The month in review

Sure, sure, sure. It’s been a while since The Belly’s been filled. But, dear readers, you know who loves you, right? Yes, Lewis does. And Lewis, while he hasn’t posted in about a month (not even delivering on his promise to reveal what he served with his butternut squash soup), his thoughts have been with you. (Note: If you’re already tired of this post, scroll down to hit the restaurant reviews.)

In his time off, Lewis dedicated himself to transform into a conduit of half-truths, innuendo, rumor and opinionated bunk reliable information on cooking, the Twin Cities’ (and beyond) dining scene, and all other consumptive commentary ranging from international politics to porn to local ethanol production. In short, Lewis has grown a belly become the Bloated Belly: a slow moving, intoxicated boob a being with an insatiable appetite for knowledge of all things. He even toyed with the idea of changing his handle to The Belly, because it has become his most prominent feature because he senses he is one with the blog. But that’s doubtful. He is already disturbed by the blog’s power to transform his identity. No need to bump it over the edge.

Yes, the entire month of December was a transformative month, with lousy happenings on the personal, professional and general news fronts, capped by a sobering display of unseasonably warm weather, which left this former snowcapped wonderland resembling the dank winter grayness of Columbus, Ohio. And don’t even get Lewis started about his stove, which conked out on him on Christmas Eve. The incident has him writing in the third person.

But still, Lewis kept his glassy eyes open and mouth chewing. New Years Day brought a fresh snowfall to mask the disappointment of the previous month. Lewis blackmailed recruited correspondents—two of them hot chicks—to help fill the time gaps with meaningful prose while Lewis withdraws periodically into despondency into periods of rumination. Those correspondents will debut in coming weeks with scintillating verbiage and a recipe or two.

And Harold? Harold is forever in his own world, fighting the good fight, although we, in this dimension, are unsure what that fight is. He will, no doubt, continue to pierce our reality with his dark wit from time to time and, perhaps, provide a recipe or two.

Much has happened on the dining scene since Lewis last pressed his expanding midsection to his keyboard and typed in a post. One of his favorite high-end restaurants, Levain, closed. Was this surprising? In a word, yes. While it’s obvious many upper-end eateries are feeling a pinch (for a variety of reasons that may or may not be tackled in a following post), Levain appeared to be holding its own, albeit by the skin of its weekend business, and Lewis felt its chef, Steven Brown, easily ranked in the top five in the Midwest. Even with the accolades, Mr. Brown never displayed a hint of high-falutin’ attitude. If the Twin Cities dining scene loses him to greener pastures, it would be a serious blow.

Following suit not three weeks later was Five Restaurant & Street Lounge. Was this surprising? In a word, no. This was the most magnificently ill-conceived concept from the start, for a variety of reasons. Some spectacular meals were had at Five, but more spectacular failures. Chef Stewart Woodman and his sparkling culinary reputation were the reasons Five was created, and yet the vultures were circling last fall. When he was axed in October, they began picking at the near-dead, unconscious body. There were a myriad of reasons for Five’s demise, but Lewis is late on the discussion, so he shan’t rehash them. But you can read some here.

And now, the latest casualty is Auriga. January has not been kind to the high-end dining scene. With Five’s multiple problems in its short life, its closing is not as significant as Levain and Auriga, two established and consistent performers. Ten years for Auriga. That’s a fine run, well above the typical restaurants average lifetime. That fact is hardly consolation, however. Another chef-driven eatery bites the dust.

Fortunately, there was some dining highpoints. Lewis prefers to think about those, rather than President Dubya’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. Without further delay, Lewis now offers his take on a few restaurants he waddled into during the last six weeks to sample the wares, some for the first time, others revisited after a lengthy absence.

Chambers Kitchen
Wandering into this place took Lewis aback, mostly because he didn’t want to leave a dark scuff on anything from his overstuffed book bag awkwardly slung over his shoulder. Not that Lewis found the place antiseptic, but it was certainly a departure from his dimly lit St. Paul hangouts, where he can retreat unseen into a corner. Lewis was there the Friday before Christmas day on business, sort of, meeting another hack writer to dish on the who-what-where-whys-and-hows. And dish they did. But it’s all off the record, folks. If there’s one thing folks know about Lewis, while his brain is a sponge for the dish, his mouth is a locked vault when it’s asked of him.

In between the dishing, drinks, appetizers, and entrees were ordered. Lewis also ordered himself a ginger margarita. Arriving at the table in little more than a whiskey tumbler, the price (nine bucks) seemed a tab steep. But Lewis wasn’t paying. And the drink was absolutely sublime, and gratifyingly sipped to prolong the experience. Smoked bacon wrapped shrimp and chicken samosas soon arrived, Very, very nice.

What happened next was also very nice: roast chicken and walleye entrees. It’s so hard to find a joint that does chicken right. You can consider chicken bland, or consider it versatile, The Chambers cooks clearly think the latter; the roasted chicken with long beans was fantastic. Matching it was the simple walleye, the light batter fried to shattering crispness, the fish tender and flavorful. Lewis dimly recalls some jalapeno in the bed of greenery, but can’t be certain. It was a while ago. What is recalled are distinct complimentary flavors. And the price? Stupidly reasonable for this kind of execution. The chicken was 13 bucks, the walleye 14. A quick glance at the dinner menu revealed it was equally reasonable, with all entrees (save for two—a lobster and a sirloin) between 18 and 24 dollars. A return visit is in order.

Moscow on the Hill
Lewis is one who has several default settings when his imagination fails him. One of his most reliable is the Moscow in the Hill, which came to mind when he was stumped for what to do with the lady friend on Christmas Eve, and had no desire nothing in the fridge to cook. Martinis. Old school beef stroganoff. Duck Ekaterina. A bottle of French Bordeaux. ‘Nuff said.

Blue Point Restaurant
Lewis hadn’t been in this downtown Wayzata restaurant since early 1999, if his pocked memory serves him. It’s the local seafood joint that most people residing east of Minneapolis wouldn’t bother driving to, in part because there are equally good —and superior—hunks of fish to be had on that side of the Mississippi. It’s a bit of a shame, because Blue Point does have character and has always does a nice job with preparation when Lewis has rolled in.

It was New Year’s Eve, and the snow was falling, which had picked up the Lewis’ mood, and he and the lady friend were happy to tag along with pops and his wife. Grey Goose martinis and the ubiquitous plate of calamari for starters, and a pleasant evening began.

Lewis can’t remember what pops and his wife ate. But Lewis had pan roasted Maine monkfish with chorizo sausage, hydroponic tomatoes and clams in a light white wine basil sauce. It was delicious, and every scrap devoured from the plate. The lady friend scarfed down blackened Australian swordfish with garlic mashed potatoes and roasted sweet onions in a buerre blanc sauce. The scrap she allowed Lewis was very tasty. If he is ever trolling around the western suburbs again, Blue Point will join the regional repertoire with Istanbul Bistro.

Town Talk Diner
Roughly two (maybe three?) weeks ago, Lewis ambled finally with the lady friend into the much talked about Town Talk Diner to meet an old friend, his wife, and another couple. He was, as usual, late. But it turned out OK, since the four were eating, and Lewis and his better half had already sated themselves at The Italian Pie Shoppe. They took a seat at the bar and waited for their friends to finish gorging, and Lewis began downing martinis. At four bucks a pop, he couldn’t resist. The lady friend sensibly sipped slowly a delicious dark beer, a recommendation from the bartender. By the time Lewis’ friends joined them at the bar, Lewis was pouring the last sip from martini No. 2 down his gullet, to join the 32 ounces of Newcastle consumed earlier with his pizza. But he had already witnessed the already legendary service of the young Town Talk: a birthday girl was at the bar, so shots were delivered To The Entire Bar. Sure, it was some fruity concoction low on the alcohol content, but the gesture was magnificent, letting everyone feel like a regular. It’s so easy to try to have good service; you basically make the choice to do it or not. Aaron Johnson and Tim Niver, co-owners working the bar and the dining room, have their heads firmly in the right place (they both have some heady fine-dining credentials). Lewis downed a third martini while everybody at the bar chatted away the remaining evening. He might have had a fourth, but fatigue and fog began to settle in and he can’t quite remember. But one thing is for certain; he will visit again to taste the Town Talk’s kitchen offerings—the kitchen headed by the other co-owner, David Vlach, (who has some heady fine dining credentials). In addition to an inventive bar menu, there are entrees that, on laminated paper at least, appear to rival the plates served at any upscale casual joint in the Twin Cities. Watch for the next report…

With his fingers cramped, and mind evacuated, Lewis will end this post. But stay tuned, folks. The Belly is back, at least for the moment.

4 comments for “The month in review

  1. January 25, 2007 at 9:49 am

    Nice post, though I cannot help but think that it is the “real chefs” that have set up shop in the twin cities are a large part of the demise of Auriga and Levain. I am sure Chambers Kitchen and 20.21 are just fine, but they are not local, and are basically glorified chains.
    We still have Alma, jP, La Belle VIe, and Fugaise for local talent, so that is something.

  2. January 26, 2007 at 10:54 am

    Shogunmoon: Agreed. If there’s one lesson that these “real chefs” can teach the local geniuses, however, is: consistency, consistency, consistency. That’s something the joints you mentioned have figured out, and why I hope they survive against the bankroll of the Bon Apetit-run joints of the world. (Although I thought Levain had all that down, and look what happened. So what do I know.) And keep thine blade sharp, good sir.

  3. cK
    January 29, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Welcome back, brother. Good to read your words again, and with my own eyes, no less.
    As I live by Moscow, I’ve grown into absolute complacency and only order the duck ekaterina. And I like it that way.

  4. August 23, 2007 at 9:11 am

    Great website! Bookmarked! I am impressed at your work!

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