Riffing whimsically off of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in order to sell caramel apples appears to be a guaranteed road to controversy. The Facebook page of Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store has exploded in vitriol over the past couple of days in response to the store’s “#CaramelApplesMatter” signage, with numerous reviewers and commenters charging insensitivity (or worse) and numerous other commenters posting angry rejoinders. One possible moral of the story: If you’re goofing around with a movement dedicated to combating violent manifestations of institutional racism, it helps to have a really deft hand.
The restaurant scene in the Twin Cities is booming. A few new excellent places seem to pop up every couple of months, and if you can’t get into one dynamite spot, there are plenty of others. Along with putting out delicious, interesting food, restaurants are upping their service game. Professional, friendly, and informal (read: not stuffy) service is becoming the norm. Local eateries, bars, and coffee shops routinely show up on national “best of” lists, win prestigious awards, and garner national press. It is within this context — this bounty of deliciousness — that we found Parella wanting.
Located in the old Figlio space in Calhoun Square, Parella strives for Italian chic. The space is well lit and airy, but lacks character. Perhaps aware of this paucity of personality, a server during our first meal explained that the gray mark on our wobbly table was a sanded-down bullet. He failed to mention, however, the gap between the booth’s bench and back. We learned of it when our credit card slipped into the abyss. After a failed extraction attempt, we informed the manager of our problem, and he said he’d dive in at the end of the night. Perhaps he didn’t make it out, because we never heard from him.
On all three of our visits, the staff was enthusiastic and friendly, which compensated somewhat for middling service. The same server who eagerly highlighted the table-bullet and took us on a long-winded “tour” of the menu (in which he strongly recommended a few sub-par dishes) didn’t describe components of dishes or ask why we took only a few bites of several items. With only two or three tables, a frazzled lunch server forgot us several times, seemingly because a patron sent back a flatbread. Still, we likely wouldn’t have focused so much on these (and other) service mishaps if the food had bowled us over.
Cured meats from Red Table ($6 each) and a sunny plate of thinly sliced raw scallops, lemon, and pepper ($15, above) grabbed and held our attention until our plates were cleared. A fresh, creative dessert featuring silky panna cotta, granita, and lychee ($8) kept us nearly as engaged, while a few other items piqued, but didn’t hold our interest.
A refreshingly simple salad of greens and herbs ($8) was bright and flavorful, but suffered from too much dressing and not enough pecorino. We also enjoyed a dish of calamari, shrimp, fava beans, and chicory ($14), even though it lacked the smoke from the wood oven that our server had promised. Baked goat cheese and tomato sauce was tasty, but tiny for $13.
Melina Lamer grew up drinking Gatorade and wishes she’d had a better choice. While a student at St. Olaf, she began experimenting with brewing her own ginger tea in her dorm room, “Like my grandmother used to,” she says. When she discovered that centuries ago, there was a ginger-based drink called switchel (also known as a haymaker) that was a favorite summer libation of thirsty farmers, she and a friend decided to try to make their own.
There are many variations on switchel, but most involve ginger and vinegar. There are also a number that call for blackstrap molasses, which Lamer tried, but without success. “It was too viscous, too thick and creamy,” she said — not an appetizing thought for a drink that’s supposed to be refreshing. After more research and experimentation, Lamer came up with a combination of ginger, vinegar, honey, and cinnamon that hit the refreshing mark and still fit the category of switchel. After Lamer shared it with friends who urged her to try to sell it, Superior Switchel was born.
Lamer touts it as a perfect post-workout drink, but she sees uses for it beyond a Gatorade replacement. The Superior Switchel website has recipes she developed, including cocktail ideas, a drunken chicken, and hot cider- and tea-based drinks. “It’s an all-year beverage,” she says. “Ice cold for a workout, warmed up in fall, and it’s a great base for a cocktail.” A couple of tastings found she was right: When served cold, the switchel is tangy, bracing, gingery, and refreshing; served as a hot toddy with bourbon, it’s a perfect cool-fall-evening warmer-upper.
Lamer is also determined to keep the product as local and environmentally sustainable as possible by buying her ingredients (mostly organic) from small local providers.
Superior Switchel is less than a year old, but Lamer has already succeeded in getting it into farmers markets, including Linden Hills, Tiny Diner, and The Market at Target Field. At the markets, switchel is available in both small jars and growlers. The smaller version has been picked up by several brick-and-mortar stores, including the Eastside and Linden Hills co-ops and France 44, among others. Word of mouth has gotten the drink off to a good start. “People tell me, ‘This reminds me of my childhood,’ or ‘This reminds me of a drink I had on vacation,’” Lamer said. She currently produces the switchel in a little commercial kitchen in St. Paul, but is looking for bigger things. “I aspire to Whole Foods, Lunds and Byerlys, Kowalski’s,” she says. “And I’d love to get into environmentally focused restaurants with mixologists.” She acknowledges that could be difficult, given that mixologists might like to try their own versions. “But are they going to steep ginger 48 hours for a richer ginger flavor, like I do?”
Despite the allusion in the name to Old English 800, English Old Ale from Hudson, Wisconsin’s Pitchfork Brewing is a delicious dark beer that reminds us that winter is coming. This seasonal release is available to drink in the taproom and for purchase onsite in 750 ml bottles for $9, with a limit of two per customer.
With a spicy, clove-evocative nose and a whiff of alcohol, the beer pours softly to create an ivory head that dissipates once you begin drinking it. The beer has low carbonation and a strong maltiness, with a flavor that has strong gingerbread notes. Its creaminess hits you first on the tongue and is followed by a swift sweetness that segues into nutty tones throughout.
As the beverage warms, the alcohol flavors grow, and a cherry finish blooms along with some light chocolate and coffee notes imparted by the Maker’s Mark barrels used to age the brew. English Old Ale has a thick mouthfeel, yet it is not bready, and given the beer’s deep mahogany color, the entire experience is not unlike finishing a bag of dark-chocolate-covered raisins. As a whole, it’s big, yet subtle.
At 8.4 percent ABV, the alcohol content is pronounced but does not inhibit the taste or the overall experience. As an Old Ale should be, Pitchfork’s product is not well-hopped, and the hope is that when it ages, it will become even fruitier and almost reminiscent of sherry. The barrel aging is appropriately done, and avoids the astringency that can riddle a brew if it’s not tended daily.
Compared to similar “winter warmer” beers we’ve sampled in the past, this one is truly a treat — deep, dark, and handsomely malty. While it may not be made again after this batch runs out, other seasonal brews to look forward to at Pitchfork Brewing include the Vanilla Rose Imperial Porter, an English porter combined with braggot brew, aged in Four Roses tequila barrels on vanilla beans. It will be available around Thanksgiving, just in time for the holiday festivities.