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!