Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Saffron: get your ass down there!

Yesterday was a balls-to-the-wall eating extravaganza, kicking off at the Sibley Plaza strip mall gem Queen of Sheba and finishing with Saffron Restaurant and Lounge. Queen of Sheba will get their well-deserved shout out in another post... for now let's focus on Saffron, shall we?

Having opened in February, highly favorable reviews can be found from the Strib and MSP Mag, as well as in a growing thread on the Mpls Chowhound board. I agree with the lot: practically everything coming out of Saffron's kitchen vibrates with freshness, and the execution last night, from a cook's perspective, was mostly flawless. The unique thing about Saffron's food is its successful marriage of middle-eastern, north African and mediterranean influence. Recurrent are the flavors of harissa, mint, cumin, cinnamon, cilantro, parsley, za'tar, sumac and, of course, olive oil. At the same time, western luxe favorites such as ahi tuna and foie gras are enlivened by astringent, herbal tabbouleh and a dab of subtle rose jam, respectively. I had the luck to try almost everything on the menu-- a staggering 25 or so dishes which the four of us, in attack formation, took on 3 items at a time (we told them to just keep sending food until we could handle no more). A few favorites: deviled eggs topped with high-quality olive oil tuna, capers and a few blades of tarragon; rich and earthy house-made mirqaz (merguez) sausage, on a tangle of sweet and tender roasted red pepper confit; sugary date slivers with creamy, neutral goat cheese and fresh thyme; a special not-on-the-menu plate of beef carpaccio topped with spicy, zesty cumin-laced beef tartare, crisp fried chickpeas and brown butter; the delicate vegetable bisteeya which in my mind recalled baklava with its walnuts, almonds and crisp phyllo dusted with cinnamon powdered sugar. There were very few disappointments. The scallops had sounded promising, but the saffron sabayon was thin and lacking in flavor. The main course items we tried were well executed, but inherently less exciting than many of the small plate items-- yet at this point we were also getting to be quite stuffed, which consequently altered our perception. I had been thrilled at the thought of the house made lamb bacon accompanying the braised lamb shoulder, but in fact it had been simmered with the chickpeas and had therefore all but dissolved as far as we could tell. But apparently at lunch they offer a BLT featuring it in its rightful, unadulterated salty, lamb-y glory (at least, that's how I imagine it). Desserts (admittedly overkill for us at this point) were really nothing special, but not bad. A turkish coffee and chocolate ice cream was very nice and not too sweet, as was an intense cherry sorbet. Happily, Saffron also pulls a good espresso... I'm always so disappointed when a meal ends with bitter, watery coffee. Monday through Wednesday the already affordable wine is 1/2 price, and we drank a nice chablis followed by a tasty Oregon pinot noir.

Even after the dining room eventually filled completely, service thoughout the evening was attentive, efficient, friendly and very well-informed (despite just a few times when mint was verbally identified as basil, thyme as rosemary and other such finicky things that only stickler cooks --such as yours truly-- give a damn about). Our many courses came at a steady and appropriate pace, water and wine were generally refilled frequently, plates were cleared very quickly, and our server thoughtfully replaced our silverware and small tasting plates every couple of courses as they got all saucy.

I really do hope to see Saffron continue its success beyond a couple-month wave of popularity from favorable reviews. As I and many others have already expounded upon, the Minneapolis fine dining scene is a fickle mistress these days. So get out there, spend that extra 60 bucks or even 20 bucks burning a hole in your pocket, or else we'll be screwed with nothing but goddamned Wolfgang's worthless pan-asian blah blah blaaaah!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sick, twisted... and undeniably delicious

In the summer I love few things better than a fat burger from grass-fed beef, lovingly grilled over blistering hot coals to a wonderfully carcinogenic char, revealing a carnal medium-rare interior, served on a soft but substantial homemade bun with few or no fixin's. Like this one. Or Ryan's signature off-the-hook concoction of beef mixed with lots of diced red onion, good blue cheese, garlic and a hefty dose of black pepper.

But sometimes you find yourself wasted.

At 3am. Biking down Blaisdell Ave, about to cross Lake St.

Yes, friends and family, you know what that means: I paid a visit to The Castle. Yes, the white one. Ryan and I are both to blame for this, er, lapse in reason. We were truly enraptured by the sweet but deadly siren song known only as The Drunk Hunger. But you know what, those bacon double cheeseburgers (two each!) were preposterously good, perched there on the dirty Lake St curb while drunkenly dissecting the highly dubious merit of the term "steam-grilled." I don't know what heinous, biohazardous mojo they put in those damn things, but by god were they good at the time!!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Levain redux: Bistro Levain

Due to my underwhelming (read: empty) schedule, I made a point of being among the first kids on the block to scope out the reincarnation of Levain... out with high-fallutin' (read: exquisite) degustation, in with reasonably priced Frenchy food for the neighborhoodies: meet Bistro Levain, of which we've been recently hearing anticipatory rumblings. Now, I very very unfortunately never got to eat at the original Levain, so I can easily refrain from drawing comparison between the two. The following is a general breakdown of my evening on opening night, June 12th 2007...

Upon arriving at 8:00, the room was almost completely full, and subsequently quite noisy, which lends either a very convivial or irritating quality depending on your mood. Like the other diners, fortunately we were feeling convivial, although all the shouting around the table did prove a bit tiring. This was not aided by the fact that our table, a six top, was too large for our party of four, but of course that can't be helped when they're the last seats in the place, which I believe they were. So, settling into the bustle of the pleasant, low-lit (but not annoyingly dim), newly woodpaneled room, we ordered a nice bottle of 1995 reserve I-forget-the-details Rioja and opened our menus. The first thing that struck me were the encouraging prices: mussels available in two sizes, for 8 bucks or 14, nice salads for 6 to 9/ten-ish, main courses for I think as little as 12 and topping off at around 20. For the neighborhood, I find this price point to be decidedly correct. The second thing that struck me was momentarily a little more surprising: in this day and age of seasonal, local, farmer's market-driven dining hype, the menu at Bistro Levain is straightforwardly, well... bistro-y! See this excerpt from Wikipedia's definition:
A bistro is a familiar name for a type of small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in an unpretentious setting, especially in Paris, France. A bistro may not offer professional service or printed menus, and it will usually specialize in simple classic dishes such as steak au poivre, French onion soup, and coq au vin.

Small? Check. Unpretentious? Check. Moderately priced? Definite check. Simple? Another check. And although there's no steak au poivre, there was a hangar steak (mm, good ol' onglet... love it!), and also both onion soup and coq au vin. Which is to say, these are indeed bistro classics-- which, if you're like me, you might find to have a winter-weather, stick-to-your-ribs feel. Meat and potatoes. But, fair enough! We began with all three of the offered starters: a take on moules à la crème (the mussels here steamed with wine, a bit of cream, tomato and chives), breaded and fried frogs' legs with a sauce reminiscent of rouille and wedges of roasted fennel, and pork rillettes. A very thoughtful touch is the condiment caddy that every table receives, which this night featured a tasty corn relish, chopped marinated beets, quick-pickled shaved cucumber, and a loose and good aïoli. Next we shared an arugula salad with a creamy lemon vinaigrette and grilled marinated artichoke hearts, a chilled cucumber soup, and the French onion soup. For our mains, we got coq au vin, braised shortribs, roasted chicken and duck confit (yep, that last one was me). Another user-friendly system is that you choose your own side dish with all of the main courses, which can also be ordered à la carte. These included grilled asparagus with lemon, roasted brussels sprouts, mac n cheese, fresh fries, roasted (or sautéed? I forget) mushrooms, bread and tomato salad, and maybe even a few more I can't remember. So let's start at the beginning...

The mussels were well seasoned and fairly plentiful considering we had ordered the smaller size. The frogs' legs were presented simply and prettily arranged, offset by smears of the sauce and a couple wedges of the fennel. This dish, although not bad, was not a standout. The frog was, as frog frequently is, just like chicken, and therefore was like eating oddly shaped breaded chicken wings. The sauce added the only flavor to the otherwise bland and lean meat in its crisp coating, and the fennel, although tender and flavorful, we found to be overly oily. Them frogs' legs... I always want to like the idea (unlike most people), but the only really great ones I've ever eaten were at some Thai place in Miami when I was a kid. Oh well. I tasted only a bit of the rillettes. The seasoning was good, but I felt they lacked the lush, artery-clogging quality so inherent to that preparation. And one other little thing that bugged me: our bread baskets came with a dish of lovely big butter curls... which were fridge-cold and unspreadable. Argh!

I feel that our second course was the highlight of the meal. The salad was simple, properly dressed with a vinaigrette that reinforced the assertiveness of the arugula while still holding its own, and with ingredients as fresh and crisp as you could want. The artichokes were of the canned/jarred variety, but still very good and a bit warm and smoky from the grill. And wasn't there mozzarella on there too..? I think so. Anyhow. The cucumber soup was clean, pure, refreshing and subtle, maybe the best version of this classic I've had. Enhanced by a few drops of olive oil and just a mere spoonful of crème fraîche, the cool, melony nature of the vegetable was able to shine through. The texture was also just right, smooth but with some body, which we suspected might be thanks to a bit of buttermilk. And the French onion soup was a real champion! This is the kind of dish that holds no interest for me during summer months, but I had to sample it anyways... it turned out to be a little bowl of insanely rich, beefy stock, onion-sweet without being cloying, with a molten crown of good quality cheese. It truly had the substance and depth of demi-glace; I challenge anyone to find a better French onion soup this side of Bouchon (um, who I can only imagine to have a good version). On the side came a fluffy heap of fried shallots scattered with chives. Crispy and good, but far too many of them.

Moving on, I was a bit let down by my main course. My duck confit arrived missing its thigh section almost completely, and was tender but curiously did not taste seasoned throughout (despite the fact that it had, of course, been salt-cured). Its accompanying red wine-blackberry sauce was ok, but nothing special, and therefore to me superfluous. There was was also a small pouf of assertive greens and flat parsley dressed with lemon, whose brash sharpness served as a nice contrast to the rich meat. I had chosen the bread salad as my side, which turned out to be a large dish of olive bread croutons, chopped tomato, lots of thinly sliced red onion and shredded basil. It was summery, well seasoned with a good balance of salt/acidity, and the tomatoes were actually quite good for this early in the season. My single criticiscm is that the croutons were slow to soak up the juices and mostly remained intact and hard; torn pieces instead of cubes would fare better (although admittedly a prep nightmare), and perhaps the whole could be combined in small batches throughout service so as to allow the bread to better resoften. I did not try the roasted chicken, but the report was good, nor did I try the shortribs. I did sample the coq au vin and was unimpressed. The sauce seemed muddy and indistinct, the chicken without much character. Dessert was simple, but so-so. Crème brûlée was fine and what you expect.... although misspelled on the menu (ok, ok, I do know that I'm a big ass when it comes to that!!! But yes: missing/incorrect accents in French does equal misspelled. Also: the menu states that rillettes are "similar to pate..." this is neither French or English, though it's more similar to "pâte,"which means either quite simply "dough" or "paste" or "pasta"). I had good hopes for the tarte Tatin, but alas, it was limp and uncarmelized. Next time I would like to try the licorice ice cream.

Aside from the food, service was friendly and mostly adequate, but could use fine tuning... water glasses were always filled, but bread was not replenished, plates were not brought for sharing of the starters, and things like dirty silverware did not always disappear. Smaller things, but ones to address nonetheless.

All in all, Bistro Levain has all the makings of a great neighborhood place, and worthy of a short detour for their highly affordable (and accessible) French food in a pleasant yet casual atmosphere. Et là, ça va marcher très fort, à mon avis......

See my several (very poor quality) photos here.

*EDIT: In an effort to google this post, I came upon a January post on Andrew Zimmern's Chow and Again also entitled Levain Redux... just for the record, I ain't tryin' to be a little blog thief! (A relevant problem, I should add, which was recently brought to my attention at Chez Pim.) Actually, I now realize that I had read his post soon after it was published, while I was scoping out what the town had to say about the closing of Auriga (ah, my dear departed). His observations on the dining scene vs. MN consumer mentality are still interesting and highly relevant, especially as we are just beginning to see what might be the next phase in that scene's evolution, what with Doug Flicker now steering Mission and Steven Brown apparently about to open the kitchen for Harry's Food and Cocktails. Yep, a few days ago Craigslist's employment ads spilled the beans on that one, unless there has been some gossip I've missed:
Harry's Food & Cocktails is opening in early July and we need to staff our kitchen.... This is an excellent opportunity to work in a top kitchen with a well known chef making original cuisine with a neighborhood mentality. Our motto will be; Nothing Fancy. Everything Tasty! some examples:
* pressure cooked pork roast with strongbow cider and mustard de meaux
* dry aged duck breast with pickled grapes and sherry
* the harry burger - 100% organic chuck with local cheddar and harry's secret sauce. served with a grainbelt, of course........
*Please Email resume and letter of interest stating why you want to work at Harry's to the attention of Steven Brown.

So we'll see. I'm as hopeful as the next diner to see Minneapolis poke its head out from the ashes.....

Bistro Levain Minneapolis restaurant review MN 4800 Chicago Ave Turtle Bread Company

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Rage against the machine, indeed!

I found this to be a rather interesting article on the increasing impact of the "food blogosphere" on the mainstream.....

Through the lens of the Spotmatic....

Ah, film.

Child of the digital age yet luddite-at-heart, I've been fiddling around lately with the ol' 35mm Asahi Pentax that Ryan gave me a few months back. Although I'm a total amateur and know only the very barest basics of film photography, I'm pretty pleased with the results from Camp Bread, plus the few shots from Hog's Back Farm. Of course the scan quality dimishes the sharpness, but you get the gist. See the rest here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

My Life in France... Julia's, that is

I just finished reading Julia Child's partial autobiography, My Life in France, focused primarily (as you might imagine) on her tranformative years spent in Paris and Marseille, and her subsequent fame in the US springing from the publication of her seminal work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Now, I believe it was circa 1991 or 1992 that I became obsessed all those old-school, waaay pre-FoodNetwork cooking personalities and shows: Martin Yan, Biba, Graham Kerr, The Frugal (and morally suspect) Gourmet Jeff Smith, the Great Chefs series, and so forth. So, how on earth did I manage to miss Julia? Well, perhaps that summer spent glued to the screen taking my chicken-scratch notes coincided with a rare lull in her steady stream of shows. In any case, I've always been aware of who she was and that she was an American champion of French cuisine, but I never got acquainted with her effervescent character, her joyful enthusiasm and earnest dedication to cooking and eating. It was inspiring to read about her adventures. I'm so struck by her unhesitating plunge into the world of haute cuisine... she, a brash and towering Californian woman going head to head with the biggest Old Boys Club in French culture. And she undertook this pursuit at age 37!


She was unapologetic, indefatigable and opinionated. She refused to compromise the quality or scope of MtAoFC, even when it meant getting dropped from a publisher (whose editors were no doubt kicking themselves later!). Yesterday I found myself killing time in Barnes and Noble, idly browsing the cookbook bestsellers. I came upon a book I'd seen much publicized, Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, one woman's self-appointed challenge to cook her way through MtAoFC's 524 recipes in 365 days. The concept had first struck me as contrived, although it was mainly the fact of it getting billed as Bridget Jones Diary-type chick-lit that sparked my predjudice. But newly intrigued by all things Julia Child, I picked it up and was suddenly in 50 pages deep! However I'm on a moratorium of sorts for book buying, so onto the library list it goes.

Part of the reason for my moratorium is that I have so many unread food lit books lying already. I've just begun one of those: The People's Chef: The Culinary Revolution of Alexis Soyer. Good so far.....

Friday, June 01, 2007

Return from SF, the sequel

Fresh off the plane early yesterday morning, I brought back with me from San Francisco the lovely souvenir of strep throat. So much for getting back home renewed and refreshed. But it is nice to return in the midst of full-on Minneapolis "pre-summer," when everything is green, the weather is warm without being suffocating, and the mosquitos have yet to take total reign. Having spent so little time here in the past 15 months (and having therefore missed summer here since 2005), I'm amazed all over again at what a pleasant environment this city provides during the warmer months. Although so far I've only lain around in my pajamas for hours on end feeling sorry for myself, the great outdoors are calling me to bike around, have picnics, hang out at the lake, and of course barbecue.

My last few days in SF yielded some very good food: chicken from Roli Roti, more pork belly craziness (with duck fat fries!) from Bar Tartine, very tasty assorted homemade sausages crafted with the blood and sweat of Miyuki and Nick, the wait-worthy dry fried chicken at San Tung, an indulgent farewell lunch at SFBI by Miyuki and I, and finally a last-minute stop at Yamo, where I had also gone to just before leaving SF the last time. It is definitely a bit torturous to leave California (well, mainly SF) and all its great food behind. Who knows, perhaps I'll find yet another random reason to go back sooner rather than later?.....