Friday, August 17, 2007

Linking up with Ursula

I think of the telephone and e-mail as treasure chests of possibility. Gems of ideas and golden opportunities come flickering through modern shipping lanes with little risk of piracy. Well, maybe there's some risk, but we won't worry about that right now.

One day last week the phone rang. Andrew Whalen, chef of Ursula's Wine Bar and Cafe in White Bear Lake, Minnesota was calling. Andrew had discovered our vinegar at the Golden Fig on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. He'd been using it on the menu at Ursula's and was in need of a larger quantity of our rhubarb wine-vinegar. Since we were already planning a trip to the city that weekend, to see one of our daughters in the Fringe Festival production of They Will Be Sent Into the Dawn at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, we told Andrew we'd deliver. He responded with the offer to make us the salad in which he uses the vinegar. Though Ursula's is only open for the evening meal, Andrew, and owner Kurt Hegland, said noon on Friday would be fine.

At noon we were there. No, actually we were a half hour early and had time to visit a book store in White Bear Lake and take in the view of the quaint shops before pulling into Ursula's parking lot at 2125 4th St.

Andrew welcomed us to Ursula's and we proceeded with a vinegar tasting, with Andrew and Kurt joined by their assistant who sported a broad grin and a big hoop earring. He looked a little pirate-like but that's the kind of piracy to be enjoyed. Since we're into describing these fine food proprietors: Andrew reminded me of the friendly Scottish bartender whom we met at St. George and The Dragon, the St. Patrick's Day pub where we celebrated the day with friends in about 1994 (tall, curly blond hair, wide-set blue eyes, a friendly disposition); bespectacled Kurt looked every bit the Real-Estate-Abstracter-turned-restaurateur that he was.

Kurt explained that Ursula means "female bear" a name he felt appropriate for a fine dining establishment in White Bear Lake, a town that capitalizes on polar bears. Of course I had to check the dictionary on that definition. Ursa Major is of course the star constellation also called the Great Bear. Ursine means of or relating to a bear or the bear family Ursidae. Ursuline refers to members of an Italian order of teaching nuns with references to St. Ursula who was martyred in 1639. Maybe this is more than Kurt or any of us want to know. Let's just stick with Kurt's definition.

After our little vinegar tasting Andrew disappeared into the kitchen and quickly produced one of the most delicious salads to which I have ever applied my fork. A delicate mix of baby summer greens covered half of the white crockery plate. Perfectly prepared al dente penne rigate covered the other half. It was topped with shredded fresh handmade mozzarella (Andrew even makes his own string cheese for his "babies" -son and daughter ages 10 and 13), flash-in-a-pan seared tiny heirloom tomatoes, cubed bacon bits (pancetta) and a Leatherwood rhubarb wine-vinaigrette. I don't think our biases were showing when we declared Andrew's salad one of the best ever prepared!

Having sampled our herbal vinegars as well as our garlic-in-rhubarb, Andrew was inspired to whip up some of his special two-bean hummus which he augments with sun dried tomatoes and Leatherwood garlic-wine-vinegar. Served with smokey crostini, a delectable spoonful disappeared from my plate, while Ron, asking politely first if I wanted more, squeegeed the final vestiges from the bottom of the bowl.

Other items on Ursula's menu: Pan seared pork medallions with crispy organic blue cornmeal polenta cake and dried cherry pico de guillo; grilled Black Angus rib eye with fingerling potatoes sauteed with pancetta and red onion and topped with tomato, basil and feta cheese.

Kurt gives all the credit for the inspired menu to Andrew. Andrew just seems to thrive on the wonderful flavors he can whip up in Ursula's tiny kitchen.

The menu suggests that patrons ask the server for dessert selections. We didn't even think about dessert. Let me see....did I tell Andrew about my raspberry-vinegar infused broiled strawberry topped pavlova?

Visit Ursula's web site at

Friday, August 03, 2007

Country living

Yesterday as I drove from town to the vinegary I saw sepia colored deer in the green field adjacent to the road. Two dull brown sandhill cranes flew over. We often see wild turkeys, this time of year they lead little ones, and occasionally bald eagles. The wild life is abundant and generally a pleasure to watch. The exception is that the rabbits have repeatedly pruned the peas, kale, broccoli and beets in the garden. A handy product called "liquid fence" seems to have solved that problem. Now a gopher has moved into the pumpkin patch. It's only a matter of time before the raccoons raid the sweetcorn. Gardening can be a challenge but the beasts have allowed us to enjoy our green beans and zuccinni.

Today's schedule includes preparation for a vinegar themed dinner for four couples this evening. We donated the dinner to a fund raiser. Each course includes vinegar, from appetizer to dessert. We'll begin with hummus(with house vinegar), vinegar spritzed chips and crudites. This will be followed with a pasta and greens salad(with garlic vinegar). Then marinated (rosemary vinegar) chicken breast, parsley potatoes (with oil, vinegar and parsley) and stir fried green beans (soy sauce and vinegar). Dessert will be pavlova (a meringue made with raspberry vinegar which makes the center like marshmallow) topped with raspberry vinegar infused broiled strawberries. The dinner also includes a tour of the orchard, vinegary and herb garden mingled with the various courses. We're looking forward to providing this unique dining experience.

Last evening we hosted a garden club tour and we're scheduling more group tours (including a mystery tour) into the fall. We sold our retail store in town and moved the shopping experience to the country as well. This makes better use of our time and accommodates large groups well. The only challenge has been in connecting to high-speed internet service. Dial-up makes managing a web site and blogging a much slower process. But we're hopeful that the high-speed dilemma will be resolved by next week.