Cheap is the New Hot

Got Champagne tastes and a Grain Belt budget? Welcome to the Minneapolis of your dreams.

"A lot of what we'll do will be designed to allow good prepared meals to go," said Niver. "We'll start out with meals for two, then have another price point for meals for four, and so on. So, you'll order, you'll get a to-go package with a nice heavy chunk of lasagna, a loaf or a half-loaf of bread, nice greens and salad dressings—you roll out, you've spent $25, and you've got dinner for four. We're good friends with the Chicago Lake Liquors people next door, and we're hoping to put together something where you get a discount on a bottle of wine when you buy a takeout dinner, something like that."

Other plans include all-day hours, neighborhood delivery, catering, an option to host catered events at the Minnesota Center for Photography gallery in Northeast, and perhaps even you? As of this writing, Niver still needed investors for his proposed summer launch—he said I could publish his cell phone number, but I didn't want every pasta vendor on God's green earth calling, so if you've got piles of money and a yearning to be a restaurant investor, send him snail mail care of the Town Talk Diner. Which is to say—opening date? Sixty days after the money lines up. Hopefully mid-summer, this summer.

Matthew Bickford and Mike Ryan are chef partners poised to open something Minneapolis desperately, desperately needs—a great sandwich shop. Be'wiched is scheduled for a late August or early September opening, after an extensive build-out transforms the former C. McGee space at 800 Washington Avenue North into something with fancy smokers, hoods, and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, all of which are needed if you really want to make the sandwiches worth working a thousand years for! Seriously, Bickford and Ryan have about a thousand years of fine cooking experience under their belts—I could fill this entire newspaper with their résumés, but suffice it to say that Bickford started at age 14 in a Red Wing kitchen and is known for his three-year stint winning accolades at St. Paul's Zander Café, his work as an opening chef at Solera, and his recent work as a line cook at La Belle Vie; while Ryan started at D'Amico Cucina under Tim McKee and is known for wielding his knives as a key player at both Restaurant Alma and jP American Bistro.

Breaking ground to break bread: Alex Roberts will open Brasa Rotisserie this summer
Jana Freiband
Breaking ground to break bread: Alex Roberts will open Brasa Rotisserie this summer

And what sort of dreams have these masters of foie gras and osetra caviar harbored through their millions of micro-green maneuvers? Dreams of roast turkey, chicken salad, pastrami, and tuna sandwiches, of course. "We're both career line cooks who have been happiest working for independents," explained Matthew Bickford. "We wanted to take that fine-dining experience and translate it into an upscale, affordable, New York-style deli with fine technique and high-quality ingredients." Expect all the breads to be baked in-house, all the corned beef and pastrami to be cured in-house, turkey and pastrami to be smoked in-house—you get the idea. "Everything that a regular sandwich place would buy, we will make from scratch," says Bickford.

There will also be wine and beer—and perhaps wine flights, to pair with an evening sandwich happy hour? We'll see. There will most assuredly be plenty of family-sized takeout—roast chicken, meat loaf, lasagna, salads, soups, and so on. Bickford told me they particularly hope to have a big web component, so that those of you who use computers downtown during the day can check out the day's menu, text the spouse, email Be'wiched, and arrange for one of you to grab it as you zip home via Washington and/or its convenient access to I-94 and I-394. Sound like what you've been waiting for your whole life? It better be; these two fine-dining veterans signed a ten-year lease.

Last but not least—Levain is back! Or, almost. And: cheaper! See, the old restaurant Levain is poised to reopen this spring, at a much lower price point, and possibly with booths around the edge of the dining room. Owner Harvey McLain just hired as chef 25-year-old Eric Sturtz, who worked for several years with former Restaurant Levain chef Steven Brown. "It's essentially going to be an American bistro with a lot of French influence," Sturtz told me. "A really good burger, fries, simple but good roast chicken, braised beef short ribs, maybe a hangar steak, a couple of good simple salads, that kind of thing." Pot pies? I asked. "Definitely." Top entree price? $20. Ultimately, said Sturtz, this Levain bistro will develop its menu such that it can also provide—wait for it!—takeout. I'd say I sense a trend story, except I just wrote it.

So, what about the veterans of the late-winter massacre? Doug Flicker, of Auriga, took a job at downtown Minneapolis's Mission American Kitchen; his first original menu debuts in May. "It's a beautiful kitchen, the old Aquavit kitchen," Flicker told me, "and right now a lot of my energy is going into figuring out the flow of it, and what works in this kitchen—the best menu you can write is a terrible menu if you can't execute it consistently, and a lot of that depends on the physical kitchen you're cooking in. I'll be walking a fine line; I don't want to alienate the Mission regulars, but we'd like to welcome some of the Auriga people as well." Flicker certainly has a challenge ahead of him—while the Mission opened with a stylishly done menu of Eisenhower-era classics, it eventually devolved into a place that serves Buffalo chicken salads. So what about that? "I like chicken wings, I'm not a snob," said Flicker. "It's my job to be creative, but also to make people happy." Will the Mission turn into the best of both worlds, or a culture clash? May may be the month we get the answer.

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