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.