Monday, November 24, 2008

Beware of Laptops - Common Roots Cafe

I've been intrigued by all that I've been reading about the Common Roots Cafe. Word on the street is that they have a mean bagel, and are celebrated for their devotion to local, sustainable and organic foods. I highly commend them for that and was looking very forward to heading there for a nice meal last Friday night.

First off, I have to sound off on the status of Lyndale Ave. It's a shame how long that's been torn up. It's a royal pain, in terms of getting around and has to be a huge hindrance to all the businesses in the area. After some driving around we finally made it to the Cafe and did the Minnesota cold walk (hunched sholders, hands buried in pockets, quick-choppy steps) from our parking spot.

I entered the room and was amazed at how many people were there on a Friday evening at about 8:45. The place was littered with people, but my attention was quickly diverted by two different but very important distractions. Upon taking a few steps in I noticed that the place just wasn't that clean. There were dishes all over tables and quite a bit of debris on the floors. I was a bit shocked by it, but hey, it was late, I was hungry and I figured everything would eventually get turned into compost or something. I was a bit discouraged by the counter service and server - again cleanliness of the space, and knowledge of the server, but we settled on the burger (I had heard good things) and the Chicken involtini/meatloaf that the server highly recommended.
We sat down and started to sip our drinks and I noticed the second distraction. This one held my attention longer then the cleanliness, and was a very bad sign in my mind: Everyone was on a laptop. Shit! I had just ordered dinner at a place that everyone else deemed a laptop joint. I was officially nervous. No one would ruin a good meal by surfing Craig's list, finishing a paper, or seeking a companion on No, they were likely here for other reason, and were not seeking stellar food.
Nervously I sat there and sucked down my Finnegan's as I waited in fearful anticipation. After a decent wait or food came out and I gave it a serious once-over. As usual, Jess and I had settled on 2 items with the intention to share. I started with the meatloaf and was totally underwhelmed. It was essentially flavorless, and the texture was quite odd - a granular tofu maybe? I think the "involtini" distinction was because they wrapped the loaf in the chicken skin. It was kinda gross. The slab of polenta that was served with it was greasy, limp and unappealing. It was all served on a bed of arugula which was the only portion of the plate with any flavor. Unfortunatley it had already drown in the grease from the meatloaf and polenta. Neeldless to say Jess didn't enjoy the dish (The one bite she managed) either and my suspision that I wasn't being very open was eliminated.

The burger was much better. I love a good grass-fed burger, and normally I'm all for goat cheese and caramelized onions, but the burger ended up being pretty sweet and a little top-heavy. The burger was definitely beyond my medium request, but still managed to retain a juicy consistency - which made me wonder what they added to it to maintain the juices despite the lean cut. The bun was very good, and grilled nicely. It was the best part of the meal, which was disappointing, however, I can now see that they do have some baking credentials

I learned my lesson: Never order dinner from a place where everyone else is on a laptop regardless of what you've heard others say. We didn't even finish our meal, and that is no small offense given my intense love for food. I'd maybe go back to Common Roots Cafe for baked goods or a sandwich. It seemed capable of pulling that off, and maybe if I got there earlier in the day the place would be cleaner. I'd like to see a place so dedicated to quality food succeed, but you won't catch me there for dinner again.

Happy Eating,


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Heidi's Part 2

So, I went to Heidi's for my girlfriend's birthday the other night and I'm happy to report that the food was incredible, and the service that I was so confused by the first time I visited was seamless and friendly. Really, the service was my only knock on the place and it was worlds better on this night. My apologies for the lack of pictures, but I didn't want to push my own agenda since it was a special occasion with good friends and family.

We went on a blustery Wednesday and the place was pretty darn full, as was the neighboring Blackbird Cafe where we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink. I called about a week in advance and could only get a 5 p.m. or 8 p.m. seating for a group of 6. Regardless, I'm glad the place is busy. With food that good, it should be.

So fortunately, I have friends that love to share so I got to enjoy several dishes over the course of the night. I had the hibernation-ready braised lamb shank. The meat was slide-off the bone tender and had a very deep lamb flavor. The braising liquid was robust and it sat on a nice wild rice salad. It was not a light dish, and braised lamb usually isn't. It was perfect for a nice cold Minnesota evening and was totally comforting.

My lady friend had the best dish of the night. It was essentially a pan seared chicken breast wrapped in a thin layer of delicate, crispy bacon. It was delicious and served on a flavorful cous cous with cauliflower. The true champion of this dish was the Kimchee beurre blanc. It was friggin amazing. I would have ordered a glass of it if possible. It tied everything together with a clean, spicy kick. The dish was seriously satisfying.

Last, I had a quick sample of the Australian Sea Bass. The bass had a perfect sear and the caramelized tones against the pure white fish was stunning. The moist, delicate fillet sat on a parsnip and parsley puree which offered a great texture and color contrast. Lastly, the creamy mussel foam added a tremendously rich flavor that balanced out the jolt of the parsley with the lightness of the fish.

I was very pleased with the experience yet again. It's hard having two great spots right next to each other, because I really enjoy Blackbird as well. Regardless, I'm in a good situation because they are both close to home, right here in SW.

Happy Eating,


Monday, November 3, 2008

More Maude in Armatage

Looks like all the Cafe Maude lovers are going to have even more to celebrate within the next week or so. Quite some time ago the owners of the beloved Armatage neighborhood eatery announced that they would open up a private dining space coined the Armatage Room, and it turns out that the space will act as a wine bar when it's not rented out for the night. This seems like a smart move given that I find it hard to believe that the private room would be booked solid every night, which is pretty ambitious for a neighborhood joint. Regardless, they're smart business owners and they wouldn't be opening the space unless they could smell success. I for one am glad that the much lauded Maude will be expanding. I reached out to Ruth who is in charge of the Armatage Room logistics and found her most helpful.

Based on our conversation, the space should be open any day now. I've heard rumblings of Nov. 15 and I believe the space seats up to 32 comfortably. The Armatage Room sounds impressive utilizing a European setting  and touting Canadian pine tables, soft leathers, custom chandeliers and local art. Needless to say the ambiance will be quite nice for both glass of vino and a private dining space.

My favorite feature will be the room's own open kitchen which will support the majority of the food preparation. There's something about having a view of the craftsman who labor over our meals that gives you a connection to the craft and the food.  The menu sounds fantastic and features a six course feast with several options for each course as well as a tasting menu made up of Hors D'oeuvres, soups, salads, entrees and desserts. In addition, they also offer family style dinners that pull from the traditions of several European countries - think paella, cassoulet and lasagna.  The wine bar menu is eclectic in the Cafe Maude style featuring salads (Cobb and Greek), cheeses, cured meats, a pasta dish, braised lamb, meatballs and scallops as well as a few sweets! The one bummer: No hard booze! That's especially depressing since they mix some mean spirits across the street, but I'm sure the wine and beer list will be up to the challenge. More details here.  

Since it's private dining they defer to some common catering practices such as menu selection within a certain time of deposit and a final count within a week of the event. The room minimum (at least initially) runs $750 Sunday through Thursday and jumps to $1500 on the weekends not including tax and gratuities. 

Regardless, more Maude is a good thing for all, in my opinion. I've had some great meals there and have even enjoyed swinging by for a a quick drink and a tasty small plate (they've got killer upscale chicken wings!) when not indulging in a full blown dinner. Hopefully the Armatage Room will help thin the crowd at the typically packed house, but somehow I have the feeling they'll still be packing in.

Happy Eating,

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