1. (This one doesn’t just apply to restaurant critics.): You don’t go out to hear music much any more. Too tired. Past your bedtime. You listen to MPR a lot.
2. You get cranky about the noise level in restaurants.
3. I forget.
At any rate, last Friday, we were sitting at home, listening to MPR, when we heard a Chris Roberts feature about Davina and the Vagabonds, playing that night at the Dakota. “Let’s go!” says Carol, or words to that effect. She didn’t actually say, “we never do anything fun anymore,” but she didn’t need to. We jumped in the car, and arrived early enough to get a great table – just a few feet from the stage.
We had a great time. I had heard of Davina and the Vagabonds before, but never actually heard them – and they are amazing, especially Davina, who plays boogie-woogie piano like a young Marcia Ball and belts out the blues like – I am not sure who – Tracy Nelson? – backed by trumpet, trombone, brums and stand-up bass. She opened the set with a bluesy cover of Daydream, the John Sebastian / Loving Spoonful song that was one of the anthems of my youth, followed by a keyboard-banging rendition of an old Fats Domino tune, and we were off to the races. Turns out they perform at the Dakota about once a month ($12 cover), and every other Wednesday at Lee’s Liquor Lounge (with no cover).
But the other revelation of the evening was the cuisine. I’ve ordered from the Dakota’s bar menu before, and attended a fundraising dinner with a special menu, but I don’t recall the last time I sampled Jack Reibel’s dinner menu. I ordered the Blue Note menu – three courses for $30, while Carol ordered a la carte.
My dinner started with a warm asparagus salad ($10) – firm, very fresh spears of green and white asparagus with an amazingly delicate and savory foam – the menu says “parmesan pudding, preserved lemon, anchovy tomato confit.” Carol started with the salt-and pepper calamari salad ($10) – a Vietnamese-inspired salad tossed with crisp marinated julienne of carrots and radish, and crunchy bits of macadamia nut, dressed with a sweet and sour pineapple vinaigrette.
The main course for my Blue Note menu was the sweet pea brown butter tortellini with baby artichoke hearts in a Vidalia onion sauce, scented with black truffles ($19) – a light but satisfying dish; Carol chose the walleye cakes, twin patties buried under a pile of jicama, red onions and watercress, sprinkled with bits of pecan, accompanied by a spicy pickled habanero aioli – simple but satisfying. We shared the Blue Note dessert – a summery creme fraiche tart with strawberries and a rhubarb sorbet ($8).
I was impressed enough that I’d like to go back sometime soon and splurge on the three-course $39 menu, which lets you choose almost any starter entree and dessert from the a la carte menu – I have my eye on the ahi tuna poke ($12), the steamed halibut ($25) and the Valrhona dark chocolate souffle with passionfruit custard ($10).
Interior of In Season
So, about the decibel level – I also had a very lovely dinner the night before at In Season – Don Saunders new restaurant in the fomer Armatage Room at 54th and Penn. (You may remember Saunders from his previous venture, Fugaise on E. Hennepin) As the name suggests, the focus at In Season is on seasonal cooking, building a menu around fresh ingredients at their peak of flavor.
I liked everything we tasted – the couscous salad with chickpeas, fava beans and buffalo mozzarella ($9) the raw ahi tuna with oil cured tomato, wax beans and avocado sorbet ($13), the soft-shell crab with pickled red onion, avocado puree and bacon ($13), a delightful entree of panko-crusted tofu with haricot verts, shiitake mushrooms and soy mustard, and a dessert course of bread pudding with strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream ($9).
The cuisine was in the same league at the Dakota’s, though the Dakota, with its bar menu and prix fixe menus offers better value if you are dining on a budget. But the decisive difference was the aural experience. The storefront dining room was mostly full when we visited, and the decibel level coming from a lot of tables in a small space was high enough to drown out the music playing in the background, and detract from the overall experience. But maybe that’s just a sign that I am getting old and cranky – or that we should return on a slower night.