Best Of :: Food & Drink
It's hard to argue with a restaurant that offers the Rocky Road Bomb, in which a hard shell of chocolate reveals a core of liquid chocolate goodness beneath, and other sweet delights. Owner and chef Erick Harcey has proven that the North Side can embrace a classy eatery that packs plenty of flavor and innovation into each dish. That comes through in every phase, including the decadent desserts that can end a meal or provide a topper to the evening. That vibe has only increased in recent months with the opening of the adjacent Victory 44 Coffee Bar and Provisions, which expands the offerings to include pastries and more. Like the rest of the menu, the desserts mix expert preparation with easy-to-manage portions and delightful presentation, such as a remix on a cheesecake likes ants on a log (a peanut butter cheesecake with celery sorbet and raisins, not quite like Mom used to make). Even something as straightforward as bread pudding comes with distinct twist. In this case, the tasty, spongy, sweet bread is topped with fresh-cut apples, sprinkles of bacon dust, and a dollop of bacon ice cream. And really, why resist the thrill of seeing your chef-server bring out a plate of cakes and then use a blowtorch at your table to melt a thin layer of chocolate? Dessert as performance art always works for us.
Who knew you could get so worked up over something as simple as toast? Of course the toast that has the North Loop neighborhood abuzz goes far beyond the slice of buttered white that comes alongside over-easy eggs. The sourdough bread is made in-house and arrives at your table in a charming silver caddy, fanned out before you like a selection of gorgeous, edible canvases. Add your preferred amount of sweet and salty house-cured salmon, a smear of mustard, and a see-through layer of pickled cucumber and you have the perfect late-night snack. The talented team at the Bachelor Farmer, assembled by brothers and co-owners Eric and Andrew Dayton, is bringing the simple sophistication of clean flavors and complex textures — like sour and chewy dried cherries, creamy and earthy duck liver pâté, and ripe, salty pistachios — and making them a huge part of this re-imagined smorgasbord experience. Chef Paul Berglund has also managed to breathe new life into the cuisine that many Minnesotans were first introduced to by their Scandinavian grandmothers. Cured salmon, softly spiced meatballs made with milk-soaked breadcrumbs and begging to be dunked in tart lingonberry sauce, briny pickled herring, venison, and even roasted beets are prepared in a way that makes you feel as though you're appreciating them for the first time. It will require patience and planning to snag a table, but sometimes throwing caution to the wind pays off. Even if it doesn't, you couldn't ask for a better place to bide your time than at the adjoining Marvel Bar.
The menu is noticeably wordy, but it's the food that is truly a mouthful at Heartland in Lowertown, the downtown St. Paul district that's drawing foodies from all corners who want to experience something truly revelatory. Chef Lenny Russo, a James Beard Award finalist in the prestigious category of Best Chef: Midwest, hasn't slowed down in the slightest since opening this beacon for locally grown produce in 2002 (it moved to the current location in 2010). Since then, Heartland has gained a reputation for thoughtful presentation and, since its menu is contingent on whatever ingredients are freshest, as a steward of sustainability. Russo's ever-changing selection of house-made charcuterie — which sometimes includes a gutsy wild boar braunschweiger, a rich duck prosciutto, goose rillettes, terrines, and pâtés — recalls the finest in Old World dining, whereas dishes like the Asian-inspired rainbow trout with a cornmeal crust and bok choy and ginger broth cater to more modern tastes.
If you made a Venn diagram with three circles titled accessibility, affordability, and delectability, very few restaurants would fall in the small area where all three intersect. If you've been fortunate enough to score one of the 14 tables at Tilia in the charming neighborhood of Linden Hills, you likely already made the observation that for a restaurant that feels as comfortable as a worn-in pair of clogs, the food is fantastically refined and a shoe-in for best new restaurant. After years of honing his skills at big-time eateries like Levain, Lucia's, and Porter & Frye, part owner and executive culinary director Steven Joel Brown just couldn't let the dream of running his own place die, and Minneapolis is so much better for it. The dish of bitter braised greens with bourbon and smoked chicken, though listed on the menu as a simple side, is a complex festival of flavors and practically a meal unto itself. Craving something heartier? Beef cheeks in red wine with warm, Christmasy chestnut polenta and sweet and seedy charred figs is comfort food redefined. But Brown doesn't enforce an uppity agenda. You'll regularly hear the sounds of PBRs being cracked open by the kitchen staff, and the BLT hot dog is one of the best things on the menu.
It stands to reason that whoever is at the helm of the best new restaurant would be a contender for the year's best chef, but that's not the only reason this award goes to Steven Joel Brown of Tilia. No, the set of criteria used to measure a great chef is rooted in what that individual brings to an already exciting and impressive dining scene. In Brown's case it's a sort of coolness, a confident swagger that looks best on someone who is a bit of a rebel, perhaps even someone who used to create innovative dishes at an ill-fated but well-loved (to those few who were in the know) restaurant called Rockstar. His intention to make Tilia a neighborhood hub that won't take reservations demonstrates what he aims to foster in this movement to democratize fine dining: community — the people who sit at your bar and gab over a grilled flatbread or a jar of potted meat. Brown radiates ideas, opinions, and stories, and fortunately that quality translates to each meticulously crafted plate of the new brand of comfort food he serves.
Though a perennial favorite for best French restaurant, Meritage features dishes (such as moules frites, slow-cooked monkfish, escargot braised with oxtail, an amusement of tuna tartare "taco, " and the stunning selection of oysters on the half shell) that could make this restaurant a worthy contender in the Best Seafood category too. Chef Russell Klein honors the techniques and rich flavors of classic French cooking but still manages to keep things light. Similarly, the atmosphere created by front-of-house manager Desta, who happens to be not only Klein's partner in business but also in life, is that of a tight ship, but as a guest you'll only ever feel cradled in the warm glow of the dining room. As with the five-, seven-, or nine-course tasting menu, Meritage's Chef's Table, a new addition that was born out of the 2010 renovation, is epicurean heaven. Don't have time to wade through that much food? Then cut through it all and go straight for the roasted bone marrow. "Every mouthful is like eating a whole steak, in terms of flavor, " says Klein.