luci, and The Groveland Tap (quick sigh for the fries that used to be good). And if you're not hungry, you can spend the day at The Wine Thief and The Ale Jail. You could pick a lot of other neighborhoods and not find as much to do. Certainly not as much to eat.

Another local surprise, just across Cleveland Ave. from Saint Thomas, is Café 128. The sign is smallish, the building residential, and if you're not paying attention, you'll drive right by. This is the first peculiar thing about 128. From the outside, it looks very much like the basement of an apartment building. Once you get inside, you quickly realize that this is because you're in the basement of an apartment building. How a restaurant ended up down there is truly a head-scratcher. But there it sits, and it's really very cozy on the inside. My favorite feature might be the miniature, four-stool, candle-lit bar. The dining area consists of two small rooms, a tiny one in the front and a more regular rectangle in the back. Lighting is dim, but reasonable. And it's blessedly quiet. Even when things are hopping, you can have a conversation here. That seems to be an underrated feature these days, and I wish that weren't the case.

The menu is small, but nicely varied. There is a thoughtful selection of starters and salads, and another interesting group (seven, on our visit) of entrées. You never have to turn a page, but these offerings cover some ground. I don't know what your dating life might be like, but having baby back ribs and grilled vegetables with saffron couscous on the same menu strikes me as a brilliant idea. I could happily invite anyone I know to eat here.

Our evening started with a beautiful dry rosé. This is the perfect answer to a hot day. For starters, we opted to share the grilled tiger shrimp with sautéed corn and harissa. Miss J went for the pork tenderloin & grilled peaches, and I ordered the beef tenderloin, because if there is beef tenderloin on the menu, I will almost always order it. I mean, come on.

The first surprise was delivered with our appetizer. I had read an earlier review of 128 that praised the selection of "generously portioned appetizers." Apparently they have gotten over this. On a colorful bed of corn and harissa, we encountered two, count 'em, two tiger shrimp. Now I don't mind if my $7 appetizer comes with two shrimp, but those two shrimp had better be roughly the size of the back of my hand. These little guys were, well, little. Like slightly larger than half dollars. Silver dollar-sized would probably be a stretch. And they were plain. Utterly plain. Cooked and all, but that's it. There was nothing done to them that couldn't just as quickly and easily have been done to a couple more. The corn and harissa was marvelous, for the record, but it's a good thing, because we needed the food. To add insult to injury, there is a dollar split charge for the appetizers. That, I think, is just plain unreasonable.

The entrées were both done very well. The pork wasn't overcooked, the peaches were a fine idea, and the other accompaniments were flavorful and interesting. The beef was less successful for a couple of reasons, but still perfectly enjoyable. The sides (roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus) were basic, but good, and the garlic herb butter was a nice touch. Here again, though, the Value Beast reared its head. This was a $30 entrée, which is not, based on steakhouse prices, all that unusual. But in that steakhouse, once you had been talked into ordering medium-rare, you would receive a medium-rare steak. Mine was medium. Tasty, but medium. And maybe six ounces, if you weren't paying very careful attention and left a bunch of extra butter on top. So yes, it was a good steak. But if I had another $30 dollars, and you sent me out to get a steak somewhere, would I go here to do it? Nope.

I'm more than a little conflicted here, because Café 128 is exactly the sort of place I love. It's small, it's neighborhood, it's friendly, and they can certainly cook. But the thing about me, and, I expect, most of the people who might value my opinion, is that we're pretty normal folks, with pretty normal jobs. And if we're going to drop a bunch of money on dinner, we want to leave a joint knowing that we got every penny out of our meal. We had a great date, because I was out for the evening with my beloved. We enjoyed some great wine and good food in a quirky and inviting setting. We even got to meet (and discuss shoes) with some very nice people. But in my mind, an evening that's going to cost you over a hundred bucks is a contract. That restaurant is saying to you, "Hey, look. We know it's steep. But just wait. You're going to love it." We were even predisposed to love it. But in the end we were a little puzzled, that's all. And someone owes me a couple of shrimps.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Porterhouse Steak and Seafood

I've been on the road with the band a lot lately, and I've learned some interesting things. Shock Top Pumpkin Ale is really good. The Blue Moon pumpkin offering isn't. No good reason for a beer to taste like Circus Peanuts. Come to think, there's no good reason for Circus Peanuts to begin with, but there they still are. I've also learned that, even if you keep weird hours, you can find some wonderful food in very surprising places. If you're in Crookston, hit The Shanty for a burger and a beer, or catch El Metate for fresh Mexican, and some truly wonderful salsa. Do not go to Bemidji if you don't have time to relax at Tutto Bene. And next time you find yourself in Brainerd, don't miss Prairie Bay Grill & Catering. Some wonderful, imaginative cooking going on here.

But no matter how well you're treated, and how well you eat when you're on the road, mostly what you learn is that nothing really beats coming home. After five days, I couldn't wait to see my honey. Date night was definitely in order. Never one to pass up your basic hunk-o-meat, we headed over to Porterhouse in Little Canada.

Steak houses are a puzzling subset of the restaurant world. In terms of class warfare, the traditional, dimly lit chop house is the mess hall for the one percent. There are good reasons for this, I suppose. Mostly, good aged beef is expensive. Professional servers deserve to make a decent wage. Commercial rents are atrocious. And if your meal is going to take two hours or more, the management will seat fewer tables in an evening. None of these things tells the whole story, but it is an inescapable truth that, in the world of restaurants, to some extent, you do get what you pay for. With steak houses (and, oddly, stereo equipment), you're also paying by the pound.

Porterhouse, brought to you by the Chianti Grill folks, does a lot of things right. The room is beautiful. Smaller than you'd expect, and nearly half of it is taken up by the bar. They recommend reservations, and they're not kidding. This place fills up. We stopped by on a lark and managed to get a table, but we were fortunate. The lighting is dim without being ridiculous, the stone is cozy, it's not too loud (a rare blessing nowadays), and the little two-person booths are adorable. The staff was plenty accommodating. Not always polished, but friendly, and like I said, they did find us a place to sit.

The menu is another victory. We are living in the age of "more is more," and it's surprising how often this carries over into the world of fine dining. Porterhouse doesn't play that way. The menu is small. It doesn't feel limited, but it's intuitive, and easy to navigate. Even on a first visit, it only takes a moment to check the options and assemble a meal for yourself.

Beginning at the beginning, we shared a shrimp cocktail and a split of Prosecco. Simple but fresh, reasonable, and enough to whet the appetite. Next came the salads. The spinach salad at Porterhouse is basically porn. I'm not a salad guy as a rule, but the combination of baby spinach, chopped egg, bacon, and warm bacon dressing just about did me in. I think it came with onions, which would, of course, have ruined everything. But as we ordered it, well...I would happily have eaten another one for dessert. For dinner, we both started with a 9-ounce Filet Mignon. I paired mine with a small lobster tail. Miss J, true to form, went for the scallops. The lobster tail was well-cooked and not messed with, just as it should have been. The scallops were also very nice, and generous, but the presentation was puzzling, and a little busy. Half a dozen sea scallops surrounded a small pile of almonds, field greens and blue cheese. Then the whole was drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Now, balsamic reduction and blue cheese are both outstanding, but they are strong flavors, and scallops, well, aren't. The accompaniments, in this case, were more of a distraction than a complement.

For veggies, Miss J had the sautéed root vegetables, which were excellent. I had a baked potato with plenty of butter and bacon. Do I need to tell you how that was? It's worth mentioning that both of these vegetable options, as well as the salads, were included in the entrée price. Right decent of them, if you ask me. We chose a very nice Malbec, also reasonably priced, and felt positively pampered.

The only misstep here was dessert. We shared the dark chocolate layer cake, a la mode. Now I obsess over chocolate cake more than most people, and I get that. But at the end of the day, it's not all that hard to make a good one. If the cake is moist, and there's chocolate butter cream all over it, there's not a lot of nuance that's really required. Here, the cake looked beautiful, and the ice cream was great, because it was ice cream, but the cake was a little dry. Not offensive or anything, just not on par with the rest of the meal.

Our server was attentive and friendly. No stuffiness at all. Although, it is a personal peeve of mine when servers mispronounce wines. This is a simple enough training topic and getting it wrong is not charming. It makes you sound like you don't know what you're doing, and this is not, I expect, the impression that anyone wants to make.

And now, back to that steak house discussion. When I say that Porterhouse is an excellent value, I do not mean to imply that it's cheap. This is date night, and then some. With tip, we got out for under two bills, but only just. But think for a minute what was included here. One app, two salads, two combination entrées (with vegetable), dessert, and two different wines. And everything but the dessert (which was no hardship) was fancy-restaurant good. Will you get a better steak at Manny's? Absolutely. But you'll pay fully twice as much for your evening. Seriously, who can do that? Not I, and not most of the people I hang out with.

When some "nice" restaurants seem priced to keep the riffraff out, a place like Porterhouse gives normal people a chance to go out and have a fancy meal, and I think that's a big deal. Next time we can afford date night, we'll be back, and I can't offer you a better endorsement than that.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shuang Cheng

There is so much Chinese food around the Twin Cities these days, it's surprising how seldom you find any that really satisfies. It's comforting, of course, to go almost anywhere and know more or less what you're going to find, and more or less how it's going to taste, but this is the reason that fast food chains survive, and there are all sorts of good reasons not to patronize those. Sometimes we need character, care, and individuality, even in our take-out.

On the recommendation of a soprano friend of mine, Miss J and I visited Shuang Cheng for the first time a number of years ago. It has been a staple of ours ever since. Unfortunately, I am a creature of habit, and once I find a dish I like, it's hard for me to break out of my rut and try something new. So I'm a little embarrassed that I can't really write the review I'd like here, because I can't really vouch for more than a few things on the menu at Shuang Cheng. But it's only because I am deeply in love with those things, and would happily share them with all of you.

On the face of it, this is not a restaurant that would turn your head. With the exception of the new dining room in the back, there's no atmosphere to speak of. None of the decorating has been updated, or even given a second thought, in twenty years or so. But in some cases, this is a good thing. No question of style over substance here. If a place looks like this, and is still busy, you know they're doing good work. And busy they are. Not just with students, either, but actual grown-ups, who are willing to deal with getting to Dinkytown and finding a place to park for the sake of eating here.

The specials board is a wonder. It will take you twenty minutes to read through, and I suspect that they are only limited by the size of the whiteboard. So while you're working your way through, try a couple of things off the appetizer menu. Everything we've tried has been wonderful. The egg rolls are actually not my favorite, but I only mention that so you don't think I've completely lost my head. Really, you can't go wrong.

As an aside, can I ask why we've been able to land on the moon and still can't come up with a teapot that doesn't drip all over you and the table and everything else when you try to pour it? Just curious. Same for coffee carafes. Puzzling.

When it's time to order, one of you can get whatever you like. The other has to have the Orange Beef. I'm serious. Other than Kraft Mac-n-cheese, there are not many things I would happily eat every day. The Orange Beef at Shuang Cheng is one of them. Tender, sweet, spicy, sauced but not smothered... it's just a marvel. In spite of my best efforts, and my earnest intention to branch out every time we go, this is what I end up ordering. And every time, I thank the heavens for my sound judgment, and scratch my head over the momentary instability that led to the possibility of any other choice.

Miss J usually gets some version of Chicken with Pea Pods, and is always pleased. She adds water chestnuts, and really, who can blame her? It's good policy to add them to everything, I think. A little crunch is always a plus. I should add that the good folks at Shuang Cheng are always happy to customize.

The service is efficient and friendly. The prices are more than reasonable. Unless you're me, you'll end up with lunch the next day. And the food...well, the food is just a cut above. You'll be happy you made the effort.

Oh, and if you're in Saint Paul, take the short cut. Go west on Como to 15th, and then go South. You'll get to Dinkytown right where you need to be, and where street parking is still a viable option. No freeway, no University, no stress.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Have you seen "The King's Speech" yet? No question about it, fine film. But one of, to me, the most effective things about it was the use of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony during the big speech scene. It's glorious music. Nothing in the world like it. And if Beethoven is not your thing, then stop reading my blog, because you clearly hate freedom, and I'm not sure we can be friends.

Okay, wait. Before you leave, let me acknowledge what may be your only excuse. In the world of classical music, "not liking" a piece doesn't really mean all that much. Because there are a lot of things that can be wrong, even with a great piece. Maybe the orchestra isn't all that good. Maybe the conductor doesn't like, or doesn't get, the music. Maybe the entire brass section walked out due to cantankerous union negotiations and got replaced with the local high school jazz band. My point is, if you don't like it, it might not be your fault. Might not even be the piece's fault.

Restaurants are like that. Miss J and I had a couple of lousy burgers at The American Burger Bar. Does that mean I don't like burgers? Um, no. I adore them. Makes it even easier to spot a dud. The sad truth is that, most of the time, you don't get a definitive experience in a restaurant. Even the good ones. So if you try a new thing, something exciting that you've never tasted before, and it doesn't work for you, who's to say what the problem is?

At Heartland, you're not going to have this problem. If you order a smoked chicken and blue cheese fritter here, and don't like it, you can sleep well knowing that you will never like a smoked chicken and blue cheese fritter. Why? Because Heartland, as far as I can tell, is not going to do anything wrong. In fact, they're likely to do everything so spectacularly right, that you'll have to catch your breath before you can even finish eating.

If restaurants were a religion (Now there's a subject for another post.), and you had to climb a solitary mountaintop somewhere to meet the One Great Teacher, Lenny Russo is the guy you'd find when you finally got there. Chef Russo is on a mission. Find fresh, wonderful, local stuff, think up interesting ways to use it, and then cook it all to perfection. Apparently that's all much, much harder than it sounds, because I can't think of anyone else locally who's even trying it, much less pulling it off.

What makes it all work for Heartland is its ability to be two different restaurants. You can go crazy and have a more or less traditional dinner, or you can hop around the small plates menu until they have to wheel you out. We took full advantage. Miss J had a three-course prix fixe. First up was trout, pan-seared, simple and tasty. The main course was elk roast. Elk was a new experience, but it was gorgeous, medium rare and wondrously flavorful. The fingerling potatoes made a fine complement. Dessert was a chocolate hazelnut torte, in a pool of creme anglaise and raspberry sauce. Miss J has no opinion about that one, because I ate it. Let me tell you- seriously good stuff.

I, on the other hand, was feeling more adventurous than usual, so I decided to play. We split a beautiful Wisconsin-centered cheese plate to go with our opening prosecco course. Fantastic cheeses, and some really surprising beets. From there I moved on to the small plates. I began with the aforementioned fritters, and it's hard for me to even talk about these. They're served up with a charred tomato aioli and a celery salad. I have one tiny issue with celery. I hate it. Like sunburn, or the Vikings. Hate hate hate. But I tried the salad, and it wasn't bad. I wasn't about to finish it, but it was a nice surprise. The fritters were straight-up food porn. I broke through the perfectly crispy crust to discover a snow-white pocket of melted blue cheese and smoked chicken. They were perfectly suited to the accompaniments, and conversation stopped completely while I meditated on these little gems. My second choice was the pork rillettes. Rillettes are basically deconstructed pork. They're salted and cooked slowly in their own fat, until they are as close to a beverage as meat can ever get. Decadent, flavorful, and unlike anything I've had. They were served up in a series of small bowls, along with curried mushrooms, fennel chutney (excellent idea), and a pile of little toasts. It was a beautiful little self-contained buffet, and I enjoyed every bite. Literally. If I could have come up with a gracious way to lick the bowls, I would have. Miss J finished up with strawberry & white peach sorbet. I went for the coffee, because I was lured by the little individual French presses that kept walking by. Both were unsurprisingly well done.

As a whole, Heartland offered up as perfect a meal as you could hope to encounter. But lest I turn you all off with my unabashed praise, I feel compelled to mention a couple of things. First off, Heartland is not a big-portion sort of place. If you want to leave a restaurant in pain, look up the nearest Cheesecake Factory, and have fun with your leftovers. This is seriously fine food, but quality is the issue here, not quantity. Second, you need to be prepared to spend some money. If you feel like a drink, stop by the bar. A couple of martinis and a small plate or two, and you could actually do Heartland without breaking the bank. The burger, we noticed, was ample and reasonable, and will help your cause here. But if your goal is dinner, it's best if you're not worried about how much you're going to spend, because you're going to spend plenty. Normally this doesn't bother me, at least not when I understand what I'm getting for that money. But here are two observations. A dish of sorbet, unless it's made from saffron and topped with edible gold leaf sprinkles, should not cost anyone ten bucks. Just shouldn't. You could leave Izzy's with two pints for around that much, and I expect I don't need to tell you how good that would be. And my little press pot, as good as it was, was offered without a refill, and basically furnished one eight-ounce cup of coffee. This, in my book, does not constitute a five-dollar experience. No matter how wonderful your restaurant is.

There. Two small gripes. But seriously. If it's date night, and you want to enjoy some beautiful food, you will not soon forget Heartland. Oh, and sit in the bar. You get a whole extra menu, and it's cozier (and quieter) than the dining room.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Miss J was nice enough to fetch me at the airport this evening, and somehow the initial text, which I believe was, "Baby wants a good burger- Nook?" became, "You know what we should try? Scusi." Never one to run from an adventure, I readily agreed. The Nook will be just fine, after all, and it won't take us long to make it back there.

Scusi has been the source of much buzz since it opened up a few months back, mostly because it is brought to you by the good people of The Blue Plate Restaurant Company, caretakers of several of the most consistently satisfying cafés in the cities. Highland Grill has been a favorite of ours for years. I could live on that breakfast burrito. But I digress. Scusi, as the name would imply, offers the Blue Plate take on Italian. Now, I have all sorts of opinions on Italian food, but with the possible exception of head cheese, anything is worth trying once, so off we went.

I had heard that it was impossible to get a table at Scusi. This was not the case. They were quite busy, but not overwhelmed, and we were promptly provided with an out-of-the-way table for two. Well, against the wall, anyway. Nothing can really manage to be out-of-the-way in a big square room. We began with a bottle of Italian red and a "pick three" special from a nice selection of cured meats and cheeses. The tomato jam was a perfect addition here. There's also an olive menu, if you are so inclined. I should also mention that there were three Italian reds available by the bottle for $20 or less, no small feat in this town.

I was about to say that the idea of dining at Scusi is not unrelated to the approach at Buca di Beppo, but that's not really true. You'd be better off thinking of The Sample Room. Once you start ordering hot food, things are set in the middle of the table and you share them. Nothing is enormous, which gives you room to try several different things. If this is a trend, I must say I'm a fan. Everything we ordered was portioned perfectly for two.

Everything was also very, very good. We started with gnocchi in a veal Bolognese sauce. I seldom have good experiences with gnocchi in restaurants, but these were heaven- light and potatoey and a perfect vehicle for rich, meaty goodness. The sauce may have been the one small misstep. A good Bolognese cooks for hours, and the crunch of the carrot and the texture of the meat both suggested this was not the case here. Still, it was darned good. Just not exactly what I expected. Next came the Lasagna, with spinach, ricotta, red and green peppers, eggplant, and a wonderful San Marzano tomato sauce. Last but not least there was the squash risotto, with butternut, gorgonzola dolce, spinach and parmigiano reggiano. I've heard from quite a few friends and authors that risotto is not difficult. I think they're all either lying or on drugs. In my experience, there is about a five minute window between creamy bliss and wallpaper paste. This was exactly right- easily the best I've had. This dish alone would have been enough to get me back in the door.

The other cool thing here, and I was skeptical about this at first, is that the hot dishes all come out as they're ready. This works surprisingly well, and it means that this food is landing on your table when it is better than it will ever be again. With food of this quality, that is a distinction that matters.

Dessert was a pumpkin bread pudding. This was a joy. Nothing too sweet, nothing smothered, nothing numbingly heavy. Just moist and light and wonderfully flavored. Definitely recommended, although it was a special, so who knows when you'll see it again?

For all of the ambience, you might just as easily be at the Macaroni Grill. I'm not a huge fan of paper on tables, and the battery operated tea lights were very nearly unforgivable. My visiting Italian friend also had a great deal of trouble with the name. Can't blame him, really. I suppose if I went to Milan and found a burger joint called "Sorry," I wouldn't exactly knock the door down to get in. But the service more than makes up for the style choices. Everyone was very kind and very professional.

Quality-to-price ratio here is exceptional. If you're not drinking, two of you can have a ball for around $50. With a decent bottle, you can adjust accordingly.

Once again, the Blue Platers did not disappoint. If you feel like Italian, check it out. Try something you've never had. Go out on a limb here. You can afford it, and Scusi will not let you down. You will leave with a much better idea of how this cuisine is supposed to work when it's done well.