Best Of :: Food & Drink
Are wine lists like gardens? If you really care about them, yes. There's the list at Manny's steakhouse, which is kind of like nothing but prize-winning super dahlias and hybrid roses the size of your head, the one garden you'd want to go to if you were taking pictures to surprise the folks back home. There's the list at the Modern, which is like a small cottage garden seen in glorious bloom: Every plant in it has been picked by the deep love of the gardener, according to the strength of the individual plant. There's the endless lists at Fhima or Louis XIII, which are like going to the biggest garden center in the state: options both weak and strong stretch past the limits of the human eye. Then there's the Spanish glory of the list at Solera, which is like a comprehensive garden of a single flower, a rose garden, say. Would you ask a gardener to choose between all of these magical incarnations? You would? Rats. In that case, we're forced to pick the wine list on offer these days at Frost, which pulls off the neat trick of being both very, very big (around 900 choices) and very, very focused. How can that be? Well, let's consider their sparkling list. It's not just almost 60 bottles long, oh no. Those 50-plus bottles are just the start. In that list, you'll find the best French Champagne producers, and within those showcased, particularly excellent but lesser known, and thus lesser priced, vintners, like Egly-Ouriet and Nicolas Feuillatte. Second, it winnows our absolute favorite American sparkling producers, like Schramsberg, S. Anderson, and Roederer, presenting a number of vintage bottles that you'd never find anywhere else. It has a special section of half-bottles of bubbly, for couples wishing to kick things off in style before moving into the big red part of their meal, which is how many, many real wine drinkers drink. Finally, this sparkling list splits out a number of under-$40 choices (as it does in every wine category) serving the way people really drink wine at dinner--by excellence, mediated through price. We could deconstruct every section of this lengthy, and glorious, list just as completely: Be it California Cabernets, French northern Rhône, or Oregon Pinot Noirs, W. A. Frost's list is like a trip to a well-funded, well-loved botanic garden, one where you walk down a path and find individual garden after individual garden, each arranged on a theme, each stocked with so many blooms both stately and giddy that you are forced to freeze in your tracks and admire the magnificence. Hats off, then, to general manager Bob Crew, a genius with a wine list, and one hell of a gardener.
It always happens: We stop in to Shuang Hur for a jar of curry paste or a bottle of fish sauce, and we leave $30 lighter but toting the makings for any number of quasi-made-up meals. Because, you see, there is not one kind of curry paste, or even one discrete display, but an aisle of tins and tubs to be inspected. An aisle that dead-ends at a wall of fish tanks playing hospice to all manner of live seafood, adjoining an aisle crammed with sticky-rice steamers and green tea flavored with roasted rice, more or less near aisles of produce cases bearing Chinese chives, purple basil, long beans, greens, greens, and more greens, and big packets of minnow-shaped Thai bird chiles. If all that's too ambitious, there's a freezer aisle full of ready-to-heat dim sum items and a butcher counter boasting lacquered duck, red-roasted pork, and sundry other less labor-intensive meal building blocks.
Pastry that looks too good to eat? Well, it probably is. But at Franklin Street Bakery, the trays of scones, tarts, and muffins are irresistible precisely because they are not egg-washed and jellied to perfection. Instead each is a crusty, browned, homey individual. And Franklin Street offers something that practically nobody else in town does: savory pastries. Chewy individual brioches topped with mushrooms and Gruyère. Hearty focaccia rounds with caramelized onions. Pint-sized croissants overstuffed with ham and Swiss. Not everyone wants a muffin for breakfast. Individual pastry prices are a little out of keeping with the neighborhood (keep in mind, you're paying for real butter here) but the bread is priced for the masses: baguettes, seedy whole grains, and simple white loaves are just two and three bucks. (Take that, Aldi.) The woman behind it all, bakery chef Michelle Gayer-Nichelson, was lured to the Twin Cities early last year, after tenures at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. In 2003 Bon Appetit named her Pastry Chef of the Year.
It's largely a myth that you can't get good barbecue in the Twin Cities--scores of places do up barbecue in some sort of "authentic" style. The trouble with that, of course, is that paying homage to some variation of barbecue feels anything but authentic. Great barbecue here is rare. Some exceptions to this faux home-cookin' aesthetic this year were the old standby Market Bar-B-Que on 14th and Nicollet and the upstart Big E's down the road on 18th and Nicollet. But Market suffers from being a little too familiar and Big E's was closed for a spell and is now under new ownership. That leaves St. Paul's Lee's and Dee's as tops for most authentic barbecue. Opened by Lee Smith and his wife Dee 12 years ago in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood, near Selby-Dale, this fewer-than-10-booth storefront feels more like something out of Smith's home state of Mississippi than Minnesota. Lee's and Dee's serves real soul food appropriate for what was once Rondo, St. Paul's long-gone African American neighborhood. Some say the crisp, grease-free catfish here is the best in town, and the place gets major points for its smoky, chewy rib tips. The true test of any real barbecue joint, though, is the pulled-pork sandwich, and the one here does not disappoint: Delicate shreds drowning in a sauce that leans more toward honey than vinegar, but not too much of either, on a simple white bun. (One quibble: The hot sauce isn't nearly hot enough. But then again, this is Minnesota.) Smith gets his meat from a company in South St. Paul, and his prices reflect the aesthetic of a local small-business man. (The catfish and pork sandwiches are both under $6 with fries; a rib dinner runs less than $10, and a full rack of ribs less than $20.) The only notable decorative touches are some personal photos of folks like Don King and Ice-T dining in with Lee and Dee, old-school style. And that, folks, is authentic.
As evidenced by the myriad scowling youths slouched behind coffee counters across these fair cities, the service industry is a cold, hard racket. Which is a bummer, because it usually takes a gem of a person to decipher, let alone fulfill, our pre-caffeinated demands. One such gem can be found at the 2nd Moon. If you're new to 2nd Moon, you'll know her by her contagious smile (punctuated by the best-placed lip piercing this side of the Mississippi) and gracious demeanor. Regulars know her as Nicole, and if you're a regular, chances are she knows your name too. She's got it filed away in her happy head with your regular order, the order of your friend who's waiting in the car, and probably the names and orders of about 50 other regulars. On top of all that she makes a damn fine latte, which in this world of scorched milk and weak cappuccinos is cause for celebration.
Turtle Bread knows crust: the splinteringly crisp but tender crust of a baguette, the soft shell of a potato loaf, crackling and toothsome ciabatta. Turtle also knows crumb: airy baguettes, soft and open hearth loaves, dense brioche. What's amazing is that, like a batter in a cage hitting ball after ball out of the park, Turtle Bread makes nearly three dozen unique breads, consistently producing excellent loaves. Most of them are set apart not by futzy seeds or olives, but by masterful manipulation of the same four basic ingredients: flour, yeast, water, and salt. But, while the ficelle, levain, campagne and other classics are remarkable, the chocolate bread alone, an Italian-inspired yeasty loaf with the emphasis on the cocoa, not the sugar, deserves its own special award.