Monday, June 25, 2012

Review of Citronelle, Washington DC

I have dined Citronelle on several occasions over the past ten years and have enjoyed both the food and the quiet ambience. I visited the restaurant again last week when I was less impressed by the cuisine; whether my impressions were influenced by the swelting Washington weather, the lateness of the evening, or the disappointing book I had brought with me as a companion remains unclear.

The restaurant has a prix fix menu with several price levels based on the number of courses one wants. Fish courses are strongly represented among the starters and the main courses and many of the dishes contain crab which is a regional specialty. The space is modern and quiet and the tables well-spaced. The wine list is excellent with a focus on French wines, Burgundy in particular, and there is usually a knowledgable sommelier on hand to provide guidance and suggestions (as there was on this occasion) The guests, if in need of distraction, can see directly into the kitchen though a large picture window.

I had the three course menu costing 110 dollars. My first course was soft-shell crab tempura served with a cream-based sauce that also had tomato and mustard. The crab itself was excellent and the tempura batter was light. The creamy sauce, however, was overpowering and smothered the delicate taste of the crab. For the second course I chose 'timbale of skate'. Skate is particular favorite of mine and when fresh and properly prepared is sweet and buttery. Unfortunately, rearranging skate into a timbale proved to be a poorly conceived idea, which when combined with the indifferent execution, left me unable to finish the dish. This timbale, which was not unlike a crabcake in appearance, was topped with several small hillocks of a red jammy substance that reminded me of cranberry jelly. A generous quantity of lump crab was placed in geometrically strategic positions about the plate. I cannot remember the details of the sauce but its essence was sweetness; this combined with the contents of the hillocks made for a very unpalatable accompaniment to a naturally sweet fish. For dessert, I had a cherry pie which was quite good.

In summary, Citronelle continues to have a pleasant dining room with an attentive staff, good service, and a wonderful wine list. However my experience on this occaions suggests that all is not well at a conceptual level in the kitchen. M. Ricard should consider providing more direct instuction and guidance to the current chef de cuisine.

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

WA Frost: an Under Rated Restaurant

W.A. Frost, in the Selby neighborhood of St. Paul, is one of the most under rated restaurants in the Twin Cities. I must confess that it had also fallen off my restaurant radar and I had not been in the habit of considering it as an option even in St. Paul which is not blessed with an over abundance of good eating establishments.

I ate there again recently with my family, after a decade long hiatus, and was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food, the ambience, and the stellar wine list. There was an interesting selection of starters that went beyond the usual suspects though in the end we opted for two salads, the winter lettuce and the house greens, which were tasty, nicely dressed and very generously proportioned; a large salad could easily be split among a party of four. For the main course, I had crispy skate, one of my favorite fish, with mashed potatoes and a saffron sauce. My wife had divers scallop with chorizo which were succulent and sweet, and our daughter had a chicken breast that she pronounced to be wonderful. The creme brulee was good though I would have preferred less egg and more cream, and the carrot cake was just as one might expect carrot cake to be.

The wine list is perhaps the best in the Twin Cities and is remarkable both for its depth and breath. There are several local restaurants that have a better line up for particular regions. For example, I Nonni, Domacin (Stillwater), and D'Amico's Kitchen have a better Italian list; La Belle Vie is stronger in wines from southern France; Manny's has a more comprehensive selection of the wines of California. However, this restaurant, which is no longer mentioned among those restaurants that are fashionable and notable, has excellent selections from France, Italy, the United States and Spain. The wines are priced fairly with many bottles in the reasonable $30-40 range. Though there are no great bargains in the mid to upper prices ranges the best values are to be had if one is willing to splurge.

How does the food at this restaurant compare with others in St.Paul? With the caveat that my opinion is based on one visit, I would put it on a par with (or perhaps minimally below) Meritage and Heartland, and it is infinitely superior to the St.Paul Grill, Kincaids, and Pazzaluna; I have not eaten at the Strip Club. The ambience is cozy and quiet but it does not have the same frisson as Meritate or the St. Paul Grill. Although W.A. Frost does not often feature in local blogs and is infrequently mentioned by foodies, its many attractions are not lost on the residents of St. Paul as the multi-room dining area was quite full during our early pre-theater dinner. This restaurant merits serious consideration from those looking for good food in St.Paul.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Truffle Oil: the Ubiquitous Imposter

I was heartened to read in a Wall St. Journal profile that Jean-Georges Vongerichten finds truffle oil to be the most over rated cooking ingredient and he likened its effect to gasoline. Over the past few years, this noxious substance has shown up in every possible dish in restaurants around the country. This ubiquitous poison overpowers everything it touches. I have had it on lettuce, in beet salad, with smoked salmon, roast beef, and on fish! Contrary to popular belief, most of the truffle oil in use has nothing to do with the magic of black or white truffles but is a synthetic concoction of 2-4 dithiapentane. Its increasing popularity would seem to be very much against several other trends in cooking and gastronomy such as organic food, the locavore movement, and slow cooking. While the delicate taste of real truffles can enhance a variety of foods, particularly eggs, simple pastas, and lobster, and is a true luxury if one can afford it, the stench of truffle oil fills the nose and monopolizes the palate. Chefs who would not dream of sprinkling raw garlic on their food toss truffle oil about with abandon. Has the palate of the consumer become so jaded that it now requires the gustatory equivalent of a nuclear explosion to achieve a modicum of satisfaction? I am wondering when the era of truffle oil will finally end.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sea Change

There are many things to like about Sea Change, the main restaurant at the Guthrie theatre complex, that will shortly celebrate its first birthday. The space is spectacular with large windows, plenty of light, generously spaced tables and great views of the Mississippi river. It has a lively modern bar and a wonderful section with stool seating around the raw bar and kitchen. The wine list is carefully chosen and fairly priced. The focus on sustainable fish and shellfish is admirable though there are some non fish choices.

I first ate at Sea Change shortly after it opened in 2009 and visited it again recently. On neither visit was I impressed by the food. Although the food is good, it does not measure up to the standard set by Chef Tim McKee at La Belle Vie, his other high end restaurant. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly the problem though I think that for many dishes it may be related to an heroic effort to camouflage that one is actually eating fish. For example, the octopus starter, which has become something of a 'signature dish', is more reminiscent of a chicken wing with a sweet glaze, than the briny chewy delicacy it can often be. On one visit, I had halibut wrapped in prosciutto which had lost its identity completely and tasted as if it had sweated to death. Sometimes there are just too many contrasting tastes and textures as was the case with salmon belly in a Japanese preparation of noodles, vegetables and pork. Where the restaurant does excel is in much simpler preparations such as the Loch Duart salmon and the yellowfin tuna both on the current menu. In summary, Sea Change is a very pleasant place to eat where one can find good food but below the level achieved by Chef McKee at some of this other restaurants.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Alle Testiere, Venice, Italy

Eleven years ago Alle Testiere http://www.osterialletestiere.it/ had convinced me that one could find good food in Venice. On a return visit, I was even more impressed. The restaurant is on a tiny street near the church of Campo S.Maria Fermosa and very easy to miss. There are only seven tables which can accomodate not many more than twenty diners thus reservations are essential. It is run by an ebullient host, Luca. The philosophy of the kitchen is to cook simply using fresh local ingredients almost exclusively fish and shellfish.
The room is small but cosy; the combined area of the dining room and kitchen is perhaps smaller than that of many domestic mega-kitchens in the U.S. We went for lunch and therefore did not sample the full range of the menu. The fillets of turbot in a caper and wine sauce was superb, as was the spaghetti with clams and the shellfish antipasti. The wine list is small, well-selected and well-priced; Luca can provide wonderful advice as the sommelier. If you happen to be in Venice, this restaurant should not be missed.

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Met, Venice, Italy

The city of Venice has an undeservedly poor reputation for food. In my two visits to the waterlogged art lovers paradise, I have been favorably impressed by the quality of the cuisine as long as one avoids the restaurants in the immediate vicinity of St. Marco and Rialto and those pushing pizza and 'menu touristico'.

The Met, with Corrado Fasolato in the kitchen, is the restaurant at the Metropolitan Hotel and the only two star Michelin establishment in the city. The dining room itself is sumptuous, as is the hotel lobby, with a small number of widely-spaced tables. We sampled the five course tasting menu ($130 per person) though one could also choose an eleven course 'surprise' menu or order a la carte. The wine list which focused primarily on Italian wines was extensive and as one might expect expensive. The service was flawless and the sommelier quite knowledgable. The amuse bouche was an outstanding tuna 'hamburger' smothered in a variety of foams of different temperatues, flavors and colors; one of the best tiny morsels I have experienced. Another course was a very original version of beef cheeks based on a sweet and sour theme; in this instance, the sweet and sour tastes were provided by vegetable purees and foams. The dessert courses were also excellent. The only culinary disappointment of the evening was a dish with salt cod which was bland in the extreme. Overall, this was one of the best meals I have had in several years and I plan a return visit when next in Venice.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Per Se, NYC

We ate at Per Se in early December 2009. It is a wonderful space with panoramic views over Central Park, high ceilings, enormous windows and an inviting fire. The tables are generously spaced. The service was excellent but not exqiusite. The food was outstanding but not sublime as one might expect given the reastaurant's three star Michelin rating.

The choices at Per Se are usually among a number of different tasting menus: chef's, vegetarian, and one specializing in offal. We both had the chef's tasting menu which comprised about eight separate courses with some additional courses at the discretion of the kitchen. Although I enjoy both the convenience and surprise of tasting menus, I get jaded at about course number six. The standout courses on this particular evening were the very substantial salmon amuse bouche, winter vegetables in a deliciously light broth, and the lamb. The two dessert courses were unremarkable as was the oxtail meat course. We had a Condrieu to accompany the earlier courses and then an excellent Chateau du Tetre 2004.

While the food was outstanding, there was nothing I ate that was especially memorable, in fact not one dish that has not already faded from my gustatory memory. I expected better of Mr. Keller but perhaps it is unfair to judge on the basis of one meal.

My rating
(Michelin scale) **
(NYT's scale) ****

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Best restaurants in St. Paul and Minneapolis for the Republican National Convention (RNC)

I was prompted to post this list having read the very inadequate overview of restaurants in the Twin Cities by Raymond Sokolov recently published in the Wall St. Journal. While the Twin Cities cannot be reasonably compared to New York, San Francisco, London or Paris, the general quality of restaurants at the higher end compares very favorably to most U.S. cities of similar size. I have listed the restaurants in order of merit for each city and also used a star rating system (Minnesota stars) loosely based on the Michelin ranking of New York City restaurants. To standardize my rating scale, I have used recent meals I eaten at Jean Georges (3 Michelin stars), Le Bernadin (3 stars) and Daniel (2 stars). In general, there is more breath and depth to the restaurants in Minneapolis than in St. Paul.


St. Paul

Heartland (*). Excellent regional cuisine featuring elk, bison and venison in addition to the usual suspects. The food is inventive and the wine list excellent. The only potential drawback is that it is located about 5 miles from downtown St. Paul.

Meritage (*). Comfortable bustling bistro located about 2 blocks from the convention center serving meticulously prepared bistro food. The predominantly French wine list is good and the food is reasonably priced. Downtown.

I Nonni. Located in Lillydale next to MSP airport so perhaps not a realistic option for most conventioneers. Serves good basic Italian food in an attractive. They have an excellent wine list almost exclusively Italian and a superb sommelier. 10 miles from Downtown.

St. Paul Grill. I think of this as a steak/chop house rather than a full service restaurant. It is a warm bustling downtown establishment with a very lively classic bar. Stick to the grilled meats. The hash browns are excellent. Wine list is good and predominantly American. Downtown.

Restaurante Luci. This is a small noisy but very enjoyable Italian trattoria located about 5 miles from downtown.

Other downtown restaurants worth a visit.
Sakura. Basic Japanese food in comfortable surroundings. Good sushi. Rudimentary wine and sake list. Pazzaluna. Attractive central location about 1 block from convention center. Pleasant place to eat though the food is neither inventive nor exciting. Kincaids. It is not clear whether the owners of this establishment want it to be a bar or a restaurant.


Minneapolis

La Belle Vie (**). Opulent setting, wonderful service and superb food. Both the menu and the wine list, which is excellent, have a distinctively southern French character. If you cannot get a reservation in the restaurant, the bar, in which you can sample the restaurant menu, a special tasting menu or the regular bar menu, is a great second choice. Close to Downtown.

D’Amico Cucina (**). This has been a Minneapolis culinary landmark for almost two decades. Inventive modern Italian food and excellent service. The wine list, which is almost exclusively Italian, is superb. The tasting menu is both a bargain and a real treat. Downtown

Vincent (*). Located opposite Orchestra Hall in Downtown. This French restaurant is actually owned and operated by a Frenchman. Excellent food served in a very convivial setting. The bar with its special menu is also well worth a visit. Downtown.

Fugaise (*). Imaginative food with a French influence served in a somewhat stark dining room. Both the food and the excellent wine list are competitively priced. Located about 1 mile from Downtown.

JP American Bistro (*). Very under-rated establishment. Interesting America take on bistro food. I have never had a bad meal here. Good reasonably priced wine list. Located 2-3 miles from Downtown.

Heidi’s. Reasonably priced neighborhood restaurant in south Minneapolis. Excellent imaginative menu and a good wine list. 12 miles from Downtown.

Restaurant Alma. Both the food and the wine list are good at this neighborhood restaurant near the University of Minnesota. 4 miles from Downtown.

Cue at the Guthrie. Although I would generally rather fast than risk a meal in a theater restaurant (DB Bistro Moderne expected), this restaurant is well worth a visit. The food is excellent and the expansive dining room of the Jean Neuvel designed Guthrie theatre is spectacular. About 1 mile from Downtown.

Saffron. If the though of Middle Eastern food makes your eyes glaze over you should try this restaurant. Very imaginative menu and a good wine list. Downtown.

Solera. Wonderful Spanish tapas served in a dining room at the back of a very lively bar. Excellent mostly Spanish wine list. Try som of the large selection of sherries. Downtown.

Cosmos. Modern restaurant and menu in a new downtown hotel. The vertical food is so close to the edge that it sometimes falls off. Interesting dining room and a very lively bar. Downtown.

Chambers. Good ‘international’ food served in the very noisy dining room of a newly opened and fashionable hotel. Downtown.

Murray's Steakhouse. Minneapolis culinary institution. Decor and service are both a little retro but good.

Manny's Steakhouse. Recently relocated to a new location. This is a steakhouse with attitude which is sometimes better than the food. Excellent wine list mostly U.S. Downtown.

Oceanaire. Original establishment in what has now become a seafood restaurant mini-chain. Fresh fish and excellent wet bar. Very large pours for wine by the glass. Good wine list. Downtown in the Hyatt hotel.

Dakota Jazz Club. Deceptively good food for a jazz club. Worth a visit. Downtown.

Lucias. Another very popular neighborhood restaurant. The food, which might be described as regional, is good and the wine list adequate. Located about 3 miles from Downtown.

112 Eatery. One of the most popular restaurants in Minneapolis. Though I do not share in the general enthusiasm for this restaurant the food is good, the prices very reasonable and the surroundings pleasant. Downtown.