Let's talk food, from restaurants and recipes to farmers markets, food issues and wine. Lee Svitak Dean, Rick Nelson and Kim Ode will start the conversation.

Grapegate, the sequel

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 27, 2015 - 12:13 PM

Just when it appeared as if Grapegate had evaporated into the mists of time, a reminder bubbles up in the Star Tribune’s dusty archives.

Remember Grapegate? When the New York Times selected an iconic Thanksgiving recipe to represent each of the 50 states, and saddled Minnesota with a grape salad?

The social media response was cataclysmic, a collective you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me that rang out from Bemidji to Burnsville. Even the newspaper’s public editor chimed in, describing the “epic recipe fail” as “bizarrely wrong.” Ouch.

The whole sorry episode came roaring back as I gingerly thumbed through the fragile remains of the Dec. 18, 1980 issue of the Minneapolis Tribune’s Thursday Food section. Imagine my surprise when I spied the lead item in “Ask Mary,” the interactive (well, pre-Internet, anyway) recipe column penned by longtime staffer Mary Hart.

Yes, there it was: Grape Salad.

It started with a query from Mary Jane Leonard of Colorado Springs, Colo., who wrote: “I attended a brunch at Les Quatre Amis in Northfield, Minn., (in 1977 or 1978) at which was served a delightful concoction of green grapes, brown sugar, sour cream and walnuts. I would very much like to have this recipe and wonder if you can get it for me. Thank you so much.”

Hart’s reply: “Our letter to the Northfield restaurant came back, but we located Roger Mallet, who is involved in the eating establishment in Minneapolis at the Lumber Exchange Building.

“Mallet is busy getting ready to open the French restaurant on Hennepin Av., but took time to send this recipe:”

Who knew? The grape salad isn't Minnesotan. It's French! Here's the recipe:

LES RAISINS A LA CRÈME

Serves 12.

5 lbs. seedless grapes

8 oz. sour cream

Juice of 2 lemons

8 oz. brown sugar

2 oz. granulated sugar

8 oz. walnuts

8 oz. pecans

1 pt. fresh strawberries

Directions

Mix grapes with sour cream. Add lemon juice, brown sugar, granulated sugar, walnuts and pecans. Mix well. Use strawberries for decorations.

Just reading that recipe makes my teeth hurt (that's approaching two cups of sugar, yikes). Hart offered a helpful, ‘tis-the-season suggestion: The green of the grapes and the red of the strawberries made it an “appropriate holiday dessert.” Noel!

I have a vague memory of dining at Les Quatres Amis. Not in its original incarnation in Northfield – I would have been in high school at the time, and my parents leaned more towards the Mr. Steak/Embers side of the dining-out spectrum -- but I do recall visiting a few years later, when it relocated to a beautiful space deep within the Lumber Exchange Building in downtown Minneapolis. (The 1983 photo, top, is not Les Quatre Amis, but the restaurant that replaced it, City Tavern; the Strib's archive doesn't have a photo of LQA, but this image gives you an idea of the space, which I'm guessing is the Lumber Exchange's former trading floor).

The restaurant’s Northfield location (original name: Gharabally) was described in a special “Dining Out” issue of Taste, published Nov. 1, 1978, as “exquisite, excellent, the best restaurant [our] reviewer has tried in Minnesota. Entrees range from fillet de sole Stephan, $11.25, to tournedos Henri IV (twin filet mignons), $13.75, and Chateaubriand for two, $28.50.”

Those prices might not raise eyebrows today, but that was a considerable amount of dough for Carter-era diners. The 2015 equivalents of those three price tags are $41.33, $50.52 and $104.71.

Les Quatre Amis chef Rene Debon (pictured, above) was featured in a Thursday Food story from Oct. 3, 1982. Staff writer Kate Parry's story asked three chefs (the other two were Klaus Mitterhauser of Mitterhauser La Cuisine and Eugene Stoffel of the Link, the restaurant at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), to substitute moderately priced turkey for expensive veal and lobster.

I'm half-curious, half-repelled by his solution, but it's quite the snapshot into the early 1980s. Here's his recipe:

PAUPIETTE DE DINDON FLORENTINE

Serves 4.

For roulades:

4 5-oz. turkey breast slices, pounded out to large scaloppine

10 tbsp. (1 stick plus 2 tbsp.) butter, divided

8 oz. cleaned and washed spinach

1/2 onion, chopped fine

Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

2 dill pickle sticks

2 hard-cooked eggs, quartered

For sauce:

1 onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp. finely chopped garlic

4 tbsp. butter

8 tomatoes, peeled, sliced and diced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

Directions

To prepare roulades: Wrap turkey slices in plastic wrap and, using the smooth side of a meat tenderizer, pound turkey to form large, thin scallopine. In a medium pan over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Saute onion and spinach. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Remove from heat and cool.

Cut pickles into 6 long, thin strips. Top each turkey piece with a fourth of the spinach mixture. Lay two egg quarters end-to-end and put three pickle strips right beside them.

Roll up the scaloppine and secure with a toothpick. Season the meat with salt and pepper. In a medium pan over medium heat, melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter and saute roulades until golden brown on all sides.

To prepare sauce: Meanwhile, in a medium pan over medium heat, melt butter. Saute onion and garlic. Add tomato pieces and season with salt, pepper, bay leaf and oregano. Let tomatoes cook for about 15 minutes, uncovered. Serve tomato sauce over roulades.

Friday fish fry: Five ideas

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: March 27, 2015 - 10:50 AM

Burger Friday has given up hamburgers for Lent, and is diving headlong into the Friday fish-fry ritual (find previous entries here and here). Although none of the following five suggestions adhere to the all-you-can-eat tradition, they certainly embrace the fish-fry spirit.

If you haven't tried the fish and chips at the Freehouse (pictured, above), you should. The kitchen dunks cod in a batter made with its house-brewed golden ale, serving the deep-fried results with thick-cut fries, a wonderfully lumpy tartar sauce and a side of mashed peas laced with mint. Huge portions, $17.

At its 29 Twin Cities locations, Culver’s, the Wisconsin-based fast-fooder, batters and fries North Atlantic cod, serving it with a warm dinner roll, a lightly-dressed coleslaw, a generous handful of crinkle fries and a tartar sauce flecked with olives, capers and sweet relish. A single piece of cod is $7.85, two pieces run $10.75 and three are $12.69.

The fish and chips at the Gold Nugget Tavern & Grille include beer-battered haddock (with malted tartar sauce), served with hand-cut fries and a side of coleslaw. Cost: $14.95. Another draw: The bar’s tap beer list, which includes craft brews from two nearby breweries, Badger Hill and Lucid.

Birchwood Cafe chef Marshall Paulsen is sort-of embracing fish fry mania, but on his own creative terms. This week he’s offering (gluten-free) fried halibut and monkfish, served with the kitchen’s (superb) organic French fries and a kimchi/Key lime tartar sauce, pickled cucumbers and apple-cumin coleslaw. Sounds great, right? It’s available for $15 after 5 p.m. As for dessert, don’t miss the kitchen's signature Key lime pie.  

How about a 3 a.m. fish fry? (remember, Friday commences at 12:01 a.m.). Every day – not just Friday -- the we-never-close Nicollet Diner serves four pieces of battered and fried cod (or sometimes Alaskan whitefish) with fries and house-made tartar sauce, all for $11.99.

From the Strib's archives: A day in the life of a server, circa 1975

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: March 26, 2015 - 9:11 AM

The Minneapolis Tribune's Thursday Food section devoted its Oct. 9, 1975 cover to glimpses inside the lives of Twin Cities restaurant servers. "The only time most of us think about waiters and waitresses is when something is wrong," starts the editor's note. "The coffee cup is empty, the meat undercooked, the side order of fried onions missing. Waiters and waitresses spend their lives smiling even though their feet hurt, being pleasant to cranky customers and husting for tips from people who many leave anything from $50 to 50 cents for a $12 meal. Why do they do it? Staff Writer Irv Letofsky interviewed five of them to find out."

Let's just say that times have changed during the intervening 35 years, but some aspects of the job remain timeless. Letofsky's subjects included: 

Eighteen-year-old Ramona Eicher (pictured, above), a senior at Mounds View High School who had just started working at the then-new Country Kitchen in Roseville. "She went through the Bloomington training center, where she studied slides on how to wear the orange-and-white checkered uniforms, when to fill the salt and pepper shakers, the protocol of punching in, etc. 'Opening day we got all hyper,' she remembered. 'On my first table I didn't know if the hostess was supposed to bring the menu or me, whether you bring the water or the coffee first. The first night was a mad crush.'"

Becky Erbes, 23 (pictured, above), "has a well-organized figure that brings honor to her costume -- a black, low-cut, tights-like, Bunny-type uniform with sequins and the leg-flattering but otherwise foot-pinching three-inch spiked heel shoes. For the noon luncheon in the Apartment, the moody basement retreat at the White House complex in Golden Valley, she circulates in a basic bikini. The management prefers her in the new Rudi Gernreich thong swimsuit and black stockings, but it is 'kind of brief' (she says in understatement) and exposes more backside than is comfortable. Owner Irv Schectman rejects the term 'cocktail waitresses' for the help, preferring 'Bambi Girls.' He looks applicants over for their decorative possibilities, then instructs the successful ones on the rules of the room. For example, you don't sit down with customers. You don't smoke or drink. You don't bend over at the lowly cocktail tables ['You crouch,' Ms. Erbes said. 'Like a deep knee bend. After the first night there I was pretty stiff.'] You maintain decorum by avoiding slang. 'Certainly' is preferred to 'O.K.,' 'gentlemen' to 'guys.' And you never date the customers. 'Mr. Schectman wants a certain type of atmosphere and I think that's approriate. You cold attract the wrong types.'"

Lorraine Heath of the Gay 90s (pictured, above), who "has spent 38 of her 55 years in the service business." The 15-year veteran of "the relic theater-bar-restaurant that recently turned discotheque" said that she didn't know why she liked her job. "I still get tense every night. But I like meeting people. Even if I could do office work, I wouldn't. It would be too monotonous."

Phyllis Laiderman of Lincoln Del (pictured, above), "who has spent 13 years in and around chopped liver and chocolate pies and has maintained a reasonable girth. It is difficult to comprehend. 'Customers tell me I'm so lucky because I'm thin,' she said. 'Well, first of all, I'm not that thin. But you find that you just eat lighter when you're working. All the waitresses. I don't know why. But there's not a dessert here that I don't love today as much as when I started.'"

And a 27-year-old Michael Brindisi (pictured, above), who went on to become artistic director at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre in 1987. Here's his story, in full:

For actor-director Michael Brindisi, 27, his recent debut day as the first waiter among the array of waitresses at the Promenade Room in the Sheraton-Ritz Hotel was socko boffo -- $22 in tips on top of his $1.73-an-hour salary: “I told almost everybody I waited on that this was my first table.”

But the act didn’t do as well after that. The average ran to $4.50 a day in tips.

[To put those wages into perspective, $22 in tips in 1975 is the equivalent of $98 in 2015 dollars; $4.50 has a 2015 value of $20].

It was his first serious job since he was graduated from Lea College five years ago. But now he and his wife Linda, who was the first waitress to infiltrate the once all-male Cheshire Cheese restaurant a flight up in the hotel, are quitting for a move back to New York and, who knows, stardom.

He worked there six weeks, three as a bus boy, three as a waiter. It was an education, if perhaps a slow one.

“I mean, nobody told me anything and I would get orders twisted around – ‘Did you have the bacon? Who had the potato?’ So I started taking orders from the left and I got the food out there at the same time and looked snappy.

“Some of these waitresses are incredible – nine dishes at once. I could only do three. So I asked Linda, and she suggested using one of those big trays. Now why didn’t I think of that?

“Success, it occurs to me, is to get out there and read the audience, see what type of people they are. It’s like theater. You see if the shtick will work, if you should go broader with the comedy or lay back.”

He could improvise, too: One customer wanted a green vegetable but the restaurant only has salads. So Brindisi slipped upstairs to the Cheshire Cheese kitchen – “I just walked in like I knew what I was doing” – and scopped up a dish of green beans.

“The guy asked me where I got ‘em. I told him I had friends.”

He did best with older women. “I can talk the older ladies into having drinks, just by suggesting it, like, ‘How about a Bloody Mary today,’ instead of ‘cocktail.’ ‘Well, I really shouldn’t, I have to drive’ But they ordered two.

“Groups of businessmen, I don’t hit it off so well. I don’t know why. One night I had a bill for $12 and they left me 52 cents. They’d rather have Cathy wait on them . . .

“It was my job to see what the customer wanted from me. Sometimes he wanted to be left alone; sometimes he wanted to talk.”

One lonely man stared out the window one night, ordered a beer, then four more and a hamburger, medium rare, and a center cut of an onion. “I don’t care if it costs $10, I want a center cut of onion.”

Brindisi returned with a monster slice: “Is that the best you can do?” the man said. The waiter went back to the kitchen and cut up an onion himself.

“The man was looking real down and depressed and I said, ‘How’s everything?’ He said, ‘Michael, I’ve got to tell you. I received bad news today. I’ve got six to eight months to live.’

“It’s hard to respond to that. I got almost physically sick and couldn’t eat my supper.”

So he said, ‘So you tell that ____ ____ cook that if I want a center slice of onion, I want a ____ ____ center slice of onion.’

“Later I told the cook about it and he said, ‘Oh don’t pay any attention to him. That guy comes in here all the time and he can really spin a yarn.”

Minnesota restaurants, chefs, architects and media garner James Beard award nominations

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Chefs, On the national scene, Restaurant news Updated: March 24, 2015 - 1:39 PM

The James Beard Foundation announced nominations for their 2015 awards -- widely considered the Oscars of the food world -- and Minnesota is well-represented across the board.

Four-month-old Spoon and Stable (pictured, above) was nominated for Best New Restaurant. It’s the first time a Minnesota restaurant has been nominated in the national category. The restaurant, led by chef Gavin Kaysen (a Beard winner in 2008 for Rising Star Chef of the Year, bestowed upon chefs "age 30 or younger who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come"), is competing with Bâtard and Cosme in New York City, Central Provisions in Portland, Me., Parachute in Chicago, Petit Trois in Los Angeles and the Progress in San Francisco.

The North Loop newcomer has another Minnesota first: A Beard nomination for Outstanding Restaurant Design. Shea Inc. of Minneapolis was nominated in the 76 Seats and Over category for its work, a conversion of 1906 stable. It is the firm’s first Beard nomination. Other nominees in the category include the Grey in Savannah, Ga., designed by Parts and Labor Design in New York City, and Workshop Kitchen + Bar in Palm Springs, Calif., designed by SOMA of New York City.

“It’s a good way to start a morning,” said Kaysen with a laugh.

Kaysen was alone at home – his wife Linda was taking their children to school – and going through the motions of making breakfast while watching the announcement as it rolled through the Beard Foundation’s Twitter feed.

“Then my phone started to blow up, and I was literally crying tears of joy as I was thinking of all the people who have worked so hard to get us where we are today,” he said. “To me, the amazing part is to see us get two nominations. You just never know how it’s going to pan out. I tried not to speculate. I’m just proud of what we do, and that’s what’s important. But it’s history, right? This has never happened in Minneapolis.”

Three Minnesotans are nominees in the Best Chef: Midwest category: Paul Berglund of the Bachelor Farmer, Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart and Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant. They’re competing with Gerard Craft of Niche in St. Louis and Justin Carlisle of Ardent in Milwaukee. Russo is a five-time nominee in the category, and this is Gayer’s third consecutive nomination (along with two previous nominations in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category). This is Berglund’s second nomination.

For its 10 regional chef awards -- given to those "who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions" -- the James Beard Foundation divides the country into 10 geographic regions. The Midwest region includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

Restaurant and chef awards will be announced at a gala program at the Chicago Lyric Opera on May 4. It's the first time in the awards' 25-year history that they are taking place outside New York City. 

“I’m thrilled that it’s going to be in Chicago, and not just because it’s a shorter flight,” said Kaysen with a laugh. “The Beard Foundation is doing what they stand for, which is spreading the wealth and the love throughout the whole country. They see what we see, which is that destination dining is spreading across the country. It’s going to be incredible, to be in Chicago with all those amazing chefs and restaurateurs and designers and media people. I know that there’s going to be some pretty great parties.”

In broadcast and new media, Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods” is a nominee in TV Program on Location, the Perennial Plate (by Minneapolitans Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine) in Video Webcast on Location and DeRusha Eats by Jason DeRusha of WCCO-TV in TV Segment. “Bizarre Foods” won the award in 2012 and was a nominee in 2011. Perennial Plate is a 2013 and 2014 winner. It’s the first Beard nomination for “DeRusha Eats.”

Media winners will be announced in New York City on April 24.

Congratulations to the nominees.

From the Strib's archives: Meet Ms. Holly Bell

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Minnesota newsmakers Updated: March 20, 2015 - 12:11 PM

On September 30, 1965, Jerry Kirshenbaum, a Minneapolis Tribune staff writer, was filling in for George Grim’s popular “I Like It Here” column. Grim was on “foreign assignment.”

Longtime Dayton’s shoppers will be familiar with the column’s subject: Holly Bell, the store’s unseen and unflappable Answer Lady, and her first months on the job.

In 1965, a phone minus a rotary dial – actually, 38 of them -- were distributed throughout the nine floors of Dayton's flagship Nicollet Avenue store. It was quite the innovation, a low-tech version of “there’s an app for that.”

Here’s the story:

Holly Bell, the shopper’s helper at Dayton’s, is a lot like Santa Claus in that neither pays any income tax.

Therefore, neither is real.

Miss Bell, as friends call her, was invented last Thanksgiving by Mrs. Mary Christensen, Dayton’s special projects coordinator, as a way to traffic the department store’s Christmas shopping rush.

The problem: Shoppers were getting lost in Dayton’s labyrinth of departments.

“We were using painted arrows pointing to departments,” Mrs. Christensen confied. “It got confusing. Dayton’s is ‘L’-shaped, and it’s often hard to negotiate without a map.”

The solution: Special telephones were installed at 38 locations inside the store, each phone lettered, “Holly Bell Will Help You Find It.” The way it worked, the shopper reached for one of the hotlines to Holly and asked where lampshades were hidden.

“On the 6th floor, in the 7th and Nicollet part of the store,” Miss Bell replied, simple as that.

Mrs. Christensen appropriated the name for the new service from a Holly Bell doll she designed and sold by mail order years ago. The service was supposed to be abandoned after Dayton’s Christmas rush was over.

But it worked so well, it was retained. Now, 10 months later, Holly Bell answers between 5,000 and 12,000 queries a week. To handle as many calls, she has to have 24 hands.

All 12 Holly Bells work part time. Most are former Dayton’s employees brought out of retirement for the purpose. “Many of them grew up in the store and feel grateful to be needed again,” said Mrs. Christensen.

From two to five women serve at any one time at phone consoles on the 11th floor. They know the store intimately, and each has at her fingertips detailed department and brand name guidebooks.

Even so, some questions are more difficult to field than others. “How do I find an ironing board cover?” That’s an easy one. “Holly Bell, will you go out with me Saturday night?” That’s not so easy.

Several Holly Bells confided a still tougher question they get asked know and then, namely, “How do I get to Donaldson’s?”

Best answer, Mrs. Christensen agreed, is the old saw, “You can’t get there from here.”

Five years later, Dayton's turned to a more advanced technology to guide its in-store customers. A brief news item in the Minneapolis Tribune, dated Oct. 24, 1969, revealed that shoppers "will get information by automation from an electric push-button directory. Dayton's will be the first U.S. department store to install the electronic unit. The directory, which will be on the store's main floor, has 120 numbered keys corresponding to a cross-reference list of more than 400 departments and merchandise categories. The customer refers to a list and presses the appropriately numbered button. Within seconds, the machine provides a printed card that tells in what department an item can be found."

Holly Bell's considerable fan base didn't need to worry about their favorite shopping ambassador being put out to pasture. "The Holly Bell service, which originated during the 1964 Christmas season, will continue," said the story. Ms. Bell remained a Dayton's fixture for several more decades.

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