Best Of :: Food & Drink
The servers at La Belle Vie often seem as if they're executing a complex ballet: In two, three, four, place plate two, three, four, explain plate concisely and not obnoxiously two, three, four and out two, three, four. When you finish your tiny course of oh, say, slow-poached pheasant with French horn mushrooms and foie gras risotto, they come in again: Lift plate two, three, four; away, two, three, four. Swipe crumbs from tablecloth two, three, four; replace silver two, three, four, and away two, three, four! We don't even like dance, but we find this a graceful and downright soothing performance. You always know the servers here are going to take care of things as efficiently and gracefully as possible, whether the task at hand is helping you to select a glass of wine, or just being in-tune enough with the rhythm of your table that they don't needlessly interrupt your conversation. Great service is like dance, in that it requires great physical stamina while projecting ease. But in some ways it's more difficult than dance, because dancers never have to juggle a nut allergy at table 73 who doesn't want ice in her water with an engagement ring appearing with the desserts on table 74 and a breakup resulting in a need for whiskey and instantaneous check delivery at table 75. Worse, unlike dancers, servers get no applause when they pull it all off, because no one knows what they've pulled off but them! Well, we know, and we're clapping: Bravo! Brava!
The Twin Cities' sibling rivalry consists of a thousand different battles, but few are as important as the one over barbecue. And sorry, Minneapolis, but St. Paul's banner yet waves—or is that a giant Wet-Nap? Lee's & Dee's—a hole-in-the-wall off Selby with more Southern charm than Jimmy Carter in a bath of coleslaw—is a perennial favorite. But for our sticky dollars, you can't do better than Rooster's, a tiny, Memphis-style deli counter you can smell from I-35E as it passes over Randolph Avenue. Barbecue is foremost about ribs, so we'll start there: Rooster's rubs their baby backs in a pepper blend and smokes them real slow-like, then slops on their signature spicy sauce. (Mild is available upon request. Yankee.) The result is a tender, juicy slab of pork you experience with your whole body, from your nasal passages to your colon. Only your wallet is left unchanged—mostly, anyway. A full rib dinner, with slaw, fries, and a roll, runs just $12.62. But hold on one clucking minute: Rooster's is renowned for its chicken—naturally—as much as its ribs. These crispy, steaming morsels are as mouth-watering as anything you'll find north of the Mason-Dixon, and they're served at reasonable prices to all appetites, from 8 pieces ($9.35) to 40 ($57.94, including fries and two pints of slaw). Rooster's pulled-pork sandwich completes the holy barbecue trinity in fine form, stacking heaps of smoked pork shoulder, slathered in that same sauce, on a bakery-fresh roll. Chewing pulled pork is one of the carnivore's greatest pleasures, and Rooster's is so savory and fleshy that it's hard to finish without moving on to your fingers. Take it from us: Lick. Don't bite.
What makes a great chef? One good measure is the influence he exerts on the world around him, and no one has done more to exalt the possibilities of northern regional cuisine lately than Lenny Russo. His restaurant Heartland has become a must-visit destination for visiting foodies who dip in to see what magic he's working with local ingredients. Like brick-dark venison tartare ($10) given definition with Canadian ice-wine vinegar and made plush with the yolk of a local pullet egg. Or pan-roasted wild boar chops with Wisconsin gruyere-wheat berry risotto and Door County cherry glacée ($36). These dishes spring from both a creative vision (that venison tartare tastes like silk made of winter iron) and a commitment to day-to-day work supporting local networks: Area farmers and foragers know that they can always count on Lenny if they've got good product to sell. Yet it's one thing to cook with local ingredients in a small, easily supervised environment like Heartland, and quite another to do so at a large-scale, cost-conscious venue like Cue, the restaurant that Russo opened in the new Guthrie Theater. Russo's partnership with Cue ended recently, but the place has continued the showcasing of local ingredients that Russo began, and those menu items are the best the restaurant serves. Since Russo left Cue he's been working on his cookbook (can't wait!) and on getting a year-round Minneapolis farmers' market off the ground, and on founding a distribution network so local farmers can reach local buyers. (Want to help? Call him at Heartland!) In our opinion, no one is doing more to elevate regional cuisine right now, and hence no other chef's cooking is more influential, more inspirational, more important. Who knew there could be so much import in an appetizer? Thanks, Lenny, for taking our little slice of the world so seriously—it's made us see it anew.
"Not Good Look'n, Just Good Cook'n," reads a sign above the doorway to the kitchen. True indeed, and that statement reflects the unironic folksiness on hand at this 61-year-old East Side institution, where the waitress is likely to call you "Hon." Actually, the place isn't bad look'n at all, just nothing particularly special: Two rows of high-backed booths sandwich in a few smaller ones in a cramped, wood-paneled room decorated with photos of hockey players and ice palaces past. As soon as you sit down, you get evidence of the good cook'n: Coffee and ice water arrive promptly, accompanied on Saturdays by a small, delicious, complimentary, homemade blueberry muffin. More excellent traditional breakfast fare awaits on the menu: your basic egg combos (including one with bratwurst for $5.50), tasty pancakes and French toast ($4, $5.50 with bacon or sausage, $6.50 with ham), a hearty Denver omelette ($7.50) made with flavorful, thick-sliced ham. But make sure to check the specials on the boards, too: Each comes with hash browns and toast, and there might be steak and eggs, huevos rancheros, or, a bargain at six bucks, eggs scrambled with generous chunks of that good ham. Serlin's serves breakfast and lunch six days a week, and dinner on Thursdays. Not Sundays, though, so you'll have to stay home and make your own breakfast at least once.
You're going to have to get up on a Sunday to score this one, and you're going to have to bus your own table. That's because the fine Caribbean cooks behind St. Paul's West Indies Soul serve their soul food special, Deep South Sundays, just one day a week. And they do it at their new outpost in the fabulously rehabbed Sears complex on Lake Street in Minneapolis, which boasts all their tasty standards, but no table service. Don't be deterred: $11 nets you two sides and one each of West Indies' breads, meats, and desserts. On Deep South Sundays you can choose from corn muffins or dressing, macaroni and cheese, greens, yams, roast turkey, fried chicken, peach cobbler, and cake. Can't do Sundays? Stop by during the rest of the week and pick up a hot beef Jamaican Patty, $3.25 worth of flaky pastry wrapped around tender, fiery beef.
Let's face it: The Twin Cities will never be a hot dog hotspot. The best we can hope for is a faithful simulacrum of Chicago's doghouses, legendary for their atomic-green relish, piles of sport peppers, and—shall we say—"gruff" tableside manner. In that respect, Uncle Franky's is head-and-shoulders above the competition. Their menu is crammed with Windy City favorites (all-beef Chicago dogs, messy beef sandwiches, and burgers) plus a full complement of more Easterly delights (cheesesteaks, brats, New York pastrami, Polish sausages, veggie burgers, and malts). And with prices running from $2.75 for one to $10 for all you can eat, it's no surprise that the little red hut is as stuffed as a Vienna sausage around lunchtime. If the line cooks yell at you to pick up your damn food already, no hard feelings; it's just that there's a line forming, and the elbowroom is scarce. The clientele is about what you'd expect: construction workers with relish in their beards, businessmen with mustard on their ties, women with—okay, not a lot of women. Jay, the jittery and congenial owner, just opened a new shop in Plymouth, but the flagship Northeast location is still alpha dog, if only for the decor. It's a bizarre combination of Chicago sports teams, Scooby Doo, and local typographer extraordinaire Chank (who did the logo). The joint's crown jewel is a Magic Marker rendering of Chicago's skyline by that city's finest outsider artist, the late Wesley Willis. We hear he liked the beef.