Best Of :: Food & Drink
The ambiance may be a little lacking at this Eat Street outpost of St. Paul's Bangkok Thai Deli, but the incredibly delicious and authentic Thai food more than makes up for the absence of dim lighting and cloth napkins. In fact, once seated over sweet and spicy red duck curry with anise-y Thai basil and pops of sweet peas, or one of the many fresh seafood-laden rice dishes like stir-fried soft-shell crab with hot peppers and yellow curry, you'll forget you're even in Minneapolis. There may be some trendier places along this stretch of Nicollet, but where else can you share airy fish mousse steamed in banana leaves with lemongrass, garlicky nuggets of homemade Thai sausage, and deep-fried chicken wings stuffed with silver thread noodles and still spend less than $10 a person? A few new Thai places may have opened this year, but for the variety and value, no one has yet unseated Krungthep as king.
Taking your mom to the Strip Club might sound like a questionable way to drop a couple of bucks. But she's a hip ol' gal. She can take it. While informing her that she's headed to this restaurant with the risqué name might add a new gray hair or two, she'll find upon entering that there is nothing not to love. It's often owner Tim Niver who graciously greets you at the door. Dan Oskey produces the finest cocktails with astonishing speed and a dash of his sweet smile. The service is speedy, friendly, gracious, and attentive. The real show stopper, the money shot, if you will, is always the food churning out of chef J.D. Fratzke's kitchen. Unfussy and fabulous plates arrive with unexpected layers of flavor. You'd be hard pressed to find another soul so adept with a simple piece of pork. The grass-fed steaks are perfectly cooked to order. The rotating small plates are always a delight to share, from the Meat to Please You to the foie gras preparations. They are decadent moments of explosive mouth enjoyment. They come out on top time and time again.
On the beige horizon of a suburban street sits a hidden restaurant gem. While Grand Szechuan shares a parking lot with other, less thrilling establishments, there is nothing bland, beige, or ordinary about the cuisine inside the restaurant. It's hard to tell from the outside, but the expansive room is incredibly comfortable, with plenty of seating. The booths are semi-private places to tuck into a bowl of seriously spicy fare. Dan Dan noodles, an excellent starter, are velvety soft, in a pork-studded, fiery sauce balanced with a twinge of sour and a blaze of addictive heat. The dishes, flecked with the searing, numbing Szechuan peppercorns, are never simply hot for the sake of pain (although it is such a delicious pain); the heat is just one component of a complex array of flavors and sensations. Tender, sweet fish shines in a hellfire broth. Chendu dumplings are coated in brimstone-colored chili oil but carry a whisper of sweetness in their sauce. Hot, sour, sweet, savory, salty, and wholly delicious, Grand Szechuan lives up to its name.
Like Catherine Deneuve, Meritage has a French elegance that only seems to grow more alluring with time. The supple curve of the Tarbais beans in the cassoulet, the tender oysters brimming with their salty juices, the quivering egg yolks atop the benedict, the aged-to-perfection New York strip: Every lovely, delicious bite secures its status as a classic. The room is simple, lights perfectly dimmed for romance. While Meritage continues to wonderfully execute the classics, it also continues to grow and change. The crispy chicken should have its own category for Best Use of Chicken Skin. The cocktail list is filled with new, innovative takes on classic drinks. The seasonal menus include new dishes every few months that encapsulate the considerable talent in chef Russell Klein's French kitchen.
The sun reflects off the blond wood, washing the rock-and-metal sculptures with comfortable warmth. No matter the weather outside, inside Gardens of Salonica feels like an oasis in the gritty city. On a chilly November day, the liberal use of lemon in the appetizers, served with warm pita bread, is like a wink of summer sun. On a sweltering August afternoon, the cool, simple greens dressed in light vinaigrette make the Greek salad a refreshing splash of water on the cheeks. Here they use local, organic ingredients whenever possible. The mousakas is made extra rich from Hope Creamery butter and Larry Schultz's eggs. From the familial atmosphere to the delicious dishes, Gardens of Salonica remains an all-time favorite.
It's not new, but it's definitely fresh. It's not particularly flashy, but it still sparkles. It's not some ages-old riddle, it's Al Vento, the chef-driven south Minneapolis Italian restaurant that shows, after several years of successful business, that sometimes simplicity trumps all. Chef Jon Hunt re-creates rustic Italian fare with a lighter, modern twist. Delicate handmade pasta is paired with robust braised chicken cacciatore; pillowy gnocchi is matched with strapping smoky pork shoulder; meaty swordfish goes with spinach risotto; and at times when everything in life feels uncertain, there's nothing like Al Vento's sweet and pure "mother sauce" and a softly herby hand-rolled meatball to reset your internal mood meter to content. It's stick-to-your-ribs, soul-warming food, prepared with the finesse of a passionate kitchen team, which is what great Italian food is all about.