Thursday, April 15, 2010

al Vento Chef's Dinner

Back in February, as I was jetting off to Mexico for fun in the sun, a horrible fire burned down two great South Mpls restaurants - Heidi's and Blackbird. I went to Heidi's once (and blogged about it!) and had a great time. The good news in this tragedy is that all the other local Mpls restaurants joined forces for "Fork the Fire" on March 14 to raise funds for the staff who were out of work.

Marney, Colin, and I went to our fave n'hood restaurant, al Vento, for dinner that night to do our part. While there, I threw in five bucks for a raffle. The prize was a 4-course chef's dinner for 4 people, plus wine pairings. Well, lo and behold, I freaking won!!!!

So, I took Marney, Colin, and Alicia with me last Saturday to cash in on this great prize. I hated to take up a table on a Saturday night but the manager assured me it was OK. I also hated to be one of "those" picky guests when I told him I don't eat red meat but he told me that wasn't a problem either-they'd create a meal around my dietary restrictions.

I came prepared, after reading this post, so I knew that bringing a bottle of booze for the kitchen staff as a thank you for the free dinner would be welcome.

We were pretty giddy when the server brought our first bottle of wine to go with course number one, which was two little plates for each of us: a sicilian stuffed mushroom with pine nuts and mother sauce (didn't get a picture), and a crostini with smoked salmon, mascarpone, and berry compote.

Second course started with a crisp chardonnay, followed by feather light gnocchi that melted in your mouth, with lots of garlic and pepper, asparagus, and mushrooms.

Our server brought out a blended red for course number three. Alicia asked what the 3rd course was, and he quickly replied "PORK!" and silence descended upon our table as all eyes turned to me. Clearly, chefs don't consider pork red meat, but I certainly do.

I reassured everyone that I was OK, and that because this meal was being specifically prepared for us, I would at least try the pork. I did have a few bites, and it was OK, if a little chewy. Nothing I'd want to eat again but not gross enough that I had to spit it out. The star of the dish was the amazing zucchini, yellow squash, and fennel in balsamic reduction with chive oil. Wow, paired with the red wine it was incredible.

By this time, I was drunk and full. I couldn't imagine what the fourth course would be but I was hoping for a cup of coffee and a tiny piece of cake for each of us to have a bite of. Instead, we got beautiful cordial glasses filled with a grand reserve port...

...and we each got a plate filled with a huge piece of tiramisu and a square of olive oil cake with berry puree and toasted hazelnuts.

The cooks came out and were clearly shocked to have gotten a gift, they were nearly speechless and it felt good to have made them happy. The manager even emailed me a couple days later to say thanks and told me we made their night by acknowledging the work they do in the kitchen.

It was one of the best nights ever. I had a total blast. I recommend you avoid the McDonald's and Olive Garden's (or insert another generic chain restaurant here) in your towns and please go to an independent local restaurant. I guarantee that you will get better food and better service. You will probably even help the economy in your area, and you will definitely feel really good about going there. I was an al Vento fan before, but now I can truly say it's one of my favorite restaurants for all those reasons.

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