Friday, January 29, 2010

Our Trip to Mesa: The Good, the Bad, and Flooding

Last week Hubby and I went to Mesa, AZ for our first "real" vacation ever. We've done the occasional long weekend - adding a Friday here, a Monday there. But we never really went away for a good long week and "vacated" our lives for a while.

My folks rented a house down in Mesa from a friend for a month. So, we flew down to Mesa and stayed with them for the week. Oh, what a glorious sight! Sun! Blue Skies! Temps in the 60s! Woot! Seriously, it seemed like we were charmed. We picked up our luggage from the luggage carousel and started to look for the shuttle to take us to the car rental location. Immediately, a guy said "The shuttle to the car rental? Follow me!" He took our bags onto his luggage cart and headed down a secluded hallway. Husband started looking nervous - how did we know this guy worked for the airport? But, lo and behold - he takes us through a door right to the first shuttle and starts to load our baggage. Nice!

We had similar luck at the car rental center. As we walked to the area to find our car - we had rented a compact car - a lady come up to us to help. She looked at our paperwork and said "You are renting a compact car? Here, I'm going to give you a complimentary upgrade to a mid-sized car." Wow!

I have to give props to the AZ highway system for their signs. So easy to follow. And, they have huge bushes of rosemary in the medians. Seriously!

We got to the house my folks are renting. It was very nice and great to see them. We had orange and grapefruit trees right outside. How cool to wake up in the morning, go outside, and pull a couple of oranges off the tree to make some freshly squeezed orange juice! Soooooooo tasty.

Unfortunately, our good fortune would not last. Hubby come down with a nasty sinus infection. He bravely tried to brush it off - doing a lot of sleeping and drinking OJ. However, it finally got to be too much. Thankfully my mom had her computer down there - I was able to check with my insurance company and find a clinic and pharmacy that was in-network.

Then, came the rain. Yes, the rain. The week before we came down, my folks were regaling me with how it was 70 and sunny all week. Of course, we come down in time for The Rain Storm of the Century followed by FloodGate: The Noah's Ark Edition. Suddenly, it was cloudy, cold (for AZ) and doing lots, and lots, of raining. Roads were closed due to flooding, someone's house got swept away by a raging river, massive snow storms at the higher elevations. It was crazy! They even had a Tornado Warning.

Even still, there were some shining moments - like the food. Yes, you knew I was going to go there.

We ate lunch one day at Cowboy Ciao in Scottsdale. Downtown Scottsdale is really nice with lots of shops and restaurants. There are some really kitschy places - selling all forms of turquoise and sand paintings - but also some really impressive art galleries and even a very cool antique book shop that had a 1400s Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica (which the person manning the store actually took out of the cabinet and showed us). A mere $20,000. No big whoop.

Anyway, back to lunch. I had their signature mushroom pan fry - it had lots of different mushrooms with a nicely spicy tomato/pepper cream sauce smothering fried polenta. It was topped with chopped tomatoes and avocado. So tasty!

Hubby had a "salad" of confited tuna (confited in duck fat) with a salty sauteed spinach and tomatoes and a fried egg. The tuna was mixed with shallots and capers.

If you are down in the Scottsdale area - try Cowboy Ciao. I got a merlot flight that was really nice - and they didn't skimp on the wine (something that many placed do for flights and is a pet peeve of mine).

Another place we went to was Caffe Boa in Tempe. It is in the area of the the University. The head chef was originally from MN and they specialize in local foods. We were really excited to try it. We had lunch - after coming in from cold and rain. The place was very cool. We both had variations on the lunch special (sorry no pictures!): I had a half-pannini with mozzarella, basil, prosciutto, and a fig jam. It came with a side of soup that I though the server said was tripe - but it seemed more like a tomato-based vegetable soup with garbanzo beans and some small bits of beef. It was very good. Hubby had the pasta-soup lunch combo - same soup. The pasta looked more like a soup as well - in a beefy stock - rather than a sauce.

The food was good, but we had a bad experience with the server. He forgot to put in our order for the charcuterie appetizer. When we asked about (he had just put down our main course and asked if we needed anything) he asked if we still wanted it - which we did. He said it would take a few minutes - but we figured - it's charuterie. You slice the meat, put on some spreads on a plate and add bread. We finished our main course (about 15 minutes) and our places were cleared. Then we sat there....and sat there....with no one coming to bring our food or to check on us. Finally, the server showed up with the charcuterie. Really nice food - very bad service.

Finally, the other dining experience I would like to talk about is Pizzeria Bianco. So much has been said about Pizzeria Bianco - I feel like I would just be adding to the noise. But, I must say that it is fabulous. It helps to know going in that THERE WILL BE A LONG WAIT. But, I feel it is worth it.

It was our last night in Mesa - the sky was cloudy, the air was cool. We showed up at 4:30pm and got into the already long line. Several people were already in the middle of working on a full bottle of wine. Ahhhhhhh!The doors opened at 5pm. Immediately before 5pm - a swarm of people showed up - and joined their friends ahead of us who were the line place holders for the group. Yeah, I knew it would be a while.

Luckily (for us and for the owners), they have a wine bar next door. After putting our name in, we went over to the wine bar. We were lucky enough to get at least 1 bar stool and ordered beers and wine and conversed with other patrons as the bar tender would inform the next party when their name came up. We met some really cool people and tried a few AZ micro brews. Finally, at 7:45pm, we were seated at the bar inside the pizzeria.

We had the spiedini appetizer - melty fontina cheese wrapped in proscuitto on a bed of microgreens with a vinagrette.

We ordered two pizzas - the Margherita (to which we added La Quercia Proscuitto) and their Wiseguy - with onions, mozzarella, and fennel sausage.

We ate it all and I have no regrets. If you go - go early (as we sat there, people came in looking for a seat only to be told that it was a 3-3.5 hour wait). They only take reservations for parties of 6 or more - and when we went, their reservations were booked 2 months out.

Of course, the sun came back out on our last day. Our trip to the airport was as nice as our trip from the airport when we arrived.

To finish, an FYI: If you have an expired drivers license - even with the renewal paperwork - you will get through airport security, but you will not be served alcohol in the Phoenix airport. Is that a crazy world or what?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Hubby's Birthday Bonanza

Yesterday was Hubby's birthday! We had a very nice day. It started off with birthday cake from Hi Quality Bakery. Yes, I know the better thing to do would have been to bake the cake myself. However, I ran out of time and at least Hi Quality Bakery is local. They make a very nice carrot cake with cream cheese frosting with "Happy Birthday Rick" written on the top. Quite nice. I also succumbed to my rumbly stomach and got a couple of caramel pecan rolls. I know, I know.

Hubby wanted to see Avatar, so I thought it would be fun to try out that new ICON theater in St. Louis Park. That meant a drive up to the Cities, but hey, it's his BIRTHDAY! So, I went online and reserved tickets for their VIP lounge. This section is the balcony section that is only for +21 folks, serves alcohol and has a restaurant. Ticket prices: our afternoon matinee with VIP seating cost what an evening movie ticket would be elsewhere.

We got the theater for their 3:30pm matinee showing of Avatar 3D. Since I printed the tickets from the website, we didn't have to wait in line. We went right to the ticket-taker. After going upstairs, we came up to the restaurant. Quite busy and full. We checked out their drink menu (which didn't show any of their beers - so a knock for that). Their wine list and prices were comparable to most restaurants. We didn't order any food, though so we can't comment on that.

We brought our drinks to our seats (some folks brought in a whole bottle of wine). The seats are VERY plushy - oversized and soft. There is a lot of leg room (no worries about someone thumping your seat from the back!). The seats are set together by 2s with a nice-sized "table" between each set of 2. The drink holders hold your glasses and there is ample room for food. Servers will bring your food to your seat up until the movie starts, but you have to order and pay at the restaurant beforehand. The food we saw brought in looked pretty tasty.

The movie was pretty good - visually stunning of course. Even though it was in 3D (yeah, doesn't work for me), it was still fun to see. I did notice a couple of times that I had my mouth open - the rendering and animation were really great. Yes, the storyline was predictable and a cross between Dances with Wolves, FernGully, and Star Wars. But, it was still a good time.

One nit - we went in the afternoon when there were a lot of "folks of many years" attending who needed to get up to go the bathroom several times during the movie. Get a seat at the front of the balcony or go later in the night.

After that, we went to Cooper Irish Pub (just outside and down the block). I'll do another post on that later.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I Do More Than Sing in the Shower

I've been singing for most of my life. In grade school, we did several programs through the school year. There was a big Christmas production. Imagine the excitement that started in November when all of the Dads of our our little 2-classroom country school house would lumber into the school and start putting up the stage. I'm sure the teachers (both of them) hated it because we kids couldn't concentrate after that. All of the banging of hammers, the clanging of boards - it really was the start of the holiday season for us.

In the spring we would do Mother's Day programs, sing for the residents of the local old folk's home, and do a graduation program - among many others. I guess you could say that I got bitten by the singing bug and never recovered.

I joined choir in high school and did a lot of theater. Once I got to college, I took some voice lessons and sang in choirs there. Singing had really become a regular part of my life, and I was kind of bummed at the thought of not really doing it much after I graduated.

However, in May of my senior year, just before graduation, my college roommate turned to me and said "I'm auditioning for my Dad's choir in the Cities. Do you want to come, too?" Sure - why not? I knew my roommate's Dad was a choir director - he did choir at St. Johns University. I didn't know until then that he had a choir in the Cities.

Now here I am, several years later, and I am still singing with this choir - Kantorei. We do several concerts throughout the year at several churches around the Cities. We also do educational outreach concerts with childrens choirs, high school choirs and community choirs. This year, we are going to be working on a new CD. It is being produced by a well-known producer who specializes in choral music. We are really excited about it.

I'll be sure to let everyone know when the CD is available. Also, I'd love to see people at our concerts. Another quick plug - we are having our annual benefit dinner (we are a non-profit and this benefit dinner is our main source of revenue for the year) on Valentine's Day. There will be a multi-course meal with wines and a silent auction in addition to music by the choir. Much of the cost of the dinner is tax deductible. If you are looking for something different to do for Valentine's Day, check out our website for more details.

End plug.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Food Experience since October

Ok, I mentioned that we’ve eaten a lot of food since my post in October. I figured I’d get you all up to speed on those. After all, one of my favorite things to do is eat (and drink). Here we go – in the shortened version:

Anniversary Dinner (October): We went to Sea Change, a seafood restaurant in the Cities that focus on sustainable seafood. It is run by Tim McKee, who won the James Beard Award this year for Best Chef in the Midwest. It is one of several that he runs – all of which are very good. But before we ate there, we got into town a bit early for our reservation. So, we headed over to Spoonriver, which is across the street for drinks and an appetizer. We had their charcuterie plate as the appetizer. It was pretty good – very nice cured meats and artisan cheeses. What really stood out, though, were the pickled vegetables. Based on that, we vowed that we would come back sometime soon for dinner.

At Sea Change, we had another appetizer of raw scallops. While it was very nice and well executed, I felt underwhelmed. I think I expected more sweetness and thought that the other flavors perhaps outdid the scallop itself. The entrees were again, very nice, well executed, but didn’t “Wow” either of us.

Dinner before the Playing for Change Concert (November): I will do another post on the Playing for Change concert. But beforehand, we ate at Ristorante Luci in St. Paul. The place is known for its homemade Italian food (housemade pasta) and using local ingredients. I had a lamb shank that was braised in a light tomato sauce. The lamb actually did have a lamb-y flavor (I’ve had way too many that didn’t – very disappointing when that happens). The tomato sauce really got infused with the lamb flavor and was very tasty. Unfortunately, there was no pasta or crusty bread served with the dish. There was so much sauce, I was really looking forward to sopping it up with bread or eating it up with pasta.

Salut Bar American Edina (November): We ate here before my choir’s Audience Appreciation concert (I’ll do another post on my choir). We were on a tight schedule, and our server did a great job of getting us our food and check in time. I had butternut squash ravioli in a brown butter sauce. It was very nice. The pasta still had a bit of tooth to it (not too much, though) and the squash filling was smooth and sweet. The sauce had a bit of lemon in it, which helped to cut through the sweet and creaminess. The Hubby had a steak which was perfectly done and nicely seasoned. It was very tender. Overall, it was very good for the price.

Simple, Good and Tasty Event (December): We attended an event for Simple, Good and Tasty (a local food website) that was at The Craftsman in Minneapolis. If you haven’t eaten at the Craftsman – GO! Mike Philips, the chef and owner, does his own charcuterie and own pickling. We had some wonderful appetizers including several cured meats, braun, cheese, pates – so very tasty. They had a wonderful drink called the Stormy Night which used their own mulled wine. It was HEAVEN!

Smalley’s Caribbean BBQ and Pirate Bar (December): Yes, it is quite the name. This is also a Tim McKee venture that specializes in Caribbean-style BBQ. We ate there with my folks and Hubby’s uncle and aunt. The meat was very tender and full of flavor. The sauces are very much the Caribbean-style – less sweetness and a bit thinner with a lot of bite. The side dishes were tasty as well. Our server was fantastic, explaining things to us, asking questions, and offering up suggestions when asked.

Spoonriver (December): I told you that we vowed to go back! We ate here before attending the Guthrie production of A Christmas Carol. We had a mushroom and pistachio pate for an appetizer that came with a cranberry chutney that was quite nice. I had grass-fed roast beef with fingerling potatoes and roasted parsnips and carrots. It was very tasty, tender, and full of flavor. Hubby had a lamb stew (more of lamb with spices, broth, and yogurt) over cous-cous. It wasn’t what one would expect, though we were sort of warned by the server when he ordered it that it wasn’t the type of lamb stew people expect. It was very nice, though. My one complaint was that their mixed drinks tended to be very “summery” – a lot of citrus, cucumber, etc. There were really no “wintery” mixed drinks (see the Stormy Night from above).

We did eat at other places, but these were the big ones. It appears that I have a couple of addition blog posting to work on. So, that is “what we ate since October”.