Restaurant Reviews: 2006 Archives
Sometimes, we like to be reminded of how much fun it can be to hang around in bars. Not that we favor a steady diet of bar food or bar fun. But once in a while, meeting up with friends for beers and classic rock music is a simple pleasure. It's even better with some decent food.
Can we have a better term than "ethnic restaurant"?
We know what it means: immigrant food from someplace that it isn't here. Italian was mainstreamed in the 1950s, and Mexican a couple of decades later, but we tend to lump every other cuisine into a broad category called "ethnic," as if injera and pita and tortilla were similar enough to be interchangeable. They're not, of course.
Nalapak is the new name for Udupi Cafe, the long-beloved Indian vegetarian restaurant in Columbia Heights. There's a new owner, but the menu is exactly the same. Unfortunately, there are new cooks in the kitchen and the food was not nearly as good as it was the last time we'd been in.
Gobi manghuriani has long been our favorite dish, and it's still good.
Pablo's has been around for 20 years, ever since Pablo and his family moved to Minnesota from Southern California. The food isn't the traditional Mexican you'll find in the taquerias in South Minneapolis, nor is it really Tex-Mex. It's Cal-Mex, an Americanized version of Mexican food created by early immigrants who settled in California. Think Taco Bell, only much tastier.
As served at Pablo's, "Americanized" means "not at all spicy."
Pablo's menu consists of mostly Mexican standards -- tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos and so on -- in a variety of combinations.
We don't know Brenda Langton personally, but we see her around town at the groceries and markets. She's involved with the local organic food scene, and was the driving force behind the Mill City Farmer's Market.
We're also sure that Cafe Brenda is where we, like many of our friends, were first introduced to croquettes, which were exotic then but now seem an unpretentious and practical way to use up leftovers. It was certainly where we were all introduced to vegetarian fine dining.
The best spinach salad we've ever had was at the Naar Grille in Eden Prairie.
We've been fooling around with vinaigrettes at home, trying to find the smooth but biting blend that makes a salad great. The dressing on the spinach salad at Naar was in every way ideal. The olive oil and lemon juice each stood out as individual flavors but supported each other as vinaigrette is meant to.
Ah, the diner. This classic establishment was brought down by chain restaurant aggression and the upmarketing of the American palate. The tiny and charming Town Talk sat empty for too many years.
But a good space is a good space, and the renaissance of Lake Street continues.
During the sweltering days of summer, nothing suits us better than the pure classic simplicity of a chocolate malt. At its best, the cold ice cream is perfectly offset by the chocolate and malt, creating the reigning champion among soda fountain treats.
Unfortunately, a proper malt, tasting of malt powder, is darned hard to come by. We've visited some of the top names in the business locally and haven't been impressed.
Talented hands using fresh ingredients are the focus of today's restaurant menu. And the speed with which trends boomerang through the industry turns every new idea into everybody's new idea in a matter of weeks. Or so it seems.
Dining out has never been so good.
You know as well as we do that being a restaurant critic is fun. But the very best part of the job isn't, as you might expect, free restaurant meals. What's really great is when we get to share the news about someplace that's truly special. And we have one for you this time.
The thing about Italian food in America is that, at its worst, it can be so very very bad. Think beans in the school lunch spaghetti and you realize how badly Italian can be misinterpreted in America. On the other hand, nearly every Chinese restaurant is run by members of a Chinese family with at least a couple of recipes they really like.
At Tak Shing in Lakeville, we had the good fortune of ordering some of those marvelous dishes.
There are many reasons why the influx of Hispanic immigrants is good for this country, but our favorite is the restaurants they open. We still have our share of Tex-Mex American restaurants, and fake Mexican dishes at corporate chain restaurants, but now it seems that every community has an authentic family-run Mexican restaurant.
Lino Lakes got its version last December, when Poblano's opened up in a small strip mall. Run by the husband and wife team of Mateo and Janine Salas, they cook their own versions of standard Mexican favorites.
It's hard to just wander into Evergreen, given that it's in the basement of a small, nondescript office building. But it's scrupulously clean, brightly lit and filled with people. They know something you're going to learn: Evergreen is the perfect Chinese restaurant for the budget-conscious vegetarian.
The spectrum of vegetarian practice runs from casual avoidance of some animal-based foods to the strictest veganism, but everyone can enjoy the Taiwanese cooking at Evergreen.
A deli stands or falls on its corned beef and pastrami. Pastrami Jack's versions are either good or mediocre, depending on what kind of deli meats you're used to. If you're used to supermarket versions of these, Pastrami Jack's will impress you. But if you're familiar with the housemade meats of the great New York delis, you'll remember that you're not in New York. Neither had the richness and depth of flavor we would have liked.
Any of half a dozen companies in Ireland will build an Irish pub to suit your space, ship it and install it. They'll provide you with faux decor and advise you in the finer points of Irish conviviality.
Several of these pubs have popped up around the Twin Cities, including Claddagh, an outpost of an Ohio chain now anchoring a corner of the new Main Street in Maple Grove.
Once you get past the too-perfect fakery of it all, Claddagh is a nice place.
India is home to a huge variety of cultures and cuisines, and they all have their unique tastes. But in this country, most Indian restaurants tend to have similar menus. If you've eaten at a few, you've learned that kormas are creamy and not spicy, rogan josh dishes are medium and vindaloos are hot. You know that biryani is a seasoned rice dish and tikka masala is tomato-based.
So there we were, eating with a couple of South African exchange students, talking to our Palestinian waiter and exchanging pleasantries with the Arabic-speaking men at the next table smoking from hookahs. Right here in Anoka County. It's moments like this that make this job fun.
Lewis Carroll introduced the hookah into Western consciousness, and now we all know what it looks like.
If you took some ideas from Indian cuisine, a bit of Greek cookery, and a handful of dietary traits from around the Mediterranean, you'd end up with something that looks and tastes a lot like Kurdish food. You'd find flat bread and more vegetables than meat, all with lots of flavor but not much spice.
Babani's claims to be the first Kurdish restaurant in the United States, and we're not going to argue. It's certainly been a downtown St. Paul institution since it opened in 1997.
When we do a review meal, we bring a group of friends to help us try more dishes. We try to bring people who like and dislike a range of foods, because we want opinions from fussy eaters as well as those who will eat pretty much anything.
This being Minnesota, we never have trouble finding friends who don't care for spicy foods. Most of the time, finding mildly spiced dishes is no problem at all, because restaurateurs tone down the heat in spicy cuisines for those Minnesota palates.
Minnesota has too much experience with tearing down buildings and neighborhoods.
For some reason, we turn our backs on our history when we look ahead to the future. So we were delighted to make the trip down to the Ole Store in Northfield.
Here, a legendary local breakfast place and former general store has been updated with a bright spotlight on the past.
There's a great satisfaction in eating spicy food on a cold winter day. Pungent ingredients such as chili peppers transport us to hot climates. Thai is a great winter cuisine, and that's true even if you don't like spicy food. Thai dishes combine ginger, scallions, coconuts, peanuts, basil and more, in ways that get our taste buds out of hibernation.
Pop is a cool neighborhood restaurant featuring brightly painted walls, 16 tables and a small counter, terrific and friendly staff. Pop is not a bit pretentious. It's the kind of place you'd love to have within walking distance of your house. Our main question going in: is it a restaurant worth driving to?
Thai food, like other cuisines from southeast Asia, uses a palette of ingredients to produce complex, highly flavored dishes. You'll want to share these dishes with your group. Note that, like most Americans, Thai don't use chopsticks, unless they are eating Chinese food.
We love the harmonies and balances of the sweet, salt, spicy, sour and bitter ingredients.
We like neighborhood restaurants so good that we wish we lived in the neighborhood. The pretty Hazellewood Grill and Tap Room, out in Tonka Bay, is just such a place.
They've got a fun, and unusual, twist in the individual beer taps in some booths in the bar. You can pour your own if you happen to get a booth serving what you like to drink.
Serum's is the kind of restaurant that has been endlessly reproduced in national chains. It's just that Serum's has no forced kitsch about it. The building is over a hundred years old, with all that 19th century charm. It's a long narrow space with incredibly high tin ceilings, exposed brick, and well-trod wood floors.
The Grand City Buffet is impressively large. You won't see everything on your first trip to the food. You'll get back to your table, look at your dinner companion's choices, and say something like: "I didn't see the roast duck," or "What do you mean, they serve sushi?"
There are seven tables of food (both hot and cold): salads, main dishes, and desserts. They promise over 180 different items, but since different preparations rotate in and out, you can expect something new all the time.
Shortstop doesn't come across as a family restaurant, because, at its heart, it's not. It's a place for a guy to drop by on his way home from work, have a brew, and maybe get something to eat. But in pursuit of good things to eat, we'll go pretty much anywhere.
We came in search of chicken wings.
“Not only did they want to reform design but to give quality once more to the work process itself." Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan wrote that about the Arts and Crafts movement in general, but we think it applies as well to the transformation of a rickety corner bar into a neighborhood fine dining room.
That neighborhood, with its proliferation of small and well-built bungalows, exactly suits The Craftsman. The restaurant shows its flair in the good wood tables and Arts and Crafts architecture, but even more in its commitment to well-prepared local foods.
Chef Mike Phillips says, "Much of Minnesota's food comes as far as 1,500 miles, and that's responsible for all kinds of waste.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
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