5-8 Club — July 31, 2011

9 08 2011

5-8 Club
5800 Cedar Avenue South
Minneapolis
http://www.5-8club.com/

The home of the Juicy Lucy is as hotly debated in the Twin Cities as the ‘better’ side of the river or the future of the Metrodome. Two spots claim origin of the cheese-filled hamburger, but each restaurant’s loyal fans believe their place has the one. After living here for nearly two years, we’d not yet had the experience to compare, but perceived the 5-8 Club to have the edge (plus, we love their saying: “If it’s spelled right, it’s done right,” knocking Matt’s Bar for offering a ‘Jucy Lucy’).

Soft bun, thick burger, gooey cheese.

To celebrate Jim’s birthday, we set out to finally try the cities’ signature sandwich. The once-Speakeasy-now-neighborhood-hangout doesn’t have a lot of seating, but the quick-moving staff and fast kitchen line make for quick turnaround. And service was friendly, considering the dinner-time rush and hot summer temps. The best part was 5-8’s “Free the Cheese” motto on the back of the servers’ t-shirts, which drums up images tasty enough to make anyone seriously reconsider not ordering a burger with cheese just waiting to escape.

We both had the Juicy Lucy with pepperjack (diners can also choose from American, Swiss or Blue) and split an onion ring basket. The burgers, served on soft buns, had been cooked to perfection: barely pink meat gave way to spicy cheese (which kept a remarkable amount of flavor) oozing from the center.  The crispy rings were standard, but tasted great with the warm burgers and cold beer. The beer wasn’t fancy, but the size options were great.  Jim could have a mug (birthday boys do what they want) and I could have a glass – a 12 oz serving that hit the spot and wasn’t too filling.

Our experience is too one-sided for us to make an official statement about the best Lucy in town (plus, we think Blue Door Pub is a strong competitor, even if they don’t claim to have invented it). But, dinner at 5-8 was delicious, fun and certainly lived up to the hype. To us, it doesn’t matter who wins the burger war – with so much melted cheese inside, it’s hard for anyone to go wrong!

RATING (out of 5 ♠♠♠♠♠)
Ambiance/Environment:
♠♠1/2
Menu Selection:
♠♠♠1/2
Service:
♠♠♠
Food Taste & Presentation: ♠♠♠1/2
COMPLETE EXPERIENCE:
♠♠♠1/2

Total bill, including tip: $29

5-8 Club Tavern & Grill on Urbanspoon





Cafe Ena — July 29, 2011

7 08 2011

Café Ena
4601 Grand Avenue
Minneapolis
http://www.cafeena.net/

Days later, we’re still raving about our visit to Café Ena. As the number of eateries we visit in the Twin Cities grows, we try to remain selective when it comes to high ratings and rave reviews. But, with its outstanding food – using French technique to create Latino-inspired dishes – and charming location, Café Ena certainly earned its rank near the top of our list.

Jim's Pescado entree

In south Minneapolis, Café Ena occupies one corner of a full – though surprisingly calm – intersection across from a small wine bar and a picturesque bakery (both now on our must-visit list). We snagged a spot on the patio next to beautiful flower planters (that, despite citronella candles, did attract flies and gnats) where we could watch the variety of patrons come and go. From young families to groups of couples, we were surprised to see such a range at a place focused on creative cuisine. But Café Ena manages to balance sophisticated style and elegant food with a neighborhood vibe that makes any party feel right at home.

Service was polite and attentive, and maintained the right pace for a laid-back dinner.  We fell into the relaxed mood around us, sipping our wine and enjoying Café Ena’s sweet, garlic infused butter on slices of crispy baguette. Nearby entrées appeared to be large, so we skipped the tempting starters and salads and went right for the main plates. Jim had the Pescado: blackened salmon over a mixture of Israeli couscous, jalapeno-infused cream, red onion, peppers and scallions, and topped with a roasted artichoke relish. The couscous mixture had immense flavor, and the fish was seasoned well and cooked just right. The dish was delicious and perfectly portioned – making it one of Jim’s all-time favorites.

Conchas and coconut risotto

I had the Conchas plate: sea scallops sprinkled with coriander and cardamom next to coconut risotto and baby spinach in a curry cream sauce. The scallops were tasty and seared to a nice texture, but the risotto stole the show. It was creamy yet light; the combination of coconut and curry was a nice match with the Indian-seasoned scallops, and a chilled pineapple salsa on top added sweetness and color.

Café Ena served up the most important parts of a night out: food that’s expertly prepared, full of good-for-you ingredients and anything but boring, and a welcoming atmosphere that urges us to unwind and recharge. This is one we’re so glad we found and can’t wait to revisit – Café Ena is officially a favorite!

RATING (out of 5 ♠♠♠♠♠)
Ambiance/Environment:
♠♠♠♠
Menu Selection:
♠♠♠♠1/2
Service:
♠♠♠1/2
Food Taste & Presentation: ♠♠♠♠1/2
COMPLETE EXPERIENCE:
♠♠♠♠

Total bill, including tip: $74

Cafe Ena on Urbanspoon





La Chaya Bistro — July 22, 2011

25 07 2011

La Chaya Bistro
4537 Nicollet
Minneapolis
http://lachaya.com/

La Chaya’s food was enjoyable – and we don’t want our terrible experience to overshadow a good meal. But, we have to at least address it. The service was inattentive, slow (we didn’t get our food for 75 minutes, and never received an apology or even an acknowledgement of the situation) and careless. We left extremely disappointed and amazed at the huge service failure we encountered. Too bad our polite note on the receipt probably never even reached the manager…

Chilled avocado soup with crab; Jim's Michelada in the background.

But, we’d definitely return. Why? The place itself has character, the food is above average and the location in the Kingfield neighborhood is quite charming.

The side patio was a treat. We sat near a bubbling fountain and colorful plants, trying to restrain ourselves from inhaling the thick, warm bread and spicy butter (but our wait was enough time to go through two baskets…). Jim’s Michelada – a spicy sauce, lime juice and Corona served over ice – was a fun twist on red beer and a hot way to cool down. With the right salty appetizer (or really, more bread), it’s worth ordering again.

Lamb chops in smoky mole sauce

Once it arrived, the food was great. I started with a pear and gorgonzola salad: standard, but refreshing. My bowl of the evening’s soup took tops – a cold avocado puree with chunks of crab and swirls of rich olive oil. It had a good kick at the end of each smooth spoonful and was gone in minutes. Jim’s was good, but he didn’t rave quite as much. His lamb chops were covered in a smoky mole sauce and served with mashed potatoes, grilled green onions and bell peppers. For $30, the plate’s small portion of meat wasn’t a value, but the dish as a whole was thoughtfully devised and well-prepared.

The menu online is completely out of date, but the current options offer a good mix. And judging from what we ordered this time around, we’d be surprised to find a bad pick. Even on a 90-degree evening, the pesto pasta bowl looked (and smelled) outstanding. So, it’s worth a second chance. We just hope they’ll focus on employee development as much as they do their recipes.

RATING (out of 5 ♠♠♠♠♠)
Ambiance/Environment:
♠♠♠1/2
Menu Selection:
♠♠♠
Service:
♠1/2 
Food Taste & Presentation: ♠♠♠1/2
COMPLETE EXPERIENCE:
♠♠1/2

Total bill, including tip: $60

La Chaya Bistro on Urbanspoon





Vincent A Restaurant — July 15, 2011

18 07 2011

Vincent A Restaurant
1100 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis
http://www.vincentarestaurant.com/

Looking outward to Nicollet

We’ve learned it’s best to hide our disdain for Minneapolis’ Restaurant Week (which has diluted its exclusivity by happening, like, 4 times a year). Excited friends respond with a deflated, “Oh.” when we tell them we’re not hitting up the week’s deals – typically 3 courses for $30. “Don’t hate us for wanting to order wine with dinner instead of dessert!” we claim (and for doing so at a lower price). But, our trip to Vincent showed us Restaurant Week isn’t too shabby if enjoyed for lunch.

Jim's chicken and pasta

The upscale French restaurant on the corner of 11th and Nicollet is an icon of the downtown mall. It manages to uphold a sophisticated presence, despite its location next to the rowdy crowd at Brits, across from the always-jumping Peavey Plaza, and adjacent to the buzzing home of the bullseye. Known to be spendy yet exquisite, we’d been saving it for a celebratory dinner. But after hearing about its RW lunch special – an entrée and dessert for $10 a pop – we threw evening romance to the wind and set a Friday-afternoon lunch date.

Jim had a milk-poached chicken breast covered with a mixture of Fregola Di Sarda pasta, broccoli, yellow beets and mint (a Jim fave). It was warm and creamy and had a delightful flavor not expected from chicken pasta. I had a quinoa salad mixed with slivered almonds, green onion, tarragon and microgreens served next to chilled shrimp and fluffy avocado mousse. The combination was cool and refreshing and the textures made it anything but boring. We both ordered the cheese plate for dessert – a manchego-like slice next to orange marmalade and mixed nuts. A perfect way to end the meal, and so European of us! (All we were missing was the 2-hour siesta afterward…)

Chilled shrimp with quinoa and avocado mousse

The large windows let natural light pour across the open room, giving the atmosphere a casually elegant feel. Service was very proper, but not quick – though we made it out in under an hour.  Portions weren’t huge, a nice change from the typical lunch stop. We both left happy – glad to avoid the brutal I-ate-out-for-lunch food coma that hampers afternoon productivity. Plus, Vincent’s kitchen knows French cuisine and executes it well. In fact, the smaller bites made us appreciate the fine flavors a bit more than we might have otherwise.

Our visit led to two conclusions: Vincent is a top-notch spot for French food done right, and Restaurant Week’s lunch-time deals (well, at least one of them) are  actually quite a steal. Perhaps the most meaningful takeaway is the experience that will keep Vincent on our list of special-occasion places. But for that, forget dessert — we’ll opt for the French wine instead.

RATING (out of 5 ♠♠♠♠♠)
Ambiance/Environment:
♠♠♠1/2
Menu Selection:
♠♠♠
Service:
♠♠♠1/2
Food Taste & Presentation: ♠♠♠1/2
COMPLETE EXPERIENCE:
♠♠♠1/2

Total bill, including tip: $27

Vincent on Urbanspoon





Blue Nile — June 18, 2011

22 06 2011

Blue Nile
2027 E. Franklin Avenue
Minneapolis
http://www.bluenilempls.com/

This is a terrible picture, but gives a glimpse of the strange decor.

With no expertise in critiquing Ethiopian food, we walked into Blue Nile as ignorant as anyone. The aroma of vibrant spices lured us past the large bar and stage (though empty at the time, we’d heard they bring in some funky live music) and into the dining room.

The place has a strange personality, from the floral upholstery and red velvet booths to the water-stained drop-down ceilings; only the wall decorations hinted of Ethiopian influence. We chose a booth instead of a table, but would warn against it: wooden beams poked into our backs, as if they’d forgotten to add padding to the back of the seat. But, the menu made the homemade seating (and odd ambiance) worthwhile.

Biddeena - traditional Ethiopian flatbread

Applauded for its unique beer collection, Blue Nile offers local favorites alongside others that were new to us. Though we stuck to brews (a Lift Bridge Hop Prop IPA for Jim and a Surly Cynic for me), the cocktail menu also looked fantastic, using tropical fruit and purees in traditional drinks (mango margarita, anyone?). Food-wise, we felt clueless about what to order, though everything looked intriguing. We had options of chicken, lamb or beef entrees or meatless dishes with lentils or vegetables. Luckily, Blue Nile’s sampler plates are perfect for people (like us) who have no idea where to start.

Gosa Gosa C - the sampler platter. Not pretty, but definitely tasty!

Gosa Gosa C, the two-person sampler, was served in a large 18-inch dish. Biddeena – a spongy, crepe-like, and almost sweet Ethiopian flatbread – lined the bottom, and was covered with scoops of both meat stews and vegetarian entrees to give us a taste of everything. Dipping sauces in the center were a bonus: yogurt (to tame the spices) and a smoky hot sauce (to kick it up a notch). We had additional Biddeena on the side that we tore into pieces to scoop up the stews – no silverware here!

We certainly had our favorites. Next time, we’ll go for the Maraka Hoolaa (lamb in a tomato-based stew flavored with ginger, garlic and other spices), Maraka Lukku (chicken stewed in similar spices and served traditionally with two hard-boiled eggs) or the Missiraa Diimaa (spicy red lentils). Eating with our fingers was actually kind of fun, and the Biddeena had a subtle flavor that was a good palate cleanser between flavors. Not only was the food delicious, it was filling – we managed to try each stew and polish off our favorites, but we left completely full.

Overall, the food was delightful – even if the presentation wasn’t beautiful (though, can you really make lentils or meat stews look pretty?). Service was laid back and pleasant – synonymous with sloooowww, but a match for the chill vibe and relaxed atmosphere. The best part was doing something a little out of the ordinary. With its interesting beers, uncommon entrees and encouragement to get our hands dirty, Blue Nile put some tasty adventure into our otherwise-typical night.

RATING (out of 5 ♠♠♠♠♠)
Ambiance/Environment:
♠♠
Menu Selection:
♠♠♠
Service:
♠♠
Food Taste & Presentation: ♠♠♠1/2
COMPLETE EXPERIENCE:
♠♠♠

Total bill, including tip: $46.50

Blue Nile on Urbanspoon





Burger Jones — June 5, 2011

9 06 2011

Burger Jones
3200 W Lake St.
Minneapolis
http://www.burgerjones.com/

Summer’s arrival is never too early in Minnesota (snow was not made to fall on May 2 – yet, there it was). But after a weekend taking in sun at Lake Calhoun and perusing a local art festival, the only thing left to officially declare its presence was burgers, fries and beer on a patio. Burger Jones, with its umbrella-covered tables and casual atmosphere – blending the iconic personality of the Parasole restaurant group with the culture around the lakes – was just the place to welcome summer back to the city that wears it best.

Jim's cheeseburger with shoestring fries

BJ’s menu is set up to be completely a la carte. Burgers can be dressed up or down based on preference, and fries range from maple-bacon sweet potatoes to the parmesan waffle variety (and, of course, the regular shoestring standby). Its solid drink menu would fit any occasion, and the multitude of homemade milkshakes flavors guarantee a sweet ending. With options for kiddos and even the family dog (waiters served pets on the patio bowls of water to stay cool), the place is friendly – even if our waiter was anything but.

Parmesan waffle fries ... yum!

Jim took on the build-your-own cheeseburger, to which he added fresh jalapenos and caramelized onions, a side of standard fries, and a Rogue Dead Guy Ale (followed by a Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale). The burger was done right and the jalapenos added flair, but – while delicious – the a la carte setup meant the burger and fries combo wasn’t a value. I tried the Southwest salsa veggie burger under the Sortaburger category. Pepperjack cheese, salsa, alfalfa sprouts and a dollop of avocado mayo gave the patty flavor without making it heavy – and a pint of BJ’s 1913 Root Beer washed it down old-fashioned style. Our dinner dates can confirm that even the salads are tasty, the cheese curds and parmesan waffle fries are worth ordering, and the milkshakes are large enough to share.

With so many great sandwich spots, brew pubs and burger joints in the city, we wouldn’t claim Burger Jones to be our go-to place. But the patio makes it worth the trip and may be what brings us back. That, and the craving for a cold salted-caramel or mint-chocolate milkshake on another hot summer day…

RATING (out of 5 ♠♠♠♠♠)
Ambiance/Environment:
♠♠♠1/2
Menu Selection:
♠♠♠1/2
Service:
♠♠
Food Taste & Presentation: ♠♠♠
COMPLETE EXPERIENCE:
♠♠♠1/2

Total bill, including tip: $43.50

Burger Jones on Urbanspoon





D’Amico Kitchen — May 29, 2011

7 06 2011

D’Amico Kitchen
901 Hennepin
Minneapolis
http://damico-kitchen.com/

Few people anxiously await Sunday nights, when the seemingly endless possibilities of fun and relaxation fade for another five days. But the D’Amico and Partners restaurant group found a way to keep the weekend alive a bit longer. D’Amico Date Night serves up one of the best Sunday-night deals in town: 3 courses, 2 people and 1 bottle of wine for a $50 price tag at any restaurant in the family (Parma 8200, MASA, D’Amico Kitchen … Café Lurcat, too, though that menu lists the special as $60).

Squash, pear, pork and blue cheese pizza

Last Sunday, we took them up on the offer. Aside from the outstanding value, the overall experience at D’Amico Kitchen – the downtown restaurant in Le Meridien Chambers hotel on Hennepin— pleasantly surprised us. Right away, we got started on the red wine option: a Cabernet that was nice enough to order again. Aside from the server’s slightly belittling demeanor (“Tonight we have a Cabernet – that’s a red wine.” – we’d have floundered without her assistance), she was nice enough and wasn’t overbearing.

For the first course, Jim had a small gourmet pizza with butternut squash, roasted pear, pork and blue cheese. The crust was crispy, but the toppings were sparse. It wasn’t much more than fancy bar food, but did have a few pockets of good flavor. On my side of the table, the mussels were delightful. The shells arrived steaming in a basil-garlic butter broth, and two pieces of grilled baguette sat on top of the heap, ready to soak up the tender liquid.

We relished the entrees even more. Jim’s gnocchi was mixed with braised chicken and roasted mushrooms and tossed in a gorgonzola sauce. The textures weren’t diverse, but the taste was enjoyable. My ricotta and goat cheese ravioli was light with a fresh tomato sauce over the thin pasta squares. The combination was so simple, but delicious – and perfect for a warm spring evening.

Gnocchi in back, ravioli in front

Our endings were equally sweet. Jim quickly devoured the chocolate marsala cake topped with a caramelized fig puree and eaten with a mini scoop of coffee gelato. It was rich and decadent, so the small portion was just right. I mmmm’d and ahhhhh’d all the way through the baked almond crepes lined with sweetened mascarpone cheese. The sturdy almond flavor was a good match for the soft filling – I nearly licked the plate clean to ensure not a drop was wasted.

Even with a swanky ambiance and sophisticated menu, D’Amico Kitchen was unexpectedly comfortable. The absence of the Saturday night crowd gave a pleasant calmness to the modern décor and delicate lighting, providing the right environment to properly savor the expertly prepared dishes. We’re glad we went, and are intrigued to visit other restaurants in the family – though we may save them for the last half of the weekend. Thanks to D’Amico & Partners, Sunday nights are now worth anticipating.

RATING (out of 5 ♠♠♠♠♠)
Ambiance/Environment:
♠♠♠♠
Menu Selection:
♠♠♠♠
Service:
♠♠♠
Food Taste & Presentation: ♠♠♠♠
COMPLETE EXPERIENCE:
♠♠♠1/2

Total bill, including tip: $67

D'Amico Kitchen on Urbanspoon








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