Cheap is the New Hot

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

So, is Minneapolis over? That's been the question on everyone's sad, Syrah-stained lips ever since the winter massacre, when our fine-dining standard-bearers Auriga, Levain, and Five all flamed out in the brief space between Thanksgiving and Groundhog Day. Would Minneapolis look back on our brief time in the food-pioneer sun the way Marine on St. Croix looked back on their years as lumber barons? Surveys say no—or at least my surveys of local movers and shakers say no. There are a lot of very interesting restaurants on the horizon, and they all have two things in common: lunch-bucket prices and executive-suite tastes. Check it out:

Alex Roberts, famed as chef and co-owner of local darling Restaurant Alma, is opening Brasa Rotisserie in Northeast. It will combine the Peruvian model of wood-charcoal roasted meats with the American Southern soul-food model of a meal in which your choice of meat is paired with three side dishes. "Rotisserie cooking is such a timeless cooking method," Roberts explained to me as he took a break from diapering his newborn son, celebrating his James Beard award nomination, and supervising construction on his new restaurant, which is in the old Betty's Bikes and Buns space on East Hennepin.

"The problem has been that most rotisserie cooking people experience today is done by major grocery stores or chains that shoot everything full of sodium phosphate first, so the chicken is tender but kind of weird and dry, and has this aftertaste like [instant] ramen [noodle] powder. I've been working with brining and marinating to get tender meat that doesn't taste like ramen powder—and I think you'll like it," Roberts said. "With that we'll have what I call pan-Creole food, food that encompasses dishes from the American South, and then the whole Caribbean and Atlantic rim—Brazil, Mexico, Texas, the South. Grits, rice and pigeon peas, things made with ground masa, sweet corn, cabbage, candied sweet potatoes, rice—basically soul-food ingredients."

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

Of course there can be many a slip between cup and lip, but at this point Roberts expects Brasa to serve chicken and slow-roasted pork shoulder as well as a dozen side dishes. There will be a wealth of takeout options with portions sized to feed whole families. Those dining in at Brasa will order cafeteria-style, including beer and wine and homemade Mexican flavored waters, like tamarindo, and the food will be brought to their table. "Our goal is to get all the meats locally, but it looks like we'll be starting with all local pork and a percentage of local chickens, and working up from there. I've always wanted to do this concept," explained Roberts. "Feeding people I love, affordably." Expected opening date? Hopefully mid-June: When you see the umbrellas outside above the patio tables, zip on in.

Kim Bartmann, local restaurant legend and owner of groovy, chic, sustainable restaurant powerhouses the Bryant-Lake Bowl and Café Barbette, is opening a new supper club, the Red Stag, in Northeast. What constitutes a new supper club? Green building practices, good wine, and, you guessed it, affordable pricing.

"To me, a supper club is where I grew up," Bartmann told me. "A supper club is northern Wisconsin...and it's not the food so much—which is steak and fish-fry—as it is about hanging out with friends and family, talking all night, drinking cocktails; the dining is your entertainment. You're not planning on going anywhere else, and there's an expectation you won't get killed by the check." Bartmann is looking at working some kind of retro entertainment into the evening, perhaps with a movie screen showing old concert footage from artists including Led Zeppelin and Ella Fitzgerald. The chef will be Billy Baskin, formerly of Cosmos, and the food will be scrupulously local—grass-pastured cheeses, local grass-fed beef, and so forth.

"I really want to push the envelope on the whole farmer thing even more," Bartmann said, explaining that this next level might involve working more toward the nutrition of her guests, or it might involve helping the farmers she works with reach the Twin Cities market. "The more you learn about farming, sustainability, health, the more you see it's all really just one big issue," she said. "And at the end of the day, maybe we can all have our steaks and our conscience, too." And, don't forget, fully fund our retirement plans. Expect the Red Stag—named in a tip of the hat to the White Stag supper club in Sugar Camp, Wisconsin—to open "soon," on First Avenue between the old Banks warehouse and City Salvage.

Tim Niver, one of the founders of Minneapolis's pioneering, uber-chic, uber-cheap restaurant the Town Talk Diner, also has an inexpensive, takeout-oriented, cafeteria-style restaurant in the pipeline. Tentatively called the East Lake Pasta Shop, it's slated to go into the old Carne Asada space on the corner of Lake Street and Chicago Avenue. "We'll do gnocchi, ravioli, nice big hand-tossed salads, grilled chicken and shrimp, lots of vegetarian options, and just really great [pasta] sauces." The chef at the East Lake Pasta Shop will be Dan Ritter, who has some notable experience with sauces, pasta and otherwise. When Niver met him Ritter was working as saucier for Julian Serrano at the Picasso restaurant at Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"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.

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.

And what of Stewart Woodman, the Food & Wine magazine best young chef in America who was so ignominiously booted from his restaurant, Five Restaurant and Street Lounge, before it closed? Despite rumors and news reports saying he and his wife Heidi were poised to take over the Pane Vino Dolce restaurant space, as of this writing the deal wasn't looking too done. "The project's in limbo," Woodman told me. "We may or may not be taking over that restaurant space, and even if we do, we might do something else in the interim." Something else like what? Woodman wouldn't say. Later he emailed me with a clarification: "It is because humanity has never known where it was going that it has been able to find its way." Well, I guess humanity hasn't known where it was going to cook, either.

Finally, what's up with Steven Brown, the homegrown genius of Levain? "Amazingly, I've got some people who say they will give me money, and I'm looking to buy a building," Brown said. "But even if I found a space tomorrow, it would be six months to a year till I opened. In the meantime, I'm on the extended tour of the unemployed chef—I defy you to find a charity event I'm not cooking at. And I take pride in the fact that so many of my line cooks are now chefs." Brown told me about a few places he was looking at, finally concluding, "But I really want a bar." A bar? A bar with family-oriented takeout? No.

Then I guess that must be the trend after next.

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