Best Of :: Food & Drink
It takes a surprising amount of soul-searching to figure out what makes a good brunch. Some people want a buffet the size of a football field. Others feel that a pulpy mimosa is a necessity. Some want a simple atmosphere, others a swanky one. Knowing full well that brunch means different things to different people, we were sweating a bit at picking the best--until we tried erté. Hidden behind the bland brick of one of northeast Minneapolis's many old supper clubs, the dining room is an unexpected gem--high ceilings, wood floors, peppy yellow walls, and a splash of velour leopard-print accents. Tables with parties as small as two or as large as eight are scattered throughout the restaurant, and the clattering plates, chirping conversations, and lilting jazz on the stereo create an unassuming atmosphere. Still, it's quiet enough to have an intimate exchange or read the paper. And then there is the food (sorry, no buffet, but the menu is extensive). The selection is refreshingly eclectic, with everything from steak and eggs ($9) to "Espressoatmeal" (oatmeal steamed in an espresso machine and served with brown sugar, bananas, and raisins, $6). Creative renditions of eggs Benedict--"The Bennys"--are a specialty here: There's the classic ($7), the Newport, which incorporates crab cakes ($9), and the occasional special Halibut Benny (at $9.50, this was the most expensive item on the menu). There are both meat and vegetarian hash and omelets (around $7), as well as slices of lighter-than-air cinnamon-swirl French toast ($5.50), and exquisitely golden and crisp hash browns, served from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Given how hard Afton and Hastings are working to avoid becoming entangled in the sprawling web of St. Paul's suburbs, we're relieved to predict that Afton Apple should be able to sustain its countryside character for some time to come. Fairly remote but still easy to find, the orchard is a fruit-picker's paradise, stretched over 170 acres of rolling fields outlined by lofty poplar trees. The spread of activities is as vast as the property Afton Apple occupies: Visitors can hop on a hayride for a tour of the apple spectrum, from tart Haralson to classic Cortland, crisp Honey Gold to succulent Sweet 16. The apple crop is at its peak from August 11 to October 31 (prime-time pickin' season varies for the 11 types of juicy reds available), but there's always something to do. Summer visitors can pluck a pint of raspberries and fall patrons can peruse the Halloween pumpkin patch. Those up for a crash course in orienteering should check out the six-acre corn maze, while the more lethargic might prefer to retreat to the recently expanded store and café to sip hot cider. Want that straight-off-the-tree authenticity without the manual labor? In addition to fresh peaches, blueberries, and cherries, Afton Apple also sells bushels and pecks of apples already picked by someone else.
United Noodles is the Asian grocery where you come for the vast selection, stay for the cleanliness and organization, and return for the reasonable prices and helpful, friendly service. It is the only place to go when you appreciate a Lunds-like environment and your shopping list includes durian and dried squid. Looking to learn about kimchi, pick up some fermented black beans, and score some jumbo shrimp for less than $8 a pound? Done, done, and done. Lazy folks with adventurous palates will definitely appreciate the large frozen section, featuring packaged pot stickers and dim sum items. The squeamish need not worry, head-on/feet-on fowl are well-packaged and confined to a cooler, and products are so neatly grouped that it's nearly impossible to accidentally bring home anything too exotic.
What are bánh-mì? Here's one answer: They're the love child of French baking and Vietnamese salads--Vietnamese hoagies made of cilantro, sweet pickled carrots, daikon, julienne cucumber, slivered jalapeños, spicy mayonnaise, and some sort of filling all smooshed together inside a crispy, airy loaf of French bread. But here's a better answer: They're the best thing to happen to cheap gourmets since pizza was cut into slices. Don't buy it? Then take your $2 to Saigon for proof. This place makes bánh-mì that make you want to renounce all other foods. They make all their ingredients, and breads, from scratch, from the eggy mayo to the savory, French-accented pâté. Try the meatball bánh-mì, a pillowy, comfort-food extravaganza, or the house-made barbecued pork, or the straight-up veggie version. Next thing you know, you'll be up on the order board, one of those lucky souls getting 100 at a time.
Hometown boy-made-good Mike Sherwood sure has won us over with his bagels. The rounds bear chewy crusts and thick layers of toppings, and they emit the sweet, biscuity fragrance you hope for when you rip into one. Sherwood takes extra points because of his good Dunn Bros. coffee, and he's so eager to please he even (and this is so unheard-of) delivers orders of $25 or more to anyplace within three miles of the Bagelry's Lexington-and-Larpenteur location. Sherwood worked in North Dakota (!) learning the art of bagel making, and he does a stand-up job at making the things--especially considering we live in such a blueberry-white-chocolate-chip-bagel sort of world. Who says birth is destiny? Sherwood proves all you need to make great bagels is a love for the things.
Who would have guessed that ecstasy could cost a mere $2.99? That's the going rate for a Turtle Bread cherry swirl. It's the size of a salad plate, and the flaky, buttery pastry is nothing less than heavenly. Toss in the glaze (sweet, but not sickly) and the cherry filling (tart and juicy) and you have a truly magical breakfast moment. Then it's time to ogle the cakes and pies. The carrot cake is tall as a skyscraper ($21 for a small one, $39 for a large). The key-lime pie bursts with zesty-sweet citrus ($15.99 plus a $2.50 pie tin deposit). And then there's the opera cake ($11.99), a recent addition to the lineup. Named for the Paris Opera, the dainty layers--almond cake soaked in coffee and rum syrups, filled with coffee buttercream--resemble a music sheet. The snap of bitter coffee permeating the smoothest, butteriest cream imaginable makes every single bite like lightning. Of course, you can't leave without sampling the bread. Try a delicate French baguette ($2.99) or a loaf of the meaty Jewish rye ($3.99). It wouldn't be hard to spend an entire day here in a true taste orgy.