Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl dishes on Twin Cities dining scene
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.
For example, she says, when you approach an ice cream counter, you do so with an intuitive sense of how you feel about your flavor options. You already know if you like candy mix-ins better than fruit sorbets, because you've accumulated those preferences through years of sampling. "It's the same thing with wine," she says.
The process of developing one's palate might be the same, sure, but could selecting wine ever be as simple as choosing ice cream? It's a lot easier to say "chocolate" than "Gewürztraminer," for one—much less to acquire a rationale for why you made your selection.
From a customer's perspective, Grumdahl concedes, wine is a nightmare: There are literally millions of different wines being produced all over the world, many of which have long, unpronounceable names. On top of that, some wines only come to market in small quantities, so after you've tried a wine and determined if you liked it, you may never see it again. "It's totally fine to be frustrated and annoyed with the wine business," Grumdahl says. "No other consumer product is so off-putting and hostile to its customers."
A major part of wine's image problem comes from what Grumdahl calls its "gatekeeper class of really pretentious dudes." Think of these middlemen as the wine-shop equivalent of the record-store clerks in High Fidelity. "They have their taste that they think is the best in the world," Grumdahl says, "and if you don't like Captain Beefheart then you're beneath contempt—and you can't go in there and ask for Whitney Houston." (Henceforth, I will think of white zin as the Whitney of wine.)
But there are certainly bright spots in wine retailing, Grumdahl says, ticking off a few local spots she likes, among them Solo Vino for its unique wines from small, obscure producers, South Lyndale Liquors for its hard-to-find pinot noirs, Surdyk's for its German wines, Hennepin Lake for...wait. Seriously? For its chaotic parking lot, surly staff, and refusal to take credit cards? "They get crazy collector wines that no one else gets, and they have amazing prices," she enthuses, then admits, "but it's the most consumer-unfriendly store in the universe."
WHEN THE WAITRESS ARRIVED with a tray of flute glasses, their bubbling wine twinkling in the afternoon light, it was clear that there's no substitute for side-by-side sampling. Especially when you consider that the differences between wines of the same style—as opposed to foods of the same type, whether lobster ravioli or ribs or chocolate ice cream—are much harder to discern and recall when you don't taste them simultaneously.
For example, I probably drink Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, a few times a year and consider it something I like. I drink Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, with equal infrequence, and think of it as something I like equally well. But when Grumdahl and I compared two Proseccos to two Cavas, to me, the Proseccos had an off-putting sourness. I ended up preferring both the complex, funky—Grumdahl described it as "mushroomy"—Juve Y Camps "La Famiglia" and the light, lemony Cristalino Brut. (Grumdahl refers to Cristalino as one of her "gotcha" wines for gauging a restaurant's markups. "It costs $6 or $8 in a shop and it shows up on so many wine lists for $45 or $50," she says. Barbette has it priced at a reasonable $24.)
Grumdahl's approach to critiquing wine circumvents the genre's associations with status, the amassing of cellars full of high-point wines, and mine's-bigger-than-yours mentalities. She refutes the traditional wine establishment's notion that rare and complex is always better than simple and common. From Grumdahl's perspective as a food critic, a top-notch chili dog could go head-to-head with Jean-Georges Vongerichten's foie gras torchon. By the same reasoning, a cheap, fresh European white wine can be equally as pleasurable as a 98-point cabernet sauvignon. "The point system tells you how the wine fits into this old-guard critical establishment," she notes. "It doesn't tell you whether you're going to like the wine."
Consumers, she says, are trained to think expensive always means better. "But there is very little correlation in wine between the difference between the $6 thing and the $8 thing," she says. "The $8 one isn't always better." Then she tackled a subject that's always irked me: the idea that astronomically priced wines reflect an orders-of-magnitude superiority to their peers. As with most luxury goods, she says, the price markup is all about prestige—not that she's against conspicuous consumption. "If you want to buy Fendi sunglasses, go right ahead," Grumdahl says. "And if you want to buy Bryant Family Cabernet and it makes you happy, happiness is fleeting in this life, and you should have your happiness." But, she warns, just don't mistake the wine's price as correlating to the cost of production. "Fendi sunglasses do not cost what they do because they're using artisanal plastic."
WITH SO MANY GREAT local wine distributors, wine retailers, and wine-focused restaurants around, Grumdahl finds a lot to love about drinking wine in Minnesota—except drinking the stuff that's made here. "I'm the antichrist of local wine producers," she says, noting that Minnesota winemakers simply don't have as much experience as the Europeans. "If Minnesota farmers are going to tinker with Minnesota grapes and wine for 1,000 years, I think we will get world-class wines," she says. "But right now I think it's really not worth people's time." For local drinking, craft beer will probably remain the more regionally appropriate choice until someone fulfills Grumdahl's wish for Minnesota whiskey. "We have the peat bogs, we have the grain..." she says, wistfully.
In the meantime, I'm going to stick with my new favorite champagne, the fruity, floral Aubry Brut Rosé 1er Cru NV, which unfortunately costs $15 a glass. (It seems the future savings from my switch from Prosecco to Cava have already been spent on champagne.) As we packed up our things, Grumdahl glanced back at the wine list and noticed a bottle that she and her husband shared on their first date. It was back in 2002 at the now-defunct Zinc on Nicollet Mall, which she was reviewing for City Pages. The bouillabaisse was terrible, she reminisced as she headed for the door. But the champagne was great.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.