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.