Archive | July, 2010

Saji-Ya

26 Jul

Visited July 17, 2010

Ryan

On a recent Saturday night, Lauren and I were invited out to dinner with three friends, and sushi was the popular choice. As you have seen on this blog, we have already been to a fair number of sushi joints in the Twin Cities, and I have a difficult time telling them apart food-wise, so it really comes down to presentation, ambiance, staff, etc. After Lauren and I both nixed the original idea of Tiger Sushi in Uptown due to unfavorable marks on yelp.com, we all agreed on St. Paul’s Saji-Ya, located on Grand Ave.

Lauren and I arrived early and took a seat at the bar, where we were promptly served some drinks as we watched the Twins game. Lauren went for one of the fun house drinks, while I opted for a summery gin and tonic. Before long the rest of the crew arrived and we were seated near the kitchen. My first impression of the restaurant was positive; the staff seemed professional and courteous, but it took a while for the others to place drink orders. The decor was nothing special, and our table was oddly shoved in the back corner away from the other tables, but that really didn’t bother me at all.

Calamari appetizer at Saji-Ya, St. Paul, MN

The calamari appetizer was a great way to start the meal.

Lauren and I decided to start with an appetizer and ordered the calamari. Unlike most calamari we’ve tried, these came in giant onion ring shaped pieces. There were about 12 pieces, served with a tangy soy-based sauce. The appetizer alone at $9 was relatively filling, earning points from me. For the main course, the two of us split three rolls—Manny (albacore, spicy mayo, crunchy red, black, and green tobiko – $16.95), Spider (soft shell crab, cucumber, and gobo – $12.50), and Dynamite (hamachi and habanero – $7.25). The Manny roll was undoubtedly the best and most festive looking with its pink top. The other two rolls were pretty standard in appearance and tasted pretty much the same to me. Drowned in soy sauce and wasabi, I thoroughly enjoyed all three. Combined there were 16 pieces—I had 9, Lauren had 7. We were full by the time dinner ended.

Saji-Ya main course, St Paul, MN

The two of us split three different rolls - 16 pieces total.

Overall I have to say Saji-Ya was a place I’d go back to again, but then again so were all the other sushi places we’ve been, in my opinion! I’m still looking for that WOW factor—something that separates one sushi joint from the next, whether it’s amazing food, unusual decor, excellent service, or something else.

Lauren

I was originally hoping to try either Anchor Fish & Chips or the Blue Door Pub this evening, but when our friend Sarah called us to say that she was planning on a big run the next day – she’s training for a marathon – and would prefer a lighter meal, sushi sounded good to both of us.

We got there just a bit early and decided to spend a bit of time in the bar area. Ryan ordered a standard drink but I decided to go off of the drink menu. It’s not something I normally do, because those specialty drinks can cost quite a pretty penny!

But the drink I ordered, the “Plum Kiss” was delicious!! It was plum wine, prosecco, and something else. It was much sweeter than drinks I typically order, but it was a lovely pink-purpley colour and the friendly bartender stuck an orchid in it, so I consider it well worth the price.

As Ryan noted, we ordered our favourite, calamari! It seems that about 50% of the time we got out to eat, we end up ordering fried squid. But who can blame us, it’s delicious! The calamari at Saji-Ya was so strange … VERY large pieces. It looked more like onion rings than anything else. All of us at the table joked how it must have been one huge squid!

Surprisingly, I am much more picky than Ryan is when it comes to sushi. As much as I love it, I just cannot handle large pieces of raw fish… I cannot do nigiri (which is what most people think of when they think ‘sushi’. Nigiri is slices of fish on a rice bed). I would love it if I could split each typical nigiri piece into three pieces! I know this is gross: Whenever I try to eat nigiri, I get very freaked out by the “mouth feel” of the larger piece of fish and have trouble chewing and swallowing.

Sorry for that information.

So I prefer, greatly, to order maki (which are rolls, typically with rice on the outside and fish on the inside, but this can vary), where I can get the flavor of fresh fish but in smaller amounts that are texturally easier for me to deal with. I definitely wish that I could be more adventurous! But the texture of raw fish is too much for me to handle in that quantity.

I really enjoy that Ryan has become more open to sushi – it’s so much fun to be able to order a few different rolls and share everything! I really enjoyed the “Manny” roll with the albacore – I don’t believe I had had albacore before – and a bit of spice. I always enjoy a good spicy roll!

The service was pretty good. I love the warm towels you get at Japanese restaurants; Saji-Ya’s smelled of almond, which I loved. But our table was right next to the kitchen and despite that, sorry to say, our server was rather an absentee. Perhaps it was because Ryan and I had already got drinks while we were waiting at the bar, but she essentially forgot to take drink orders for the rest of our table until they told her that they wanted to order beverages.

As fans of the blog (are there any????) probably are aware, I base a huge portion of my review on how often my water glass is refilled. I am a very thirsty person and I can take down a typical 8 oz water glass in mere seconds. The service was good, except for the fact that for most of dinner I did not have any water.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed Saji-Ya. I would still say my preferred sushi restaurant in the Twin Cities is Wasabi (but it’s been a very long time since we’ve gone there) but this came close. I loved my fun specialty drink and I was very satisfied by our order. When the bill came, we felt it was fairly reasonable, which was nice – it can be scary to receive the check at a sushi restaurant in a land-locked state!

Ambience – 4/5. Our table was next to the kitchen, which was a downfall. There were much better tables but we were a strange party (five people).
Service – 3/5. Our bartender while we were waiting was very fun and engaging. Our server was tolerable.
Food – 4/5. I liked it quite a bit! The calamari was a bit tough, does that mean it was an older squid? The sushi was fresh and very tasty. Our dinner companions all had very positive things to say. However, like Ryan said, we’re both far from experts in the field of sushi.
Overall experience – 3.5/5. I enjoyed myself quite a bit! Saji-Ya has a very intimate feel, which is nice. It’s actually much larger than it feels. I wasn’t a big fan of where we were seated (when the kitchen door opened we became privy to all manner of staff conversations, some of which I would have preferred not be aware of). That being said, we had what seemed to be the one table in the restaurant that was geared for a party of more than four; the rest of them were in a more proper dining area and looked to have a better time of it. Overall, one of my more preferred sushi dining experiences in the Twin Cities.

The Bulldog (Uptown)

18 Jul

Visited July 5th, 2010

The Monday after the Fourth of July, we killed the day by hanging out at The Bulldog’s Uptown location at 26th & Lyndale with friends Chris and Sarah. This was far from the first time any of us had been there. It has long been one of our favorite places to grab a drink as they serve a wide range of European beers, including my all-time favorite, Kwak, which comes in an oddly shaped glass held in place by a wooden stand. We also have enjoyed their selection of burgers, hot dogs, and tator tots. Just a little twist on typical bar food.

Ryan
It wasn’t particularly busy when we arrived at 12:40pm the day after the 4th of July. It appeared as though there were two people on staff—a man working the bar and a woman waiting tables. The woman was completely disheveled. She was running to and fro at top speeds. It took us over 20 minutes for our drink orders to be taken. While we were slightly irritated with the slow service, we were also entertained by the waitress’s manic “drive-by” style of taking our food order and replenishing our drinks throughout our four-hour stay. She didn’t really stop walking, just passed by us and talked as she did other things. I truly have never seen waitressing quite like it, and am not sure I totally hated it.

For lunch, I ordered their special Burger of the Week, which sounded very peculiar—all-beef patty topped with pig cheek, and seasoned with Cajun spices and sauces. I opted for regular tator-tots on the side. Surprisingly enough, being from a farm, I didn’t know if pig cheek literally meant the cheek, or if it was just the name for a particular cut. Some quick research later showed it is a cut of pork located between the head and shoulders, so it’s not actually the lining of the pig’s mouth, thankfully.

I ordered the Burger of the Week special.

I ordered the Burger of the Week special.

The food took quite a while to arrive. We had been at the Bulldog for almost 90 minutes by the time our food arrived, but we weren’t too upset considering we planned to spend the whole afternoon there drinking beer. I had three pints of Rush River Unforgiven (an amber ale) at $5 each, followed by three pints of PBR at $3 each. Yes, six pints in succession is the definition of binge drinking, but it was a holiday!

My burger was well worth the wait though. I can’t pinpoint the exact flavors used for the sauces and the spiced mayo, but I do recall they were Cajun flavored. The burger, which I ordered medium-done, was juicy and flavorful, and was really brought to life by the thick cuts of pig cheek, which was a cross between bacon and ham. I thoroughly enjoyed the burger and side of tator tots. I noticed I got way more tots than Lauren—so much so that I couldn’t even finish them all.

Later, we shared a plate of chips, salsa, and guacamole. This was just average. The salsa left a lot to be desired in the heat department, and the $1 cup of guac wasn’t nearly enough for all the chips we were given. Lauren found it funny to load up a chip with a ton of salsa and fly it like a plane into my mouth, whether I was willing to cooperate and open my mouth or not.

The chips and salsa, in Ryan's opinion, were average at best.

The chips and salsa, in Ryan's opinion, were average at best.

If you check my Rankings page, you’ll see I gave The Bulldog the following points. This is good for 13th of 17 restaurants on the list. The strong point of The Bulldog was the portions; the weak point was the waiting staff, but far from the worst I’ve seen.

Food: 6
Portions: 8
Value: 6
Atmosphere: 5
Staff: 3
Experience: 5

Lauren

The Hawaiian Volcano Burger

After spending the Fourth of July holiday visiting Ryan’s family in South Dakota, we were looking forward to a relaxing Monday off of work. Our friend Chris called, in the neighborhood and looking for a bite to eat and a cold beer. That sounded like a fine plan to us, so we walked the achingly-long three blocks from our apartment to the original Bulldog location. (side note: I ate at this same restaurant location when it was the vegetarian restaurant Mud Pie, ten! years! ago! Where does the time go?)

As Ryan noted, although the restaurant was mostly empty, the lone server was running back and forth, calling out orders and instructions to the kitchen staff and bartender. It made me feel as if I was a great disturbance, sitting at a table waiting for her precious attention. But it mattered little as we were planning on staying a while to enjoy a few cold beers.

Once we finally ordered and were delivered our beers, our waitress came back at length to take our food order. I made the whole waiting situation much worse by asking what the “Burger of the Week” was, sending our waitress off in search of a slip of paper that had the specials written down on them. She also delivered a few food orders before coming back to us — this was after Chris had given her his order. I passed on the specials, going for the “Hawaiian Volcano” burger, with jalapenos, grilled pineapple, bacon and gouda. The gouda sounded a little incongruous on a tropical burger, but tasted good. I have become a little bit obsessed, lately, with grilled pineapple, so that with the spicy jalapenos was very welcome. I also ordered the tater tots, though in the end I could have skipped those, as the burger more than filled me up. That paired with a couple of Ommegang Hennepin pints, and our waitress finally chilling out, made for a relaxing observed Independence Day.

All in all, the Bulldog is a reliable neighborhood joint. Good beer selection, good food and usually a pretty relaxed environment. It’s probably my favorite of the spots in our immediate vicinity.

Brasa

14 Jul

Visited June 29, 2010

Ryan
Lauren and I met up with an old friend of Lauren’s from high school, Chelsea, for a Tuesday night dinner at Brasa. Brasa is located in northeast Minneapolis and is placed in what looks like a former auto repair shop with its big garage doors. Brasa claims to serve comfort food inspired by the Creole cooking traditions of the Americas and Caribbean. Their rotisserie meats and side dishes are 100% natural, local, and organic, and are made completely from scratch.

The girls and I split a pitcher of Surly for $19—kind of an unusually steep price considering a pint was $5 and the pitcher only filled about three pint glasses with a few drops to spare. But the waitress was attentive and we were drinking beer before long. I admired the ingenuity of the establishment with its wide-open atmosphere. The indoor and outdoor sections blended together perfectly into one general seating area. Seeing how it was a hot, sunny evening, it was nice to sit under the roof on the indoor side but still get the benefit of the breeze.

what Ryan ate

After very little contemplation, I ordered a 2-meat/2-side combo, choosing the rotisserie chicken and pulled pork, with sides of yellow rice & beans and yams & Andouille sausage, costing me $15. The food was delivered in about twenty minutes and I dug right in. I expected a heaping mound of meats, but the portions were merely adequate. The meats were amazingly delicious—very juicy with some interesting seasonings. There was no heat, however. The jar of homemade hot sauce on the table barely sufficed, but I guess not all dishes need to be hot and spicy… just my personal preference. Much like the Caribbean joint in Stillwater (Smalley’s BBQ) the sides were great compliments to the main course. The sausage in the yams was a little strange (I tend to find thinly sliced round meats visually unappealing) but all was good.

As you can see in Ryan’s Rankings at the top tab on the page, the highlight of Brasa was the food. The staff was fine, the atmosphere was unusual but nice, the value was reasonable, but the portions were a little small in my opinion. Overall it received 41 points, good for only 10th of 17 restaurant experiences so far, which is kind of misleading as I really enjoyed it.

Lauren

Chelsea and I go way back to the early days of high school, so far back that if I posted a picture from our 15-year-old selves from Eden Prairie she would probably never speak to me again. And I would deserve it – we were both such choir geeks.

As both of our busy schedules would have it, she and I sadly don’t get a chance to catch up that often. Before we met up in late June, the last time I had seen her was before Ryan’s and my wedding in October! So I was thrilled when she had a Tuesday evening available for dinner – even if she did have to run back to work after we ate.

Ryan and I arrived at Brasa precisely at the agreed-upon time, and were seated immediately in a half-booth inside. The patio looked really lovely, but was full, as was most of the restaurant. I was somewhat surprised at how busy it was, but given Chef Alex Roberts’ deserved fame I shouldn’t have been. As Ryan mentioned, we still had a good feeling of being outdoors with the large garage-style front opened up to the summer air. Chelsea arrived as well and we chatted while quickly deciding on a pitcher to share. On further reflection, the pitcher was a rather poor idea. I think that the single pints of Surly are $5.50, while the pitcher is $19, and we got slightly more than three glasses from the pitcher, so I think in effect we paid more for the pitcher than we would have, had we ordered three individual beers.

I also decided on a two-meat platter, figuring that either Ryan would finish his meal and still be hungry (he was, and picked off of mine while I finished) or I would take a bit of food home. I also chose the pulled chicken, and the braised beef. I was disappointed to hear that they were out of the plantains for the day, because that was an item that had caught my eye on the online menu, but decided to go with the yams and a side salad.

what Lauren ate at Brasa

The side salad was great, with a light tangy vinaigrette, chunks of fresh mozzarella and shaved radish. I have never much cared for radishes, but I am trying to get on board with them as we get quite a few in our CSA box. I liked this application of them, probably because they were shaved which allowed them to play nicely with the mozzarella. I also really enjoyed the yams with the Andouille sausage, though it was possibly a side dish that is best saved for colder months.

The meat was naturally quite good, although I didn’t enjoy the chicken terribly. It came in some kind of cream gravy, which is listed on the menu but I don’t think I noticed before I made my order. I think I would have been happier trying the rotisserie chicken, as Ryan encouraged me to do. Still, the chicken that I did eat was quite tasty. As I alluded to before, I ate my dinner rather slowly while Chelsea and I chatted so Ryan had cleaned his plate when I had barely finished my salad! After deciding that the chicken wasn’t my cup of tea, I passed it to Ryan who happily polished it off.

The beef was quite outstanding and I had to trouble myself to offer some for Ryan to try (he must have enjoyed his pork too much to offer me a bite! ;))

My constant fear ordering meat in a restaurant is that it will be greasy or somehow unpalatable by me. I was a vegetarian for many years so a lot of times certain meat entrees look or sound too “icky” for me to try. I have improved a lot in the past few years (I now eat bratwurst, which I wouldn’t have touched a few years ago) and I am constantly challenging myself to step outside my comfort zone. But the braised beef at Brasa was perfect. If I were to have a complaint, it would be that the barbecue sauce served on top was too sweet for my taste.

The service was also quite good. It was a hot night and I emptied my water glass several times, but I never had to wait more than a few minutes to have it refilled, despite the busy dining room. And even more impressively, after the three of us had finished our meals, declined dessert and paid our bill, my water glass was still being filled while we chatted another 15 minutes.

In short, Brasa is a place that I desperately wish I lived near. We will be back soon!