June 29, 2011

A Crowd Pleaser and a Shout-Out

I think everyone should have at least one restaurant in their “sure to be a crowd pleaser” arsenal.

It’s really, really hard to find a restaurant that everyone loves.

Café & Bar Lurcat is my go-to when I need to please a group or when I just want really good food and don't mind going downtown.

Generally, recognizable traditional American food works for everyone. But seriously, how many good recognizable traditional American food places are there in town? Not many. If you can think of another good contender besides Lurcat, I’d love to hear about it. (But please don’t say Crave.)

And places like Tilia and Corner Table don't count in my recognizable traditional American food camp. They have things on their menus that people who don't truly love food might not really like. They push American food to a different food-loving level. One that is less traditional.

This isn't to say that Lurcat's food isn't great. Because it's really good. It's just also...recognizable. Familiar.

Am I making any sense?

I’ve been to Lurcat for many different occasions: job recruiting dinners, work celebration dinners, happy hours, dinner with friends from out of town (that’s you, Alan), date night…and every time it’s been a winner. The menu items are recognizable, so they appeal to picky eaters, but they're sophisticated enough in their preparation that foodies love them too.

I’ll fess up, I haven’t travelled the menu all that much. There are some favorites that are just too stellar to pass up. It is for sure that when I pull up and hand my car off to valet (the best method of parking there at night b/c Loring Park can be a little sketch), I know what I’m getting.

And here you are, the must-haves:

The Apple, Cheese, and Chive Salad: I'm not a salad girl by any means. This is the only one I truly love. It's julienned apples, julienned manchego, and chives. And it's perfect and fresh. That's all I'm going to say about it; you have to taste it to believe it.

The Lurcat Burgers: mini sliders that somehow just completely surpass any other burger. The buns are super buttery, the meat is full of chopped onion that gives it awesome flavor. We served these during cocktail hour for our wedding, I eat them almost every time I’m in the restaurant, and I’ve eaten them cold left-over. And they’re still seriously good cold and left-over. Not many burgers can say that when they’re cold. These babies are on the bar menu, but you can order them in the restaurant too.

The French Fries: not so original, I know. But when you pair a good solid fry with a ramekin of béarnaise, you can make someone very, very happy. That someone would be me.

The Sea Bass Marinated in Miso: Lurcat is famous for this dish. This is the dish everyone thinks of who has been to Lurcat. A lovely piece of velvety sea bass, marinated in miso and broiled, giving it a sweet crust. Served with Asian slaw. You feel like you’re magically indulging and being healthy all at the same time.

The Roasted Cauliflower: when cauliflower is done well, it’s amazing. We have some good cauliflower dishes in this town. At Lurcat, they thinly slice it and roast it. This produces a vegetable side that is full of caramelized goodness and saltiness. I could eat heads and heads of cauliflower prepared this way.

The Warm Cinnamon Sugar Doughnuts: these are actually mini doughnuts, and they’re perfect for a group for dessert (or for a couple that wants to pig out).

I think pretty much anything on the menu would be a safe bet. Last Friday when I was there, I also tried the Hanger Steak with Sweet Garlic Confit, and that was also delicious.

The bar at Lurcat is a perfect date night option, and the restaurant is good for more special occasions or with groups. Friday night my group included my buddy Alan. He’s one of my most loyal blog followers and promoters and has been begging for a mention. So, here it is, my friend: a mention and a photo!

Bar Lurcat on Urbanspoon

June 26, 2011

20 Courses for 30 Years

I think last night took the (birthday) cake for funnest dining experience yet in my 30 years.

We had the awesome privilege of dining in the kitchen at Corner Table, where they happily start you early (6pm) and bring you course after course of amazing food (with matching wine and beer pairings for each course—yes, each course) until you stay stop. Which was at midnight for us.

We were told to pace ourselves. We heard it, and then quickly forgot it after courses 1-13 went down swiftly and effortlessly. Then a grass-fed burger came out topped with an egg and sided with blue cheese on grilled bread. And that would be when I hit my wall. I eeked my way through the last of the savory courses (#14 and #15), struggled through the first two dessert courses (#16 and #17), and then was forced to quit. But by the end of the night, a collective “we” that didn’t include me made it to 20 courses. Quite a bit shy of the record 30!

Now I am left with three photos of three delicious dessert courses that I didn’t pace myself for. Very sad, indeed. I’ve recovered as the day has gone on today. I’m starting to actually want to eat again. And I’m wishing I had shoved those three lovely dessert plates into my purse, particularly the clever take on a sweet potato pie that garnered some groaning and the plate with chocolate and fried pieces of dough.

But that’s okay. There will be a next time for sure. And I have already come up with my game plan for next time: stop at 10 savories and enjoy every last ounce of dessert.

I will leave you to drool over all 20 courses, captured in photos. My favorites: the scrambled eggs with guiancale and tiny croutons, the browned butter gnocchi, the snap peas with crème fraiche, the pork belly, and the Slovenian white wine we had with course #6.


Corner Table on Urbanspoon

June 25, 2011

Piccolo: Italian Word for Small

There are restaurants in town that make me love Minneapolis. Piccolo is one of them.

There aren’t many places in town where you can get Scrambled Eggs with Pickled Pigs Feet (and love it) or a deep fried fig with your chicken. There also aren’t many places in town where you can eat four courses in and walk out not unbuttoning your pants. But you can do all three when you go to Piccolo.

Piccolo does the whole small plates thing in a different way than most small plates places. Piccolo doesn’t do small plates so that you can share. Piccolo does small plates that you can polish off yourself, perfect 4-ish bite plates that allow you to taste something awesome and interesting, not get sick of it, and move on to something even better.

I read an article about the place after it first opened where they talked about how the first few bites of a dish always taste the best. It’s true. So, Piccolo created dishes sized to address this, dishes sized so that no one gets sick of what they’re eating. Although, I have to say, I’m not sure I’d get sick of more bites of the Scrambled Eggs with Pickled Pigs Feet.

The menu is a one-sided list of small plates, that at the top start out lighter and work their way down to richer. The Piccolo staff describes the menu as a way to put together your own tasting menu. Love.

Everything I’ve ever had there has been delicious, but I always tell people to look at the menu before they go. It changes frequently, and it’s never a huge menu, so it’s always best to make sure they have things you like to eat on any given visit. I have found that I have loved some visits better than others based on what happens to be on the menu.

The highlights last week when I went with my dining buds L & L were the Scrambled Eggs with Pickled Pigs Feet (have I said they were amazing yet?) and the chicken. I was a little scared of the pickled pigs feet, I won’t lie. I hadn’t had pickled pigs feet before. But I’ve heard this dish continually praised (I think Andrew Zimmern himself ordered two plates of it once). It lived up to the hype, let’s just say that. The eggs were perfectly, softly scrambled. The pigs feet added a savory touch. The parmesan added a nice salty hit. And the light drizzle of truffle butter over the top made the whole thing even more ridiculously decadent.

I’m not generally a chicken fanatic like my lovely husband, but this chicken was amazing. I think if he had been there and had it, he would have died and gone to heaven. And then ordered a second plate of it in his next life. The chicken was flavorful and moist and set on top of some creamy polenta. It came with a fried fig on the side. Lovely. A successfully interesting chicken dish. That’s a feat, in my opinion.

For my first plate, I had the crab salad, which was my least favorite plate that night. It was certainly respectable, but I don’t know, it didn’t blow my mind like most of their plates usually do. I found the crab salad to be sort of wet, heavy on the mayo. And I didn’t love the (albeit pretty) drops of Japanese mayo on the plate.

I ended the meal with the little butter cake served with coconut cream and banana ice cream. I’m a sucker for anything banana, anything coconut, and anything cake. So I’m convinced this dessert was created with me in mind. Was tasty for sure, although after the eggs and chicken, it had a tough act to follow.

The Piccolo space is really cute, perfect for a special dinner out. Lots of windows and lots of light that make your rose wine glisten in its pure pretty pinkness.

Reason #387 why I love this city, and eating in it.

Piccolo on Urbanspoon

June 22, 2011

Happy Birthday, to Me!

Today is my (30th!) birthday.

This year I decided to take the day off and spend it doing whatever I wanted. And that whatever I wanted today included making myself a super decadent homemade birthday cake.

Make my own birthday cake, you ask? Yes! I know, not conventional. Zach would have happily purchased the DQ ice cream cake I had been requesting a few weeks ago. He also would have happily baked me a cake if that was what I wanted. But I love to bake. And I don’t have tons of time to bake these days. So, having a whole day to bake a cake felt like a fabulous birthday luxury.

I had fun trolling through my cookbooks and picking the recipe.

I had fun doing everything exactly right. I read the recipe from start to finish just like every good baker should do—twice, in fact. I measured the flour the right way, scooping it into the measuring cup and leveling it off. I purchased the bananas a few days ago so they would be super ripe. I put all of the ingredients on the counter to get to room temperature before I used them and didn’t even cheat by putting them in the microwave. I cut out the parchment paper circles for my cake pans precisely.

The best part of this whole project? When David Lebovitz himself direct messaged me via Twitter after I tweeted that I’d be making the Banana Cake with Mocha Frosting and Salted Candied Peanuts from his book Ready for Dessert. “Be sure to let frosting sit until room temperature to thicken. That was somehow omitted from the book, although seems evident ;)” he wrote.

Yes, sir!

I was giddy for a good hour over the fact that he messaged me! I love David Lebovitz!

I also loved his cake, which is remarkable since it was consumed within an hour of scarfing down a big buttery lobster roll.

The banana cake was super moist with two cups of mashed ripe bananas, sour cream, and butter. It was studded with walnuts. And it baked to a perfect consistency and didn’t get browned edges like some cakes do.

The frosting simply consisted of chocolate, espresso, and butter. You knew that would be good.

And the candied peanuts quickly crystallized after being cooked in sugar and water. After cooking, they were sprinkled with cinnamon and salt. Mine didn’t get glossy like I thought they should have—but they tasted good. That’s for sure.

I loved how the flavors were layered throughout—espresso was a hero in the frosting, but was also added as a secondary flavor to the banana cake. And there was cinnamon in both the banana cake and the candied peanuts.

I had to improvise a bit because the recipe didn’t make enough frosting to cover the sides of the cake. But whatevs, the frosting on the side of the cake is usually too much for me.

I think I’ve started a new tradition for myself: baking my own birthday cakes. (At least for as long as my mom doesn’t live in Minneapolis.)

Happy birthday, to me!

Banana Cake with Mocha Frosting and Salted Candied Peanuts, Adapted slightly from Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz


2.5 c flour
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1.5 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 c unsalted butter, room temp
1.5 c sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp espresso powder
2 large eggs, room temp
6 tbsp sour cream, room temp
2 c ripe bananas, mashed (I needed 5 bananas)
1 c toasted walnuts, chopped

Candied Peanuts

1 c  unsalted roasted peanuts
½ c sugar
3 tbsp water
½ tsp sea salt
1/8 tsp cinnamon


10 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
½ c brewed espresso
10 tsbp unsalted butter, room temp

Preheat oven to 350.

Butter two 9-inch round cake pans. Line bottoms with parchment paper.

For Cake:

In medium bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar on medium until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add vanilla and espresso powder; mix. Add eggs one at a time, mixing until blended completely each time. Add in half of the flour mixture; mix. Add in sour cream and bananas; mix. Add in rest of flour and mix until just combined. Stir in walnuts by hand.

Divide batter equally into both pans. Bake for about 35 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean when inserted into middle of cakes.

Let cool completely in pans.

For Peanuts:

Stir peanuts, sugar, and water together in medium heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Turn on heat to medium. Stir periodically until sugar starts to crystallize. At that point, turn heat down to medium-low, continuing to stir, coating all of the peanuts. (My sugar became completely crystallized quickly, and this is when I stopped.) Off heat, sprinkle with salt and cinnamon. Pour onto sheet pan to let cool.

For Frosting:

Place chocolate and espresso in bowl resting on pot of simmering water and melt the chocolate until smooth and well blended with the espresso. Off heat, whisk in butter. Let frosting cool to room temp before using.

To Assemble:

Remove cakes from pans one at a time. Place first cake down on cake plate. Pour half of frosting on the top and smooth out. Place second cake on top. Pour rest of frosting on top of second cake and smooth. Scatter one cup of the peanuts over the top.

June 19, 2011

Chick Food (Chilled Persian Yogurt Soup)

Zach doesn’t like the following foods: cold soup, kiwis, melons, grapefruit, cucumbers, and things that stick in his teeth. There are others, but those are sufficient for now for illustrative purposes.

So last weekend when he was on a bike trip with his dad, I recognized an opportunity, and took advantage.

I love cold, creamy yogurt-based soups, but we never have them because, well, Zach would rather die than eat them.

I also forgot to mention that he generally doesn’t like foods when they are used for things other than their primary usage. Yogurt used for soup would fall into this category.

I found this recipe for Chilled Persian Yogurt Soup in the most recent Food & Wine. It is a fabulous issue, by the way. I happily flagged about 50 recipes and have already started ticking through them.

Chilled Perisian Yogurt Soup. It just sounds refreshing, healthy, and delicious, no?

What really intrigued me was that the recipe called for dried rose petals. I never found them in town, but I found a source for them online (Kalustyans). I didn’t plan ahead enough to order these petals and get them in time for the weekend, so I had to make the recipe without. And that worked.

It was ridiculously easy to make and involved lots of my favorite prep step: chopping. Chopping and preparing mis en place. Oh, and peeling!

Greek yogurt, ice water, walnuts, golden raisins, cucumbers, lots of freshly chopped mint, chives, and dill. Some ground sumac. That's it.

It’s almost cooling me down just thinking about it. It’s the perfect soup to keep a container of in the fridge for the weekend, ready to be spooned into a bowl at a moment's notice.

Chilled Persian Yogurt Soup, Adapted Slightly from the June 2011 issue of Food & Wine

1/2 c walnuts, toasted, cooled, and chopped
2 c plain greek yogurt
1.5 cups ice water
1/2 c golden raisins
1/2 seedless cucumber, peeled and finely diced
1/4 c chopped fresh mint
1/4 c chopped fresh dill
1/4 c chopped fresh chives
Salt and fresh ground pepper
Ground sumac (optional)

Whisk together the yogurt and ice water. Stir in all other ingredients, except for ground sumac. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Sprinkle with a pinch of ground sumac after ladeled into bowls to be served.

(If you want to use the dried rose petals, the recipe calls for 1/4 c. They should be soaked in cold water for about 20 minutes until they are soft, and then squeezed of excess liquid. They get mixed in with all of the other chopped ingredients.)

June 15, 2011

Meet My New Favorite: Tilia

I have officially declared Tilia “my new favorite place” to everyone I have talked to since going there twice this weekend. Yes. Twice.

All of this “my new favorite place” talk got me thinking. What is it about places that make them become one of my favorites? Because I generally have a rolling list of five or so favorites. They change slightly every once in a while, but overall I’m pretty loyal. This is my working theory on what translates into favorite status:

Has a neighborhood vibe. You can tell when a place is a neighborhood place the second you walk in. The people look familiar even though you don’t know them. They are dressed more casually. There is a more laid back vibe. Everyone’s more comfortable because they feel like they’re on their own turf. I feel this way when I walk into Broder's Pasta Bar. I feel this way when I walk into Pizzeria Lola. And I felt this way when I walked into Tilia. Both times.

Has things on the menu that you actually want to eat. This sounds odd, but there are places where you want to devour the menu, and there are places that make amazing food but don’t have super inspiring menus. Take Grand Café, for example. I love Grand Café for brunch, but I have never been there for dinner, and I don’t really want to go there for dinner. I’ve looked at the dinner menu many times, and it just…falls flat. Sure, there is a chicken entrée. There is a beef entrée. A vegetarian entrée. And not a whole lot in between. Tilia though…Tilia has things on the menu that I want to eat. That’s why I had to go twice last weekend. I knew I had to try something other than the burger on my first visit Friday night, even though I was dying for that burger. But I was also dying for the brisket, for the grilled bread with prosciutto and mozzarella, for the scallops, for the roasted chicken thighs, and for all of the things we actually ordered that night. But I thought about that burger all weekend; I had to go back for it.

A connection to the chef or owner. Steven Brown, one of the owners and “Executive Culinary Director” served part of our meal both times I was at Tilia this weekend. I happen to love when the owners and chefs are present and engaging with the patrons. It gives you a good sense of how much they care about the food they’re serving. And I think that makes it taste better. Really. Chef / owner Russell Klein of Meritage also does walk-throughs in the dining room. I’ve been asked by him a few times now how my meal was. Lucia Watson sometimes eats with friends in her own restaurant. Connection. We all want connection, whether we admit it or not.

A place that works for special occasions and weeknights. We do a lot of dining out during the work week. Ironically, we go to a lot of the same places when we’re celebrating or going out on a date night. Barrio is a great example of this. We hit it up frequently on random Tuesday nights for tacos and a margarita. We’ve also hit it up for Zach’s birthday two years in a row. Same for Broder's. We’ve spent countless weeknights at the pasta bar and were there just last night for a birthday celebration dinner. When you love a place, I think you crave the feeling you get when you walk in. And that feeling is what makes it perfect for more-special-than-weeknight occurrences.

Good food. This is an obvious one, right? So let’s get to it for Tilia. Love the menu, and love the food when it comes out. I have to say, my friend Ben made the best ordering decisions Friday night, even though everything was truly good.

We all started by sharing the spicy shrimp (only because they were sold out of the quickly-becoming-famous-in-town scallops), the fries, and the escargot. All were good. I think the fries with dipping sauce were the favorite? They’re good fries. It's good sauce.

For entrees, I had the Squash Caramelle Pasta. Medium-sized pillows of filled pasta, with a creamy and satisfying (albeit maybe a tad salty) sauce with Gorgonzola and walnuts. My friend Ben had the beef brisket and that was the entrée show-stopper at our table. It was really delicious, served with crème fraiche mashed potatoes. I immediately had food envy.

For desserts, we decided to not share. By this point, we had all fallen in love with this place. I had the Butterscotch Pot de Crème, and it was good, although it tasted more like caramel to me than butterscotch. And again, Ben again chose the real winner: the Spiced Pear Bundt Cake with Cardamom Glaze. The glaze was to die for. Must try to replicate.

Sunday night I had that Bacon Cheeseburger that I lusted for all weekend. It did not disappoint—and I had built up some pretty high expectations. It was so good that I found myself savoring it, eating it deliberately and slowly, alternating in bites of the homemade pickles served alongside. The bun was fresh, soft, and chewy. The pickle mayo was a nice touch. Bacon. Cheese. It wasn’t over the top. Simple, but really well executed.

But I think my favorite thing that I’ve had so far is the Roasted Chicken Thighs. I don’t even usually like chicken thighs. But I had heard about these, so Zach and I tried them. There was no bone in them, so that was an immediate win. They were juicy and perfectly seasoned. “Sorta jerk style,” it says on the menu. I was very sad when Zach sent one flying off the table by accident and we lost it to the floor. After seriously deliberating the five second rule, we each ended up having only one lovely chicken thigh vs the one and a half we could have had barring that accident. That was sad.

What’s next on my radar are the BLT Dogs (yes, BLT hotdogs), the scallops (that I feel like are the thing people rave most about), the Gravlax (supposed to be another winner). Oh, and brunch! They have brunch. They also have snacks. Afternoon and late night.

Very reasonably priced.

Fabulous light fixtures. A super cute bar-bar, and a super cute bar overlooking the kitchen.

This place is brilliant.

P.S. Check out their video on their website. It’ll make you love the place even more.

Tilia on Urbanspoon

June 12, 2011

Welcome, Neighbor!

I had one of those moments on Saturday where everything was perfect. The sun was warm, the breeze was cool. I was walking to my car with my breakfast in one hand (Hangover Hash from The Chef Shack), my freshly made coffee in the other hand, and a bag hanging from my wrist that contained rhubarb for jam, mint for soup, and a little white paper bag of baked goods (for me). And I was feeling productive b/c it was only 9:15 am.

I went home with my good spirits in tow and sat on the porch and ate my breakfast on one of our bright yellow chairs. By myself. Without my phone. Without the TV on. I swear it set the tone for the whole day. I got things done yesterday that it would never occur to me to get done. Like mulch our flower beds. Half of them, anyway.

I love the new Fulton Farmers Market. I love that it’s exactly five blocks away, and that I can walk there. I also love that I can drive and find parking easily, which is what I actually do. I love that it’s not super crowded and that I can move around. I love that it seems to have a particularly happy vibe vs other markets. And perhaps best, I love the tasty things found there.

Nah, it’s not as big as Mill City Farmers Market. Certainly not as big as the Mpls Farmers Market. But it’s my neighborhood’s market. And I love my neighborhood.

The only thing I don’t like about it is the mean lady who yelled at me for taking photos of her produce (okay, maybe yell isn’t the right word, gave me attitude is probably a little more fair, but still). But that’s okay, there are other produce vendors to buy from there who are happy to have a photo of their beautiful stuff on the web.

I would like to say that I go to the market primarily for produce, but I’d be lying. Sure, the produce is great, what there is of it this time of the year anyway (lots of lettuces, a few tiny baby strawberries, green onions, rhubarb).

But when produce gets stacked up against something like The Chef Shack, it’s gonna be hard for produce to win. I’ve been a fan of The Chef Shack ever since I met it at the Mill City Farmers Market a few summers ago. They have Indian Spiced Mini Doughnuts that are out of this world (literally, figuratively). Haven’t seen those little gems hit the Fulton market yet, but everything they serve is generally great. Saturday I ordered the Hangover Hash. Was I hung over? No. Had I had some wine the night before? Yes. So, seemed like I could make it work.

I’ve never had a breakfast of eggs, veggies, and potatoes taste so good. Seriously. The potatoes had great straight-up potato flavor, but were also salted perfectly and in these big chunks of smashed-ness. The veggies made me feel healthy. The eggs were tasty. And to really make it sing, there was a special sauce drizzled all across the top. I have no idea what it was, but I’m guessing it involved sour cream or mayo. And it involved something red to give it its salmon-y color. I didn’t study it long enough to figure out what it was because I was too busy shoving it into my mouth.

But it gets even better than the Hangover Hash and The Chef Shack.

I had been hearing about this Bogart Loves, a new baker in town. She has a daytime gig unrelated, but will be baking this summer at the Fulton and Kingsfield markets, alternating each week. I immediately became intrigued by this, imagining someone waking up at like 1 am on market days to bake away. And I heard her stuff was delicious, so I had to give it a shot.

BL’s stuff looks homemade (in a well-done but still charming way), which immediately raised the appeal for me. We have some good baked goods in town (not a ton, but some), but they are squarely in the professional camp. And when you’re talking cookies, brownies, and cupcakes, you want something homemade.

I tried her Nutella-Stuffed Doughnut, her Chocolate Whoopie Pie, and her Chocolate Cupcake. All three were fantastic. The Nutella-Stuffed Doughnut was perfect in proportions. The dough wasn’t overly sweet, and the amount of Nutella wasn’t over the top. The cupcake surprised me at first because I was expecting the usual super sweet chocolate cupcake. This one was smarter than the rest. It was deep in chocolate and glazed with only a thin layer of chocolate ganache. A very nice cupcake. And cute. The whoopie pie was moist, creamy, cakey, and sweet, just like a whoopie pie should be. The cakey layers were thinner than I would have expcted, but there was a right amount of frosting associated with it, so it worked.

There is a vendor who sells goat cheese.

I’m pretty sure I saw a vendor selling meats.

One vendor had gorgeous peonies.

Sunstreet Bakery and Patisserie 46 are both there (although I’ll always be hitting up BL for baked goods).

There is a stand that brews the coffee right in front of you, and has uber thick real cream. (I bet its organic, too.)

Big River Pizza was there a few weeks ago when I went.

And of course, there are produce vendors. But look for the nice produce vendors.

Welcome, FFM!