Tuesday, 03 April 2007

I had some time to kill on my way to see Keb ‘Mo at the new Guthrie, so I decided to take in dinner at Wassbi Japanese Steak House and Sushi. It was kind of on a whim, and despite mixed reviews I had read in the local rags.

I can’t help but compare it to my all-time favorite, Origami, and unfortunately doesn’t quite stack up.

When it comes to sushi in the Twin Cities, everyone buys their fish from one of two wholesalers. It’s all flash frozen immediately after being caught and is almost more fresh than if you bought it at the dock. With this in mind, there are very few ways for one sushi joint to distinguish itself from the rest.

One of those ways, and in my mind the most important, is service. I sat at the sushi bar and the service was very attentive, both from my waitress and from the chef in front of me. Pretty much I didn’t want for anything very long. About the time I’d look up for the waitress, she’d be right there.

The second, for me at least, is ambiance. This could stand improvement. The entrance is not well labeled, and you end up coming in through the bar. That wouldn’t be so bad if the bar, and the aisle around it, were larger. Get a happy-hour crowd in there and restaurant patrons will have to fight their way in and out. Once seated, it’s not bad, but not outstanding either. Tables, chairs, the obligitory bamboo, but nothing spectacular. The metal chopsticks are a nice touch, however.

Lastly is presentation; this includes preparation of traditional staples (ebi and sake nigiri, California maki, and hamachi nigiri are my usual test subjects) as well as specialty dishes. Their spicy tuna roll was good, as was the shrimp, but again not out of this world.

In one of the reviews I had read previously, they mentioned the sauces (flavored mayonsise?) that garnished nearly every dish, but I didn’t experience it myself. Perhaps ordering al-a-cart clues them in, or maybe it’s only used on house specialties. Either way, I was spared — I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to my sushi. .

Prices were reasonable, about $6 for a standard maki and roughly $3 for a single nigiri. Specialty rolls were all $10 or more. Basically the same as every other sushi place in town.

All in all Wasabi was decent enough to go back if you want someplace close to the Guthrie before a show. Personally I’ll stick with Origami for my regular sushi haunt. Their service and food are always impeccable and the ambiance, especially at the sushi bar, is first rate.

Saturday, 24 December 2005

It was tradition in our family. We had Thanksgiving dinner at our house and spent Christmas Eve at Grandma Bertula’s.

Both dinners were pretty much the same: turkey and all the trimmings. We had candied yams (sweet potatoes), mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, asparagus (Grandma didn’t like broccoli), pie, and, and, and… And stuffing.

Now, Mom wasn’t known for taking shortcuts in her cooking. For Thanksgiving, she went all out, even making her own cranberry sauce. She’d start with bags upon bags of cranberries then boil them for hours down in water with a bunch of sugar. It’s primary purpose was to make yifta (it’s a real dish!), but one delicious benefit was that we never had to eat the stuff out of a can.

Mom would even make the stuffing from scratch, tearing the bread by hand; a task for which she got up early just to have time. The hard work certainly paid off, because the whole house smelled wonderful and dinner was amazing.

Yet year after year, one thing troubled my Mom – she never felt that her stuffing lived up to Grandma’s. She could never get it quite as moist or to taste just like her mother’s. Personally, I thought it was great, but Mom wasn’t satisfied.

Finally, as we sat down to Christmas Eve dinner, Mom took her first bite of Grandma’s stuffing. “I use your recipe every year and no matter what I do I can’t get my stuffing to come out like yours. I can’t figure out how you get it so perfect. How do you do it?”

With a wry smile on her face, Grandma said “The stuffing? I’ve been using Stove-Top for years.”

Thursday, 24 November 2005

I ended up not going down to Kansas City this year for Thanksgiving. I usually ride down with my Aunt Mary, but her car and mine both conspired to keep us in town. Talking with my mom a few days ago, I told her that if we had the “mashed potato conversation” again this year, I was so going to put it on my Web site. She said to do it anyway:

It happens every year. We’re gathered at the table, someone has said grace (a story for another time), and people are loading thier plates. When the mashed potatoes come around I quietly pass them along. That’s when it starts.

Mom: “Don’t you want any mashed potatoes?”

Me: “I don’t like mashed potatoes.”

“When did you stop liking mashed potatoes?”

“I’ve never actually liked them. It’s not about anyone’s in particular, I just don’t care for them.” My mom’s are quite good, by mashed potato standards, but that doesn’t really change anything as far as I’m concerned.

“You used to eat them. When did you stop?”

“When I was 8 or 9, I think. Old enough to load my own plate and therefore pass them along quietly, without further comment.”

Except, it seems, for the annual mashed potato conversation.

Thursday, 26 May 2005

Whether for drinks and appetizers at the bar, a full meal in the dining room, or apres-show dessert, my friends and I will usually stop at Copeland’s as part of our concert night revelry.

Copeland’s Minneapolis location is located Downtown on 7th and Hennepin in the space formerly occupied by the ill-fated Nankin Chinese Restaurant. Set in rich reds, pinks and burgundies, with high ceilings, the atmosphere is pleasant, but can be a bit loud when it gets busy.

This time we skipped appetizers, so I ordered my favorite, the Pasta Shrimp Copeland ($14.99) led by a house salad ($3.99) with bleu cheese dressing. Hjalmer went with a steak filet and a salad.

A word about house salads (because there’s not much else to say about them): Really, they’re all the same. Lettuce, a couple tomato wedges, cucumber slices, shredded carrot, and croutons. The dressing, no matter what your order, doesn’t come in enough quantity, which is OK since it’s usually pretty unremarkable too. Copeland’s certainly lived up to these minimal expectations. After all, how hard can it be to make a salad?

Likewise, as long as their cooked properly, steaks are pretty easy to deal with. Hjalmer’s was no exception and he enjoyed it. Personally, I think they’re a bit pricey at Copeland’s and you’ll get better value at Mancini’s or Lindy’s.

The Pasta Shrimp Copeland is shrimp and mushrooms sauteed in a cajun garlic sauce and served over a bed of angel hair pasta. The shrimp are just slightly sweet and act as the perfect counterpoint to the mild zing from the sauce. In my mind, you can’t go wrong with this dish. That could explain why it’s my favorite and I take a pass on the specials.

On previous visits I’ve tried their Creole Calimari appetizer, the Gumbo Ya Ya ($4.99 bowl/$6.99 big bowl), which were both exceptional. The calimari ($7.49) comes lightly battered and fried with a Creole Remoulade Vinaigrette sauce that’s delicious. The gumbo is a nicely spicey (although I end up adding hot-sauce) Cajun roux with plenty of shrimp and scallops. A bowl makes a perfect replacement for a salad and the big bowl is enough for a complete meal.

If you’re there for dessert, you absolutely must try their Bananas Foster Shortcake ($6.99)! Made with their homemade biscuit, vanilla bean ice cream, banana halves (lengthwise), and traditional sauce of brown-sugar, dark rum, butter, and banana liqueur. It’s a huge portion, served on a large plate, and is truly enough for two. Mere words cannot begin to describe how good this is—it must be experienced first-hand.

Normally the service is first-rate, prompt, and courteous. Unfortunately, on our latest trip it was less than we’ve come to expect from Copeland’s. The hostess was barely polite—for what little she actually spoke. Somehow I got the sense that we were inconveniencing her by requesting a table.

I’m not sure if the server hadn’t yet learned timing because he was new, or if he was looking to get out of there early, but by the end of our meal we felt a bit rushed. Our drink order and salads came promptly, but we had barely put fork to plate when the entrees arrived. Working around the overcrowded table we wolfed down our salads in an effort to get to the main course before it grew cold. The pace added to our discomfort as the server twice tried to clear plates when we had just started a mouthful of food and clearly weren’t done.

The restaurant was suitably staffed, mostly empty, and it was well before closing, so the less-than-stunning service really caught me by surprise. Previous visits have demonstrated that Copeland’s is capable of better.

The food could convince me to go back, but the experience as a whole gives me cause to consider a different venue for the next pre-show gathering place.

Monday, 12 May 2003

Vanessa and I had been dating for a little over a month when she decided it was time I cooked dinner for her once. Until then, either she cooked or we went out whenever we got together. Not this time. In spite of my warning, she insisted and we made a date for Saturday.

I spent all day getting ready; cleaning the living room and kitchen, dusting furniture, straightening the mess that was my office.

I decided on pasta because it’s fairly easy and I make a mean red-sauce. Early afternoon I went shopping. Italian Sausage, tomato sauce, tomato paste, oregano, rigatoni noodles, cheese from the deli, garlic bread, a few other bits, and a decent bottle of wine.

My plan was to have dinner ready for when Vanessa arrived at 6 o’clock. I set about making the sauce, which would need to simmer for about an hour. I opened the tomato paste and tomato sauce, dumped them in a saucepan, and added a touch of oregano and a little something else to give it some zip. After that, I put the sausage on to brown and started water for the noodles.

Checking the sauce, something was off. Way off. It was runny and tasted horrible. Turns out I got the wrong stuff and had something closer to tomato soup than spaghetti sauce. Maybe I can recover.

The sausage needed a few minutes more, so I started the oven on low, put the bread in, and tried to find something that would save the sauce. Rifling through cupboards turned up nothing useful and there was no time for another trip to the store.

Right about then, Vanessa called to see if we were still on for dinner and if there was anything she could bring. Unwilling to admit defeat so early, I lied, “No thanks. Everything is fine on this end.” There was no turning back now.

It wasn’t enough that my kitchen skills weren’t the greatest—and I knew it. I really had a thing for this woman, so I had to complicate matters by trying to impress her. On top of it all, it had been a miserable week at work and I wasn’t feeling well. I wrote off the queasy stomache to simple nervousness and started thinking about what music to play.

To me, the right music is almost as important as the right food or the right wine. Choose wisely, and it helps make an entire evening. Choose poorly, and it can ruin your night, leaving it a crumpled, tattered mess.

Somewhere between The Cocteau Twins and Elvis Costello I was wrested from my musical reverie… What’s that smell? A sense of dread washed over me and headed toward the kitchen. Oh my God! The stove is on FIRE! As if to drive home the point, that was about when the smoke alarm started screaming. Thankfully I had the sense to cover the pan and get it off the heat before any real damage occured, but not before the room was completely hazed over and the sausage was beyond ruined. Opening a window, I tried to calm down and thought “OK, we’ll go meatless for the sauce.”

With cleanup operations underway and less than 15 minutes to go, I was getting desperate. I put the noodles on and made a quick check of the neighbors. Two not home and the third with nothing more than sauce in a jar. “No thanks, but I’ll Keep it in mind.” A call to my brother and my mother, both excellent cooks, for advice was no use; nobody home either place. I was on my own.

The noodles were doing fine and the smoke was cleared with help from a good size window fan. Looking in on the bread revealed no progress. No heat. No pilot light. Oven broken. Great. Wonderful.

Moving the noodles off the stove and over to drain them, I dropped the pot. Boiling water and rigatoni noodles exploded everywhere.

What I should have done was give up, but I was determined to see things through. Vanessa was supposed to be there any minute, so I had to think fast. There were regular spaghetti noodles in the cupboard, so I got the water going again and put them in, then back to the neighbor’s for that jar of sauce.

I had just finished dumping the jar into a pan when Vanessa arrived. In an effort to catch my breath and to hide my frazzled nerves, I sat to chat for a just a minute. One minute turned into five and then ten. All the while I didn’t let on what had transpired. “Is every thing OK? I think I smell smoke.”

“Not to worry,” my keen sense of understatement running full-tilt, “just a small problem with the stove earlier.”

Then she asked how long ago I had started the noodles and that should probably check on them. Too late; they were already over-done.

There it was, my abject failure on a plate. Sticky spaghetti under mediocre sauce with cold garlic bread and a passable salad. To top it off, the wine wasn’t very good either. Culinary disaster in three courses. Make that two–I completely forgot about dessert.

Awful as it was, Vanessa still found something nice to say. With as much sincerity as she could muster, considering the tears rolling down her face from trying not to laugh, she said “The sauce is good.”

“Here’s the thing,” I confessed, “it’s from a jar.”

Monday, 06 November 2000

I love fortune cookies. Not because of the games people typically play with them, saying “in bed” or “between the sheets” at the end of each one. I love them because I’m enchanted with the idea that a random slip of paper can, somehow, predict the future.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. The fortunes are fewer and farther between, and what I’m really getting can only be called “platitude cookies.”

A real fortune would be something like “Pleasant surroundings and a happy time ahead” or “Love is in your future.” Platitude cookies, on the other hand, say things like “Your first wealth is health” and “Free advice is usually worth what you paid for it.”

Now, I must admit that “Now is the time to try something new” is surely a sign to quit procrastinating. There’s also a certain Zen-like quality in “To understand, listen beneath the words.” But they’re still not real fortunes.

There was a time when I could count on getting a real fortune just often enough to overlook the occasional platitude. Even gems like “No one ever died from laughing too often” could be washed away by something as simple as “You are next in line for a promotion.”

I had resigned myself to a life of platitudes rather than good fortune. I figured it couldn’t get much worse. Or so I thought. Then I got what can only be described as a Yogi Berra platitude cookie. It said, “The game ain’t over ’til it’s over.” That was the last straw, the game…is over!

I’m sick of platitudes! I want substance, not sentimentality! If I wanted platitudes, I’d buy a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book” or “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” I’m not asking for next week’s lottery numbers, just a hint of things to come.

As if Yogi Berra wasn’t enough, the other day I got a “fortune” that didn’t even qualify as a platitude. I got an Ole and Lena joke in my fortune cookie. It was a lame one too. It said “Ole chuckled as he read through the obituaries. ‘You know, Lena, it seems like everyone died in alphabetical order.'” Sheesh! Just what I needed. Somebody give me a gun so I can shoot myself!

Saturday, 06 September 1997

I can’t cook. Really, I can’t. Before you tell me that anyone can cook, allow me to tell you a little story.

I must have been about 4 years old. I had just finished one of my masterpieces in modern construction (playing with Legos) and decided it was lunch time. Usually mom was on time with lunch as it kept me out of trouble for a while, but on that day she was still busy cleaning my room.

I gently reminded her of the time, “Mom, I’M HUNGRY!”

“In a minute. I’m going to finish your room first. After that’s done, I’ll make some tomato soup.” My favorite.

I figured I could either help her out or starve to death. I chose help. Off to the kitchen I went to make lunch. Boy wouldn’t mom be surprised.

Once in the kitchen, I scaled the cupboard and got down a can of tomato soup. Jumped back down to the floor, pulled a pan out of the lower cupboard and put the can of soup in the pan.

Now how to cook this? I had watched my mom in the kitchen before, so I kind of knew what to do. I put the pan in the broiler (it was the only thing I could reach) and turned on the oven. Since I was really hungry, I turned the oven on all the way, so the soup would cook really fast. That done, I went off to play again while lunch cooked.

A short time later, there was a huge BOOM from the kitchen. Mom came running because she thought I had fallen off the counter, pulled over a bookshelf, or some other mischief. When she got to the kitchen she saw the door to the broiler blown off its hinge and tomato soup splattered everywhere. You see, I neglected to take the soup out of the can before cooking.

Ever since then, I was not allowed in the kitchen alone. To this day, I can’t cook.