Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fargo is Not Just a Coen Brothers Movie

It was a forced visit, but I found it pleasant enough.
by Charlie Leck

The first non-native settlers took up residence in Fargo, North Dakota in about 1869. The railroad workers came in the following year and began building the roadbed and laying the tracks toward the west. It was easy work in five-sixths of North Dakota. Not much got in the way.

Fargo is flat. Much flatter even than the Twin Cities, which has, at least, some hilly spots like Kenwood and out along Groveland Terrace. Saint Paul has its famous Cathedral Hill and the big cliffs that drop down to the Mississippi River on either side. Fargo has none of that. The city must often be held captive by the ravages of the mighty winds that build up speed and roar across the state.

The railroad company was the king in those early years of Fargo. The old railroad Station on Main Avenue is a spectacular, historic building. A visit to the historical museum finds a great deal of material about the railroad on exhibit. Another smaller, but attractive station is right in the heart of downtown. Several of the big railroad companies roared through Fargo on the way to the Pacific Northwest.

Frankly, I’ve found Fargo a pretty pleasant place. The people of Fargo out-Minnesota us in respect to their hospitality and kindness. This is a remarkably clean and neat community and it seems to be well organized. It’s easy to navigate around town and find destinations.

North Dakota State University is the gem of the community. The campus and its various properties, like the agricultural research center, take up a huge percentage of the community. It’s a little known school nationally (unless you follow collegiate hockey closely), but you should all know that it is a fine academic institution out here on the windy prairie.

The community seems to have its weaknesses. I searched for fine restaurants by using Google and the first hits sent me down to Excelsior (MN) to dine at Jake’s Irish Pub and up to Winnipeg to dine at a downtown establishment way up north. But, we learned the rule: If you want fine dining in Fargo, go to Moorhead. That’s the Minnesota town just across the river. There we found John Alexander's Restaurant and Martini Bar (see more about this restaurant below). It was better than good and nearly sensational. The service was top notch and the menu was creative and had something for every taste and appetite. I’d give it four out of five stars. There’s also a fine Italian dining establishment in Fargo that gave raves in all the reviews I read about it: Sarellos. We’ll try it this evening.

Here’s what’s good about a trip like this to Fargo. Anne, my wife, was in a continuing education class for two days and I got a lot of reading done, watched a football game on television (the Gophers beat the Northwestern University Wildcats) and I took a couple of long naps. I also got in a long walk through the University campus and found a way to drive down near the Red River to get a good look at it.

The river was flowing slowly and gently. It was hard for me to believe that it had been a raging monster this spring and that thousands and thousands of volunteers had fought to hold it back from swallowing Fargo. Before the white man came, this was an important place for the natives who lived here in relative peace. The bison also gathered here in the hot summer to cool themselves and to drink happily together. This river flows north from just south of Fargo, getting its life from the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and the RiversOtter Tail and ends where it enters Lake Winnipeg, in Canada.

If you drive out along the plains on either side of the Red River you’ll discover beautiful, flat farmlands producing wheat, potatoes, sugar beets and cattle. Only the horizon interrupts the view of these massive flat fields. The colors, however, especially when the sun is very low in the morning or evening, are utterly spectacular. Tomorrow I’ll go with my camera and see what I can capture.

I couldn’t live in Fargo. There are too many wonderful things I’d miss about the Twin Cities region – great dining, wonderful museums, music centers, libraries and sports teams. I couldn’t live without those things. I’d miss our beautiful lakes also. Yet, this community shouldn’t be dismissed as insignificant. It’s a bustling metropolis and a trading partner with our own town – a lot of freight is transported both to and from the Twin Cities (250 miles away).

I’d come back to Fargo without complaint – especially so I could dine in Moorhead.

John Alexander's Restaurant and Martini Bar
I've reminded you here, on other blogs, that I am not a restaurant critic; however, I do know restaurants and I know a good one when I find it. John Alexander's, on Main and 4th Street in Moorhead, Minnesota (315 Main Street) is a really neat place and a fine restaurant.

The first thing I fell in love with is the setting. The dining room is right off Main Street in an old, restored western U.S. style building. The dining room is roomy, perfectly lighted and very modern in its decor. A big, L-shaped martini bar sits in one of the back corners and isn't at all intrusive to the diners. The tables are roomy and the chairs are comfortable. Each table is very subtly decorated in a way that doesn't take up valuable space.

I ordered a very ordinary martini on the rocks and it came in a nice, big, roomy, square-shaped glass that was pleasant to hold and easy from which to drink. Anne had a cold glass of Guinness dark ale and we shared a half dozen oysters on the half-shell with a very, very lovely and tasty sauce with mysteriously good herbs.

Anne ordered an Ahi tuna that was very large and perfectly prepared. It was a far larger portion than she ever eats, so I got a big share of it. It was spectacular and attractively presented with lots of appealing color. At $32 is was a properly priced.

I passed on all the magnificent looking, sizzling steaks that were being served all around me and went with an entree suggested by our server, Chicken Marsala. It was pan-seared in a tasty Marsala wine and Cremini mushrooms and green onions. Two large pieces of flattened chicken breasts were were presented to me over a bed of ala dente Linguini noodles with plenty of the Marsala sauce. The chicken was pleasantly warm, yet still delightfully moist and very tender.

A platter of several kinds of really tasty breads was put right between the two of us and I couldn't resist trying one of each of them. My wise and slim wife settled for just my reports on their excellence and tastiness.

The menu isn't wildly large, but it's expansive and varied and any diner could find something to his taste and pleasure. It begins with four different and attractively described steaks. I wandered around the dining room in a manner that I am sure wasn't exactly inconspicuously and peeked at the platters that were being served. The steaks looked scrumptious and each was served in a very pretty manner. Here are some of the other wonderful entrees on the menu:
Chef's Walleye -- broiled and battered and pan-seared

Herbed butter encrusted quarter chicken

Chef's meatloaf (beef)

Two bone-in pork chops -- pan-seared or battered and pan-seared

Wild salmon pan-seared with maple-pecan glaze
Or a chef's salmon of the evening

Peppered pasta primavera with chicken or shrimp

Shrimp scampi on Linguini noodles
There is also a very large salad menu and a variety of very beautifully described sandwiches like Philly-Cheese Steak, Pastrami, New York beef hot dogs, several burgers and a whopper of a BLT.

This is a very special restaurant out on the upper Midwest prairie and I'd go back to John Alexander's any time -- any time at all -- and I wish it were closer to home.

If ever you're in the Fargo/Moorhead area, make a stop at this really enjoyable restaurant a top priority.

John Alexander's Restaurant and Martini Bar on Main and 4th Street in Moorhead.

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