4th- taste of thaiyai, apple valley
4th- mickey's diner, st. paul
6th- bar la grassa, minneapolis
7th- wampach's, shakopee
8th- vincent a restaurant, minneapolis
12th- jay's cafe, st. paul
18th- biryani, edina
20th- ruth's chris steak house, minneapolis
24th- szechuan star, edina
4th- taste of thaiyai, apple valley (b+)
steamed spinach in peanut sauce, this time with the tofu unfried ($8.65). i think it works better this way than with the chicken or the fried tofu, the creamy texture goes a lot better with the peanut butter. it would've been even better had the tofu been cut into smaller cubes versus pretty large chunks. the peanut sauce would've benefitted from less thinning. when i added the peanuts at the table it worked out well.
good service, except for one thing- the server had on a bit oo much perfume. again, i don't wish to smell anything but food at restaurants, and i also enjoy breathing (i'm allergic to perfume). so even a bit too much is a bad thing.
4th- mickey's diner, st. paul (a-)
a short stack of blueberry pancakes ($5.30) that were packed with tiny, not too sweet berries were light and fluffy and tasty (a very small tad overdone), and hash browns with onions in large chunks ($2.50) that mom would've liked to see more crunchy, but i liked the balance of crunch and creamier texture they turned out to be. i'd avoid the coffee ($1.95) unless you're a hardcore coffee person (i am not)- even the decaf. the plain omelet ($4.85 with toast) was light and fluffy and buttery and good, even sans cheese.
the locally sourced, fresh food makes a huge difference (and a wide gap between them and icky chain breakfast all day places). ok, the atmosphere and service also do, too. a great place for comfort food- mom and i were looking for a place we'd both agree on, where we could get seated and eat in a relatively short amount of time in downtown st. paul at 7 pm on a friday. the parking lot's a bonus here.
6th- bar la grassa, minneapolis (b)
an early birthday dinner from mom, so i went with a glass of the moscato d'asto ($9) with the chicken and foie gras polpetonne ($14) to start. well, to start after the marinated beans, cheese, peppers and such came to the table in a very nice olive oil mixture, which we kept around a bit to dip the bread into (they also had a nice spreadable butter, but i think the marinade mixture was better).
polpetonne is kind of like a meatloaf, though this one also seemed a bit like a forcemeat/terrine sort of thing. it was served a shade to cold to bring out all the flavors that must have been in that thing, but was still very tasty and rich but a bit odd in texture, i will say. it could be less lumpy. they had what i would guess to be a light horseradish cream on the side, to cut some of the richness of the dish. it was tastier on the nice crusty bread.
what's nice about the menu is that with both the fresh and dry pastas you can get a larger or smaller size, so you could have just a large plate of pasta or a small one and perhaps the reported incredibly lobster and soft egg bruschetta and walk out of there with a nice meal for around $20. stupid allergies. i couldn't taste mom's dish either (the last time i tried pasta that has shellfish in it i started getting a reaction. sigh.), the small version of the penne regate ($9) with shrimp and vin santo (it was a dry pasta one) and enjoyed the flavors. she thought the wine gave it an unexpected taste, and thought the heat of the red chili flakes made it more interesting.
i went with the smaller fettucini alfredo ($6) because i want a smaller heart attack, perhaps. i expected a bit more sauce with it, the sauce was pretty much clinging to the noodles, no puddles anywhere. the sauce was a bit mild and with the fresh pasta (which was excellent) it pretty much got lost in the dish. the manager explained they don't sauce it with much so it would be a light dish, but they would bring me more if i wanted it. perhaps they're wanting to play with people's expectations about the dish, who knows. but it lacked enough to play the alfredo note in the dish. apparently it was supposed to have cheese on top, but nope. none there.
the menu lacks any explanation about things, so unless you want to quiz the server (who tends to be busy, but gave excellent service, along with table setting person and water person and bread person, and for that matter the manager, and the maître d') about every little thing, i guess things like that happen. but as you can tell by the grade, it's not that i didn't enjoy the dish, it's just not the dish i pictured when i was ordering.
we split a crespelle with salted buttered carmel for dessert. it comes with vanilla ice cream (also not mentioned on the menu, but a nice surprise. if the rest of the menu is anything to go by, it's izzy's). for some reason i thought 'cookie' when i thought of it (a la 'pizzelle,' what i was probably thinking of), but it's a crepe with a very very rich sauce that when mixed with ice cream makes me ok with not ordering cheese for dessert. more than ok. in fact, i would've been happy even without the crespelle.
with the check, we also got a couple pieces of a very spicy peanut brittle in a little bag with a twist tie (person who's doing that- after packing treats for the holiday, i know just a small part of your pain). a nice touch.
having never been to babalu, not sure what it looked like before. now it's very warehousey, with brick and dark wood and a handsaw (for the butchering i'm going to assume) plus pots and pans on display near the bar. the restroom is modern, but also has some sort of fragrance going on in there. and while i understand that in theory (as bathroom smells may not be pleasant, but they do have floor to ceiling doors on the stalls which should help with that) i can't breathe when i am in there (see: stupid allergies). and i enjoy breathing. so whereas i'd like to go back there again, that's a potential problem.
(fyi- and after i read a review that mentioned some details about dishes i had ordered that were not in place, i dropped the grade a bit.)
7th- wampach's, shakopee (c)
hm, i thought i had breakfast for lunch here this time but nope, i had lunch. so again with the lunch. i should try their breakfasts, just in case. when i feel braver. but they do a good hash browns. not as good as mickey's, but still pretty good- fluffy potato inside and crunchy outside.
i got the rachel (off menu, they had a reuben, i asked for it with turkey, so i think it was $7.25 or $6.25... the actual total involves math... and remembering the price and subtracting something for it from not ordering a side... etc.) and split a half order (which was huge, we took some back) of the recommeded onion rings ($5.50).
both were ok- the sandwich needed more toasting for a bit sandwich integrity and the meat was deli. the onion rings were not my preferred type (they had a fluffier batter that i like and i would've liked more taste of onion, which strangely didn't come through here at all). what's odd is that we had a multiple recommendation stream on the o-rings, and they were not all that and a bag of... onions. i like the ones at the mainstreet tons more. but these were still better than most places.
service was good, but the kitchen part was odd as there were multiple tables who sat and ordered after us that got their food first... and it's not like we ordered complicated things. bad restaurant karma, go.
8th- vincent a restaurant, minneapolis (c)
a pre-pub quiz stop at vincents on the birthday, as i refuse to eat at brit's unless i have to. and not on my birthday. sitting in the bar (though at a table), we each got a champagne cocktail, the kir royale ($5 during happy hour). those're always nice. we also shared some plates of the happy hour menu (those are all $4, except the fries which are billed at $3.50 on the online menu). in order of the best to the... not so good.
- french fries, we got bernaise with them. the fries were good. i prefer aioli or mayo with them, or plain, it turns out. who knew.
- the smoked chicken, caramelized onions, bleu cheese and red grape flatbread. that's what is was billed at, but for some reason it had no chicken that i recall, but it did have apple slices. which is not at all the same thing. still good, but not as billed.
- the cantal cheese/sauteed mushroom/pine nut/honey tartine (open-faced sandwich). nice, but unlike other times this one had almost no honey on the sandwiches.
- peppadew sweet peppers stuffed with goat cheese and toasted almonds. there's a similar dish at solera, and it's served at room temperature i think, and i still wasn't too impressed with it. this was cold, and the plate was bare, with no toasted almond flavor or on the plate that i could spot.
- the chicken liver pate with prune compote & toasted baguette. not sure where the prune compote was, unless it was part of the pate, the part that made it a bit too sweet. it would've been better served room temperature, and the baguette the same (vs. toasted, which turned cold rather quickly)
did you spot the theme? yes, it was missing ingredients. points if you guessed it. anyone else find it weird that on my unofficial and official birthday dinner it was a common theme? does this set the tone for my next year? hope not. anyway, taken as a meal, whole of the food was a bit... meh.
in re service- they need more than one bar server and a counter guy during happy hour. still.
12th- jay's cafe, st. paul (d+)
i've been wanting to get here for a while, it's the favorite place of some friends, it uses the local organic stuff when possible, it's got an interesting menu, it looked to have many positives.
unfortunately i came at the wrong time. the lunch menu looked better than the breakfast-heavy weekend menu. i would've liked to see at least one pizza (winner of the best gourmet pizza in the 08 city pags poll) and soup on offer on the cold winter days (made colder by the large group standing in front of the open door). it was also a day when half the place was being given to a private event, and they only had two servers. though we did get there a bit before the large group, things went downhill quickly.
for instance, the american fries that came with both dishes that were ordered were served cold. and both of us thought the seasoning they used on them didn't go well with the food. mine were also undercooked. when we informed the server (they finally got to the table when we were several mintutes into the main part of the dish) about the cold they only said they'd tell the kitchen... and then hurried the hell off never to return after that (until the check drop off...).
i didn't get a chance to ask if i could please get them reheated, nor was a new order sent out. the whole of this was pretty odd given the heaps of praised heaped on their breakfasts. neither of us finished ours after a few tentative tries. and they got worse the more they sat around.
and the water service? sucked. my friend ended up flagging down the other server to refill my glass after our server ignored my completely empty glass right at the edge of the table right next to the plate they set down before running away. after i finished that glass, the large group was there and there was no way to get anyone's attention, so i co-opted my friend's water. when did they come to refill the water? when we were almost ready to go, in the process, paying the check. too bloody late by far.
weird... though the potatoes were a complete miss, but both egg dishes were the bomb. and eggs are much harder to do well than potatoes. the egg, mushroom, and bell pepper crepe in a smoked gouda sauce ($9.25) was all that in flavor and creamy richness. the breakfast pasty of the day ($9.95) was similarly arranged, with eggs, peppers, and cheese plus some bacon in awesomely crispy pastry. they opted for pop to drink, and that was $1.25 per can. not sure if you could get refills. we didn't get a chance to ask. and much of the fruit with both dishes rocked, including some of the best strawberries i've had all year (raspberries were the down note).
and if i am paying $9.25 for an egg dish and potatoes and the bad potatoes are not replaced, the price is now way too high for just what we had.
so. bad planning on their part- the tables were reserved for the large party. it's a small place, it maybe holds 40ish people, and on a day where half of them didn't come in all at once, two servers are fine. today, not so much. i'm soured on this place (bad restaurant karma in full effect, 'cause whether i wanted it or not, this was brunch, the worst brk meal on record) because other than the main bit of food, everything else was pretty fail.
al's breakfast is closer, and i know that mickey's is open 24/7 and uses local stuff, and is not to far from here. and both are cheaper (though are more downscale and less arty, they did have nice art here). and both are... better. if i went again it would be nicer? perhaps. if they weren't busy, or we had the better server, or maybe not on a weekend when you get brunch, or else... qualifiers, qualifiers.
(or not... just a few days after i posted, i found out the place was being sold... which could explain things.)
18th- biryani, edina (a)
hey, another impressive indian place near my house with a buffet ($9) even better than best of india. this took the place of the less impressive chapati, who didn't seem like they were trying at all, really. the food reminded me a bit of the curry up, tasting hot and made not from cans or frozen items, not catering to minnesota palates, and with a selection that wasn't too big or too small, featuring some little seen things on buffets.
in fact, some were new to me, like the bhatura bread. naan, poori and paratha i've seen, but this bread, not at all. it's kind of like a small poori, and apparently unleavened (i looked that up). both it and the naan were hot and fresh, and didn't get all hard and cold when taken to the table (that happens a lot at indian buffets).
for meat dishes they had a goat curry, a beef curry, and a chicken curry, plus large tandoori chicken legs, not the tiny size you uusally are served. other than the complex, spicy sauces that accompanied most curry dishes what made these stand out is the quality of the meat that was served- it was tender, juicy, and all around tasty, which seems rather remarkable- it wasn't bits or seconds or sad things. there was also a 'fish pakora' which seemed more or less like a fried fish. though good, the veg pakora was much better and among the best in town with a lovely, crispy exterior and a creamy consistency interior.
the only thing i didn't like about the vegetarian dishes was the lack of paneer, but that's more of a personal preference. some of the other veg dishes were a nav ratton korma (which i've not seem before), dal makahani (best version i've had), and an alu matar that had some sort of flavor that i've never had in that dish (in a good way).
the kheer also had that going on (that may have been citrus). i avoided the mango pudding, per usual, as it looked like it had fruit cocktail in it. that doesn't excite me a lot. and i don't like gula jamun at all, but i did think the syrup in was in was tasty on the kheer.
they also had a small but tasty selection of chutneys, featuring the usual (mint and tamarind, for example) plus mango, tomato, and some pickles, and a fresh-tasting raita. there were probably more, and more dishes overall, i just can't remember things sometimes, alas.
water refill was thumbs up, but we got there somewhat later than most, and the staff was eating their own lunch when we were there, so that did slow down plate removal slightly. but all in all i was very impressed with the place.
20th- ruth's chris steak house, minneapolis (c- for non-red meat eaters, b for red meat eaters, per mom)
mom's birthday pick. a steakhouse is not my favorite sort of restaurant. it's not just the menu, but the traditions and odd formality and old-school-ness of the whole affair. what made this particular go-around especially odd for me is summed up by the statement on their receipt 'perfection is in the details,' so you know that with my bad restaurant karmak something's going to happen.
it started when we sat down... in a draft. except when we got the food on the sizzling plates, i had icy hands of death and was wrapped in my coat the whole time. when the staff asked how i was, i said 'cold.' nothing was done. being asked to be reseated was a bit too logical for me, i guess. so that's partially my bad.
but also it included the following (plus more below)-when the table was being cleared between courses, i got silverware in my lap. when my water glass was empty, it took a very long time to refill. it took 20 minutes after we ordered for a salad to hit the table. at a place that's trying for perfection and seems to be boasting about taking care of details and has prices to match it makes me think that they need to change their blurb.
anyway, what we ordered. they have a prix-fix menu now where for $39.95 or $49.95 (depends on the main course) you get reduced portions of some of their set menu items- a salad or soup (typically a salad is around $7, soup $10), main course (most listed ones are anywhere from $22-40ish) and a side (most listed at around $8-9), and for dessert carrot cake and chocolate mousse (desserts are listed at ($8-9). that's the concept that caught mom's eye and led her here. we both went for it. (fyi, the prices may a buck or three higher than listed, they don't list them online on their official web site and i can't remember things, but they do have an older menu posted for one of their locations in another state.)
as it turns turns out i probably would've be happier, at least in terms of total dollars spent on meal enjoyment, with their (pretty half-assed) version of a vegetarian entree, where you pick three side items (potato or veg) for around $20. that sort of menu item shows less imagination that serving a butternut squash soup in fall. but quite a few of the sides sounded good, like baked corn pudding and creamed spinach (more on that later), and hey, baked potatoes are usually fine (if underdone, a microwave can cure that).
both of us started with the harvest salad, "mixed greens with roasted corn, dried cherries, crispy bacon, and tomatoes in a white balsamic vinaigrette, topped with goat cheese and cajun pecans." plus there's fried onions. it's a good thing i checked out their menu online, as the server, in reciting the ingredient list, left out bacon. which i don't eat and i am sure others don't also (though admittedly fewer here than at, say, lucias). when i brought it up, they were 'oh, yeah, and bacon.' not perfection.
the salad it was a bit schitzophrenic to me... it should've either dropped the corn (not that there was more than a dozen sad kernels), bacon, tomatoes (1.5 overly cold sliced grape tomatoes as a garnish... why?), and fried onions, or the cheese, cherries and pecans as neither side really met in the middle. it probably helped both of us we swapped the bacon (mom) for the cheese (me, of course) on the other salad. it was served with adequate-tasting but overly crusty (i.e. separation anxiety- you couldn't get just one slice off the loaf by pulling) bread and whipped butter. the long wait for the food probably made us more happy to see the salads than we otherwise would've been.
mom quite enjoyed her filet and shrimp combo (you geti think about half of what was on the $38 menu price of the main entree). she said they overdid the outside of it (odd for a steakhouse, which should be doing perfect meat mindlessly) but the rest was perfect. but her side dish of garlic (i didn't see it, there was supposed to be a hint but it was more like a clove passed someplace nearby) mashed potates were served cold. when a new dish was returned and we tasted it it was a lot of cream and butter flavor, but not a lot of potato. yes, butter makes things taste good, but when you do it at the expense of the food you're highlighting it misses the point.
my salmon entree of the day was supposed to be spiced with chili, but it wasn't. or if it was it was just for show, as i detected flavor other than salmon. that i squired some lemon on. and perhaps some butter. like the steak, it had overdone bits. in general it was boring. though larger than i expected (the leftovers were nice on a salad the next day though). it was on some tasty, basic (though unevenly) diced roasted root veg (sweet potato and rutabega i think), the creamed spinach was more about the spinach than the cream. that's not what i was expecting, and they did offer to replace it... but i mixed it in with some mashed potatoes, so that kind of worked in the end and brought out the best in both sides.
despite the smaller portions, we each took food home from everything but salads, and also both desserts that came with the meal, as mom got a free birthday dessert. she went with the warm apple crumb tart and ice cream ($8). odd, it took about the same time for the parbaked pie to hit the table (they had to finish baking it) as the salad. not sure what that was about. at some point they did let us know they had to bake the pie, they didn't explain the salad wait (the entrees were the only course to get there in a timely manner). the ice cream was a hagan daaz vanilla, and fine. the tart was very crumb and crusty, not very apple...y.
overall mom thought the food was quite fine but the service lacked. i thought everything about the experience was a bit below average, especially given the exeperience they were touting and what i expect at higher-end places. on the night we were in, neither the dining room or bar seemed close to full. the staff were going all out for a select few customers (the regulars, i presume). that not everyone received anywhere close to that attentive service is just odd.
24th- szechuan star, edina (b)
how surprising, we ate chinese food on christmas eve. it was a mix of more than the usual, as there were some stranded families there who were not able to escape for their christmas plans. the place was open despite some near-massive snow. per usual, we went with the buffet, which is my favorite chinese-american one.
besides the usual (including sesame chicken, veg lo mein that i topped with an almost-spicy kung pao chicken, cream cheese wontons, chicken wings, and hot and sour soup, ) a few new dishes were in the lineup. the one i had was garlic fish filet that was tender and tasty. they use decent meats here, there's none of the sinew and weird textures such you can get at other places. and nothing tastes cornstarchy, either, which is a big plus. probably why i like the place. no salt and pepper squid this time, though. bummer. i think they were looking for things with broader appeal for the night. there seemed to be a few fewer items than before as they moved the soups on to the buffet (they were in crock pots before, on the side).
still only one server, which made things a bit slow, there were more people here than i had ever seen. the music was odd and came in halfway through dinner, string instrumentals of lite fm standards ('saving all my love for you') and random songs ('sunrise, sunset'). i prefered the random fa la la la la-ing of the kids a few booths over.
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