Best Of :: Food & Drink
Jack LaLanne, the late, great godfather of American fitness, once asked derisively, "Would you get your dog up in the morning for a cup of coffee and a doughnut?" Damn straight, Jack (sorry). And if Peace Coffee's awesome bike messengers sold doughnuts, the world would be a more perfect place. But while we wait for that minor miracle, we'll happily get ourselves and our dogs up for its Fair Trade beans and brew, now served hot and tasty at a brand spankin' new coffeehouse in the Longfellow neighborhood. We're especially fond of waking up to the scent of the Sumatra Full City Roast, but we're not too fussy as long as whatever they pour is hot, wet, and dark as night.
The problem here isn't that the Twin Cities lack first-rate restaurants, it's that there are only so many special meals one can go out for each year. And there's something a little bittersweet about indulging in just one of these restaurants' top-notch appetizers, entrées, and desserts and then leaving the rest of the menu uninvestigated. But petite, cozy Piccolo has structured its meals so diners get to taste a wider array of chef-owner Doug Flicker's creations. The Piccolo menu is made up entirely of small plates, composed as modestly portioned, multi-element mini-entrées, so every night's a tasting menu. Every dish intrigues, having been built from overlooked ingredients, intensive preparations, and creative flavor pairings. The small servings mean you don't have to wonder how the sushi bar favorite Hamachi collar tastes when served Southern-style with bacon, collard greens, and ham hock. And you won't have to choose between the unctuous lamb ribs with Swiss chard and molasses or the veal flank steak with house-made mortadella, prunes, and pistachios. Get both. Get all three. While you're at it, you have to try the pork heart with guanciale and black garlic-coated gnocchi. (It sounds far more shocking than its porky taste and firm, tongue-like texture actually are.) The expert servers are immensely helpful with selection—not that there's anything they'd advise you against, but the scrambled eggs with pickled pigs feet and truffle is the one item you could save for next time. It has permanent status on the menu.
Forget the baked potato and iceberg wedge. The Hanger Room in tiny Willernie is turning the idea of a small-town steak house on its head. First and foremost, the Hanger Room is the first restaurant in the state to dry-age its own steaks on the premises. The process makes the beef's flavor more concentrated and intense. Had Meg Ryan been eating one of the 42-day-aged rib eyes during the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally..., her famous outburst most certainly would not have been fake. Secondly, owner Nick Miller (one of the founders of Happy Gnome, who now runs Buster's on 28th) hired chef Leonard Anderson, a W.A. Frost alum, to head the kitchen, so the rest of the contemporary American fare is handled just as carefully. The Hanger Room is also blessedly versatile. It's actually two rooms—one for more formal dining, the other a classy bar—so diners can eat the same menu in two different environments, depending on their mood. But no matter if you're tucked into a booth or perched on a barstool pairing one of the 50 tap beers and an order of the duck tenders, or enjoying a multicourse tasting menu at a linen-topped table, you'll be wishing you lived a little closer to the Hanger Room.
No, you're not experiencing déjà vu: Heidi's is having its second stint as the Twin Cities' Best New Restaurant. The eatery's impressive first incarnation, named after chef-owner Stewart Woodman's wife and culinary partner, Heidi, burned to the ground last year. But the tragedy had a silver lining, as the restaurant has relocated to hipper digs that seem to suit it even better. Now there's a spacious bar, where you can have a cocktail and watch the mechanics of the kitchen through a long glass window. There's more space in the main dining room, which is dark and dramatically lit, and feels nearly like an urban streetscape stage set with cutting-edge artwork. The food is as good as ever—daring flavors, visually arresting platings—and still affordably priced. A chic entrée of barramundi served Napoleon-style with pickled eggplant, black olives, and lobster will set you back just $20. At Heidi's, the proof is in the liquid nitrogen-frozen chocolate mousse: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Usually we judge our chefs by their accomplishments on the plate. And Lenny Russo has certainly been widely praised for his haute Midwestern cooking as he treats indigenous ingredients—whitefish, currants, elk—with impressive reverence. But when he recently relocated his Heartland restaurant to Lowertown St. Paul and expanded operations to include a lounge and banquet rooms, plus a market and deli, Russo truly broadened his ambitions. He wasn't simply on a mission to please diners' palates but to strengthen the entire upper Mississippi foodshed. In doing so, Russo leveraged his reputation as a restaurateur to promote his best suppliers and created a more robust infrastructure for these area farmers to market their products. So each bite of Heartland's juicy bison rib eye, for example—either cooked to order in the restaurant or purchased raw from the meat counter and taken home—not only tastes delicious, it helps nourish a more sustainable local food system.
The second silver lining to the fire that destroyed Blackbird's original location along with Heidi's (see Best New Restaurant) is that the restaurant's new digs, at 38th and Nicollet, are bigger and better at accommodating all the café's fans. Blackbird's nest is now a corner space with pretty hardwood floors and windows nearly as tall as the ceilings—and the decor of course includes a reprisal of the owners' quirky antler collection. The restaurant has quickly ingratiated itself with its neighbors by bringing back many old favorites on its versatile lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch menus. Blackbird's food list is chock full of familiar comforts, but it's not trendy or clichéd, and it's inexpensive enough that diners can come back again and again. Meet a friend for coffee and huevos rancheros or take the kids to a lunch of celery/Brie soup and one of the excellent fried walleye, roasted pork, or braised beef sandwiches. Share a bowl of spicy peanut noodles with a date, a la Lady and the Tramp, or go solo and sit at the counter for a little "me time" with a glass of wine and a plate of crispy duck rolls. If you choose the latter, you won't ever feel lonely, as the friendly staff always welcomes in a way only the best neighborhood cafés can.