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.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Sample Room

This week, I needed a place that would be quiet and calm and roomy enough to have a working meal. Our late lunch had turned into something more like an early dinner, and we didn't have a lot to get done, but we didn't need music blaring (Seriously- what's with the loud music everywhere? Have you been to the basement in Macy's lately? Don't even bother.), or someone hovering over us trying to get the table turned. I thought of the Sample Room at the last minute. Hadn't been there in a few years.

So glad I went back.

What a wonderful place this is. If you don't already know about it, you're unlikely to have ever noticed it, tucked away against the river on Marshall in Northeast. It doesn't draw a lot of attention to itself. What it does do is a fantastic job, casually, quietly, and with the kind of seemingly effortless attention to detail that is, judging by visits to any number of other establishments, much harder than it looks.

First off, the concept is inspired. In keeping with the name, this is the place you always wanted every other restaurant to be. How often have you looked at a menu and been equal parts thrilled and frustrated because you had to choose something, thereby denying yourself some other delight? Here, they see that coming, and give you an easy out. You can, quite literally, sample. The entire menu, if the mood strikes. I get a little tear in my eye just typing that.

Such an option, admittedly a stroke of genius, is almost a necessity when you grab your unassuming, one-page menu and start reading. This is not everyday fare. Feel like a burger? How about a half pound of house-ground beef stuffed with pork belly and smoked gouda? Nachos? Try bleu cheese and peppered bacon melting slowly over warm kettle chips and caramelized onions. This is food to make you giggle, it's so good. Even the charcuterie is house-made, and I don't know about y'all, but if you start making me sausage, you are pretty much my best friend. Can you read a word like "applewurst" and not feel a little bit better about the whole world? I can't.

Part of what makes all of this even more wonderful is that The Sample Room may be the world's least pretentious restaurant. Walking in, the first impression is more classy bar than fine dining. The lighting is dim but adequate, booths are ample, nothing feels crowded, and did I mention the noise? There isn't any. How wonderful, and how rare, to sit across a booth from someone and hold a conversation without raising your voice. The whole place feels like an oasis, a place to check out of your crazy day for a while and remind yourself why you work so hard the rest of the time.

As if all of this weren't reason enough to go, The Sample Room also offers a surprisingly good value. The most expensive small plate on the menu was $9. Three of us shared those crazy nachos, hummus, an artichoke gratin, wild mushroom fettuccine, red curry pork shank, sublime pot roast and four or five grown-up drinks. With a generous tip, we rounded up to $75. I don't think you could get three apps and three entrees with drinks at a Chili's for that kind of money. And even if you could, you'd still be at Chili's, and I would weep for you.

Next time you're feeling overstressed, make the pilgrimage to Northeast and take a couple of hours to recharge your batteries in this remarkable café. Your soul will be happy you made the trip.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Amore Victoria

I have an unnatural fear of Uptown. It's not that I don't enjoy it well enough once I'm there, it's just that it never seems like a good idea to leave the relative safety of my home to go. But a friend of ours has a role in a show at the Jungle, and it seemed like a reasonable idea to combine an evening of theater with a decent dinner somewhere, so I did what any properly equipped twenty-first-century nerd would do.

I fired up my GPS app and asked it where to eat in Uptown.

What I found was Amore Victoria. It seemed from the photo like a sweet little Italian place, and since Miss J has been training for her latest marathon, we've become partial to pasta joints. I had never heard of it, but the menu looked good, the people on the phone were nice to me, and trying a new place is always fun. So, smart phone in hand, we made sure our papers were in order and set out for Lynlake.

The first good news was the parking lot. Parking is one of the reasons I fear Uptown. So, one problem solved. The restaurant is very pretty. If you were outside, and not paying careful attention, it might seem small and cozy. Inside, it stays cozy, but the room is surprisingly spacious, with a bar at one end, two main rooms for dining, and more space downstairs that looked like it might be for private parties. The atmosphere was nice, and quiet when we arrived (why don't more places realize this is a good thing), although it turns out Amore is quite the popular destination. When we left, they were lined up, and the place was darned loud. I was glad our table was a bit out of the way.

There are, as far as I can tell, two rules in Italian cuisine. 1: start with good stuff. 2: don't screw it up. Seriously, there is something gloriously uncomplicated about good Italian. I suppose that's the luxury of growing up in a garden. Good food is near at hand, and beyond a certain point, finesse is not really required. Contrast that with French food, and you'll see what I mean. My friend Tim once described French food to me this way: "Here are all the wrong parts of a cow. Go." A generalization to be sure, but you get the point. Technique becomes a bigger deal when you have less to work with. This is why I will always be suspicious when confronted with expensive Italian food. If you don't make it abundantly clear to me what I'm paying for, you're going to end up on my bad side. Not that I'm particularly threatening or anything, but still. Karma will catch up to you sooner or later.

Which is not to say that Amore Victoria is expensive. Far from it. Prices were very reasonable, given the portions (they're not skimping) and the quality. But our meal was perplexing, mostly because of my Two Simple Rules. First up was an appetizer of pan-seared gnocchi, with white wine, garlic, parmigiano, pistachios, mushrooms, and a partridge in a pear tree. Seriously, it was like someone forgot the gnocchi, and wanted to distract me so I didn't notice they were missing. To be fair, all of this was awfully good. The pistachios lent a surprising bite without overcomplicating the flavor, parmigiano is nearly always heaven, and there's really no need to discuss the combination of wine, garlic, and mushrooms. Suffice to say that the dish worked. Hard. The funny thing was, the weak links here were the gnocchi. It's not a stretch to expect potato gnocchi to taste, well, like potatoes. These were on the doughy side, clearly over-floured. Not terrible, but not what they should have been (see rule #1).

For dinner, I ordered the Tortellini Alla Panna. These were large, house-made, stuffed with beef, veal and spinach, and accompanied by prosciutto, all in an unapologetically rich and wonderful cream sauce. I made a fine choice. If my plate had been any larger, I would have finished up with a nap right there at the table. Miss J went with a scallop and linquini dish in a tomato-based sauce with asparagus and enough garlic to season a side of beef. The sauce was also surprisingly spicy, which seemed odd, since neither the menu nor our waiter mentioned that. Spicy doesn't seem like the sort of thing that should be a surprise.

The scallops were perfect, the flavors were compelling, and the asparagus (my one true love in the vegetable kingdom) still had enough snap to make me happy. But now we come to rule #2. We were informed almost as soon as we sat down that all of the pasta was homemade. They are proud of this, and justifiably so. But the linguini that served as the basis of this wonderful dish was flavorless and overcooked. Badly overcooked. It was barely able to provide a texture. Now this is a good old-fashioned head scratcher to me. If you believe that there is virtue in making your own pasta (and I do), why on earth would you cook it into oblivion? One of the truly glorious things about fresh pasta is that you barely have to cook it at all. The bite is part of the joy. So, what should have been the centerpiece of a wholly successful dish ended up seeming like an afterthought. This is where I sigh out loud, even as I'm writing.

We split the dessert, which was a very well-done creme brulee, along with a nice bottle of Cesanese. One quick note to the server (not ours) who thought table-side creme brulee was a nice idea: it's not. All of that sugar doesn't become a crust until it cools down. And the torch, see, is really hot, and...oh, never mind. The one we got was carried out to us complete, and it was excellent.

So thanks for the recommendation, iPhone. We had a great time, and with a couple of puzzling exceptions, the meal was a treat. Beautiful space, good value, nice atmosphere (volume notwithstanding) and kind, professional staff. That's a good night in my book. If we were in the neighborhood, we'd stop in again. If we started out on our own side of the River, there are other places we'd try first. It would be a perfect spot for a first date, if you find yourself needing such a thing. Dinner, then a show at The Jungle. If you can find another parking place, you might as well make a night of it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Blue Door Pub

Sometimes I suppose it is impossible for a restaurant to live up to its hype. In fact, this is probably true more often than not. It's not the restaurants' fault, of course. We invest these longed-for experiences with a kind of mystical importance. We are sure that the one burger/steak/curry/salad/burrito/dessert we haven't had yet will be The One, the one that will at last make sense out of our troubled and confused existence. What can one poor beer-and-burger joint do in the face of expectations like that? In a word, nothing. It's our fault for being such eager and melodramatic dorks to begin with.

So really, the only trouble with The Blue Door, tucked away just off the corner of Selby and Fairview, is that it took us four tries to get in. This repeated failure was due to two things. First, The Blue Door is wildly popular. Smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood, it is one of the few quality places within walking distance. Second, it is roughly the size of a walk-in closet. The combination of these two circumstances makes it a sure bet that, whenever you go, you're going to have a wait. And there isn't really much of a waiting area. You're going to be tucked into an even smaller closet in the back, or, unless you're brave enough to stake out your spot in the middle of the floor and stand there (I am not), you're going to wait outside. We arrived a little after 8:00 and waited no more than ten minutes. The staff was great. A series of friendly people made sure that nine and a half of those ten minutes were spent with cold beers in our hands. When we left, at 10:00, there were still people lined up out the door. Very popular, very tiny place.

So this time, our fourth time, by God, we were going to wait it out. And I knew, I mean KNEW, that the clouds would part, the angels would weep, and I would have the sort of burger that I would be telling my grandchildren about. Or someone's grandchildren. That part's a little murky. But it was going to be, in the words of Boromir of Gondor, a Gift. A gift for my weary soul. I had three beers and a good burger. My soul, alas, is unimproved. But as I said at the outset, I have no one to blame but myself.

The Blue Door serves up a dizzying number of variations on the theme of the Juicy Lucy, the Twin Cities' principal claim to culinary immortality. I went with what The Blue Door considers their flagship burger, the Blucy (we may or may not return to the topic of my general distaste for menu puns). This little beauty is stuffed with bleu cheese and chopped garlic. Bleu cheese? I'm not sure about using "bleu" if you're already speaking English. "Fromage?" Then sure, knock yourself out. But we've already settled on "cheese," so I think you can go with "blue," and everyone will be okay. But back to the topic. The burger was very good. Flavorful and, true to its moniker, juicy. I would have been happier with a slightly larger stuff-to-burger ratio, but this is quibbling. The only burger complaint I will register is that the poor thing was overcooked. Not killed, just on the well-done side. Even this would not have been an issue, except that we were warned that they would be medium, and asked if this was okay. Classic setup for disaster. Don't say a word, and we don't have an issue. If you tell me medium, then I expect medium. This is reasonable. Baby had a basic cheeseburger. She did get medium, and it was also very very good.

We had three different sides between us. The fries were hand-cut and first rate. The battered and fried green beans were also excellent. Not so heavily battered that they were over-greasy. Not health food, mind you, but not immediately fatal. The third option was the buffalo tater tots, and these were less of a hit. Fine flavor, and real blue cheese dressing, and God bless them for offering tater tots in the first place, but tater tots are a not a particularly rugged food. If you sauce them, even if the sauce is very good, you get a soggy tater tot. Not really a texture I'd come back for.

The beer selection is very good. The wine list is quirky and interesting, and more fairly priced than any I've seen in the cities. The staff, as mentioned earlier, was on top of things. You can tell they're used to a busy place. The food is also reasonably priced. We drank rather a lot, and still got out for around $50. Subtract five pints of beer, and you're looking at a sub-thirty-dollar dinner. Not bad at all.

The Blue Door is a very nice bar, with an interesting menu of very nice bar food. Will it change your life? Of course not. Will it make you give up The Nook? Probably not, unless you live in the neighborhood and don't mind the wait. Was it worth four attempts? I'd say so. It's always good to have the experience. But when we go back we'll pick a day when we can get there for lunch, and stay for dinner. Everything will taste better with someone standing there waiting for me to leave.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

La Grolla

Years ago, when La Grolla first opened, my beloved and I went to check out the new neighbors. I remember enjoying myself, but it felt more like a fancy dinner than a night out for Italian. It was all fine, but we have other places that do that job, and we just never got around to going back. A couple of months ago one of my gentle readers commented on my Carmelo's writeup by saying that we should give La Grolla a try, since he thought the food and the prices were comparable. Well, far be it from me to ignore one of your suggestions, so off we went to dinner.

Maybe the intervening years have clouded my memory, but the La Grolla we experienced recently seemed like a very different sort of place. The room is a little darker, a little quieter. The atmosphere seems a little more relaxed, more welcoming than we'd remembered. Even the bill was a pleasant surprise. In short, somehow or other La Grolla has become my favorite sort of haunt.

We started the evening with a decent Chianti and an asparagus appetizer which was a little pricey at $11, but more than enough to share, and excellent. Grilled asparagus and grilled polenta, all blanketed in a gorgonzola cream sauce. If I wasn't sharing, I could have happily made a small meal out of this one. Another first course to die for is the Capesante, which involves two enormous sea scallops somehow wrapped in angel hair and fried, then dressed up with greens, basil oil and lobster sauce. It looks a little like a coral reef gone wrong, but it tastes way better.

Baby had the mixed grill special for dinner. This is not a good name for it. Something more like, "Dear God, this is more food than you can well imagine," would be closer, but I can see how that might cause problems on the menu. What they mean by "mixed grill" is a generous tasting portion of all of the fresh seafood options in the house. This turns out to be quite a large plate. Daunting really, although I think Miss J eventually got through it. I went purist and ordered the Bolognese. The pasta was perfect, and the sauce, though milkier than I expected, was perfectly textured and full of flavor. Also a good-sized portion, and also finished up just fine thank you very much. The only disappointment was that we were sadly incapable of considering dessert, and those of you who know me know how embarrassing it is for me to even have to say that.

Date night was a complete success, so much so that after a fine concert this afternoon, when the topic rolled around to dinner, I didn't hesitate to suggest La Grolla to my comrades. Again, it turned out to be a fine choice. The first thing I did was call and ask if they could fit "maybe six, maybe eight" in for dinner in about 15 minutes. They were unfazed. When we arrived, there was a perfect little table set up for us in the window.

Once again, everything was spot-on. The food was very good. Seafood ravioli, linguine with pesto cream sauce and tiger shrimp, fettuccine alfredo... I made darned sure to save room, but it was still hard not to attack everything I could reach. One minor food gripe here, and this is not specific to La Grolla- there is no good reason to serve shrimp in the shell. Tail-on I can live with, especially if they're fried. Makes a nice little handle. But large shrimp, with full shells, when they are already in the pasta and sauce? It may be pretty, and I suppose it saves some small amount of time in the kitchen, but it's a complete pain in the ass for everyone else. Generally speaking, we do not order pasta because we're thinking of finger food. There. I feel a little better now.

Anyone who's ever waited tables can tell you- it's hard work. You have to be a superhero and not make it seem like a big deal. Friendly, but not ingratiating. Knowledgeable, but not pedantic. Professional, but not stuffy. It's a fine line, but nothing will ruin a meal faster than a server who doesn't get it. La Grolla gets it. Rachel, our server tonight, was perfect. She rolled with everything we threw at her, was genuinely friendly and helpful, and knew her stuff when it came to the food and wine. We had a better time because she was there. What more can I say about that?

La Grolla is a gem. If you're looking for fine, adventurous Italian in a beautiful setting with an excellent staff, you can't go wrong here. Prices are a bit higher than Carmelo's, but not by much, and the portions are generous. If you were careful, and you stuck to iced tea and a couple of entrees, you could make it out for under $40. With appetizers, desserts, and a bottle of wine, you're looking at twice that, easy. It's nice though, and a rare thing, to find food this good in a place where you're not obliged to drop a fortune.

Oh, and those desserts we saved room for? Excellent call. Cannoli to die for.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

American Burger Bar

Last week I come home from work and the beloved informs me that she needs a Surly (the beer, mind you- she's got me all the time). The good folks at Surly were kind enough to return her email and let us know where we could find their nectar on tap. So, off we went to the American Burger Bar, in downtown Saint Paul. The restaurant is tucked away on Wabasha, frisbee distance from the courthouse, and around the block from Sakura, which I'll come back to later. I had never been to any of the establishments that have lived and died at this location, so I was excited just to see the inside of the place.

The inside did not disappoint. This is a beautiful room, or rather collection of rooms. Dark wood, leather upholstery, a "library" with real books on the shelves, this is the kind of atmosphere no one pays enough attention to any more. Other than a freakishly cold bathroom, the setting was satisfying on all counts. We ordered our beer, perused the limited menu (limited menu for a Wild game? What on Earth for?), and settled on a couple of burger options and an appetizer to share. Our server was a little over-the-top, but friendly, and we were enjoying what was, so far, a perfectly cozy date.

Our appetizer arrived quickly and hot, a trio of meatballs (lamb, bison, and kobe beef), prettily presented, and each adorned with its own sauce. The sauces were interesting to look at, but didn't offer compelling flavors. The meatballs were good, but not great. They were also a little smaller than golf balls. Not a ton of food for the $11 price tag.

Next came the burgers. We were cautioned beforehand that these would be cooked to medium, so Miss J requested medium well. This medium burger business has long been an issue for me. I mean, it's hamburger. It might be really good hamburger, but still. Just cook it. Undercooking is not the only way to create a juicy burger. As it happened, we needn't have worried, since both burgers arrived well-done, dried out, and utterly unexciting. Mine featured cheddar cheese, and one of several bacon options. Miss J is a little more adventurous. Nothing extravagant, but there were vegetables involved. I didn't want to get too close. Accompaniments were another story. The skinny fries were excellent, and the house mayo very good. But it's the American BURGER bar. We kind of figured the burgers were the point.

After spending a leisurely hour or so over a couple of pints apiece, we decided against dessert, and asked for the check. This turned out to be the really disappointing part. Let's review. 1 small appetizer, 2 burgers, and 4 pints. And baby had the Surly. I was drinking Hamm's at $2 a pop. Total with tip? $60. That is not a typo. $60. I'm not at all averse to shelling out serious money for a meal, when it's clear what I'm paying for, and the substance is equal to the style. But that kind of money for a burger joint, even a purportedly high-class burger joint, is more than a little silly. At the aforementioned Sakura, we could have spent the same kind of cash, and stuffed ourselves without ever leaving the dumpling menu. That would have been a fantastic night.

No matter what you're selling, details are a big deal. American Burger is not paying enough attention to the right ones. Even the website doesn't work properly. I found three obvious mistakes on the front page, and I wasn't giving it a very thorough look.

Last week, after failing yet again to get a table at The Blue Door, we hit The Nook. We had easily twice the "Burger Experience" for half the price. If you're already downtown, and you want a romantic spot to have a drink, I can't recommend the American Burger Bar highly enough. It's gorgeous, and you'll love it. If you're hungry, spend your money wisely, and go somewhere else for dinner first.