Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lucia's Wine Bar

It had been a while since I had visited Lucia's in Uptown, so I figured that her recognition in the James Beard Semis for Outstanding Restaurant was a compelling enough reason to reacquaint myself with this charming eateries. Lucia's covers the gastronomic spectrum through her bakery/take-out biz, her wine bar and her full service restaurant. She's got you covered no matter what experience you are looking for, and she does this all while utilizing only the freshest, seasonal ingredients.
My trip last week was spur of the moment, so I decided to try my luck at the wine bar. We managed to get a nice corner table after enjoying only a few sips of my Bell's Amber. The menu was eclectic as always (I was a little bummed it was different from the one they had posted online), and since I am notorious for wavering between dishes, I decided to go with a non-traditional melange of sorts in order to sample the variety of expertise Lucia brings to her business. I started with a split pea and ham soup. I haven't always been open-minded about food in the past, and normally the words "pea soup" forced me to put on a stupid face. I'm glad I finally came around. The ham in the soup was smoky and rich and the peas offered a nice earthy contrast. The textures were quite nice, and I always appreciate a simple, well executed soup on a cold night.

My next dish was a plate of french sausage with a nice grainy mustard and some crisp apples. The sausages were really nice with perfect marbling and a nice meaty finish. Its rich savory flavor offered the perfect contrast to the crisp, sweet and tart apples. This classic pairing was supported by a really excellent grainy mustard with a pungent and spicy finish. It's the perfect sort of dish to enjoy on a nice fall day at the lake with a good bottle of wine and the perfect companion (I'll have file that away for late September).

My bi-polar disorder (for food) really kicked in when Jess and I decided the split an order of spicy chicken tacos with charred salsa, sour cream and cilantro for our final dish. A few accompanying lime wedges kept things bright and the cilantro added a nice element of freshness - it's almost cruel to enjoy these flavors when it's below freezing. The real hero of the dish was the juicy marinated chicken that was gracious enough to lend its bold juices to soak the perfectly warmed La Perla tortillas. A nice robust salsa added a depth of flavor, and elevated these tacos to a close runner-up to my favorites at Cafe 28.

I love Lucia's for many reasons. Maybe it's their ever-changing menu bursting with imagination and fresh flavors. Maybe it's their thoughtful beer and wine lists. Maybe it's the always warm and friendly service, but when it comes down to it, I love going there because of the sense of escapism you enjoy when you relax over a nice simple meal with good company. It's as if all your troubles have punched out for the night, and during times like these, that's priceless.

Happy Eating,


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rinata: Al Vento's Twin Sister

The Uptown area has been buzzing about the opening of Rinata (the twin sister-restaurant to Al Vento), an Italian joint that has been breathing new life into the old Georgio's space on Hennepin Ave. Georgio's had fallen off pretty significantly towards the end, and the arrival of Rinata and chef Jonathan Hunt brings a new and credible restaurant to an area in much need of an oasis for good Italian food.

Hunt has been toiling at Al Vento for a few years now, and must have felt the itch to expand on a good thing, because the comparison between the two restaurants is staggering. Much like Al Vento, Rinata's menu is focused and diverse, with a wide range of offerings surrounding the pasta/risotto and pizza category. I've been a huge fan of Hunt's traditional pasta dishes for several years, but noted that he appears to have not carried over his heralded "Mother Sauce" from Al Vento - at least he isn't merchandising it on the menu.

The service at Rinata was friendly (again, an identical trait from Al Vento), but running a bit thin for the crowd that had compiled on a Tuesday night. Our longer then usual wait for first contact was quickly forgotten when our waiter walked us though the menu and displayed his knowledge of the preparations and recommendations. I was feeling like a simple pasta, but after everyone placed their order for more traditional dishes, I decided to test the range of the kitchen by ordering a risotto with braised boar. I'm a huge fan of boar and am quick to order it when I find it on a menu. The only other places I can recall finding it on a menu are Broders' and Heartland. Needless to say, my anticipation was high.

A few moments later our wine arrived accompanied by a nice fresh basket of Rinata's perfectly salty, crispy crusted, but soft centered focaccia. I could have eaten a whole loaf on my own with my earthy red wine, but held off to allow ample room for my risotto. Our waiter ushered our order out much faster then I had anticipated and we all quickly analyzed our dishes before digging in. I couldn't help but notice how soupy the risotto looked. It seemed a bit over sauced (Al Vento is always heavy on the sauce, too) for risotto, but I didn't let that deter me too much.

The boar was more of an extra flavorful pork and lacked the gamy finish I've come to associate it with. It was tender and delicate, indicating that it had been well prepared, but I was expecting a bit of a stiffer bite from a traditionally rich and bold protein. Similarly, the risotto which is typically known for it's creamy texture and comforting finish, was a bit grainier then I expected. The difference between undercooked and overcooked can be a matter of seconds, so it is a fine line to walk and of course everyone has a varying opinion. It still absorbed the flavors of the bold and perfectly crafted sauce, as risottos traditionally do, but lacked the laborious smooth texture I enjoy so much.

I did manage to steal a few bites Jessi's spaghetti and and the two enormous homemade meatballs that accompanied it. The tomato sugo was bold and a step above the sauce you find in most pasta places and the meatballs were second to none. The meat was rich, flavorful, moist and just all around perfect.

I'll be back to Rinata for sure, but will likely stick to something not so dependant on a unique ingredient or move to their lauded pizza. I feel like the Al Vento staff can better handle the more unique offerings, but will make sure to take advantage of the classics that Rinata seems to perfectly craft. Regardless, Hunt has created a second outlet for great Italian food in an area that really needs it, and I look forward to my return.

Happy Eating,

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