Minneapolis Comeback!

Steven Brown is back! After the '07 Massacre, Minneapolis is regrouping in other ways, too.

Hey, remember last winter's restaurant massacre, when all those restaurants closed, and Minneapolis went from being a national up-and-comer to a cataclysm in the space of three months? Well, it was a dark few months, but it looks like we're struggling up off the mat!

I mean: Steven Brown is back! When last we heard, he was searching for a bar to call his own, and now he's sort of found one. See, he's the new head chef at Harry's Food and Cocktails (500 Washington Ave. S., 612.344.7000; www.harrysfood.com), the large bar and restaurant that now occupies the former Nochee space on Washington between the skating rink and Guthrie-land.

The place opened July 13, and I did war with myself all opening weekend: Adhere to the critic's code of leaving a restaurant alone for its first six weeks, or give in to my overwhelming curiosity about the place? Ultimately, I let my ethics win, but it didn't make me happy. In any event, you're not bound by this code, so I'll tell you everything I know.

The place seems to be a gastropub with benefits—significant benefits. A gastropub is essentially a classic bar, the kind that serves burgers, ribs, and coconut cream pie, but one in which the food is made with integrity and art. Harry's will have all of those elements—and burger fans, rejoice! There will be 11 sorts of hamburgers on offer, including the Lonely Repairman ($9) made with Maytag Blue cheese, and a version of one of Minneapolis's great contributions to world cuisine, the Jucy Lucy, here stuffed with mozzarella and roasted red peppers ($11). (I can't tell if Brown is pulling my leg, but on the draft of the menu I saw, there's a "Dara" burger, topped with prosciutto and a snooty French cheese; as befits a burger named after yours truly, it's a wordy thing, with its own subtitle reading, "Oh, you're a critic, too?" It kills me that you can know before me whether I'm just being punk'd here....)

Salads will include things like Brown's memorable grilled romaine Caesar ($10) with massive grilled croutons—and when I say memorable, I mean it. I wrote about this thing in 2002, reviewing dear, doomed RockStar (CP 7/3/02), and I can still see it floating before me, in all its spicy, bold glory.

I'm pretty excited about the banana coconut cream pie ($8) too, as it's made by former Auriga pastry chef Juliette Lelchuk, and when was the last time you had a really good homemade cream pie? I haven't had one since Hamlin's Coffee Shop closed.

However, as I mentioned, the place starts with gastropub and goes on from there. Brown will be making a bunch of dinner entrees, some of which are supper-club classics and others that tilt a hat toward his white-tablecloth abilities. In the supper-club vein, there is pot roast (will Brown be going head to head with his best friend and former sideman, Phillip Becht, over at the Modern? Yegads!). There are also supper-clubby nightly specials, including a Friday-only Wisconsin fish fry ($16), a Saturday rock-salt-crusted prime rib (from $18), a Monday special of a cheddar-sauced burger and a Grain Belt for $9, and more. For those of you who want more cooking fireworks in your dinner, there seem to be plenty of options: duck meatballs with fettuccine ($16), a soft-shell crab po'boy with hot sesame-and-bacon dressing ($16), sockeye salmon served with a buttermilk cucumber sauce ($19), and more.

The place is already open for lunch and dinner, even though its "grand opening" won't be till mid-August. The kitchen is open till 10:00 most nights, and 11:00 on Friday and Saturday, though because they're using these first weeks to figure out various things, the hours could potentially be longer by the time you read this. How soon should you rush in there? Of course, all the usual restaurant-opening caveats apply, but dang!

"The first few weeks should be a train wreck," cautioned Steven Brown when I caught him in the final moments of mayhem trying to get his kitchen running. "We want to undersell and overachieve. My goal is to make simple food, to make simple food taste good. Maybe this time I've got a dining room that looks all right," said Brown, referencing the gruesome decor that doomed RockStar, his last casual-dining restaurant. "This is the thing I've been thinking about all winter: Where do I want to go and eat? As cooks, do we go to La Belle Vie every night? Hell, no! Do line cooks go to the drive-through at White Castle? I bet they do. In fact, I know a guy who's a huge gourmand in town who has a White Castle card in his wallet."

Well, be that as it may—oh, forget it. Here's what I really think: Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay, my, oh my what a wonderful day. Plenty of Steven Brown, back in the fray, zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!

In other news: Stewart Woodman is (almost) back, too! I've been plaguing Stewart and Heidi Woodman for months, demanding to know whether their rumored purchase of the former Pane Vino Dolce space on 50th Street and Bryant Avenue in south Minneapolis was going to happen. Still, I couldn't get a straight answer out of them until an alert City Pages reader wrote to tell me what happened at the community meeting about the restaurant's liquor license, thus forcing the Woodmans to spill the beans!

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