Monthly Archives: March 2012

Finnish Bistro – St. Paul


Where else would one go on St. Patrick’s Day?

The Finnish Bistro of course!

Yes, that’s what my husband and I did! We had a Groupon for the Finnish Bistro in St. Paul and thought it would be a great place to dine on St. Patrick’s Saturday night without reservations. The Groupon {and this was a real Groupon} included:

For $20, you get a European dinner for two after 4 p.m. (up to a $45.90 total value). The meal includes the following:

  • Two entrĂ©es (up to an $13.95 value each)
  • Two sodas, juices, glasses of wine, or beers (up to a $9 value each)

I’ve mentioned in my Groupon post how these deals often get us out to restaurants we may not have known about and locations we may not know that well. Not having heard of this place before, I checked out the menu and was intrigued. While it featured Finnish and other Scandinavian dishes, the menu also included Mediterranean and Eastern European delights as well as grilled cheese and quesadillas. I knew my husband could handle it. 🙂

Besides, I live in a state known for its Scandinavian heritage. It’s time I learned a bit more about this. And having grown up in a primarily German and Polish part of eastern Wisconsin, I don’t think going to IKEA near the Mall of America counts.

We probably arrived around 5 or 6 pm. We walked in and saw a huge bakery display case:

Are Danishes in Finland called Finnishes? 🙂

We noticed that this was the type of place where we had to order at the counter. I don’t know why, but this disappointed me. {Interestingly, this is how Pardon My French works and it has never bothered me there. I love that place!} Maybe it’s the “bistro” feel I was looking for instead?

Believe it or not, there was a big group {they must not have been Irish} and only one person taking and delivering orders to the table. This was fine because we needed some time to mull over the menu.

I really did want to try something Scandinavian. However, this didn’t look like a place where I’d normally order fish. So I asked the gal behind the counter, “How’s the salmon?”

Without hesitation, she said, “Oh! It’s excellent here!”

“Great! I’ll have the salmon lefse.”

“That’s my favorite item on the menu! It’s the only thing that I order exactly as it’s read on the menu. You’ll love it.”

Rob placed his order, we put our tip in the jar, and she handed us our drinks. We found a little table near the window and sipped on our Finnish Porters!

We were quite pleased!

When our meal arrived, my plate was beautiful:

Lohi (salmon) Lefse with a small side salad

The only time I could have possibly had lefse before was when I went to visit my friend Erika in Seattle. We took a day trip to a little Scandinavian town called Poulsbo. If we did have lefse, I don’t remember what it tasted like. The company was more important. 🙂

So not knowing what lefse really is, Rob and I ripped off a piece of the wrap. Yum!  Tasted like potato. Sure enough, it’s a type of flatbread made of potato, milk or cream and flour. I loved it.  Ask my husband: I love all things potato. However, by the time I tasted all of the yummy ingredients inside, the lefse flavor faded into the background…

salmon, wilted spinach, roasted red pepper and onion

This was the most flavorful salmon that I’ve ever had! I couldn’t get over the seasoning. Look at the picture! You can even see specks of pepper. I was completely blown away. What a completely satisfying meal. There is no doubt that I’d order this again.

So, what did Rob order? The Baltic Special Flatbread Pizza:

The Baltic Special: Grilled Kielbasa sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, black olives, sautéed garlic & mozzarella on red sauce.

Rob’s Verdict: Much better than Black Sheep Pizza we had the week before. I tried it… cheesy, garlicky, and wait – Kielbasa? I’m home!

My Verdict: Definitely worth it! If we are ever in the area again, we’ll stop. It’s a quaint neighborhood with Muffaletta on the corner, a restaurant I’d been to once a few years back. There’s also a cute little wine shoppe across the road, too. It’s affectionately called “The Little Wine Shoppe”. 🙂 We picked up a couple of bottles before heading home.

Have you been to Finnish Bistro?

How about a little neighborhood restaurant?

If so, what did you like about it?

The Difference Between a Good Wine and a Great Wine – Part 2


This Wine Wednesday, let’s continue with what differentiates a good wine from a great wine.





The age of the vines can directly influence the quality of the finished product. Generally speaking, older vines produce grapes that make better wines. Why? A 50-year old vine will yield less fruit than one that is ten years old. And as we learned in Part One of this series: less yield = less wine = higher prices. That explains why wines made from grapes grown on old vines can be more expensive.

But it doesn’t explain why they are often better.

Consider this, vines with more fruit soak up the same amount of nutrients and water from the soil that vines with less fruit do. This means that these nutrients must be shared with all the grapes on the vine. There is only so much to go around! The fruit on older vines doesn’t have to share the nutrients with as many other grapes. Therefore, the older vines produce fruit that has more concentrated flavor which results in a deeper, more complex wine.

The quality is often superior.

Old Vine

The only problem?

There is no regulated definition for “Old Vines” on a label.

Because of this, you may even see $8 wines labled as “Old Vine”. Old to them may mean ten years! How do you know? You don’t always. But you can read the back label or check the wine’s website for additional information. Vineyards and winemakers that use grapes from truly Old Vines don’t mind revealing the age. In fact, they’re proud of it! Even if you don’t know how old the vine is or it says nothing of the sort on the label, just know that it can be a factor in explaining why a wine of the same grape, vintage and location is more expensive.

As an example, one of the wines I market at my Wine Tastings does not say “Old Vine” on the label:

$16.99: Worth every cent for the quality!

“A delicious take on California’s signature grape, this Zinfandel comes to you straight from Amador County vineyards spread over the lower Sierra Foothills – an area known to produce gutsy reds from old (often pre-Prohibition) vines. For this release, we wanted delicious accessibility with just the right amount of heft. (That’s why it has been in development for close to a year!) From tasting notes carefully jotted as far back as November 2010, our winemaker worked tirelessly to craft the most concentrated grapes he could find into a Zinfandel with unique fruit and spice components – robust, peppery, and bursting with ripe fruity currant, cranberry, cherry aromas and flavors.”

Have you had a wine made from Old Vine grapes before?

What kind of differences did you notice?

The Power of the “Groupon”


I use the term Groupon rather loosely.

In fact, I use it to describe all dining deals that we buy and use, just like one calls a tissue Kleenex, whether it is that brand or not. So my apologies in advance to all of these Deal Sites that are just as worthy.

Not sure what a Groupon is?

Well, where have you been?! These are deals posted daily that allow you to get half-price or more off of gift certificates to restaurants, salons, gyms, spas, services, etc. For example, restaurant XYZ may have an offer where you can buy a $50 gift certificate to their restaurant for only $25. And boy do these gift certificates hold a ton of power!

What’s the catch? Well, you generally can’t combine them with any other offers, specials or promotions. However, the purpose is to bring you into their restaurant by a specific date. {The promotional value almost always has an expiration date, although the value that you paid for the certificate never expires.}

We love these deals! And while I’ve read some arguments on how they can do more harm than good for businesses, I think it is up to the restaurant to decide where they want to spend their advertising dollars. Because that is what the deal truly is – advertising. People become more aware of these businesses whether they buy the deal or not. For example, I received an email announcing a deal for the Amsterdam Bar and Hall. However, I forgot about it after I got busy doing something else and never decided to buy it. Still, I had never heard of this new establishment before and it intrigued me. So the next time we were in downtown St. Paul, we decided to check it out. And we did. The advertising worked.

That’s Power #1 of the Groupon: Introducing me to new places.

Power #2: Getting me there sooner than later. There are several establishments on our restaurant bucket list that we’d really like to try soon. However, our list of Groupons is extensive and we want to use those up before they expire. Sorry, La Belle Vie, while we do have a grand desire to try you out,  you are on the back burner for now. By buying a Groupon, I’ve essentially already invested in a meal there and I’ve committed to them for redemption!

Power #3: Exposing me to different neighborhoods. Living in a south of the river suburb of the Twin Cities makes it easy to frequent the same nearby places when we want to grab a quick bite. But a Groupon often draws us to other parts of the Twin Cities which we may have never visited otherwise. We are quite the fans of Northeast Minneapolis now! We even have a few places in St. Paul where we’ve become “regulars”.

Do you really buy that many of these, Carrie?

And how do you keep track of them all?

Why, yes. Yes, we do. We have over 30 pending right now. And yes, we use them all before they expire. I do want to offer you some key tips on how to decide which ones to buy {and when to pass}, how to organize and use them before the  promotional period expires and how to use them to splurge a little. {The following tips refer specifically to dining deals, but you can use similar techniques for spa, fitness, household and other deals as well.}

There are so many! Which ones do I buy?

First, sign up to receive the daily deals in your inbox. A list of deal sites in the Twin Cities can be found here. You can set up a “junk” email address, if you’d like. I have an email address that I use when I sign up for newsletters, deals, offers, and when I buy something online. That way, they don’t clutter my regular inbox. However, I do check this email once or twice a day.

If the deal appeals to you, click on it and study the following:

  • Location – Would you be willing to drive to this location?
  • Expiration Date – Check your calendar. Do you have time to get to this location before the expiration date?
  • Menu – Go to the restaurant’s website. Check out the menu. Does anything appeal to you? If not, there is no reason to buy it! A deal has no value if it’s not something you’ll use. {For example, I won’t buy deals from Italian restaurants that only offer spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan and fettucine alfredo. They don’t impress me.}
  • Have you been there before? If not, just buy ONE deal. Nothing’s worse than finding out that a place wasn’t as you had expected and then being stuck with another gift certificate to use there. On the flip side, ff you’ve been there and love the place, only buy as many as you can fit into your schedule before the expiration date.
  • Look at the fine print and exclusions:
    • Most deals state that you can’t use them in conjunction with any other offer or promotion. That’s normal and makes sense for the restaurant’s benefit. However, if you love to go to a place for their happy hour and aren’t excited about anything else on their regular menu, the deal may not be worth it to you.
    • Does the deal exclude alcohol or particular dishes? Some do. When a $50 gift certificate is good for food only, it’s sometimes hard to get to that amount when it’s just my husband and me. To be sure, go back to the menu and check the pricing to make sure you’d be able to spend enough to cover the gift certificate.
    • Some deals are only good Sunday through Thursday. If you can’t get to the other side of town on a weeknight, don’t buy it!
    • Check when the restaurant is open. Sundays and Mondays are the days of the week many restaurants are closed. Make sure that the restaurant is open on the day and during the hours you are planning to visit. Keep in mind that some restaurants serve only brunch on Sundays, too.
    • Is there a minimum purchase? While I don’t see this much with many of the daily deals such as Groupon or Living Social, it is quite common on For example, you might need to spend $35 or $50 in order to use your $25 gift certificate. Again, analyze the menu.

Keep your deals organized!

Some people keep track of their deals on their phone with apps for each deal site. I need all of my Groupons in one place. We print out each deal as soon as they become available and put them in an accordion file:

Deals filed by month to use the ones expiring first!

We keep our file o’ deals locked in my car. That way, if for some reason we don’t do our homework and we find a place is closed {we learned this the hard way!} or we want to pop over somewhere else, we can just thumb through our trusty accordion file to see what we have available.

Use your deals before they expire!  {They aren’t deals otherwise.}

  • I keep a spreadsheet. Yes, I’m geeky like that. My spreadsheet includes the name, location, dollar amount, exclusions and expiration date. I keep them sorted by expiration date. However, if I want to use one in a particular city, I can sort that way, too.
  • Use those that expire soonest first. {Both the spreadsheet and file accordion file help with this!}
  • Schedule them on your calendar! We like to put the date we’d tentatively like to visit, but include the expiration date in case we need to change. Some prefer instead to put a reminder on the calendar about a month or two before they are about to expire. Again, remember to watch for holidays when the deal may not be valid and days that the restaurant may not be open.

There are some fun ways to use your dining deals!

  • Dining deals can make your night out seem much less expensive, especially when giving a new place a try.
  • If you normally would order a sandwich, you might want to use your deal to order some higher priced options such as steak or seafood.
  • You could use it to add an appetizer or try a more expensive bottle of wine. My sweet spot for restaurant wines is between $30 – $45. However, when my friend Ceci and I dined at Solera, we got a $65 bottle of Spanish wine when our server’s description had us drooling. We had a $25 gift certificate and since we are fellow wine lovers, splurged in the right place. We found one of our favorite restaurant wines ever! That bottle and that night out is unforgettable.

And of course, always tip on the pre-discounted total of your bill. Your server isn’t working any less for you and gratuity is not included. We try to leave our tips in cash whenever possible.

Dining deals can be worth it if you devise a system for buying and organizing them. Organization is key. In fact, we have at least two Groupons per week “scheduled” in our calendar through the end of July. I’m a geek. I know. But it’s fun. And it works.

What do you love about Groupons and other dining deals?

How do you use them?

Healthy Dining Out: The 50% Solution


I used to eat really fast when I felt hungry.

I think it was because if I hadn’t eaten much all day, I needed to eat as quickly as I could to make the “hunger” feeling go away. {Even though we all know it takes the brain at least twenty minutes to determine that the stomach is full.} Furthermore, if I had something “bad” in the house, I’d try to finish off the package as quickly as possible, which could be a couple of hours or a couple of days. This would mean it would be out of the house and I wouldn’t be tempted to eat that bad food later. What kind of thinking was that?

I’ve been changing this relationship with food.

You may know by now that I’m a Francophile. I do love that in French and Italian cultures that food is supposed to be about pleasure. It’s about the quality of food, not the quantity that matters. Furthermore, these two countries have some of the healthiest lifestyles in the world and don’t seem to have the obesity problems that we do in the U.S.

We can still enjoy great food – just in smaller quantities.

Nothing I eat now is off limits. It takes away the overwhelming desire to want to eat something just because I “can’t”. I let myself eat anything now. It’s maybe not always the healthiest food, but I don’t eat a lot of it. It’s just enough to satisfy the taste that I {sometimes think} desire. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because it’s been a huge piece to the weight-loss and healthiness puzzle for me. When I came across this article this morning, it reinforced my beliefs on this subject.

Dining out is one of those things that’s often off limits on many diets. However, now that I don’t limit myself to eating at home, it’s not that big of a deal anymore. We dine out at least twice per week. To me, each time I go out, it’s “practice” for the next time. What is on the menu that is healthy, but will satisfy me? Still, menu items that seem healthy can be served in extra large portion sizes or with hidden ingredients such as too much oil, butter or even lard slathered over the top.

Healthy Dining Out Tip:

I got this tip from the author of French Women Don’t Get Fat. My friend Stacey, who shares a love of finding good quality restaurants, gave me what I believe was Mireille Guiliano’s second book: French Women for All Seasons. While this book focuses on how to eat seasonally to eat the best quality ingredients, one tip that I picked up and have put to use that she discusses is:

The 50% Solution

Simply put, the purpose of the “50% Solution” is to force you to be more mindful of your portion size. And because we all know that restaurant portion sizes can be astronomical, it really does come in handy when dining out and can keep us from stuffing ourselves silly. This is where I like to practice it most.

Here’s how it works:

When you are dining out, Guiliano says to ask yourself if you can live with half the amount being offered. When you first try this, you might think, “No way! I’m starving!” But try to resist those thoughts and eat only half of the portion; and eat it slowly. After you have eaten half the portion, Guiliano says to stop and ask yourself if you are content and if continuing would be a matter of pleasure or routine.

Quite often, half of the portion is enough. If you need to continue, so be it. But you just might be surprised. If you decide to keep going, you need to repeat the process. Eat half of the half, then reevaluate. In theory, if you continue repeating this process, you will never eat the entire thing. You could even add a five-minute waiting period or drink a glass of water between each “half”. Think of it as “half-time”. When you are paying this much attention to it, deliberately stopping and reflecting before continuing, it makes all the difference in the world.

Consider this, Guiliano says, “In terms of taste, contentment can be found in the first few bites.” I don’t remember where, but I once heard that people only really taste (or pay attention to) the first three and last three bites of anything they’re eating. The stomach is what says,”that’s enough”, but it’s oftentimes too late.

When we first tried the 50% Solution, we ordered a Side Special at the Bloomington ChopHouse: the PavĂ© Potato. This was a six-inch square portion of layered potatoes about two or three inches high with asiago and parmigiano reggiano. In fact, it was so huge that we took half of the portion and then split that into two halves, one for each of us. They were creamy, cheesy and oh-so-decadent. I savored each bite slowly. I hate half of my half and then half of that half. {Uh, does that make sense?} I pushed the rest away. I am pretty sure that the server was confused when he took away our huge plate of leftover potatoes. He probably thought we didn’t like them. But I loved them! It’s probably been a year since and I haven’t forgotten them!

This past week, I ordered some fish tacos at restaurant. (Impression to come soon!) Most people would think two tacos wouldn’t be enough to fill anyone up. But I only ate one (and the side salad):

Mahi Mahi tacos

We had some sautĂ©ed mushrooms on grilled bread as an appetizer, so I didn’t need much more. What’s more, is that the second taco tasted excellent for lunch the next day without being re-heated!

If you want more fun tips like this, please check out Guiliano’s books and website.

I know I’ve already given you one challenge for this weekend, but I’d like to give you another: Give the 50% Solution a try this weekend when you are out. Then report back how it worked for you!


Amsterdam Bar & Hall – St. Paul


Last weekend my husband and I went on a Blind Date:

Okay, so it was really a play entitled Blind Date. I don’t want to spoil what it’s like, but I’m sure you can figure out what it’s about! It’s playing through April 1st at the Ordway in St. Paul and tickets are still available. So go check it out! They serve some fun, fancy cocktails {for purchase} pre-show, so be sure to get there early. The Sofia Sparkling wine was featured in a few and sold out before the show even started. The cocktails featured Kinky Liqueur which is a mango, blood orange, and passion fruit infused vodka. I ordered the Kinky Bubbles. Impression: Yum! I love a bubbly cocktail and could really taste the blood orange.

But on to the Restaurant Impression. The play was a lot shorter than we anticipated {no intermission}, so our originally planned dinner destination was not yet open. We were hungry due to a rather light lunch earlier. It was a beautiful day, so we decided to walk over to the Amsterdam Bar and Hall just a few blocks away.

I’m sure we didn’t get a true impression of the place during the daytime, because this place is meant to be a nighttime music venue. In fact, there’s live music, if not other activities, every night!

Music & Event Calendars sitting on tables

The interior was dark, yet spacious. I loved the high-top booths lined with art posters and tall candles on the tables:

There was a wide beer selection, with an emphasis on Belgians as well as various gins I’ve never heard of before. {Many were labeled genever, which our server told us was gin.} I didn’t even look at the wine list. Instead, I ordered a cocktail:

The Rotterdam: Gin, St. Germain (elderflower liqueur) & sparkling wine

Then, our food:

Broodjes: Little Dutch Sandwiches, Belgian Frites

Yes, I ate burgers and fries. These sandwiches were smaller than they look though. In fact, the Amsterdam Menu recommends ordering two or three of them for your meal. {Pictured here is the meal for the two of us.} The sandwiches we ordered were:

  • housemade sausage (added cheese, recommended by our server)
  • kroket (pot roast, deep fried)
  • prosciutto
  • xxx cheeseburger

Our favorite? The sausage! In fact, they are listed in order from most to least liked. I had a bite of every one and finished the kroket. The fries? Disappointing. I’ve had them in both Belgium and Amsterdam and recall them tasting better. However, the array of sauces is quite the novelty! Our server surprised us with a garlic mayo, curry ketchup, curry mayo and peanut sauce.

I thought back to when I was in Amsterdam 12 years ago. What did we eat there? But I couldn’t remember. I asked my friend Jen, with whom I traveled on that ten-week backpacking tour of Europe after college. She didn’t recall either. I think we were there for three or four days, too. All I remember were the fries in paper cones with mayo {like in Belgium} and the breakfasts of deli meat, cheeses and bread.

This place has only been open for about six months.

Our impression? Pretty damn cool.

I would love to come back and see a band, nosh on some Dutch pub grub, and toss back a couple of beers. But they also are one of the hosts a book club called “Books and Bars”. Have you heard of this? What do you think? It sparks my curiosity…


The Difference Between a Good Wine and a Great Wine – Part 1


I often get asked at my Wine Tastings, if there really is a difference between a $5 bottle of wine and a $40 bottle of wine.

The answer is: Absolutely.

Before you start thinking that I’m a total a wine snob here, let me just preface the rest of this post by stating that this does not mean that an inexpensive bottle of wine cannot be perfectly enjoyable. Because it most certainly can!

So, then what is the difference between a Good Wine and a Great Wine?



Remember my Quality over Quantity post?


While I don’t get the opportunity to go into depth in answering this question at my tastings, I do here! So over the coming weeks, I’m going to illustrate for you five main reasons why two wines made from the same grape variety can have huge price differences.


Terroir is a French term used to describe the location and condition in which grapes are grown. In French, terre can mean land, soil, ground, or earth.

However, terroir {pronounced tehr-wahr} is much more than that. It is everything that encompasses the unique location and natural environment where the grapes are grown: the soil, the climate, the conditions and anything else specific to that particular vineyard.


Have you see the movie French Kiss?

Terroir is described briefly in this film. It’s the part where Luc {the Frenchman played by Kevin Kline} asks Kate {played by Meg Ryan} to describe a wine:

Kate: “A bold wine with a hint of sophistication and lacking in pretension.”

Kate: “Actually, I was just talking about myself… I don’t know…”

Luc:No, you are not wrong… Wine is like people. The vine takes all the influences in life all around it. It absorbs them and it gets its personality.

Then he has her smell the wine so that she can pick out things like rosemary and lavender which were also grown on the same land as the grapes. This illustrates that all of the surrounding elements in the environment has an influence on the grapes.


The quality of any finished wine is often determined by the terroir. Certain grape varietals will not thrive without the right soil or right climate. The color, aromas, and concentration of flavor is enhanced when grown in the appropriate location.

This matters not only from region to region, but also from vineyard to vineyard. For example, soils that are well-drained often yield fewer grapes, but with deeper flavors. In addition, cooler climates can foster slow and more even ripening of the grapes on the vines which can help expand the complexity of flavors in the finished product.

These well-sought after plots of land can be quite costly. In addition, less yield = less wine = higher prices. I once heard that to if you’d like to earn a small fortune as a winemaker, you need to start with a large one {fortune that is}!

On the other hand, winemakers who’ve had vineyards passed down in their families for hundreds or even thousands of years know that their vineyards have high value and can price accordingly. For example, French Burgundy and Bordeaux wines can often carry hefty price tags. They’ve been growing grapes in these regions for thousands of years. Over time, the wines have gained notoriety and have come to present a more elegant, classic style that you can only get from France.

Have you ever had:

a Pinot Grigio from Italy vs. from the U.S.?

a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, cal vs. from Bordeaux, France?

a Chardonnay from California vs. from Burgundy France?

a Shiraz from Australia vs. a Syrah from France?

Depending on location, they are very different in style. And that is largely due to terroir.

I challenge you this weekend to get two of these wines and try them side by side. And report back your findings!

Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza – St. Paul


We are going to be the Black Sheep here…

Why am I saying “we”? Because all three of us who dined at Black Sheep Pizza in St. Paul before our Gaelic Storm Concert last weekend felt the same way…

What’s the hype all about?

Is it that they are supposed to have gourmet ingredients?

Is it the “coal fired pizza” thing?

We just don’t get it.

It certainly wasn’t bad… but it wasn’t anything special. When a restaurant is receiving so many accolades throughout the Twin Cities and people keep touting that this place is a gem, we had to test to it out.

Our Experience:

While there were a couple of great local beers featured, it wasn’t enough to wow our dining experience.

We ordered the Meatball, Ricotta and Garlic Pizza as well as a Build-Your-Own Pizza with sausage and mushrooms.

Top: Sausage & Mushroom
Bottom: Meatball, Ricotta & Garlic

They were both good. But not exceptional. We all felt they were lacking flavor. Occasionally, I would get a little bite of garlic or a taste of ricotta that would just light up that specific bite, but that experience was scarce, as was the sauce.

In fact, I seemed to be the only one who had those exceptional bites. In addition, the sausage was disappointing. It might be because I expect little chunks of sausage with fennel {especially when it is labeled “fennel sausage”} instead of thin slices. We didn’t taste the fennel either.

We left satisfied, but not impressed. We met friends out for drinks afterward and when we told one friend our experience {incidentally, my friend Jared}, he was in complete shock. “Did you get the Meatball, Ricotta and Garlic Pizza?” he said. “That’s one of my favorites!” When we told him that we did and thought it was virtually flavorless, he blinked like a deer in headlights.

So I got to thinking… Maybe Black Sheep was just having a bad night. Maybe we need to give them another chance.

Have you been to Black Sheep Pizza in Minneapolis or St. Paul?

If so, what was your experience like?

Or… What’s your favorite pizza?