Tilia in Linden Hills feels like it's been around forever

Steven Brown's comeback rings out loud and clear

Use the lag time to socialize and decide what to order. The theme of Tilia's menu, "Good Food Tastes Good," comes off as a sort of anti-slogan, especially from a team certainly capable of coming up with something cleverer (Brown's business partner, Jörg Pierach, owns the marketing agency Fast Horse). But its vagueness accommodates the American bistro-esque spread: There are mussels, burgers, beef brisket, a couple of pastas and salads, even celery root chowder with oysters and vermouth. Much of the list is comfort food, fussed with just enough. The foods are familiar, but with fine-dining refinement, and none costs more than $20. Brown has swapped some of his past experimentation with things like cheddar ice cream, bacon paper, and deconstructed French onion soup for more classics. Trendy ingredients and cooking techniques, much like indie bands, Brown says, can lose some of their appeal as they catch on. "When everybody else starts to discover them it takes some of the shine off," he says.

So start your meal with the potted meat, which is an excellent bargain at $5 per half-pint German canning jar. (How many of the cute containers will inevitably be lifted, along with the glass milk bottles that accompany the coffee?) The meat spreads, usually duck or pork, are richly spiced, creamy with fat, and positively irresistible when slathered on crusty grilled toast and garnished with a vinegar-kissed shallot. The house-cured gravlax, served on rye with roe-flecked butter, offers another excellent, and slightly lighter, Old World bread-and-protein starter.

Balance those dishes' nostalgia with an order of the more contemporary, fusion-style shrimp and spring peas. The plate comes with a sweet-hot sauce that fuses the Italian influences of wine and garlic from scampi with the Chinese flavors of ginger, Szechuan chiles, and fermented black beans. The combination is as unexpected as it is addictive—fresh, fiery, briny, pungent—and the sauce would also be terrific as a sandwich condiment or French fry dip. The dish is also a testament to Brown's creativity, as it was inspired by a Stump the Cook-style creation Brown once whipped up at home in desperation, when the kitchen was sparsely stocked.

Shrimp and spring peas
Emily Utne
Shrimp and spring peas
Democratizing gourmet dining: The arctic char
Emily Utne
Democratizing gourmet dining: The arctic char

For entrées, let the unadventurous order the pork tenderloin, which is very tender but has its flavor upstaged by a side of Brussels sprouts. Then you can get the duck, which features the fowl of Minnesota's premium game-bird purveyor, Wild Acres, in what might just be its finest form. The ducks hang for several days in the cooler, like dry-aged beef, to concentrate the flavor and cultivate a slightly wild tang. The breasts are served with a stew of prunes, lavender honey, and shallots that adds a sweet complexity without overwhelming the bird.

Tilia's menu never overreaches, though it might be criticized in a few spots for dishes that don't add much to the discourse. Sometimes the kitchen's minimalist approach works, as in the case of beets served with toasted sesame seeds and yuzu vinaigrette. But other times the tactic seems too simple. The house salad, for example, is a lovely heap of arugula, lightly dressed with lemon, olive oil, and pecorino, but for $7 it's something that might just as well have been rustled up at home. Same with the grilled mahi mahi, which, even when covered in an achiote rub and served with pickled peppers and lime, still seems rather plain. Better to choose the arctic char, which is served on an assertive bed of shredded cabbage with bacon-onion marmalade and red wine sauce.

Likely, though, you will have to force yourself to back off the savory items to save room for sweets. They are well worth the sacrifice, especially the spongy toffee-date cake and the butterscotch pot au crème. The latter comes from a recipe offered by Brown's friend, the local cookbook author Zöe François, and it comes out with an unexpectedly dark flavor that's rich with undertones of brown sugar and molasses. The stuff could forgive many a sin, so keep it in mind next time you miss Junior's band concert or forget to take out the compost.

When Tilia's kitchen is cooking full tilt, the stools at the counter reveal both the exacting nature of a cook's work and just how dirty his fingernails can get. Simultaneously, he might be sizzling a thick fish fillet, rolling it with a giant tweezers to evenly sear each side; caramelizing vegetables, nestled with nubs of salty ham; and cranking up a roaring, six-inch flame. If the sight of a chef licking a spoon and then putting it back to reuse might freak you out, you'd best sit a little further back. ("I missed it!" one unconcerned diner lamented. "It's like trying to see a shooting star.")

Late in the evening, when the kitchen's pace slows, Tilia takes on a civilized ease. At times the convivial spirit feels almost like a house party at Brown's (if chefs kept their own larders as full as those of their restaurants) where, after a few hours of drinking, a few cook friends wandered into the kitchen and decided to start feeding everybody.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...