Tag Archives: restaurant reviews

Desert Roots Kitchen: Tempe, Arizona, USA

4 Feb
by Deanne

Desert Roots Kitchen—Tempe, AZ

The month of January 2013 was filled with two of my favorite activities: eating out and traveling to new places.  Steve and I visited family in California and then went to five national parks in California and Arizona. As we traveled between the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park we spent one night and morning in Phoenix.  In search of a place to enjoy lunch after a morning visit to the Desert Botanical Garden, I found Desert Roots Kitchen through an online search for organic foods.

Review: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness: 4

Yes, they do source many of their ingredients locally.  There is a page on their website that lists farms and farmer’s markets that they use to purchase their ingredients.  They change their menu daily which is a necessity when one is cooking based on what is available.photo(73)

Flavour: 5

I loved my food!  Red lentil tomato veggie soup with crunchy celery and an olive hummus plate served with fresh pitas, tomato, cucumber, and carrots: Yummers!  The dominant spice for the soup was black pepper and perhaps some cayenne.  Steve made me some soup today because I was going on and on about the memory of my meal.  The chef didn’t overuse soy as many vegetarian and vegan cooks do as an easy trick for adding protein.  The protein came from beans, chickpeas, lentils…..yes all good sources of protein and add desirable fiber content to our diets.   Steve had the wrap of the day which was a mixed bean burrito with enchilada and sweet corn sauce.  I’ve probably said it before, he is very hard to impress, but he really enjoyed the flavor combinations. His two sides were lemon tahini kale rice with chickpeas and red cargo rice with mushrooms, green beans and water chestnuts.

RedLentilTomatoVeggieSoup

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

After eating at some pretty mediocre places, one starts to think, “There just aren’t any good places to eat.”  Then you find something that is fun and flavorful and that is a big surprise.  We ate at about 40 different restaurants in California, Arizona, and Nevada.  This one stands above the rest, even some from places that have highly celebrated chefs.

Comfort+Coziness = The C factor: 5

When we walked in the door we were greeted by one of the three women in the small but inviting space.  Our greeter explained the menu and chatted with us while another person prepared the food.  Soon our plates were presented to us and we wandered outside to find a a spot in the sun to enjoy one of the best meals of our trip.  The owner found a way to take a somewhat awkward space because of the size and location, (they are in a less than obvious and hard to find space in a mixed-use complex with no indoor seating) and make it comfortable with service and outside patio seating.

Overall Rating: 14+

MixedBeanBurrito

They describe themselves as a vegan/vegetarian cafe.  Even though we do not adhere to a strictly vegan diet, we believe we can learn so much from trying new flavors and ingredient combinations from other cuisines and diets.  It is worth noting that they do cater to people with food allergies and intolerance too.

Desert Roots Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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The Silk Road: Missoula, Montanta, USA

4 Nov
by Deanne

The Silk Road Restaurant—Missoula, MT

While we were on the road  in September, we tried to adhere to eating in a healthful manner.  We learned that it can be challenging when you are away from your garden or farmers market to eat whole, mostly plant based foods.  But we did find a restaurant worth sharing in our Real Local Cooking Restaurant ReviewsThe Silk Road is located on Higgins Avenue in Missoula, Montana and was a pure delight.  Once you own a restaurant, you are very hard to please so it means a lot when I say this place was wonderful.Photo of Spicy Eggplant at Silk Road

Review: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness: 3

Photo of Gazpacho Verde at Silk Road

Yes, they do source many of their ingredients locally.  They also have a seasonal menu, but that is not what makes them great. Read on and look at the pictures and you will see what makes this tapas style restaurant worthy of  our praise.

Flavour: 5

Each and every little dish was a treat. We truly did crave many of the dishes the next day and even now looking at the pictures our taste buds get excited.  We really, really liked the Spicy Garlic Eggplant.  We have never found an eggplant dish we enjoyed this much.Photo of Skewered Beef

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

For our family, when we find a place that earns a rating of 5 on flavour, it is a pleasant surprise!  It is something we hope for every time we painstakingly research a restaurant and walk through their door.  We leave most restaurants, as you can see by our other reviews, unimpressed in the flavour catagory.

Comfort+Coziness = The C factor: 5

The waiter was really outgoing which set the tone for a fun evening.  The table had maps and postcards under glass and matched the eclectic nature of the menu.  We were very comfortable and found ourselves chatting with the ladies at the next table while we ate bites of our little plates.

Photo of Grilled Summer Squash at Silk Road

Overall Rating: 13+

One interesting aspect of The Silk Road is that they do sell spice combinations used in their dishes.  A  person could purchase them and then experiment in their own kitchen.  We have referred our cooking class students to this service provided by The Silk Road.  So even if you can’t visit the restaurant and you like to cook, we do recommend looking over their seasonal menu and selecting a spice blend to try a similar dish at home.

Photo of Poached Shrimp

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The Silk Road on Urbanspoon

Mustards Grill: Yountville, CA

15 May
by Francine

Mustards Grill: Yountville, CA

A photo of the dining roomBack in January when I visted the Napa valley, I drove past Mustards a few times.  I was intrigued because the words STEAKS, CHOPS, RIBS, GARDEN PRODUCE and TOO MANY WINES edge the restaurant’s awning. 

After 3 days of driving past Mustards, which is right on St. Helena Highway (the main road through the valley), I visited their website and discovered that Cindy, the founder and executive chef of the restaurant (and a girl raised in Minnesota), planted an organic garden years ago when it was an unusual thing for a restaurant to have. 

She says of gardens, “I feel it’s important for freshness and flavor and it brings people closer to their food.”  After more than 20 years the garden has turned into 2 acres that provide the restaurant with 20 % of their produce year round.  You can read more about their gardening practices which include natural fertilizers and pest control here.A photo of the garden

Review: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness:  5

I visited the garden, which is next to the restaurant, before I went inside.  I saw lovely leafy greens growing in raised A photo from the gardenbeds.  They had a variety of vegetables growing in raised beds as well as a small hoop house.  It’s great that their garden is right next to their parking lot; it encourages and allows guests to have a wander before or after their meals.

They also have a huge wine menu.  The wine menu is the size of the W volume of an encyclopedia (remember them?) and it features wines produced in the fertile valley and the rest of California.  While I didn’t have any wine, I would have enjoyed a glass, it was a sunny afternoon, the location was perfect and I was feeling leisurely.

Flavor: 4

It seems that Mustards have featured items that change regularly, if not daily, which they often post about on their facebook page.  When I visited they were featuring some different Latin American dishes, the recipes came from a cookbook, possibly written by someone connected to the restaurant (but I don’t remember).  I decided on a tortilla and black bean soup, and I was very tempted by the tres leches cake.  I also had a simple mixed green salad which I found fresh and fun to eat since I’d just visited the greens in the garden.A photo of my soup

But the best flavor of the meal was simple and happened by accident.  The waiter brought a fresh chunk of crusty bread and plunked it right down on the white tablecloth.  He also set down a dish of soft butter, a tiny dish of sea salt and a small pepper grinder.  It was presented in such a way that it reminded me of how you sometimes get olive oil and black pepper in a little dish, which is perfect for dipping bread.  So I thought, “Oh cool, here you can smear butter on the bread and then dip it in the sea salt and freshly ground black pepper,” so that is what I did. And it was amazing.

Only after I had gobbled up all of the bread made perfectly flavourful by the salt and pepper, did I realize that they weren’t suggesting dipping the bread in those three things, they were just placing salt, pepper, and butter on the table.  Oh well…I discovered a wonderful new way to eat bread.

Pleasant Surprise: YES

At a quick glance this restaurant looks a bit like a roadside attraction and perhaps at one point it was a greasy spoon spot, but it has been transformed.  And taking something old and giving it new life is something that I love! 

Mustards holds onto its roadside diner identity and feel by offering large portions of comfort food…BBQ pork, steak and garlic mashed potatoes and they’ve also left the outside looking a bit boxy.  But they’ve transformedA photo of the salad and bread a diner into a spot for fine dining…there’s lovely dark wood work, black and white tiled floors, windows everywhere to let in as much light as possible and white tablecloths.  They also added a garden and made the restaurant a place that celebrates fresh ingredients.

Perhaps I’m delighted by this because it’s a bit of what my parents have done and are trying to do at Solar.  They aren’t aiming to make it a fine dining establishment, but they have re-purposed an old drive in, invented tasty menu items (baked hot wrap anyone?), planted a raised bed vegetable garden and introduced a once a week FarmerChef special.

The C factor (Comfort+Coziness): 5

A photo of the restaurant's awningI liked that there were lots of windows; it helped create a cheerful environment and it also provided views of the gorgeous golden hills.  The staff was welcoming and friendly.  I felt comfortable dining by myself, but I would have loved to have shared the meal with someone.  It would have been fun to linger over a glass of wine with a friend. 

Ho hum…if someone had joined me I probably wouldn’t have made the bread+butter+sea salt+black pepper mistake, but I’m glad I did that because it was delicious. :)

Overall Rating: 14+

If you ever find yourself driving along Highway 29 between Napa and St. Helena, stop at Mustards Grill.  I think you’ll enjoy browsing the garden, eating yummy food and finishing off a day of vineyard visits with a glass of wine.

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Mustards Grill on Urbanspoon

C CASA: Napa, CA

23 Feb
by Francine

C Casa: Napa, CA (in the Oxbow Public Market)A photo of C CASA

This taqueria is one of the many delightful eateries in the Oxbow Public Market, which is just across the river from Napa’s main downtown. On C CASA’s  website it describes itself as an innovative kitchen and warns eaters that they’ll become addicted to the food served up.  After a dinner of guacamole, chips, a piled high taco and a pineapple agua fresca, I agree that C CASA is an innovative kitchen and a great restaurant.

Localness: 3

The menu and website mentions that sustainable ingredients are used (grass fed beef, free range chicken, etc.) But I didn’t notice any producers or suppliers listed on the website or menu. I have no doubt that they are doing what they are saying, but it could be great to know which sustainable producers they are supporting.

Flavor: 4

I was impressed by the innovation of C CASA. The menu is filled with unique taco creations. I had fresh guacamole and a spiced lamb taco that was piled high with mixed greens. It wasn’t the easiest taco to eat because it was very tall, but I didn’t mind using a fork to scoop up the yummy bits.  I quickly crunched through my chips and guacamole   None of the flavors in my meal crunched me over the top, but I appreciated that there were so many different flavor combinations offered.A photo of my taco

There were a few creations posted that weren’t on the regular menu. When I visited a few weeks ago, I think it was an Asian fusion type of taco. I noticed that just now on the website they are offering two dishes as their ever changing Seasonal Dishes. There’s a crab salad with ruby grapefruit, avocado and fresno peppers all tossed with a jalapeno lemon vinaigrette as well as a duck taco with blood oranges, goat cheese, avocado, and a meyer lemon serrano salsa.

Also they have rotiessere duck and chicken. If I lived in the area, I’m sure I’d stop by every once in awhile to get a whole roasted duck to go. (I used to get this from my neighborhood roast duck vendor when I lived in Dalian, China.)

Pleasant Suprise: YES

For those of you who try to or have to eat gluten free, you know how difficult it can be to find baked goods that are devoid of gluten. I was super excited to see that C CASA offers a number of gluten free baked goods and sometimes even dairy+gluten free ones. When I visited, they had a massive chocolate-y gluten free brownie.  If I hadn’t already eaten enough chips and guac to feed a small family, I’m sure I would have tried a gluten free baked good. ;)

Comfort+Coziness:  4

The Oxbow Public Market is basically a giant food court. It’s lined with a variety of restaurants, and there are open seating areas scattered throughout the middle of the market.  Some restaurants have their own designated seating areas. And some also have outdoor dining, I noticed that C CASA has patio space set aside for their customers, but since it was a rainy day I wasn’t keen to eat outdoors.  A photo of the chips and guacSince it could be hard to find seating and because the noise level varies depending on the time of day you visit, I’d say the atmosphere (and that of the entire Oxbow Public Market) is fairly comfortable, but not cozy.  Also, the service at C CASA was friendly and prompt, which always makes for a pleasant dining experience.

Overall Rating:  11+

I would certainly return to C CASA if I lived in the area because there are many menu items and specials I’d love to try.  A detail from my mealWhile I didn’t get much of an impression of being connected to the food (there weren’t any locations of farms listed on the menu), this is the type of place I hope to encounter with increased frequently.  People often rely on fast food chains, but I hope consumers can come to rely on places similar to C CASA… places with fresh options, sustainable ingredients and creative menu items.  It’s tons more fun to eat healthy quick food than greasy factory made fast food.

If you live near Napa, stop by C CASA and think of me as you enjoy a creative taco, piled high with fresh and sustainably raised ingredients!

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C CASA An Innovative Taqueria (The Oxbow Public Market) on Urbanspoon

Zzest Market & Cafe: Rochester, MN

17 Feb
by Deanne

Zzest Market and Cafe:  Rochester, MN

While in Rochester to visit a friend who was seeing doctors at the Mayo Clinic, we decided to look for interesting places to eat.

Zzest caught our attention with this tag line: Market by day, Restaurant by night. We were unsure if they had food at lunch, but we decided to drop in and check out the market a little before noon on a Saturday. The menu looked interesting and the place smelled good so we were motivated to stay for lunch.

Zzest is easy to reach from various locations around Rochester; it’s near the Apache Mall and next to the Trader Joe’s parking lot. A photo of Zzest

Review: (See Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness: 3

Both local ingredients and speciality food items sold in the market are used in the restaurant.  My take is that they cater more to foodies than locavores. For example, you are as likely to see asparagus and octopus, which is very far from local to Minnesota, as you are to see braised local pork and fall veggies, which is what I ordered.

We don’t mean to speak poorly of this approach. It highlights the fact that true foodies seek the best in taste and dining experience, and they know that local is often the best way to get quality ingredients.  The purpose of our restaurant reviews is to seek out “real food” and the food at Zzest was carefully prepared using quality ingredients…some local and some exotic speciality items.

Flavour: 3

The Roasted Vegetable Salad was very good; best described by my friend as having “layers of flavor.” The roasted vegetables, which included one beet, some Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, were lovely. The pure deep taste of roasted vegetables came through. Underneath the roasted vegetables, the greens were laced with balsamic dressing and which brought forth another unique flavor. My pork was wholesome and enjoyable but provided no lingering memories.

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

When we walked through the door we found ourselves in a kitchen/gourmet food shop. We wandered around and then saw people dining in the restaurant area. Soon we discovered that the menu changes twice a day. This is an ambitious undertaking which requires creativity and fresh insight on the part of the three chefs.

We had a chance to look at the evening menu from the night before and the lunch menu for the current day. The dining room attendant explained to us that when the evening chefs arrive they figure out what they plan to cook that evening and then the menu is produced.

My preference is to “discover” things as I go, so I was pleasantly surprised to uncover more and more about the place. If you like to know what will be on the menu before you arrive, you might not find this approach a pleasant surprise.

Comfort+Coziness = The C factor: 2
A photo of the menu

The restaurant and store was a fun place to shop and dine; however the service was a little cool for Minnesota, which my friend, from the East coast, had experienced as a land of helpful and caring people. It seemed like the person in charge didn’t want to get too close.

Since we visited at lunch, we were told to order at the counter and serve ourselves water. Afterwards I checked online to see what others were saying. Mostly I wanted to find out that if you visit in the evening would the service be different. From what other reviewers posted, the service, in general, seems to be a bit spotty.

Overall Rating: 8+

Even though the overall rating is lower than the other places we’ve visited and reviewed, I would still recommend visiting Zzest Market & Café when you are in Rochester. It is part of the Creative Cuisine Company which owns several restaurants in Rochester. Next time I head back to Rochester, I’ll visit again and see what’s on the menu and poke around in the shop.

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River Rock Coffee: St. Peter, MN

16 Dec
by Deanne

River Rock Coffee: St. Peter, MN

Francine and I happened to find River Rock Coffee when we stopped in St. Peter to visit the local Co-op back in October.  We were hopeful that this coffee shop would have more than the standard (usually stale) coffee shop food.  A photo of River RockWhat we found was a sweet little restaurant and coffee shop that uses locally sourced food in artistic and intelligent ways. 

River Rock has a garden in nearby Kasota. They also source ingredients from local farms: East Henderson Farm and Living Land Farm. It’s evident that they consider what’s in season when preparing their weekly menu; the first time we visited we had Autumn Black Bean Chili. A few weeks later, on our second visit, we enjoyed a cup of Tomato Soup.

Their weekly creations are posted on a “whimsy board” so that customers can gain inspiration about what to eat. River Rock also does an excellent job of maintaining their facebook page—keeping customers up to date on the delicious items cooking and baking in their kitchen. Since our first visit, we’ve returned a few times and each time we’ve found different but wonderful food (and of course, great fair trade coffee).

Review: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness: 4

We asked if the garden was close enough to visit.  (I guess we’re becoming bolder and beginning to sound an awful lot like the characters from this episode of Portlandia.)  We discovered that the garden is at the owner’s home in a nearby community. From our conversation, it sounded like this year they relied on their CSA shares more than the garden. Nothing wrong with this, it’s great to support other community growers and showcase the farmers’ hard work through creatively prepared dishes.

A photo of the Seasonal SamplerFlavour: 5

The Autumn Black Bean Chili was delicious and beautiful. It was made with black beans, peppers, squash, and onions. I had it as part of the Seasonal Sampler with humus and flat bread.  After shopping we stopped back in for coffee, and Francine found a new way to enjoy coffee—with honey and cardamom.  She described it like this (on her facebook wall), “One sip and I’m taken back to making pulla (Finnish sweet rolls) with my au pair kids; another sip and I’m reminded of spicy Indian chai!”  When food and drink transport you to a different time and place and leave you craving more, you know you’ve been cared for by the person who was inspired to create it.

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

I am both a dreamer and a cynic when it comes to looking for a place to eat while traveling.  I dream of finding a restaurant like River Rock, but I’ve been disappointed enough in the past to not expect much when stumbling upon a new place (usually I like to research places to eat before leaving home). A photo of Tomato Soup

The fact that River Rock’s food was wholesome and delicious and made with locally sourced ingredients gave me hope about discovering new restaurants while traveling. Also, I was encouraged to discover that our Southwestern MN restaurant neighbor is supporting locally grown food.

Comfort + Coziness (The C factor): 4

The service was warm and inviting.  The staff was knowledgeable and seemed to enjoy working there. These simple things made me feel comfortable and cozy. The decor was open and fun, but I would describe it as typical for a coffeehouse—a tad eclectic with a touch of grittiness.

Overall Rating: 13+

If you ever find yourself in St. Peter, MN and feel like a cup of fair trade coffee, a light lunch or fresh baked bread, stop by River Rock. They’ll treat you right and serve you some real local food.  We know we’ll continue visiting and enjoying their inspired creations, and we look forward to keeping tabs on the good things River Rock Coffee is up to.

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Ubuntu: Napa, CA

27 Oct
by Francine

Ubuntu: (downtown) Napa, CA

As Luke (my brother) and I stood outside this restaurant looking at the menu, two young women walked by and read, “Restaurant and Yoga Studio…how do they do that?!” It does make one imagine some wacky things—your waiter delivering your food with a sun salutation and then leading you in down dog stretches between courses to relax your stomach muscles.A photo of the window

While fun to imagine, I knew that wouldn’t be the case at Ubuntu since I’d visited their website prior to our lunch reservation.  I read about their garden/farm to table approach and discovered that the space serves as both a yoga studio and a restaurant (just not at the same time). I also knew that I’d be eating a vegetarian meal, which as someone who enjoys slow roasted pork shoulder, I was a bit uncertain. 

I mean I love my veggies, but I just didn’t know how fabulous they could be.  Ubuntu showed me that vegetables can be ah-mazing. This restaurant knocked us out of our tree poses (or for you Yoga enthusiasts Vrksasana). The creativity, flavour and presentation of the food we had at Ubuntu only happens every so often, but when it does—it’s unforgettable!

(Update: Ubuntu will be taking a sabbatical through the winter months, beginning Nov. 21st. Find out more information on their facebook wall.)

Review: (See Real Local Cooking’s criteria.)
Localness: 4

The menu changes according to what’s in season and the menu clearly highlights which items come from Ubuntu’s garden by listing the items from their garden in capital letters. Every dish seemed to have at least 2 items from their own Biodynamic garden. I overhead one of the servers explaining their growing practices to an inquisitive guest. I imagine that if one would like to they could arrange to visit their nearby garden.

A photo of the MenuWith such an obvious connection to their ingredients I imagined I’d find (at least) a small garden out the back door. I peeked when I went to the restroom, but no, just a small patio for al fresco dining and a parking lot. Ubuntu is after all in downtown Napa, which is great because it’s easy to find. 

And since it’s located in the fertile Napa Valley, the ingredients they use in their dishes don’t have to travel far. Their website states, “The vegetable inspired menu features ingredients from our local Napa gardens.”  Also, according to their website, “[they] adhere to the seasonal calendar and participate with local producers for products [they] are unable to farm, and [they] contribute to a greener earth by relying less on global food sources and those products with the highest carbon emission and water footprint.”

Flavour: 5

As I mentioned above, I enjoy meat dishes and I was somewhat hesitant about a ‘vegetable restaurant’ (I think one too many soggy falafels had done me in). However, the dishes we shared at Ubuntu amazed us. We probably sounded a bit funny if anyone overheard our lunch conversation. We were continually stammering, “oh the flavour,” while scooping up another dainty bite, and then muttering “wow…the flavour!” A photo of the carrot dish

One dish we had featured 24 hour marinated carrots. Every bite of this complex dish had a different taste. There wasn’t a single flavour we could pin down, they all twisted together and left us muttering to our empty forks, “wow! that’s good.”

Before Ubuntu, I couldn’t even imagine that vegetables could be so interesting, complex and swoon-inducing. We cleaned our plates completely—we didn’t want to miss out on one tiny bit of flavour.

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

Each dish was a work of art: this was a very pleasant and wonderful surprise.  The first dish that we ordered was described as a gazpacho soup with many ingredients, one of which was char-grilled lime peanuts and another was melon. The dish that arrived was gorgeous—itty bitty leaves, a nearly every shade of green and served in an elegant white dish. 

The server held in her hand a small white vase and told us she was going to pour…something (I can’t remember what, because I was so overwhelmed by the loveliness of what was in front of me). She poured a clear liquid into the dish and it transformed into a little pond. The leaves delicately floated on the surface, the peanuts sunk like rocks to the bottom and a droplet of liquid rested on tiny scalloped leaf,  like a dew drop on a lily pad. It was a thing of beauty. Probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever eaten. Magical.A photo of the magic

Comfort+Coziness = The C factor: 5

The restaurant was open and inviting: a high ceiling, big windows, long wooden tables, cozy corner tables, a bar, interesting yoga inspired sculptures and an open kitchen, which was clean and bustling. The service was welcoming and fast.

For a restaurant with one Michelin Star, there could be a tendency towards condescension, but that was not the case. The server clearly explained how the menu was set up—the menu items are appetizer sized so people usually order a few to share. This helped us feel less bewildered as we looked at the gourmet menu. Ubuntu definitely had a good vibe—maybe it comes from the veggie goodness or the yoga zen, but it could just be that laid back California charm.

Overall Rating: 14+

I highly recommend Ubuntu for a unique and memorable meal. It’s doing things right: using quality locally produced ingredients in creative and inspired ways. While it’s certainly worth it, it is a bit of a splurge. Our meal of four dishes came to about $65.  But for that price we enjoyed four unique dishes—full of flavour and beauty, with a little magic poured on top.

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