Rick Nelson recently wrote an interesting and informative piece in The Star Tribune celebrating a whole bunch of good restaurants on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River from Bay City in the north to the LaCrosse area in the south.

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Grown-Up Chinese

Concluding a recent two-week stay in London…and power dining seven nights a week…Joanne and I needed a break from rock star chef gymnastics. We wanted someplace quiet and comfortable within walking distance of our hotel – a culinary cocoon where we could relax and reflect on our stay.
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Dresses Upstairs, Undressed Mallards Downstairs

From my first trip to London in the ‘70s, I fell in love with the city – the hustle and bustle and the vitality really connected with this Minnesota boy. The pomp and pageantry of it all…the Changing of the Guard…the jet-black horses and their mounts wearing brass breast plates shiny as trumpets…the Tower of London….Westminster Abbey…….so, so different from Minnesota and the farm town where I grew up.

But perhaps because Pete and I had just opened our first restaurant, MUFFULETTA, what resonated with me most were the FOOD HALLS of HARRODS department store in Knightsbridge. I’d never seen anything like them; never IMAGINED anything like them.

Here’s the thing about food halls in London (and Paris, Tokyo, Seoul…): They tend to reside in department stores (probably due to the incredible density of the urban population in the city.) And while SELFRIDGES’ basement food halls are impressive….as well as the top-floor food hall at HARVEY NICHOLS, nothing – and I mean nothing – compares to HARRODS.

First a bit of background……

HARRODS, at one time the largest department store in the world with over a million square feet spread over 7 floors, opened in 1849 and suffered a fire in 1883 that destroyed the building. When it reopened a few years later, the building boasted a new palatial style – with cherub-adorned terracotta tiles out front, swirling Art Nouveau windows, and a huge Baroque-style dome.

HARRODS sold exotic pets from Africa, Asia and South America ‘til the mid-1970s. They sold cars for a while and even had a funeral planning service. During World War II, they stopped selling luxury goods and transformed the shoe department to manufacture parachutes and uniforms. HARRODS boasts of having the first escalator as well.

The food halls are on the ground floor, and they are immense. I don’t know exactly how big, but I would suspect that they occupy close to 100,000 square feet – about the size of a Target store.

I had never in all my life seen merchandising like this. Pick a category of food; Harrods utterly dominated it. Charcuterie, for example: so beautifully exhibited and so “nervy” and bold and robust. And there was a natural beauty and innocence – a “grittiness” in the presentation of these carcasses of hare and Mallard ducks on marble slabs, (accompanied by wines appropriate for game). Then there were the Christmas turkeys cascading upside down from the ceiling. You can imagine Charles Dickens writing about that.

The fresh seafood? It transcended a mere “display;” it was sculpture.

HARRODS divides its food hall into several departments, each dominating a category – meat, produce, bakery and patisserie, charcuterie and hams, candy and treats, cheese and so on…..punctuated by a dozen or so sit-down food venues, including spaces rented to excellent London restaurants such as BENTLEY’S SEAFOOD. (I’ll write about Bentley’s in a separate posting sometime.)

Then something happened.

Mohamed al Fayed, a wealthy Egyptian, bought HARRODS in 1985. If you recall, his son, Dodi, and Princess Diana were later killed in a violent car crash in Paris. He dedicated a shrine – more than that, a grotto – to them in the store. Check out the picture. I don’t know if it’s still there.

In 1989, Fayed introduced a dress code….no more flip-flops….or high-cut shorts…..or swimwear…or thong sandals.

Following the death of Dodi and Princess Di, Fayed observed that neither Prince Charles nor the Queen were shopping at HARRODS any longer (the closing of the flip-flop department might have been the last straw for them). In retaliation, he removed the Royal Crest.

Coinciding with Fayed’s other decisions, the food halls began to change around that time as well, losing some of the “earthy” merchandising that I had fallen in love with. The seafood “sculpture” replaced its freshly caught fish with jars of seafood products. The carcasses of wild rabbits and Mallard ducks were now fully dressed and stored behind refrigerated glass. The Christmas turkeys were butchered and cleaned up as well – no feathers, no head, no feet…..NO FUN.

In fact, most all of the meats came off the ornate marble carving tables and were moved behind glass. That’s also where the dry aging now takes place.

These changes might have been made by Mohamed al Fayed or the London Health Department, and undoubtedly they increased efficiency and safety, but they still left me feeling a little down, a bit nostalgic. I’ve always preferred earthy and gritty to sleek and polished.

I’ll get over it.

And I’ll go back time and again and again…because Harrods’ food halls remain as arresting and impressive, as huge and beautiful, as ever….more than anything you’ve ever experienced.



An Oasis in Paris

Sometimes when Joanne and I are in Paris, we just don’t want to be culinarily challenged. By the 5th or 6th day of seeking out very special restaurants that somehow could have a culinary relationship with our PARASOLE restaurants, we simply want a DAY OFF…a time to just chill.

But Paris being Paris, even the places you expect to be predictable have the capacity to surprise. Consider PAVILLON ÉLYSÉES LENÔTRE…..or simply LENÔTRE, a little gem of a restaurant southeast of the Arc de Triomphe toward Place de Concorde, right on the Champs. You’ll see it nestled perfectly in a park across the street from the Palais Royale amongst the trees.

This place is the soul of consistency. It consistently earns solid rankings for its food, and its service and décor don’t disappoint either. It’s a “safe” choice – that’s what we like about it – but damned if I don’t come away from every meal with an idea or two.

More often than not, I come away with a kitchen gadget or two as well, because the space is made up of three components – the restaurant, a cooking school, and a very well-curated culinary boutique with appliances, books, dishware and the like, as well as an assortment of small electronics and appliances for the kitchen.

By the way, if it’s a nice day, YOU MUST sit outside.

Regardless of where you sit, be prepared for some adventure, because amidst the comfort food and familiar pastries are dishes featuring smart, attractive and sometimes witty plating. You won’t be overwhelmed; you’ll simply be delighted as you kick back with a bottle of wine (or perhaps two).

Our appetizers have included smoked salmon with blini and horseradish cream and a crunchy salad, foie gras encased in cranberry “fruit leather”, and a quail breast with pumpkin in Jerusalem artichoke foam. But this is also the place for a simple, deliciously creamy quiche Lorraine. And our granddaughter was in hog heaven with her spaghetti tossed in butter and sprinkled with a little Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Steak Frites? Of course, and they’re just as you’d expect, except on occasion they add a few snails. But what about a special of Beef Cheeks with Chorizo? Expecting that? I don’t think so. I’ve enjoyed countless hanger steaks, but never a VEAL hanger steak as I’ve had here. It’s as though they try to sneak it by you. Same with the Shepherd’s Pie – also made with veal. By the way, they call this dish Veal Parmentier, but it’s really just a Shepherd’s Pie. And a delicious one at that.

Twice Joanne has had the Monkfish “Bouillabaisse” with white beans. She could easily be a slave to that dish (just like me and Bao Buns). And speaking of Asian treats, Lenôtre isn’t bashful about going there. Witness the grilled shrimp alongside spring rolls with sweet and sour dipping sauce and a bowl of Thai fried rice. Finally, my favorite: Hazelnut Crusted Cod on a bed of Chanterelle Mushrooms.

Over one of our frequent lunches here, we concluded that Lenôtre (and a bevy of other Parisian spots) were too good to waste on us. We needed to bring over the PARASOLE CULINARY TEAM. So we did.

After that decision, Joanne and I dove into the pastries – tarts, cakes, Baba Rhums and Charlottes. Check ‘em out.

The Parasole Culinary Team arrived not long afterward, and here they are at the Eiffel Tower and, of course, Lenôtre.

GO THERE. You’re gonna like this place – as much for how engaging it is as how relaxed you’ll be as you wile away an afternoon on the Champs-Élysées.



Viandes & Beyond at The Lord Essex

As one who heads to the Mayo Clinic for his yearly physicals, I’ve discovered something about dining in Rochester: You can treat yourself to a nice dinner, or you can treat your doc to a nice clean prep for your colonoscopy the next morning. You can’t do both (I’ve tried, but my efforts were poo-poo’d by the gastroenterology team).

My most recent, however, was of a less…invasive nature. So when Joanne and I stumbled upon the semi-hidden, dinner-only LORD ESSEX STEAKHOUSE in the Kahler Hotel, we made a beeline for the host stand and requested a table.

Talk about a step back in time. It was medieval décor on steroids – oozing Old World charm; warm, cozy, small and intimate. It reminded me of the splendid design work of Paul Albitz back in the day in Minneapolis. Anybody remember THE CAMELOT?

I thought that I was aware of every important steakhouse in Minnesota, yet I had never heard of the Lord Essex. WHY? It turns out that the restaurant was only recently converted into a steakhouse. For most of the Kahler’s nearly 100 years, it served as the hotel’s bar while THE ELIZABETHAN ROOM was the main restaurant.

By the way, you’ve got to love any restaurant with “Room” in its name. Remember THE ORION ROOM at the IDS Center? THE PUMP ROOM at the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago? And of course THE OCEANAIRE SEAFOOD ROOM. So retro classy! I think if I do another fish restaurant, it’ll be PHIL ROBERTS’ NEPTUNE ROOM.

But I digress.

Today The Elizabethan Room serves as banquet space. And although I can’t be sure, I suspect that the menu at the Lord Essex’s predecessor was probably centered around meatloaf and walleye for many of those years before becoming a steakhouse.

Oh, and I also learned that rock star chef Stewart Woodman opened the restaurant. But he has departed, and now the culinary team is in the capable hands of Tommie Tran and Duc Le.

Seated in a cozy red leather booth (#311), our server brought us a basket of quite good bread, embedded with raisins and other dried fruit. Then she wheeled up the meat cart and showed us the steaks, which looked impeccable. Appetizers were a Crab Claw and Shrimp Cocktail (typical steakhouse fare) and an outstanding Goat Cheese Flatbread with apples and caramelized onions (not your typical steakhouse fare).

Salads were generous and crispy. Joanne had the Farmer Salad with goat cheese and golden beets. I enjoyed the Chophouse Salad with bleu cheese, cucumber and hard boiled egg.

So how were the steaks?

I couldn’t tell you. We got the Grilled Salmon and the Roasted Chicken.

I know, I know – pretty lame for a blog post about a steakhouse discovery. But just as I was about to order, Joanne reminded me that I was going to get weighed first thing in the morning. Suddenly I had a taste for chicken.

One thing I CAN tell you about their meats, however: They’re advertised as “the finest available hand-selected USDA Prime…served to your exact preferences, seasoned with sea salt and resh, cracked black pepper,” then “broiled at 1,8000 F and finished with herb butter.”

So without being able to tell you firsthand about the steak, what’s my take on the place overall?

We liked it and would definitely go back. Our dishes were tasty, and I can only assume the steaks would be just as good. Service was smart and attentive, too. Dinner at The Lord Essex won’t break the bank, either. Expect to pay about $40-75 per person depending on wine; not bad for a first-class steakhouse.

I’m not certain I understand the Rochester market. On a Thursday night, the restaurant wasn’t very busy. You’d think, with thousands of people coming to the Mayo every week, it would have drawn a larger crowd. Then again, I’m told that the clinic “front loads” patients on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of each week, leaving Thursday and Friday open for follow-up tests, so maybe that impacts the number of diners at the Kahler.

WTF – give ‘em a try. I think you’ll like The Lord Essex – especially if your dining companion doesn’t shame you into ordering the chicken.


The Joys of Roy’s

It was probably 20 years ago that I visited ROY’S Hawaiian restaurant in Waikiki. And being my first trip to Hawaii, it was my first experience with real – and really great – Pacific Rim cuisine. Prior to that, my “Hawaiian” dining had been limited to TRADER VIC’S, DON THE BEACH COMBER and our own WAIKIKI ROOM at the Nicollet Hotel – frequently pre-made and “scooped and plopped” on the plate.

So when I discovered dishes freshly made to order from pristine local ingredients (before that was fashionable), beautifully plated and often witty, I had entered an entirely new Hawaiian culinary world. So every time I returned to Hawaii, I didn’t miss a chance to visit Roy’s.

Dinner started with a small bowl of salted edamame beans followed by Blackened Tuna….virtually raw (I swear that the tuna was so fresh that it was swimming earlier that day). We continued by sharing a Deep Fried Dragon Roll – a nice counterpoint between soft and crunch. Ginger Chicken Potstickers were just as we had remembered them years ago.

It should come as no surprise that Roy’s excelled. After all, the founder is Roy Yamaguchi….CIA grad from Hyde Park Culinary school and James Beard Award winner. One of his signature dishes, a favorite of Joanne’s, is Misoyaki Butterfish – moist and perfectly prepared ($37). Out of my respect for gluttony, I opted for the Duroc Pork Chop with braised apples and crusted with blue cheese ($39).

Roy built the company to number more than thirty restaurants both in Hawaii and here in the mainland, and then around the year 2000 sold the continental U.S. locations to BLOOMIN’ BRANDS, owner of OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE, CARRABA’S, BONEFISH GRILL and some APPLEBEE’S. I can remember being concerned about that sale. Could a fine dining concept be effectively operated by a casual dining culture? I still wonder about that.

I never gave the mainland restaurants a try and as time went by, the publicity and trade rags seemed to mention them less and less, and it appeared to me that they were fading into restaurant limbo.

Time passes and two years ago we were in Maui and our daughter and her husband decided to give ROY’S a try at Kanapali in Maui. They returned with RAVE REVIEWS. So the next night Joanne and I decided to give ‘em a try as well, probably after a ten year hiatus. And as jaded as we probably were at that time, we came home thoroughly impressed. Roy’s still had all of the attributes that we so fondly remembered – polite, professional artful plating and flavor profiles…and that touch of whimsy that I love.

Let’s return to the sale of the company several years ago.

When I complimented the manager at Kanapali on our dinner, he informed me that Roy retained control of all the restaurants in Hawaii. It made sense, not only because the food was great, but the whole operation had a feel of being very well-tended and loved.

Fast forward to three weeks ago when we were in Naples, Florida. Mainland ROY’S was not our first choice, but all of the “GEEZER TABLES” at our preferred restaurants were fully booked by 6:00 PM and Roy’s had a table available on the patio for the six of us. Now I suspect that you are thinking I’m going to trash the place. I’m not. It was actually pretty good – which was something of a surprise since by this time the restaurant was an additional step removed from Roy Yamaguchi. Bloomin’ Brands off-loaded its franchises to an Applebee’s operator from Texas. I can only imagine how much money it ultimately lost on the deal.

Still, many of the signature dishes from Roy’s Hawaiian outpost were featured on the Naples menu. Szechuan Spiced Baby Back Ribs were there as well as the Macadamia Crusted Mahi Mahi and a $44 Seafood Sampler with salmon, swordfish, mahi mahi and tuna (I often worry about “samplers” – wondering if they’re just leftovers or scraps, but this was good). Our grandson had a great burger, and the desserts were all tasty, especially the Banana Crisp and the Molten Chocolate Cake.

Here’s my takeaway. Roy’s on the mainland does a decent ¬– even good – job with the food. Service is professional. Does it seem a bit more formulaic than Roy’s in Hawaii? Yes. But our experience at the Hawaiian location was special. Very special.

Finally we shared a traditional Hawaiian dish that we should have avoided…just because it’s famous: THE LOCO MOCO. It gives new meaning to the term GUTBUSTER, starting with a bowl of white rice….topped with two half pound burger patties (sometimes SPAM or MEATLOAF )…..heavily napped with brown gravy and garnished with two fried eggs. The weight? I’d say about three pounds.

It’s named after a Spanish teenager from a local sports club who apparently was sort of crazy, thus the first name LOCO. MOCO is a bit more mysterious as I’m told that the Spanish translation is BOOGER!!!

Would you eat a dish called CRAZY BOOGER? We did, so you don’t have to.

Oh, and here’s a goofy thing. A few weeks ago I touted another restaurant in Honolulu called MORIMOTO, only to discover that it suddenly closed at the end of the year.

I’m on a streak: Roy’s in Naples closed up a week after we were there!!!!

W.T.F…….I mean really…. W.T.F. ???????