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Voyageur's Best Generally Speaking Columns of 2003

Pasta Dinner

BAPTISM BY FIRE...
 
at the GRILL
 
by Lyndy Gourmet  | June 3 , 2003
 

Paul Hermans, a South Dakota native, was a busy trucker, running cattle to the West Coast while his wife, a native of the Twin Cities, held down the fort. When his mother-in-law needed her daughter close by, Paul gave up trucking and opted for a dishwashing job in a restaurant in The Cities.

One evening, he was doing his thing at the sink, the owner came rushing in and asked if Paul could cook. Paul said he could "a little" and he found himself cooking a LOT - on his own. BOTH of the restaurant cooks had decided to quit on the same day, and Paul changed careers again - the hard way.

"Fourteen years ago, I just stepped in," says Paul. "I enjoyed it, and here I am today."

Paul and his wife decided to move up here because they both loved the area as a weekend and vacation retreat. So, Paul brought his talents in the kitchen to our area. After a tour of duty at the Fireside Inn and Mark's Bar, Paul found himself at The Prairie River Retreat in Bill Hoops' capable hands last December. Paul says he has enjoyed himself there very much, but a recent innovation has him even more ecstatic about being at one of the area's busiest dining spots.

Knowing Bill's adventurous spirit, his food supplier invited him to see something new and different in a restaurant in St. Cloud - a cook-to-order pasta bar. Bill was properly wowed and sent Paul to St. Cloud to see if he thought he could duplicate it at the Prairie River. It only took Paul one trip to decide that, not only could he handle it, he would make it a star-studded event. So, after a few trial runs, Bill and Paul premiered their Friday night special pasta bar the weekend after fishing opener.

I can't tell you how happy I am that they premiered it. Well, actually, I can tell you since the Voyageur's Three Musketeers, Cyndy, Dave and I, were there on Friday to experience Pasta a la Prairie River Retreat.

It is truly a choose-your-own experience, too. Fortunately, we are all decisive eaters, or it would have been an agonizing evening of waffling between flavors. It starts with making selections from a variety of ingredients like shrimp, crab meat, Italian sausage, grilled chicken, fresh asparagus, fresh mushrooms, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and olives - choose one or all.

Next, Paul provides a choice of seasonings: a fresh basil pesto, chopped garlic, crushed red pepper, Cajun spices, or a sweet/hot Jamaican jerk seasoning, which Paul recommends if you want to be daring.

Paul combined the ingredients in a pan as we selected them and sautéed everything in olive oil right there where we could watch it come together. "Al dente" - firm but not too crisp - was our goal, and Paul did it just right. Our decisions were not finished yet, though. Next came The Great Pasta Decision. Paul refreshed our choices in boiling water and added it to the pans.

Then, the final decision: which sauce would be just right with the delicacies already in the pan? Friday night, our choices were a robust marinara sauce, a creamy Alfredo, or a smooth and colorful roasted pepper sauce.

Since there were three of us and three sauces, Cyndy, Dave and I split the choices and sampled each others' concoctions. If we could have put the plates on a rotating platform in the middle of the table, we would have been in heaven. In short, there is no bad choice to make!

So, we loved it. What does the chef think?

"I like being out here," says Paul. "It's nice to talk to people while you cook."

How about the portions? Abondanza! No doubt about it - there was plenty for each of us. If, by some VERY strange chance, any of us had been hungry still, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet. By the way, it also includes the soup and salad bar and garlic bread.

So, next Friday, if Dave and I still don't have our new kitchen put together, we may just have to go see Paul and Bill for some more pasta. I think it may be my turn for the roasted pepper sauce and Dave's turn for the Alfredo. Cyndy - are you up for some great marinara sauce?

– Buen provecho!

This article first appeared in the June 3, 2003 issue of the Voyageur Press.