The Best Restaurants of 2004

Sweet compliments all around, except for one big spoonful of medicine to make the sugar go down

From my side of the fork, 2004 was a strange, strange year, marked by volatility, opacity, and surging rivers of really crappy truffle oil. (Hey--knock it off already with the synthetic and/or rancid truffle oil out there!) When I look back on the year, I don't really see a consistent narrative, which has made this wrap-up kind of like trying to pass an armadillo through a sieve. But, you know how it is, to the victor goes the armadillo goo, so let's all put on our waders and do this.

The restaurant scene in 2004 was dominated by about five major trends, all of which seemed pretty much unrelated. First, there was the disturbing phenomenon of the Imploding/Exploding Restaurant. Never has there been a year in which so many restaurants either lost or fired their chefs, or just closed altogether, often mere moments after receiving glowing reviews. I'm thinking here of the chaos at Red, the volatility at Levain and Little Jack's, the baffling vanishing of always-packed El Rey de Oro, and even the puzzling goings-on at Goodfellows, the one-time Twin Cities superpower that has let go just about every chef that made their name, including recently departed pastry legend Joan Ida (who has now resurfaced at North Oaks' Tria).

Second, we had a trend I'll call "Safety First, Safety Last, Safety Only!" in which big-ticket restaurants opened with the most timid, crowd-pleasing menus imaginable. Here I refer to the something-for-everyone, even-people-who-hate-restaurants menus that NorthCoast, Nochee, and Mission American Kitchen all debuted with.

Jane Sherman

The third major trend was unusually positive and encouraging. Many well-known chefs or restaurateurs who had put in years in the trenches finally got some due: There was new investment in Auriga; Scott Paumpuch, longtime chef at the Modern, struck out on his own to open Corner Table; John Hunt, longtime chef at Pane Vino Dolce, opened his own place; Steven Brown, that cooking wonder who lost his job (and his knives) when RockStar closed overnight, without warning, saw an utter reversal of fortune in 2004 with his deservedly high-profile appointment to head the kitchen at Levain; meanwhile, Brown's second-Musketeer Phillip Becht was given the reins at the Modern Cafe.

I would also put in this category the well-deserved and highly gratifying expansion, renovation, and general rebirth of longtime favorites Origami, Sakura, and the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, some of the hardest-working restaurants in show business. I'll note that this all adds up to a heck of a lot of positive news, good karma, and all-is-right-with-the-world to fit into a single year in a singularly cruel and unforgiving industry.

Fourth, there was a flurry of ambitious restaurants opening in places with no obvious customer base. I'm grouping together here both the scads of interesting immigrant places (like Taiwanese restaurant E-Noodle, in a strip mall in Roseville) and high-ticket joints debuting in areas more rural than suburban, like, oh, Tria, Confluence, and about a dozen others. Are you still here? That's four major trends, four, and if four isn't enough for you, I'll throw in a fifth for free: How about that coming wave of super-high-end dining, as national chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Wolfgang Puck plan on opening restaurants here in, respectively, the new Chambers Hotel and soon-to-be-reborn Walker Art Center?

Now, what do any of these things have to do with any of these things? As far as I can tell, the only common denominator is--no, no, not a growing sophistication on the part of local diners, settle down there, Horshack. Not everything is a referendum on how smart and tasteful you are. Oh, and now that I mention it, what was up with that, in the local press, when the Jean-Georges news came, and everyone was acting like we just got an A-plus gold star on our smart good taste? All we got was an A-plus gold star on the likelihood that we could provide $2.5 million a year for someone to wire-transfer off into the stratosphere. Anyway, the only possible connection I see between all of these trends is easy credit.

Well, that's kind of a psychic letdown, isn't it?

Merely easy credit, mountain-movingly easy credit.

I think all the virtually free money available around here lately (because of the simultaneous rocketing of housing values and low interest rates) has resulted in nothing short of a capitalist flurry of activity in every direction. That's what the five trends have in common: More money equals more everything.

Except, perhaps, more customers. So I'm going to make a dire prediction: Look for a metro-wide bloodbath, restaurant-wise, next fall. Summer is traditionally the slow season for fine dining in the Twin Cities, and when those bills come due in the fall.... No one would give me any good on-the-record quotes, but lately when I've been talking to chefs in the gossip-heavy restaurant world, certain extraordinary phrases keep being repeated, phrases like "teetering on the edge of extinction," even in reference to some longtime local powerhouses. I mean, God save anyone who hasn't been doing backflips to cultivate regular customers.

Which is the one thing you'll notice about the following list of what I think were the best restaurants in the Twin Cities in 2004. Each of these places excels in service, in ambience, in presenting something interesting to drink at a decent price; in short, in turning every walk-in customer into a lifer. To some extent, value has played a role in my thinking here--not value as in cheapness, but value as in, you walk out feeling like the experience was well worth the price and you would do it again. This might not seem like a very controversial position for me to take, but it's actually a big freaking deal in restaurant-critic circles. Many people feel that value should never factor into an evaluation of a restaurant, and while I can see the value of places with brilliant chefs, fistfights in the aisles, erratic hours, and hit-or-miss individual dishes, that's not what this list is about. This list is about recognizing places where the front of the house (the servers, hosts, managers, wine lists, napkins, silverware, lighting, noise level, architecture, music, decor and so forth) and back of the house (cooking talent, ingredient quality, food) were both excellent.

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