By Grace O'Laochdha
Pearls: 4 out of 5.
Russian peasant food meets nouveau cuisine and they live happily ever after.
The first thing that impressed me was that when I walked in off the street on a windy day, wearing my scruffy sneakers and jacket, hair all standing up, the hostess was really helpful and friendly. I always expect to get the cold shoulder in nice places when I look like that. My friend, Brown Betty and I sat at the bar, and the two bartenders were also quite pleasant.
The happy hour, from 3 pm to 6 pm weekdays, features a menu of several house-infused vodkas and five appetizers, and you can chose any five items for $5. It's a great way to try a lot of new food.
They begin serving dinner at 5:00 pm, but by 5:00 we were so involved in trying all the appetizers, that's all we ended up doing. After exhausting the happy hour food menu, we started ordering items off the starter section on the dinner menu. Betty just about fell off her stool when she saw that the menu had a whole section labeled "raw." We knew right away it was our kind of place.
Okay, I guess I'll just go dish by dish.
First I had two of the house-made infused vodkas, apricot and blood orange. The apricot was delicious; the blood orange less so. Some of the others I didn't try were: blueberry, horseradish, grapefruit, and three-pepper. One can only drink so much vodka on a Tuesday night. I plan to go back for the rest.
Next I had blinis (crepe-like things) with red roe, fluffy egg, and chives. The appetizer is only one small blini - I wished I had ordered more, but I restrained myself, knowing I had a lot of tasting ahead of me. I think this was probably my favorite, because I had never had anything like it.
Then I had pelmeni dumplings, with butter, dill crème fraiche, and champagne vinegar. Thanks to the crème fraiche, it was quite good, but the dumplings alone were a little bland and tasted a lot like pork wontons.
I don't remember what they called the next one, but it was pretty much sausage.
Betty had the pickled herring and new potatoes with Russian mustard, which she said was "pretty standard."
She also had the blinis with chocolate mousse, strawberries, and crème anglais. These were wonderful. I was particularly impressed with the mousse; half the time when you order mousse you get something that tastes like either Jell-O chocolate pudding, or chocolate-flavored Redi-Whip.
So that was the end of phase one, the happy hour menu. On to the dinner menu.
First we received a "gift from the chef:" rabbit confit. I am not sure what this is, exactly, and it was too loud for me to get details, but it was very tasty, especially the dressing. I looked up "rabbit confit" on the internet to get a clue, but nothing I found sounded like what I'd eaten.
Betty ordered one of each of the available raw oysters: Kumameto, Hama Hama, and Olympia. She said the Kumameto was the best. With oysters, smaller is always better. Unelss it's Yankee Clipper brand tiny smoked oysters, but I digress. She said that all three were good.
I had the gravlax, which was served with dried capers (a new thing for me - loved them!) and Dijon crème fraiche, which I found superfluous, but I tend to be simplistic about seafood. The gravlax itself was the best I've ever had. Mmmm, I can even taste it just thinking about it. Turns out they cure it in house.
Betty fell into a food coma at this point and just had more Guinness, but I was still going strong.
I continued with the baked scallop on the half shell (Technically, I think scallops only have one shell, so I guess it was really just "on the shell") with triple crème cheese and toasted herb crust, served on a bed of salt. I was just in food heaven. To be honest, the whole cheese and crust business was a lot like just butter and garlic, but nothing wrong with that, and it was really all about the texture. Easily the best cooked scallops I've eaten, texture-wise.
Next I had a sudden need for salad, and I ordered the mixed baby green salad with (deep breath) pecan-crusted Roquefort, marinated beets, yellow tomato, and Gewurtztraminer vinaigrette. I feel that as much as I normally dislike salad, I should be able to just say "I liked it," and that should count as high praise. In this case I really liked it - I gobbled down the whole thing.
Lastly, I had the cheese and fruit plate. The cheese selection was impressively varied, and they were all new to me. There were cheeses for all tastes. It was too much for one person, so get this one to share.
So now you must be wondering why it only got 4 pearls instead of 5. That's because the pickled herring, a Minnesota favorite, was not as good as Aquavit's; the pelmeni tasted a lot like a wonton; the sausage didn't have a lot of flavour, and I couldn't help being disappointed that there was no borscht, which I love and haven't had in years. At least there were plenty of marinated beets.
Mmmmmmm - delicious.
821 Marquette Ave S, Mpls.
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