Sunday, December 20, 2009

Downtown Scene Update: Check out the great happy hour specials at Paramount.

A few weeks ago, I wandered into Paramount for a post-work libation. Once a stand-alone facility, Paramount is now part of the Minerva's empire. A doorway was opened through the adjoining wall, and with it magically flowed Minerva's full liquor license. Prior to the merger, Paramount only offered wine and beer selections. Now, folks who would like to have a martini, margarita, or glass of Bourbon, can get one.

Another boon is the punched-up menu of appetizers available. Paramount previously offered a few things to nibble on, such as shrimp, cheeses, and other small snacks that could easily be prepared sans kitchen. Now, you can get a selection of various freshly-prepared items, including, most notably, a nice beef chislic with a nice hint of rosemary, served with some barbecue sauce for dipping and some fresh hot fries. Pretty tasty.

The real deal, though is happy hour, which runs until 7 PM, when you can get a number of items, including appetizers, wines and cocktails, for just $6 each. Beer is on the list too. You get two 16-ounce tap beers for $6. There is a nice little grouping of wines on the happy hour list, including Cline Cashmere and J. Lohr's Paso Robles Cabernet. There are also some m=nice whites. Cocktail selections include a nice margarita, served as one should be, on the rocks in a pint glass. Paramount also has a pretty respectable selection of beers on tap, which usually include something seasonal, like Sam Adams Winter Lager, and a micro brew that you might not find elsewhere in town.

If you haven't been by Paramount for a while, stop by to take a break during some holiday shopping or after work.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Owww! Owww! Too 'Picey!!! Too 'Picey!!!!!

Interesting review of Parker's in the Thursday, November 25 Argus Leader. Jay Kirschenman and his bride stopped by Parker's for dinner. Here's a summary: great coffee, great service, beautiful food, awesome pork chop, and four dishes that set poor Jay's mouth on FIRE!!!

As is generally the case with the AL's feeble attempts at reviewing restaurants and food, I couldn't disagree more. Don't get me wrong, I am not taking issue with Jay's subjective understanding of what constitutes "too spicy." After all, we have all had different food experiences that shape our understandings and impressions of what is spicy and what is not. Personally, I didn't think the gumbo at Parker's was clamp-your-throat-shut spicy hot. I would characterize it as pleasingly warm with the correct use of several peppers to give you that nice multiple level of warm. I am also not afraid or put off by the idea that there is a little cayenne in the apple desert. It does kick up the apple flavor- a notch above what cinnamon might. My beef with Jay's review is two-fold. One, it doesn't tell enough about the Parker's story (locally procured ingredients, unique menu items, multiple courses, etc.) Basically, I didn't learn much more from the review then what I could have learned from talking to co-workers at the super-stressful day job, family members who have visited, or hanging out at coffee. Second, the review left a person with the impression that the food is generally overly-hot, right down to dessert. Claiming that seasoning in several dishes caused the writer to "choke" because it was so spicy borders on irresponsible. If you haven't been to Parker's yet, don't let the AL review dissuade you.

On the other hand, if it's a Chili Head experience you desire in Sioux Falls that you desire, there are places to get it. If you are anything like me, there are times when you crave the sweat on your brow, the red face, the unquenchable burn in the mouth, and the I-don't-care-how much-I-am-going-to-regret-this-in-the-morning capsaicin fueled rush of endorphins, fortunately, you are not entirely out of luck here in Sioux Falls. You want hot? You want hot? You think you deserve hot? You can't handle the hot! (Awkward, I know. Read it again, but this time think of the scene in "A Few Good Men" where Tom Cruise is cross examining Jack Nicholson.) Jay, try some of the following places to readjust your perspective of just what might be "Too 'Picey!"

Let's go right to the top of the chart. The spiciest food in Sioux Falls, hands down, is available for the asking at Taste of India. Indian food is one of the most exciting and complex cuisines in the world. It's like a beautiful painting created with layers of colors and techniques. Sweet tastes like spinach or eggplant play off of spices like cinnamon, cardamom, or clove. Add some sweet chutney, or a cooling yogurt based sauce like raita and it only gets more complex. Add a vinegray spicy pickle and you get entirely different textures and flavors. It's awesome. And, if you want it, and only if you want it, it's forking hot. I'm talking about Vindaloo- a style of "curry" from the state of Goa, a region in India with beaches and Portuguese influences. That means Catholics, not necessarily Hindus- and meat, like pork or duck. Vindaloo is going to separate the real chili heads from the poseurs, and Taste of India does a great job with it. Vindaloo is generally spicy to begin with, but the chefs at Taste of India offer you a bit more control over your experience, by offering each diner different heat levels ranging from mild to medium, to hot, to chef's challenge. For most people who think they can handle the spice, medium will probably match their expectations and hot will probably push the boundary. Chef's challenge? Never tried it. Maybe someday.

One of the best things about Taste of India is the opportunity to mix-up the experience with multiple dishes. Not all Indian food is spicy. With that Vindaloo, or even the Rogan Josh, you might want a serving of the delightful butter chicken which is delightfully creamy, or spinach paneer, a sort of creamed spinach that has cubes of delicious home-made cheese- something between mozerella, ricotta and tofu. Give it all a try, it's all delicious. But if it's tears you are after, give the Vindaloo a shot.

Buffalo Wild Wings can offer a pretty-kicked up experience with spice. This place is great, especially since they went non-smoking. Swing in for a bite before a Skyforce, Stampede, or Canaries game. The beer is cold and plentiful and the fried food is the best. BW3, as it is often referred to by its fans, offers a broad array of sauces that are applied to their flat bread pizzas, sandwiches, wraps, and their chicken wings. BW3 offers various forms of "wings" ranging from the boneless variety, to "tenders" which are the grilled breast "tender," to the traditional bone-in, skin-on variety. The menu clearly displays the spectrum of sauce spiciness which ranges from a mild traditional wing sauce and teriyaki to more spicy tastes like garlic parmesan, honey barbecue, and medium. Ranging toward the hotter end are choices like Caribbean jerk, Asian zing and hot barbecue. If you really want to test your limits, you can go to the far right hand side of the list and check out "Blazing," a traditional style wing sauce that is undoubtedly kicked up with habaneros, if not some chili extracts. Blazing would be the challenge level. It's hot. You've been warned. If you want to dial it back just a notch, there are also choices like "Wild" and mango habanero. Lots of choices at BW3 and chances to try the sweet-hot connection with things like Asian zing and mango habanero or more complex spiciness of things like Caribbean jerk that includes spiciness from cinnamon and ginger. You can get separate flavors for every 6 wings. Take friends and mix it up. One tip: get the traditional wings. The tenders are probably "better" for you since they are grilled. The boneless ones are easier to eat- two bites off a fork, but they are breaded and that changes the whole flavor profile. The regular old wings with the bones and the skin have the flavor. Besides, this place is, for the most part, a bar. (Even though there is a sit-down side of the house which is generally more suitable for families or other people who don't necessarily want to be around people enjoying an extra adult beverage.) You're not going in there for a spa treatment, so get the damned real wings, chew the meat off the bones, chomp up the little bits of cartilage from the joints with you back teeth, eat the skin, and suck the sauce off your fingers. Wash it down with copious amounts of beer. Sheesh, I made myself hungry for wings.

Various Mexican places also can offer you a spice experience, but you might have to ask for it. If you are into food, you probably recognize that Mexican food is not necessarily spicy. Like all great cuisine, it can be quite complex and can offer different textures and tastes besides "hot." But, fortunately, it can be pretty hot, too. Ask the server what is spicy and ask if it can be kicked up. One of my personal favorites is Luis' Favorite at Puerto Vallarta, a plateful of tender sliced steak swimming in a sauce with mushrooms, peppers, and tomatoes and spiked with a vinegary chili bite. Ask to have it muy caliente.

Various Chinese restaurants around town can punch your spicy button, too. Think the wonderful spicy standby Kung Pao chicken. Golden Dragon offers a great Kung Pao and will gladly use some extra red chili to make it as hot as you think you want it. Most Chinese restaurants will kick it up for you. Just ask.

Speaking of Asian food, we REALLY need a good Thai place here in Sioux Falls. If you haven't had Thai, you need to soon. Next time you are in a bigger city (Minneapolis will do, but Chicago is better) go find a good Thai place and be prepared for a great experience. Until we get a decent Thai place here, though, I am pretty much stuck at Hu Hot. Use the Pad Thai rice noodles, stick to the chicken, definitely add tofu, and do the veggies. At the sauce bar, follow the Pad Thai "recipe," but add a few extra spoonfuls of whatever appears to be hotter than hell. You should be able to get a good sweat going. Here's an insider tip for Hu Hot. Chances are you are going to defy the suggestion at the beginning of the line to use one bowl. Why wouldn't you? You eat cereal out of bigger bowls. But when you take two bowls, put the protein and the noodles in one bowl and the veggies in the other. Here's the kicker, though- you need to double the sauce. You got two bowls, you need double the sauce, so put the equivalent of your sauce of choice times two in the two bowls.

Jay, get out there and tune up those taste buds. With any luck, you'll join the fraternity of Chili Heads and someday be saying "Too 'Picey! Too 'Picey!! I want MORE 'Picey!!"

Parker's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Drinking the Kool-Aid Out of German Lead Crystal: Reidel Glasses

So, Maximilian Reidel, 33 year old CEO of Reidel Crystal of America, was in town recently with the Reidel Travelling Medicine Show to sell a few wares and preach the gospel of wine glasses. For those who have never heard of Reidel glasses, let me respectfully suggest that you come out from under your rock and try some wine. Reidel is pretty much the gold standard for wine glasses these days. Seriously, if you haven't heard of Reidel glasses, there is a serious question of how much and what types of wine you've been drinking. Sincerely.

Anyway, Max himself, 11th generation of the Reidel family, was in town for a Reidel glass tasting event at Callaway's this last week. If you've never been to one of these events, you must go. The event was entertaining, educational, and you walked out with four spectacular wine glasses. This is the second Reidel event that has occurred in the last few years here in Sioux Falls. If I am not mistaken, the last event featured Max's dad, Georg.

For those who haven't perviously been formally inducted into the Cult of Reidel, let me explain the format for the event. The event started with a reception featuring champagne served in the very cool Reidel "O" champagne glasses. (The "O" series is stemless. Very cool champagne/sparkling glasses.) There were also a few non-descript finger foods. One then adjourns to the next room where tables are laid out in a classroom sort of arrangement. At each place is a glass for water and a place mat set with four big, beautiful, lead crystal glasses, each holding a respectable tasting quantity of wine. In this case, we are talking about the new Reidel Vinum XL glasses and the set consisted of a glass for Riesling, Montrachet/Chadonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir (specifically Oregon pinot.) Also at the place setting is a standard issue wine glass typical of those found at almost any large-attendance event. Not those goofy "tulip" glasses like one would expect at a wedding dance at any particular Ramkota, but still, a standard, who-cares-if-you-break-it glass.

Max then introduces himself and starts the magic show. The program consists of starting with one of the pre-poured wines, usually the "lightest" in this case the Riesling. You take a big sniff out of the Reidel glass and listen to Max explain his impressions, It goes something like this:

"Ahhh, smell zat! Pear! Pineapple! Granny Smiss Appul! (Max is German) Honey! Sunlight!" Then you taste and get more of the same impressions. Then comes the trick. Max instructs the group to pour the wine out of the Reidel glass and into the standard-issue "Joker" glass. "Vhat do you smell? Nothink! Vhat happened? It's gone!"

Okay, at this point, I'd really like to ridicule Max about this alleged alchemy, but he's right. The shape of the Joker glass can't contain the beautiful aromas and subtleties of the wine. The same drill ensues when the crowd is invited to drink out of the "Joker." Sure enough, the first taste of the exact same wine you just drank tastes nothing like it did moments ago. To drive the point home, Max then has the crowd pour the wine into an ordinary plastic cup, to demonstrate that the same wine has less aroma and less taste now.

This process continues through the other glasses at the table and varies only with invitations to pour a varietal into a glass designed for an entirely different varietal. Think a big Oregon Pinot Noir in a glass specifically designed for Chardonnay. Despite the quality of the glass, the right wine in the wrong glass doesn't work.

Okay, so what the fork? Can a glass really make a difference? And, if so, why?

Well, turns out you don't need to be a German engineer to figure this one out. Engineering has nothing to do with it. These glasses are the work of artisans who have worked on glasses specifically designed to showcase the colors, aromas and tastes of specific wines. During part of the demonstration, Max invites everyone to tip the glass forward as one might do to examine the color of the wine. He directs your attention to the shape the wine is making in the glass. This is important. You should notice that the differently-shaped glasses shape and direct the wine in different ways. For instance, a Cabernet glass directs the wine to a relatively sharp point, while the Chardonnay glass allows the wine to flow more widely. You place the thin, cut rim to your mouth et voila, the glass directs the wine to different parts of your tongue. What this does is allow the wine to make it's first contact with critical points of your mouth's tasting apparati.

Reidel makes several series of glasses covering various tiers of prices. These lines cover everything from the hand-blown Sommelier series to the stemless "O" series. Irrespective of what series of glasses you have, chances are there is one that is specifically designed for a particular varietal. In the higher-end lines (Sommelier and Vinum, for instance) there are a LOT of varietal-specific glasses. There are glasses specifically designed for Spanish Tempranillio, Chianti, Port, and Burgundy, as well as glasses for single-malt Scotches or sake. The glasses we tried were part of the new Vinum XL series and, like t-shirts, the XL is for extra large. These suckers are big. The Caberet glass has a capacity of something like 22 ounces. As Max explained, the glasses are bigger these days for the simple reason that wines are bigger these days. Today's winemakers are producing wines that are bold and flavorful. Bigger wines, bigger glass. Works for me. I like a bigger glass for wines because it facilitates swirling the wine and shoving your whole nose and half your face into the glass. (I think you can tell infintely more about a wine by smelling it that you can tasting it.)

This isn't alchemy, though. The glass cannot change what is in it. That's still the same wine in there, the glass just presents it to your nose and your palate in such a way that the first encounter with it is amplified. Just to prove that point, I tried my own little experiment, which, in a way, debunked a little of the mystery. I took a drink from the Reidel glass and then made a point to work the wine aggressively into every corner of my mouth. This is what highly-proficient tasters do. Literally chew the wine and be sure to open your mouth a little and work in some air. I then did the same think with a drink of the same wine from the plastic cup. Turns out working the wine aggressively around your mouth is the great equalizer. Nevertheless, the Reidel glass did showcase the wine from the moment it hits the lips and tongue. The other glasses did not do so.

So, is an investment in glasses like these worth it. If you are serious student of wine or are hoping to increase your knowledge, the answer is an unqualified yes. If you care more about what is in the bottle than how cool the label looks and are willing to spend more than 5 bucks on a bottle, you should invest in some decent glassware. If you are going to paint, you need good brushes. If you are going to ski, you need good skis and boots that fit your ability and style. Basically, you need the right tools for the job and these glasses will compliment and accentuate your wine experience.

One last thing. If you treat these glasses properly, they will last a long, long, time. For such thin glass, they are amazingly strong and durable. A little care while washing and some attention will keep these glasses working for you long into the future.

Go buy the glasses, but clear out some cupboard or bar space for them, a full set of these puppies is going to take up more space than all those hurricane glasses you have brought back from New Orleans over the years. And, if you still have some space, pick up a decanter. You should see the Eve decanter that Max designed! But that's a whole other story for another day.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Parker's: A Very Promising New Addition to the Sioux Falls Dining Scene

Parker's on Urbanspoon
After a soft opening in late September, I finally got around to trying Parker's a little while back. Any new food place in Sioux Falls gets a lot of attention, and soft openings are becoming de rigeur. What's a soft opening you ask? A soft opening is when a new restaurant or bar opens without a big announcement that they are opening on some specific date. People find new places in Sioux Falls without a lot of advertising and attention. Patrons begin to trickle in and this gives the staff a chance to sort of ramp up rather than be faced with a packed house from the word "go." It allows a place to work out the kinks instead of having to open full-throttle.

Parker's occupies a space that has undergone some fairly extensive remodeling. It's on Main Avenue, near 10th Street in a space formerly occupied by a Mexican restaurant, an attempt at a Brazilian joint and a place once known as the House of Soccer. The building has benefitted from the City's facade easement program and features Sioux quartzite and large windows.

Parker's has been billed as creole/cajun/american, which I must say made me a little skeptical. The cajun craze has passed and, face it, no one (at least no one with any sense) really expects authentic cajun cuisine this far from the bayous of Lousianna. The indoor decor of the place is definitely an homage to New Orleans, though: bare brick walls, goofy flooring, old building that leads back to different rooms, high ceilings. It's pretty nice, but the lighting could be better. It's just a tad dark in there at night.

The kitchen is open- that is to say, the chefs work behind the front "bar" area in view and within earshot of the diners. Personally, I couldn't do this. I don't mind people watching me cook because I am on display anytime we cook at my house. The problem would be the diners listening to me and the things they might hear.

The menu is not very extensive, but it features some great items. The dinner menu is divided into courses: starter, salad/soup, entree. Expect familiar items: beef, pork, chicken, fish, but don't expect it to be prepared and presented like something you'd see at Minerva's or Foley's. For instance, there is usually a fresh fish item on the menu. On the night I was there, it was halibut. However, it was coated in a curry sort of rub and pan roasted. Halibut is a phenomenal fish and this particular piece was cooked exactly right. It was cooked just to the point of being done so the flesh was moist and the curry-dusted outside was dry, and well-seared, but not crusty. The halibut was served with fresh cucumber cut into ribbons and dressed with a creamy sauce- rather reminiscent of the sliced cucumbers your grandmother made during the summer months, only more delicate and definitely prettier. The other side was, as I recall, Isreali couscous. Couscous is pasta that is basically milled into the consistency of grain. It's great stuff, takes on flavor like a sponge and cooks in about five minutes. If you aren't familiar with it, you need to get with the program. Isreali couscous is bigger in size- kind of like small tapioca pearls. Personally, I thought the couscous could use a little more flavor, but I was glad to see it on the plate.

Other menu choices include a pork chop, chicken and flatiron steaks. I can't wait to try more. It all sounded great and it was hard to make a choice.

The salads were interesting and feature fresh local produce. There was an heirloom tomato salad with some balsamic glaze and fresh mozerella. This is an example of good menu writing, because in reality, this is a salad caprese- tomatoes and fresh mozerella- for nine bucks. There is also a gumbo on the menu. (Cajun/creole homage to NOLA.) Not bad. Really good creole/cajun food has an amazing quality of prolonging spice. It should be spicy, but not the sort of punch you in the mouth like wasabi or vindaloo hot. I thought the cup of gumbo I had could have used a little more front-end heat and a little less rice in the bottom of the cup. It also could have used just a tad more texture. The feature was the andouille sausage- hand-made. That was great. Like I said, though, the gumbo needed more texture. If you have it in NOLA, you might have a piece of chicken here or there or some vegetables that haven's entirely dissolved.

The real shining star of the menu, however, was the lamb sausage on the appetizer list. You have GOT to try this. Handmade by the chef, and accordingly cooked to the rare side, it is just a tad spicy and oh, so delicious.

The menu of Parker's puts it in the same category as, say, Cafe 334, K's, and probably a few places you may have visited in more metropolitan places. It's good food, but prepared with more imagination than what we have become used to here. The presentations come to the table absolutely camera ready. I guarantee you'll pause when the food makes it to the table to take in the presentation.

The staff is very competent and helpful. Ben Josten, formerly of Food & Fermentation, is there. Ben is a definite asset. He has a passion for wine, a very good understanding of food, and a talent for pairing the two. If you are in doubt about anything on the wine list, seek Ben's assistance. You can't go wrong.

I am reaching the point in my dining and food snobbery, that I wonder if an absoultely perfect dining experience is possible. Taste, after, all is subjective. Nevertheless, if you want to know what I thought could be a little different, or a little better, here it is:
  • Tweak the lighting. The food is gorgeous, but it's a little hard to see. Hell if I know how to adjust lighting. I am not a lighting engineer, but I know it could benefit from the assistance of someone who is.
  • Punch up the wine list. The selections were very nice, but there can be more of them. You don't need a Sears catalog sized list, but a few more selections would be great.
  • Emphasize the ingredient sourcing. In passing, the wait staff mentioned that all the fresh ingredients for the menu, with the obvious exception of the seafood, are obtained locally. Like from within 100 miles of Sioux Falls. That's phenomenal and I think Americans, in general, are finally coming around to what the French have understood for centuries- great, fresh ingredients obtained from people who care and know what they are doing make a HUGE difference. Why doesn't the menu tell me that pork came from a Lincoln County farmer? It should. Frankly, I really want to know this before I order.
  • Punch up the flavors, especially in the sides. Don't get me wrong, I thought the food was well-prepared, but I look for amplification and compliments to the natural, subtle nuances of fresh food. Don't be afraid to season with a heavier hand.
  • I hope between Ben and the culinary staff, you will try some special paired wine events.
Overall, I was quite pleased with my first experience at Parker's and I am looking forward to many return visits. I think Parker's has great promise and has the potential to be one of the crown jewels of dining in Sioux Falls, and South Dakota for that matter.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Holy Frijoles! Authentic Mexican Food in Sioux Falls: Nikki's Taqueria

Taqueria Nikki's on Urbanspoon
A couple of years or so ago, I was reading about Nikki's, a store and restaurant on East 10th Street- in the little strip mall where Subway is located, near Cliff Avenue. The point of the article was that Nikki's had become a sort of community center for the local Hispanic population, particularly those who speak very little English. I also noticed that the article mentioned good food.

Nikki's has opened a large new store on 8th Street and Indiana. The restaurant is still on 10th Street. (I don't know if a move is imminent.) I stopped in for lunch expecting a very authentic Mexican food experience and I am pleased to report that I was in no way disappointed.

Nikki's is the real deal. If your idea of great Mexican food is a Taco Bell Encherito or a big old burrito at Qdoba, the food at Nikki's is going to seem very foreign to you. On the other hand, if you have fond memories of some little tacos full of some really tasty mystery meat you ate during your last trip to Mexico, you are in luck.

Nikki's has a pretty nice selection of entrees and al a carte items. It was lunch and the taco special- four tacos for five bucks made a great deal of sense. The choices far exceeded beef or chicken, hard or softshells. (Actually, they make it pretty clear that there are no hard shells. As a matter of fact, the soft shells are corn, not flour- a plus on the authentic-meter.) There were tons of choices for fillings and you were free to mix and match them as you desired. Here are the choices I can remember: asada (spiced grilled beef), picadillo (shredded beef), pastor (a seasoned pork), carnitas (a different type of seasoned beef), chorizo, lengua (beef tongue), tripa (beef tripe), fish.

Naturally, I had to try the tongue, and rounded out my selections with chorizo, pastor, and the asada. Each taco is barely the size of an adult's palm and is comprised of two little corn tortillas with two or three tablespoons of your designated protein mounded in the middle. You can forget cheese, lettuse, sour cream, etc for toppings. In this case, you got onions and some chopped cilantro. There were also a couple of slices of fresh radish on the side.

As is so often the case with food, these simple little tacos were a great experience of flavor and textures. The soft and somewhat sweet corn tortillas palyed off the textures and subtle spiciness of the proteins. Then you get the sweet pungency of the onions and the salty-spiciness of the cilantro. Phenomenal.

Yes, the tongue was good. Tongue is an unfairly maligned cut of meat. Yes, it looks wierd in whole form and even I would have to do some research to figure out how to cook one, but it really is good stuff. It tastes beefy. Like so many odd beef cuts, the flavor is rather like the taste of a slice of cold pot roast straight from the fridge. That's probably because it has been stored in a fridge. The texture is not too soft and it's not tough by any means, either. It is very fine grained and yielding. Seriously, you have to give it a try.

I wasn't quite up for tripe- beef stomach. Don't get me wrong, properly cooked tripe is a beautiful thing. I actually had a meal at a much ballyhooed restaurant in San Francisco where the the best thing I had was the tripe appetizer. (I thought the rest of the meal frankly sucked- keep this in mind while you watch "The Next American Iron Chef" this fall because the executive chef at this particular restaurant is Nate Appleman who will be competing.) Anyway, considering the love and care put into the lengua, I bet the tripa is pretty darn good, too.

Truly, one of the best things about Sioux Falls these days is the absolute embarassment of riches we are experiencing in terms of diverse cultures. That means great food choices and Nikki's is a shining example. When you can get such a great sampling of flavors for all of five bucks, why wouldn't you?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Out on the Wine Dinner Trail: Carnaval

Hit a wine dinner the other night. I haven't been to one for a while because since Food & Fermentation closed the doors I haven't yet settled on a home base for a dinner.

For those of you who have no clue what I am talking about, there are a number of wine retailers who have paired up with local restaurants to feature a particular set of wines with a meal. Generally, each course is paired with a specific wine. The idea is to try new wines and see how they can be paired with certain foods. There are also usually representatives from a particular winery and, of course, folks from the local distributors. Incidentally, some of the local distributor representatives are good people to know. They can clue you in on what is what and if there are particularly good values to be had in the local market.

Carnaval, the Brazilian restaurant over in the Foley's-Century Theaters area, along with JJ's hosted a dinner featuring a four course menu, plus appetizers paired with wines by Seghesio- a three-generation winery located in northern Sonoma County. Edd Lopez, the national sales guy for Seghesio, and practically a member of the Seghesio family, was on hand to talk about Seghesio and the wines. Keeping in mind that Edd's job is to sell the wine, he did a great job of describing each wine and telling the Seghesio story. He was very informative and I didn't feel like he had memorized tasting notes. As one more aside, you simply have to encounter someone from wine country, especially a winery employee, and listen to them describe the flavors of what is in the glass. This is where you get all the comments about pears, hint of leather, blah, blah, blah. I seldom agree, but it is always entertaining.

The wines were fantastic. If you see Seghesio around, I highly recommend that you pick up a bottle of their Zinfandel and their Pinot Grigio. Very good stuff.

The paired foods had some highlights and some low lights, but from what I could tell, the crowd was very happy with the effort.

The evening started with a glass of Seghesio Pinot Grigio and a selection of cheeses, crackers, and some Brazilian sort of hush puppy that had the consistency of rubber. The Pinot was really great. Seghesio ferments their Pinot Grigio slowly which results in a much more developed structure. It was rich and creamy, like a Chardonnay, but without the oak and the overwhelming butter sort of feel.

Next course was a salad of spinach greens with shrimp, some croutons, and a nice fruity dressing. All-in-all, a really nice effort on the salad. The greens were fresh and cool and the shrimp was cooked just right. Spot on. I can't recall the name of the wine. It was a white, lighter than the Pinot Grigio. It paired well. Normally, I hate trying to pair wines with salads because the acidity of the dressing can clash with acidity in the wine. This worked well, though.

Now onto main courses. We were presented with two glasses of Zinfandel (one of the Fork's personal favorites). One glass was the Seghesio Old Vine Zin- which is pretty much exactly what that sounds like. This is wine from grapes grown on really old vines. It is everything a good Zin should be- spicy, somewhat tannic and well-developed structure. This was a 2006 and perhaps just a tad on the tight side. Not overly tannic, but a 2005 would have been nice. The other glass was Seghesio's Rockpile Zin. Rockpile is a new AOC- that is a specifically designated appellation- an officially recognized sub-region. This was also good wine and was quite different from the Old Vine. Perhaps a bit more minerally. It was different up front. By the way, these wines were poured in great glasses- big Reidels- exactly the sort of glass a big wine like that should be served in. The paired food was a seared ahi tuna with the obligatory gingery-garlicy sauce; two smoked lamb lollipops (two overcooked lamb chops) with an odd minty lemon butter; and some braised pheasant. The pheasant was good. The tuna was okay (really, if you don't overcook good tuna, it's pretty hard to mess up), the lamb was a loser. Meat as delicate as a lamb chop does NOT benefit from the application of smoke in my humble opinion. Between the smoke and the over-cooking, you had something that really didn't let the flavors of the lamb shine through.

Next course was a smoked pork tenderloin with some kind of sauce. Joining it on the plate were servings of a carrot and parsnip puree. The vegetables were good. The pork was fine, but again, what's with the friggin smoke? It was a little too heavy. The sauce served with it was a Seghesio Omaggio. This was the most expensive wine served that evening. Omaggio retails somewhere around 60 bucks a bottle. It's a blend of Cabernet and Sangiovese- sort of a shot at a super Tuscan blend. It was really rich, smooth, and full of dark fruit flavors.

By this point, I was confronted with a very unique problem: too much wine. I know that is an extremely odd "problem" to have, but really, by this point in the evening, we were on the verge of being over-served. Granted, one is not required to consume every drop of wine set in front of you, but geez, you don't want to waste it. The Fork likes drinking, even on a Wednesday night. The deal is though, the more wine you drink the less you are actually going to taste. As it turns out, alcohol seems to affect one's body and that includes your tongue and other parts of you tasting apparatus. This is why people who are doing serious tasting aspirate (fancy word for spit out) wine after thoroughly tasting it. I could tell the gross differences between these wines at this point, but after you have had five generous pours (not a bad thing), ferreting out the subtleties is not going to happen. The glassware at Carnaval is also a bit odd. The Pinot Grigio was served in those big globular glasses- the one hoisted by Chef Tracy in the Carnaval television commercial. These look cool, but they would be better for keeping a pet goldfish than drinking wine. The white glass for the wine paired with the salad and the glasses for the Zins were perfect. Then it went downhill. The Omaggio was served in one of those silly-ass stemless glasses. The bowl (well, the whole glass, since that's all it is) was too small for a wine that big. The only thing I could smell with that glass (even after five big glasses of wine) was the soap or hand lotion used by the servers who handled the glass before I got it. (One last rant as long as we are on the subject of scent. Carnaval had burning on our table a vanilla scented candle. WTF??!! Candles are nice for setting the mood, and a scented candle is great in a family room or bathroom, but NEVER on a table where people are trying to enjoy food. Major screw up in my book, but easily remedied.) The last wine, a Port actually, was served in a small snifter- not real keen on those.

Okay, last course- a huge fudgy chocolate brownie served with about two tablespoons of vanilla ice cream and three raspberries. As mentioned above, it was served with a Port that is not even offered here in SD. The Port was very rich and had lots of character. It also had lots of punch with a 24% alcohol content. My glass was also full of sediment. The dessert was good, but it was too much. I was worried I would contract gout sitting right there. Count 'em- by then four big glasses of red wine (we got a bonus pour of the Rockpile Zin- THANKS!), preceded by two whites and then very rich chocolate and a rich port. Something a tad lighter may have been in order.

Bottom line: Phenomenal wines and a nice try at the food, but a lack of follow-through on the execution. The meal definitely looked better on paper. But, like I said, a lot of people seemed to enjoy it and the Fork is definitely spoiled when it comes to food, which means I can admittedly get overly critical about details at times. I would be willing to try another wine dinner at Carnaval, but Chef, you've got a strike against you.

By all means, if you like food and you like wines, even if you are a wine beginner trying to increase your own knowledge- especially of how to pair wines with foods- go try a wine dinner. Just ask your favorite wine retailer if they sponsor these sorts of dinners. Chances are they do.

Carnaval Brazilian Grill on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 11, 2009

Support Local Businesses- Or Else!

A quick review of news here in South Dakota turned up a story in today's Rapid City Journal about the last day of business at Fjord's Ice Cream. The owner cited a lack of support from the local community and further stated that most of her business came from tourists in the area who actually sought out Fjord's.

Go check out the story at

It's a sad, but true, fact that if local people do not support local businesses, chances are those local businesses are going to have a tough time staying open. Granted, it's a lot easier to whip through a drive through lane of franchise place that sells frozen treats and lots of those sorts of places are also owned by local folks. But still, if your community has a local treasure like a Fjord's, you need to make a point to go out of your way to give them some business.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Really High End Fine Dining: What, Where and Why It Matters

In this neck of the woods, very few people are ever exposed to truly high-end dining. I am not talking about a trip to one of the legendary steak houses, such as Lawry's, Ruth Chris, Murray's or Manny's in Mineapolis, or ever Sparks or Peter Lugar in New York. I am not talking about a meal that simply costs a lot of money. (Even though this type of eating does cost alot. A whole lot.) I am talking about once-in-a-lifetime culinary experiences designed and executed by extremely talented chefs. I am talking about meals in establishments such as The French Laundry in Napa, Gary Danko in San Francisco, Everest, Charlie Trotter's or Alinea in Chicago, and, even closer to home, La Belle Vie in Minneapolis. These are places where, for the mere price of a car payment or (more likely) a house payment, you can indulge in culinary delights beyond your imagination and step into a rarified world of cuisine that very few will ever experience or imagine.

The menu in these sorts of places is not divided into sections such as "appetizers, salads, entrees and deserts." There is no salad bar. In some cases there is actually no menu. More often than not, the menu is divided into courses. When it is possible to "order" diners are confronted with making a series of selections from various courses. This is an option at Gary Danko and La Belle Vie, for instance. However, the real treat and the piece de resistance is the "tasting menu" or menu degustation that has been carefully crafted to showcase exquisite ingredients and the talents of the chef who painstakingly engineered the ingredients into an unforgettable experience. These menus are generally presented through 5 to 15 (or more) courses, each consisting of portions that are literally three or four bites. These courses look a lot like what is presented to the judges on television programs like Iron Chef America or Top Chef. Each course is literally a work of art to be enjoyed by all the senses.

I am not forking with you about the price of these meals. For most people, this isn't a one a month or even an annual experience. Prices can literally run from just under one hundred dollars per person to nearly three hundred dollars or more. And, that's before you have a cocktail or consider the wine options.

The places of this caliber that I have had the privilege to visit have cellars that boast some of the finest and rarest wines on the planet. Fortunately, if you don't have the foggiest idea which vintage of Chateau Moulton Rothschild will pair with the third course of a braised Kobe short rib in an ancho-cocoa sauce, or the third course consisting of Idaho steelhead trout paired with salmon caviar and some sort of foam (hmmm, the vintage 1945 or perhaps the 1968), the diner can elect for wines that are paired with each course.

The Japanese call this sort of dining omikase, which literally means to put oneself in the hands of the chef. That is basically exactly what one does on these occasions. Forget about whether a particular item sounds "good" or not. Chances are the average person wouldn't dream up some of these combinations in a million years and sourcing ingredients would be impossible. Sit back and indulge your senses.

Besides the extreme talent and imagination of the chefs who design these experiences, another thing that places this sort of dining in a league of its own is the sourcing of ingredients. In many of these places, the menu chages on a seasonal basis- it is a matter of what is very good during a particular season, although in some cases the menu can change due to what is the best that very day. In some cases, these ingredients are sourced down to an individual producer. For instance, if you find yourself enjoying a particular piece of fish at Charlie Trotter's, chances are it was swimming in a stream in Idaho, or in the South Pacific a matter of hours before it landed on your plate.

So, where does one experience this sort of dining? Well, as it just so happens, I have had the extreme pleasure of dining at several of the temples of degustation, and having visited this rarified world, have developed a short list of other places I hope to someday visit. If you ever have the opportuinity, try these places.

Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco

Gary Danko on Urbanspoon

We ended up at Gary Danko in San Francisco because we failed to secure a reservation at The French Laundry in Napa. (Important lesson- you have to get reservations for The French Laundry at least, and almost exactly 60 days in advance.) Even though we ended up at Danko as a second choice, the experience and the food was first rate. Danko allows a diner to custom build their own experience by selecting three, four, or five courses and then choosig among various offerings for each course. For instance, Glazed oysters with Osetra caviar, zucchini pearls and lettuce cream; horseradish crusted salmon medallion with dilled cucumber; and, for dessert try chocolate souffle with creme anglaise and warm Belgian chocolate.

Although the food was etherial, the service at Danko definitely took the experience to a higher level. Each staff member was impeccably and identically dressed in a designer suit. Dishes were unobtrusively, if not stealthily, whisked away after each course and new place settings delivered. The wine servers were knowledgeable and happy to answer questions about each selection. Overall, an outstanding experience.

Charlie Trotter's, Chicago

Charlie Trotter's on Urbanspoon

Charlie Trotter's Restaurant has been a pinnacle of fine dining in Chicago for over 20 years. Trotter's is a much more rarified experience than Danko. You better like your dining mates because at Trotter's you probably aren't going to be chit-chatting with the folks at the table next to you, as you might at Gary Danko. Also, at Trotter's you are not going to be presented with a choose your own sort of menu. You will have two to choose from, the Grad Cuisine menu or the Vegetarian menu. Rather than hear me describe the items, go look for yourself at You will also be confronted with several beverage options. when we were there, one could select from two different "grades" of paired wines, which can be referred to as the good stuff and the REALLY good stuff. (For instance, Perrier Jouet champagne vs. a 1996 Dom Perignon.) Ironically, unless you are REALLY into wine, waaay beyond the sorts of wines you can get and experience here, you aren't probably going to recognize any of it. If wine isn't your thing, you can also have the beverage pairing which consists of teas or other infusions designed to accentuate and accompany each course of the menu.

Then there is the kitchen table. At Charlie Trotter's there is a table in the kitchen. It takes a huge degree of luck or patience to get a reservation for the kitchen table. There is no menu at the kitchen table, it is a matter of whatever the chef thinks is the best that particular day. Wow!

If you dine at Trotter's you are going to get a tour of the kitchen, and there is actually a chance that you will see Chef Charlie Trotter there. He was when we visited. Kitchens at places like this are rather like magic science labs. They are fairly quiet and the actions of each chef almost choreographed. Think about it, these aren't places where the waiters are walking in yelling for steaks cooked to three different degrees of doneness, or that table six is still waiting for its appetizers. The menu is set, it is just a matter of concentrated, flawless execution.

At Charlie Trotter's you will also get a tour of the wine cellars. Wine museum is more like it. Again, jump on line and go look at the list. Ever wondered what a magnum bottle of a 1945 bordeaux looks like? Here's your chance.

Another really neat thing to do at Charlie Trotter's is to use the restroom. Seriously. It's jsut a restroom, but while you are in there attending to the usual course of business, take a look at the decor. In the restroom adjacent to the main floor dining room are a number of framed menus from very small, private dinners hosted by chefs, for chefs, and many of them are autographed. You'll find names like Emeril Lagasse, Ferran Adria, and others who you have probably only seen on television. Truly amazing.

If there is one drawback to Trotter's, it is the service, which I found to be a tad on the snooty side and seemed to go out of their way to make you feel that you were the one who was lucky to be forking over major cash for the experience. Case in point was the sommelier. This guy was not going to make any effort to stoop to our level to engage in a conversation or attempt to educate us to some degree about the wines. He was happy, though, to talk about procuring extremely rare vintages and recently stocking Charlie's cellars at his new venture in Las Vegas. I have never given much consideration to the rare wine trade or how one locates cases of very special and rare wines. I do know enough, however, to know about things like corks that can fail or "corked" wines. I wanted to know how one knew that a particular old rare wine was really any good. The asnwer: It better be. Allllrighty, then.

La Belle Vie, Minneapolis

La Belle Vie on Urbanspoon

One need not travel to the bay area, Chicago, or New York City to experience this rarified sort of dining. La Belle Vie, in the Loring Park area of Minneapolis, near the Walker Art Center, offers very big city experiences close to home. Take a look at the menu at The service was an absolute joy when we visited a few months ago.

Of course, for a lot of people the question is how do these places survive, especially in this economy, and why do they matter. Good questions. They survive because as long as there are people in this world who are so very interested and intrigued with cuisine, there will be people who are willing to spend the money necessary to have this level of experience. This is similar to other aspects of the art world- people who are willing to fork over thousands of dollars for an original painting instead of purchasing a ubiquitous print for a fraction of the cost.

This cuisine is important for the same reasons the space program has been important to so many aspects of daily life. Just as space technology spun off and trickled down to so many aspects of daily life (velcro, microwave ovens, electonics of all sorts, etc.) innovations in the culinary arts trickle down. That molten chocolate cake you enjoyed at Applebees last week was probably first presented in a high end restaurant years ago. Places like El Bulli, The French Laundry, and Charlie Trotter's provide the places where chefs can pair first-rate ingredients with their wild imaginations in places where people will gladly pay a premium to sample the product. Who knows what sorts of flavor innovations and inspirations await?

Book Review: My Life in France by Julia Child

A good friend and fellow foodie loaned me her copy of My Life in France by Julia Child and recommended I read it. I was a little skeptical because the front cover of the paperback included a picture of Meryl Streep in her role as Julia Child in the upcoming (or perhaps already released) film "Julie and Julia." Personally, I do not have a great deal of interest in seeing the film about a young woman who undertakes the seemingly Herculean quest of cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking cover to cover. However, if someone I deem to be a credible source reports that a good dose of the movie is more about Julia than Julie, I might reconsider.

At any rate, My Life in France begins at the end of World War II, when Julia Child's service with the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA ended and her relationship with Paul Child began. After the war, Paul Child remained a member of the US foreign service and was assigned to Paris. Julia was not content to remain a member of the somewhat cloistered group of fellow Americans in the foreign service in Paris. Although she didn't speak a word of French, she had a strong hunger to immerse herself in the culture of France and Paris. And, as anyone should know, a large part of the culture of Paris and France involves every aspect of food and cooking. This eventually led her to enroll in classes at Le Cordon Bleu. My Life in France provides heaping helpings of Julia's thoughts and insights as she took the first steps that would eventually lead her to the status of a living legend and icon of cooking and cuisine.

The book also explains in considerable detail the toils, triumphs, and frustrations of developing and writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking and seeing the book published. My Life in France is required reading for any dedicated foodie.

Reading the book caused me to reflect on Mastering the Art of French Cooking and to realize just how truly ahead of its time it was. In order to put the book in perspective, one has to reflect on the history of America and its cuisine in the Twentieth Century. Right up to and following World War II, especially during the years of the Great Depression, in many parts of the United States, putting food on the family table was a considerable task. One doesn't have to look very far back in their family history, especially here in the Great Plains, to find a time when almost everything that appeared on the table was produced and prepared within the 80 acres or so where the farmhouse was situated. Animals were slaughtered and meat preserved. Vegetables were grown and canned. Eggs were gathered. Cows milked. Loaves of bread were baked several times a week. Sure, there were trips to a market to buy things that simply could not be produced, but the trip to the grocery store as we know it today just didn't exist. Daily life and things we take for granted today required hard, relentless work. On top of those daily challenges were heaped the hardships of the Dust Bowl and the rationing and sacrifices of World War II.

After the war, things got better. The country experienced a boom, not only in terms of the economy, but also in technology. The era of modern conveniences was upon us. Great minds turned their attention to making daily life easier and more convenient. Besides being able to produce and ship all sorts of foods all around the country and the globe, the country was also introduced to things like cake mixes and all sorts of pre-cooked foods that could simply be popped into the oven, or eventually, the microwave. As automobile travel expanded and the average American became more affluent, things like fast food and an abundance of restaurants followed. In short, food and eating simply became a heck of a lot more convenient. Not necessarily better, but certainly a lot "easier."

The United States was in the midst of the Space Race and the Cold War when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was first published. My Life in France details the skepticism of publishers about the likelihood of success of the tome about French cooking, something to this day the average American is likely wont to describe or define. (Just ask someone what they believe to be French cuisine. Snails? Emphasis on sauces? Lots of cream and butter? French bread? French fries? Try it. Ask some non-foodie friends.) Nevertheless, the book sold better than expected. In my opinion, however, it still remained far ahead of its time.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is not a work for the faint of heart and it is decidedly not the go-to source for simple little recipes to whip up something a little different for the next dinner party. I can think of no better example than the recipe for French Bread found in Mastering, Volume II. The bread requires four very simple ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. Nevertheless, the recipe covers something like 10 pages and describes in great detail how to develop the dough, form loaves, and bake them to get as reasonably close approximation to the real thing as one can expect using everyday equipment and everyday ingredients. (Hint: the story of how this recipe was developed is one of the highlights of My Life in France.)

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is experiencing a major revival thanks to the book Julie and Julia and the movie. There is no doubt that the country is re-discovering food and cooking. Although we continue to enjoy many modern conveniences, people have discovered, or rediscovered, the older more labor-intensive ways of producing and cooking food. The difference is that it is now somewhat of a luxury to cook this way (wanting to do it versus having to do it). In addition, people have learned that mass produced, processed foods are not necessarily the best foods or the best for us. It seems more people than ever are interested in cooking and have the desire to purchase the tools and commit the time necessary to master the type of skills that are necessary to produce truly great food. Just look at the sort of equipment that is available to the average cook today, let alone the highly specialized equipment available to those who can afford it (induction cooktops, ovens that inject steam, etc.). If Mastering the Art of French Cooking has a time, that time is probably now, 40 years after its publication and several years after Julia Child's own death. It seems that just now people are interested in the nuances of good food- where it comes from, who brought it to us, how it is made, and how to make it ourselves.

Read My Life in France. It's not only a good read, it's a great glimpse into the life of a truly remarkable woman. I encourage you to read the book and reflect on how much of your own relationship with good food and good cooking has been influenced by Julia Child.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Urbanspoon- give it a shot

You know those cool iPhone ads where they display a slot machine looking app that randomly finds you a place to eat in almost any community? It's part of Although you cannot get an iPhone in South Dakota, yet, urbanspoon is reviewing restaurants. Give it a look.

Callaways Menu Change

Earlier this past summer I had an opportunity to stop by Callaways for dinner. I was really looking forward to a good, somewhat upscale meal, accompanied by a reasonably-priced wine in the nice setting. Opening the menu I frantically searched for an interesting special or some old favorites, but none were to be found. Confused, and concerned that some philosophical shift in the menu had occurred unbeknownst to me, I asked the waitress what was up with the menu. She confirmed my hypothesis and, unfortunately, my fears: Callaways had homogenized its menu with the offerings in The Pub. In other words, they dumbed-down the menu, shifting from more formal dining to more "casual" fare.


Well, the food was fine and the service was great, but I left unsatisfied, lamenting the loss of the Callaways of old.

Callaways is located at the rear of the CJ Callaways complex at Prairie Green Golf Course. The space is beautiful with very high, open ceilings. Even though the seating areas are fairly open, it has a nice, private sort of feel. The old menu offerings included steaks, chops, seafood, and other standard, South Dakota-esque "fine dining" choices with some interesting twists here and there. For instance, Callaways used to offer a killer spinach salad with a warm bacon dressing. Personally, I always thought the dressing was a little heavy on Dijon mustard, but it was still pretty darn good. They also had (and still do, I guess) offer a side of roasted white and sweet potatoes. At one time, I think when Amy Warren was the Executive Chef, they offered an awesome-looking rack of lamb. I never had a chance to try that, but it looked phenomenal. Why the hell doesn't anyone serve a decent rack of lamb around here? I might have to look into that.

Another thing I really liked about Callaways was their wine list. It wasn't really extensive, but had a good variety of wines at a good variety of prices. The other thing I appreciated was that the wines were priced better than at restaurants owned by the same group, particularly Foley's. I actually had an argument about this with one of my friends who was then a server at Foley's. This argument surrounded two points: (1) That Foley's overpriced their wines and (2) That Callaways offered a lot of the same wines at better prices. But I digress . . .

I think what I liked most about the old Callaways was that it provided a great alternative to other Sioux Falls dining choices. When I didn't feel like going downtown to Minerva's and didn't want to venture out to Foley's (which I confess I rarely do for a number of reasons), Callaways provided a great option. I've enjoyed several good meals there with good friends and good wine. And I miss it.

I sincerely hope the new menu is not just a trip around the drain in a death spiral. I can see how Callaways could become a victim of an economy where people eat out a little less and when they do they spend less money. Maybe it's just an effort to drive old Callaways fans to Foley's or even Tre (the other restaurants owned by the group). Whatever the reason, I hope it changes because I want the old Callaways back.

C J Callaway's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Market On Phillips

After a bit of a hiatus, our old friends from Food & Fermentation, Doug and Laurel Lather, are back and managing the newest venue on the local food and wine scene, The Market On Phillips. TMOP for short. You might have seen some stories in the local daily newspaper about it- in the last of which Doug was identified as "Dan." More great work from the folks at the AL.

TMOP is strictly retail, unlike Food & Fermentation which also offered Laurel's culinary creations. I am sure Laurel is enjoying the hiatus from the kitchen. Although Food & Fermentation may not have proved an economic success (at least post-move) there should be no doubt that from a purely epicurean standpoint, the place was an enormous success. Laurel's knack for pairing fresh, interesting foods, with great wines truly pushed local dining in a direction it desperately needed (and still needs) to go. Running a commercial kitchen, however, takes its toll, both physically and mentally. The good news is, Laurel is still around and will be more than happy to use her talent and experience to guide TMOP customers through the great wines and food products available at TMOP.

The wine selection at TMOP is about as good as you will find in Sioux Falls. These folks have some serious wine inventory featuring many varietals, producers, and price points. As an aside, I have heard on several occasions a criticism that the wine selection at Food & Fermentation trended to price points somewhat north of what the average wine buyer around here likes or wants to spend. Personally, I think that observation may be a bit misguided.

Quick aside on wine prices. Wine is a funny thing in that the price on the bottle sometimes has absolutely no relationship with how much the consumer may enjoy its contents. Great wines can be had at bargain prices, but this is usually the product of a great deal of knowledge and research or is the result of a lucky buy. Also, I find that the enjoyment of wine is also dependent on the circumstances of its consumption, i.e. paired with a great meal, drank in celebration of a special event, or spontaneously shared with great friends. Too often, I think people especially enjoy wine under certain circumstances, declare it to be their new favorite and make a point to buy more, only to find it is not as good the second or third time around. That being said, interesting wines, from smaller producers, from interesting areas, or that are generally critically acclaimed, tend to cost a little more than a bottle of Covey Run Riesling or a Bota box. If cheap wine is what you want, there are plenty of places to buy it. Just don't bitch because every wine retailer in town cannot meet your expectation of "value." End of aside.

When it comes to cheap bottles of wine, if that is what you want, my advice is to head to your favorite cheap wine purveyor. If you are looking for something different or more interesting, however, my advice is to stop down at TMOP and talk to Laurel about what you are looking for. She can help you pinpoint a wine to pair with a special meal or to drink at a special occasion. You might also want to have Doug pour you a glass at the tasting bar- you might discover something new to try that way.

In addition to the wine selection, TMOP has a great variety of highly specialized food items. Think escargots and varieties of sea salts specialized. Granted there are other "high end grocers" here, such as Look's and Cleaver's and even Hy Vee is carrying things you would find here years ago, but I think TMOP may have managed to top them all with a few of their items. For instance, Laurel, has located an artisan pasta maker that offers nearly a dozen specialized dried pastas featuring flavors such as chocolate, roasted garlic, and others. In the freezer cases, one can locate fois gras and Maple Leaf Farms duck breasts. Another great feature is fresh produce from the folks at Seedtime, so if you just can't make it to the Saturday farmers market, you can swing in TMOP. I'd even bet Laurel and Doug would be able to help with a special mid-week request.

Next time you are downtown, stop in at TMOP and check it out. Say hello to Doug and Laurel and make sure you sign up for email updates so you can receive notices of sales or other special offers. Or, better yet, find TMOP on Facebook and make yourself a friend.

Long TIme No Post

Things have been super crazy with the old super stressful day job, so I haven't been able to post much lately. Lots to talk about here in Sioux Falls and the area.

Look forward to more posts and tell your friends to visit and leave a comment or two.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Local Daily Forks Up Another One

It's been a pretty busy run at the super stressful day job, so I must start by offering my apologies to the small handful of people who read this blog.  I am sorry.  Now back to the regularly scheduled rant.

The local daily here in the Sioux Empire, The Argus Leader, has forked up yet another restaurant review.  Some of you may recall my previous post about the deplorable job the AL and reporter Dorene Weinstein did with a review of Sai Gon Panda.  I swear, they need to start getting it right, or get out of the business of doing this altogether.  

Last Thursday, in the Link section of the AL, Ms. Weinstein turned her untrained yet highly critical eye toward the Minerva's group's new endeavor, 26 Grille.  Here's a link to the story:

Let's start with some background.  26 Grille opened in early March- March 10 according to the AL story- in the location in the Park Ridge Shopping Center formerly occupied by Spezia.  I've been waiting with much anticipation for this new place to open in that old, familiar space.  Word on the street was that the new venue was going to be a neighborhood sort of place to fill the void left by Spezia's departure for more fertile grounds.

Ms. Weinstein stuck a three-pronged fork right in the eye of 26 Grille with her review:
  • The service was a bit lacking
  • The food was "off"
  • The decor sucks
The only bright note was attentive service and a delightful brownie desert (which was actually complimentary to make up for failing to deliver a steak cooked to order.)

Where shall I start?

First of all, since when is it really fair to write a critical review of an establishment that just opened?  Sure, there is a school of thought that says if any place is going to take your money to serve you food and drink they ought to get it right whether it's Day 1 or Day 1001.  But come on, this is Sioux Falls and we're talking about what amounts to yet another neighborhoody burger, wood-oven pizza, pasta, and sandwich joint.  And the very first week of business!  If this was the Sioux Falls branch of The French Laundry or Lutece serving a $250 eight course tasting menu (paired wines extra) that "get it exactly right straight out of the box" argument might fly.  Where was the AL the first week Bracco opened?  How about Spezia in the new location.  You couldn't get a beer before your next birthday when Spezia opened at 57th and Louise.  Regardless how experienced individual staff members might be, it takes a while to knock the kinks out of a new place.  Cut them some slack, you idiots.

Second, while I agree decor is part of the overall dining experience, I don't give a dull steak knife whether the AL reporter doesn't like poppies or the color orange.  I say if you can't find some element of decor almost anywhere that you can carp about, you ain't trying very hard.  What the AL didn't manage to mention is that 26 Grille seems a heck of a lot bigger than Spezia or any of the previous occupants of the space.  I am not kidding.  It seems like they managed to find a couple hundred square feet that were stashed somewhere.

Third, if you are going to write a review, try telling me what I can find on the menu.   I don't care what the dining room manager says is selling- try looking in that thingy the nice waitress gave you when you were seated.  Fortunately, I looked at it and can give you a little idea what you'll find.  It's not a bad menu at all.  It's kind of basic stuff that we see all too much of here in Sioux Falls: wood-oven pizza, burgers, pasta, salads, soups, appetizers, desserts, etc.  But I must say there were some interesting twists.  For instance, on a recent visit with some friends I selected a burger that was topped with bleu cheese, some onions and (get this) some nicely sauteed apples.  Neat twist and pretty tasty, too.  Even more interestingly, the burger was cooked to order.  (Although I'll order a steak medium rare almost anywhere, I usually won't order a burger done any less than medium.  But considering I'll eat beef tendons in pho for lunch, I might just go a little lighter on the doneness next time.)  A friend had chicken risotto.  (Actually it was chicken and risotto- grilled chicken tenders on the side of the rice.)  There's something you won't find on the menu at Champp's.   I had a taste and it was pretty good.  The rice was al dente, which I liked.  The risotto wasn't as good as what I produce at home, but then no one else's in Sioux Falls is, either.

What to drink?  Not booze.  Yet.  Apparently, 26 Grille is going to wait for one of those new restaurant, not bar, liquor licenses.  Still, there is a great selection of beers on the menu and a pretty nice wine list.  I like the fact that the wine list isn't too crazy, but is very respectable.  On the occasion I was there, I opted for the house cabernet sauvignon.  It was good.  Three bucks a glass during happy hour and served in a decent Reidel glass.  Thirteen bucks a bottle regular price.  More expensive wines were available, but between those and the house wines were plenty of decently priced, interesting selections.  Plenty of varietals, too.  Hmmmm, one wouldn't know this from reading the AL.

Fourth, get a clue about food.  Okay, your salmon burger had an "off" taste.  Who orders salmon burgers anyway?  (Dorene must not have been a Catholic kid in the 60's or 70's.  Can you say salmon pattie?)  And what is an "off" taste in a salmon burger?  Bad combination of herbs?  Clearly farm raised salmon with that fish fed with little dog food pellets its whole life kind of flavor?  What?  This is the same woman who ordered chicken, fried wontons and egg rolls at Sai Gon Panda.  Hmmm come to think of it, she ordered stir fry at 26 Grille.    I want to know more about the food than whether it was piping hot or gooey.  What sounds exotic on the menu?  What are they taking a chance on?  A person has to try some standards, but 26 Grille is clearly trying to put some twists on the same sorts of fare that you can find almost anywhere else in this town.  The AL folks fail to take note of that, though.

Look, here's the bottom line, Argus.  If you are going to try to do restaurant reviews, hire some forking foodies to write them.  Dorene Weinstein and Jay "order me a filet mignon every time" Kirschenmann aren't foodies.  Foodies appreciate subtle differences and will gladly overlook a color scheme for a properly roasted chicken any time.  Foodies know when a wine list is a bunch of overpriced trendy crap and when someone has put some real thought and care into making selections that will compliment the menu and provide bargains for the diner.  Foodies know where to eat in town and they know CJ Callaways is not part of a private country club.  Not making this up, Jay Kirschenmann said it.  Foodies write for foodies and they tell foodies what foodies want to know, about food.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I am going to go see how many references I can find to things that are "piping hot", "yummy", or "gooey" in a few dozen copies of Food & Wine or Gourmet.  "Piping hot."  For Pete's sake.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Practical Guide to Drinking in New Orleans

New Orleans is a fantastic place for a number of reasons. If you have never been to the Big Easy, there is probably no way to mentally prepare yourself for what awaits you there. Food and drink, not necessarily in that order, are a HUGE part of the culture of the city. Also, the city is very old and the French Quarter and surrounding older parts of the city were built before anyone imagined an automobile, subway, or other modern conveniences. In the French Quarter, the streets are extremely narrow and the buildings are ancient.

There is much to discuss about New Orleans and all of the great things to do there, but today I want to focus on one thing: Drinking. If you go to New Orleans, you are going to drink. It's practically mandatory. So, if you are an avowed AA member and are carrying anything less than a 10 years chip, I'd avoid it altogether.

One other thing to avoid is taking children to New Orleans. Bourbon Street is R-rated- and that's during the day. If your kids are young, there are things they just shouldn't see and if they are older and impressionable, they are only going to get ideas that you don't want them to have. Details below.

One thing you should probably do before traveling to New Orleans is to find some sort of hangover remedy that works for you because you're gonna need it. Mind you, I am not promoting binge drinking. It's dangerous and generally not good for you. People should always drink in moderation. Trust me, though, you will overindulge at least once during a trip of a couple days in New Orleans.

If you have any sort of powers of observation at all, one of the first things you are going to notice is that some form of alcohol is available almost everywhere and at all times. There are nifty little frozen cocktail joints located on at least every other block. For less than ten bucks, you can get about forty ounces of some sort of frozen concoction to help you hold on. (These are a decent hangover remedy- assuming, of course, your idea of a hangover remedy is to commence getting liquored up again.) These frozen drinks are also great for sipping on while strolling around the French Quarter and touring the historic cemeteries.

That's right- strolling around with drinks! New Orleans has no open container ordinances. That, my friends, is enlightened thinking. As a matter of fact, from my own personal experiences, it is damned near impossible to get arrested in the French Quarter, assuming you aren't raping and pillaging. If you can manage to avoid urinating in the street or walking around with a glass container, you should be able to completely avoid the attention of local law enforcement.

If you have never been to New Orleans, you are undoubtedly going to want to check out Bourbon Street just about as bad as you want to ride Space Mountain the minute you get to Disneyland. Let me suggest that you make your first visit to Bourbon Street during the daytime hours. Trust me on this- the place is seriously too forking crazy when the sun goes down. The part of Bourbon Street you are going to want to visit is maybe 6 or 8 blocks. Start from the west- around Canal Street. (Hint: the further east you go, you are going to notice an increasing presence of rainbow flags. Gay bars. If that's what you're looking for, that's where they are.) The westerly part of Bourbon Street is decidedly heterosexual, or perhaps just perverted. What you are going to notice are wall to wall bars, a fair number of which offer very adult entertainment. Larry Flynt has a few franchises in the neighborhood. Some of these places have pretty graphic advertising of what sorts of things are available inside, including cameo appearances from the performers standing near the entrances. This is a good example of why you really shouldn't take the kids. There are also a few restaurants and souvenir shops. Actually, there are a few very notable restaurants, like Arnaud's.

The other advantage to touring Bourbon Street by day is that you have a better chance of telling one bar from another. At night, the place is crowded and, because you can take your beer to go, it really is difficult to tell one loud, crowded joint from another.

You are going to want to visit a few of the famous watering holes. For instance, you must stop by the Old Absinthe House for a libation. This is not classy drinking. The place looks and smells exactly like you think it would. It's wonderful.

Another landmark drinking stop is Pat O'Brien's for a hurricane. Pat O'Brien's is huge and features about three distinctive areas. Hurricanes aren't made- they are produced. A bartender takes that big famous glass, or a very tall plastic cup, packs it with ice, an orange slice and a maraschino cherry, and then dispatches the drinks from a muti-pronged wand that can fill three or four glasses at the same time. I imagine the basement at P. O'B's is where a series of very large tanks full of the elixir is located. At night, particualrly on a weekend, they must go through hundreds of gallons of the stuff. A word of caution: be very careful with the hurricanes. I didn't try to conduct any sort of analysis, or bother to ask for that matter, but from what I can tell they are made from two ingredients- rum and the color red. If you're smart you'll have one and then move on. If you're like everyone else, you'll have at least two. If you have four or more, you ought to get back to the hotel immediately and lie down, because chances are you aren't going to remember what happens next. When you leave O'Brien's you are going to get to take the glass with you. Attendants at the door will wrap and package it for you. You've got to bring home a hurricane galss from Pat O'Brien's. Your spouse is not going to appreciate it. The damned things are nearly impossible to wash (maybe that's why they give these things away)and they are too big to fit in the cabinet where you keep the other drinking glasses at home, but they make great iced tea glasses. Forget trying to buy hurricane mix and making your own- there is no way to credibly duplicate this drink at home.

Happy hour on Bourbon Street is a new experience. Here in Sioux Falls, the most advanced form of Happy Hour involves two-fers. If you can't find a place offering three-fers on Bourbon Street, you just aren't exerting any effort. Remember, you don't have to finish your drinks at the bar- you can take them with you- just ask for a go cup.

The Acme Oyster House is within a block of Bourbon Street on Iberville. If you go there during the day, you might avoid a line to get it. Sit at the bar and suck down a few oysters opened before your eyes by the talented staff. Wash them down with an Abita beer (pronounced A-beet-a). Be careful of the Abita Alligator beer that one of the oyster shuckers might suggest. It's like 14% alcohol which is about double the bounce of a regular beer. You're going to end up drunk enough as it is, so why rush it?

Speaking of discretion, you are going to see people walking around with funny looking plastic drinking vessels shaped like hand grenades. The shape of the "glass" should be a hint that this is something to avoid. I don't know what's in them, but they will definitely bomb your liver, and probably your judgment.

If Bourbon Street is a bit wild by day, it's absolutely INSANE at night. Sometime around 5 or 6 PM, the police start closing off the cross streets and no traffic is allowed on Bourbon. It's a little like being at the Rally at that point, only with less leather and more booze. It's a little hard to describe- the whole place is like one huge bar. There are lots of performance artists around, including young kids who will tap dance for tips using shoes with homemade taps made from aluminum cans. There are other performance artists roaming the streets, too: the ones from the adult entertainment venues who are out giving away free drink tickets or free admission tickets and, in some cases, free samples. Most bars are going to have live music and most of it is great.

My last piece of advice is to take someone with you. This is definitely time for the buddy system. A cell phone won't do. Assuming you can hear who you are talking to, they probably aren't going to be able to hear you.

Let the good times roll, but stay safe. There is really nothing like New Orleans.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hitting The Road- Where to Eat and Drink

So, you've for a trip coming up. Maybe its for business or just for fun with friends or family. Either way, you got to eat. But where? Here are a few tips I've picked up.

First, give some thought to the purpose of your travels. If you are traveling on business, will you be entertaining customers or clients, or are you traveling to a seminar or meeting by yourself. This is a know your audience thing. Some people aren't in search of the perfect bowl of pho, pad thai or Kobe beef. Also, your employer might not appreciate a reimbursement request for a meal from a famous steak house in a big city. (Personally, I don't turn those in, or if I do, I only request what a normal meal would have cost.)

If the trip is for pleasure, are you going with friends or family? Children? Another audience situation. If your kid is going to throw a fit because there are no chicken strips on the menu of the Indian place you are at . . . well, you get the idea. You should also have a good idea of what you are willing to spend and any time constraints. For instance, if you have tickets for a musical, standing around waiting for a table at Pizzeria Uno in Chicago is probably not going to work. Also, having a Primanti Brothers sandwich in Da Burg at 1:30 when you have a 6:00 reservation at some other place is not a wise move.

You also need to know where you are staying and give some consideration to how you are going to reach your dining destination. Is it a relatively short cab ride away or are you gonna put the cabbies kid through her first year of grad school because you had no idea the place you wanted to go is further away from downtown than the airport. For instance, if you are staying in San Francisco, you need to know that Chez Panisse is across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley and The French Laundry is in Napa Valley.

The number one key to successful dining during travel is to research. I spend more time figuring out and making dining arrangements than I do booking air travel and hotels, by a long shot. In no particular order of significance, here are some resources I consult for finding places to eat.
  • The Internet (No forking kidding, there, right?) Specifically, places like the regular food sites,,, But there are others. Try Chowhound and Egullet, which are sort of message boards/blogs for foodies. You might also try some search engines to see if you can find other blogs- like this one.
  • While you are on the internet, you might also see if the website for whatever hotel you are staying at has some local guides. Check those out.
  • Try some print resources. The food magazines: Gourmet, Bon Appetite, Food and Wine regularly have stories about new or hot places in bigger communities. Gourmet used to have regular articles every month about restaurants in New York City and San Francisco. Also check travel magazines. Another great print resource are the local city magazines for your destination. An example of this is Chicago Magazine which features a listing of hundreds of restaurants by cuisine and locale. Hell, there's even an Okoboji magazine available. Look around next time you're at the Big Box Book Mart and you'll probably find a magazine for the place you are going.
  • Consult people who have been there. If you've got a friend who spent three days in Pittsburgh last year, that might be a good person to ask.
  • You might also want to take a look at some cookbooks. Chicago Tribune food writer Bill Rice authored a wonderful red meat cookbook called the Steak Lovers Cookbook a few years ago. In it, he discusses various famous steak houses and other notable dining venues in Chicago and other large cities.
When you settle on some choices, get on-line or on the phone and start making reservations. If you haven't used Open Table, you might want to give it a whirl- it works very well. If you are paying entirely too much for a credit card (which is anything more than zero) you might have to resort to the concierge service to get reservations at certain places. Even then, you better be on the phone with the restaurant. Some of the very high-end places have quirky reservation policies. For instance, if you've been dreaming of going to The French Laundry, you'd damned well better know that you MUST make a reservation 60 days in advance or you're forked. That can literally be the difference between trying to make a reservation for a Friday or Saturday. Also, some places have cancellation policies, just like hotels. The opposite problem, of course, is that some places don't take reservations, at all. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily a clue that you'll get in. If you plan on lunching at Gallatoire's in New Orleans and are not in line hours ahead of time, forget it. Also, be aware of attire requirements. You may get into a particular place without a coat or tie, but you'll feel like an absolute moron.

I generally avoid asking a hotel concierge for a reccomendation, unless I am staying at a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons, which, frankly, never happens. I have this suspicion that the concierge is more concerned about his/her status in the "Hey, Buddy" network than your dining experience. On the other hand, a concierge at almost any hotel nice enough to have such a service might be able to slide you some reservations at a place of your choosing.
Finding good drinking establishments also requires some research, especially if you want to find interesting or noteworthy watering holes. For instance, for me no trip to San Francisco is complete without a stop, or two, at the Top of the Mark- the bar located on the top floor of the Hotel Intercontinental Mark Hopkins. The views are fantastic from this perch at the top of Nob Hill. Speaking of San Francisco, on a recent trip there, we checked out a little joint in the Tenderloin District as a result of research. The bar is called Rye. They served interesting cocktails, such as gimlets made with cucumber and basil. Really good stuff.
Also, when in a different city, make sure you drink like a local. If you are sitting in a bar in Pittsburgh drinking a Miller Lite instead of a bottle of Iron (Iron City Beer, that is), you are an idiot.
Drinking in New Orleans is complicated enought to be a post all by itself- matter of fact, I think I will write that one next.
Whatever you do, when you travel, do your research so you don't miss a great opportunity to expand your perspective a bit.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Update: Food & Fermentation Closes The Doors

This is the news I got yesterday through various intelligence sources. Out of a great deal of esteem and affection for Doug and Laurel, I wanted to wait until something appeared in the MSM. The local daily had a story posted today. According to that story, which quoted Laurel, F&F was unable to secure financing for an expansion, and therefore the decision was to close Monday with an eye toward getting out of the restaurant and catering business in favor of a smaller retail botique offering wines, cheeses, and "everyday grocery items."

Whatever the reasons and whatever the future plans may be are rather beside the point. It's clear from Laurel's quoted remarks to the AL reporter that F&F, as we have come to know and love it, is no more. I am sure the speculation is running rampant as to why: the "new" space at Falls Center (opened just about two years ago) must have been too big and expensive; the move away from the so-called epicenter of lunch venues cost them vital noontime business; the wines being offered were too high-end for most folks. Does any of that really matter?

If it is true, that F&F is out of the restaurant and catering business for good, that is a true loss. Laurel Lather is an extremely talented chef and she fully deserves credit for moving the food scene here in Sioux Falls ahead a few steps. In a town where fine dining unfortunately too often means a huge cut of read meat served with a starch, etc. etc. F&F served things that were, well, different. The preparations were creative and thought out. Laurel could take some chances with ingredients that usually paid dividends for her customers.

Back before almost all the wine retailers were sponsoring monthly dinners, F&F held monthly gatherings of the International Food and Wine Society. Because this is South Dakota and you are not going to be buying any wine here anytime soon without the blessing of the few distributors, the wines and the people representing those wines were the same that you would see at the events held by Hy Vee, Taylor's Pantry, JJ's, The Little Wine Cellar, and so on. The difference was Laurel's culinary talents. Laurel would get VERY creative with the courses she paired with the featured wines. Here are a few memorable courses and offerings over the last several years:

  • A salad consisting of tomatoes, watermelon and herbs dressed with a light lemony vinagrette. It was paired with white zinfandel. Yeah, yeah. We're all thinking the same thing: What the hell is this salad and I can't believe I am drinking this sweet pink wine." It was a phemomenal pairing.

  • At a Polish-themed dinner the first course was a huge platter of pickles, breads, pate, hard boiled eggs, mustards and other spreads. The instructions were to pile a bunch of those components on the bread and shovel it in. As goofy as this sounds- another hit.

  • About a year ago, the wine dinner was the sake dinner. Instead of wine, sake was served alone and in various concoctions. Sake bloody mary, sake with ginger, etc. The food was, of course, Asian themed. This was a really good one.

  • Blind tastings. Can you taste 9 or 10 different red wines and separate the shiraz from the merlot? This IS NOT as easy as it sounds, and if you have ever done it once you will understand why the real wine tasting experts expectorate (spit out) the wine after tasting. It's hard enough to make the brain work through the complexities of what makes the stuff in the glass cabarnet as opposed to zinfandel without the asssitance of the alcohol.

  • The last wine dinner at the old venue (where Wild Flour Bakery is now) was a camping theme. Notably, a corn soup was served in a little Green Giant can- campfire style. That menu also featured rattlesnake sausage.

  • South African wine dinners were especially fun, complete with a native South Afrikaaner presenting the wines and a South African inspired menu, including Bobotie.

  • A First Thanksgiving Dinner in 2007 to cleebrate the new venue. Laurel and her staff made a huge quantity of food and served it family style. The tables were pushed together so all the guests were seated at one table. Laurel, Doug, Ben, and the other staffers joined the guests while the food went round the table and the wine flowed.
  • How about the lunch specials- usually an interesting grilled cheese sandwich with some twist- like leeks or wild mushrooms. And the soups were always interesting, like tomato basil chianti- the secret was the huge volume of chianti.
Probably the neatest thing about eating a F&F is that whatever you had was good and you felt like you were among friends. You knew you could put yourself in Laurel's hands and have an interesting and good meal.

I wish Laurel and Doug well and hope we'll see them around town and into a new endeavor.