Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Carmelo's Ristorante

Carmelo's has been a staple for me ever since I came to the Twin Cities. For the record, I'm not the least bit Italian. I have no grandmother to whose work I can compare Carmelo's creations. I go because I love the food, and I'm as amazed now as I was when I was a mere pup at the value offered at this Saint Paul hole-in-the-wall.

Carmelo's offers, not high-brow Italian exactly, but certainly elegant Italian. What do I mean by this? Well, there's no flash, no hype, nothing to distract you from the simple pleasure of well-made food. Heather and Mark know that good cooking speaks for itself, and they're content to let their menu do its job. Everything here is home-cooked. Wisely, their website hits you with this trivia right out of the gate. Pastas, sauces, even the bread on the table, nothing here is trucked in or farmed out. It's made on site, according to "generational" recipes. All of this might sound a bit stuffy if everything weren't so darned good. Try anything here. The staff, equal parts quirky and cool, will help you if you have trouble, and you really can't go wrong. Two things you simply must have. First are the arancini. I've had these for years, in all sorts of places, and for my money these are the best you'll find anywhere. They are piping hot, rich, breaded globes of arborio rice, with sausage and peas, baked in a pool of bolognese sauce and cheese. I can't say enough about these. They are literally giggle-inducing good. Try these first, and if you keep ordering them, and skip the entree, I will understand completely.

The second is the signature entree, chicken Carmelo, which consists of a breaded and baked chicken breast covered with crab meat, parmigiano, and lemon cream sauce, all atop a bed of angel hair and roasted seasonal vegetables. This isn't just good. It's completely unfair.

These two dishes alone are reason enough to come back to Carmelo's, but the best part happens when you get the bill. For some reason, nothing on this menu costs anywhere near as much as it should. The chicken Carmelo, the most expensive entree on the menu, is $16.50. That's silly. You can spend more than that on a pizza almost anywhere. With a bottle of vino, my love and I can have a wonderful dinner here and get out for under $75 with tip. It's not fast-food cheap, of course, but neither is it fine-dining expensive, and it should be. For the quality of the food, the calm and quiet atmosphere, and the nice people making sure your needs are met, Carmelo's is a steal. Always has been.

The best thing I can say about Carmelo's? My wife just picked me up at MSP after a two-week trip to Italy, where I ate nothing but pasta and pastry and wine and cheese. We drove from the airport to Carmelo's.

They are located, by the way, near the corner of St. Clair and Snelling, kitty-corner from the Broiler. If the drugstore on the corner is open when you leave, stop in for an ice cream soda. Seriously.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

La Cocinita Restaurante

As a rule, we don't ask a lot of Mexican restaurants. When we think Mexican, we're basically thinking of three things: cheap booze, cheap food (and more of it than we can or should eat), and no sense of adventure. When you order a bean burrito, you know exactly how you want that burrito to taste. You don't much care whose grandmother made it which way, or what the cook's regional proclivities might be. You just want a burrito, and other than maybe size, there will be no way to distinguish it from the one you'd get anywhere else in town.

La Cocinita doesn't play by these rules. They're not terribly fast, and they're not trying to be. They're not Ol' Mexico (meaning they seat about 35 people inside, not 1000). And the enchilada plate is $15. This fact alone implies that La Cocinita means to set the bar a little higher. It's also brave, because in my mind, a price tag like that invites criticism. Charge me $10 for a burger, and I'm going to start looking for reasons to judge you and your restaurant harshly.

Well I did, and I do, judge harshly, and La Cocinita is still fantastic. On our second trip, I had the red sauce enchiladas, because I wanted to go back to basics and compare apples with the sorts of apples I've eaten elsewhere. My beloved had the cornbread bake, a wonderful idea, with cheese and black bean chili piled on top of warm, fresh, homemade cornbread. The arrival of my plate made me smile, because all of the elements were in place: tortillas, sauce, cheese, rice, beans, that little salad I never eat, and of course a plate hot enough to remove skin if you accidentally grab it. Talk about apples to apples.

The first things I noticed were the sides. Of course we've all had them a thousand times, but how often have we ever thought about them? How often have they been worth thinking about? The rice was fresh, made from scratch, and lovely, with real bits of real onions and chilis. Clearly it had never seen the inside of a microwave. The beans were simply the best pintos I have ever eaten. No chance these are vegetarian, but oh my, are they good. A bowl of those beans would have done me just fine. By the time I got to the enchiladas, I was already impressed. One bite of these, and I knew that the beans were no accident. I ordered the ground beef, and was pleased to encounter, well, actual beef- finely ground, perfectly cooked and seasoned, intoxicatingly warm and comforting. The cheese was actually used to add flavor, not make up for the lack of it. The enchilada sauce, loaded with red chilis, was smoky and complicated and almost too beautiful to be called sauce. Let me cover that again. I'm raving about enchilada sauce. I didn't know that was a possibility. I kind of thought that only came from Old El Paso, in a can. In a nutshell, La Cocinita finds details where you and I have been trained to forget there were any. Then they execute them all with a smile and perfectly. That $15 isn't sounding so far-fetched any more, is it?

The secret, in my host humble and well-fed opinion, is that this is an intimate, welcoming, fine dining restaurant that just happens to be serving Mexican-inspired food. In this context, or really in any context save that of the "typical" Mexican restaurant, this is not an expensive place. It is a place to go with a loved one, if you want a beautiful meal at an honest price.

Service was friendly, efficient but unhurried, just the right note for the relaxed ambience of the dining room. If you have one drink apiece and tip like decent people ought to, expect to get out for $25 to $35 a head. La Cocinita is off the beaten path, on the corner of 5th Ave. and highway 95 in Bayport, just a couple of miles south of Stillwater. Take a drive, enjoy the river. Spend a day antiquing. Just don't eat too much. You're going to be happy you've got room.