Eat @ Joe's



August 7, 2003 --When you're entertaining on the road, you need a restaurant that delivers it all: comfortable ambience, attentive service and consistently outstanding food and drink. I also seek a discernable sense of place, a spot that reflects the local dining scene without trying excessively to be "cutting edge."

Over the years I've developed a list of proven performers in frequently visited cities that offer can't-miss dining experiences. They are great, reliable, enjoyable places to take clients or colleagues. Not surprisingly, these places also have remarkable staying power, remaining praise-worthy as other hot spots come and go. Here's a selection of five restaurants on the on-the-road entertaining A-list.

I jump at the chance to do business in Chicago if I can fit in a meal at Frontera Grill or its more refined sibling, Topolobampo. Chef/owner Rick Bayless is a passionate authority on Regional Mexican cuisine and he even closes his restaurants annually to take his staff on field trips to sample authentic Mexican food. Frontera Grill is a fun space filled with colorful folk art and infectious music. The menu showcases Bayless' obsession with fresh ingredients and traditional preparation methods that result in complex, earthy flavors. Arrive early to try the amazing chile relleños (they sell out quickly) or enjoy drinks and a sampler of tacos al carbon with homemade tortillas and two salsas while you wait for a table. Expect to spend about $30 per person. Or splurge at Topolobampo, Bayless' white-tablecloth restaurant within a restaurant. It serves more ambitious dishes, including a five-course tasting menu ($59 or $85 with wine). Items change constantly, but could include a salad with marinated, shredded cactus or an entrée such as puerco in pipian rojo, a wood-grilled pork tenderloin served in a classic sauce of two kinds of chile
and pumpkin seeds.

My choice for a winning business meal in Dallas remains the iconic Star Canyon. Its "new Texas cuisine" and playful décor shine almost as brightly as when they were first created in 1994 by celebrity chef Stephan Pyles. Both have thrived despite a wave of merchandising mania and a change in ownership. You know you're in Texas when you enter the large, comfortable space: Hats and boots star as art and those names branded into the ceiling--Paris, Desdemona, Dime Box--are really Texas towns. But it's the nuanced, rustic food that transports you to the heart of the Lone Star State. Signature dishes include a bone-in cowboy rib-eye steak with red-chile onion rings and a tamale tart with roast garlic custard and crabmeat. Or try the nightly five-course tasting menu. For dessert, go straight to Heaven and Hell cake: angel and devil's food cakes layered with peanut butter. Expect to spend about $60 a person for dinner. (3102 Oak Lawn Ave.; 214-520-7827; lunch Monday to Friday; Sunday brunch; dinner from 5:30 p.m. nightly)

The passion and brilliance of George Mavrothalassitis are evident everywhere at Chef Mavro, his 60-seat jewel box of a Honolulu restaurant. And since the table you've reserved is yours for the entire evening, you'll have plenty of time to marvel at the decor and the cuisine. Mavro's menu, The Art of Pairing Food & Wine, perfectly matches each dish with a specific wine. Put yourself in his hands and indulge in one of the three tasting menus. I suggest the six-course menu because the three- or four-course versions simply don't allow you to sample enough. You'll enjoy dishes such as Hawaiian Ceviche, composed of ahi (tuna), tako (octopus) and opihi (limpets) with local corn, finger potatoes, ogo (seaweed) and watercress. Or perhaps you'll have White Peking Duck Breast, served rare with crisp skin on a stir fry of snow peas, hearts of palm, shitake mushrooms and pineapple. Mavro's signature dish is Onaga Baked in Hawaiian Salt Crust, a snapper stuffed with spinach, encrusted with sea salt and sauced with herbs and ogo. Save room for the Lilikoi Malasada, a unique take on warm Portuguese doughnuts. Mavro's ethereal version is filled with passion-fruit jelly and served with guava coulis and pineapple-coconut ice cream. Entrees cost $32 to $39 each. Tasting menus without wine are $55, $62 and $89 a person or $72, $88 and $124 with wine.

It's far from the glitz of SoBe--in fact, it's in a North Dade shopping mall parking lot near Turnberry Isle. And it's not new, having opened in 1986. But Chef Allen's in Aventura, Florida, keeps winning raves. Brooklyn-born Allen Susser constantly refines his signature New World Cuisine, turning Florida's bountiful seafood and exotic fruits into dishes with Latin, Caribbean and European accents. Try a starter of Bahamian lobster and crab cakes in a vanilla beurre blanc or share the Caribbean seafood antipasto platter for two, which offers a sampling of citrus-seared yellowfin tuna, conch ceviche, jerked calamari and tamarind BBQ shrimp. Entrees include pistachio-crusted black grouper, served with rock shrimp in a mango-coconut sauce. Dijon lamb chops come with potato and goat cheese vindaloo in Pinot Noir jus. Any of the changing chocolate soufflés makes a great dessert choice. Susser offers a four-course tasting menu nightly and a special "grand tasting" menu is served at the sought-after chef's table on Fridays.

Cross over the Mississippi to Minneapolis' Twin City, St. Paul, and you're in a thriving, culturally rich downtown, home to everything from hockey to Hockney. A bustling central business district flanks Rice Park and a revitalized riverfront. And just steps from the park and the four-star St. Paul Hotel is a lively restaurant that serves up equal parts of stylish ambiance and great food. Multilevel Pazzaluna Urban Trattoria and Bar dazzles the senses with a riot of handpainted tiles, rich upholstery and animated conversation. But don't just come to gawk: Pazzaluna's menu reflects Executive Chef Bruno Oakman's obsession with the freshest ingredients, many from local purveyors. Select from a wide array of house-made antipasti; thin-crust pizzas; risotto and pasta dishes, including grandmother-style gnocchi; main-course meat and seafood entrees; and inventive side dishes, such as roasted potato-apple hash. The wine list is extensive and fairly priced and the service is accomplished and personable. Expect to spend about $60 per person.

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