2002 Through Food-Colored Glasses

Dear Dara's year-end wrap-up

Dear Dara,

I think it was Tom Robbins who suggested that everything can be described as either yum or yuck...

Dave
Minneapolis

Dear Dave,

Well, I don't like the sound of that. Baby'd have to get a day job, now, wouldn't she? Or--maybe not? Because if I ask myself, Was 2002 more truly Yum, or more succinctly Yuck? I find there's a short answer, or a very long one indeed. And guess which one you get?

To start off on a Yum, I had some very good dishes in the Twin Cities this year. The tomato stew made with tobacco-smoked paprika and served with a big hunk of olive-oil-grilled bread at Rock Star comes to mind--that earthy, potent thing is a dish I have in my dreams. Little items from the kitchen at Auriga were magical, too, like a single spear of asparagus whittled into a shape like the Statue of Liberty's torch, blanched, grilled, and plated beside a poached quail egg drizzled with almond-scented Spanish olive oil, the entire composition dusted with oceanic bottarga. The garlicky beef cannelloni at Stillwater's Marx tasted like the essence of a mid-century Southern Italian immigrant kitchen, in the best way. The miso-marinated "grilled butterfish" at Nami was fish turned, memorably, into crisp, salt, and cream. I don't even really like to remember the Gorgonzola zabaglione that graced grilled green beans at Sapor, for it reminded me of a summer rainstorm: tumultuous, intense, and fleeting, and, like summer itself, like local green beans, it's gone till next year.

But overall, I don't even think of a restaurant, per se, when I think of the food development that I'm happiest with in 2002, because the pride of the year was surely the opening of Patrick's French Bakery in Richfield. Helmed by former Cordon Bleu pastry instructor Patrick Bernet, this place serves chocolate mousse that tastes like the trumpets of angels must sound. And there it is, an unassuming spot to drop by on a Tuesday morning, when you need to get some pillow inserts next door at Jo-Ann Fabrics.

I mean, I've always held that the pinnacles of Twin Cities dining are truly world-class pinnacles. On a good night, Vincent or La Belle Vie can hold its own with any of the best restaurants in this country. But these pinnacles have been isolated islands, separated by places where the crappiness of the food is rivaled only by the praise the restaurants get from loyal, if taste-free, customers.

In 2002, our pinnacles were shored up by a thickening of quality in the middle. Mmm, thickening middles. Sound like middle age? Well, perhaps the Twin Cities are entering a more reliable, dependable sort of middle age vis-à-vis restaurants, for 2002 will go down in history as the year that reliable neighborhood cafés busted out in, of all places, the neighborhoods! Heartland in Mac-Groveland, Marimar in Hiawatha, NE Thyme in Kingfield, First Course in Diamond Lake, and, this just in from Merry of St. Paul: a Cajun place on Payne Avenue called Jenks? All right, then, it goes on the to-visit list. But with reader suggestions pouring in at a couple a day, that list is getting out of control. I mean it. And that, my dears, is news, too. It seems to this critic that over the past two or three years, the Twin Cities have been growing and changing so rapidly that the restaurant scene has gone from being one that was thoroughly knowable, if you had the time and interest, to one that surprises, bubbles, pops, and sprawls. Is the biggest small town in America becoming the smallest big city? Could be.

But that sprawl, that sprawl. Chain restaurants massing around the 94s are the other big story of the year. Ever seen The Birds? That's what it feels like to me. But with more potatoes. Yet this gold-rush-style Architecture of Ugliness competition is something of a tribute as well--testimony to the enormous quantities of money we all are willing to spend on dinner. This building boom between the first- and second-tier suburbs has had an interesting auxiliary effect, too. Many of the best new restaurants are going into the cheapest real estate around: namely, the abandoned strip malls that these new developments ensure. What do St. Paul Bagelry and Pizza Nea, Maverick's, Chico's Mexican Grill, Patrick's French Bakery, and King's Fine Korean Restaurant have in common? Answer: They're all in low-prestige old-school strip malls, the new hunting grounds for great restaurants.

 

Dear Dara,

Is hell today slightly frosty? That's the only possible explanation for why the always-crowded post office on 31st Street and First Avenue South was empty except for one person. That's right. No line! No helium tanks to ship to Eritrea! No money orders to pay for phone cards to negotiate a wire transfer to Belize! No need for a Hmong-Esperanto translator!

The best part was that while I was there (and it was awhile: bought a padded envelope, addressed it, stuffed it, etc.) four or five people came in and saw that there was no line and asked what was going on.

Get there while it lasts! Make up reasons to mail stuff! Stop by just to see it!

Dennis!
Minneapolis

 

Well, I don't know if that technically counts as reader mail, because it was from a friend, but it strikes me as one of the more pithy things said about the big-city cores of these Twin Cities these days, which are becoming almost vertigo-inducing with our shocking international diversity. Is there anywhere else on earth where such brand-new immigrants from such far-flung places as Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America interact? Granted, it gets a little frustrating sometimes, as evidenced by the morning I looked out my front window to find two African women in a state of terror abandoning a car in a flower garden. But that's a lot more interesting than nothing ever happening. Flowers grow back, and in a few years I think we can expect the West African restaurant scene to flower as well, because the Southeast Asian one is going great guns, and the Mexican and East African ones are coming along quite nicely (which, I think, correlates pretty closely to each nationality's time of arrival).

Looking back over 2002, some of the highlights were definitely in those cuisines. House of Lalibela, the Ethiopian restaurant on East Lake Street, was one treat: Finally, a stylish, earthy, sophisticated restaurant in which to enjoy the dusky flavors of Ethiopian food paired, as it should be, with raisiny, unusual Ethiopian wines. The Campiello of Ethiopia! It's about time. Mexican food has been the story in utero this year, if that's not too gross a phrasing. Chico's out in Edina has some great dishes--the lamb borrejo, the shrimp cocktail--in a barely reconverted strip-mall chain that leaves much to be desired. The tamales at the to-go counter of La Loma (in the Mercado Central mall, at the corner of Bloomington and East Lake Street) are fantastically good. So are the stews at El Burrito Mercado, another counter-service spot, though this one is in a giant grocery store on St. Paul's south side. And there are a few other Mexican dishes worth seeking out: The carne asada at El Mariachi, in the old Rainbow Chinese spot off Nicollet Avenue, is still the best in town; the pulled-chicken tacos at Garibaldi, near Nicollet and 27th are puckery, spicy, and unforgettable. The dishes are here, and so you get glimpses of the restaurant that may come one day, but it isn't here yet. 2003? 2004? We'll see.

Southeast Asian restaurants are another story: the pride and glory of the upper Midwest, if you ask me. At Tai-Hoa Barbecue I had crisp roast pork in which the delicious juxtaposition of lush fat and potato-chip-crisp skin made language impossible. I had countless bowls of bún at Quang, the sweet of sugar-cane-grilled shrimp bouncing against the subtlety of tender noodles and springtime of the licorice- and chile-edged herbs--those things are like riotous flower boxes. And if I haven't said good things every single week about the chicken-and-egg-noodle soup at Jasmine Deli, in which complex broth showcases the mellow comforts of chicken soup--why, if I don't mention that every week it is because you only hurt the ones you love.

And the Saigon Café--another beloved! That messy jewel provided me with fierce and fiery pork sandwiches, gamy, chile-tinged shrimp hot pots, and wonton soups the tops of which were so festooned with smoky fried onions and curls of crisp green onion that they looked like they were topped with lace. I consciously forced myself to stop writing about Saigon so much last year--my friends had begun to mock me--but I maintain that the purest intersection of physical dive and culinary heaven that the Twin Cities has to offer perches on that blessed Frogtown corner near Dale and University.

But did I make it to every restaurant and have every dish last year? Hell no. And so I turned to a couple of my most loyal correspondents, local readers and eaters who get out almost as much as I do, and I asked them about their favorite dishes of the year. Kirsten of Minneapolis says the Zinc frites (though, sadly, the place is closing, so nyah nyah nyah), as well as B.T. McElrath's cinnamon star-anise truffle, and the beet soup at Ecopolitan; and her husband says the tempura fries at Aquavit. Bob of Seward says Bobino's coq au vin, and Café Barbette's tuna-avocado-tartare. Ray of Minneapolis says Basil's has great service and is endlessly overlooked. Dave 2, of Minneapolis, and no relation to Dave 1 above, says his best dish of the year was the bison tenderloin at Zander Café: "Tender? It's more difficult to cut through water."

 

Dear Dara,

Lord knows you make every restaurant sound like the first time you ever fell in love.

Red Clay

Dear Red,

Well, surely not every restaurant. They wish, really. But all in all, Lord knows, 2002 was a very good year. And so, the short answer: Yum.

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