1570 Selby Ave., St. Paul
CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND MY control forced me to ingest a talk show marathon last week. One of the highly charged topics of the day was "I Kept a Secret that Could Have Saved My Friend's Life." Stricken faces bemoaned the fact that they had not revealed to anyone that Jill was bulimic, that Ron had a drinking problem, that Melissa was going to sneak down to the old rickety bridge to meet a lover in the pale moonlight. If only they'd said something, maybe Melissa wouldn't have plunged to her death, Ron wouldn't have hit that tree, Jill wouldn't have suffered a cardiac arrest at age 13. It made me remember an editor's suggestion a couple of years back that I review La Corvina for the paper, something I never quite found the time to do. Was this some sort of subconscious secret-keeping? What if my inattention had contributed to some misfortune visited upon this small cafe? I could wait no longer!
Those with an interest in colorology--it's a respected discipline, trust me--will find much to analyze in La Corvina's interior. The sterile, frighteningly white walls have been paved over by a brilliant mural painted by local artist Holly Evans, lush with scenes of laboring construction workers, vistas of gigantic fruit, airplanes, and flying fish. Table settings have, as one friend with an eye for these things noticed, a definite '50s feel.
There's something rather vile about the ubiquitous piles of nachos that pass for appetizers in so many restaurants these days. Joyless platters of greasy chips--drowned under gloppy piles of processed cheese, ground hamburger meat, canned olives, and whatever else is lying around the kitchen--are the order of the day in mainstream bars and restaurants and in far too many Mexican/Latino places. Here, though, you'll find appetizers that are much longer on imagination--if not much shorter in fat.
For a sweet mouthful, try a simple fried plantain, crushed up a bit and served with La Corvina's own peppery salsa ($3.50). The nachos here are mountainous and rained on with cheese, chorizo, jalapeño peppers, onions, black beans, sour cream, and strips of chicken breast ($6.95). For those who want their fate decided by those in the kitchen, the La Corvina appetizer basket will do nicely, filled as it is with a variety of fried and starchy items that could included Mexican-style tamales, empanadas (small, deep-fried turnovers stuffed with meat and cheese filling), fried yucca, and plantains ($6.75). For a less fried feeling, a simple bowl of black bean soup, all dressed up with chopped avocado, sour cream, white rice, and white onion should suffice ($4.95).
As the name suggests, sea bass is the trademark dish here; it's available grilled or steamed ($10.95). Grilled is the way we like it best--gently seared in a garlic and butter sauce with green peppers, carrots, and onions for bedfellows. Served up with a bit of savory black beans, white rice, grilled bread, and sweet, plump fried plantains, it testifies to the allure of a meal based simply on fish and starch. Also quite good was the pollo al ajillo ($7.95), a merry, spicy mess of onions and garlic atop a chicken breast served with black beans, rice, and plantains. My friend found the Peruvian-style sautéed beefsteak ($8.95) a bit dry; I think a couple of years of eating delicate parsley and cilantro omelets made with egg beaters have simply rendered him powerless to enjoy this sautéed steak and potato dish. Cheese seekers will of course find plenty of drenched enchiladas and burritos on the menu, ranging from $5.95 to $7.95, and well worth it according to the folks we surveyed at surrounding tables.
Sweets are never far out of reach here, be it thick, tropical fruit juices ($2) like mango, papaya, or guanabana; a cup of hot chocolate perfumed with cinnamon ($1); a delicate, homemade flan ($3.75); or a completely unsubtle and out of this world jalapeño sundae ($3.50); nothing kicks ice cream in its head like green and red pepper sauces.
The only thing that seems to be off about La Corvina is a slight air of reserve. The music is lively, but it's played at such oddly low volumes that it actually serves to inhibit conversation. When my cunning dining companion got to a particularly juicy part in his story, he stopped himself short, feeling all ears in the place turn toward him. If only the music had been turned up or the tables separated a bit more--then again, though, maybe some secrets should be kept.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF ITALY: If spring isn't springing fast enough to suit you, you might head down to Pronto Ristorante (1300 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.), where they are featuring the cuisine of Tuscany. That means fresh vegetables in abundance, treated with the likes of sage, rosemary, leeks, and garlic. You can feast on Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Tuscan bread, Cacciucco (a delectable fish stew made with tomatoes and hot chili peppers), and other regional dishes and drink. Call 333-4414 to make reservations. Not to begrudge you anything that you could try at home, Pronto's Executive Chef Michael Larson shares this featured recipe for Braciole Di Maiale:
*four pork chops, 1-inch center cut
*3 tbsp. virgin olive oil
*three garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
*1 tsp. fresh chopped sage
*1 tsp. fennel seeds
*1 cup dry red wine
*1/2 tsp. salt
*1/2 tsp. fresh cracked black pepper
Rub the chops on both sides with the salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a flame-proof casserole over high heat. Add the chops, garlic, fennel seeds, and sage, and brown the chops on both sides. Turn the heat to low, add the wine, and cover. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the meat is tender and the wine is almost completely reduced. Place on a serving tray and garnish with fresh sage leaves. Recommended Wine: Chianti Classico, Fattoria D'Ama.
HIGH-BROW HEE-HAW: The Saint Paul Hotel has rescheduled its first bourbon dinner, "Southern Hospitality, Straight Up," for Monday, April 15 at 6:30 p.m. Originally scheduled for March 25, the dinner was canceled due to weather conditions. The evening features five premium bourbons from the heritage collection of United Distillers, an authentic five-course southern dinner, and a premium cigar from Summit liquors. Knock yourself silly with a 14-oz. prime grade New York strip steak, Kentucky bugaboo stew, smoked ham roll-ups, spoon bread, and more. The cost of this event is $65 (including tax and gratuity). For reservations, call Camelia at 292-9292, ext. 3782.
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