Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bracco: WTF*

Bracco on Urbanspoon

WTF = What The Fork??!! I know what you thought it meant, but decorum demands otherwise. For the purposes of this blog, WTF is going to denote some unexpected screw up that I feel a need to air.

So, on a Tuesday evening in the not-so-distant past a friend and I head to Bracco for a little dinner. Tuesday is "Neighborhood Night" at Bracco which means burgers and some other sandwich are half-price. Actually, anyone who knows anything about dining in Sioux Falls should know that Tuesday night half-price burgers is almost a mandatory feature at most eateries around town. The place is busy. Dining room full, people standing around waiting for tables full. We're told the wait is like 40 minutes- that's a long time, but they serve alcohol at Bracco, so this is only a 2 to 3 beer wait in reality. Off to the bar with the little remote control buzzer in hand.

All tables in the bar are full. Fortunately, there are three barstools available. Unfortunately, they are randomly dispersed. Come on, people, when a bar is busy you don't need an empty seat buffer zone. Squeeze together so other people can sit down. We finally get some barstools rounded up. That was nice. What wasn't so nice was a wait of about 10 minutes to place a drink order. I am pretty understanding about brief delays in getting a drink when a place is busy, but I cannot abide a lack of acknowledgement. I also won't yell at wait staff to serve me. I prefer to look desparate in an effort to make them feel guilty- which usually works.

With the drink order, we ordered a flat bread, figuring we were going to be waitng another 30 minutes for a table. The flat bread rocketed out of the kitchen and was good- as expected. We decide to go ahead and eat at the bar and relinquish our spot in line for a table. No problem there. Because the bar at Bracco is so nice and because the place is smoke free, I actually prefer the bar to a table in the dining room. Bracco is an interesting place in that respect. In my opinion, Bracco is not a restaurant that happens to have a nifty bar area- vis a vis Spezia or Minervas. Bracco is a phenomenal bar that just happens to have a dining area.

We placed an order- burgers. Why not? It was Tuesday and those are the special. What wasn't special was the wait and what eventually arrived. My burger seemed fine. My friend ordered a Mushroom Cheddar burger. That's something relatively new to the menu. It consists of a burger served open-faced on what appeared to be a slice of wheat bread straight out of a plastic sack from the grocery store and covered in mushroom gravy. Underneath that gravy was a cold burger. Hardly worth the long wait. The bartender graciously took it back and offered to bring out a fresh one. I was thinking: You betcha. That sucker is going into the jukebox (microwave oven) because it took 30 minutes to get out here.

The new burger came out pretty fast though and it didn't appear to be the old one freshened up by the miracles of radio wave energy. I could tell that for sure because the musrooms in the gravy appeared to be barely cooked.

Granted my burger seemed fine- I got one that came on a bun and with fries. No gravy. But I got to thinking, "Hey, you don't suppose those meatheads in the kitchen have a bunch of pre-cooked burgers laying around that they are slapping together for the special." That shouldn't have been the case because it took too long to get them out in the first place.

Curiously, in the time we were there- maybe about an hour, the crowd had subsided substantially. The dining room was starting to empty out and the crowd in the bar was disappating. Considering it was a Tuesday, people probably mob the place for dinner and then rush back home. Weenies. Tuesday is as good a night as any to sit around and drink beer.

This recent trip to Bracco highlighted several things about what a dining experience at any decent place should be and what it should not be.

  • If a restaurant cannot manage decent service at a peak time, it probably needs to re-think its operation. People don't open a place to be constantly half-ass busy. Snappy service turns tables and that sells covers. Get it moving.
  • Get the food right for crying out loud. Those burgers should be great and spot on. Hot. Fresh. Juicy. You're slipping. Get on it.
  • Don't copy other place's food. That mushroom cheddar burger is a failed copy cat of similar burgers at Tinner's, Spezia and Minerva's. You really cannot put an "island twist" on the Tinner's pub burger mainly because you cannot really screw with a hot burger under a mound of hot gravy and mashed potatoes- so why try?

Don't get me wrong. Bracco is a great joint and I will definitely be back, but probably not on a Tuesday.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sioux Falls Grocery Scene: In-Store Bakeries

Okay, so back to the ranting and raving about our local food stores.  The subject today is the bakery department with a particular focus on breads.  But first, an acknowledgment: We are really lucky to have places like Breadsmith,  Panera, and Queen City available to fulfill our needs for well-made artisanal breads and baked goods.  Anyone who has ever tried to bake really good breads or attempted to turn out a batch of puff pastry at home should recognize that the skill set for baking is entirely different than that for cooking.  One of the very few intelligent things I heard Emeril Lagasse utter between "Bams!" on Emeril Live when it used to be on Food Network was that baking requires the use of formulas instead of the recipes used for cooking. Producing a good crusty baguette requires time, skill, and  a proper appreciation for exactly how much protein ought to be in the flour.  Oh, and an oven that intermittently injects steam into the baking chamber doesn't hurt either.  It's fun to play with this stuff at home, but for the time and trouble, you can probably buy a superior loaf of brioche, ciabatta, or a baguette at Breadsmith or Panera.

One other acknowledgement:  The selection of baked goods at the Sioux Falls chain grocery stores is much better than it used to be.  Remember when bagels were a novelty?  Remember when the only place to get a decent baguette was the Minerva's 26th Street Market?

I tend to be very particular about breads.  Although I don't care what pre-sliced, in the plastic sack sort of bread we have around the house for the Secret Teaspoon to make toast or to use for the occasional quick peanut butter sandwich for lunch, breads for other things must meet certain requirements.  For instance, French bread should have a decent crust- not one that might chip a tooth- but one that requires a little effort to chomp into.  Rolls for grilled sausages (generally either Italian sausage or bratwurst) should be a bit chewy, but not crusty like a good baguette.  It's also nice to be able to get things like ciabatta rolls for grilled burgers or fancy sandwiches.  

To get to the point about the grocery stores: You are not going to find these sorts of things there.  Hy Vee produces various sizes and shapes of baked rolls and breads- little dinner rolls, hot dog buns, hamburger buns, brat buns, etc.  Unfortunately, all those sizes and shapes are produced from the same ubiquitous, generally soft and un-crusty white or wheat bread dough.  The white bread dough also seems to form the backbone for the loaves of French bread (in long, fat and twin-loaf sizes) and its identical twin sibling Italian bread.

For the most part, the same thing seems to be true at Sunshine and that other place, Wal-something-or-other.  The various store-baked breads are just the same dough in different shapes. 

The same thing is pretty much true of the other baked goods, particularly the pastries.  Sure the doughnuts are pretty good, but try to get a good danish made with puff pastry.  You're probably not going to find them.

The unavailability of some of these items in Sioux Falls is indeed puzzling.  If you find yourself out in the West River Country- particularly in Rapid City or Spearfish visit a Safeway store.  Safeway manages to turn out very decent loaves of French breads with nice crusts.  Safeway also offers interesting selections of bagels and pastries.  So, I know it's doable, but for whatever reason the grocers here in Sioux Falls refuse to kick up the quality.

In an effort to sell breads that the groceries are either unwilling or unable to make you can pick up breads like French baguettes or ciabatta rolls that are sealed in cellophane plastic and require a heat-and-eat treatment.  Nice to have this option, especially when a trip to Breadsmith or Panera is not possible, but those breads are relatively expensive and where do they come from, anyway?

Don't get me wrong, the soft breads from the groceries have their place and all.  If you want the really good stuff, however, you are going to have to do a little planning and a little driving.  For breads, no one in Sioux Falls can compete with Breadsmith and Panera.  In terms of other baked goods (cakes, scones, quiche) no one can give these treats the magic treatment like the folks at Queen City Bakery at 8th and Weber.

I've also managed to find a reasonable substitute for the kind of bread needed for a good sausage.  Jimmy Johns.  No kidding.  For 50 cents, you can buy "day old" loaves of the French bread they make in-store for their sandwiches.  If they don't have any of those, you can buy a "fresh" loaf for about 2 bucks.  A little steep for what you get, especially considering that you probably cannot discern that much difference between the "day old" bread and the fresh stuff.  Anyway, the bread at Jimmy Johns makes a pretty decent vessel for getting spicy grilled Italian sausages, grilled peppers and onions, and a heaping few spoonfuls of oily, spicy giardinera from plate to face.  It's just the right width- just slice into the required lengths and pluck out a little of the soft innards.

P.S.  If you want to gain a much deeper appreciation for what it takes to make a really good artisanal bread, go find a copy of the masterpiece written by Julia Child and Simone Beck- Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  As I sit here I cannot remember if it is volume one or two that you will need.  At any rate, over the course of something like eleven pages Julia sets forth a method for making French bread at home.  Considering the only ingredients for this bread are flour, water, yeast, and salt you'll get a good idea of the process and care required to develop the flavor, crust, and shapes of good French bread.  

You might also look for a copy of The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum.  As I recall, Rose was a chemistry major in college and she applies the same level of precision and understanding of the process to baking that a researcher for duPont would employ to develop better Teflon. The woman doesn't simply measure ingredients, she weighs them- including water and eggs.  Rose also authored The Cake Bible and the Pie and Pastry Bible.  You'll learn a lot from these books, although you may never be brave enough, patient enough, or OCD enough to attempt some of the recipes.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Activity at 26th and Western

I drove by the old Spezia location at 26th and Western recently and noticed a sign on the building Grille 26, or maybe it's 26 Grille.  There goes my hope for a nice little French place.  Looks like I have some intel to gather.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Liquor Sales Update: The Fork Told Ya

I said this would happen.

Anyone been to Hy Vee on 26th and Sycamore lately?  Walk back to the corner where the beer is- right by the eggs and yogurt.  Then walk up to the register going down the aisle where you stop to see if any of those good organic/health food nut sunflower nut cookies are out to sample.  On your way, look to your left and you will see the new in-store liquor department.  It's right about where bath gel or toothpaste used to be.  I didn't swing in there.  Pretty small and probably only a small hold over until the new super duper liquor area like the one at 37th Street and on Louise Ave can be opened where Boomers used to be.

Speaking of that remodeling, I wonder what's taking so long.  Maybe they are just waiting for that Boomer's smell to dissipate before they can start construction.

Anyone want to take a whack at the over/under on how long Gregor's stays open?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving Post-Mortem

Well, it's Sunday after Thanksgiving and the time to get back in the swing of the super-stressful day job  is approaching.  On the stove at the present moment is some homemade turkey noodle soup.  The Secret Teaspoon loves soup and it's a great way to use the leftover turkey.  I can already tell this is about the best batch of turkey soup I've ever made.  I think the reason is that I am using the leftovers of the best turkey and stock I have probably ever managed to make.

Let's recap.

I started with a fresh turkey.  I called around hoping to find something harvested in the not-too-distant past from a local Hutterite colony.  No such luck.  Worried I was not going to be able to find a bird of a certain size I got the first one could find the weekend before Thanksgiving. I paid too much for the darn thing.  Ok. I got it at Look's.  Note for next year- buy a fresh turkey at Hy Vee and save at least $0.70 per pound.  More remarkable than the buck-ninety-nine a pound price was the attempt by the sales clerk to convince me to buy a wet brine mix.  This nearly resulted in a small argument.

More background.  The plan was to brine this year.  Specifically, the plan was to dry brine the bird.  I've been reading about dry brining (salting, really).  I've brined things like pork chops before with great success.  I've wanted to brine a turkey for some time now, but have never wanted to mess around with finding a suitable container that will hold a turkey and a couple of gallons of brine solution.  After a lot of reading (Bon Appetite, Gourmet, Food & Wine, blogs, etc.) I found the solution to the wet brining problem-- lose the solution.  I wanted a fresh turkey because I didn't want a bird that had been injected with some percentage of "a solution."  Basically, the "solution" is the frozen solid turkey industry's way of trying to help you along by essentially pre-brining the bird.  A fresh bird isn't injected.  Also, a fresh bird is not necessarily "unfrozen."  I am not sure exactly what the USDA definition of fresh is, but it's something like the bird has never been stored below 20 degrees or zero.  Basically, it means a fresh bird was never frozen to the point where it was suitable for turkey bowling.  Don't kid yourself though, that bird has been frozen, to some degree, so you have to make sure it is thoroughly thawed.

So here I am at Look's confirming that my fresh turkey has not been injected with a solution and the guy asks me if I am going to brine and walks me over to see the display of wet brine mixes that are reportedly selling like hot cakes.  I explain that no, I am going to dry-brine my bird by salting it and sealing it in a bag so the juices will draw out and then be reabsorbed into the meat.  The guy thought I was nuts, questioned my research, and informed me that because salt draws out moisture I was pretty-much guaranteed to ruin that bird.

Well, that didn't happen.  On Monday evening, the bird was salted, inside and out with about 1/3 cup kosher salt that was mixed with dried herbs and pepper.  I sealed it up in a roasting bag and chucked it into the fridge.  On Tuesday, I flipped it over to help/counteract the effects of gravity.  On Wednesday, I rinsed all the salt off- there was not a great deal of liquid in the bag.  I dried the bird and put it back in the fridge, uncovered, to let the skin get dry so it would get nice and crispy during roasting.

The bird was a manifest success.  The meat was juicy and perfumed with the herbs.  Awesome.

Also prepared ahead of time was about 2 quarts of turkey stock made from roasted turkey wings and some roasted vegetables.  Making extra stock for gravy is the only way to go.  

So today, the turkey carcass went in the stock pot with the last cup or so of the stock to make soup broth.  Strain it really well to get the gristle, bones, and yucky bits out of it.  Saute some carrots, celery, and onion, throw in some garlic and then put the broth back in the pot and simmer it for a while.  Add about a half a bag of frozen egg noodles and when those are about half done, toss in some of the leftover turkey meat.  Finish with a handful of frozen peas and check the seasoning.  Good stuff.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday Liquor Sales in Sioux Falls and The Politics of Convenience

Ever walk into World Market, or a local grocery store on a Sunday and notice those signs that advise you that state law prevents sales of wine and liquor on Sunday? The Fork always knew that was a crock, because unlike the state law that pre-empts the ability of municipal governments to handle their own local smoking restrictions, municipalities have had the ability to regulate liquor sales for some time. City ordinances prevented the Sunday sales.  State law merely allowed the cities to decide that one for themselves. If you happened to find yourself in another community in South Dakota (Spearfish comes to mind) on a Sunday and needed a little wine for dinner or a refill of blood mary fixins because all you pals dropped by to watch an early football game you could visit any liquor retailer. 

Well, at any rate, according to a story on today,,76509 apparently the Sioux Falls City Council finally relaxed the non-sensical Sunday prohibition. Somehow, news of this managed to escape the Fork's tightly-woven intelligence network.

An ordinance preventing Sunday sales is a classic example of a "blue law." The Fork isn't sure what the history of the moniker is, but the Fork knows a blue law on sight. Blue laws impose a certain standard of moral conduct, especially on Sundays. Blue laws still exist in many places today, including South Dakota.  For instance, according to our state statues, there are two days when alcohol cannot be sold- Christmas Day and Memorial Day.  Some municipalities do not allow on-sale liquor establishments to be open on Sunday.  Vermillion comes to mind. Some cities regulate how liquor must be sold. It has only been in the last 10-15 years that Rapid City repealed an ordinance that mandated that liquor be packaged in a plain brown paper bag when it is sold. The so-called "plain brown wrapper."

Some blue laws probably make some sense, but it definitely makes sense that local municipalities should be free to determine their own community standards and pass ordinances accordingly.

The Fork cannot help but notice the timing of this repeal coincides to some degree with the decision of the Legislature last session to repeal the restriction on the number of off-sale licenses that can be owned by corporations, the so-called Hy Vee bill. (Hy Vee was a major proponent of the measure which had previously been pursued by other major food retailers.) Under the old law, corporations, like Nash-Finch, Hy Vee, or Safeway (West River) could only hold so many off-sale licenses. That's why Hy Vee on Louise Avenue had a liquor department in-store, but there was no liquor department at 26th and Sycamore or at the East 10th location. Sunshine has beer, wine, and liquor on 57th and Cliff, but not 14th Street. Lewis Drug is even in the game offering beer, wine, and liquor now. Get it? If the Fork's crystal napkin ring is working correctly, it is probably only a matter of time before almost all of the major grocery retailers in Sioux Falls are offering beer, wine, and liquor at most all of their locations. If the recent remodeling of the Hy Vee at 49th and Louise is a sign of things to come, it is only a matter of time before Hy Vee revamps the 26th and Sycamore location. The Fork wouldn't be a bit surprised to see a big liquor selection at 26th and Sycamore filling up that space where Boomer's used to be.

There is no doubt that with these changes, the consumer is going to enjoy one-stop convenience. Need some shrimp and a bottle of sauvignon blanc to make shrimp scampi, even on Sunday? No sweat. Just pull into Hy Vee or Sunshine. No more stops at the grocery store for the food and then a second stop at a neighborhood liquor retailer to pick up the wine.

Convenience is great, but the Fork hopes people will remember that there is a price to be paid for that convenience. In terms of sucking more and more of the retail liquor business into already-existing grocery stores, the clear loser is the small, independent local liquor retailer. There is no way a local independent can compete with a large food retailer that already possesses real estate, employees, and its own distribution system. Actually, if you look around Sioux Falls, you might notice a few vacancies where some of those small liquor stores used to be. It's just a matter of simple economics.

Sometimes, life is about more than doing what is easy and most convenient.  If you've been patronizing a local bottle shop and developed a relationship with the proprietor, the Fork hopes you will continue to give your business to that small, local business person's establishment and encourage others to do the same.  If you don't have a relationship like that, or care more about the economics of convenience, don't complain when there are no more friendly little wine and liquor shops around.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Sioux Falls Grocery Scene: Meat

Yeah, baby!  Meat!  The Fork loves meat.  Vegetables, grains and even tofu all have their place- usually right next to something cooked medium rare.

It's hard to tell if we have made progress in the last 40 years or so when it comes to meat.  There was a time when there were actually butcher shops and even grocery stores had butchers on staff.  I am not talking about the people who stand back behind the counter and hand you the same boneless skinless chicken breasts available wrapped over in the meat case 30 feet away, I mean people who actually could take apart a half a beef carcass back there using a knife and a band saw and use those skills to hand you exactly what you want.

For a few brief shining moments we had such a place here in Sioux Falls a few years ago- Tom's Specialty Meats located on N. Weber Avenue by the Falls.  If you wanted a T-Bone steak, you told Tom or one of his able staff members how thick you wanted one and they cut it on the spot and wrapped it up.  If you wanted a nice 4-bone bone-in rib roast for Christmas dinner- call Tom.  Tom also sold a pretty fair amount of goat.  Yes, goat.  Kind of an ethnic item, if you catch the Fork's drift, but available nonetheless.  I bet a leg of goat would cook pretty well on the old grill.

Anyhoooo . . .

Let's talk about the state of the meat buying experience here in Soo Foo.  And to be clear, when the Fork is talking about meat, we're talking mostly about beef.  

Hy Vee.  Look, as far as big, nice, features, and a variety of inventory, Hy Vee has to be at the top of the chain food store food chain around here.  Hy Vee has had full service, butcher shop-style meat counters for some time.  They have a nice selection of packaged meats.  Everything looks great. Who could want more?  The Fork, for one.

If the Fork had a dime for every time the Fork has about lost it while trying to compare prices on meats between the counter and the case, the Fork could blog full time and lose the super stressful day job.    If you are going to walk into Hy Vee and pick up what you want without giving a thought to cost, then you're in good shape.  If you want to compare some labels and feel like you are making a good economical purchase, good luck.  It's confusing.  And, the Fork thinks it's confusing on purpose.  Here's an example.  Say it's a nice summer night and you want to fire up the grill and make a little steak for you and yours.  You go to Hy Vee and walk over to the case and find 18-22 oz of sirloin in one big steak for, let's say six bucks a pound.  Or you can go over to the meat counter and ask one of the helpful smiles to wrap you up two 8oz charcoal steaks or whatever they're called (they're sirloins), two for 8 bucks.  That's 8 bucks a pound.  That's an insult to the Fork's intelligence and really bends the tines.  Hy Vee does the same thing with pork and they do the same thing with sausages- brats 5 for $3.00 or $4.00.  Go look in the packages, find one with five in it and see if it costs more or less than the ones in the case.  If you think a friendly smile is in the back room stuffing seasoning cuts of pork and veal and stuffing casings, you got a cart with two wobbly wheels.  Fortunately, the Fork's mother smelted all the dumb silverware, so the Fork doesn't fall for Hy Vee's little price stunts.

The other problem the Fork has with Hy Vee meats is the packaged meat that is in the little trays sealed with clear plastic.  That stuff ain't being cut up behind the counter by a butcher and being placed in the case.  It's coming from a central location where that meat is put in the little tray and some sort of gas that keeps the meat looking rosy red is injected before the plastic is sealed.  At least with the old-style packaged meats that were wrapped on the little foam tray, you could pick it up and kind of look at it to see if its what you wanted.  

To leave Hy Vee on a good note, they do usually have a selection of steaks that are cut for people who really like steaks.  You know, those puppies that are at least an inch and a quarter thick and are called things like Sioux Falls Cut Strip.  As long as they don't price those suckers individually, they are a decent enough deal.  But, as mentioned below- you can do better if it's a big beefy steak you long for.

Sunshine.  Sunshine prides itself on its meats.  Definitely not as flashy as Hy Vee, but they keep guys behind the counter who can help you out. The meat in the case is wrapped and not all of it is sealed up in those mini gas chambers.  That's good.  One might conclude that the stuff is at least processed in town or closer than West Des Moines.  The Fork doesn't know what the deal is, but Sunshine's meat seems to be a bit better than Hy Vee's.  The Fork had a real decent porterhouse from Sunshine a few weeks ago.  It was good and flavorful, but it would have been nice if it had been thicker.  The Fork thinks Sunshine would really have something going if they had some steaks in the meat case that look like those nice honkers they have at Hy Vee.

Sunshine also seems to have a selection of some very locally raised pork and beef.  The Fork might like to try some sometime, but it only comes in individually wrapped in vacuum packaging and frozen hard as a rock.  The Fork doesn't generally buy meat by the cart to fill up the deep freeze and the Fork doesn't buy meat so it can thaw for two or three days before hitting the grill.

Cleaver's.  Nice commercials for these guys lately.  It's kind of a neat little store and there is some good stuff in the freezer cases.  It's nice to be able to get a Hutterite chicken or some Kuchen from Eureka.  The service at the meat counter is great.   

You're gonna pay more for meat at Cleaver's than you are at Hy Vee or Sunshine.  So, is it worth it?  In the Fork's humble opinion: no.  Personally, the Fork thinks they picked up the fresh meat at Sunshine and are just cutting it themselves.  If you want the real meat counter experience and are willing to pay a premium price and want better meat, head up the hill, a little further south on Western Avenue and go see Nick Heineman and the crew at Look's.

Look's.  The Fork wouldn't necessarily stop into Look's to pick up all the protein needed for a week or two (cha ching $$), but when the Fork and the rest of the Secret Utensils get a hankering for a good umami experience Look's is the only real choice.  Granted, you're going to pay a higher price, but you are going to get superior meat.  

The secret behind Look's is simple: they carry higher quality beef than anyone else in town.  In terms of beef, Look's is the only place in town that sells USDA Prime beef.  Look's also sells some dry-aged beef.  Best of all, Look's basic, run-of-the-mill grade of beef is CAB- that's Certified Angus Beef.  It just so happens the Fork knows just enough about how fresh beef is sold and graded to be dangerous, but that knowledge comes in handy when it's time to buy meat.  The Fork is not prepared to offer an opinion as to whether Angus is better than Hereford or Limousin or Charolais breeds, but the Fork can tell you that, by and large, in order to qualify as CAB, there is more grading involved.  That puts CAB closer to USDA Prime than some of that Amana Beef you are buying at Hy Vee.  The pay-off is good flavor.

The customer service at Look's is also excellent.  Don't see what you want in the case?  Ask the fellas to go back there and cut it exactly the way you want it- like inch and a half thick bone-in ribeyes.  They are only too happy to oblige and they actually have meat back there.  

Besides, McNally's is right next door and a pint of Guinness sure goes well after meat shopping.

Sam's Club.  I know, I know.  It's Wal-Mart and the Fork HATES Wal-Mart, but Sam's Club does have a couple of unique advantages over every other place in town when it comes to meat.  Actually, it's two advantages: (1) they actually carry some stuff you cannot get elsewhere in town and (2) quantity.  And at least the meat at Sam's isn't coming from China.  Yet. 

So, what can you get at Sam's that no one else has?  How about a big ol' packer cut brisket?  Bone in pork shoulders, generally in 6-8 pound chunks.  These are real barbecue meats- full of fat and connective tissue, tough as hell if not cooked for hours and hours at low temperatures and dirt cheap.  Not the kind of thing you throw on that big stainless steel propane fired thing sitting on the deck.  Real BBQ- like smoke, a temperature of about 235 degrees and 12-20 hours worth of cook time.  Tastes like somebody "famous" made it BBQ.  Ask one of the 17 year old friendly smiles at Hy Vee for a packer cut brisket and see if he knows what the hell you're talking about.  One other interesting thing at Sam's that no one else seems to have and that is decent racks of lamb.  No kidding.  It's odd, but Sam's has them- only place in town I'll buy them.

Sam's is also a pretty good place to buy things like pork loins and racks of pork ribs.  These meats come straight from the processor to Sam's.  They are in cryovac packaging.  In other words, they are the same thing that someone at Hy Vee or Sunshine cut open, dried off and stuck in the meat case where you are gonna pay a lot more for it.  Buy some freezer paper, a roll of tape, a Sharpie marker and sharpen a knife and you can turn one of those whole loins into chops, chunks of pork for stew, a small loin roast or two- you get the idea.

There are some other places in town the Fork needs to check out.  The Franklin Market is reputed to have pretty good meat and a trip up to Renner might be in order one of these days.

So, what's the verdict?  If you want a decent deal on meat and aren't afraid of doing some of the work yourself, Sam's might be the ticket.  Sam's is definitely the ticket if you want authentic meats to use for a real deal low and slow BBQ experience.  Don't want to make a special trip to Sam's for a few pork chops?  Well, then it's Hy Vee or Sunshine, but don't fall for Hy Vee's little pricing games.  Want a special treat?  Look's.

Want veal? Skirt steak? Blood sausage? Really good handmade Italian sausage?  Duck breasts?  Too bad.  Everyone in town could do a better job with variety.  I know some of this stuff is out there, but it's probably at some of the very small ethnic groceries around town- more on those in another post.

Until next time, eat more beef.  The West wasn't won on salad.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Sioux Falls Grocery Scene: The Introduction

If you truly love to cook, you should probably also love to go to the grocery store and find good ingredients to cook with.  If the size of grocery stores these days and the variety available is any indication, then the whole country must be refining its tastes and demanding more and better ingredients.

Here in Sioux Falls, there are probably less grocery stores in town than there were 20 years ago.  Let's see around 1988, give or take a few years, there used to be Hy Vee, Albertson's (or maybe it was Randall's then), Sunshine, Prairie Market, some of the neighborhood grocers like Andy's and the Franklin Food Market, and probably a few other places I cannot remember. 

Back then, grocery stores were pretty ubiquitous.  They all carried the same things, more or less.  As far as ethnic foods, you might find a can of Chung King chop suey and some soy sauce in the "Chinese" aisle and maybe some Old El Paso refried beans or Pace salsa in the"Mexican" area.

Now, the Sioux Falls grocery scene is pretty much dominated by Hy Vee and Sunshine.  Oddly, there was a time when the Hy Vee store on 33rd and Minnesota was one of, if not the, largest grocery store in the state.  That has changed pretty fast in the last two or three years.

Twenty years ago, it was tough to swing a dead cat and miss one of those little Sunshine stores 8th and Spring, 10th and Cleveland, and my personal favorite 33rd and Minnesota where, circa 1988 icy cold six packs of Miller Genuine Draft in bottles always rang up at $1.89 regardless of what the price on the shelf said.

Now we have grocery palaces here in Sioux Falls- especially the new Hy Vee stores.  Sunshine has built a new store at 57th and Cliff that has to be as nice a venue as Sunshine has ever occupied.  With the new stores has come services and products unlike any we have seen in Sioux Falls.  We have full service meat counters, fresh seafood selections, bakeries, full selections or organic and natural foods, deli service, full wine, beer and liquor selections, and wide choices of all sorts of other products.  Oh yeah, even Wal-Mart sells groceries and has some nice selections.  (Note: The Fork hates Wal-Mart for a number of reasons.  So, rather than devote time to saying nasty things about Wal-Mart and how it has done more to ruin the U.S. than help it, we'll just ignore Wal-Mart.)

We also have new specialty markets in Sioux Falls like Look's and Cleaver's.  Even World Market offers interesting specialty foods.

Altogether, we have it pretty good, but we still have things to talk about, and will in the coming days and weeks.  For instance:
  • Is the one-stop-get-your-groceries-and-booze-here arrangements good?  Sure, it's handy to roll into a store where you can get a bottle of cheap Sauvignon Blanc to use in your shrimp scampi recipe, but will the inevitable loss of small, local liquor retailers a good thing?
  • Bread.  We have a lot to discuss here.  How can Hy Vee offer varieties of soy ice cream, but can't offer a decent loaf of made-in-the-store French bread?  For that matter, why can't Sunshine offer decent French Bread?
  • Meat.  Pricing, quality, service, and selection.  Lots to complain about here.
  • Produce.  Who's got the good stuff and who doesn't?
  • Deli.  We have nice delis in almost every store in Sioux Falls.  Can we increase the quality to match the quantity?
Gotta watch Top Chef now.  Have fun, eat well, live well, and stay tuned.

Wooo Hooo: New Top Chef Season Begins Tonight!

The new season of Top Chef begins tonight on Bravo.  The Fork loves Top Chef.  Granted, who gets kicked off when seems to be manipulated by the producers to make sure one long shot makes it entirely too far and whichever contestant plays worst with the others makes it too far and its a bit formulaic (just like all the other design shows on Bravo) but what a fun show to watch!

Its fun to watch the creativity of the talented contestants.  Top Chef confirms to me that there is a huge difference between people who can cook very, very well and people who have the artistic vision and talent to create interesting dishes.  The Fork can cook, but give the Fork a can of tuna, a bag of marshmallows and 15 minutes to create some haute cuisine, and don't expect much.

The other fun thing about the beginning of a new season of Top Chef is to watch the hapless schmucks who manage to screw up right out of the chute.

We'll be talking about this new season in the weeks to come.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Great Indoor Smoking Ban Debate

No sooner do we finish another contentious election season here in South Dakota and it's time to gear up for the legislative session.  It looks like the smoking ban is going to have a prominent place among the issues our legislators will wrestle with during the upcoming session.

The question of banning smoking in all indoor spaces is one of those issues where food and politics collide.  All across South Dakota there are towns where the only place to dine out also happens to pretty much be a bar.  And, as most of us know, anyplace that serves alcohol is exempt from the current South Dakota indoor smoking restrictions.  The same thing is true here in Sioux Falls, as there are plenty of places that serve alcohol and food that allow smoking somewhere inside their establishments.

Not to get too deep into the politics and away from the dining and drinking focus of this blog, but there are a whole lot of new faces that make up the 105 representatives and senators.  The anti-smoking lobbyists and associations, and those united in interest are well aware of that fact and are not going away.  They've been trying to pass much more stringent restrictions on smoking and have publicly announced that they are going to take a run at it again this coming session.

Is it time for the State of South Dakota to get tough on smoking?  The Fork thinks it is.

The Fork reads a few political blogs, watches the news, and is generally familiar with the arguments against a tough smoking ban.  Let's address a few.

"Government shouldn't stick its nose into how people run their own private businesses."  The Fork will be the first to admit that the Fork has held a less than consistent position on the issue of smoking.  In a state where the legislature has never adopted a helmet law and a police officer cannot make a traffic stop because the driver is not wearing a seat belt, it's easy to justify the lack of political will to get tough on smoking by resorting to the statement that it's just not right to have government dictate how private individuals have to run their businesses. After all, tobacco is a legal product.  We don't need any more nanny-state do-gooders cramming their ideas about private responsibility down our throats.

Yeah, well, the Fork ain't buying that anymore.  Government has no problem telling business what to do and how to do it.  We can argue all day about whether government has gone too far into certain areas.  (Partially nationalizing the banking industry comes to mind.)  Nevertheless, anyone who has been paying attention to anything in the last 25-40 years and has the capability of being honest with themselves ought to admit that government intervention is necessary, if not proper, when the free market is not going to take care of certain public health and safety issues.  The Fork understands that, in general, people have good intentions and want to do the right thing.  Nevertheless, the Fork also recognizes the reality that given the choice between doing the right thing, a lot of people will defer to doing what is easiest, cheapest, or best for them at the time.  That's just simple economics.  Face it, if government didn't intercede once in a while, there are certain companies that would be dumping toxic waste without a second thought, cars might be a lot less safer than they are today and segregation might still be the rule in certain places.  When it comes to certain issues, we, as a society, are not content to leave them to private choice especially when public health is concerned.  

"The dangers of smoking have been overstated by people who make their livings combatting tobacco use."  Anyone who thinks smoking is not dangerous to the smoker and anyone in the immediate area is on the same level as people who deny the Holocaust occurred.  Get a grip and watch out for the black helicopters. 

"People who don't want to be in smoky places can vote with their wallets and take their business elsewhere."  That's true, but as pointed out above, the free market isn't going to take care of this issue on its own, at least in anyone's lifetime.  There will always be owners of establishments who will never make the leap to smoke free out of fear that a smoking customer will just go elsewhere.  In addition, anyone who doesn't believe the Fork that there are LOTS of places in South Dakota where the only place for a family to get a bite to eat out is a place where smoking is allowed and present.  It's true.  If you don't believe it, get off the frigging interstate and go see what most of South Dakota looks like.

"If we ban smoking, especially in casinos, people will flock to the tribal casinos because they won't have to follow the law."  This is one the legislators are going to hear from the multiple lobbyists who represent gaming interests in Deadwood.  So, if this is true, the people who come to Deadwood to visit the variety of casinos located in historic buildings on the same streets in the Black Hills town where those characters in the popular HBO series once walked in favor of heading down the road to Oelrichs, Mobridge, Lower Brule or Ft. Thompson to be held captive in one building in the middle of the prairie so they can smoke, drink, and gamble at the same time.  Undoubtedly, this will also include the busloads of Canadians who flock to Deadwood to play slots and shop at Wal-Mart in Spearfish, even when the exchange rate is not in their favor.   All those people who sit and pump coins into a nickel slot machine chain smoking and drinking coffee are going to drive 1oo miles or more so they don't have to step outside for a smoke. Errrrr. Right.  Besides, if indoor smoking now constitutes economic development, that might be the one form of economic development we can do without.

"The Nazi's tried to enact a smoking ban."  No kidding the Fork read this today on South Dakota War College (  So what?  It was 1938.  Here's some other things that were true in that era:  cars didn't have seat belts, a small pox vaccine hadn't been developed, lead paint was used in the rooms of children, and the only people who didn't smoke were anti-social freaks.  Stopping certain practices in light of increased knowledge is kind of smart.  Treating the mentally ill by using lobotomies and blood letting come to mind.

There is probably no greater proof that the world will not come to an immediate and violent end if meaningful comprehensive restrictions on smoking are implemented than to consider what has happened in other locales where smoking bans extend to bars and restaurants.  Been to Minneapolis lately?  Chicago?  Denver?  How about Anchorage?  No kidding, you can't smoke in bars in Anchorage.  You can risk your life fishing for king crab or get chased by a bear or moose on the bike path, but you can't light up in Humpy's.  Visit Wriggleyville before or after a Cubs game, or even in the dead of winter.  No lack of activity in that bar scene because people have to step outside to smoke.  Same in Minneapolis.  Omaha and Des Moines aren't far behind.

One last point.  Smokers lack political clout with the people who elect legislators.  The liquor lobby might be able to scare the crap out of some legislators, but the Fork thinks they'll have a hard time convincing the electorate to reject a ban.   (Insider tip- the tobacco lobby is pretty much dead, but the liquor retailers, video lottery folks, and other gaming interests will carry this torch for them.)  The voters didn't flinch to impose a higher tax on tobacco when the legislature couldn't get the job done.  The Fork would bet the pepper mill and the napkin rings that, if given the choice, the voters would enact the ban.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Downtown Sioux Falls Bar Scene

The Fork's day job is at an office in downtown Sioux Falls.  The Fork likes to have a couple libations after work before heading home to make dinner for the rest of the Secret Silverware and watch television.  The fact the Fork has a pretty stressful job also promotes post-work libations.  Drinking to relieve stress from work is not necessarily a good idea, but then neither is having a highly stressful job.  So, until the Fork manages to pick the winning Power Ball numbers, it's stressful work and post-work drinks or the Secret Teaspoon is never going to get to college.

The downtown Sioux Falls post work bar scene is not too bad.  This is a good deal, because the Fork has certain rules about frequenting establishments at roughly the same time on any given day.  Actually, it might just be one rule, and that is do not go to the same place every day at more or less the same time.  It gives people the idea you drink every day.  If someone knows exactly where to have you served with a subpoena at 5:45 PM, you are not managing your post-work alcohol consumption in an effective manner.  Fortunately, there are enough places in downtown Sioux Falls to make the process servers work if they are going to find you on a barstool after work.

Let's survey those locales, shall we?

  • Minerva's.  Minerva's has a great bar.   Seriously.  It's a great place to stop for a couple after work.  The bar is clean and neat.  Non-smoking, which is most definitely a plus.  The bartenders are pleasant, professional and efficient.  Minerva's has a full bar, offers some wines by the glass and has a pretty good selection of beer on tap, which generally includes a seasonal selection.  There is a somewhat regular crowd that frequents Minerva's and they are pretty nice people to chat with.
  • Falls Landing.  This is a little watering hole located at the Country Inn and Suites hotel on 8th Street right on the bike path and the Big Sioux River.  Jay, the guy who owns or runs the place is a heck of a nice guy and is always happy to see you.  The place has a great outdoor seating area right along the bike path and the river.  On a good day, you can sit outside and watch the folks over in the high rise fish in the river and watch folks ride by on the bike path.  Jay also manages to have a staff of fairly hot female servers and bartenders.  There is always plenty of free popcorn available.  This place obviously has all the trappings of a great place to hang out.  Unfortunately, there are a few drawbacks.  One of the bigger ones is the fact that the place feels like a bar located in a cheap hotel, which it is.  The deck is great but it seems like except for one of those 6 absolutely perfect days each year when the temperature is exactly right and the wind isn't blowing, the outdoor area sounds better than it actually is.  It is situated at such an angle that the sun is always shining right on you in the late afternoon.  I other words, it gets a little hot out there, so you have to be pretty proficient at downing 22oz taps before they get too warm.  If the wind is blowing . . . you'l spend most of your time keeping your table umprella from blowing over.  Still a good place to avoid the process server and to alter the usual routine.
  • Stogeez.  Here is a fun place to go after work.  It's nice to sit at the bar or at a table by the windows in the winter and enjoy a couple of beverages.  Stogeez always has a nice selection of beers on tap and is the only place in Sioux Falls here the Fork has had a Sam Adams beer in one of those specially engineered Sam Adams beer glasses.  Of course, it is a joy to sit outside on Phillips Avenue and enjoy a couple of beverages while the world strolls by.  The bartenders and the usual patrons are nice folks.  The Fork has two minor reservations about the place: (1) certain bartenders treat the regular regulars better than everyone else, which means that you might need some patience if you want that second round without walking to the bar and getting it yourself and (2) chances are you are going to smell like you have been sitting in a bar when you get home.
  • Stogeez Copper Lounge.  Here's the way to give Tim Kant money and get a taste of the Stogeez experience without smelling like you've been in a cigar bar in Miami.  The Copper is non-smoking, but has a great selection of liquors, beers and wines, along with some comfy chairs.  The bartenders are polite and efficient.  Great addition to downtown.
  • Latitude 44.  The Fork is not entirely certain, but believes Latitude 44 is only open Thursday through Saturday.  Latitude is located in the former Stockman's location in the little flatiron building on 8th Street, right where the railroad crosses 8th Street.  Kind of a small place, but very clean and smoke free.  There are nice seating areas and around the post-work hours there are usually a few free complimentary snacks to nibble on.  At the very least, you'll get a nice dish of party mix.  Beer and wine only and a generally nice, but small selection.  Latitude hosts live music and its a great venue to hang out and have a few while enjoying some local live music.  For a few drinks in a nice clean place where you can actually hear the conversation with your friends, this is a great choice.
  • Wiley's.  Wiley's is the present occupant of the corner of 6th Street and Main Avenue.  Prior tenants included the blues bar, Portabella, and Longshot's.  Remember when the name of the place kept changing, but the same servers/bartenders and patrons were always in the place?  It's changed.  The place doesn't look much different than its predecessors, but Wiley's is a definite improvement.  The service is improved and, it seems the clientele has also improved, as well.  Wiley's also offers happy hour two-fers.  How can you beat that?  They also have interesting beer on tap like the beers made in the Amana Colonies in Iowa.  Good stuff and a good improvement for the scene.
  • Monk's.  This is an interesting place for a lot of reasons.  The Fork isn't too sure how to feel about the place.  It has its good points, like Belgian beers made by real monks.  Good stuff, but if your idea of phenomenal beer is an ice cold Busch Light straight from the can, you are not going to like Monk's, although they do have a nice selection of more pedestrian beers.  It's also a beautiful place to sit.  There is great artwork on the walls and Jerry Hauck has placed some great woodwork inside.  Monk's also has the proper glassware for their beers- more like wine glasses than mugs or pint glasses.  There are a few drawbacks.  This level of beer is expensive.  You will be dealing with a quality versus quantity trade off.  There is outdoor seating, but sitting out near the sidewalk 8th Street tossing down pricey Belgian Trappist brews while folks are walking to dinner at the Banquet really makes those heady ales taste especially bitter.  The help is a plus and a drawback.  If you have been there, you know of what the Fork speaks.  The main bartender guy is extremely knowledgeable about the beers and can help you make a selection to suit your individual tastes, but he is also somewhat snooty/odd/artsy.  No reason to avoid the place though- stop in, especially if you really like beer.
  • Paramount.  This place is gorgeous.  Anita Keeley did a marvelous job decorating the place.  It's a neat place to stop to enjoy some wine or a beer.  They have a nice selection of appetizers, but considering the place doesn't seem to have a kitchen, the Fork wonders where exactly they create these dishes.  Paramount also has what have to be the nicest bathrooms of almost any lounge in Sioux Falls.  Live piano music on certain nights.  The only qualm the Fork has with the place is that Paramount wants to be a wine bar, but the Fork is yet to encounter a server or staff person who knows much more than diddly squat about wine.  If Paramount could only tap into some of the wine expertise from the folks at Food & Fermentation, they might be onto something.  It is the Fork's understanding from a recent news story that the fine folks at Minerva's purchased Paramount.  It's going to be interesting to see where this goes.
  • Food & Fermentation.  This is a great place.  Doug and Laurel are about as nice as any people you are likely to find anywhere and Ben is a great resource when it comes to wine. This place is a great standby for a post-work glass or two of nice wine and a plate of interesting cheeses and meats.  The place is spendy, though.  Want a great tip from the Fork?  If there are two or more of you and you plan on drinking at least a couple of glasses each, ask Ben to help you find a bottle to share.  It's more fun that ordering off the by-the-glass menu and you'll probably save a couple bucks.
  • Applebee's.  Yes, there is an Applebee's downtown.  A person could get an appetizer and a drink there, if he or she were so inclined.  The Fork generally eschews chain joints like Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday, Boston's, etc., but still, it's an alternative.  The Fork's main issue with the downtown Applebee's is that the joint is a bit of a one trick pony.  In other words, in the Fork's humble opinion, the place only seems to be capable of doing a decent job of serving lunch.  That's about the only time the Fork has observed the place to be busy and the only time the staff has seemed to know what is going on.  When the place is dead, i.e. after work or on a weekend afternoon, they seem to be particularly incapable of efficiently slinging drinks and nuking a sampler platter of appetizers.

There are other places in the downtown area to get a post-work de-stressification cocktail.  The Fork just hasn't been to a few of these other places for a while.  Smoe's, Little Coalinga, Scoreboard, Phil's, David, Top Hat, and Tommyjack's come to mind.  Haven't been to that billiards place for a while, either.  A few owners ago, they used to have about the best happy hour in town.  Armed with coupons during a Friday happy hour several years ago, about a dozen of us got about half loaded up for a whopping 30 bucks.  That was a great afternoon.  Hmmm, might be cause for some more exploratory after work trips.

Coming soon- more observations on watering holes all over town!  

Saturday, September 27, 2008

La Minestra: One Of The Best Restaurants In SD

La Minestra on Urbanspoon

I was recently in Pierre for work. If I am in Pierre for more than two hours, a trip to La Minestra is an absolute must. La Minestra is, in my humble opinion, one of the best places to eat in South Dakota.

Quick aside: The Fork would never try to rank the Fork's favorite restaurants. As a matter of fact, the Fork doesn't really have a favorite. The Fork has favorites. At any given time, the Fork has about three favorite SD restaurants- and they are not always the same three. It just depends.

La Minestra definitely makes the Fork's Top Three List and is rarely rotated off the list.

Mark and Stacey Mancuso have done an outstanding job with this place. For those of you who haven't been to Pierre since one of your college friends got married in Pierre and you had to drag yourself all the way out there, La Minestra is in the former location of The Longbranch Saloon on Dakota Avenue in Pierre. (The old Longbranch was a great bar. Dark. Smoky. Full of a strange mix of drugstore and authentic cowboys and cowgirls and state employees. Live country music about five nights a week.) The old Longbranch is another story, but the point is that sitting at La Minestra on what used to be the dance floor at the Branch or visiting the restroom reminds me that the place used to be one of the crown jewels of SD country dive bars. Ironically, if you never had the pleasure of throwing a few back at the old Longbranch, you'd never guess the place used to be a bar.

La Minestra does a great job with its menu. It changes periodically, but not drastically. Things kind of rotate on and off from time to time. Some items on the menu are fairly standard Italian dishes (bruschetta, eggplant parmigiana, puttanesca) and others are clearly Italian or Mediterranean influenced. The menu is not pasta heavy, but there are always a number of good pasta selections- like Mark's Favorite which consists of Italian sausage, sun dried tomatoes, olives, and rigatoni. There is usually a great steak selection on the menu and in a town where good steaks are easy to find, La Minestra can hold its own in the big old chunk of tender red meat category. Presently, they are serving a Steak Sangiovese- a big thick New York strip with a topping of wine-tomato-peppers. They used to do a great steak called a Ribeye Royale- a huge ribeye cooked to order (medium rare if you really like steak) topped with slices of avocado, crumbles of bleu cheese and blessed with Tabasco-like hot pepper sauce. Sounds odd, doesn't it? It was great. Probably the highest iteration of an Atkins-friendly meal you'll ever find.

Salads are not included with the price of the meal, but half salads are available at a pretty decent price. You must have a salad. The Fork recommends the phenomenal Greek Salad that has olives, chucks of tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion and is dressed with what is clearly a house-made balsamic vinaigrette. Awesome. Of course, you'll be served bread to dip in olive oil. The Fork's only complaint with La Minestra is the bread service. The bread is fine- for Pierre, but the olive oil is served in individual portions on a saucer WITH balsamic vinegar drizzled into the oil. I prefer just olive oil, lots of olive oil. I could do without the balsamic. After that great Greek salad I need to get the acid out of my mouth so I can focus the old taste buds on the vino. More balsamic vinegar with the bread and oil makes that a little difficult.

Almost as important as what is on the menu is what is NOT on the menu. La Minestra illustrates one of the Fork's Golden Rules of eating out: ALWAYS give strong consideration to the special. This isn't like the special at Applebees where some particular entree is a whopping buck fifty less than the menu price. Specials at La Minestra are generally that- special. Sometimes, they are old favorites that have been rotated off the menu- like that Ribeye Royale mentioned above. More often, they are something very special like a fresh swordfish steak topped with a nice spicy tomato and white wine sauce and a big dollop of goat cheese. I've also had a special that consisted of pork tenderloin medallions served in a sauce that had a touch of curry in it and mission figs. On a recent weeknight, one of the specials was Matt's Favorite. (Matt is Mark's son and one heck of a chef himself.) Tomatoes, peppers, onions in a light, slightly spicy tomato sauce over rigatoni- and some goat cheese just for good measure. Personally, I think if you took a few of the sun dried tomatoes out of Mark's favorite, threw in a few of the chunks of fresh tomatoes from Matt's Favorite and kept the goat cheese, you might just have My New Favorite.

La Minestra's wine list definitely holds its own. The wine list is fairly simple and definitely unpretentious. (The Sears catalog size wine list phenomenon will be discussed in another post someday.) La Minestra has a nice selection of reds and whites that include some Italian selections. It's about a one-page list. In the Fork's opinion, the prices are reasonable. It's easy to find a nice bottle to accompany a meal for $30 or less, but if you want to blow a C-note on a bottle of Caymus cabernet, you can do that. La Minestra also has a great selection of beers on tap that usually include something seasonal. Liquor is available. My only advice in the beverage category: Mark, get some Grappa and some Vin Santo for after-dinner sipping.

Pierre is a great town for a number of reasons. On of those reasons is La Minestra. If you find yourself in Pierre, go there. It is a treasure.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Incredible Potential Of The New Spezia Location

Like others, I was sorry to see Spezia leave it's original Park Ridge neighborhood location to become another dining location in the greater "mall area."  I am happy about plans for a new restaurant to fill it's old space- French continental perhaps?  At any rate, the location is not what I wanted to discuss in this post.

The new location is gorgeous.  The decor is extremely well done.  I haven't walked around the whole place yet, but it is clear that some thought went into what the old location needed badly.  For instance, there is a great outdoor seating area and there appear to be spaces that can be used by larger groups.  Those should come in pretty handy for those Sunday brunches around graduation time.

Sad as I was to see Spezia leave Park Ridge, I think this new location is going to serve Spezia very well.  Given its location, the place should be packing them in anytime a soccer, softball, baseball, hockey, etc. tournament is in town.  I've got to think the business plan calls for a lot more traffic from the out-of-town folks who probably wouldn't have made the trek off the beaten path to 26th and Western.

Our experience last week was fine.  Probably 5 out of 10 forks on the whole.   In a nutshell, the food was okay and the service should have been better.  The experience just didn't live up to its potential.  I was thinking about writing about the details of the meal, but as I thought about the experience we had last week, it made me think about the "bigger picture" for Spezia.  With a beautiful new location that is sure to bring increased traffic, it will be interesting to see if Spezia can take it up a couple of notches.  I don't think Spezia needs to do anything drastic.  it just seems to me that the place certainly has the potential to push itself a little.  Some thoughts:

  • I'd like to see a little more Italian on the menu.  I don't mean Olive Garden/Carino's Italian.  I am thinking more like Mario Batali Italian.  There is nothing on the menu that makes me think "Wow!  There's something that sounds unique and adventurous!  I am going to give it a try."  The menu as it is written is just too safe and, actually, has items I could probably get at Minerva's.  I can get the same roast duck that I can basically get at Minerva's.  Why isn't Osso Bucco on the menu?
  • How about some more special events?  I missed the wine tasting last week, but I definitely plan on checking one out.  Spezia has a great opportunity to be the authority on Italian wines.  Go for it.
  • How about combining the food and the wine for a really special event?  Tasting menu?
I want to love Spezia in the worst way.  To get there, it's going to take more than just getting the kinks out of the service, in my opinion, it's going to take some risks with the menu and special events.  


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

This Town Needs An Enema

That was what Jack Nicholson's character, The Joker, said about Gotham in the first of the "modern" Batman movies.  Besides being a pretty good line, it also describes how I feel about commentary, dialogue, criticism (positive and negative), or the utter lack thereof on the food and beverage scene in and around my own fair city of Sioux Falls.  So, I decided it was time to do something about it and enter the 21st Century by authoring my own blog.

Who am I?  Well, this idea wouldn't work if I told you.  After all, I eat, drink, or shop at the places we are going to discuss.  Like the profile says I like to eat, drink, and cook.  I love food culture.  I love the politics of food.  I live in Sioux Falls, but I travel a little bit.  When I know I am going to travel somewhere- be it Rapid City, Denver, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Dallas (TX, that is), Atlanta, Washington D.C., or Pierre, I immediately think about where we can go eat at the destination.  I think about the wines I cannot get here in SD, or ingredients, or equipment, or whatever.  I like to talk about my food experiences with other people who like food and I like to hear their stories, too.  I like to think that I not only have a sense of taste, but also a palate.  I like to think there as much beauty in a good hot beef sandwich made with white bread, real mashed potatoes  and that oh so tasty gravy  made and served at the livestock sale barn in Philip as there is in an amuse bouche prepared by Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.  Actually, I know there is.

Oh, and before I forget to say so, I am not a wine snob.  (Even though I think I can hold my own in a blind tasting.)  Wine is not something that one masters- one merely becomes a better student of wine than one's fellows.  Wine is a journey, not a destination.  I also believe that one can love and care about beer, coffee, tea, mineral water, and other beverages without being unfaithful to one's palate or one's self.

Why do this?  Because, like I said above, this town needs an enema.  There are other outlets, MSM and not-so-MSM that contain reviews of eating and drinking establishments.  These range from publications one might have to pay for, the Argus Leader comes to mind, or publications that are given away free- by the entrances to grocery stores, restaurants, bars, etc.  The information and commentaries in these various publications runs from "Chamber of Commerce" reviews to sarcastic creative writing experiments gone bad.  It simply strikes me that most of these people either don't know what they are talking about (Can you really take an Argus food review seriously when the reviewer orders steaks done more than medium?) or don't particularly care- they are just writing.  Well, thanks to years of experience with food and writing, I do know what I am talking about and I do care.  And I think it's time to slice through the restaurant spotlight of the week articles and get to the bone marrow.

Here are some of the things I think about, practically daily, and some thoughts that are probably going to be topics for discussion in the near future.
  • If Hy Vee can build grocery palaces, why can't they bake a decent loaf of French bread? (And don't start patting yourself on the back, Sunshine, because yours ain't that hot, either.)
  • Is it time for South Dakota to ban smoking in public indoor spaces- like bars and restaurants?
  • What restaurants offer good values on wines?
  • What is the hottest dining or drinking establishment these days?
  • Which locations seem to have the best service and which ones seem to be staffed by the hopelessly inept or the dangerously psychotic?
  • Where I ate on my summer vacation.
  • Why anyone serious about food should blow a house payment on a meal sometime.
  • Why you don't have to blow a house payment to have an outstanding dining experience.
  • Has the Food Network gone the way of MTV?  Remember when MTV played music videos?  Remember when Food TV had cooking shows on?
  • Whatever else strikes my fancy.
I hope people will join me in this journey.  The internet will provide us with a table that is always big enough for all, but all must use their manners.  Taste may be subjective, but decorum is not. No jabbing with forks.  No feet on the table.  No foul language.  

Pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass.  Bon Appetite!