From chocolate cake to hand-pulled noodles, here’s a rundown of my dining diary’s recent entries. What were your top eats of the week? Share the details in the comments section.
Breakfast sandwich at Hot Hands
Let’s just say that owner Tara Coleman knows how to bake a biscuit. Golden brown, crispy-on-the-outside and tender-and-flaky on the inside, they’re ideal vehicles for all kinds of a.m. mayhem ($9.95 to $10.95). At her cheery, just-opened bakery/cafe, Coleman splits and toasts them to use them as a foundation for a few variations: smothering them in a pepper-laced sausage gravy, or piling on sliced avocado, fried shallots and crunchy onions. Consider starting with a hearty disk of pork sausage, a slab of gooey American cheese and a runny-yolk-ed fried egg; this is a kitchen well-skilled in the intricacies of the Fried Egg Arts. By the way, along with the gorgeous apple turnovers and cinnamon rolls (served warm, buried under a swipe of thick, not-too-sweet icing), the so-called “Nutter Betters” – thin peanut butter wafers sandwiched around a creamy, peanut butter-laced filling – are not to be missed. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to my friend Scott, a baker so talented that he won the 2010 edition of the Star Tribune’s Holiday Cookie Contest. “These cookies restore my faith in baking,” he said. Now that’s an endorsement. 272 Snelling Av. S., St. Paul, 651-300-1503
Chocolate Lux cake at Black Walnut Bakery
The wait is over: Black Walnut Bakery quietly opened this week, hurrah. Those who have followed baker Sarah Botcher’s first-rate ability to fill the counters at Spyhouse Coffee with all kinds of beautiful laminated dough specialties – croissants, Kouign Amann, pain Suisse, Danish – will be delighted to learn that she’s placing those beautifully crafted goodies front and center in her sunlight-soaked storefront (and you can watch those doughs being made in a showy, state-of-the-art workspace next to the front door), but she’s not stopping there. Of particular note are five artfully composed cakes, sold whole and by the slice ($6 per slice, $35 for a 6-inch whole cake, $65 for a 9-inch whole cake). Predictably, this chocolate hound’s appetite went directly to a rectangular beauty that Botcher has christened “Chocolate Lux,” and the name is more than suitable. It’s a decadent exercise in chocolate on chocolate on chocolate: four layers of delicate sponge cake held together with a rich crémeux (imagine the world’s dreamiest, most intensely chocolaty pudding) and topped with a thick whipped cream. A hint of buttery caramel acts as a palate cleanser. In a word, wow. I can’t wait to return and test-drive the flurry of pineapple, coconut, caramel and meringue, and the colorful knockout that’s all about cassis and vanilla. But first, I’ll need to spend a month at the gym, working off that Lux. 3157 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Jucy Lucy at Matt's Bar
It’s been ages since I’ve been to Matt’s Bar, a character flaw that I rectified when I found myself in the neighborhood on a late-afternoon weekday. Naturally, the place was packed, and I lucked into the last open seat in the house, which fortuitously happened to be the bar stool next to the grill. What a perch: I watched as dozens of the house specialty, the fabled Jucy Lucy, came to life. Minnesota’s most famous burger starts as wide disks of ground beef with a low-rising dome in the center; masked beneath that bubble is a hunk of American cheese. I’d forgotten about the flat-top grill’s shockingly modest dimensions; it’s a miracle that owner Scott Nelson can manage to feed his throngs of customers, and fascinating to watch his quietly disciplined approach to burger-making. The Jucy Lucy ($7.75) was, of course, sublime. Nelson carefully nurtures the generously seasoned patty’s outer surfaces to a crisped-up, flavor-packed char, leaving the center at a no-nonsense medium. Chopped onions – they fall on a continuum between soft and sweetly caramelized to blackened and crisp – contribute all kinds of flavor dimensions, and three pickle chips contribute a contrasting vinegar-ey bite. There’s a reason that “Fear the Cheese” is the bar’s motto, because the stove’s heat converts that American from blandly solid to dangerously molten; best to take a careful bite to break the beef’s seal around the cheese, then let a bit of it ooze out and cool to a more palatable temperature. Add it up, and the Jucy Lucy is nothing short of hot, salty, beefy, cheesy, bready perfection; why hasn’t the Minnesota Legislature designated it the state’s official cheeseburger? As for the slim, golden, salty and altogether fabulous fries, my half-order ($4.50) was beyond plentiful. 3500 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., 612-722-7072
Chicken pot pie at Colossal Cafe
The moment the temperature took a nosedive, my mind immediately went into comfort-food mode, the kind where someone else does the cooking (although I’m eventually going to be getting around to baking this recipe, from Taste contributor Meredith Deeds). Although this breakfast-and-lunch operation doesn’t feature pot pies on its menu, they’re available on a to-go basis ($13), and they’re fabulous. Let’s face it, the crust is what makes a pot pie, and too many restrict that element as a topper. Not here: a golden, flaky crust – think “two-crust pie” -- surrounds tons of tender chicken that’s tossed with peas and carrots and drenched in a rich, butter-packed cream sauce. A single serving easily feeds two. They’re refrigerated, not frozen, and bake up in about 30 minutes; the scent coming out of the oven is intoxicating. Pick up a few extra to stock the freezer. A second tip: the Golden Fig (794 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-602-0144) sells the Colossal’s vegetarian pot pie ($16.95), which places an ever-changing seasonal veggie (butternut squash, Brussels sprouts) in the spotlight. 1340 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-414-0543 and 2315 Como Av., St. Paul, 651-797-4027, colossalcafe.com
Shanxi shaved noodle soup at Magic Noodle
Half the fun of dining at the University Avenue newbie is the noodle-making show, an action-packed circus that takes place in a window into the open kitchen. For this dish, a wide, flat, hand-cut wheat noodle, tender and slurp-inducing, shares a generous bowl ($11.95) with a steaming, deeply flavorful beef broth, chunks of chewy brisket, tangy green onions and teasingly sour pickled mustard greens. Pops of a pair of tableside condiments -- chile oil and vinegar – boosted good into great. 1337 University Av. W., St Paul