Glories of Gentrification

A sandwich-and-syrah joint for local literati

4257 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis

There are many advantages to living in Literacy Land, Minnesota--or, as the Los Angeles Times recently put it, as it addressed its apparent core audience of nursery school students, "that coffeepot-shaped state at the top of the Mississippi River." Chief among them: general reader willingness to read a billion-word restaurant review without any stars or thumbs-ups or frownie-brownies.

And then there are the disadvantages--like the puns, homonyms, and other bits of clever wordplay that fill up the coffeepot-shaped landscape: Coffee, anyone? (Higher Grounds, Sacred Grounds, Hava Java, The Daily Grind) Haircut? (Ahead of Time, A Cut Above, Fades of Graye, Hair's the Place, Hair It Is, Hair We Are, Mane Event, Shear-Lock Holmes, Shear Success, Shear Amazement, Curl Up and Dye!) Sushi? (Marilyn Monrolls! Wok & Rolls!) Restaurants? (It's Greek to Me! Franks a Million! Leaning Tower of Pizza! Emphasis mine! All mine!) A bit dizzying. A bit, how shall I say, T.J. McBitemee? Jamaican Mesick?

Neighborhood revival: n e thyme
Tony Nelson
Neighborhood revival: n e thyme

Location Info


NE Thyme Cafe

4248 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55409-2015

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Kingfield

For some reason, caterers and other residents of wedding world are particularly afflicted: A Season to Taste, Affairs to Remember, Cater to You, Essence of Thyme, Thymes Two, It Takes the Cake... Do something, or I will go on. So maybe it's unsurprising that Cynthia Olson, coming out of a 20-year catering career--including stints at Penny Snippers' and the Gale Mansion--named her catering company Never Enough Thyme. (Though, in my experience, there is always enough thyme, or else the pepper guy would be tailed by the thyme guy, no?) Which begat new restaurant n e thyme. (Any time, get it? I spent a few minutes working with the whole "northeast" thing before I figured it out; my guess is that a significant number of diners will figure this place is in Nordeast until the end of time.) n e thyme recently opened across the street from Never Enough Thyme's catering kitchen on Nicollet Avenue and 43rd Street, after owner Olson got tired of eyeing the old Lufrano's space across Nicollet from her shop.

"I called every young chef I knew about the building, and when a couple months down the pike no one had called I thought: It's across the street, why not?" she says. "A restaurant gives you an opportunity to play that you'd never get catering. Catering, you have to carry food for sometimes great distances, and hold it sometimes for hours. But in a restaurant, you can be creative and playful, and turn out just exquisite product."

The restaurant officially opened in the beginning of December--a sort of trial by fire, since the holidays also mark the height of catering season. "We were the busiest we've ever been on this side of the street," says Olson, "and breathtakingly busy on that side. We were calling [Nicollet] the Ho Chi Minh Trail at one point; anytime you looked outside, you'd see us trucking back and forth across the street. The standard joke around here is we're going to bore out a tunnel, or build a skyway. But it's been worth it. It's been so rewarding to have a waiting list every night of the week. People around here are just loving that they have a place that's so easy to get to that has wonderful food. We've seen a lot of customers four or five times already."

I bet those customers even love the name, because the restaurant is smack-dab in the middle of Kingfield, which an informal flip through my Rolodex reveals has more super-literate media types than any other neighborhood in town. So, anybody mind if I harp on puns for a while longer? Because if I do that I might never have to mention the food, which I'm pretty much loath to do. I mean, it's not bad: There's some pretty good oven French fries (for a whopping $6!); and a thoroughly stand-up caesar salad with fresh-grated, good-quality Parmesan cheese ($6 at lunch, $7 at dinner). At brunch there's a nice poached-egg-florentine resting on some fresh, garlic-touched spinach. For dessert, there's a pleasant ginger crème brûlée ($5) and a sturdy little poached pear in a nice astringent blood-orange caramel sauce ($5).

The truth is, and it's as much my problem as n e thyme's: This here is simply the very hardest sort of review to do in the right pitch. I've tried phrasing this a dozen ways and every time I make it sound like a worse restaurant than it is. Basically, everything that comes out of the kitchen is pretty good, but nothing is either particularly correctly done or very inspired, and so it's pleasant enough to be there, but hard to think of why to go back.

I recently got into an e-mail exchange with a reader who wondered whether a recent negative review I wrote would be well received: Can people tell the difference between good food and bad food? I think yes. But I do wonder how many people allow that there are gradations between pretty good and great. I can think of about a dozen: There's pretty good with a strong passion for some odd little niche, like meats or pastries (St. Paul's Mildred Pierce, or Minneapolis's Sweetski's, respectively). There's grubby but inspired: Lucille's Kitchen in north Minneapolis comes to mind, with its incapacitatingly creamy mac and cheese, for example. There's uniformly good with stabs of breathtaking genius (the Loring Café). There's flawlessly, invariably correct and comfortingly reliable, if not heart-stirring (Zelo). Stop me before I go on and on.

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