Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl dishes on Twin Cities dining scene

City Pages' former critic pens new book, Drink This: Wine Made Simple

I have never in my life had a bartender cut me off, though it nearly happened the other day when I was out to lunch at Barbette with City Pages' former restaurant critic Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. The bartender apparently wasn't keen on supplying the eight glasses of bubbly that Grumdahl and I had ordered, but our waitress was able to convince him that it was okay because she thought we were planning a wedding.

I'm not sure if the waitress thought Grumdahl and I intended on marrying each other (critics marrying critics should probably be illegal; just think of the arguments about what to have for dinner!) or if one of us was simply assisting the other. But when Grumdahl ordered every sparkling wine on the list, the friendly waitress couldn't help but hazard a guess: Were we conducting a tasting for upcoming nuptials?

I teetered a little and Grumdahl responded, "Uhhh...yes," in a way that sounded as if she was still deciding on her answer as it came out of her mouth. I let out an awkward laugh as the waitress congratulated herself and went off to fetch the beverages.

It's not that Grumdahl or I like the idea of misrepresenting ourselves, but it's often easier for us to work on the sly. Not because there's much a restaurant can do when they know a critic is dining—"They can't learn to cook, they can't rewrite the menu, they can't rush out and get a better piece of fish," Grumdahl notes—but because the meal can become far less comfortable if hovering staffers refill the water glasses after every sip. So we chose not to reveal the actual occasion of our meeting, which was to toast Grumdahl's new book, Drink This: Wine Made Simple, and put its teachings into practice.

The book, published in November by Ballantine and quickly climbing in the Amazon ranks, marks a shift in Grumdahl's career from local restaurant critic to national wine expert. But don't panic—she may be broadening her audience, but Grumdahl isn't leaving Minnesota behind. After a decade at City Pages, Grumdahl has spent the past two years as the critic and food editor for my former employer, Minnesota Monthly. (Essentially, we switched jobs.)

Looking back, we both agree that it's been a good decade for Twin Cities restaurants. Much of the improvement is owed to the farm-to-table infrastructure that's been developed, as ingredients from top-quality local food producers are now found at both chef-driven restaurants and mainstream supermarket shelves. We've developed a market of customers willing to pay more for the excellence of, say, a Rustica baguette or organic produce, which in turn challenges the restaurants. "The bar that people will always compare restaurants to is, 'Is this better than what I could make at home?'" Grumdahl says. "The better you cook at home, the better you want the restaurants to be."

The Twin Cities dining scene peaked about halfway through the decade, when ambitious restaurants like Red, Auriga, Five, and Levain all blazed their stoves. "Chefs were outdoing one another at every turn, and we had crazy little flames of glory," Grumdahl says. Without enough fine diners to support so many restaurants, the market in time self-corrected, and today, as we struggle to climb out of a national recession, local dining feels sleepier and more scaled back. Still, such maturation helped weed out food-service grade restaurants or forced them to step up their game. "There are more good restaurants everywhere," Grumdahl says. "It's to the point that we take a lot of excellent restaurants for granted."

When asked to name her favorite among those excellent restaurants, Grumdahl does the same thing I do: She says she doesn't have one...she has about 20. "It's like having a favorite child," she says. "I like Matt's Bar for totally different reasons than I like La Belle Vie, and I like them both."

Still, the places we both frequent on our own time tend to be those close to home. For Grumdahl, that means sandwiches at Clancey's, takeout from Jasmine Deli and Quang, or anything at Common Roots—except the bagels. "I hate their bagels," she says. "They're just too hard." While most of my food purchases are made at the Wedge—the only place in town where I'm truly a regular—my go-to restaurants are in the same area: dinner on Eat Street, drinks at Barbette, breakfast bagel at Common Roots. One woman's "too hard" is another's toothsome, perhaps.

GRUMDAHL WROTE HER BOOK because she wished she'd had something like it—a more personal riff on Wine for Dummies, which uses systematic tastings to demonstrate the range of a wine varietal's characteristics—when she first became a critic. While the book is certainly stuffed with all sorts of interviews with wine experts and food-pairing suggestions, its importance, in my mind, has less to do with readers gaining knowledge so much as confidence. "The only thing that really matters is knowing your taste and finding things that are good to you," Grumdahl stresses.

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