170 E. 10th St., St. Paul
517 Selby Ave., St. Paul
Broders' Southside Pasta Bar
5000 Penn Ave. S., Minneapolis
Patrick's Bakery And Café
6010 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis (inside the main Bachman's)
What is wealth? Is it the ability to dry your hair with a 600-thread-count towel appliquéd with oyster Rolexes? Of course it is. Is it the chance to use uncut emeralds as pie weights? Again, yes. Duh. But is it also the ability to know where in this city one can find a shockingly good $4 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, a date-worthy dinner for two for $20, a romantic orchid-strewn interlude with Parisian chocolate mousse for less than $10, and enough peaches to bathe in for the price of a fast food extra value meal? Isn't true wealth the ability to live abundantly without mortgaging your future? If you've answered yes, then read on, for I am ready to share secrets of living luxuriously, in the high style to which you have become accustomed, without spending much at all! If you have answered no, you would rather have the towel with the Rolexes, I say: Plums to you, buddy! Go suck on a peach.
I mean, from the Bible on down, hasn't the very definition of wealth been living a life surrounded by lots of ripe fruit? Ripe, fresh fruit. Meanwhile, if you read any kind of health news, it becomes clearer and clearer that the more fresh fruits and vegetables you can eat, the healthier you'll be. Meanwhile, fresh fruit in the upper Midwest is darn, darn expensive--unless you go to Eisenberg's. Now, Eisenberg's has been a Minnesota fruit institution for 70-some years. They buy fruit from produce brokers, and sell it to the public at low, low prices. They can do this for too many reasons to get into, but it largely has to do with the way that supermarkets are ungainly behemoths unable to respond to small events in the marketplace. So, little Eisenberg's buys fruit that's too ripe to sit in a supermarket central distribution warehouse and wait for further redistribution, or they buy fruit that's too sophisticated for regular supermarkets, or they buy fruit that's come in too small a quantity for a big supermarket to trifle with.
This means that, on a visit last week, I went in and bought two full grocery bags of beautiful cherries, plums, pears, nectarines, and melons for $10. You could have bought an entire crate of peaches from Clovis, California for $7.95. A 14-pound case of delicate, red-blushing Bartlett pears cost $6.95. A whole watermelon cost $2.59. I brought home golden Rainier cherries; at 99 cents a pound, they were perfectly sweet, firm, and fragrant. Unusual Italian plums, egg-sized with a hint of toffee-almond caramel to their sweet flesh, cost 69 cents a pound; I got enough for a whole pie for just a few dollars.
A lot of Eisenberg's customers are bakers, canners, and other practitioners of those once-thrifty and now oddly upscale arts. Is that why the free parking lot at thrifty Eisenberg's held a new Lexus and two fancy BMWs on my last visit? With all the recent news that keeps associating fruit and vegetables with health, and soda and convenience foods with disease, it's hard not to conclude that the rich get thinner (while supping on Italian plums) and the poor get diabetes. Actually, when I think about it like that I feel terribly guilty for not writing about Eisenberg's more. Fruit, people: keeping humans alive since before recorded history.
Well, that and wine, of course. Golly. Why, after a few hours poring through recent news reports I have become deeply afraid of how really gosh darn-dead you're gonna get if you don't drink more. Hypertension? Cardiovascular disease? Unsightly bulging bank accounts? Stave off all of them by consuming at least two glasses of wine a day. That said, I'll point out that you might even get to keep your unsightly bulging bank account if you shop at Solo Vino, where they've been amping up their selection of low-dollar Spanish gems: Why, when I was in there last week there were a solid half-dozen great Spanish options for under $6.
I especially liked the two Casa Solar wines. (They call them Casa Solar because the grapes are grown in hot Spanish highlands way above sea level, right close to the sun.) The 2002 Casa Solar Red ($5.99) is subtle, peppery, and well balanced. It has blackberry flavors and a nice tannic dustiness, with plenty of acid and none of the flaws that distinguish cheap wine: It isn't lopsided, or boring, or flabby, or insipid. It's bold, forthright, and full of cherry Tempranillo character. It's going to be great with pizzas, or anything in the red-sauce home-cooking vein. The 2003 Casa Solar Blanco ($5.99) is a classic Spanish table wine, with extras: It's lemony and brisk with a white-chocolate nose and a notable creaminess and weight in the mouth. It's got both plenty of acid and plenty of body, and it nigh cries out for a companion of cleanly presented seafood or summer fruits.
Another Spanish red, 2002 Manyana Tempranillo ($5.99), is also incredibly good: Chocolatey, with a soft, plush body embroidering a cherry and tobacco core, the wine is well knit and complex enough to retain your attention while standing up to any number of aged firm cheeses, roast meats, or spicy dishes. It has a long, peppery, tannic finish and it's six bucks--did I mention that it's six bucks? Buy a case of any of these and you get a case discount, making them even, if you can imagine, cheaper: Figure 10 percent off a full case, or 5 percent off a half case, and they'll even let you mix and match a case, filling it with different sort of bottles.
Sadly, man cannot live by fruit and wine alone. Frequently there must also be cannoli. Or at least dinner. Broders' Southside Pasta Bar, no matter how you look at it one of the most enjoyable restaurants in Minneapolis, has been offering an unbelievable bargain for a few months now. Sunday through Thursday, you can go in any time after 8:00 p.m. and have a prix fixe dinner for two consisting of their lovely basket full of focaccia, house-made crackers, and other breads; two salads; a half-carafe of wine (that's half a regular bottle); and two bowls of handmade pasta; all for $20.
Twenty bucks for a dinner that includes the best pasta in Minnesota? That's what I call an economic recovery. When I tried it a few weeks ago, I was very impressed with the dinner: The salad of baby lettuces and chicories was fresh and bold, scattered with good oil-cured black olives, and enhanced with a forthright mint-and-lemon dressing, the composition crowned with strips of lemon zest. The pastas--you get to choose from a varying list of four--were very good; the tagliatelle alla Bolognese consisted of pasta so tender it made you want to cry, covered with a sweet, gentle, creamy meat sauce. The stringozzi alla Spoletina was a feisty little bowl of chewy noodles jazzed up simply with tomatoes and garlic. A perfectly humble meal at a charming price.
The wine we tried was a young Italian red, and it enhanced my deepening suspicion that I couldn't limit myself to the prix fixe, and must also have cannoli--my date and I shared the plate of two darling little tubes of crisp pastry stuffed with creamy, fresh, sweet ricotta ($5.25), and by the time the wee little check arrived I was already plotting a return visit to try the other pastas (and the pastry that the adjacent table got, a green lidded dome of almond cake and limoncello custard). Honestly, what is more critical to the life of a budget-keeper than fine European desserts? Nothing.
Nothing, I mean, except gilded French pastries consumed among mountains of orchids. I speak, of course, of the Patrick's Bakery outpost deep inside the main Bachman's flagship floral and garden store on West 60th Street and Lyndale Avenue South in Minneapolis. I went there one recent afternoon and took a plate of miniature pastries ($5.95), served on a real ceramic plate, into the shadow created by a pyramid of orchids that soared toward the sky. I listened to the sound of a tinkling fountain, I sipped my coffee, I smelled the floral air, I tried to think of whether the Patrick's here, deep inside the Bachman's greenhouse, filled with flowers and sunshine-cheerful patio umbrellas, I tried to think of whether stealing an hour at Patrick's was more like being at a wedding or more like being in some patio café in a sunny French town near the Mediterranean. I popped a miniature éclair into my mouth, tasting the fresh, luscious custard inside the eggy, light shell, and I thought, "This is a question that can have no answer, like life, mon dieu! Get me the chocolate mousse!" And then I thought to myself, "Self, you know what? Any crack dealer can hot-glue a Rolex to a beach towel, but it takes a certain flair to live like European nobility while spending with Midwestern frugality."
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