Thursday, May 14, 2009

Crescent Moon Pizza, Minneapolis, MN

Last month, I found myself traveling solo to Minneapolis for a conference where I was presenting some of my newer research. I was too cheap to pay for a rental car that I may or may not end up getting reimbursed for, so I commuted between the conference and my hotel by foot, which ended up being a considerable hike.

After a long day of seminars and networking, I was searching for interesting eats on my evening return to my hotel room, when I stumbled upon this promising storefront.

Inside, the place was sparkling and new. I ordered a lamb kebob sandwich to go, and took it back to my hotel room to devour it. It turned out to be quite simple, but good. Gas grilled chunks of lamb, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes filled a grilled, lightly charred and slightly oiled flatbread. Two little plastic cups containing the prescribed condiments were included so I obediently added them to the sandwich. The first consisted of a minty tzatziki-like yogurt sauce, while the second was a thin, cilantro-chili pepper sauce. Almost like a salsa verde, but with a middle-eastern twang. Did I detect a hint of za'atar, or was I dreaming?

Impressed enough by the sandwich, I decided to give Crescent Moon Pizza a second chance two nights later, when I once again had no dinner plans. This time, I decided to try out their "famous Afghani football pizza", advertised on the flat screen monitors at their register. Never having had either a football pizza or an Afghani pizza, it was hard to resist. There was something about the juxtaposition of the Midwestern All-American sport of football and the central front of the so-called "war on terror" that was irresistible. Plus, who doesn't like football? Or pizza?

I opted for the "house special", which included Afghani beef, diced green peppers, and diced onions. I brought it back to my hotel room where I slowly ate it while watching my beloved hockey team embarrass themselves in the playoffs.

The pizza turned out to be the best part of the night. The Afghani beef was ground, seasoned, with a touch of heat, and pre-cooked before being spread on an flatbread crust topped with a layer of tomato sauce and mozzarella. The diced peppers and onions provided a bit of crunch, and the whole thing had been cooked until the cheese bubbled nicely and the crust was chewy and crisp. It also turned out, as you might have guessed, that a "football pizza" is approximately shaped like a football.

My only criticism was that the tomato sauce was sweeter than I would have liked, but otherwise, this was a good pie. A nice touch was that a small plastic cup of same green cilantro-based sauce that I had enjoyed with my lamb kebob was offered, and in case it was unclear what I was meant to do with it, the pizza was cut into rectangles that were perfectly sized for dipping in the cup. The mild heat from the beef combined with the spice and acidity of the sauce made for a great combination of flavours that I wouldn't have expected in a Minnesota pizza.

Crescent Moon Pizza is located at 1517 Como Avenue SE, near the University of Minnesota Campus in Minneapolis, MN. Call 612-767-3313 or visit their website for more info.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Resto La Banquise, Montreal, QC

Since we started dating, I had been telling Tam about my hometown, which she had yet to visit. One thing she couldn't wrap her head around was the appeal of poutine, the province of Québec's most well known culinary contribution. Why anyone would want to smother their fries with cheese and gravy instead of malt vinegar, or, in a pinch, ketchup, didn't make sense to her.

"Not just any cheese, but cheese curds," I would try to explain. "The fresher the better. And with time, the piping hot gravy starts to melt them so they get a bit gooey." I could have continued to delve into different points of view on the important matters crispy versus soggy fries (I much prefer crispy, although armies of people adore La Belle Province's soft, fat fries) and ideal plating technique (I prefer it to be spread out over a largish surface area so that the fry-to-gravy ratio is uniform but some like it packed in a styrofoam bowl so that the cheese gets really hot and fully melted), but I could tell from her facial expression that she was uninterested and a little bit disgusted by the whole idea.

The only way to convince her would be to try it, so when we recently visited the city, I took her to La Banquise, an east-end diner that specializes in the dish. While not the most traditional establishment (they offer 25 different poutine variations while most places only have one) it is my favorite.

Although quite crowded on a Sunday March evening, we were immediately seated in the colourful dining room. A proper introduction to poutine should really be the straightforward fries with cheese and gravy (refered to on La Banquise's menu as the "Classique"), but we opted instead to share their award-winning "Poutine B.O.M.", which, in addition to the aforementioned cheese curds and gravy, also includes sautéed onions, bacon, and merguez sausage atop a heap of fries. We ordered two Quebec microbrews, a Tremblay and a Coup de Grisou, to wash down our salty meal.

A few minutes later, our plate arrived.

Tentatively at first, Tam started taking bites. After carefully considering what she was eating, she proclaimed it really good. Soon, we were both attacking our meal, making sure to get a good potato/cheese ratio as well as enjoy the little extra bits of bacon and sausage that this decadent poutine had tucked in between crispy fries.

We had ordered the smaller portion size, but it was more than enough to fill the two of us up. Our beers didn't blow us away since we're spoiled by the wealth of exceptional microbrew offerings available at any decent bar or beer distributor in Pittsburgh these days, but the Coup de Grisou was a nice, light, citrusy wheat beer. The Tremblay, despite its local microbrew status, might as well have been a Labatt Blue or other mega-brewery lager. Next time, we'll stick to the Unibroue offerings, which are always excellent.

It's fair to say that the poutine initation was a success. Next time we're in town, we'll knock off another Montreal food institution: the legendary smoked meat and grumpy waiters at Schwartz's.

La Banquise is located at 994 rue Rachel E, in Montreal, QC. Call 514-525-2415 or check out their webpage for more info.