Sunday, May 31, 2009

Punch and Pizza Nea

I used to think there were two distinct types of pizza, and that, before discussing the relative merits of any particular one, the first step was determining which sort you were dealing with. The two types, in my mind, were Neapolitan and Plain Old Wonderful Pizza. Then Black Sheep opened, and kind of screwed that up for me. Apparently there are three: Neapolitan, Plain Old Wonderful, and Gourmet American. Black Sheep, by the way, is the third one, and it rocks. Go there. More about that another day.

Punch and Pizza Nea are both purveyors of the Neapolitan Pizza. There are several things that make a pizza a Neapolitan pizza. They don't have sauce. They have olive oil and crushed San Marzano tomatoes. They're little, like 9"-10". This is actually the perfect size, because you can still get an appetizer and split one, but if you feel like downing the whole thing, no one will look askance at you or your gluttony. They don't exactly have crust, at least not in the doughy american sense. They're served on what would be focaccia if it didn't have a pizza on it. And they're baked fresh in an insanely hot, wood-fired, brick or tiled oven. They also make your eyes roll back in your head because they're so darned amazing, but that probably doesn't pass muster as any sort of scientifically valid assessment.

I thought I'd write about Punch and Pizza Nea at the same time for a couple of reasons. First off, when locals talk about Neapolitan Pizza, these are the places that come up. Pizza Nea is Punch's competition. If that wasn't obvious to begin with, it became quite clear when Punch had the cheek (one could also say poor taste) to open up a shop about a hundred feet from Pizza Nea on Hennepin. I'm all for expansion, but zheesh. No reason we can't all get along. The other reason is that if you park your car anywhere near Hennepin and University, it's no trouble at all to walk to one, eat, and walk to the other and eat again. The whole blog thing might lend that plan an air of respectability, but I suspect I'd have done it anyway.

Once I decided on a plan, I needed backup, since splitting pizzas would be involved, and I thought it would be a little tacky to take leftover pizza into someone else's pizza joint. My friend Meg gamely stepped in, and we set off for Punch, no easy feat if you start out in Saint Paul, since large stretches of Larpenteur and 280 are essentially missing right now. At Punch, we ordered a Bruni, half-onion, at the bar. This was a little off-putting, since I'm used to the flagship Cleveland Avenue location where you sit and ponder before some kind person or other takes your order. Our pizza, or rather the timing of its arrival, was something of a mystery. We paid up, went to get drinks and napkins and a seat, took the extra red pepper back up to the counter, and by the time I turned around again, someone was handing me a pizza. Now I know these cook quickly, but we're talking 60 seconds here, tops. And it was not right-out-of-the-oven hot (according to Meg, hot is half the battle). I was forced to conclude that (gasp) most of this pie was made ahead of time, then topped and given a quick warm-up. I am not even going to go into the list of reasons why this is not okay. I've heard from a number of friends who are devoted Punch fans that the pizzas are somehow never as good at the satellites as they are at the Cleveland shop, and I wonder if this might not be a contributing factor.

One of the risks of not providing table service, it seems to me, is that the patrons' entire experience in your restaurant is going to hinge on the quality of the food. That's a big deal, don't you think? "Here. I am going to hand you this pizza and have nothing further to do with you. You will be amazed, and return again and again because it is over-the-moon good, and you're lucky to get it." How many places have the guts to risk that? In my experience, most places don't even understand why that's a risk, and many who do risk it shouldn't.

So I'd like to write all about our time at Punch, but I can't. All I can talk about is that 9" pie, that came out instantly and not hot. I've got no other data. Okay, the iced tea was real, and very nice, and, um, my silverware was clean. The end.

Here's the thing, though. That pie? It was still a Punch pie, and even under suspicious circumstances, it was deliriously good. Sausage, spiced salami, onion (half, 'cause I can't stand them), oregano, and mozzarella, all perfectly balanced, and perfectly wonderful. There is an alchemy that Punch achieves with its pizza. I don't understand it, but outside of Italia, you're unlikely to ever have anything like it.

As nice as that was, we were in and out in twenty minutes, and off we went to our second stop. Everyone we talked to at Pizza Nea was nice as could be. Our waiter was very mannered, and a little odd, but oddly charming, and good at his job. We put him somewhere between Edward Norton and the little smarmy guy from Dirty Dancing. As an appetizer, we ordered the Polpette Napoletana, little meatballs in tomato sauce served with focaccia. These were evil, and I could easily have eaten seventy-five of them, but that would have seriously messed with the pizza course. The focaccia was also good. A little puffier than Punch's, but that helped it stand up to the meatballs.

For a pizza, we settled on the Salsicce- sausage, roasted red pepper, cracked red pepper, and basil. The pizza was hot and very well-timed. I credit the server for that. The roasted red peppers were a bit dry, but everything else seemed just fine. And that, I guess, was the trouble. It was fine, but it wasn't alchemy. The sausage was good, the cheese was good, the spice was good, the crust was good, and it all looked just perfect. But I wanted to be transported, and I got a good little pizza instead. In case it sounds like I'm complaining, I should also say that we had a great time, because the space is beautiful, the staff was friendly and professional, and the food was very good.

In the end, I suppose it's an apples-and-oranges problem. If I was in that part of town, and I was alone, or I wanted a pie to take home, I'd go to Punch. No question. If I wanted to impress a friend, or just have a quiet evening with my beloved, Pizza Nea would take the day. Then we'd go to Surdyk's and be irresponsible.

One of the best things about both of these establishments is that they offer an excellent value. Our bill for both outings combined was about $45 with tip. For the quality of the food involved, you'd be hard pressed to beat that anywhere.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Maverick's Real Roast Beef

When I was a kid, an outing to Grandma and Grandpa's house was one of the biggest possible deals. And if there was the chance of a sleep-over involved... that would mean more happiness than I thought my little eight-year-old heart could contain. No matter how much fun I could have in my own neighborhood, it always seemed like there was more to do at Gran and Gramp's. You could go to the market. You could feed the squirrels (now that I'm grown up, I am certain they're just rats with better agents). You could grab the unicycle that you were once small enough to ride and take a tour of the block. Or, if you were really lucky, and begged long enough to be persuasive and not long enough to be locked in your room, Gran and Gramp just might take you to the mall. Now, I was never much for shopping, even then, but a trip to the mall almost certainly meant a trip to Arby's, and for me, that was as close to heaven as I ever imagined I'd get.

Now before you begin your next sentence with, "What the hell...," let me remind you that, before Arby's fell victim to the cost-cutting corporate yahoos who think that chopped, formed, and simulated beef is a good thing, there was a time when they served the real deal. Not surprisingly, it was wonderful, or at least I remember it being wonderful. It's been years.

If you, too, remember that time, and remember enjoying it, get yourself to Maverick's, stat. This is truly a Saint Paul jewel, and it's a cryin' shame that more folks don't know about it. Tucked into the same strip that houses 'Ol Mexico and Red Wing Shoes, Maverick's is a pretty unassuming little storefront. You could drive right by without noticing. But if you did, you'd be missing some of the best meat in town. Take a chance next time you're heading up Lexington, and stop by. They're open till eight, and they'll take care of you.

Maverick's is all about the meat. Vegetarians, don't bother. You'll only go away frustrated, and I like many of you. I'd hate to see that. For the rest of you, you can choose from roast beef, barbecue, pulled pork, turkey, and brisket, with no end of trimmings. Last time I looked, you could add horseradish, onions, two different pickles, and four different peppers, then top it all off with three or four sauces from basic barbecue to sassy chipotle. All of this, of course, is utterly beside the point. If it's your first time, you need plain roast beef, and you won't need to put a thing on it.

Maverick's roasts are a thing of beauty. They're rare and beautiful and sliced paper-thin right there in front of you. They'll build you an open-faced dinner, with gravy and mashed, but you'll be just as happy having them throw it on a bun. This is a sandwich for the ages, and a perfect example, like the whole place, of substance over style. The decor is a perfect match for the food: warm, welcoming, and wholly without pretense.

It's good to be in a restaurant that trusts you. Here, there's no pomp, there's no floor show. No jukebox, no uniforms, no flat-screen TVs in the corner, and no long-winded descriptions telling you exactly why you should appreciate the food. There's just good, honest grub, and Maverick's trusts that you will get that, and come back for more. Judging by the lunch rush every day, lots of folks are doing just that.

Maverick's isn't dirt cheap, but there's nothing at all unreasonable about the price to quality ratio here. $4.49 gets you a regular roast beef. A few bucks more, and you can make it a combo with a drink and fries that are made to order. Slightly higher than fast food, but infinitely better. When was the last time anyone offered to make you fresh fries?

Try Maverick's once, and it will become a staple. The people are friendly, the food is beyond good, and you'll feel like you're in on a very tasty secret. If you liked Arby's as a kid, it will take you back. If you've never had anything like it before, then I envy you. That first bite is going to change everything.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Thoughts on service

The sad truth of our over-saturated retail environment is this: you can buy just about anything just about anywhere. This is true whether we're talking clothing, electronics, toys, or food. Blindfolded, I don't think most of us could tell the difference between the offerings of half a dozen casual chain restaurants. A waffle fry is a waffle fry is a waffle fry....

So how does a restaurant set itself apart? I'm excluding the very high end here. Certainly there are places where the whole point is the luxury of the ingredients and the inspired preparation of each dish. But for most of the places where most of us can afford to eat, what makes the difference? When we go out for a meal, we're not paying for boneless buffalo wings or a bacon cheeseburger with fries. We're paying for an experience, and you can't separate that from good, old-fashioned human interaction. In a word, service.

Oddly, what most establishments overlook, especially the fancy ones, is that, for many of their patrons, a night out is a special occasion. We've got jobs, and kids, and all sorts of commitments. Often it takes a great deal of creative scheduling even to find time for a nice meal. For starters, what we need is a server who understands the importance of the event. That server may have had a horrible day, and nine terrible, cheap tables before ours. But that is all trumped by the possibility that we may be in their restaurant for the very first time. If you sell anything to anyone for a living, this is an extremely important thing to remember.

Here, in broad strokes, are what I consider the immutable laws of the server/patron relationship.

For Servers1. Be human

I'm not sure why this is confusing or difficult, but it's amazing how few places get it right. What do I mean by this? For starters, scripts don't work. We can all see them coming a mile away, and they're rubbish. You're a real, live person, and that's one of the things I like best about you. Talk to me. And you can relax. I don't need you to entertain me. I'm just hungry, and I already appreciate the fact that you're willing to work with me to fix that.

2. Be honest

No, I don't want to hear about it if you don't like my jacket. I do want to know if you have your doubts about the quiche. If I know I can get a straight answer, I will value your opinion. If you tell me everything is just wonderful (see #1 about scripts), I will probably not consult you again, and my experience will be less enjoyable for not really being able to talk to you.

3. Be kind

Some of us are dense. It happens. It might be our first time in your place. We might be unfamiliar with the cuisine. We need you. Condescension on your part will do nothing to improve this situation. Be patient with us, and help where you can. This is the very best way to win a return customer.

Miss J and I went to Pei Wei a while back on the recommendation of a friend. We had a perfectly nice meal, but what made the experience worthwhile was watching the interaction between the hostess and an elderly couple who came in while we were eating. They had obviously never been in before, and they were adrift, staring at the menu board like it was written in another language. Another 30 seconds, and they would have walked out and never come back. Instead, they were greeted with a smile by the hostess, who came to them in order to say hello and welcome them. She asked them what sorts of vegetables they liked, how much spice they were interested in, whether they enjoyed rice. She walked them through the menu, and made sure they were happy with what they ordered. In short, she took a situation that would have been awkward and embarrassing, and turned it into an adventure. None of these things was very hard to do. She saw what was needed, and jumped in, that's all. But she made two people very happy, and I'm sure that wasn't the last she saw of them. We were so impressed, we dropped them a note to say how much we appreciated it, and we weren't even involved.

For Patrons (Just in case you thought you were off the hook)

1. Be kind

This gets top billing for customers, and for good reason. Basically, you owe it to your server (and to the rest of us who have to share a planet with you) not to be an ass. Serving is hard work. The good ones make it look effortless, but nothing could be further from the truth. That person taking such good care of you is running their tail off, making sure that everyone in their section is having the experience they expect. I believe Dave Barry said, "A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person." I couldn't agree more.

2. Be clear

If your server was telepathic, they would be in vegas, not taking care of you. Be reasonable, and if you have special needs, make sure everyone has the information they need up front. A good staff will do anything they can to help you, if they know how.

3. Be fair

Servers don't make a huge hourly wage. They rely on your generosity. If you appreciate the service, pony up. There are worse things than being known as a good tipper. And remember, if you have some sort of coupon or gift card that lowers your bill, you need to be tipping on what you would have paid, not your revised total.

So locally, where do you go for good service? Two places come immediately to mind. Carmelo's in Saint Paul is a gem. It's one of our favorite date spots. The staff is quirky, but friendly, helpful, and fun. You also can't beat the food for the price. More on that later. For a more formal occasion, W.A. Frost & Company, on Selby down by the cathedral, always seems to get it exactly right. They're a wonder.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tanpopo Noodle Shop

All of us have places we return to again and again. Sometimes it depends on what you're craving. If you want a burger and a beer, go to The Nook (I'm serious. Right now. Go.). Sometimes it depends on the mood you're in. If I'm already depressed, I'll find something vegetarian. Trust me, that's a story for another time. If you've had a stressful or just not-really-great day, and you need a meal to make you feel warm and easy again, it would be hard to beat Tanpopo. This lovely noodle shop is tucked away in downtown Saint Paul, down by the farmers' market, on that little tail of 4th street where it stops really being anything. My friend Keith, who grew up as the child of missionaries in Japan, tells me that if you pop into a noodle shop there, this is what you get. I grew up in Ohio. Other than some really weird regional chili, I don't know from authentic. But I know yummy, and this is it.

Tanpopo is not a sushi joint, but there are two nightly sushi specials (get there early, they typically run out), and occasional sashimi. Don't think for a minute that these are an afterthought. They are expertly prepared. The restaurant even offers sushi classes for those of you brave enough to try this at home. There is also a special teishoku. Teishoku are complete meals, home-style (if your home is in Japan): entrée, rice, miso soup, salad, and vegetables. The presentation is beautiful, typically in an enameled, segmented tray. If TV dinners dreamed, this is what they would dream.

Starters are varied and wonderful. Get the Edamame, 'cause it's good, and more fun than you ever really get to have with beans. The Spinach with Sesame is also wonderful, fresh and nutty and good for you. Can you stand it?

The reason you go to a noodle shop, however, is the noodles, and this is where you should start, at least your first time here. There are several preparations, and most come with either udon (wheat flour) or soba (buckwheat flour) noodles. Choose your noodles, choose your broth, and then choose what you'd like on top. Miss J's favorite is the Nabeyaki Udon, which includes shrimp tempura, chicken, shiitake mushrooms, fish cake, Japanese omelet and wakame. All of the toppings are excellent, although unless soggy fried shrimp is your thing, ask for this on the side. Tonight I went for the Shrimp Tempura Soba. This of course involves shrimp, but also wakame and shiitake. Wakame, by the way, is seaweed. I don't really like seaweed, but I eat it because I figure it's good for me, and I don't get much in the way of vegetables. Miss J seems to like it just fine.

For dessert, I'd recommend the Green Tea Tempura Ice Cream. I mean really, where else are you going to get to try such a thing? The ice cream, by the way, is from Sonny's, and the tea is from the Tea Source. Full marks for supporting local treasures.

The building is open and airy, the service friendly and calm, and the whole experience will make you feel better about your day. Money-wise, plan on $20-$25 a person with appetizers, unless you're drinking, and then, well, you know...