BLD Minnesota Edition: Colombian-Style Corn Pancakes in the Most Unlikely of Places

photo-8When someone takes you to one of their favorite breakfast spots and says, “I get the pancakes every time” — get the pancakes.

Or a pancake, as the case may be, if the pancakes are anything like the giant, larger-than-your-face-sized pancakes at Maria’s Cafe in the Franklin neighborhood of Minneapolis, which are stuffed with seasonal fresh fruit or local and Colombian favorites, like wild rice, plantains and corn. At $2.95 per pancake, it’s a hellofa breakfast, and cheap, too. (Throw in a side of bacon or a fried egg, $1 ea., for good measure).

photo-11photo-12The traditional corn pancake, sprinkled with cotija cheese ($1.50), is about as savory and actually nourishing as any pancake I’ve ever had. The sweet corn taste, plus I think they use a little bit of cornmeal in the batter, strikes the same sweet/savory balance as a corn tamale … and the sticky, scoopable corn mash served at Acapulco‘s weekend brunch buffet. Oh, yes. (Which, I never realized, is a distinctly Southern California restaurant chain.)

One of the friends we were eating with “always” gets the fresh raspberry pancake. And so what do I order? Eggs. (cue cricket noises/silence.)

photo-10

Yep, eggs. Maria’s Colombian huevos pericos, to be exact: “Three scrambled eggs with diced tomatoes, white and green onions, special seasoning and chopped with cheddar cheese. Served with tortilla, homemade salsa.” ($7.50)

The eggs were decent, if a little bland (looking and tasting). The best thing about the eggs is that they were improved upon with the fresh salsa and two types of cheese (I added some cotija cheese, as well).

Luckily, my dining companions were as interested in my eggs, as they’d never deviated so far from the menu and wanted to try them, as I was in their pancakes, and we shared and ate amicably.

I’m generally terrified of pancakes and their great potential for dryness and lack of character. The fact that I’ve had pancakes two weeks in a row, well, that probably hasn’t happened since I was under the age of 10 and my Dad was in the habit of making Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes for us on the weekends.

I think the key to these two successful pancake endeavors is the adding in of stuffs, fruit and otherwise. In fact, I’m on the lookout now, for more …

TIP: Maria’s Cafe serves breakfast all day. Sweet.

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Sunday: Pancakes. Giant, Blueberry-Saturated Pancakes. (the “2x a Year Pancake Craving” Post)

Pancakes. Giant, blueberry-saturated pancakes. That was my first conscious thought this morning — so weird, but not entirely surprising. It happens a couple times a year. And because it’s so rare, I am immediately inspired to go on a pancake quest.

photo(2)photoSo I hear that Clinton Street Baking Co. has really excellent ones, but it was a little too far away in today’s torrential downpour — the summer equivalent of winter’s occasional, intense snowstorm — both of which have the same effect on pedestrian traffic (it disappears).

The Sullivan Diner was suggested, and I bit: Closer? Definitely. Dutch pancakes, what?! I’ve never had them:  Dutch lemon, Dutch bacon, Dutch Nutella …

And they’re going to have to remain a cliff-hanger. I got a little intimidated by the Dutch pancakes, which came alone. Instead, I ordered the Classic Pancake Breakfast ($13): Pancakes, two eggs, potatoes, bacon or sausage, coffee or tea. $1 more to substitute blueberry banana pancakes.

In terms of a balanced, pancake breakfast, this option hit the spot. Two fluffy, fruit-laden pancakes smeared with butter and sopped in syrup were about all I could handle. Plus, the bites of syrup-y sweetness were tempered with bites of the other good stuff, which was protein-rich and filling.

Dutch pancakes, I’ll take a rain check.

Saturday: Love at First Bite (aka the “Brunch at The New French” Post)

Since The New French first came on my radar via pleasantly-surprised,  upbeat reviews such as this one in New York Magazine and this one in the New York Sun (both have far superior photos of the interior), I have been very, very curious.

photoTurns out, with very good reason: Absolutely everything about The New French is just right, right down to the quirky, playful character doodles by Maria Kalman that populate a mural on one wall and sneak onto other materials, such as the paper placemats and menus.

The New French is as serious about its food as Kalman is playful in her drawing (which is not to imply that there isn’t an element of play in The New French’s food, or that Kalman isn’t a serious artist. Both swing both ways). From start to finish, the meal I had here vaulted The New French straight into Tier One brunch territory. It went something like this:

photo(12)The first thing I noticed when I sat down was the bowl of rough-cut sugar cubes, which I absolutely adore. Inspired, I ordered a latte. What showed up a few minutes later (along with a 4-minute egg timer by which to judge when my friend’s French pressed coffee was ready to be pressed) — what showed up a few minutes later was one of the best lattes I’ve ever had: Frothy, creamy, a bold espresso flavor, but not so bitter that it made me wince, temperature hot but not scalding.

I’m an occasional coffee drinker, not a habitual one, but this latte was something really special. It would have paired absolutely perfectly with the toasted baguette, served with jam and butter ($3.50, not pictured), that I ordered, but showed up with the food with strawberry preserves and cold butter — a pet peeve of mine. Very minor details.

Anyhow, when my steak and eggs ($12.50) arrived, my first impression was: What a gorgeous salad! This was no afterthought side salad, like the petite pile of greens mounded on so many brunch plates; no, this salad of vibrant mesculn greens tossed in a French-style vinaigrette with ultra-thin slices yellow and red beets was a key player.

photo(13)Proportion, on a whole, was perfect; I hate when a flat wasteland of homefries/toast/other carbohydrates completely dominate the plate. Here, the plate was shared agreeably between the salad, two fried eggs, over medium, which were laid on a bed of chopped, homefry-style potatoes — that were oh so much better than your average breakfast potatoes, being fried up with slivers of garlic and diced spring onions.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of the steak. Initially, I expected to see a larger cut, or at least not simply six slices laid on top of my eggs, but in actuality, it made my job eating easier, the presentation was gorgeous, and the steak seasoned so well that all it didn’t need any salt or pepper. As a habitual salt-and-pepper shaker, I wasn’t even distressed that the table didn’t have shakers on the table, the food was that good.

Don’t wait a year-and-a-half to get over there; I certainly won’t.

Weekend: The Tale of Two Salads (Zocalo and Pastis)

One of my pet peeves is overpriced, prepackaged lunch salads such as this Cesar salad at Dean & Deluca: $8.50 for lettuce, dressing and croutons in a box!

I had two beautiful salads this weekend whose ingredients, overall composition and the setting absolutely justified their price points, $12 and $18, for the Ensalada de Zocalo at Zocalo in Grand Central’s dining concourse and the Seared Tuna Niçoise at Pastis, respectively. Here’s what worked:

photoEnsalada de Zocalo: A Mexican riff on the Caesar salad without trying to be a Caesar salad. I’m not sure of the exact composition of the creamy avocado dressing that this deceptively simple salad is tossed in, but the flavor is fantastic, particularly paired with the squeaky freshness of the queso fresco, or the nuttiness of the slivered almonds and sesame seeds that are generously sprinkled on top. The portion is generous, which is important when the only main components, beyond the chopped romaine, are four large tomato wedges and half an avocado. If the table hadn’t ordered a side of guacamole, I would have gotten busy mashing the half avocado to use as a topping for tortilla chips. All set with the convenience of Grand Central Station, this salad earns its price tag.

Seared Tuna Niçoise: There’s a reason why Keith McNally has photo(3)established a mini restaurant empire in New York City, and his  Pastis/Balthazar concept have inspired dozens of copycats. Every last detail of the French Brasserie concept has been fine-tuned, down to the partied-last-night, slept in as late as possible before hustling to work, vaguely disheveled, possibly tattooed, definitely bohemian, ultimately cool waitstaff.

And Pastis is just a great space. When the weather’s nice, the tall windows are pulled back accordion-like and fresh air breezes through the entire restaurant; St. Germain-style jazz sets the tone. If you’re somehow not sufficiently distracted by your dining company or the fantastic people watching that is the Meatpacking District, you should find something on the racks of international newspapers adjacent to the front door.

photo(2)Now, about that salad. The three thick pieces of lightly-seared ahi tuna alone would cost probably $6 if you were to pick up the tuna at a Japanese market and take it home and sear it yourself. Between the ambiance and the generosity of the protein, the rest of the salad could be mediocre and the still probably worth it, but the rest of the salad is, in fact, excellent.

A perfect Niçoise: a hard-boiled egg, split in half; a half-dozen cubes of boiled potato; crisp, al dente cooked green beans; Niçoise olives, pitted; a handful of cherry tomatoes; small silvers of roasted red and yellow bell peppers; three large anchovy fillets. A riot of color and flavor, that just happens to be good for you, too.

Breakfast/Lunch: Oh, Glorious Leftovers! (aka the “not brunch” post)

photo-34Too late for breakfast, too early for lunch, I just don’t have the heart to call the chicken and coleslaw leftovers from the feast at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que that I plowed through in about five minutes flat at 11:30 this morning “brunch.” 

First of all, brunch is such a civilized affair — yes, even the boozy ones, at least initially. Friends, families, others, set dates, pick restaurants, come together to indulge in the weekend’s leisurely pace, talk, laugh, otherwise socialize, simply enjoy a good meal and good company. 

Secondly, isn’t brunch a weekend thing? I mean, if Friday was one of my “days off” (it’s not) I might consider calling a late morning/early afternoon brunch. “Might” being the operative word there. 

Let’s call it a truce, shake hands and move onto what has the potential to be a very interesting dinner …

Sunday: April 19, 2009

Monday is going to be here before you (I) know it, so let’s enjoy the last hurrah of this weekend. Via pictorial essay. Well, kindof:

photo-72This is where I brunched. Yes, I just used quotation marks and “brunch” as a verb.

I sat at that upper level that’s sortof in the back of this photo.

photo-81 This is what I ate. Mucho deliciousness. The potatoes don’t taste as scary as they look. It’s a red pepper/onion mix … which, while tasting okay, looks a little bloody on the plate. Trust me, I, too, was scared before they arrived.

photo49 This is where things started to go wrong. See the whole, “Closed on Sundays” thing? I was hoping to find whole allspice kernels (proper?) here, no go on a Sunday.

photo-92… And this is how I feel about my life. Excited, but disjointed between the old and the new. What happens if it really looks that ugly?

COST: n/a
PREP TIME: 27 years