Belgo-American Restaurant Fraternity Sampling University Avenue

Sampling University Avenue
also known as BARF-SUAVE

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mai Village

Mai Village has been an anchor of University Avenue's Asian food scene for more than 20 years. It used to occupy the site down the street where you can now find Little Szechuan. Several years ago, Mai Village's owner took a chance--building a new building at 394 University that accommodates about as many people as any restaurant I can think of on University. But while the sheer size of Mai Village is striking, the gorgeous details of its interior are truly memorable.

Once inside, patrons enter the restaurant on a bridge over a koi pond, with a stunning wood sculpture on the wall next to University. The interior is filled with dark wood imported from Vietnam. The restaurant feels remarkably cozy for such a large space. It can accommodate groups, but there are plenty of small tables, too.

With no interest in fighting day-after-Christmas shoppers, we opted instead for a Mai Village lunch with our friend Craig. The crowd on this day was a little lighter than what you'd see on a non-holiday. And you can usually count on Mai Village to have plenty of politicians, lobbyists, and other St. Paul mover-and-shakers on hand (to the extent that St. Paul moves and shakes...).

My past experience--confirmed today--is that Mai Village's food is dependably good. There are restaurants with entrees that are more unique or zestier, but Mai Village offers a wide assortment of solid, fresh-tasting, generous dishes. Christian and I tried old favorites: noodle salads, also known as bunh (Christian's contained eggrolls, and mine had sauteed chicken). Craig had the beef curry, requested to be medium spicy. Not much kick to the curry, Craig said, but he enjoyed it a lot. As I sit here recalling the sauteed chicken bunh, I could go for another large bowl of it right now. Mai Village offers a variety of reasonably priced Vietnamese fare: soups, fried rice, chow mein, lo mein, and many meaty or vegetarian entrees.

But, again, Mai Village's true contribution to University Avenue is its atmosphere. It offers a great place for conversation, or to sit by a window and watch life go by on University Avenue, or to overhear wonks at an adjoining table planning some future reform of the health care system.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Caffe Biaggio

Tonight BARF-SUAVE had a chance to sample the foods of Caffe Biaggio. This was an outing with our spouses, so we had to refrain from checking the texture of food with our fingers, belching the Belgian national anthem, and making obnoxious comments about things that did not meet our high standards. We kept it civil.

On the way to Biaggio's, which is located at 2356 University Avenue, St. Paul MN 55114 we enjoyed the almost finished lanes on either side of the Central Corridor light rail. We arrived without a reservation but were promptly seated by the friendly maitre d'. One interesting detail which I remember from earlier visits is the availability of loaner reading glasses at the front counter. Decifering the small print on a menu in dark surroundings can be a challenge for people in our age category. In the current instance, this crutch for the weak-eyed was hardly necessary for neither was the print small nor was it a candle-lit place. Not overly bright, but, like my dad used to say, with "enough light to see what you're eating."

Caffe Biaggio is run by John D'Agostino and Shari Breed. As the son of Giovanna (better known to the locals as Mama D), John is a restaurateur of some pedigree. Mama D passed away in 2009 and John, with Shari, carries on the legacy with a menu that borrows from simple Italian country cooking.

We started the meal with a glass of chardonnay for the ladies, a New Castle Brown for Joel and a Martini for myself. No complaints, the wine wasn't corked, the ale wasn't flat and the martini was well mixed.

For appetizers we selectedMixed Marinated Olives, deep-fried ($7) and Arancine ("little oranges"), deep-fried risotto balls filled with mozarella ($9). If you ask me, this is the kind of appetizer I'd expect at a sports bar, but I won't complain because I did not make the selection and there were more high-falutin options available. Furthermore, the appetizers were tasty!

This was followed by salad, roasted beets with walnuts, gorgonzola & warm fig vinaigrette over greens ($8 for the small plate) for Lynn and me while Peggy and Joel opted to split the butternut squash with bacon, cranberries, pecans and warm cider dressing over greens, ($8). The salads received high praise from everyone present.   I personally do have a weak spot for beets and while I am not a big fan of blue cheese, the presence of the Gorgonzola was understated and pleasantly harmonized with the sweetness of the fig vinaigrette.

We ordered a bottle of the chardonnay and soon thereafter our main plates arrived. Peggy and Joel had picked the Mediterramean red snapper with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and red onions atop red pepper polenta corn cake ($17). Both agreed that the fish was just OK, its consistency not being very flaky and both thought the taste was pretty bland.  However, they found the polenta that came with the fish outstanding.

It seems that Lynn and I picked better. Lynn had opted for the cioppino, the San Francisco version of various regional Italian fisherman's stews ($24). In this case it was of shrimp, scallops, crab, lobster, mussels served with garlic bruschetta. I had a chance to sample the stew and found the flavor delicious. Lynn loved it. The bruschetta looked delicious too, it was thickly covered with pureed roast garlic.
I had the osso bucco, the famous braised veal shank ($24). It was perfectly executed, served over farro cooked risotto style. As it should, the meat was moist and falling off the bone. a little fork poked out of the hollow part of the bone, an invitation to get at the delicious marrow. The flavorful broth permeated the farro, which had a crunchy consistency and a nutty flavor.

My only regret for this dinner was that because of the amount of food we were unable to sample the dessert menu.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Que Nha Vietnamese Restaurant

After returning from sampling the delights of Europe it was time to continue trying the delicacies of University Avenue. I have to say that the blend of French and northern European cuisines  that constitute my home country Belgium's cookery seems much less exotic than what BARF-SUAVE finds along University Avenue.
Que Nha is located on the NE corner of University and Victoria.
849 University Ave
St. Paul MN 55103
Joel had seen a short item about Que Nha (849 University Ave., on the NE corner with Victoria) and we decided to go. I did not recall having been there before until we walked in. Indeed, I had been here for takeout a few years previously, which had been quite good.

Joel was going for the bún, a rice noodle salad. When he ordered it with shredded pork, our server suggested that he should take the BBQ pork instead. She said something to the effect that Americans tend not to like the shredded pork. Joel complied and while we both wondered what the shredded pork would have been like, the BBQ pork was delicious. I am a big fan of bún, almost always selecting it when eating Vietnamese. I generally pick an egg roll bún and I was surprised to see that at Que Nha the bún included both egg roll and meat. I will definitely order this next time!

BBQ pork bún on top and goat tay câm at the bottom

I ordered the goat meat with egg noodle and vegetables in an earthen pot (de tay cam). The goat stew was delicious, I was a little worried that I might wreck one of my ageing teeth biting a piece of bone. The vegetables included carrots, onion and what I initially thought might be fennel, but I think it must have been Chinese cabbage hearts because it was lacking the characteristic anise flavor. Goat, noodles and veggies were delicious and a special treat awaited at the bottom of the bowl: a rich and tasty broth that contained and made me re-savor the flavors of the entire dish.

I picked up some rice noodle soup to go for James. Service was friendly and overall we had an excellent experience. I made a note to self to come with my sons the next time Lynn's out of town on business.

One word of caution: if you use the parking lot on Victoria,
mind the sidewalk jutting out. Looks like I wasn't the only
one to take this along.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bonnie's Cafe

Although BARF-SUAVE began simply as an effort by two guys to eat their way along University Avenue, it has taken on a larger purpose as Central Corridor light rail construction has proceeded. The areas in which construction is occurring are enduring a lot of pain: loss of on-street parking, chain link fencing in front of businesses, inability of traffic to cross University except at selected intersections, etc. This will be occurring in segments along University until LRT construction is complete in 2014. One of the areas that is currently hard hit is the western section of University in St. Paul: from about Highway 280 to Hamline Avenue.

And smack in the middle of this mess is Bonnie's Cafe at 2160 University Avenue West. Bonnie's is on the south side of University, and currently the whole south side is ripped apart. Bonnie's has decent parking behind the building (which it shares with the Dubliner Pub). The parking lot also has its own temporary gravel connection to University Avenue, fortunately. But the view from Bonnie's front window is not a pretty sight. Bonnie (or at least we presume it was Bonnie) told us that she had been told that the construction immediately in front of the building was only supposed to last for three weeks, and she seemed frustrated about not having been informed about the exact schedule. But it looks like much more than a three-week project, and eventually the north side of the street will get torn up, too.

So, partly out of sympathy for this little cafe, but also because Christian and I had never been to this breakfast spot before, we added it to the BARF-SUAVE list. Inside, it's a lovely place--full of light green colors (green booths, green-checkered tablecloths on tables, and green stools at the counter). We invited our old pal Craig to join us, once again in town from Wisconsin. There is no LRT in northern Wisconsin, so this little peek into urban transit construction was an eye-opener for Craig. (Not to suggest that Craig is backwards, but he still refers to trains as "iron horses." I think he envisions that a gentleman with a pocket watch who looks like Captain Kangaroo will collect customer tickets at each LRT stop.)

Bonnie's is another hold-over from the 50s deserving a spot on the National
Register of Historic Places 
Bonnie's has non-breakfast items on its menu (like burgers), but breakfast is really what Bonnie's is all about. The printed menus in the booths were fine, but most of the specials were plastered all over the walls, not in the hard-copy menus. I went with the blueberry pancake special (2 pancakes, 2 sausages, and 2 eggs for under $8)--really good. I have high standards for blueberry pancakes, and these were outstanding. Christian and Craig both went with one of the other specials (2 eggs, hashbrowns, bacon or sausage, and toast--under $7). I find that breakfast fare is usually pretty standard and predictable (which is fine with me), and this was no exception. The pancakes were a cut above, and the rest of our meals were about what you would expect at any solid breakfast joint.

The front section of Bonnie's has several collages of customer photos--a nice touch. It seems like a place that connects well with its patrons. Let's all hope that Bonnie's makes it through the LRT construction--so please endure a little minor inconvenience to enjoy a lovely breakfast amid a sea of green.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Krua Thailand

It had been a few years since I'd been to Krua Thailand at 432 University Avenue West. Maybe because this restaurant--like many on University Avenue--has an unobtrusive street presence, it is easy to bypass. It has an old, weathered sign--not a flashy neon one. But Krua has been a reliable Thai eatery for years, and it was good to stop in again.

Christian, our Wisconsin friend Craig, and I needed to do a little planning for a fall canoe trip, and we figured that Thai food would stimulate our brains. Krua boasts a menu of authentic Thai dishes "rarely seen at other local Thai restaurants," according to its menu. Krua's entrees cover a variety of categories: fried rice, soups, fish dishes, stir fry, curry, and noodle dishes, all in the $9 to $14 range.
Krua Thai Papaya Pad Thai

Volcano Stir Fry

Panang Curry

Craig tried the Panang, a curry in sweet peanut sauce, and declared that it was worthy of his highest rating. The peanut sauce was truly outstanding. Christian opted for the Volcano Stir-Fry, spiced to the max. It indeed was a mountain of veggies and pork, erupting with flavor. (Note: For many dishes, patrons can choose seafood, shrimp, beef, chicken, pork, mock duck, or fried tofu, with prices varying by the selection.) I remembered having been told once by a Thai food afficionado that Krua had the best pad thai in the Twin Cities. So, I tried this, with a twist: the Krua Thai Papaya Pad Thai. Excellent, with wonderfully crisp noodles.

Krua's delicious food inspired some very profound canoeing discussions. For example, our canoeing expert Craig was previously unaware of the dangers of "aerated water" (such as the roiling water at the base of a waterfall), which Christian informed us has so much oxygen that it can cause a canoe to sink deeper into the water. Of course, floating a canoe under falling waters poses its own hazard... and I suspect that canoeing at the base of a waterfall with the paddlers' stomachs filled with Krua cuisine would be sure death (but a tasty one).

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Fasika Ethiopian Restaurant

This is the first review by request (or should I say goading), by Central Corridor Construction Club's Mary Morse:  Fasika Ethiopian Restaurant, 510 N Snelling Ave, (651) 646-4747.

Central Corridor work is clearly apparent and does not help to alleviate Fasika's already
dire parking situation.
I have to say that based on prior experience, the BARF-SUAVE crew was not enthusiastic about this assignment. In the 1980s and 90s both Joel and I sampled some African restaurants. In Minneapolis, we ate at Odaa and found the food rather bland. When I spent a couple of months mountaineering and traveling in Kenya and Tanzania, I had the same experience. I have to admit that the food I ate was often from lunch counters and street vendors, more aimed at filling the stomachs of hardworking men and women and not home-cooked dinners or restaurants. In Nairobi I found the discrepancy between the wide variety of foods at local markets and the fare offered at food stands most puzzling. Basic nutrition seemed to trump the culinary arts. If you have experiences that disagree with my own, please keep in mind that I was traveling on a shoestring budget.

We got to Fasika at around 6 PM and found the place bustling, with most of the tables already occupied. Mekan, our friendly waitress led us to a table and brought menus. I pled for the Ultimate Combo, covering beef, lamb, chicken and various vegetable dishes, supposedly feeding two to three. After about ten minutes of pondering, we made that selection and added two Hakim stouts for good measure.
Ethiopian cuisine gives the expression "finger foods" something to chew on ...

A large platter of food, a good two feet in diameter and truly looking like a painter's palette arrived rather quickly and was set between Joel and me. Next to the platter, a dish of Injera, the traditional Ethiopian spongy bread was deposited. It was then that Joel noticed the utter absence of silverware. I ripped a piece of Injera and used it to grabbing food off the platter. Joel immediately followed my example. If the food platter was our palette, the Injera was our tool and the insides of our stomach (and the vicinity of our mouths) the canvas. We were laying it on thickly!

We should not have worried, all foods were deliciously spiced. Flavorwise,  the dishes could be divided into two broad categories. The Key Wot dishes, having the Berbere sauce as its base, had the spiciness of the key ingredients of pepper, garlic, onion and other spices as well as a hint of acidity as if from vinegar. The Alicha Wot, or curries tasted very much like some Indian cuisine. Out of the spread, we did not come across anything we did not like, however, the beef Key Wot and the Gomen greens were BARF-SUAVE favorites.

Fasika Ultimate Combo, as written up by our kind server Mekena:
Beef Key Wot, a beef stew cooked in Berbere sauce. Berbere is a combination of peppers, garlic, onion and spices, dried and ground together.
Beef Alicha Wot, curry
Lamb Key Wot
Lamb Alicha Wot, curry
Lamb Tibs. Tibs are marinated pieces of meat.
Dorow Wot, chicken stew.
Misir Key Wot, lentils
Misir Alicha, lentil curry
Atkilt, veggie curry with potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage and peppers
Gomen, greens, mostly spinach
Kik Alicha Wot, peas with berbere sauce
Fosolia, green bean and carrot curry
Shiro Wot chick pea flour cooked in berbere sauce.

There was way too much food for the two of us, there would have been plenty for three, possibly for four of a smaller appetite. I had the leftovers packed to take home and even after my family pillaged the box over the weekend I had plenty left for a good lunch on Monday.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Town House Bar

After our rich dinner at HOMI, we needed a beer and decided to stay on University Ave. I suggested the Town House at 1415 University Ave. W, 651-646-7087, probably the bar closest to my own house.

Since my bar hopping days have been over for at least the past two decades (pretty much since moving to the U.S.), I am not that familiar with the scene even in my own front yard. Our University Avenue project should give us some impetus to get acquainted with some of the fine drinking establishments along the Great Connector between the Twin Cities.

The Town House has a storied history, starting its days in 1963 as the Blue Horse as an upscale restaurant frequented by legislators, business people and those needing a place to celebrate a special occasion. I know that my spouse Lynn's grandfather, who owned a business on University selling semi trailers was a frequent customer. Like at some fancy places, patrons could select their cuts from a display cart prior to being cooked. Apparently, the Blue Horse had a hard time adapting to the changing tastes and ended up closing in 1991.

In its wake, the Town House established itself as a more down-to-earth place and as "St. Paul's oldest GLBT Bar." When Joel and I arrived, we were for the first time confronted with the troubles any business owner will face from now on: no more street parking. Barriers went just up today in preparation for the Central Corridor construction project. And while the Town House is flanked by large empty lots, these are fenced off and apparently not available to the public. We ended up parking on a muddy strip in the alley, next to what I am pretty sure were some other patrons' cars.

Joel and I had expected for the place to be quiet but we were proven wrong: a bingo evening was in full swing and most tables were occupied.  Posters on the wall displayed the calendar of events, a lively schedule of entertainment. The clientele looked mostly like folks from the neighborhood. I have to admit that neither Joel or I had any sense that we were walking into a GLBT bar and being there at the time we were there did not give us the slightest hint. I enjoyed my bottle of Blue Moon and Joel his well proportioned gin & tonic.