I was gazing into the dry-ice fog rising from my Vesper martini at 300 First recently when I wondered aloud, “How about a Four Stars column on food that smokes?”
Maybe it was just the magic of that combination of Tanqueray gin, vodka and Lillet Blanc, as mixed by bartender Cassie, but one thing led to another, and here’s the result — a column about the most interesting fiery and smoking food and drink in the Rochester area.
The 10 distinctive dry-ice martinis at 300 First are a good place to start as an aperitif. They’re a calling card for the restaurant, with their bent-stem glasses, generally fruity mixes and misty turbulence. I’m partial to the Vesper and the French 75 — Bombay gin, fresh-squeezed lemon juice with a fresh twist of lemon peel, a splash of simple syrup and a float of champagne on top. But the more popular choices are the cosmo-like drinks, including the Color Me Red, a pomegranate martini cut with cranberry juice, which adds some pucker to it. All are a good deal at $7.95.
Remember, don’t ingest the dry ice. If you’re uneasy about that, just wait until the bubbling, vaporous show is over.
For a fiery and flashy tableside show, you can’t do better than a Japanese steakhouse, and Rochester has two, Jenpachi in northeast and Osaka in northwest. During the lead-up to the actual cooking at the hibachi table, the teppanyaki chef will spray some cooking oil on the griddle — our chef recently at Osaka, John Wang, drew a smiling face with his squirt bottle of oil — and then put a flame to it, which produces a fireball that definitely warms up the audience. Later in the cooking, John assembled a pile of concentric, uncooked onion rings, poured some oil into the hollow and set it ablaze, creating a hissing volcano of flame.
Aside from that, the food is always good and plentiful, and at Osaka, you can choose from a variety of Angus beef cuts, and they take care to cook it to order, though sliced up. The filet mignon version is $24.95.
You’ll have to travel for the other two flaming foods on my Four Stars list. Flaming Greek cheese may have been on the menu at Zorba’s Greek restaurant in Rochester, but that closed a few years ago, and maybe Michaels restaurant had it, once upon a time. Now, you’ll have to drive to the Cities to enjoy the dish, called saganaki.
One place that definitely has it is my favorite Greek restaurant in the Twin Cities, It’s Greek to Me, at the lively corner of Lyndale Avenue and West Lake Street. The disk of mild Kasseri cheese is dipped in egg batter and sauteed to a light, golden crust, then drizzled with a little more olive oil. It’s lit up on the broiler plate at tableside. The dish is creamy with a tangy taste when hot, but it’s just as good when cooled and firmer. Like just about everything at the restaurant, which has a classically serene patio out back shaded by poplars, it’s reasonably price ($7.25 for the appetizer).
The other classic flaming dish is a famously flamboyant dessert, Bananas Foster, and if you know of a place in the Rochester area that has it, call me immediately. The closest I’ve found is the Afton House Inn, on the St. Croix River north of Hastings. Bananas are lightly sauteed in butter, sugar, cinnamon and banana liqueur. Then a splash of dark rum is added, and the pan is tipped into the heat to set everything ablaze. It’s a great tableside show when done correctly — and I’ve never heard of a Bananas Foster disaster.
The bananas and sauce are served over ice cream, and at the historic Afton House, it’s a romantic wrapup to a special meal. I’m told the Salt Cellar in St. Paul and the Oceanaire Seafood Room in Minneapolis also have it, but call ahead before you make the trip.
The Port restaurant at the St. James Hotel had a flaming Baked Alaska dessert not too long ago, but I snoozed and missed my opportunity.
Know of other infernal foods that deserve a Four Stars award? Fan the flames and send me a note.