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BEST RESTAURANT (MINNEAPOLIS) Minneapolis 2002 - Auriga

Welcome to the thousand-dollar paragraph, for which intrepid researchers did battle with many cloth napkins stretched over increasingly rotund, foie-gras-gorged bellies. Who knew living so high on the hog could be so joyless? (If anyone ever told you that the Best Restaurant item wasn't the product of a year's worth of studious research topped by a single bloody month of sudden-death secret tournaments, well, they lied.) Then, hallelujah, we dined at Auriga, and our faith in white tablecloths was restored. It isn't merely that Auriga has become the standard-bearer for the smart restaurant wine list: three dozen bottles with one of everything you might want (Louis Latour 1998 Marsannay pinot noir for $28; Hendry Block 8 1997 cabernet sauvignon for $78) and nothing you don't. It isn't merely that many of the staffers have been working at the place since it opened back in 1998, and are as comfortable as they would be in their living rooms. It isn't merely that chef Doug Flicker gets more assured and more interesting the longer he spends behind his stove (a recent dish of braised beef short ribs with a side of red pepper, leek, and tomato compote, a gorgeous froth of caramelized onion-potato purée, and upland cress offered such potency it was dazzling to behold). It isn't merely that the new $40 tasting menu (offered Tuesday through Sunday) is more imaginative than any other such offering in the city. It isn't merely any of those things. It's all those things. Yes, we too wish they had more money to gussy up the interior, as it does feel a bit spare and bohemian. But visit the restaurant's outdoor farmers' market some summer Saturday and check out the tables piled high with darling little vegetables from Delano-based Riverbend Farms, and you just can't help but be won over by Auriga's commitment to the local and the fresh. Pair that with the restaurant's equivalent commitment to the imaginative and the friendly, and you have an establishment that delights even the most jaded spirit.

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