Best Of :: Food & Drink
The main thing that sets apart a great work of art, be it a novel, a painting, or a movie, from some crap at the mall is that it should be a fully realized vision, a completely thought-through, whole, interrelated, and complete event in which all the physical details serve the overall vision of the creators. Miraculously, Solera is such a being. Sure, you could say it's just a tapas bar. But that would neglect the beautiful flower-pod-doohickey that is the mosaic host stand. It would ignore the funny alien tapas bar chairs, the silvery figurines that make the salt and pepper dispensers, and so much more. Follow any train of thought you might have at Solera, and you'll find it fully realized: The wine and sherry list is like a university-level course on current thinking in Spanish viticulture. The food will meet you on whatever level you want: If you're just looking for a happy-hour snack after work, try the lemony, spicy calamari and a beer. If a romantic dinner for two is more your speed, the $30, eight-course menu gives you something to bond and linger over. And if you're a serious food-head, pull up a seat at the tapas bar and talk with one of the chefs. There isn't a restaurant in Minneapolis right now that hews more closely to its highest choices, nor a restaurant we'd rather go to.
We admit that part of the allure of Afton Apple is the beautiful drive to Hastings. From I-94, the nearly 12-mile stretch along Manning Road and County Road 76 oozes rural charm, especially on a crisp fall day when the leaves are blazing and the sun is out. Then there's the hayride across some of the orchard's 170 acres of rolling hills toward whatever apples are ready to be picked among the eleven different species available. Naturally, you chomp a couple already on the ground, but not yet rotted, hearing that unmistakable "keroosh" as your teeth cut into the fruit and set off all the sweet and tart sensors on your tongue. The more you pick, the better you get at it, looking for that gem at the back of a cluster hidden behind the leaves, so corpulent and fresh that it falls into your hand with just the slightest rustle. It might be a Haralson, or a Cortland, or a Sweet 16, or something you've never heard of (call before you go to see what's ripe that week), but you know the apples you pick yourself taste the best. Afton Apple also features strawberry picking in the early summer, raspberries later in the season, and pumpkins and a corn maze in the fall. They also bring in blueberries, cherries, and peaches from Michigan. But keep your eyes on the prize: fresh apples, best picked from Labor Day through Halloween. And after you get your hayride back to the main building, indulge yourself in a glass of hot cider.
It was the surf clams that caused us to fritter away damn near an entire afternoon in this vast, but hard to find, market. As confirmed Asian food lovers, we were predictably agog over United Noodles' bounty even before we spotted the pretty clams. We'd ogled the vacuum-sealed cuttlefish, scanned the wall-long array of pot stickers and frozen dim sum items, and contemplated the very nicely priced bags of genmaicha, green tea with roasted rice. Then, there it was, a one-pound box of frozen giant surf clams--big, thorn-shaped beauties with wide white bases and brilliant crimson tips. We'd ordered them before, at various sushi restaurants, but it had never occurred to us that for $9 we might take them home. In an instant, we were committed. An aisle over, amid the produce, we found baby bok choy and napa cabbage. A little ways more, we picked up blistering sambal, fish sauce, and other condiments with which to dress our concoction. Oh yeah--and noodles. We got some fresh rice noodles to toss in with everything. Reader, it was an inspired trip. And all because of the surf clams.
For some, the arrival of Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the upper Midwest was reason for celebration, carbs be damned. Sure, we waited in long lines in Maple Grove for those famous just-off-the-conveyor-belt sensations, but now that you can get a Krispy Kreme fix at a Holiday gas station, next to the Hostess for goodness's sake, well, the thrill is gone. The same cannot be said, thankfully, for the marvelous H&H bagel. Flown in fresh from Manhattan's West Side and keeping a suitably low profile in select locations (kind of like Woody Allen), these circular wonders show the wannabes just who's worthy of the finest lox. The dark brown crust is simultaneously crispy and chewy, giving way to an airy and somewhat moist interior that really comes into its own when toasted and smeared with cream cheese. The basic flavors are best--plain, sesame, onion, cinnamon raisin--all giving credence to the simple genius of a well-made bagel. They say New York water is the secret ingredient, and given there's nary a better specimen to be found outside the five boroughs, let alone in Minnesota where most bagels are an uninspired beige and sometimes square (the horror!), we tend to agree.
A great bakery should have great ambition, lofty standards, arresting charm, and great prices. It needs ambition because otherwise you could bake cookies yourself. It needs standards because otherwise you could get worse quality stuff from the grocery store. It needs arresting charm because you're so busy! To get you to diverge from your usual path, it has to offer inducements to both palate and soul. Patrick's does all of this, and does it more than anyone else in town. The ambition couldn't be greater: A true croquembouche takes both the knowledge of a lifetime and the work of an entire day, but you'll find these marvels, these rings of cream puffs coated in caramel and lassoed with spun sugar, in the pastry case at Patrick's every day in the holiday season. The standards are sky-high: Chocolate-robed cylinders of the best chocolate mousse in the state are further enhanced with gold leaf, a sunken treasure of a small disk of cake supporting a circle of hazelnut praline. The charm can barely be described: At the new Bachman's location you can sit beneath a bright yellow umbrella, eat your chocolate mousse from a china plate, and gaze at the orchids stacked gaily around you--and you can even do this in January, since the whole outdoor café is safe under a greenhouse-glass sky. The prices? Fantastic. Six dollars for a sandwich and salad, $5 for an individual cake, and a few dollars for a baguette, a croissant, or an éclair as good as any in Paris.
If you've spent any time in the South or ever stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint in Kansas City, the barbecue capital of the world, you know that tacky trinkets and contrived shack charm don't make for mouth-watering, forehead-dripping barbecue. And Ted Cook's 19th Hole Bar-B-Que knows this too. Here, only smoke-stained white walls and framed photographs of meat and side orders ornament the room, and the only thing screaming Southern charm is the creaky screen door that greets you. Current owner Moses Quartey, who took over Ted Cook's four years ago, has been grilling meat and whipping up sauces at Cook's for more than 16 years. The place offers takeout only, and a full-sized rack of ribs will cost you $17.95. If greasy fingers and red-stained cheeks aren't an option, check out the barbecue beef dinner ($10.85), which includes mesquite- and hickory-grilled beef slices so delicate and thin they're almost transparent, sweet coleslaw, bread for soaking, and a heaping of Jo Jo Potatoes. These crispy fixin's are the perfect sponge for Ted Cook's tangy and sweet sauce, which comes as hot as your taste buds can stand.