Monday, March 2, 2020

Estelle – St. Paul, MN

It’s my birthday week, and D.Rough is really good at spoiling me. She managed to get a reservation at this restaurant in the Tangletown/Macalaster/Groveland neighborhood area. I’ve been reading things about this place, so I was really excited to check it out.  This place is roughly focused in southwest Europe – think Italy, Portugal, and Spain mostly. It’s tough to get a table here and the bar-side of the restaurant is first come first serve, so it can be a challenge to get in here from 4-10. 

We started with some cocktails – D got the regular sangria (the seasonal sangria had too much going on for her particular mood), and I got a nice Sasseo Primitivo red wine. Both of us loved our respective openers. It was hard not to. 

The menu has so many delicious items on it that it’s difficult to decide. Small plates, small sandwich-y thigs, and bigger portions. We knew right away we wanted the Patatas Bravas, but then we also wanted the Arancini, and then we threw on some baked oysters, too!

The Patatas Bravas arrived first and were pretty much the star. The roasted potatoes are covered in a homemade picante tomato sauce (that’s the brava sauce) and then drizzled with a lemon aioli. There were some minor squabbles about who was going to each the last remaining potatoes, but since it was my birthday, I played that card. Bam. 

The oysters were also delicious. I enjoy a baked oyster from time to time – takes that snot texture out of it a little bit. They were cooked in a chorizo butter and covered with spinach, parmesan, and breadcrumbs. Totally delicious. 

D.Rough and I are suckers for any type of arancini (Italian fried rice balls). These were perfect. Small little mozzarella filled balls of happiness. Every time I have these, I wonder why I can’t buy them in a five gallon bucket. 

I also needed a new glass of wine, so I got a glass of Udaca Dao from Portugal.

Making decisions on the larger plates was a little more difficult. We had to make strategic decisions. But we powered through and came up with splitting an order of Creste De Gallo – housemade noodles with jalapeno pesto, almonds, lemon, and parmesan. And the Fideuà – fideo-style noodles, with clams and shrimp, ham hock, white wine, tarragon, and parsley. 

The Cresto De Gallo was fantastic. The jalapeno pesto wasn’t spicy, but had a very surprisingly light jalapeno flavor, and paired well with the lemon and parmesan. The unsung hero of this dish was the almonds. Delicious flavor and a fun crunch to this dish. The more of this we ate, the more flavors came through and it just got more and more delicious. Loved this dish.

The Fideuà won the night, though. So many flavors in this dish and it was very rich and hearty. The shrimp and clams were little surprises of flavor in the dish, but they flavored the whole dish. The seasoning on this dish was so good and substantial – not an afterthought or subtle at all. I’ve been dreaming about this dish since we ate it. Sooooooo magical.

Since it was a birthday celebration, and my wife is Italian, we had to order cake. D.Rough got the Blood Orange & Olive Oil Cake and I got the Cereal Milk Soft Serve. 

The Olive Oil Cake had some white chocolate, cardamom, pickled citrus, and tuile and was really pretty to look at. We thought it was a tad heavy on the olive oil, but the citrus part was really delicious. 

The cereal milk soft serve was awesome, though. And, a really hefty portion (maybe because D.Rough spilled the beans that it was my birthday). The cereal they used was Cinnamon Toast Crunch, so it was sweet and delicious, and it was topped with chocolate-covered cinnamon toast crunch – brilliant idea. This was sooo delicious. I’m glad I caved and ordered it.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Travail Basement Bar – Robbinsdale, MN

D.Rough and I continued celebrating my birthday week with a visit to Travail’s newest offering – an upscale basement lounge experience with upscale food and very crafty cocktails. I understand it’s a challenge to get reservations here, and that they have three different “time slots” available, so if you’re interested, get on the website and reserve your spot! Totally worth it.

Like Travail’s other establishments, it’s sort of European-style seating – you WILL be seated at a table with other diners. I like to let people know this so they aren’t alarmed. It’s as fun as you make it – you may end up best friends at the end of the night or you might exchange a few questions about the food or drinks that the other people ordered – you get to decide. Pro Tip: Show up early for your reservation and you may get to decide where you sit, before the space gets filled and you’re stuck with whatever is left open.

The hostess, servers, bar tenders, and food delivery folks are all professionals. They want you to have a good time and enjoy yourself, and they are very gracious and helpful.

We started with a few cocktails, which is really what this place is known for. If you look around the rooms, they have most of the cocktails presented in little nooks, and deconstructed so you can see the ingredients. Bottles of booze and also some of the flavors you’ll be tasting – very interesting concept. Classy and informative (something I’ve never been accused of being). D.Rough got the house tiki-style drink – the Many Faced God (vodka, macadamia nut liqueur, pineapple, coconut, and damiania). I got the Ronaldo Burgundy (Bacardi heritage white rum, pomegranate, pineapple hibiscus milk punch). I'll apologize in advance for the photo quality - the dim lighting wasn't doing my camera any favors - but you'll get the general idea.

D.Rough’s tiki drink was REALLY good. Not too much macadamia and the pineapple and coconut were magical. Fantastic. 

My rum-forward drink was also incredible. It came with a smoky bubble on top AND in a bat-painted tea cup (on a bat painted saucer). A little bit fruity and plenty of rum flavor – I loved this drink!

We ordered a couple of food items to tide us over for the night. The Broadway Burger, the poutine, Salt & Peppa Shrimp, and the lobster egg. The kitchen sends out the folks who prepare this stuff and they explain what’s in some of the dishes and answer any questions – very top-notch.

The lobster egg is a soft boiled egg with lobster, truffles, brown butter, and tarragon, all served in an egg cup. Beautiful presentation and it tasted great too. It’s nice when you can recognize the flavors of each of the ingredient and none of them are overpowering. This is a well-put-together dish.

The Salt & Peppa Shrimp are deep-fried shrimp with garlic butter and jalapeno slices. A relatively simple dish but the garlic butter and jalapeno elevated it a lot. I considered ordering a second round of these, they were that good.

The poutine was fantastic – perfectly fried fries and a rich gravy that clearly was not an afterthought. There weren’t curds, but the gruyere foam was a fun change that I approve highly of. Great job!

The Broadway Burger was not just a restaurant burger. It had a lot of pickled things going on and some mustard situations, but it was a VERY juicy burger. Not sloppy, just really moist and juicy. I loved this thing.

I needed another cocktail and the Travail Basement Bar is not short on them. In fact, they’ve got a few different kind of drinks. They’ve got some small cocktails, for if you’re feeling like you just want a little bit or if you’re toasting someone (very fun idea). And, they’ve got a handful of fancy non-alcoholic drinks, as well. I politely asked the server if they could just add a bunch of rum to the pina colada-style non-alcoholic drink they had on the menu – The Bird C.R.E.A.M.  He assured me it wouldn’t be a problem at all to do so. And since he was already there, I also ordered the Potato Pavé – a thick stack of super-thinly-sliced potato covered with gruyere and cheddar sauce and serrano ham.

The drink was as good as I had hoped it would be – I actually liked it more than the Many Faced God, but only because it was rum, not vodka, and not nutty, otherwise, they were pretty similar. Delicious! And the Potato Pavé was fantastic. Cut-able with a fork and lots of cheese flavor. I’m glad I got to try this one.

Additionally, since my wife’s family is Italian and literally do not believe something is a celebration until there’s cake, we ordered a slice of chocolate cake. Not just any cake – a serious cake, with chocolate mousse layers and a chocolate ganache outer layer. It even comes with a bit of edible gold foil on top – see? Super classy! And, amazingly moist and tasty.

Overall, zero things to complain about at this new restaurant. The staff are all very “interchangeable” and everyone can help you with any request you have. They’re all there to make sure you enjoy yourselves and return to the basement. We even joked with our server that in the basement, everyone looks tan! We will definitely return here and enjoy some additional menu items. We understand this will be an ever-changing menu, so we’re excited to see what new cocktails and food items are available the next time we go there!

Thursday, August 22, 2019

2019 Minnesota State Fair – St. Paul, MN

This year’s adventure was a little different from 2018, 2017, 2015, and a bunch of previous years. This year, I went on opening day with a handful of my co-workers as sort of a culinary tour guide. I’m not sure I was any good at it, but I’ll let you know what they say when we get back to work.  Thanks for hanging out with me all day, Sherri, Lisa, Hannah, Tami, Vicki, and Jim (and his family)!

I started at one of my favorite breakfast places – The Blue Barn. They’re always known for some creative stuff, and this year was no different. 

I tried the Breakfast Potato Skins – deep-fried potato skin filled with scrambled eggs and peppers. It is topped with a blackened beef chislic – a South Dakota bar food staple – and drizzled with béarnaise. The meat has an unusual texture, which makes me wonder about South Dakotans (hahaha kidding!), but was actually very flavorful. It’s sort of like a kafta kebop (lamb skewers). I thought the béarnaise on top was a nice touch. An unusual dish for breakfast, but still good.

I also tried the Blue Cheese Corn Fritz – these are deep fried blue cheese and corn fritters with chimichurri sauce. The had a good fry on them, but the cheese didn’t really shine through. I was hoping for more bite on them. The chimichurri sauce was fantastic, though. If you had just called them corn fritters and gave me the sauce, I wouldn’t have even needed to know there was cheese there.

The best thing I tried at the Blue Barn was the Nashville Hot Chicken on a Stick – it was a large flattened chicken strip coated with cereal (Special K, if I’m not mistaken) for a breading, and then sweet-heat butter glaze. There was also a great hot sauce drizzled over them and served with some pickles. Really a good and simple snack, for breakfast or anytime.

We stopped at Lulu’s Public House for some adult beverages. It’s never too early to double-fist beers at the State Fair! The Berry Go Round  by Schell’s Brewing was pretty darn good and a great way to start off the day. It’s a lemon-y beer with raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries. Nice and tart/sour. Loved it.

The Onesie Twosie Lulu Lucky from Surly was also excellent. It’s a delicious IPA worth checking out. It isn’t going to change the IPA game, but I enjoyed it.

Next was the Turkish Pizza at the Blue Moon Diner. Way better than I thought, actually. It’s a flatbread naan topped with spicy minced beef, onion, tomato, lettuce, cucumber salad, herbs, and lemon juice – you can have it rolled up like a cone or like a pizza. I do wish they toasted the naan a little bit. As it is, it’s super floppy and soft and it’s very messy to eat, since they don’t have a lot of plastic knives at the state fair, I’ve noticed. Get it rolled for easier eating, I suppose (or they can cut it if you’re going to share it). Not mind-blowing, but it was extremely good, in my opinion.

We headed to the Coliseum for a Deep-Fried Dilly Dog from Swine and Spuds. This place has a pretty good track record for creativity. This monstrosity takes the cake for me. It’s a bratwurst, shoved inside a fat pickle, then battered and deep-fried. Oh, and it’s on a stick. I’m not even sure what kind of sauces you’re supposed to put on this thing, but I didn’t even use any. It’s like the best corndog you’ve ever had. I’ll be talking about this for a while. Also, my co-workers were impressed I could get my mouth around it. (I’m sure everyone is going to focus on that last phrase for the next year or two…)

We walked over to Mancini’s for a beer and another dog. This time it was the No Bologna Coney – it’s an Italian mortadella pork sausage flavored with pistachios and peppers, covered with  a muffaletta salad and served on a split-top bun. This thing was pretty good, especially the muffaletta. I wish the sausage had a touch more pistachio, but it was still really good (and messy).

The beer was Funnel Cloud F2 Ale from Bad Weather Brewing. I thought it was middle of the road and nothing special. I tasted neither funnel cakes nor caramel nor vanilla. Might have just had my expectation set to high – it was just an ok ale.  

Off to Dino’s Gyros for more delicious beers – they always have a great selection there. I went with the new Surly Mango Medusa, which was pretty good. Not my favorite mango beer, but it was really good.  The winner of the entire day was the Berry Manilow by Utepils. It was lemonade and raspberry, but not at all chemically. Just fantastically light and fun for the summer. I’m hoping they throw this in cans or bottles for me to stockpile in my house. Great work on this beer.

At Dino’s I also tried the Feta Bites, another new item. They had less flavor than I expected, but the dipping sauce that came with them did help – it was a creamy olive tapenade that was pretty rad.

I really wanted to try the Shrimp and Grits Fritters from Funky Grits in the Food Building. I’m a grits fan, cheesy or otherwise. These were a little dried out, sadly. The dip was ok. They were mainly just overly-fried dough balls served with an aioli. I had higher hopes for these.

There aren’t very many repeats for me at the state fair, but Mouth Trap cheese curds usually make an appearance. They definitely do if I have other friends to share them with. They’re so good and I love them.

Sometimes, O’Gara’s has delicious-sounding items and sometimes they follow through on it. I was a little disappointed with the Irish Whiskey Boneless Wings, though. They seemed like just regular wings and had no whiskey taste at all. The sauce that was on them was a little flacvorless, to be honest, although the fry on the outside of the chicken was excellent and the chicken inside was also excellent. I think they just missed some flavor powder with the whiskey sauce. Not terrible, and great if you just want some boneless wings, but not rave-worthy. (Go with the Rueben bites instead)

You can’t do wings without beers (well, I suppose you could, by it seems pointless), so I got a MN Haze from Lakes and Legends Brewing. It was a decent beer. No complaints and I’d drink it again. I also tried Castle Danger’s Peaches and Cream Ale. It was one of the better beers at the fair. Lots of flavor and very smooth. 

I’m a cookie dough fiend, so I had to check out the Deep Fried Cookie Dough at Kora’s Cookie Dough. It was cookie dough wrapped up in a wonton skin and deep fried. It was greasy but decent. I’m glad they added the chocolate drizzle and powdered sugar – both of them helped. It just feels texturally funny to eat warm cookie dough. Maybe that’s just me, though.

We popped over to The Hanger for the Wingwalker donut holes (I know there was some controversy over the original plan to have injectable syringes for what is now dipping sauces). The donuts themselves ended up being sadly boring, but the lingonberry sauce, the Bavarian cream, and chocolate dipping sauces were really great. I even shared mine with some strangers sitting next to me on the bench outside, and they concurred. Dips yes. Donuts meh.

I was starting to wind down, but I kept hearing about these Carnitas Taco Cones. It was honestly good, but was pretty much just a standard taco when it all comes down to it. The filling was great and a good amount. And the shell was perfectly fried into a cone. Note: This item got the most comments from passers-by out of anything I ate at the fair. It’s visually impressive.

I had to make sure I got at least one 1919 root beer. It’s my favorite at the state fair and I normally drink a gallon of it. I kept it to a low roar this year, but I still love it so much.

I ended up skipping the cheesy sriracha funnel cake, even though it was on the list. I just wasn’t’ feeling it towards the end of the day. I’m not always a funnel cake fan, so it doesn’t surprise me. But, if you find out I should have gotten it, please let me know. I’m curious about it!

On the way out of the fair, I had to make one last stop to get the Hot Hen from RC BBQ. It’s BBQ potato chips covered in buffalo chicken, blue cheese fondue, pickled jalapenos, and blue cheese crumbles. The topping was really good, but I wasn’t impressed by the BBQ chips. If you’re going to lay down a foundation, give it a little something, so it isn’t plain. I basically ate all the toppings off the top and powered through as many potato chips as I could. 

Overall, it was another great day at the Minnesota State Fair. I didn’t have a lot of mind-blowing new items, but a few definitely stuck out. Same for beers. I’m not disappointed at all. I had a great time hanging with my co-workers and running into a few friends that I have missed terribly. Let me know if you try anything I missed or if you disagree with any of my comments. I love a good food argument!

Top 5 (food) things at the 2019 Minnesota State Fair
  1. Deep Fried Dilly Dog
  2. Nashville Hot Chicken on a Stick
  3. No Bologna Coney
  4. Turkish Pizza
  5. Carnitas Taco Cone

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Magic Noodle – St. Paul, MN

This restaurant in St. Paul opened up a month or two ago and people have been raving about how good it is. So, D.Rough and I headed over for lunch to check it out. It’s got a wonderfully designed interior – very authentic Chinese feeling – and you get to watch the chef hand-pull noodles in the kitchen from most of the seating area. Word on the street is that this is the first hand-pulled noodle shop in the Twin Cities, which is a big statement if it’s true. 

The menu has a lot of things on it that all sound amazing. You’re given a pencil to check off what you’d like to order. You can either give the server your menu with items checked off, or you can just tell them and they’ll put in your order into their fancy iPad ordering system right there at your table. We probably over-ordered, but we loved it all (and finished it all), so maybe we ordered the right amount, after all.

We ordered a few appetizers, and the first one to arrive was the Sichuan Wontons in Chili Oil. They were six small little dumplings filled with ground pork, and then covered with scallions, peanuts, and chili oil. They were very light and quite delicious. The chili oil wasn’t overpowering and the pork filling wasn’t overly heavy (it helps that it was a small portion in each dumpling). Very good.

D.Rough is always happy to see a Scallion Pancake on a menu, so we had to get one. It’s served in six pieces and with a small dish of possibly rice wine vinegar dipping sauce. Very delicious and we’ll be sure to tell our friends who are also scallion pancake addicts that they need to check these out at this restaurant. 

I kept going back to the Cumin Mutton Pie on the menu, so I just decided to order it and see how it was. I loved it. It definitely had some heat (spice-wise). The shredded mutton wasn’t stringy and had a great flavor, helped by the addition of onions and peppers in the mix. It was a little drippy, and I got it all over the table and my pants, but it didn’t stop me from eating the entire thing.

For an entrée, I talked D.Rough into getting Chongqing Spicy Noodle Soup. It sounded magical to me, and I should have been warned by the small red pepper next to the name on the menu. That indicates it’s hot. And it was HOT. If you’re originally from Minnesota and have an aversion to spice, then steer clear of this one. It was really spicy, even after it cooled down, but the flavor in it was excellent. It’s got lots of ground pork lurking at the bottom, covered up by a layer of molten lava… I mean chili oil. With hand-pulled noodles on top, most of them are like 2 feet long, so it’s a very messy dish. So, I found myself whipping spicy oil off my entire face after every bite. But again, it was really tasty!

D.Rough’s decision to order the Garlic Chicken Fried Noodles was the winner of the day. The ingredients were simple (onions and bell peppers), but they made it taste so incredible. The sauce that these noodles were in did have some chili oil, but it was more sweet than spicy. It was great. Again, the two-foot long noodles were a challenge to share and to eat, but eventually we got much better at it. And, this is a dish we would order again and again. 

I can’t recommend this place enough (with the caveat that it’s going to be spicy for some Minnesotan palates). It’s fun to watch them hand-pull the noodles and the variety of things on the menu is impressive. The use of chili oil in most dishes reminds me of pretty much every dish that I ate while I was in China, so I feel confident in my use of the term “authentic”. It isn’t like American-style Chinese food, so you’re not going to get General Tso’s Chicken here. But, I truly feel you’re going to love everything you order here.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Y Club – Garrison, MN

When D.Rough and I are up north, I sometimes trick her into joining me on my all-fried-food diet (then she retaliates and makes me eat vegetables for weeks). This visit was no different. We popped into the Y Club for a quick dinner – someplace we had only driven by in the past, but always looked busy. 

We ended up getting just appetizers (and beer). Deep fried walleye fingers and deep fried asparagus. There’s no bad part of this meal.

The asparagus was good. Really good, in fact. Even better than we expected. Yes, it’s salty, and yes, it’s fried, but it was sooo delicious. It’s got some sort of spicy mayo or ranch dip with it. Not quite sriracha, not quite something else, but just get it. 

The walleye fingers were perfect, as well. You actually tasted the fish and not just the fried (not that I mind that, personally). I’m a big fan of these, especially with the generous portion they brought to us. 

We’ll be back, Y Club. Maybe for something non-fried next time… unless I get my way!

Y Club
27430 MN-18
Garrison, MN 56450

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Mugg’s of Mille Lacs – Wahkon, MN

D.Rough and I have driven by signs advertising this place and finally decided to stop here. It’s a lake-side sort of dive bar with delicious-looking food, so why not?!

The menu is pretty small, but it does have some interesting things on it. We stopped looking when we came across this specific appetizer that is like something out of my dreams. House-made loaded tater tots stuffed with cheddar cheese, sour cream, bacon, and some spices, then served with a jalapeno ranch dip. And when you’re up north, you should find yourself some walleye – in this case, a walleye sandwich. Also, a bunch of beer.
The food arrived and was everything we wanted it to be. The tots were like magical pillows with a spicy dipping sauce. Just enough bacon to taste it, but not be the only thing you tasted. A perfect fry on these, as well, which I know it isn’t easy to do with housemade tots. 

The walleye sandwich was also really good. Nice breading on the fish itself and a good tartar sauce. Decent onion rings, as well. I was pretty happy with this and I’m glad I split the sandwich with D.Rough. Otherwise, I would have been really full. 

Sorry for the short review – it was a quick stop, but one that we’ll make again, for sure. IT’s solid bar food and not simple burgers and fries.