Close your eyes, and Minneapolis sounds altogether different from New York. And New York sounds so very different from Cancun. And Paris sounds so different from Cancun and from Dubai. Actually, we have never been to Dubai but we just know it would sound different.
And just as all of these sounds vary, so do the flavors of all places. It's in the water, in the pizza crust, and in the foam on the beer. In the yeast. In the molecules of the soil, in the hands of the preparers, in the weather. It's obviously in the tradition.
It has been said that when you take away all other regional cuisines, Midwestern is what you have left. Maybe.
As a burgeoning major food city we can now take all those dumb assumptions about having nothing up here but lutefisk and fried walleye and deflect them with a smirk. But what if you did have to define Twin Cities dining with just 10 places?
Er, make that 11 places. Eleven places that are deeply and passionately held, to us and only us, in one way or another.
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It's nigh impossible to come along and make something that feels classic yet altogether novel. With Uptown steadily gaining a reputation as the dudebro/cheesy condo/Cosmopolitan (the insipid drink, not the adjective) trifecta of a neighborhood, it's especially nice to have a place that harkens back to a time when it was indeed a real place to be. Where the Replacements were once upon a time not just on a jukebox, but on a barstool hard drinking after stumbling off a stage somewhere, their concert flyer flapping in the breeze on the facade of Oar Folkjokeopus. The soul of the place must be in the reverberations of the joists that upheld the Sunny Side Up and the laundromat that occupied that corner when Uptown was the place Prince declared it where you want to be; a place to set your mind free.
But then add the cooking of one Jim Christiansen, an almost out-of-nowhere young talent who challenges the very physics of food -- deep freezing things that were once only poached, poaching things that were once only seared, smoking things that were once simply left alone, and it works. Serving it all on substantial and real rough-hewn pottery to make you feel grounded and robust, and not ephemeral like every passing caprice.
Like people who make their own wine, Scandinavian types are maybe just a little, teensy bit too proud of their culinary traditions. We say there are only a few times a year when we get seriously fired up about all that white food, root veg, and gravlax, and one of them is when we bust out Nana's oyster stew recipe for the holidays. The others are when we dine at the Bachelor Farmer. Sturdy lettuces not overly dressed, crumbly and proud farmhouse cheeses, root vegetables made silky to blur the line between soup and sauce, meats roasted into crackling candy. Managing to woo, but not with flash. Frippery not welcome here. Farmhouse woods meet a Swedish blue backdrop where ruddy-cheeked pretties in patchwork aprons are as capable yet gracious as a Nordic grandmother. Strong, good looking, and above average. Garrison Keillor would be proud.
Square cut and square cut only, thick with cheese within, cracker crust at the edges, tomato paste marinara, sausage, pepperoni, onion. Green pepper, maybe. Anyone who says we don't do pizza in Minnesota hasn't been paying attention, and we're not just talking about all of the fancy new artisanal cool kids with their whiz-bang oven machines, but yes, them too. Well-seasoned since 1965, the East Seventh Savoy oven issues forth a pie both real and good, the heft enough to make one work for his supper on the way to the car; the grease blobs left on the box enough for the cat to make a meal of. Just ignore that they're serving tiramisu now. Not remodeled, not improved, but beautifully lowbrow since 1965.
8. Haute Dish
Every good chef elevates childhood influence to new heights. But few have the years-long concentration to ensure that every dish, every time, looks at regional tradition in in not obvious, new perspective ways, like standing back and looking at your house from the neighbor's point of view. Take, for instance chef Schoenefeld's General Tso's Sweetbreads, which takes the small-town, landlocked Midwestern kid's weekly sack of greasy Chinese-American takeout (no Szechuan around these parts, no Hunan in the '70s and '80s) and whipping foie gras into the fried rice, kicking chicken to the curb and subbing in sweetbreads -- still meaty, sticky, and sweet.
Maybe it was pan dulces braided and shining like Princess Leah's hair buns, fiery salsas to make steam puff from your ears, or stacks of corn tortillas when the only other way to procure was to buy them off a Mexican grandma's doorstep. Anyone who grew up in St. Paul probably also grew up on some kind of something from El Burrito, back when it was the only Mexican game in town along with nearby
Kids these days, they say to themselves: "Gimme one of those computer machines, Daddy-o! I'll make my living the old fashioned way. Online!" But hey, good thing the current (third-generation) Murray's clan didn't come of age until after all that. In these modern times, multigenerational restaurants are rare indeed. Kids growing up in a restaurant see it for what it is: not a glamorous endeavor of hosting friends and eating ravioli, but broken pipes, broken tiles, broken sinks, broken spirits, and sometimes broken dreams. But Art and Marie Murray fired up the old grill back in 1946 and now the grandkids are managing to stay relevant by not resisting change, while still hanging on to tradition. They recently underwent a massive facelift, perhaps losing some of the old-timey charm (the grand piano and all that pink, Marie's favorite color, are gone) that made it dear to many, but many of those were octogenarians and it's fair to say that the original Silver Butterknife crowd may be on their way to ordering their last temperature preference. Now it's a place to grab a drink and a burger in the lounge, while the great-grandparents discuss the golden age of politicians and meat and in the dining room, and the same dude, Boyd Freeman, butchers it all as he has for the past 37 years.
5. Wise Acre
Everyone dreams of a wide-sky, green-hill farm dotted with Holsteins, mud-rolling pigs, and the moment when you cut a big bunch of tomatoes, juice threatening to burst from the skins they're so heavy with sun, and carry them up to your little farmhouse restaurant and everything will be just perfect. But nobody ever does it because it's ridiculously difficult enough to run a restaurant much less a farm; farming is the only thing more difficult than running a restaurant after all. Except that someone has done it. The gentlemen of Tangletown Gardens have been courting gardeners for years with their glorious urban oasis, dewy air mushrooming with life: zebra plants, amaryllis, heirloom tomatoes, pumpkins. And now on their farm in Plato: Highland cattle, Berkshire pigs, fuzzy little chicks, rows and rows of veg. We had to choose a burger for this list because we're Minnesotans and a burger is elemental as dinner itself. So we choose this one, where the beef and the bacon are cooked by the same interested parties who raised it, all Minnesota beef, bacon, and quick pickles. Even the fries are made from Minnesota grown potatoes.
A Piedmont chef would wither with shame to be searing meat from Parma and that Parma guy doesn't need no stinking cheese from anywhere else in the world, no siree Bob. It's widely known that in Italy, even home cooks are fiercely loyal to their regions. So Lenny Russo, Italian by blood, takes this ethic and applies it to Midwestern bounty, with the tendentious attention of a professor at his lessons. No olive oil served here because olives don't grow here. Instead: maple and blueberry coulis, green tomatoes, sunflower sprouts, wild shrooms, and millet. Yes, millet -- warm beneath fleshy drape of rainbow trout, crunchy with winter radish, festooned with mustard sprouts.
3. Quang Until you've lived elsewhere and gone months without a proper bowl of pho, or a banh mi on real baguette with a sumptuous swipe of pate, you're merely a fish in water, taking things for granted like an heiress with her Jimmy Choos kicked up on a thousand-dollar ottoman. Kick that thing away and all bearings are lost. To ignore our considerable Southeast Asian population is to ignore one of the great treasures of our cities. Many have their favorites, but the one we return to time and again is Quang, with its strange closed-on-Tuesday hours (who doesn't always forget?), impossibly enormous pools of fragrant noodles, hulking banh mi with a billow of house-made mayo, and noodle salads like an herbaceous garden sprinkled with peanut snow. Add a sweet iced coffee, a bright urban space, and the status of family-owned and -operated for more then 25 years, and you've got yourself an institution.
Sinatra not just on the stereo but on the wall, dangling salamis that sway with the passing breeze of busy, dutiful counter staff, cheese aromas to make your kid plug his nose, and red sauce flying around with so much aplomb one must simply succumb and tuck a napkin into her collar. A real-deal Italian deli is something that anchors a place as a real place, one with history, taste, and heart. Cossetta, Mancini's, Degidio's; all of these on the West Seventh strip are all that remain of this 'hood as an enclave of Italian immigrants. Still, regulars are fiercely proud of the tradition practiced within each. For many, a celebration without a deli sack filled with proscuitto so thin you can see through it, tonuge-tingling imported Provolone, or the crunch of cannelloni, cream streaming out the end when you bite, would be pure blasphemy.
1. La Belle Vie
Where even the gossamer drapes seem to mean business and the very dust, as it sparkles in a sun ray shining through them, is alight with expectation and celebratory crackle. Until another comes along to knock it out of place in some serious way, LBV will continue to be the king of the hill, the one that put us on the map as a serious food city, a place where people win James Beard awards and Zagat bestows ratings. Now in its 17th year, it qualifies for fine dining institution status, with all of its attendant meaning -- it's still the go-to when mediocrity is not an option, when white-glove service is all that will do, when you're going to be needing lobster, truffle, foie, caviar, saffron, and quail all in one meal. And rabbit. Rabbit, too. And passionfruit. We hope that many of our could-exist-in-any-major-city-in-America dining places (Piccolo, Tilia) stick around for long decades. But right here and right now, it's still LBV 4-evs.
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