Friday, July 27, 2012

14 Down, 36 to Go

Last Sunday, Wisconsin became the 14th state in which I've been to all the counties.
I also finished travelling through Michigan's Upper Peninsula on this last trip, and went up to International Falls and Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, going through all the remaining counties above Minneapolis/St. Paul; and a drive west from a little theater in Landsboro got me the one remaining county in southeastern Minnesota. But I still have 15 counties in that state to go to, and most of the northern half of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. 

Still, even though I can be pretty sure I'll never actually go to all the counties in the country (I still have about 650 to go, out of about 3,100), I have to admit it feels good to finish another state; especially one so far from home.

As for what I saw on this trip, well, not a whole lot: it was a pretty laid-back trip. My favourite memories are:

(1) watching a bald eagle circling over the Great Sand Bay near Eagle River, Michigan; 

(2) watching a distant freighter sail slowly into a stunning sunset behind our rental cabin at Eagle Harbor, also in Michigan; 

(3) watching The 39 Steps, a hilarious comedy expertly staged in that small playhouse in Landsboro, Minnesota; 

(4) riding a slow boat up the Wisconsin River through the Dells; and 

(5) sitting on my friend's front porch, listening to birds sing; there are so many more songbirds in western Wisconsin than in south Texas!

After every trip, I go through a phase where I think I never want to be away from home again. This usually lasts a couple of months, and then I start planning some other trip. The only thing I have planned so far is a trip to Hawaii in August 2013 with the Once-a-Year Bowling League, and a trip across Canada in 2015 for the Women's World Cup. In between, I may go to Alaska. And I keep saying I'm going to go to New Orleans, but I don't know when. Other trips around the country depend largely on finding someone to go along with me. Anyone interested?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Casper & Runyon's Nook
492 South Hamline Avenue
St. Paul, Minnesota
(at Randolph Avenue)

Step inside this solidly traditional tavern, and you are immediately taken by the atmosphere, which combines neighbourhood watering-hole feel with trendy hot-spot burble. You want to be there. So does everyone else, and so there's a waiting list at lunchtime. All the barstools are occupied, and the tables that line the wall along the side street seem to have permanent residents. A table at the Nook, it appears, is equivalent to a good parking place on the street in Manhattan: once you get it, you don't give it up lightly.

There is another, smaller, dining room, downstairs. After a wait of about ten minutes, with a TSA-imposed deadline to meet, we decided to try the lower level. Down the stairs, past the eight bowling lanes (how retro!), past the bowling-alley bar to some formica tables with metal chairs ... a full-service dining room, as advertised, but utterly, utterly devoid of the charming character infusing the upstairs room. It put me in mind of trickle-down economic theory. Well, at least the food's the same.

After reading some of the enthusiastic reviews this place has garnered from locals, I fully expected to merely be adding my feeble voice to a chorus of praise. To that extent, though, I was disappointed. Only the atmosphere upstairs, it turns out, is exceptional; the food we had, and the service we received, were not entirely without redeeming qualities, but on balance, they were merely acceptable.

My choice, from the interesting* selection of burgers and sandwiches, was the Paul Molitor, a hamburger stuffed with pepper-Jack cheese. Mr Molitor, it seems, attended the big unfortunately-named Catholic high school across the street before going on to greater fame in the larger world. My friend Brian ordered the bacon-cheeseburger. We both chose regular fries.

After a few minutes of idle conversation, during which we took in the sad ambience** of the downstairs dining area, I noticed a television at the far end of the bar, and remembered that the United States was playing France in women's Olympic soccer. I asked that the game be put on, and it was in the 68th minute when the barman found the channel. I can't fault the Nook for the horrible reception on that cable channel, except to note that the barman said, in passing, "I need to call the cable company," indicating that there may have been a problem let slide. My point, though, is that, by the time our food arrived in the dumbwaiter, the game was over; meaning that our wait after ordering was at least 22 minutes, plus the chat-time, plus any stoppage time, plus enough time for the broadcast to go to commercial, come back, and show the highlights of the 4:2 USA victory. The orders placed by the party of eight that was seated behind us took even longer, although they had ordered before us. Even admitting the popularity of the restaurant, that is too long a time to wait. (I may have taken a more accommodating view had our food been more carefully prepared.) 

The menu touts the Nook as "the little place with the big burgers." I have no complaints about the size of the burgers: they are normal-sized in a supersized era. Still, the blurb on the menu led me to expect something more than what we got, and while we were both satisfied with the portions, we couldn't help feeling just a little mis-led. Maybe the slogan is a quaint relic of a charming time when ordinary hamburgers were an ounce of meat on a three-inch bun. 

When the waitress delivered our meals, she warned me that the cheese inside my burger was very hot, and recommended that I eat the fries first. I asked her for a knife, thinking to cut the sandwich in half to help the cooling along, as I was running short on time. She said she'd bring that right away. I ate most of my fries and, thinking it had been long enough for the cheese to cool, gave up waiting for the knife. The first couple of bites of the burger had no cheese in them; the next had just a slight taste of cheese, cool enough to be eaten without harm. Encouraged, I took another bite, and was rewarded with a gusher of molten cheese that poured out of the burger and into the paper-lined serving basket. I got just enough on my chin to know I had narrowly escaped a trip to the E.R. Wish I'd held out for that knife.

The burger itself, lethal heat aside, was reasonably good at first. The sandwich was un-dressed except for a few slices of pickle and the grilled onions I'd ordered it with. The meat was reasonably good quality, not particularly lean; the pepper-Jack cheese was unexpectedly mild, but built to a satisfying piquancy before I was done. Unfortunately, when I reached the last few bites of the burger, I noticed a certain toughness, and on inspection found that one part of one side had been seriously overcooked. If I'd started eating on that side, I'd have probably sent the thing back, despite the length of time I'd waited.

The fries were done well: they were hand cut, with good texture and flavour, and cooked the proper amount of time in good oil. 

The prices at the Nook are about right for what you get; though if the burgers had been as outsized as I'd been expecting, I probably would have had to raise that rating a notch, even though additional quantity of food would have been excessive.

* The jejeune humour attached to the signature Nookie burger, evident on t-shirts and wall signs, may help make discipline at the high school across the street problematic. But I'm sure, from my own blessedly brief experience with parochial education, that it's nothing they can't handle. I'm having some trouble, myself, restraining the impulse to indulge in some crude jokes on that point.

** I suspect that, when bowling is going on, the place has exactly the atmosphere one would expect in a bowling-alley restaurant. All things considered, I doubt that would have been a significant improvement for lunch.
Casper & Runyon's Nook on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Please Leave Your Shotgun At the Door

311 Main Avenue, South
Park Rapids, Minnesota

Park Rapids is a small western-Minnesota town that seems to be trying to position itself as a sort of flatlands Aspen: a year-round resort town, with attractions for the rod-and-gun set in summer, and the snowmobile crowd in winter. (Skiing, other than the cross-country version, is pretty well out of the question.) In aid of that aura, the new Italian place in town is trying to go a little upscale. There are some kinks to work out, but it's promising none the less.

The dining room's look and feel illustrates the difficulties, with its uneasy blend of rusticity and elegance. There are, I know, ways to combine those two themes, often involving expensive furnishings modelled on rural European styles, but the up-country Nordic look doesn't quite manage it. The lighting is tricky in this space, because of large windows overlooking the street, only partially subdued by draperies. Christmas lights, white around the edge and coloured down the middle of the ceiling, lend some atmosphere if one doesn't look too closely; tea lights on the tables give a hint of romance, and wall sconces on a dimmer switch complete the arrangement, but require monitoring as the outside light changes. Some of the tables have unwieldy braces occupying the space normally meant for knees, which makes sitting at them a challenge for all but the smallest people: those who can sit comfortably in the back seat of a Karmann Ghia or Jaguar convertible. The chairs are stunningly heavy, and really too large for the tables; they make it impossible to get oneself positioned at table with any kind of grace; though, once you've managed to get yourself in, it might amuse you to watch others trying to accomplish the same jerky motions without upsetting the table. Just remember: you'll still have to back yourself out of your place before leaving, so you'll want to not laugh out loud.

The service is so-so. Most of the staff are as new as the restaurant, and have apparently been told that good waiters at upscale restaurants have to be supercilious enough to say things like "Monsieur has just ordered a broiled tractor" without any evident humour. They'll get over that, and by that time they will probably have learned enough about the restaurant's menu and style to be knowledgeable and helpful. For now, though, they're just obsequious, uneasy and pretentious, but competent enough in the actual chore of waiting at table.

What does that mean?
Both our meals started with house salads, fresh and interesting, with a single crouton large enough to use by hand, obviating the need for bread with the course. The house dressing, a slightly sweet oil and vinegar, was excellent. My main dish was lasagna, baked in an individual high-sided square dish. This made for an unusually large serving, and a pleasant crustiness to the cheese around the edges; but the height of the dish's sides made it a little difficult to get at the contents, and the small elegance of the method could not counter the innate dryness of the food itself. While the seasonings were good, even very good, the overarching characteristic of the meal was that dryness.

With my friend's meal, the opposite was the case. His sausage manicotti was surprisingly oily. It, too, came as a large serving in an individual baking dish, this one low-sided and oval, so it was much easier to eat than the lasagna. It was served extremely hot, and because of the thick layer of cheese (which I hesitate to criticize; it is, after all, cheese) it took a long time to cool enough to avoid burning. On that dish, too, the seasoning was excellent, particularly that contained in the Italian sausage; and once it had sat long enough to be edible, it proved to be the more enjoyable of the two dishes.

The prices at Necce were very good, even by my South-Texas standards. Given the ambitions of the restaurant, they were a pleasant surprise, and left me with a favourable opinion of the entire experience.
Necce Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Definitely A Place To Go Back To

Shady Grove
N6240 State Highway 65
Ellsworth, Wisconsin
(fire up your navigation software; it's not close to anything)

What does that mean?
It would be untrue to say that I keep going back to western Wisconsin just to eat at Shady Grove. Why, there has been at least one visit to the area where I didn't eat there at all. (They were closed when I went.)

The prices at Shady Grove (or Chez d'Grove, as the francophones in the area like to call it) are about what you'd expect for haute cuisine. The difference between this place, and many other upscale places, is that, at Shady Grove, you actually get haute cuisine. Hell, even their cheese curds are the best you will ever have. (And yes, it is possible to have cheese curds be haute cuisine: anything done perfectly can be haute cuisine, possibly excepting liver and black-eyed peas.)

The service can be iffy. This place gets so very busy that it's hard for the staff to keep up. It's not a big place, and if a party of ten drops in unexpectedly (as happened on the occasion of my latest visit), it can throw everything off, especially since the atmosphere in the dining room is so welcoming that people tend not to leave when they finish eating. The man next to me while I waited at the bar was miffed because his 8.00 reservation had passed away into dust and, forty minutes later, there was still one other customer ahead of him. But I think he got over it by the time he left. I don't bother with reservations myself; I enjoy the time at the bar, however long it is; and they have those cheese curds.... But despite the crowd, the staff remain pleasingly upbeat, and they work hard to get everything done. I would not argue with anyone who said they deserve another chili pepper on that line.

I started with onion soup. Real onion soup, in a deep crock filled with rich broth, and topped with a thick layer of good cheese over French bread. An inspired creation, magnificently re-created. I followed this up with a duck breast that was easily better than any duck breast has a right to be. It was tender, with crispy skin, and, remarkably, not the least bit greasy. It's been several days now, so I don't recall what was in the dark, delicious sauce that topped the dish, but I do remember the exquisite flavour and texture of the dish, as well as of the sweet-potato purée that accompanied it. Now I guess I'll have to go back, and next time take notes. Well, it's worth the trip.
Shady Grove on Urbanspoon

Worst Breakfast For A While

The Chocolate Moose
U.S. Highway 53 South
International Falls, Minnesota
(at County Road 7, near the airport)

When we came across this place while looking for a place to eat at seven in the morning in a town that apparently doesn't open until much later, we thought we had scored. The outside presents a nice, new, clean look, sort of like a rustic Perkins, or a sophisticated Cracker Barrel. Inside, though it's smaller than either of those chains' locations, we felt the same kind of welcome family-style warmth.

When we saw the menu, we felt reassured. The usual foods were offered, with a minimum of too-cute names, and with prices just as we expected. The service, too, was just as it should have been: polite, reasonably efficient, competent.

What does that mean?
The food was less satisfying.

I opted for the sausage and cheese omelet. No effort was made in the kitchen to get those eggs to do anything but lie there. What I was served was not an omelet, but bits of sausage wrapped in, effectively, a flimsy egg tortilla, formed into a rectangle just the right size for a couple of slices of pasteurized processed cheese food to adorn. The large plate was kept from appearing vacant by a bushel of potatoes denominated as "home fries." They were, in fact, frozen chunks of potato, the size and shape of large dice, cut by some distant machine before being bagged; then thrown into a mess of hot grease just long enough to melt the ice crystals inside. Only the pancakes I'd chosen as a bread were at all enjoyable: they would have earned an average rating.

My friend's "breakfast sandwich" was worse. The same kind of scrambled egg, reminiscent of the sort one gets at Subway these days, folded around a slice of ... well, let's call it cheese, and served with a sausage pattie on what the menu and the waitress called a croissant. Real croissants, it seems, have yet to make an appearance this far north. This was something that looked like two heels from a loaf of white bread, glued together by that stuff that was not cheese.

I think that if the need for breakfast in International Falls ever presents itself again, I may want to quickly learn some hunting and trapping skills.
Chocolate Moose Restaurant Co on Urbanspoon

Dinner in the Far North

Spot on 53
1801 2nd Avenue, East
International Falls, Minnesota
(U.S. 53, south of 17th Street)

Even at the height of the summer tourist season, the choices available to the would-be diner in International Falls on a Monday night are limited. We almost passed this place by, because from the outside it looked for all the world like a dive. Stepping inside, we were not immediately reassured, as the dining room was dark. There were, though, some respectable-looking people at tables in the bar, so we joined them in what proved to be a comfortable, well-lit and well-decorated room, with a quiet murmur of conversation providing the background.

What does that mean?
Monday nights are pasta nights at the Spot: of the six pasta dishes selling for fourteen to eighteen dollars on the regular menu, four are available on an all-you-can-eat basis, for eleven dollars; and patrons can mix and match. One of the four offerings was unavailable, a pasta dish made with butternut squash. Since it was so early in the evening when we arrived, I have to  think they didn't get their squash shipment in. But that wasn't a problem, since the other three choices were all higher on my list of preferences anyway. My friend chose the white wine chicken over penne; I picked a tomato-based sauce (I forget what it was called) with chicken, over capellini.

If I were only rating the place on the white wine pasta, I'd have to give it a higher rating by half a chili pepper. That dish was superior, with a discernible wine flavour in a smooth cream sauce that was neither too thin nor too thick. The strips of chicken breast were obviously out of a bag, no doubt delivered frozen, but otherwise the dish was well-made and thoroughly enjoyable.

But the other dish was ordinary in every way. The angel hair pasta was overcooked and the same frozen chicken strips were used; but worse, the sauce was both watery and bland. When it came time to re-up, I asked for a half-order of the white wine chicken pasta.

Both dishes were served with breadsticks that varied from warm and soft to stale and hard.
Spot on 53 on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Charming Kitsch in Stanley, Wisconsin

Alberta May's
225 East 4th Avenue
Stanley, Wisconsin

Well, this is just weird.

We came upon this restaurant thanks to one of those blue freeway signs. You exit Highway 29, head into town four blocks past the railroad, and turn right. Three blocks down, on the left, is a building that looks like an apartment building; it's actually a former hospital, and now is an assisted living center. You think surely there's not a restaurant in such a place, but there's the sign, hanging on the brick wall, and another over the door, so you park and go inside. You find yourself in a large, under-furnished lobby, with a hallway going off to the left and a small office on the right, and, ahead of you, the entrance to Alberta May's. Skeptical, you enter, and despite all the signage, you are surprised and relieved to find yourself in an actual restaurant.

If you can get over the worry that you'll be dining on hospital food, you'll find the experience of dining at Alberta May's a pleasant enough one. We were there around eleven in the morning, and opted for breakfast dishes: a dumpling omelet for me, a three-meat omelet for my friend. The omelets at Alberta Mays are made with two eggs, not the three that has become the industry standard around the country. I found that two are more than sufficient. The third egg maybe adds a little thickness to the envelope that surrounds the filling, but that isn't, strictly speaking, necessary for the enclosure, and I can do without the extra calories and cholesteral it also adds.

What's that mean?
The dumplings were outstanding. It's hard to grasp that I could feel so warmly toward fried chunks of mashed potatoes and flour, but there was just something so wholesomely familiar about them. The phrase, "Like Mom used to make" comes to mind, though my own mother never made a dumpling in her life, I don't think. Still, it's what we Americans think of as Home Cookin', and rightly so. The eggs were fluffy enough, and the cheese on top was a tasteful sprinkling of Cheddar (surely Wisconsin Cheddar), not the slathering that some restaurants feel compelled to impose. The mushrooms inside were sautéed in a little butter, and the seasoning, mainly dill, was deft.

The three-meat omelet was equally well-made, and if bacon, ham and sausage are not to my own liking, it's no reflection on the skill of the cook. The bacon, at least, was nicely crisp and crumbled; the ham and sausage could have been of a better quality without upsetting me, but they, too, were well-prepared.

The service was a down-home as the menu, and by the time we ordered we'd been made to feel welcome, as much a part of the Stanley scene as any of the oddly-dressed teenagers who flittered through the lobby outside. (I think maybe they were putting on some kind of show for the old folks.) The small restaurant offers an even smaller bakery and gift shop, which just adds to the charming kitsch of the place.
Alberta May's on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Place for Aging Hippies

Burger Moe's
242 7th Street West
St. Paul, Minnesota
(between Kellogg Boulevard & Grand Avenue)

This was a random stop for us, just a place along the route we took from the Minneapolis airport, heading to Wisconsin. Turned out to be a good choice. It's a good-sized place indoors, with a substantial bar area and several smaller rooms devoted to dining; but at this magnificent time of year, the gorgeous patio on the side and back of the building was the only area in demand.

It's a very attractive area, with colourful umbrellas decorated with various exotic beer logos (Burger Moe's has something like 60 brands on tap), plus the giddy explosion of  flowers that defines this part of the country. But the most remarkable thing about Burger Moe's was the crowd of customers who appeared, all at once.

We were in our seats in the nearly-vacant patio about 3.30pm, perusing the menu of fried appetizers and burgers, when the waitress said, "You know about our special, don't you?" No, we said; we didn't. Turns out that, on Mondays, all their burgers are $5 from 4pm. They have a tremendous selection of burgers, too, well beyond your standard variety of cheeses and peppers. I was tempted by the coconut burger, but figured that, all things being equal, the best bet would be to partake of the Kobe. After all, how often can you get a half-pound Kobe beef hamburger for only five bucks?

To kill the half-hour we had to wait for the special to kick in, we ordered an appetizer of cheese curds to tide us over. These local favourites are the layer skimmed off the top as cheese is made in the thousands of dairies around Wisconsin and Minnesota. They squeak. The flavour is sort of like a light version of cheese, Cheddar in this case, and they are eaten plain or fried. At Burger Moe's (as at many places in the area) they're coated in a beer batter for frying, and come out light and puffy and slightly sweet, nothing like the odious fried cheese sticks ubiquitous at chain restaurants across the country.

On an impulse, I ordered a peanut-butter-and-jelly milkshake, which came at the same time as the cheese curds. Probably not something I would make a habit of ordering, but it had piqued my curiosity, now satisfied. It did genuinely taste like peanut butter and jelly; it was thick and rich and oh, so sweet: too sweet, in fact, and between that and the cheese curds, it's no surprise that I wasn't able to finish my burger.

What does that mean?
The great characteristic of Kobe beef is its tenderness. But when you grind it up for burgers, you pretty much lose that feature; it's not much different from plain ol' American beef. But you can still tell the difference; Kobe beef is, even ground, a little more tender than what we are used to, and has a slightly better taste, and is a little juicier. I'm not sure I'd think it were worth the $10.50 price tag it normally carries on Burger Moe's menu, but for five bucks, it's a steal, a fact not lost on the clientèle around us.

Because, at precisely 4pm, it seems a sluice gate opened somewhere, and fifty-something folks, the men with grey beards and pony tails, the women with sandals and faded jeans, began streaming into the patio from the street. They filled almost all the tables on the very large patio, and every one that I overheard, disdaining a menu consultation, ordered a Kobe beef burger. The kitchen may as well have not offered any other sandwich, and don't I feel validated.

I'm sure a younger crowd comes out later in the evening, after the early-bird special is over and the grandparents have gone back into hiding, but they don't know what they're missing. Five bucks, for a great burger (and it's even better, left over), with a good order of fries (regular or sweet-potato), is a real deal. An excellent deal.
Burger Moe's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hypothesis Proven True!

The Pirates! Band of Misfits
starring the voices of Hugh Grant
   Martin Freeman
   Imelda Staunton
   David Tennant
   Jeremy Piven
   Salma Hayek
   Lenny Henry
   Brian Blessed

Directed by Peter Lord

I've long had the theory that no movie is so bad that I would feel cheated after seeing it in a dollar cinema. Turns out I was right.

This claymation movie might be entertaining for little kids, and even some adults; my best friend thought it was hilarious. I thought it was silly, and no better; the jokes were predictable (though I did chuckle one time), and the 3-D* was irksome: the film was worth a dollar to see, though I do begrudge the theater that extra two bucks.

Well, at least now I know what Lenny Henry's been doing, since Chef! ended years ago.

* A propos of nothing, last night I was watching a Fourth of July fireworks display after the San Antonio Scorpions - F.C. Edmonton game at Heroes Stadium, and a kid behind me said, "Wow, Dad! It's like it's in 3-D!" 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Best of Its Kind, So Far

The Amazing Spider-Man

Starring Andrew Garfield
   Emma Stone
   Rhys Ifans
   Denis Leary
   Martin Sheen
   Sally Field

Directed by Marc Webb

What's amazing, in a way, is that the movie industry could re-tell the same story it told only ten years ago, in a pretty good movie with Toby Maguire in the title role, and do it with almost no real risk of failure. (I know: there are movies that lose money, probably most of them. Occasionally there is even a blockbuster that loses money, an Ishtar. But when you get right down to it, there are only two kinds of movies that lose money: bad movies, which is most of the losers, and good movies that are not widely promoted. And everyone in Hollywood knows this franchise is a cash cow; just the litigation shows that.)

What they've done is go back to square one, inventing a new back-story for the character of Peter Parker. This time, he's looking into a small mystery left by his late father, and gets bitten by a spider in a genetics lab. The super powers he acquires, combined with his own remarkable technical abilities, not to mention the ability to sew better than any other straight teen-aged boy, turn him into the hero of the film.

Most of the comic-book characters portrayed on screen these days seem to depend entirely on special effects for the entertainment values. Not so this Spider-Man film. There is actual craft evident throughout the film, and more-than-merely-capable performances from almost all the players, even in the small roles. Garfield is believable as the skinny high-school kid with hidden depth, and is still believable when he engages his dragons. Stone is believable as the brainy hot chick (a role that probably came somewhat naturally to her), and Martin Sheen absolutely becomes the principled father-figure, Uncle Ben. Rhys Ifans portrays the villian sympathetically, so we're not too disappointed when he survives the film to set up a sequel (after the credits start). And Denis Leary manages to hold his tongue just enough to keep the film's PG-13 rating, while still exuding his trademark bile until [Spoiler Alert] he finds salvation on his death bed.

The film is good enough, too, for us to overlook a few incongruities. Just how many shells can the police chief's shotgon hold? How did Spider-Man get his mask on, when he's hanging from the bridge with the kid with one hand and the rope with the other? How does Peter Parker manage to encounter only blond long-haired thieves? And what are all those crane operators doing at work at that hour of the night; aren't they Union?

In the end, though, it's the quality of the special effects that keeps us buying in to this film. They are mostly done seamlessly, except for one scene (about a second, maybe two, long) in a longer fight sequence that seemed somehow less-well-crafted. The detail in computer-generated images, of water, of reflections, of shadows, is still amazing to me and, I suspect, to many other viewers. When you pair that with a good story, well-told, we don't really care if we've heard other versions of it before.