1st- cafe levain, minneapolis
2nd- naviya's thai kitchen, richfield
6th- jax cafe, minneapolis
11th- osaka seafood steakhouse, apple valley
14th- baja sol, st. louis park
16th- buca di beppo, burnsville
23rd- fogo de chao, philadelphia
27th- solera, minneapolis
28th- byerly's minnesota grille, st. louis park
1st-cafe levain, minneapolis (a-)
is this the best 'french' bistro (vincent's not a bistro) in the twin cities area? quite possibly. i can't name another i'd rather return to. quite nice, and indeed a bit different than the former restaurant levain. some elements are the same- the crowd still runs to the older set, the room is still a bit loud, and the service is still friendly (and love that everyone working in the serving area walked through the space with water pitchers every few minutes and refilled the room). the prices are generally reasonable for the portions you get.
the space is lightened up a bit in color and in lumens, and looks more bistro-y (though throwing some tin on the ceiling, like in the next door turtle bread, would help that even more). the tables appear to be more packed in, which the place needs, as it was about half-full when we got there a bit past 7 pm, and when we left after 8 the place was packed. nice to see on a thursday (also packed, by the way, heidi's place... i drove by it on the way home).
their online menu is not the same as it was in the space (and hey, i would've ordered the mac and cheese as a side dish had it been), so let's see... i had the roast half-chicken with rosemary and thyme, in a deep chicken stock sauce, and a side of, yes, fries. and the chicken skin was lovely. as was the chicken, but the skin was a standout, i can't remember the last time i bothered to eat all the skin on a roast chicken. crisp, full of salt and pepper, and not oily. yum. the fries were an above average rendition (again, nothing vincent should worry about), and were especially nice dipped into the lemon aioli that came with the bread.
i will say the bread was good, but it was cold. which is odd. you'd expect fresh, room temperature bread from turtle bread company's restaurant. besides the aioli, there was butter, too.
my dining companion had a glass of the processo with the gnocci with squash. unlike a lot of gnocchis we've run into recently, it wasn't heavy. though the dish could've done without the fried sage. i guess it made a nice garnish... the brussel sprouts were also tasty, but apparently not as good as heartland's.
the wine list had a nice selection of bottles, plus some house carafes for a pretty good price. the by the glass selection was pretty decent.
besides the cold bread, the other kind of odd thing was the lack of cheese plate in the dessert selections. that doesn't seem right for what they're doing here, does it? apparently the main server we had (it was a team effort) said they had just been discussing that very thing... anyway, i wasn't quite as impressed as i was with the restaurant version, but they were trying to do something completely different and ambitious... here it was very much a comfort food trip a la francaise. a great place for the fall/winter season for sure (though they could use some coatracks, speaking of).
2nd- naviya's thai kitchen, richfield (a-)
ever since we ended up here for sole food, i've been wanting to sample more of the thai tastiness here. so i thought, hey, the buffet would be a good place to try several things at once. but alas, it's not quite the same thing. there's a bit more of a sampling of chinese-american dishes than there are thai. that was slightly disappointing, but i got over it, well, mostly.... as what they had was quite good.
the appitizers are mostly chinese- vegetarian spring rolls, cream cheese wontons, wonton soup, plus chicken satay. i'd say the spring rolls and wontons were- a common theme here- were some of the best i've ever eaten (and i've eaten quite a few cream cheese wontons, that's for sure). the wonton soup tasted exactly like my mom's soup that she puts kreplach in, which is very good, but ok, weird association. the chicken satay was a bit tough, and it was more chicken with skin than the usual tenders on a stick, but they had some excellent peanut sauce for it.
for main dishes, they had a spicy red curry, a mellower green curry (both excellent but could've used slightly better chicken), the spiciest version of cashew chicken i've had (in a good way), a fried tofu with vegetables (most excellent with the peanut sauce, and of course a vegetable pad thai, still wonderful. you could have jasmine rice, thai fried rice (not sure what made it thai), and some stir-fried veg. they also had an oyster beef and a pork dish, which i didn't try. and i didn't try any of the desserts.
the thing with this whole buffet is that all the ingredients are fresh- you don't get that slight metallic tinge from your fried rice, as you do with some places that use canned veg, and there's none of the cornstarchy sauce from hell anywhere near the food. flavors are vibrant throughout, and it's some of the best cooking around, thai or otherwise. yes, it's a buffet, but it doesn't taste like buffet food. and though the price may be just a wee bit higher than some other buffets at lunchtime, it's so worth it to come here.
or hey, if you can't make it, eat here for dinner. or get take out. i'm telling you, go. now, if you can.
6th- jax cafe, minneapolis (b+)
the last of the $50 gift certificates from the tco people. the program is no longer eat at 4 places on tuesdays and get a $50 gift certificate to a member restaurant, it's something like eat at a tco place on any day and once you spend $150, you get $10 back or so.
this place is so very old school supper club, extremely grandma-friendly. though there was a smaller contingent of younger people dining with the older ones, more than i thought there would be. odd, it's very cold in there for a place that caters to older people. there were a lot of grandma birthdays in the house, that's for sure.
anyway, since mrs. brk and i got there early enough to order off the early bird special menu, we got a starter, too. smoked trout. very fresh-tasting, too, served with cocktail rye, cucumber slices, chopped red onion and a sour cream and dill sauce. mrs. brk was reminded of the smoked fish she and mr. brk used to bring down after they visited duluth and share with grandma, but the trout here is out of star prairie. i'd recommend it.
the meals come with soup or house salad. mrs. brk opted for the salad, which is a small caesar with parmesan and croutons made from the fresh, tasty onion rolls. it could've been trimmed up a bit nicer (huge chunks of lettuce were here and there). i went with the cup of new england clam chowder. very good indeed, i can't recall having a good one of those recently.
i went with the walleye pike. if you get it on the regular menu, it comes oven-broiled or sautéed with fresh veg (in this case larger chunks of squash, green beans, and carrots, and bit of an odd mix). off the early bird, you can only get the sautéed. however, it is about $7-8 cheaper. it comes with the veg of the day. to use up a bit more cash, i got the semi-loaded baked potato (sans bacon, so not the loaded version)- basically a potato with cheese broiled over it and some chives. yes, it was good, but it was $3.95. seemed a bit overpriced to me.
mrs. brk went with the slow roasted prime rib with au jus, creamy horseradish sauce and a baked potato that came with the meal. she couldn't recall the last time she had one this good. the early bird special saved about $10, and i think you get a smaller portion for that, but she also ended taking half of it home. (then again, i took half the fish home, they don't have small portions here.)
service was by a classic jax waitress (see: old school), but also had the people clearing off, and also the water person filling glasses. since the last time i was here as a kid (yep, for grandma's birthday), i can't say if the place has changed... it's still dimly lit, red highlights, dark wood, elaborate lighting fixtures. classic nordeast.
11th- osaka seafood steakhouse, apple valley (b-)
someone asked me where a bunch of people at work could get together for dinner that wasn't too far away, and we came up with this. (there's also one in eden prairie, by the way.) it's a teppanyaki joint with a sushi bar. we did the teppanyaki side of things, as only two of us ate sushi.
the chef was good, but i think other tables got a bit more of a show. i did impress people with my ability (previously hidden) to download a very large streak of saki from the squirt bottle fountain. you get onion soup- decent, with the strange salad that most of these places serve (lettuce, sad tomato, weird thousand islandy ginger dressing), noodles, veg, white rice, and a bit of shrimp with dinner.
there was a way long wait between the salad and soup and the show part, they brought the rice out early and it was cold by the time we needed it. the veg was good, the noodles good, and everyone else's entree (especially the scallops) good. i went with chicken (against the name, i should've gone with salmon, as i know i'm not allergic to that), which was overdone. i think everyone else liked their food more than i did. it was fine. you're there for the show, really, i guess.
the space, for all the places i've been to in apple valley, is very impressive and, well, nice. especially as we didn't have to hear any of the obnoxious happy birthday song that can get very old very fast (well, except before we all got there and that was from afar), so that was good. service was pretty good, especially offering seperate checks.
would i go here again? maybe to try the sushi. or if it was another group thing for the teppanyaki, and i would so not order the chicken. my bad.
14th- baja sol, st. louis park (c+)
apparently i ate at this chain ages ago. the food's about the same- needing flavor. the mango peach salsa is good, that's about it. the fish tacos tasted like warm nothing with crispy breading, supposedly the ingredients ran as such: tortillas and lightly breaded white fish, onion, shredded cabbage, cilantro and baja fish sauce. it tasted like none of that, except crispy cabbage. it came with rice, which i didn't eat.
the steak fajita torta suffered the same problem, per mrs. brk. we both liked the idea of the hot chips and salsa bar (free with meal purchase), but the chips were just ok, and needed salt. the salsa i tasted were also ok, except for the aforementioned mango peach. the guacamole was served too cold and tasted not entirely of avocados (it may have been just that, but perhaps some mayo or sour cream snuck in... it was too cold to properly tell). wasn't worth the extra charge, for sure.
the place was kind of boring (a few mural on the wall) and bright. i like the qdoba experience more than this. though since we had a $10 off $15 coupon here (i got it for $3), and mrs. brk took away half her food, i'd say $9.50 for two dinners was a fair deal.
16th- buca di beppo, burnsville (c)
it was another going away party for someone from work. we were going to go to chianti grill, but they would not let us make reservations in advance for our party of ten, and they did not let the person who got there put their name on the list (about half an hour or so more before the rest of us got there). when i got there, they said two hours.
so when most everyone arrived, i gave a choice to people... wait here, go someplace like a buffet where we could all get whatever, or hie back to buca. buca was decided upon, after a call saying yes, they could get us in when they got there. when i handed back my pager, they asked if i wanted a card to make reservations in advance... um... that would be no. seems to not work.
so buca. my brk account: paper in my food (the order slip dropped in), forgot my mashed potatoes (i got my own), and when i asked for a smaller box or a container than the huge box they handed out for the mashed i was told more or less they have them, but they're too expensive for them to give out, so you can't have one. ok, why not say they don't have any? and why have them at all if you don't have them out? take out only? very odd. they also didn't bring bread, as they thought a small slice of bruschetta would fill everyone up. i asked for more.
they have buca for one now, but the prices are only a few bucks less than the orders for two. some of them come with sides but they still seem spendy compared with the small orders.. they need a different price point on something, either lower the one, raise the two (both?), i don't know. but odd.
the table had split the trio appetizer (friend shrimp i didn't eat, calimari that was ok, and fried mozzarella that tasted like fried, well, something) and the large bruschetta (nothing special), and the solo selections didn't look that great compared with the rest of the menu. some people ordered to share, but i felt that with what i can't or won't eat, i don't want to put those restrictions on others. (see: the shrimp on the trio platter).
i just got a side of the spaghetti with marinara with the garlic mashed (i took most of the potatoes home) because i believe in carbs. the spag was ok, nothing special. they should put the kids mac and cheese on as a side or something, that looked decent. the service was a bit shoddy. the larger group from work in march had better service. this one had something they didn't order on the bill, but it wasn't brought to the table at all. i mentioned the potatoes and the paper in my food (they offered no replacement), and such.
they have odd placement of people here. in a room where we are the only table, and very crowded and hanging in the aisle (our 10 of not small people in general was at a table for 8 i think), they put a family of four next to us instead of at the other 12 tables they could have sat at in the room that were empty. odd.
23rd- fogo de chao, philadelphia (b)
fogo de chao is a steakhouse chain that originated in brazil. the relatives in philly really wanted to go, so mrs. brk and i took them here (there's one in minneapolis, too). you can have just the salad bar (that's about $20) or all the meat you can eat, served to you from swords that it's carved off of (that was about $45 for adults, half that for kids).
the meat parade was worth it, for the adults. there's lamb, pork, beef, chicken, done up tons of ways, and apparently most of them were good to the best they've eaten (the lamb, especially). those of us who stuck with just the salad bar were pretty much doomed to disappointment, especially there wasn't a lot of things you could actually make salad with, and the things they had on it (from fresh mozzarella to sun dried tomatoes to bread to smoked salmon) were just not that great. ok at best, to some things that were odd and not tasty (some nasty cheese cut in sticks, for one, tabouli salad, for another).
you get the salad bar, plus mashed potatoes (not great), cheese rolls (quite decent), and some excellent fried polenta (though marinara would've been good) with the meat, so if you go, don't eat much of that sort of thing. you can get those elsewhere.
my sister ragged on me to find something wrong with the service... i declined at the time (i have some manners). but i'd have to say it was a bit too on point. they really wanted people to have clean plates to the point of taking plates people weren't done with, for instance. that's not right. small quibble. there were two bizarre things about the serive, though. there were no women serving there or going around with the meat that i saw. and all servers appareared pretty grim. water was refilled at half-mast, if that, side dishes that were almost done were replaced, etc.
for a place that charges a lot for a kind of crappy salad bar, it seems odd that they cheap out on some things- refills on the milk for the kids are not free.
anyway, if you feel like having a big meat day, you'd probably like this place. it seems a reasonable price for the parade of meats.
27th- solera, minneapolis (b)
the best showing i recall from solera in a few years, since 2004 perhaps. i was giving it a's then, and subsequently it was more c territory from 2005 on. why i went back more than that, i know not. but this was for a special event, where for $60 you got a multi-course, family style tapas dinner, two glasses of wine, anthony bourdain talking (the link takes you to the page i have on that event), plus a copy of the book that bourdain would sign. seemed like it could be woth it.
dinner was a very solid team effort by the crew of chefs and servers. i think the planning that went into it paid off. the serving order was a bit odd to me, but that's about it. refills of bread and water, serving for all tables, timing of courses went down well. props to the planning. i guess they went all out for this, and it showed. it wasn't as impressive as my first trips there, but not as average as the ones after that.
so, the food. i have in my possession a menu from the event, so i can be specific. on the table as we got there were four dishes- spiced sunflower seeds, mixed olives, corn nuts (i'm not kidding), and some nicely spiced marcona almonds. the almonds stood out, for me. bread came later, during dinner. i wish i had bread with my meals here before, it's good for the sauce pickup, no? the bread was nicely warm, and above average, and served with something that resembled something between a very thin salsa and tomato water, which was a bit puzzling.
for dinner, we had (not in order, maybe, but close to the way the dishes were presented to the table)
- an octopus ceviche with hot pepper and cumin. it was a bit chewy to me, but i think that's par for the course with the dish. i didn't taste much of the hot pepper and cumin.
- chorizo with hot green peppers and sidra. the peppers were nice, i didn't sample the rest of the dish.
- olive-oil poached salmon with fennel, lemon, and olives. nice texture on this, could've used a bit of fresh lemon on top to bring out all of the flavors. perfectly done salmon, though.
- shrimp and tetilla croquetas. yes, even though i'm allergic to shrimp, most likely, i couldn't stay away from these. addictive suckers, these. like an upscale popper of some sort. too bad i couldn't swipe the sauce of the plate for these.
- oxtail terrine with perserved lemon frita mixta and horseradish. well, the frita mixta was nice and cruncy and fresh, like an excellent tempura. i didn't eat the rest.
- fresh portuguese goat's milk cheese in mojo verde. let's just say i seemed so very excited about this that the server, who had been handing the platters to someone on the opposite bit of the table until this one came close to the end, handed it off directly to me. loved it. ate lots of it. could've eaten all of it, perhaps, had i been given a shot (though i did do more than my share of damage on it). it was lovely on the bread. hurrah for cheese.
- piquillo peppers with herbed goat's milk cheese. oddly enough, i was not as exited about these. maybe as i'd had them before, and recall it was nothing exciting. i think that's because the peppers were roasted and stored in oil or some such, and the texture is not my favorite. still liked the cheese, of course.
- grilled pork belly and morcilla (blood sausage) with white beans and romesco. i dug the beans. the pork was reported as sinfully good. bourdain mentioned later that it was because of mario batali that dishes like this could be served around the nation.
i am not sure what the wines were, but they weren't that great (general consensus). i also had a 'pineapple upside down cake' girly drink, with pineapple juice (really?), vodka, grenadine, and a few other things. oddly, not sweet enough for me. yes, i'm that bad.
28th- byerly's minnesota grille, st. louis park (f)
the grade is all about mrs. brk's experience. it started almost from when we walked in. we were shown a table for two, when across the aisle was a table for four with one person at it. we asked for a larger table.
mrs. brk got the cod with a baked potato and broccoli off the senior menu. i opted for something off the seasonal menu, pumpkin soup that had pumpkin seeds in it plus a beemster cheese apple, and onion 'quesadilla' (it said it was on the menu, but it was more like a burrito). it was quite good, actually. above average as a whole. however, i couldn't get water refilled even once until i flagged someone down.
it took a rather long time for the meal to hit the table in an almost empty place- about half an hour. we were told that it was the fish holding it up when we inquired about 20 minutes into it. strangely, the fish and potato were cold when they hit the table (my food wasn't). the fish was also served in a few pieces.
a manager was sent over, mrs. brk asked for the food to be heated in the microwave, so it would not be another long time before we ate.
she asked a few times.
the manager decided not to listen to her, and then went to go order up an entire new plate.
mrs. brk she kept the broccoli for something to eat.
good thing she did. about 10 minutes or so later, the only person there that seemed to listen and actually pay attention to the customers noticed she was still foodless, and got her something to eat in the meantime (a cup of soup).
about 15 minutes or so after that, the other food showed up.
warmer, but unseasoned.
she asked for a box for it to go.
when we got the bill, the chili wasn't on it, but her dinner was.
we shan't be back.
i will say, based on my food plus crap service, i would've given it somewhere around a c-. but it's not my call on this one.
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