Thursday, October 29, 2009

Trattoria Tosca's Ultimate Comfort Pasta

I might have just consumed the most decadent pasta of my life at Trattoria Tosca.

I'd been awaiting the development of something in the under-utilized Turtle Bread space in Linden Hills for quite some time, and thankfully, that wish came true a few months ago. Trattoria Tosca specializes in seasonal fare, and this gloomy spell had me craving something warm and comforting, which lands squarely in the pasta category.

I didn't hold much hope for the actual space, since Turtle Bread seems to be a jumbled bi-polar mess that almost resembles a retail area. They crank out some nice breads and baked goods, but it's not exactly an area I'd like to spend a lot of time in. Tosca is quite different. Dark wood meets sponge painted earth tone walls with little to no adoration. The space is incredibly simple, but at least it has focus. The restaurant was at about 60% capacity, but the sound level was near uncomfortable.

Tosca's menu is relatively limited, but I found several options that made the ultimate decision very difficult. I narrowed it down to the pheasant, the bucatini with rosemary, tomato, breadcrumbs and chili flakes, and what sounded like the ultimate fettuccini. The menu description included roasted cauliflower, Fischer bacon, herbs, grana padano and egg yolk. It sounded like the definition of comfort, and the perfect meal to consume in preparation for hibernation. It was a done deal.

Tosca offers their primi courses in two sizes and I ordered the large as an entree, because I knew I wouldn't be satisfied with just a few bites. When the fettuccini arrived, I was blown away by the execution. The delicately cooked pasta enjoyed little bits of roasted cauliflower and big meaty chunks of bacon intermixed throughout the base of the dish, while the crown of the fettuccini was lightly adorned with fine herbs, rustic grana padano, and three perfectly separated decadent egg yolks. A quick mix with my fork produced a silken and incredibly lush sauce.

This dish is not for the light eater, or health obsessed - it's full on gluttony. The roasted cauliflower had a nice caramelized exterior that provided a bit of crunch and a gentle sweetness to the dish. The thick lardon-like bacon supported an intense amount of salt and smoke that proved a perfect companion for the robust and nutty grana padano. Lastly, those three perfect yolks provided a superb richness to the dish that just could not be surpassed with cream and/or butter alone. Taking on this dish is no small order, and like any good pain killer, I wouldn't encourage operating heavy machinery soon after. My only wish was that maybe they dialed it back to just two yolks, because the dish is so rich that it becomes a little daunting and starts to lose some of its balance.

This was the sort of meal that will keep me warm as we climb deep into the winter months, and if the dish stays on the menu (which any one dish outside of the bucatini rarely does) it may almost make the deep chill of February tolerable.

Happy Eating,


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Epic Sandwich: Modern Cafe

Last week's nasty rain and snow mix had me craving something comforting. I had heard that the Modern Cafe in NE Minneapolis has this whole comfort thing down, so I decided to give their roast pork with kimchi sandwich a whirl, and was surprised with the result . Full review here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Restaurant Marketing Highs and Lows

Various reports claim that we have escaped the recession, and are on our way to recovery. I'm not 100% sure I buy into that yet, but I know things are looking up. It appears that many of my favorite restaurants (a industry hit very hard by the recession) managed to weather the storm, while a few good spots had to close down. I couldn't help but notice the increase in restaurant marketing over the last few months and feel that the swing was likely out of necessity for survival, but also due to the explosion of social media. Some of my favorite spots have a set up entertaining/informative blogs or Twitter accounts while many folks have taken on an entire social marketing strategy to keep customers informed/intrigued.

Punch Pizza may be doing the best job of this. They have a clear strategy, and have come up with an awesome promotional mix including deals for off-the-menu items, students, and just-for-the-hell-of-it promotions. They also hit you at several touch points engaging frequently via Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and email. I've taken advantage of a few of the promos they launched through multiple channels and have observed the success they've endured by waiting in line for quite some time to gather my prize. The design aesthetic and message stays consistent and on-brand and I have no doubt they are reaping the benefits.

Another example of great marketing/promotion is the Shefzilla blog from our friends at Heidi's. Not only do these guys create killer cuisine but they are also Twin Cities restaurant marketing pioneers. I find there blog extremely entertaining with topics ranging from the absurd, to the extremely relevant (especially for regulars like me hungry who want to hear menu updates) all while establishing dialogue around food and the Twin Cities dining scene. They also have a nice series on YouTube in which Stuart displays some of his awesome technique in a manner that foodies can both appreciate and apply. I also find the always entertaining Frank Thorpe an interesting addition on the bass.

Although, for every restaurant that does a nice job, there are others that bewilder - Parasole comes to mind. Don't get me wrong, they've built and impressive and lucrative roster of restaurants that I've dined in and enjoyed to various degrees. They've recently opened their dining club to free enrollment and their Sunday Supper series offers a good reason to take the family out on a typically slow restaurant night.

Then there's the Twitter account. I don't get it. A recent visit revealed the voice of their brand comparing sleeping with their first cousin to how low their wine prices will be when they open Il Gato in early November - sounds like a great message for families. Now, the absurdity doesn't stop there. I always page through the Southwest Journal when it hits my stairs, and I noticed a Burger Jones ad for the first time a few issues back. I can't remember the verbatim headline, but it was something to the tune of offering a good BJ (Burger Jones), but they obviously intended a play on words. Seems pretty immature for a local restaurant power, especially since the early Salut campaign was so creative.

Now, I realize, the ad and Twitter strategy has me talking here, and so in a way I'm playing into their hand, but it doesn't make me want to celebrate, or go to their restaurant any more then I would have had I not seen those promotions. To be honest, it's a bit of a turn off and could be detrimental to their brand. They've done great things in the past, but this is feeling a bit too much like that gross Paris Hilton and Carl's Jr. commercial, which clearly uses frat house appeal to try and sell something. I'm hoping they don't go too far with the Il Gato branding, because I'm thinking Uptown is in serious need of another good joint to help breathe a bit of life into that restaurant scene, and I know they can make it happen.

What are some of your favorite restaurants doing? Many premier chef's are building awareness and promoting a worthy cause through Tour de Farm... What else is out there? Seen/heard anything creative? I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you feel is making a difference.

Happy Eating,


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Epic Sandwich: Lyndale Tap House

I previewed the Lyndale Tap House a few days ago, but managed to get there last week for a bite to eat. I ordered the pit beef sandwich, and it was pretty darn good. There are a lot of other interesting options on the menu as well, and I'll be back to check them out for sure. Full review here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Epic Sandwich: The Kitchen

I've been hearing about The Kitchen for quite some time and couldn't wait to try it out on a recent trip to Stillwater. What I didn't expect was to find a burger that quickly climbed into my favorites list. Full review here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lyndale Tap House Preview

I heard the murmur from across the room and couldn’t help but get excited. I was over at a friend’s place the other night, and inevitably the “where are we going?” conversation came up. This is typically a pretty solid debate. Some people will want to go to the place with the drink specials, while others stake their claim for a good place to dance, or the best place for people watching. Needless to say, I didn’t think anyone would mention the Lyndale Tap House. I couldn’t have been happier that this is where we landed.

The Lyndale Tap House is a new bar/Restraunt/Gastropub/Beersnob haven/whatever-you-want-to-call-it located in the former JP’s American Bistro space near the Lyn-Lake intersection. The atmosphere is intriguing with exposed wood, a pressed tin roof, enormous bar and a completely confusing path to the bathroom for the untrained.

I’ve heard two knocks on the recently opened Tap House: one is that the pin-up style pictures are offensive and the other is that the tap list is out-dated. I can’t say I agree on either account. All of the girls in our group are intelligent, forward thinking women who seem to be very comfortable with both themselves and expressing their opinions. I didn’t hear one word about the art either bad or good, and to be honest I hardly even noticed it. I'll let everyone form their opinion on the art, as the beauty of art is that it is open to your own interpretation. Also, I wouldn’t venture to say that the tap list is amazing, but I didn’t think it was lame. There were some mainstreamers on the list such as Guinness and Blue Moon, but there were also some nice additions, such as Lagunitas, which is one of my favorites. There wasn’t an overwhelming selection of local taps, but there seemed to be some others to fill the void.

The accessible kitchen quickly fills the space with the strong smell of the open pit (they specialize in Baltimore Pit Beef), which wasn’t ideal for a Saturday night social gathering, but it wasn’t a hindrance either. There seemed to be a ton of burgers and sandwiches pouring out of the kitchen and one of the folks in our group seemed to be singing the praises of the sloppy joe (this one will be on Epic Sandwich for sure!) as well as the fries. They have what I think is a pretty deft late night happy hour (10-12) including three dollar domestic taps as well as food specials including Tap House Burgers ($5), Turkey Sloppy Joes ($4), and Mugs of chili ($2). Is there ANY doubt in your mind that it is officially chili season?

I can’t speak for the food yet as I only drank and socialized, but I’ll definitely be back to try it out soon and suggest you give it a try yourself. I’ll miss JP’s but I feel that their model may work a bit better for the area and wish them success.

Happy Eating,


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Epic Sandwich: Smalley's Jerk Chicken

I think Smalley's in Stillwater has pretty darn good BBQ for a Minnesota joint, but I'm really a fan of good Jerk barbeque and always have to try some when I head up there for my annual fall trip. This visit didn't disappoint. Full review here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Braised Short Rib Tacos

Even though I'm Italian, I've developed a serious taste for Latin and Mexican food. My family hails from Calabria, and the proximity to Sicily must play some sort of role in my affinity for spice. Regardless, a recent hankering for something spicy and unique compelled me to try something new and an opportunity from Marx Foods all but sealed the deal.

Marx Foods is an online fine foods supplier and I found out through this whole blog scene that they would send me free product to try out. Needless to say, I signed myself up. A few weeks ago I received a nice selection of dried, mild chilies. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I do know that I really like to braise, and I really like to make serious tacos. After a few moments of thought I decided I was going to reconstitute the chilies and incorporate them into a braising liquid. All I needed to do was pour some boiling water over the chilies, fully submerge and wait 20 minutes for them to rehydrate.

I took the reconstituted chillies, sliced them up, and put them in a blender with three peeled heirloom tomatoes, a bit of the chili water and some fresh lime juice. Blend until relatively smooth and you've got some serious pizazz for your braising liquid.

I dusted the ribs with cumin, ancho chili powder, Mexican oregano and browned them in oil. I removed them after a few minutes on each side over medium heat, and added in a chopped onion and some minced garlic to the pot. Once the onion was soft I added in 2 cups of chicken stock to deglaze the pan and added the tomato-chili concoction as I scraped up the browned bits. Within seconds my kitchen smelled like it meant business. The aroma of the chilies along with the "Mexican herb dust" I coated the short ribs in was amazing. Once everything was boiling I put the ribs back in the pot, covered it and put it in a 350 degree oven for an hour and a half. Another 25 minutes uncovered on the stove top over medium heat was all I needed to yield some tender shredded beef and a thick and robust sauce.

The Guajillo and Aji Panca chiles that I added to the liquid created a depth of flavor that had really nice earth tones and a smooth heat that peaked right before the brink of being overtly spicy. I picked up a little bit of chocolate, plum and all spice in the sauce and I can easily say that these were the best tacos I've ever made. The beauty of it all was that despite the serious flavor, I still managed to pick up the flavorful beef as well. In addition to some good shredded beef, it's tough to beat authentic corn tortillas, fresh Pico de Gallo, cilantro and some sliced avocado to round everything out.

If you're looking for a solid gourmet retailer that can find some rare ingredients I recommend you check out Marx Foods as I'll definitely continue to explore their assortment of rare and exceptional goodies.

Happy Eating,


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cool Beans at Cafe Twenty Eight.

Dig Latin inspired food? Obsessed with breakfast? If that’s the case, you should grab a buddy, pal or amigo and check out Café Twenty Eight’s Sunday brunch. We’re blessed to have a lion’s share of killer brunch spots here in SW Minneapolis (Café Maude, Blackbird Café, Café Twenty Eight and Zumbro Café (AKA the SW Quad Cafés), but when I’m looking for something with a little heat, I have to head over to Café Twenty Eight.

I’ve had their chilaquiles with salsa verde last year and I have to admit that it was one of my favorite breakfasts of the year. This time around I decided to roll with the huevos rancheros since I’ve struggled to find a really good order elsewhere, and since the dish wasn’t that far a departure from my original breakfast-based love affair. If you are a huevos fan, then you should really stop in and give it a whirl.

An order of huevos at Café Twenty Eight includes two eggs the way you like ‘em, ranchero sauce, black beans, guacamole, queso fresco, fresh tortillas and your choice of bacon, sausage or chicken sausage. I decided to go with poached eggs (my new favorite – they instantly turn a side dish into a meal) and bacon. As mentioned, I felt a bit bad that I didn’t order the chilaquiles again, but any thoughts of buyers remorse were quickly squashed when my breakfast arrived.

I’m not sure what their process is but I think their black beans are really good, offering the perfect texture with a deep earthy flavor stemming from the thick sauce they simmer in. The ranchero sauce offers a mild heat while flashing freshness and spark. The poached eggs were as delicate as a freshman’s self-esteem and the yolk ran right into the beans and ranchero sauce formulating the perfect spread for those awesome tortillas. For me, the formula is simple: Scoop up as much eggs, beans, sauce, cooling queso and luscious quac as I can into one of the tortillas, crumble on some salty bacon to compliment the freshness of the cheese, shove into mouth and repeat. The only disappointment with this dish was when it was all over.

That’s the beauty of all the great breakfast haunts in SW. There’s variety all over the place and each location has its own calling, but for me, if I want some heat and something with a bit of Latin flare, I look no further than Café Twenty Eight. Unfortunately, their patio season will be coming to an end (OK, based on today it’s straight up over), but it’s really tough to beat a spicy breakfast, some sunshine and a great companion to start off your Sunday.

Happy Eating,


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