Slice: Dining Out for Life

Rena and Sven dishing it up at Toast Wine Bar (donating to Dining Out for Life at the 50% level). Photo by Hubert Bonnet

Dining Out for Life almost feels like a holiday for me. I got into this business because I love eating out. I love the theater, the art, the ingredients, and the warm glow of a glorious meal.  To be able to enjoy my favorite places and know that just by doing what I enjoy most, I can help people who really need it. The Aliveness Project continues to serve those afflicted with HIV/AIDS – a disease that continues to be insidious despite the many medical breakthroughs.  Through empowerment they do everything from organizing events, shuttling people to doctor’s appointments, meal services – a holistic approach to those living with the disease. What better way to help out a program whose focus is on living than by raising a glass and sharing a meal?

Dinner Restaurants:

128 Café is a sweet little neighborhood joint that’s perfect for tucking away for a quiet evening of playing catch-up with friends.  The warm wood paneling in the front room lends a cozy feeling of intimacy.  There are also a few coveted seats outside along Cleveland Avenue in St. Paul’s charming Merriam Park neighborhood.  Owner Jill Wilson is always on site and does everything from greeting guests and pouring wine to waiting tables. She’s an owner fully invested in making each dining experience a memorable, enjoyable affair.  The menu changes seasonally, but the one constant are the award winning ribs. While the ribs are revelatory, the rest of the menu deserves exploring. It’s a small, tidy affair with thoughtful, beautifully prepared selections.  Succulent Amish chicken is glazed with a zippy chipotle pan sauce, accompanied by bacon-studded baby veggies.  But, allow one moment for the ribs, wonderfully smoked and topped with a mahogany sauce with just a little sweetness, a little zippy spice, and so much fun to eat in an environment that comes with white linen napkins. The expertly selected wine list perfectly pairs with each tasty bite. Donating 25% of dinner sales.

Birchwood Café is ground zero for farm to table dinning for conscious eaters. The bright white restaurant is always lined with bikes.  The tables stretch out from inside to the outdoors.  The walls are hyper-colorful and the interior space is casual, comfy room welcomes eaters at any time of day.  The food is full of vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and regular ol’ omnivore options.  They’ve also got a great kid’s menu that goes beyond the usually depressingly unhealthy children’s options, so this is a great place to bring the whole family (owner Tracy Singleton’s adorable little sprite of a daughter is often on site as well.)  The food is highly flavorful and wholly satisfying. Breakfast highlights are the veggie crammed free-range egg omelet and the sweet savory waffle, served with local, organic, and most importantly, real maple syrup.  For lunch the Sunny Day sandwich can convert even the most ardent carnivore, with orange-marinated tempeh, sunflower seed pate, golden beets, carrots and avocado; it’s crunchy, creamy, salty, sweet, and honestly does taste like a kiss of sunshine. For dinner try one of their little pizzas or one of the featured entrees like the zippy chicken stew with ginger, coconut lemongrass broth, served with a side of naan. Quaff a little local brew from Surly or Lift Bridge or a glass of sustainable wine. Donating 35% of dinner sales.

Blackbird Café is the Phoenix of Minneapolis. Rising from the ashes of the fire that destroyed their restaurant, they relocated to a new neighborhood and began a new era.  The new space is beautiful with tall ceilings and plenty of sunlight inside a gothic exterior.  What remains the same is that this is still a family-run spot, owned by husband and wife team Gail Mollner and Chris Stevens. Rather than laying down, rolling over or hiding from the awful reality of the devastation, they came back with this restaurant that is possibly even better than it had been before. The food is a playful take on all different sorts of cuisines. There are empandas, bahn mi, and fried walleye riffs. Every bite is packed with flavor, familiar while often surprising. Take the bahn mi, shredded pork that in appearance is nothing like a traditional bahn mi (the Vietnamese sandwich with meat, pate, a cucumber slice and jalapenos.)  The flavors are all still there, though. It’s unctuous, spicy, bright, savory and crunchy all on a ciabatta roll, rather than the traditional baguette. It shouldn’t work, but it does so well that I’m still dreaming about it. Entrees include hearty, homey braised short ribs or a whatever-the-market allows fish special. Donating 40% of lunch and dinner sales.

Ngon on University is committed to using local, sustainable sources for their ingredients, and the flavors show.  The menu is mainly Vietnamese with a few other influences from the Midwest and around the world. The crispy wrapped rabbit wonton appetizer is a sweet curry that packs a full-on wallop of astounding flavor packed into a few dainty bites. The pho is known far and wide for the flavor drenched broth full of accoutrements like beef, limes, bean sprouts,and jalapeños mixed in a with a mess of clear noodles. Entrees are hearty like steak, short ribs and braised pork shoulder. The sunny interior is lined with local art and the eclectic mix of music played creates a hip, comfortable vibe.  On days when the interior sunshine isn’t enough, Ngon also has a fantastic patio out back that’s a garden oasis in the heart of the industrial city.  Donating 35% of dinner sales.

Piccolo this sweet little spot serves artful, gorgeous, tidy, plates of food. They proudly fly in the gargantuan mindset of the bigger is better and more is never enough gluttony that so many Mid-westerners are accused of, and the result is one of the best, if not the best restaurant in the cities. Chef Doug Flicker is a culinary master and each plate he serves is a taste revelation. No ingredient is too humble, the duck liver braunsweiger is certainly not going to be familiar to your grandmothers bridge crowd, and elegance served with a subtle wink and smile. This is the sort of restaurant where it’s easy to check your opinions at the door and put your evening in the hands of the capable staff.  From wine to menu selection, the entire experience is likely to be flawless.  A few menu items will satisfy a modest appetite or bring some friends and order the entire menu. Donating 35% of dinner sales.

Solera restaurant has lived on through quite a few eras. Different owners and chefs have come and gone and the restaurant has continued to serve. The latest chef Jorge Guzman has once again breathed new life into the old girl. Guzman is passionate about local, sustainably raised ingredients and uses them whenever possible.  He is also constantly evolving the menu to bring huge flavors to even the tiniest of dishes.  My favorite way to enjoy an evening at Solera is to do it up Spanish style with plenty of drink and round after round of salty and spicy little plates. I’m a little bit addicted to the prawns, served head on in a bath of garlic chili olive oil. After they’re devoured, the oil is wonderful for dipping bread. The Iberico ham is a Spanish delicacy and if you close your eyes and breathe deeply, you can taste the acorns the pigs once feasted on. The setas y papas are rich, earthy mushrooms mixed with perfectly fried potatoes and are so addictive and munch-able, it’s hard to order only one plate. Their cocktails also don’t get enough attention. The Chef’s Shot–a shot of Maker’s Mark and a drink of Fever-Tree ginger ale– is the sort of thing that’s been to blame for a few late nights and rough mornings. That might not technically be a cocktail, though. Another one to try is the Old Spaniard made with toasty Mt. Gay rum muddled with fresh mint and mixed with amontillado sherry– divine. Donating 35% of dinner sales.

Toast Wine Bar may not be a regular haunt for those outside the lucky souls who live in the North Loop area, but it ought to be. With their easy, breezy vibe, it’s the perfect location to dip in for a little nosh, a little top shelf wine at affordable prices or even a full-on cocktail. (Try the 45th Parallel vodka over ice – it’s like making out with a super sexy iceberg, crisp, clean and shockingly awesome.)  The pizzas are of the cracker thin crust variety. Try the mortadella, provolone pizza topped with an egg. The rich yolk acts as a sauce, mingling with a little herby, fried egg, this is the sort of thing I could eat morning, noon and night. The entire menu is built for sipping and nibbling.  Try the luxurious burrata, fresh cheese made with mozzarella and cream; gooey, succulent, young cheese served in a variety of ways, like with a little peppery arugula tossed with Serrano ham and drizzled with balsamic vinegar.  Sitting out on the patio is so delightfully urban, situated between glistening condos and converted warehouses. It’s perfect for basking in the light of a fading, unseasonably warm spring day. Donating 50% of dinner sales.

Can’t do dinner? Try these spots for tasty goodness earlier in the day:

Anodyne at 43rd – Fabulous coffee and the Anodyne waffle with wild rice and craisins (breakfast, lunch & dinner 25%)

Colossal Café – The flappers with a perfect side of salty bacon (breakfast and lunch 30%)

CC Club – For a little punk rock break (breakfast, lunch & dinner 20%)

Cupcake – Need I say more? It’s for charity. Therefore, it’s totally calorie free (breakfast, lunch & dinner 35%)

Firelake – Start the day downtown with this locavore friendly menu (breakfast 50%)

Hazel’s – Sweet NE neighborhood joint that serves the ooey gooiest turkey sandwich known to man: the Audubon. (Breakfast, lunch, dinner 35%)

Hot Plate – Breakfast comfort food in this funky, kitchy spot (Breakfast, lunch 35%)

Rustica – Simply one of the best bakeries ever serving fabulous coffee and irresistible chocolate cookies (breakfast, lunch, dinner 40%)

Wilde Roast – The stunning new location makes it easy to want to stretch out and spend all day in our favorite neighborhood café (35% breakfast, lunch and dinner)

Yum – But what to do if you don’t feel like going out? Hit up Yum for some tasty take out – like their resuscitating chicken soup or hearty mac n cheese (35% breakfast, lunch and dinner take-out.)

Newsy Bits:

Corner Table – The single best bite of food I had this month came from this little neighborhood darling. The paperwork is finally all pushed through and the new owners are Nick and Chenny Rancone. The pork topped masa cake is bang-on-the-table, moan-inducing amazing. The website is still down, but trust my tummy, every item on this menu is heavenly. Take the leap of faith and check them out tonight.

The Solo Vino rose season is fast approaching.  They’ll kick off with the tent party on Sunday May 20th in their parking lot. Sample glass after glass of wonderful rose’s for only $30. There will be many more fun events coming from them this summer all featuring these pretty, pink wines.

In addition to the Left Handed Cook, El Burrito Mercado will also be opening up inside of Midtown Global Market.

Twins Stadium is serving up some new food, continuing to move beyond the ballpark franks. The talk of the town were the fried pickles, but I think the tastiest item was the mammoth meatball stuffed with gooey cheese. Even better, the Fulton and Surly beer selections are a welcome addition to the game experience.

We’re sad to say goodbye to Caribe, the small restaurant location that I hate to love continues to break my heart. From Chet’s Taverna, to Jay’s and now Caribe, the spot may indeed be cursed. The light rail construction chased away many of their customers. While the owners, Tony & Heidi Panelli hope to one day make a comeback, for now we say goodbye.

Rena and Sven dishing it up at Toast Wine Bar (donating to Dining Out for Life at the 50% level). Photo by Hubert Bonnet

Rena and Sven dishing it up at Toast Wine Bar (donating to Dining Out for Life at the 50% level). Photo by Hubert Bonnet

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