Sunday, August 31, 2008

What Is Art?

Chambers Kitchen Restaurant
901 Hennepin Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55403

Is it art to place a horse's head in a black-framed glass box of formaldehyde? Is it art to pose people in a cafe and then film them holding as still as possible for the amount of time it takes for a cigarette to burn down to a pile of ash? Is a lifelike bust of an elderly gentleman, so real it seems like you could feel his pulse below the "skin", art? How about garbage bags cast in bronze and painted to look like, well, garbage bags? Is that art? Is your definition of art broad enough to include a dirty Target-brand towel taped to a pillar with the end of a roll of packing tape?

Or, are you like me, and do you prefer your art to come molded out a good old American spud, crisped to perfection and either shaped like a fry or a breakfast potato and served with a vat of ketchup? Would you like your art to come arranged on a plate of lox and cream cheese with a bagel, or would you like it folded carefully into a Gruyere omelet?

If your definition of art includes any of these things, then you will find it on display at the Chambers, a posh modern hotel/restaurant/art gallery in downtown Minneapolis.

We arrived at 9:30, hungry, after a failed attempt to eat at the Mill City Cafe. The Mill Citians are on vacation, perhaps avoiding Republican hoards, or perhaps just enjoying the summer's last hurrah, but either way, their doors are chained shut, and the decision to eat at the Chambers came, after a short emergency conference in the street, from our birthday girl, Judy, who showed unusual decisiveness - only suggesting three places before landing upon this downtown restaurant. Judy's kind of a high-class breakfast person, so I wasn't surprised to walk in and find a clean white modern room complete with well-dressed waiters waiting to pull out our chairs for us. I was surprised to find the place completely devoid of Republicans. The Chambers seems like a great place to spend your untaxed capital gains, but we were the only people in the room when we arrived. Maybe the horse's head scared them away. It is pretty frightening. Look at me, empathizing with Republicans.

Anyway, the Chambers experience is about more than the food, but the food is high end stuff. It costs more than I would pay for myself ($14 for eggs benedict), but I wasn't paying, so it doesn't feel real to complain about the value of my meal. Still, you have been warned. This is the kind of place where you should con your corporate boss or your rich parents into buying you a meal. It's not the kind of place where you want to spend your own hard-earned Democrat cash.

So, here's the breakdown...

Jimmy ~ bagel, cream cheese and smoked salmon ~ B ~ his food was good, but there was a certain Disaster in which his order was lost. When you're in the middle of a food panic, it's hard to take such a Disaster with grace. Jimmy did his best, but the grade suffered because he had to watch us all eat while he had nothing.

Perley ~ standard breakfast and sausage links ~ A ~ he can't complain about the quality of the food.

Rachael ~ garlic and chili noodles ~ B+ ~ She liked her food and leaned towards an A- had the Disaster not occurred. She also described the Chambers as the Walker with food, which took a little bit of the sting out of the price of the meal. Think of it as cost of admission.

Judy ~ yogurt and granola ~ A- ~ I'm still mystified about how Judy can grade such a mundane breakfast, but she described it as "perfect". The minus is Disaster-related. We're an empathetic lot.

Sarah ~ cheeseburger ~ B ~ she didn't finish the burger, and I'm not sure whether that affected her grade.

Alex ~ gruyere omelet ~ A- ~ I wanted more cheese in my omelet, but, come on, people, these potatoes are beautifully crispy and delicious. Can't we stop focusing on the Disaster for a minute, and see the artestry behind their creation? Aren't perfect potatoes what brings this family together? Of course, maybe it's my own fault that the potatoes didn't get more play. After all, it's not like I was willing to share them.

Feel free to add half a grade to our grades if, like me, you think a Disaster is unlikely to strike twice in the same place.

Uh, sorry, New Orleans.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hail, Citizen! Well Met.

Citizen Cafe
2403 East 38th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55407

There's a new restaurant in my neighborhood. It used to be Sweet Loraine's, which was so bad that even though it was two blocks away, I couldn't go there, ever. Now it's a new place, with humble signage, called Citizen Cafe. I must preface this review by saying that the Citizen Cafe is so convenient that I gave it three tries before I made any judgments. It's new. It serves local food, and it has a real chef, and more importantly I can walk there. Sweet Loraine's just had factory farmed meat and eggs and a grease pit of some sort.

The first time we went, we noticed right away that Sweet Loraine is no more. From new arts and crafts style furniture to oddly pleasing light fixtures, the place has undergone a transformation. We were, that day, still the youngest people in the joint, but the old-timer diner customers might soon be crowded out by hipsters, because the food is new and different, too. Jimmy had some pate and scallops that he loved. I had a sandwich and the bread was blah. Why a small restaurant would skimp on bread, while at the same time serving up delicious pate and scallops is beyond me. Judy also had problems with the bread, but the waitress was kind (and prompt and efficient), offering her a phone and excessive sympathy because Judy had just left her cell phone and her wallet in the changing room at Midwest Mountaineering. Of course, Jimmy and I had sympathy for Judy, too, but if you know Jude long enough, you know that there will be so many small panics over lost items that it gets harder and harder to get too worried. In short, we didn't let Judy's catastrophe ruin our lunch. Bad bread, on the other hand. Well...

The second time I went, I had breakfast by myself on the most excellent patio. I ordered a fried egg sandwich, which was served on ciabata bread. It arrived, and the bread had been branded with the Citizen logo. I thought this was a good sign. You wouldn't want to brand that crappy bread they offered us the first time. Indeed the bread was better, although it was a little too, um, bready for a fried egg sandwich. Also, the egg was over-easy, so the yolk dripped all over my plate, making my sandwich unnecessarily gooey and sloppy. I thought over-hard was industry standard for fried egg sandwiches. Am I wrong? In the future, I will order it that way. The sandwich came with some sage sausage that was ever so delicious. In fact the few bites with no sausage weren't worth eating, but the bites with sausage were flavorful and hearty. Also, the waitress (different waitress) was especially kind and efficient, which I appreciated since I was eating alone and 20% of one breakfast just doesn't work out to be a very big tip.

Today, I ordered the house-made gravlax, which came with creme fraiche and pumpernickel toast points. My serving of gravlax was generous and absolutely perfect. It was salmony without being fishy. The texture was just right. I had six pieces of this wonderful delight. However, I only had five itsy-bitsy toast points, so I had to eat that last slice on its own, wrapped around a healthy scoop of creme fraiche. There are worse fates, but still, I wonder, with toast being the least expensive portion of my meal, why does bread remain such a problem for the good citizens of Citizen Cafe? Judy got the granola with berries on top. She proclaimed it the best granola she's ever had at a restaurant. I'm a little bit against ordering granola at a restaurant - why go out if only to eat cereal? - but she's a big fan of it, so this is high praise from Judy.

Anyway, A Baker's Wife is just down the street. Maybe someday, Citizen Cafe will get its bread from Gary. If that ever happens, this small neighborhood joint will rival the best restaurants in town. They already have the showier items on the menu down pat. It's bread, quiet unassuming bread, that needs some work. Still, I have to give them an A-. The minus is for the bread, and the A is only partly influenced by the uber-convenient location.

P.S. Only one word in this post has Hungarian derivation. Can you find it?

P.P.S. I've eaten there one more time since writing this post. My new grade is a B. Don't get the corned beef. It's not what you think it's going to be.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Flame Broiled

St Clair Broiler
1580 Saint Clair Ave
St Paul, MN 55105

Breakfast club was bursting at the seams this weekend, a full table of eight. Having a large number of members has benefits and costs. Benefits being a large boisterous table and good conversation topics, e.g. the universal hatred of drivers trying to turn left into the Wedge parking lot at 5 in the afternoon on a weekday. Costs being a limited number of options that wouldn't involve an interminable wait and of course, the more people there are, the more vetos that can be wielded. Since this is my last breakfast club before returning to Denver for the beginning of the school year, my only requirement was to choose a place that had not yet been reviewed on this here blog.

This was accomplished far more easily than usual. Rachael, Perley, Jill, and I did all of the heavy lifting as some members of the club took their sweet a$$ time getting to the meeting spot from the dog park, hospital, and their soft and warm beds (yay, fewer vetos!). We assembled a list of three places and as the clock approached 9:30 am, we decided that we could not wait for the full group to make a decision. A call was going to have to be made in order to reserve a table. As Perley, Rachael, and I hemmed and hawed and thought of reasons (because were are too weak from hunger?) why we couldn't make a decision, nor actually call and talk to a human being (because we are teeny babies?), Jill coolly took the bull by the horns and reserved a table at the St. Clair Broiler. Anyone who knows Jill knows that she has yet to meet a bull that she unwilling to take by the horns. Jill wins the breakfast club champion award.

We caravaned over to St. Paul and parked, hoping that during our meal the evil St. Paul city wouldn't stop and put a "no parking" sign on the street and then proceed to issue us tickets. I love many, many things about St. Paul, but I do not love their parking "rules". I think rule #1 of the city of St. Paul is, 1) Find any way, no matter how unscrupulous, to screw people who park in their city. In the past I've parked in what seemed to be a legitimate spot in St. Paul that had a meter, fed the meter for the appropriate time only to find a ticket on my car when I returned. I had failed to notice the sign that nullified the meter during a 4 hour period during that day. I love paying for parking twice, that's awesome. It's as though they don't want people to visit their fair city. I blame Norm Coleman. Or maybe they just want to encourage people to visit the city via the public transit system? One can only hope that they ratchet up their parking enforcement (if that is even possible) come September 1-4, 2008.

The St. Clair Broiler is a neighborhood restaurant with a welcoming atmosphere. They serve standard diner comfort food (the meatloaf is supposed to be very good). It is like a non-chain, non-gross version of Perkins. They make extremely good burgers, fries, malts, etc. that Rachael and I have enjoyed for lunch in the past. Sadly their breakfast is hit and miss, mostly miss. Some of the traditional options were acceptable, but the more daring items were disappointing. Club members who made safe choices were relatively pleased with their meals.

I was not one of those people. I ordered the eggs benny and was not happy. The Hollandaise sauce was very disappointing. It tasted more like yellow gravy. They got the rich salty butter flavor, but they missed on the ever-so-important hint of lemon. It also wasn't as smooth as desired. Alex ordered the Florentine and described the Hollandaise sauce as "grainy". Methinks powder might have been involved in making the sauce.

Jimmy and Perley both ordered the steak and eggs. They were not terribly impressed and considered their meals to be average at best. Jill ordered the most traditional of breakfast but had issues with her sausage, specifically the length of time that it was cooked, or not as the case may be. Judy, Rachael, and Fern all went a more traditional route and gave the highest grades.

The potatoes were terrible. They were previously frozen hash browns, which is the kiss of death of potatoes. Once they are cooked, it is impossible to crisp them properly. Even the few servings that were nicely brown didn't really have a good crisp. Yuck. A lot of the low grades were associated with the potato issues.

On a positive note, those that had OJ or a mimosa route gave high praise to the freshly squeezed juice. Very refreshing and delicious. The toast also receive high marks. Even the positives are a bit of an indictment. When the juice and the toast stand out, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the meal.

The St. Clair Broiler is not a restaurant that we will be returning to for breakfast in the near future (or ever?). Too many disappointments to warrant a return trip. If you go here for a meal you would be better off with lunch or dinner for malts and burgers. I this will be my last MN post for the foreseeable future. Hopefully my compatriots will pick up the slack and I won't be too busy with school to report on the wonders of breakfast in Denver.

Amadeus-Eggs Benny-C-
Jimmy-Steak and Eggs-C
Judy-One egg, bacon, hashbrowns-B
Rachael-P.J.'s One Egger-B
Fern-French Connection-B
Alex-Eggs Florentine-D
Perley-Steak and Eggs-C+/B-
Jill-Two eggs, sausage, toast, and hash browns-D+