Dear Dara

Not-so-fast seafood: Corvina sea bass at Vincent a Restaurant
Kathy Easthagen

Dear Dara;

I am fairly new to Minnesota and I have recently become a reader of your articles. Bravo--real writing about the truest good food here. Thank you. I'd really like to know how you arrived at this place in your career. Do you ever speak or write about that?

Christine of Minneapolis

Dear Christine;

By this place, I assume you mean with all the restraining orders from local restaurants? Well, as with most young women who have come to grief so young, I blame it primarily on that demon of the wee hours, reading. For instance, I have been finally catching up on whatever the folks at Newsweek do with their lives, and how many of us truly reckoned with the story they ran last December on Japan's new "Mayonnaise Kitchen" restaurants? Where one can order a "mayo fondue," and wash it down with, ahem, a "mayogarita"? The recipe wasn't given, but it apparently involves a blender, tequila, and guess who. It is reportedly the darling of mayo-maniacs throughout Japan, who are cutely known as "mayoraas"--people who adore mayonnaise.

Like most of you, I initially responsed by snapping a Kryptonite lock on the fridge, and then started working the phones, calling every single person I knew in Prior Lake, Wausau, and Young America, to shriek like a badger caught in a combine: You ninnies! You dropped the ball! In the decade I have lived here, I have seen mayonnaise on sweet potatoes, on peas, on Jell-o and marshmallows; our hippest youth nightly eat entire casseroles of hot mayonnaise blended with canned artichokes, and they are mayoraas? What next? Will Pakistan trump us in corn-dog supremacy? Shall I look to the Philippines the next time I need to use up a case of Huber bock, some old cheddarwursts, and the rhubarb? I never thought I would live to see the day.

Of course, if I'm truly honest, perhaps I'll admit that my very first thought wasn't to shriek like a sorority pledge hyped up on a garbage pail of Tang-and-tequila punch who comes upon some old cheddarwursts. My first thought might have been to see if I could plagiarize the Newsweek story--because, after all, like the rest of the cultural elite, I've been breathlessly following the New York Times plagiarism scandal, and it's filled my head with ideas.

Not ideas on fabricating quotes, mind you, because any real journalist could tell you that the things that people do say are far, far more disturbing than the things you would like them to say. For instance, in the course of reporting this column I've had ordinary Minnesota food types tell me that they took over the family business after chasing Dad from the farm with a loaded shotgun, that they've eaten bald eagles, that they thought followers of the dominant religion of the state were stupefied zombies in need of forcible eye-opening, and much, much more. Frankly, stealing some other writer's description of the view off a POW-mom's porch would seem to me to be an outrageous intrusion in the Dara Dara Dara Show.

So, I would say that one should always use these criteria when plagiarizing: a) Could you not do this yourself? b) Is it worth it?

Now, consider: The view from a porch. Clearly, this is something that one can do oneself. Or, at this point, why not plagiarize others' holiday postcards? "Wish you were here..." Really? Well, we'll see what the fact-checkers make of that, won't we?

Now, consider the passwords and account numbers on Saddam Hussein's Swiss accounts. And so we move this project into the to-plagiarize basket, and gather the interns.

Which brings us to the only thing really worth plagiarizing, which is Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, or possibly Shakespeare's Hamlet. Obviously, a certain familiarity with these titles would tip off the culture police, which is why I am thinking of re-titling the first Bridget Jones Diary III: Shocking Orgies and Guaranteed Diet Success!, and the second, The Bible: Now, with Fewer Rules.

Oops. Bad news. Calls to the publishing cabals out East reveal a stunning lack of sympathy to these plans. But I am not to be deterred! Instead, I will rely on my Midwestern do-it-yourself roots, and enjoin each and every one of you to lay hold of a black Sharpie, locate your copy of House of Mirth, scratch out dear Ms. Wharton's name, and replace it with mine. I wouldn't have asked this of you a few months ago, but must confess I am so flattered and impressed by the fact that so many of you have figured out how to spell my name, as evidenced by all your write-in votes which allowed me to win City Pages' own best-columnist award, that I am prepared to run amok.  

Now, I am not much joking: I am particularly flattered because it's not like you had to write in Ann Smith or something actually doable. I have seen how many consonants are piled up after the Dara, and it makes even me a little dizzy. To tell you the truth, I didn't even figure out how to spell my name until my mom came up with a way to sing it in time with the "Mickey Mouse" song. And I've called the house, and she said that not only did she not share this trick with you, you didn't even get a meatball on a fork to march around the kitchen with, so really I can't even figure how you pulled it off. (A word to the wise: If you wave your fork around wildly, the meatball will come off, and the dog will get it, and that's it for you until dinnertime, for meatballs don't grow on trees. Heed these words!)

But seriously, you all: I am so touched. I'm blushing as I write this, but really, it was so flattering, such a highlight of my year, and, on a truly personal note, I got word of it right as I was getting beat with sacks of oranges by people who are hell-bent on keeping me down, though I can't go into the real details, and the short of it is that you are all my rescuers, and I thank you so much.


Dear Dara;

I love your reviews. My favorites are the politically edged ones that contain well-reasoned rants against chain restaurants. Please continue to fight the good fight. As someone who lives in the Highland neighborhood of St. Paul, surrounded by Chipotle Grill, Noodles and Co., and Leeann Chin, all of which are perpetually overflowing with human customers, I find this trend particularly distressing.

Peter of Highland Park


Dear Dara;

Red Lobster announced today it has completed an enhancement of its eight Twin Cities restaurants with the company's new "Coastal Home" redesign that emphasizes the bright, open feel of the sea.

In developing the new Coastal Home concept, Red Lobster brought together architects, kitchen designers, operators, and guests to come up with a coastal look that was appealing to consumers and true to the company's brand. Designers created a relaxing coastal experience that guests can relate to--whether they enjoy seaside locations from the Northeast to California, or from the Carolina coast to Key West.

"Our guests have an emotional tie to the ocean," said John Altomare, Red Lobster's senior vice president of concept development. "It's a place they go to relax and connect, to vacation, to enjoy great times with family and friends. Our Coastal Home look reinforces these feelings and memories."

The Twin Cities area is key to Red Lobster's growth strategy. The National Restaurant Association's 2003 Restaurant Industry Forecast expects sales in Minnesota to increase 4.4 percent to $5.95 billion [for all restaurants].

Red Lobster is the world's largest seafood casual dining operation with more than 670 restaurants in the United States and Canada and approximately 70,000 employees. The company served more than 140 million guests in fiscal 2002 (ending May 31, 2002) and enjoyed total sales of $2.34 billion, a 7.1 percent increase over the previous year. The company is a subsidiary of Darden Restaurants Inc. Darden also owns and operates Olive Garden.


Dear Darden Restaurants;

Stop writing to me! Just stuff your stupid press releases up your stupid lobsters and jump in a seaside location of your choice, from the Northeast to California, or from the Carolina coast to Key West! Which are areas that have very little in common, frankly, except that my prestigious, high-income, highly literate, highly desirable readers are fond of coastal areas, and not fond of you! And if the February 3 issue of Fortune magazine is to be believed, your days are numbered. How's that?

Well, basically, fast crappy food is on its way out: This winter McDonald's stock was "trading near its seven-year low, its chief executive quit, and in the nine months ended September 30 its global same-store sales were off 2.1 percent. Burger King, meanwhile, was sold to an investor group at a $700 million discount from the original sale price." Meanwhile, "Whole Foods Markets, the Austin supermarket chain that sells mostly natural and organic groceries, led its sector with profit growth of 20 percent last year."

You know what sucks, Red Lobster? Having a corporate growth strategy premised on exploiting people's longing for a seaside vacation. You know what's amazing? That in the six years I've been doing this more and more people have been looking around and saying, "I will not eat poop, either literally in terms of irradiated beef or the piss-scented meat of corporate farmed pork, or figuratively in terms of fake experiences in fake places."  

(Hey, if anyone out there hasn't tried the taste test of organic pork versus the ammonia-scented reek of corporate-raised hogs, you are advised to do it posthaste, it's a terrifyingly vivid experiment.)

And you know what else it amazing? Everything I've had lately from the humming-like-a-perfect-music-box kitchen of Vincent. Like the pig's trotter salad, a warm, glistening glaze gellied to the texture of summer rain, offering the taste of allspice and luxury as it drifted like warm vapor across the tongue ($8.95), or an unforgettable fillet of monkfish ($23.50), in which a white and light custard of a middle was surrounded by a crisp armor of brown seared skin, the sort of preparation that only a closely-attending chef can pull off. Oh, Vincent. I've been revisiting our light-and-bright downtown home of chef Vincent Francoual, onetime Le Bernardin chef, and gift to all Minnesotans, and you know what? There is more greatness and heart at the host-stand at Vincent than in Darden's entire $2 billion chain.


Dear Readers, did you know that Vincent recently debuted a $25 prix-fixe bistro menu? It's true: Monday through Thursday, all night long. The menu changes weekly, but a recent one offered a first course of soup, or corn custard with sweet peas in a tomato-piquillo broth and goat cheese fondant; and an entrée of your choice--roasted quail stuffed with rhubarb, with creamy polenta and spring asparagus; or pan-seared trout with braised escarole, potatoes Parisienne and caper butter; for a final course, your choice from the renowned dessert or cheese menu. (Dinner without dessert is only $22.)

But do you know what that prix fixe really is? It's the kind of night that doesn't make you long emptily for the sea, but will make you feel delight in your present moment and your present life.

So, Dear Readers, I appeal to you, you who do so much, figuring out these long and silly names to write on ballots, giving the heave-ho to corporate poop in your lives (when I know it makes your life more expensive and more difficult), and reading these endless, endless columns. Won't you think to give Vincent a try again? Because as far as the truest good food here goes, at Vincent you will find some of the truest.

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