Not quite enough to Crave

A restaurant review of Crave, Downtown Minneapolis. I give it *** stars.
Ah, yes, another great rooftop patio! Great, modern seating with a view of Hennepin Avenue, and the sun keeps shining for several hours at that height. One of the final 2014 World Cup games had just finished, so I thought I’d honor the poor Brazilians by having a Capirinha. Of course, my first Capirinha was skillfully mixed by a Brazilian so I knew how it should taste. The drink arrived in a hard plastic, tall glass with a lot of ice and a couple of limes. It smacked of pre-made mix; not a special house-made mix. Strong, but not good. My cousin arrived and she ordered a mojito. We basked in the sun and, much to our surprise, watched a very long Shriner’s parade below. For some reason, they had hundreds of go-carts driven by the old Shriners in their maroon felt caps!

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We ordered the fabulous Mediterranean platter which consisted of hummus, dusted with a nice smoky paprika, kalamata olive spread, whole kalamata olives, cucumbers and a zesty red pepper spread.  As the sun started to drop below the buildings, my cousin ordered her favorite Asian chicken salad and I ordered the Margherita pizza, sans mozzarella, with kalamata olives and mushrooms. The herbed pizza was very flavorful but appeared to be not just baked but fried on the edges.

This place could certainly step it up a few notches by replacing the fake grass wall by the lounge with wall plants and add a number of Palm trees throughout the patio. The food is good, but they really need to think about hiring a head mixologist!

Bland Mexican: Nico’s Taco and Tequila Bar

Okay, I know it’s not fair to review a restaurant on its first day, but hopefully it will be more helpful than hurtful. I was sad to see the Birdhouse leave after such a short stint, but happy to see that a Mexican restaurant was swiftly moving in, with an emphasis on “tequila bar”.

We sat down in the new chairs and anticipated the spicy food and special margaritas. As I scanned the menu, I realized that it was probably thrown together very quickly, on account of all the typos. No big deal. It’s their “soft” opening and all the bugs will work themselves out over time. Our server greeted us immediately and talked about some key items on the menu. This attentive, sincere service was not expected, given the fact that this new Mexican venture was owned by Amore Victoria. Even though she pronounced the “lls” in tomatillo, I still thought she was very charming.

We ordered the house margarita and the special blood orange margarita. Our server reassured us that it was a “house-made” sweet and sour mix. It really was quite mediocre. My partner’s blood orange marg tasted like a suped-up lemonade. I’d stick with a safe Sierra Nevada or a more expensive tequila. By the way, most of their tequilas are blanco and cheap, if you know what I mean.

Then came the guacamole in a machine made molcajete. It was simply bland, made with mashed avocados and not so ripe tomatoes. What happened to the serrano chiles and fresh lime juice?! The salsa verde, with chips, was definitely from a jar and the chips had no flavor. I swear there were a few stale ones in there too. We both ordered batter fried cod tacos and shrimp tacos on flour tortillas. Our server must have seen us make a face because she came back immediately with two surprisingly spicy salsas.

I really hope they get it right at Nico’s Taco and Tequila Bar. They have a lot of competition that could very well wipe them out. I’m not sure I would go back for the food until then. For now, I only wish that I could have the same server at a better Mexican restaurant.

Spill the Bill

I finally made it to the new Spill the Wine, now located on Bryant Avenue South and Lake Street. What a great location, compared to their last place on Washington Avenue where they were neighbors with Grumpy’s. The food I had at the former location was very good; mostly fresh pastas with a variety of ingredients to choose from. I took my Mom to the new one. I was anxious to see the new menu, even though it was brunch on a Saturday. I perused the menu that had many fonts and sizes and realized that I’d be requesting a handful of sides, since each item either had meat, cheese or eggs and sautéed with butter. I have a plant-based diet without any processed food or oils, but I usually make small compromises when I go to restaurants.

I noticed that they had collard greens, shiitake mushrooms, arugula and potatoes so I asked our server if the cook could put these items in one dish as a sort of makeshift vegan entree. All is well with the order, accompanied by a nice dry white wine. My mom ordered the big plate jumbo burger with pork fat and a side of tasty paprika fries. My food came in separate plates: first the potatoes brava, then the golden beets with balsamic vinegar and the grilled cauliflower with fresh arugula. The food was very good, despite the separate plates. My mom also enjoyed her burger and chose to take half of it home.

When the bill came, I wasn’t surprised at the usual price for two people: $55. But when I took a closer look, I realized that I had been charged for the equivalent of three appetizers. My vegan makeshift entree of separate plates came to $15 versus my mom’s big plate burger of $11. I’m not sure if this was a deterrant to vegan or vegetarian patrons, but I certainly felt cheated. I was confident going to the new Spill the Wine that it would be just as vegan-friendly with these items documented on the menu, but I was wrong. I’ll certainly think twice about going there for a meal. Perhaps I’ll just have to spill the wine next time.

The Evolution of My Consumption

Part One: Meat

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I grew up eating what I thought was a pretty healthy diet. I had a variety of meat like pot roast, steak and hamburgers, turkey and on special occasions, chicken kiev. Meat was always accompanied by boiled potatoes, peas, broccoli or other vegetables. Then there was a salad with iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and a store bought dressing in a bottle. The four food groups were addressed: meat, vegetables and salad, a glass of milk and perhaps canned peaches. Okay, in the summer we did have fresh fruit.

I was always doing some kind of sport like biking or playing tennis. When I got to junior high, I joined the mostly boy soccer team, then in high school I made the tennis team, cross-country ski team and took part in track and field. It was at that point when I really started running seriously. I’d even get up before school to run a few miles. But I had the same diet. I was truly a meat-eater.

I decided to wait it out a year after high school before going to college. I think this was a good idea. Although, one day my Mom insisted that I dust the living room furniture. At that point I had had enough and I wanted to live in my own place. I put my hands on my hips and said to her, “I feel like I’m living in a hell hole!” Late teenage angst. I called my friend Renee that day and we planned to start looking for an apartment to share in Minneapolis.

6a00d8341f7e1253ef017c383a8227970b-800wiMy new found independence brought on ideas about food and the environment in general. I got my second job as a nursing assistant at a local nursing home and started college at the U of MN. My roommate and I parted ways after six months and I found myself in a new apartment. That summer I got a job as a door-to-door canvasser for Greenpeace-Great Lakes. I met a lot of people concerned about the environment and specifically our great lakes.

I got to know Lincoln at Greenpeace. We did fun stuff like biking around Lake of the Isles at midnight and stopping at the dock to put our feet in the water. Lincoln had me over one day after canvassing and made me a sandwich. I took a bite out of this towering sandwich, which was delicious. I realized that it was different in some way. I said to Lincoln, “Where’s the meat? What, no cheese?” He told me that he was a vegetarian, so the sandwich didn’t have any meat or cheese; just vegetables.

Part Two: Lacto ovo-ness

At this time in my life, I didn’t have a whole lot of money since I was a student so I didn’t buy meat or fish. I became a lacto-ovo vegetarian which means I didn’t eat any meat, fish, turkey, chicken or pork. I ate eggs on occasion and always had milk in my cereal. Several six month leases later, I thought I’d introduce seafood back into my diet. I had some shrimp at an Italian restaurant which gave me urticaria. Urticaria produces itchy, mosquito-like welts all over your body. I let it take its course, since I didn’t have health insurance or a way to “Google” my symptoms, and it eventually went away after about two weeks. I chocked it up to a possible seafood allergy. It was actually reassuring because then I could say that I don’t eat fish because I’m allergic to it. Back to my lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.

Part Three: The Pescatarian

There comes a time when you just want to be like everyone else; eat like everyone else. Who wants to be that picky person who eats a certain way or tries to influence other people to change their ways? I dared to eat fish again. I didn’t have that same allergic reaction which was probably only because the shrimp I had eaten was bad. It’s all about “sustainability”. If only I could find out what fish to eat. What fish were sustainable in the ocean? Which fish should I avoid in order to keep them from being caught in nets or keep them from having their fins cut off and left to die in the ocean? I could protect them through my buying power. The Mediterranean diet is the best diet, right? Those omega 3’s with wild caught salmon or line-caught sardines would keep me healthy, and my cats happy.

Part Four: My plant-based diet

6a00d8341f7e1253ef017c383a8164970b-800wiI never really thought I was ever overweight until I started comparing photos of myself over the years. There is such a thing as a “junk food vegetarian”. If you have a “vegan” diet, what does that mean? There are a lot of processed foods that are labeled “vegan” or “natural” or “organic”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are healthy.

About four years ago I was diagnosed with intermittent asthma and just two years ago with pre-diabetes. What was it about my diet, which was mostly vegetarian, supplemented with olive oil and fish once a week, that wasn’t right? My husband had started looking into what is called a “plant-based” diet. I was skeptical for a while, not wanting to give up my artisan cheeses, sardines, salmon and marinated mock duck. I’d always say, “What are we going to eat? Nuts and berries? How are we going to get enough protein?” Food is very personal and important to all of us. I love to cook. I had my favorite recipes that called for ingredients that wouldn’t coincide with a trial plant-based diet.

So what exactly is a plant-based diet and where did all of this start?

A plant-based diet consists of whole grains, legumes, a broad spectrum of fruits and vegetables and small amounts of nuts and avocados. Oils such as olive oil or canola oil are not recommended. All vegetables and grains have protein; yes, protein. Processed foods should be avoided at all costs.

There’s a really good book called the China Study, written by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a well known cardiology doctor from the Cleveland Clinic, his son Thomas M. Campbell II, a physician and Jacob Gould Schurman, a professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University. Dr. Campbell was also part of a food documentary called Forks over Knives.

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They conducted a 30-year study to find out how animal proteins affect the human body’s vulnerability to chronic diseases. They did several studies on mice as well to coincide with their human studies. Time and time again, they found that diet was the main cause of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, neuromuscular diseases and diabetes. They also discovered that these diseases could, in fact, be reversed by changing one’s diet.

I still don’t think that I am predisposed to diabetes or heart disease. I am not doomed to inherit these diseases from my parents. I think that diet has a lot to do with how healthy we are. Exercise is of the utmost importance. And most of all, stress can have a detrimental affect on our health.

I’ve been on a plant-based diet now for about two years. I no longer have asthma symptoms, I have yet to have my blood tested to see if I am still “pre-diabetic” and I’ve lost 25 pounds. I’m lean and mean and love my food. If you ask me, I’ll tell you all about it. I want to live a bit longer than my grandmothers who lived to be 95 and 96.

Smokin’ the craft house brews

I really searched high and low for a good gastropub in Minneapolis. I wanted to find a pub that made its own beer and provided great pub food. Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub is a cozy pub with hardwood floors and sun pouring in its floor to ceiling windows. The staff is very friendly and helpful. The three of us started out right by ordering the 5-beer sampler; the best way to try out all of their well-crafted beers. I liked them all, but if I had to choose two of the best they would have to be the Honey Wheat (definitely NOT a “flavored” beer, which I detest) and the smooth Light Rail Pale Ale.
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Since most of the stuff on the menu was smoked, I thought it best to order the smoked trout wrap with granny smith apples and mayo, but opted out of adding Havarti. I’ll have to give the food another try, but I’m always disappointed when it comes out in plastic baskets. The onion rings were great, but the french fries were greasy, so the side of garlic oil wasn’t going to make them any better. I hope the food improves. Otherwise, I’ll just come back for the excellent beer.

Total rating for the food: 3
Total rating for the beer: 5

A comedy of errors, restaurant style

Whenever my husband and I are in Uptown, we often pass Amore Victoria and wonder if we should try it. We usually resolve that the food wouldn’t be very good and always end up at our favorite Barbette across the street. But this time, we were thrilled to see that Amore Victoria had a brand new rooftop patio! How wonderful! So, we crossed the street and entered on the street level.

Amore rooftop from frontNoone was there to greet us, except when we were able to flag down a server who gestured toward the back of the building. We made our way past the tables on the sidewalk, saw the parking lot and spotted an unpainted wooded staircase. Could this be the entrance to the rooftop patio? We climbed the staircase, took in the view, and tried to find a “greeter”, or someone in uniform. Two servers, who looked like deer in the headlights, hurriedly passed us without even making eye contact or saying they’d be right with us. Fortunately, the busser was very friendly and motioned us to a table with a big tray on it. We walked toward the table and waited until someone took the tray before we could sit down. The busser promptly brought two red plastic glasses with water and a lemon wedge. (Why plastic glasses when all the others are glass? How tacky. Are we at Chucky Cheese?) We waited for what must have been 15 minutes before our server greeted us, saying he’d be right back for a drink order. We watched, for the next 10 minutes, as other tables in this very large section looked around for their server. We casually looked at the menu, knowing we’d have plenty of time to decide before the server had time to take our drink order. At least, we thought, the food COULD be good and make up for all of this waiting. The menu had way too many items. I thought of the wonderfully simple quality menus that Gordon Ramsey usually put together after resolving a kitchen nightmare. We chose the same red wine to make it easy, bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, foccacia with mixed olives, potato gnocci with gorgonzola sauce for me and seafood pasta for my husband.

In the midst of all this running around, I noticed one of the owners at the top of the stairs casually cleaning the menus, completely oblivious to the needs of the servers. I couldn’t believe it! Doesn’t he realize that all the servers are totally “in the weeds”?!

After watching our server race back and forth, and up and down the staircase, he finally approached our table when he was deterred by two ladies to our left who were wondering where one of their entrees ended up. He briskly moved down the staircase one more time, returning with her entree. He took a deep breath, pulled out his tablet and asked us if we were ready to order a glass of wine. We gave him our entire order. We continued to watch the chaotic scene and just laughed about it. What more could go wrong here? The wine came promply after we ordered and 15 minutes later the “heirloom” tomato bruschetta arrived. The bread was overly toasted and the tomatoes were small and nothing special. The foccacia was marvelous. Much later, as we were watching the sun go down over Lake Calhoun, our steaming entrees arrived. My gnocci was fabulous…soft potato pillows in a creamy gorgonzola sauce. My husband’s seafood pasta was also great, including the home made pasta. We felt bad for the server because he really was doing the best he could under the circumstances.

Even though most of our food was very good, we will not return to this comedy of errors. I can’t believe Amore Victoria is still in business. It’s too bad. They need a complete overhaul of their menu and they need to hire more servers! Gordon Ramsey, are you out there? This place needs a lot of shaking up!

Masa Flan

masaMasa Margarita? When I hear the word “masa”, I think of the corn flour dough used to make tortillas. So, I looked at the drink menu at Masa, a fairly new Mexican fusion restaurant in Minneapolis, and came across the Masa Margarita, which didn’t have any flour whatsoever. I opted for the Mayan Margarita, which didn’t have any references to tortilla flour. I was impressed with the modern décor with bright orange neon and subtle hints of Mexican textiles. Aside from the spicy, grilled Huachinango filet and accompanying black rice and plain lettuce salad, I was more excited by the Crema de elóte soup and the three salsas; salsa with chile ancho, salsa verde, and a smoky chipotle. Why wouldn’t the chefs take advantage of the many authentic Mexican ingredients, like chayote and the more common moles? We paid the bill and headed toward the pseudo Casablanca outdoor patio, complete with modern, molded white plastic couches and towering plastic planters. The server hurriedly advised us that the kitchen was indeed closed, so we couldn’t order the flan as planned. We scanned the short list of mainstream Silver tequilas and happened to find a suitable Herradura among the añejos. The server appeared and proudly placed a flan in front of us, and two overflowing, double shots of tequila. I guess he made amends with the chefs. The flan was, by far, the best part of the evening.

Assisted Cuisine: Mongolian style

khanmongolian_4I went to an amusing place for lunch today. As we walked into Khan’s Mongolian Barbecue, I was drawn by the four chefs, flipping piles of noodles atop steaming, giant hot plates. We were seated, ordered a round of hot tea, and immediately headed for the pre-stir-fry buffet. I started with the large, plastic bowl, moved past the red meats and pork and began creating my mountain of egg noodles. The raw, baby shrimp came next, followed by seasoned tofu, a mélange of raw vegetables, and a sprig of cilantro. The final part consisted of ladeling ginger water, chili sauce, and sesame oil. I was now ready to present my bowl to the chefs at the giant hot plates. I was taken aback by the sound of the gong and honorable cheers from the chefs as one man contributed to the tip jar. “Peanuts?” the chef chimed in. I nodded affirmatively. A few short minutes went by and the steaming plate was in my hands. We were rewarded at the table with a simple appetizer and hot tea. As we sat down, the lines swelled at the front door. I wondered if they, too, anticipated the next steps as they passed the steaming hotplates.