Cafeteria Style

New French Kitchen

1300 Lagoon Ave., Mpls.; 825-2525

           THE LAGOON CINEMA multiplex is conveniently located across the street from a McDonald's. Last week, I ate there and trundled off to catch Emma. Something about the experience was all wrong; there was Ms. Gwyneth Paltrow staring down at me with her luminescent skin and pearly teeth. A small dribble of ketchup rolled down my chin and the people sitting next to me moved a couple of seats further away. I guess the art movie crowd isn't supposed to dine on big, greasy fish sandwiches and watery cokes. Maybe if I had been seeing Striptease... In any case, it's a good thing for the Lagoon set, not to mention the rest of Uptown, that the New French Kitchen has moved in nextdoor to the theater.

           The NFK is set up as a gentrified cafeteria. You can get your freshly baked croissant quickly, without the hassle of grubby waiters asking you a bunch of time-consuming questions. And for your visual pleasure, the cafeteria has been beautified with all sorts of floral arrangements, arty lighting fixtures, and displays of olive oil and garlic. Still, you can't help gripping your tray tightly as you make your way to some distant table; you don't want to be the joker who drops his tray.

           The food here is quite good and seems pretty reasonably priced. The line begins with desserts and baked treats, brought in everyday from the New French Bakery downtown; anyone familiar with their breads and tortes can attest to their divinity, and their increased accessibility is something to be thankful for. Crumbly scones dotted with sweet currants ($1) make a lovely treat with coffee from the full coffee bar, which is the next stop on the line. Those with a sharper sweet tooth can choose between lush cups of chocolate mousse ($2.50), airy with a pleasantly bittersweet aftertaste, bread pudding ($2.95), and a wide assortment of tarts that range from fresh fruit ($3.25) to a tangy, glossy lemon curd tart ($2.25). Cakes are also available whole (ranging from $18 for the lemon curd tart to $25 for pistachio-white chocolate cake). I vow to someday sit down with a couple of my nieces and offend the sensibilities of those around us by eating an entire cake right there.

           Next on line is the salad station, just to remind one that plans to eat entire cakes must be balanced with good eating habits. It is here that the New French has a leg up on other area restaurants, offering large portions of custom tossed salads for cheap, with fresh vegetables and big hunks of chewy french baguette on the side. Chat the workers up and they're liable to throw an extra handful of creamy feta and sharp Greek olives into your Greek salad ($5.50/3.50), tossed with a tangy olive oil-balsamic vinegar dressing. I vow to return someday soon for the bread and tomato salad ($4.95/2.95), a pleasant looking mess of homemade garlic croutons and marinated tomatoes. Last time, I chose to pass it up for a small bowl of gazpacho ($1.95), which was the best I've had in some time--nicely chilled and fragrant with onions, cucumbers, lemon, and a hint of dill.

           Hot entrées come next, but given that my tray was full and it is summer, I passed and let my friend pick up the slack. She had no problem choosing a plate of sautéed chicken breast served with a lumpy side of garlic mashed potatoes (nicely done here, without all the cheese that most places throw in to clog it up) and a side of crisp, lightly steamed vegetables that included cauliflower, carrots, and zucchini ($7.95). The only regrettable choice of the evening was a rather tough roast eggplant, red pepper, and zucchini sandwich served on a lifeless stirato bread with a bit of homemade aïoli ($4.95). It was so difficult to chew that my third friend, usually quite loquacious, was strangely silent; when he finally spoke, he was a little glum. Myself, I'd have tried a sandwich made with one of the rotisserie meats (pork loin, herb marinated chicken, and turkey breast, among others) that spin around on a mechanized rack looking quite juicy and lovely. But am I one to push? I am not.

           A glass of wine or beer should squash any poor feelings; the list here is small and reasonable in price and quantity, with a few micro-brewed beers (average price, $2.95) and a small list of red, white, and blush wines (a bottle of Robert Mondavi chardonnay, Coastal Vineyard, goes for $21 a bottle/$4.95 a glass, and a bottle of Guenoc Zinfandel goes for $18 a bottle/$4.25 a glass). All of which make suitable complements to the NFK's well-rendered food, and none of which should cause the patrons of the Lagoon to get up and move away from you.

           TABLEHOPPING

           CORNBREAD, MORE THAN JUST A FOOD: Come and celebrate a special exhibition, Off Center: Outsider Art in the Midwest, on Thursday, August 15, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Minnesota Museum of American Art (Landmark Center, 75 West Fifth St., St. Paul; 292-4355). The exhibit features seven midwestern artists whose works are unburdened by pretension or artifice because they are, after all, midwestern. Says Museum Director Ruth Appelhof, "Given its name because it is created by people who are 'outside' the mainstream art world, "outsider art" is an important aspect of the contemporary American art scene, but one that rarely receives the attention it deserves from museums." That in mind, the MMAA's celebration will feature equally unassuming comfort food such as sweet and sour meatballs, cornbread with jam, and American cheese, cubed and waiting to be stabbed by your toothpick. Best of all, Cornbread Harris will be on hand to rock away at the piano and give cause for all sorts of crazy dancing. This event is free and open to the public.

           SUMMER REHASH: Heavy with hamburger, sweet corn, and watermelon? Fie, you can still embrace summer with your mouth wide open; all you need is a bit of inspiration. Chef Ann Cooper, Executive Chef of the famed Putney Inn in Vermont, offers the following recipe, which can be found with other recipes by noted chefs in the American Dairy Association's free leaflet, "Sizzling Summer Celebrations." To order your own, send a self-addressed business-sized envelop to Sizzling Summer Celebrations, c/o American Dairy Association, P.O. Box 760, Rosemont, IL 60018-7760. If you like to be extra cautious before you go around ordering free leaflets from god-only-knows-where, get more information on the leaflet by visiting the ButterNet website at http://www.realbutter.com. And now, the recipe you've been waiting for...

           Butternut Squash Soup

* 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted
butter

* 2 pounds squash, peeled,
seeded, cut into 1-inch chunks

* 3/4 cup chopped onions

* 3/4 cup chopped celery

* 2 1/2 cups chicken broth

* 1/4 cup bourbon or apple juice

* 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

* salt and pepper to taste

           Ginger Butter

* 1/4 cup unsalted butter,
softened

* 1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger

* 1 Tbsp. bourbon, optional

* 1 tsp. maple syrup

* 1/2 tsp. ground ginger

           Heat butter in a large saucepan until melted. Add vegetables and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally for five minutes, until onions are slightly transparent. Add bourbon or apple juice to pan; cook 30 seconds. Add chicken broth. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until squash is tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat. Add vanilla. Puree mixture in blender or food processor, half at a time. Serve in individual bowls with a small dollop of Ginger Butter. Makes 8 one-cup servings.

           For Ginger Butter: Heat one tablespoon of butter in small skillet over medium heat until melted. Add grated ginger. Cook 30 seconds. Stir in bourbon, maple syrup, and ground ginger. Cook and stir about 30 seconds longer. Remove from heat. Let cool several minutes. Combine remaining butter with ginger mixture in a small bowl until smooth. Makes 1/4 cup or eight 1/2 tablespoon servings.

           TANDOOR DAYS: On August 15, celebrate the 49th anniversary of the day India gained its independence from British rule. On that occasion, Tandoor Restaurant (8062 Morgan Circle, Bloomington; 885-9060) plays host to two nights of feasting. On Thursday, August 15 and Friday, August 16 beginning at 6 p.m., enjoy a three-course Indian feast, a champagne toast, live sitar music by Bill Stelle, and Indian dancing by Sooriya Gunaseelan. The entire evening is yours for a mere $15. Reservations are requested.

           CEDARFEST ALTERNATIVE: Halfway between the equator and the north pole is a little town called North Hudson, Wisconsin. This humble burg is the site of the Pepper Festival, an annual community festival celebrating Italian heritage. The hometown celebration, starting this Friday (August 16) and lasting until Sunday, features a whole mess of clowns, a parade, queen coronation, a carnival, races, a fishing contest, talent contest, live music, and a beer garden. My favorite event, which I recommend highly, is the hot pepper eating contest. There's $200 in it for the first five-member relay team to stuff down a pound of Hungarian hots. Nothing like witnessing that on an empty stomach. If you like your contests to be on the more athletic side, or want a free T-shirt, register to run one of the races (5 k, 10 k, and one mile fun run). Registration begins at 7:30 a.m.; races begin at 8:30 a.m. To get to North Hudson, take I-94 to Exit 1, go north on Hwy. 35 about two miles, turn east on Monroe St. N., go one block, and you should start smelling cooked peppers.

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