Wienery — May 20, 2011

24 05 2011

Wienery
414 Cedar Avenue S
Minneapolis
http://wienery.com/

We’re no strangers to seedy dives — having spent our childhoods in Nebraska and college careers in Iowa, we’ve likely seen some of the best. In fact, we realize grungy floors, greasy plates and hard plastic cups that emit a strange smell are sometimes a requirement for real finger-lickin-goodness. As it turns out, the big city of Minneapolis is home to a few dive beauties of its own. So on a rainy Friday, we tested Wienery’s food and atmosphere to determine if it deserves the full glory that a true “dive” status bestows.

Sitting on the cultural Cedar Avenue along the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus, the small eatery walks a line between being diner-charming and just plain run down. With little room to spare, it fits nearly eight people at the bar and about as many at the tables against the wall. Chairs go beyond retro as stuffing hangs out of the cushions (a few had even lost the padding altogether and were down to the wood), but the knick-knacks along the walls lovingly boast the history and quirkiness of the local joint.

Though the ambiance leaves much to be desired, the menu leaves little to criticize. Alongside Wienery’s varied list of sausages, hot dogs and burgers are ample meatless entrees including black bean burgers, mock duck sandwiches and veggie dogs. The breakfast fare – served all day – made deciding what to order an even bigger challenge.

The Cadillac and chili cheese fries

After one bite of Jim’s entrée, it was clear he won best choice. The Cadillac – a brat wrapped with bacon, an egg and cheese in a fluffy pancake – had both originality and taste. The soft sweetness of the pancake played well with the seasoned sausage, and though it proved difficult to actually pick up and eat, he finished it in record time. The side of chili cheese fries is where he started to slow down. Hand-cut, skin-on taters lay under shredded cheese (no fake nacho cheese here!), melted by a ladleful of chili that had been simmering on the stove. Good but not great, the flavors were average and the fries were soft.

I also went for breakfast grub. Aisha’s Mexico City Breakfast kicked up standard scrambled eggs with hot peppers, onion, a few tomatoes and a fierce helping of cumin. With two pieces of toast on the side, it was a solid portion: light, spicy and warm. I left full, but not stuffed. My mom’s Philly Cheese Steak sandwich had a meager serving of meat, but she raved most about the soft and sweet bun holding it all together. And my grandma stuck to scrumptious simplicity with Wienery’s basic: a hotdog with hot peppers.

Across the board, food was tasty and the prices were unbelievable. With sales tax already figured in, most items were $3-4. For as cheaply as the four of us had dinner, we can’t complain about the service – but a hefty bet says our server hadn’t seen the menu before we arrived. He asked us to read aloud the menu description as we ordered so he could write it on the ticket and then asked us the listed price. But he was friendly and, most importantly, got it all right. 

Wienery convinced us of its rightly spot on the list of top Twin Cities grubby-but-yummy hangouts. Would we return? Perhaps. The food was good and there’s plenty more to try, but we wouldn’t make a special trip back to Cedar just to do so. In the mood for a dive atmosphere and anything-but-fancy food? Then, we’d recommend it — but plan to spend date night somewhere else.

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

Total bill, including tip: Around $25 (for 4 people – a steal!)

Wienery on Urbanspoon

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Masu Sushi & Robata — May 19, 2011

23 05 2011

Masu Sushi & Robata
330 E Hennepin
Minneapolis
http://masusushiandrobata.com/

Hip and cool, yet casual and friendly, Masu fits right in as the newest kid on the Northeast block. On a warm Thursday night, tables of all ages, groups and occasions fill the dining room. Splashes of lime brighten the serious tones of the dark wood tables and chairs, and strange Asian dolls (surely there’s a more technical name) adorning the walls bring a playfulness to the setting. Even the smooth wooden chopsticks resting on cool green stones complement the simple chic vibe.

Quail eggs wrapped in bacon and grilled

Though we stuck to wine, the drink menu had an intriguing list of creative cocktails, artisan beers and foreign sodas. The food menu was just as varied and smartly divided into categories including appetizers, sushi and rolls, and noodle dishes. The section under Robata, a type of Japanese grill, offered skewers of grilled veggies and meats ranging from quail eggs wrapped in bacon (delish!) to fresh sweet corn on the cob to barbecued rib meat.

Alongside several of the three-bite Robata items, we picked four sushi rolls. The Dyanmite and Spicy Tuna are our typical go-tos, to which we added the Spicy Iwana (arctic char with marinated vegetables) and BLT (crispy salmon instead of bacon among wrapped lettuce, tomato, spicy mayo and basil). The Spicy Iwana wasn’t as hot as its name suggests, but we had plenty of wasabi to get the kick we wanted. Masu’s BLT served up the biggest delight, perfectly pairing the taste of an American favorite with all the elegance of Asian cuisine.

Masu sets itself apart by combining a unique ambiance and varied menu with its well-prepared fare. While delicious, we can’t claim that this is the best sushi we’ve ever had – it hardly seemed different from other upscale raw bars in town. But you won’t hear us dogging the Masu experience – we wish this Northeast newcomer a long-lived stay in the neighborhood.

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

Total bill, including tip: $69

Masu Sushi & Robata on Urbanspoon





Trattoria Da Vinci — May 14, 2011

18 05 2011

Trattoria Da Vinci
400 Sibley St
St. Paul
http://www.trattoriadavinci.com/

After a rainy afternoon pressing buttons, turning cranks and sounding whistles at the Science Museum (yes, the two of us 20-somethings), we drove further into the heart of downtown St. Paul looking for dinner. Hoping for a local pizzeria, Trattoria Da Vinci seemed an acceptable substitute near the picturesque Mears Park. Open Table showed seating available at every 15-minute increment, so we were surprised to hear the host coldly tell the couple ahead of us they were full.  We looked around and saw plenty of empty tables, so we pushed back… and to our surprise, it worked!

We were so hungry that we didn’t realize the cheesy ambiance until we’d already downed most of the warm bread in front of us. Fake pillars and various levels of seating did give the room depth, but the random trinkets, faux plants and colored lighting felt cheap.  One plus was the live music. A talented guitarist strummed tunes of all kinds, giving a pleasant – albeit borderline tacky – atmosphere.

Salad a la dressing - the worst food we've been served at a restaurant yet

If you’re online menu-peekers like we are, don’t get excited about the paninis or pizza combinations. Apparently, those are only for lunch. In fact, the restaurant was completely out of the only two pizzas actually listed on the menu. What respectable Italian restaurant is out of pizza on a Saturday night?

Jim started with a gin and tonic while I had a salad, though I think mine had more potential for a hangover. The spinacino al gorgonzola was possibly one of the worst salads I’ve eaten. Spinach leaves wilted under gobs of heavy dressing, which served as the ‘gorgonzola,’ and bits of soft and overly salty pancetta swam in the residual liquid. The only perk was the roasted garlic cloves, which were hidden underneath the salad leaves away from the mess above.

Penne in back and spaghetti in front

Our entrees were better; they didn’t stand out, but they were a step up from how we’d started. Jim’s Penne Al Arrabbiata with spicy Italian sausage combined penne, garlic, meat and tomato sauce in an oversized bowl. It had sharp flavors, but the heat accumulated and the heavy dish became almost too spicy to taste much else. I added mushrooms to the Capellini Alla Checca – angel hair pasta, garlic and tomatoes with herbs and mozzarella – which actually made for a satisfying meal. The pasta was nothing special, but the mix of fresh tomatoes and mushrooms with cool basil and mozzarella was a treat.

The food swayed our ratings on this one, but the décor had an influence and the nice-but-slow service didn’t help.  Overall, Trattoria Da Vinci was below average – our experience wasn’t traumatizing, but it’s one we’ll hardly remember and won’t repeat. 

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

Total bill, including tip: $55

Trattoria Da Vinci on Urbanspoon





Blue Door Pub — May 6, 2011

9 05 2011

Blue Door Pub
1811 Selby Avenue
St. Paul
http://thebluedoorpubmn.com/

The thrill of finding the small, local eateries with creative concoctions and a unique vibe is partly what makes our restaurant tour so fun. But, we can’t take credit for finding Blue Door Pub on our own. Guy Fieri gave it recognition with a feature on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, and several of our know-good-food-when-they-see-it friends made a point to recommend it. So though our Friday night spot wasn’t a hidden gem, we’ll gladly join the crowd in tooting its horn.

A no-reservation operation with a seating area smaller than our first apartment means a table waitlist is inevitable. But, the bar’s fun selection – the standard mix plus local and regional craft brews – made the hour-long wait almost fun (great company helps, too), and the food proved it was worth every minute.

Jim had trouble deciding among the craft brew selection, but ultimately ended up with a Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and a local Surly creation.  Then he went for Blue Door’s claim-to-fame: the original Blucy burger with blue cheese and garlic stuffed inside the beefy patty. Juicy and tangy, the burger lived up to the hype – especially when paired with the pub’s own Cajun tater tots dipped in ranch. Had we remembered to get the punch card, he’d only have 9 more Blucy-variety burgers to try before scoring a free t-shirt. With such criteria, we’re guessing they don’t come in Adult small or medium.

Thanks to Metromix, this captures the thick burger and scrumptious tots. We need to get back in the habit of remembering to snap a pic before we eat!

I tried the St. Paul sandwich that featured an egg foo young patty, an omelet filet topped with garlic aioli, cheese, lettuce and tomato. Though I’m still not completely sure what all comprised the omelet, the moist tomatoes, sharp cheese and creamy garlic would make it easy to order again. And, the Lift Bridge’s Farm Girl ale – a lighter wheat brew, recommended by a friend – was the right thing to wash down a few (ok … all) of my own Cajun tots.

The beer selection? Appreciated. The food? Yummy. Plus, the menu had enough options for any mood or meat(less) preference. The atmosphere? Familiar-feeling and full of life. While our Friday-night patience may not always tolerate the waitlist, we wouldn’t mind revisiting the charming St. Paul neighborhood for some cold beer and savory tots. Plus, the additional Blucys we’re anxious to try (9 more, to be exact) put Blue Door Pub on our repeat-restaurant line-up… give or take the t-shirt.

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

Total bill, including tip: $41

Blue Door Pub on Urbanspoon





Mackenzie — January 28, 2011

1 02 2011

Mackenzie
918 Hennepin Avenue
Minneapolis
www.mackenziepub.com

For an Irish pub in a hopping location, Mackenzie floored us with some of the best bar food we’ve had in a long time. Expectations were low: we figured kicking off the weekend on Hennepin would result in – at best – eating a greasy sandwich and fries while standing in a crowded corner of a bar. But, lucky for us, a Friday night at Mackenzie didn’t even come close.

From the street, Mackenzie’s charming Irish façade would have you believe it’s a tiny pub with a few beers on tap and a rugby match on TV. But the place has a surprising amount of space (and rugby was nowhere to be seen). The perimeter holds wide high-top tables, the long bar makes room for a good amount of stools, and the back portion fits a number of lower tables and chairs. In addition to the spacious ground floor, the second level (it’s so high up, we almost didn’t see it!) has tables and chairs around a balcony that overlooks the entire place. And, though our January visit didn’t allow us to test it, we’ve only heard good things about the summertime patio.

Artisan beer signs, arcade games and signed posters from shows at the nearby theaters give Mackenzie the feel of a neighborhood bar. But the collection of beers on tap and wines on hand show they mean business. Our food tasted homemade instead of pulled from a deep freeze, which made the menu’s wide variety even more notable. Though it was weird that no burger of any kind was on the menu, we didn’t mind if Mackenzie traded offering a flat, frozen patty for better versions of other sandwiches.

Buffalo chicken wrap and ale

 

Both of our wraps bundled fresh vegetables and tender meat in a thin and soft tortilla – not a dry and coarse shell like some sports bars or diners. Though fries are available for another $2, we stuck with the tasty kettle chips (which were outstanding, especially when dipped in Mackenzie’s chipotle mayo).  We could have been served the same food at a casual restaurant and been satisfied, which made the bar’s tiny kitchen all the more impressive.

Service was unmemorable. The waitress wasn’t rude (just somewhat apathetic) and our food and drinks arrived somewhat quickly. Our entrees were missing some minor items (like the jalapeno pickle we’d been looking forward to), but it’s nothing we can really hold against them. We discovered a downtown pub that offers all the right things: a fun-yet-casual atmosphere for drinks, plenty of space for crowds of all sizes, and a menu we’d agree is worth using. Cheers!

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

Total bill, including tip: $35.50

Mackenzie on Urbanspoon





Black Sheep Pizza — January 21, 2011

25 01 2011

Black Sheep Pizza
600 Washington Avenue N
Minneapolis
www.blacksheeppizza.com

Hearty marinara, herbed bread and a starter salad

Black Sheep must have strategically chosen its location. Not only does it face Washington Avenue to attract patrons from the Warehouse District with aromas of hot tomatoes and cheese, it’s next to a pub that makes the lengthy wait for a table more enjoyable.  We should have called to see if reservations were an option on a snowy Friday night, but the 45-minute wait list leads us to believe it’s first-come, first-seated. Other Black Sheep hopefuls sipped beer on the stairs that connect the front door to the dining room, but we’d recommend spending the wait next door at The Loop with plenty of seats and a better beer selection.

Black Sheep’s small space, which matched the Warehouse vibe with exposed ceilings and rough walls, explained the inevitable bottleneck at the door. Maybe the space constraints are responsible for the small beer menu and even smaller pizza list. For pizza-lovers who aren’t fans of salami or olives, pickings are slim. And we were shocked to find some pies came without sauce or cheese (did we really need to visit the kitchen and explain the concept of American pizza?). Had we wanted to spend $30, we could have crafted a make-your-own pizza, but we went the economical route and chose from the pre-set list.

Meatballs, garlic, basil and ricotta

To start, we split the Bleu cheese salad while our dinner dates tried the bread and marinara. The sharp crumbles of cheese tossed with sliced grape tomatoes and fresh spinach leaves made for a refreshing first course, and the herbed bread was served warm next to a flavorful dipping sauce. After the seating delay, we all enjoyed the starters even more than usual, but were careful to leave room for the main attraction.

Through a process of elimination, we opted for the Meatball, Ricotta and Garlic – a decision we’d repeat. The coal-fired oven crisped the outside of the crust while leaving the inside soft, and melded the impressive amount of toppings with a hot layer of cheese. After two pieces, we were stuffed. The remainder of our large 16″ pie had to be boxed, which made for a convenient Saturday lunch.

Service was fair – not outstanding, but not dismal. Overall, we’d say the wait was worthwhile. Though the offerings were simple, our well-constructed pizza may persuade us to return and try other menu combinations we initially found boring or unappealing. But next time, we’ll expect the crowd … and give a nearby bar a little of our business, too.

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

Total bill, including tip: $46

Black Sheep Pizza on Urbanspoon





Pinstripes — January 14, 2011

24 01 2011

Pinstripes
3849 Gallagher Drive
Edina
www.pinstripes.com

The new upscale dining and entertainment venue in Edina has a lot going for it, but we left less than enthusiastic about returning. The large facility boasts fresh décor, sleek alleys, modern bocce ball areas, and open staircases that lead to multiple levels with spaces perfect for parties or groups. The front bar is clean and simple, and though we never saw it, the dining area offers breathtaking scenery with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a nearby lake. The expansive outdoor patios will be a summertime delight, and even though it was below zero, the firepit near the entrance (with a basket of blankets nearby for added warmth) was a fun touch.

Our group didn’t have reservations, but our wait felt unnecessary since the half-full restaurant didn’t pick up much throughout the evening. The hostess admitted to forgetting about our party, so we decided to grab dinner in the bar after waiting 90 minutes for a table. Just as we were placing orders, our handheld buzzer indicated the bowling lanes we’d reserved were ready. We further postponed dinner and trekked to the second floor, only to find that the group on our lane had just started another game. Long story short, a lot of standing around ensued. Without accomplishing dinner or bowling in our first two hours, Pinstripes was winning 2 to 0. We finally ordered something to eat, though the 10 of us ate haphazardly around nearby high-top tables watching other people bowl. The waitress did throw in two free apps, but only after we had already ordered all the food we wanted.

Mass chaos -- flatbreads, sandwiches and appetizers aplenty

 

Pinstripes’ menu has a good variety. Bowlers and diners can order burgers, sandwiches, salads or more gourmet appetizers and flatbreads. The trendy offerings were fun, but it was clear that most of the food had been pulled from the freezer. Fig & prosciutto or shrimp & pesto are great flatbread combinations, but the ingredients weren’t fresh and the heavy amount of cheese made them incredibly salty. We’d rather have eaten the same amount of grease in typical alley fare like mozzarella sticks or simple burgers … and paid 1/3 less! Our waitress sent a complimentary cheese platter, but even though it was free, we weren’t impressed: the plate only had two small portions of cheese, surrounded by twice as many lunchmeats and breads.

In about an hour, our lanes opened up … and within the very first frame, both lanes malfunctioned. The maintenance crew spent 30 minutes attempting a fix until the manager informed us that the lanes would have to be shut down for the night. At least he refunded our shoes and the two games we’d prepaid (and at $40 for two of us, we’d decided the refund was better than the investment). Pinstripes racked up 3, still leaving us scoreless.

The shutout could have been worse. We were with fun people and still had a good time, even with sub-par food, flighty service and overrated (and overpriced!) entertainment.  Plus, it deepened our appreciation for the cheap benches and domestic beers at neighborhood alleys. Next time we’re feeling strike-lucky, we’re going elsewhere … Pinstripes just plain struck out.

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

Total bill, post-refund: $75

Pinstripes on Urbanspoon