To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.
Isaac Becker has much to be thankful for, and he knows it. The restaurant game can be brutal, and when you're fortunate enough to survive, you count your lucky stars.
"When people eat here, we want them to feel like we're really grateful they came in," he says. "Because we are."
Becker, the most recent recipient of the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Midwest award, and his wife and co-owner, Nancy St. Pierre, have turned 112 Eatery into one of the shiniest gems in the Twin Cities' dining crown, but that wasn't always the case. When 112 first opened seven years ago, things were a bit ugly.[jump]
When it originally debuted, traffic was painfullly slow. "In the early days, when no one was coming in, I wanted to go out and shake everyone's hand who walked through the door," Becker says. But he stuck with his vision for the restaurant: exceptionally well-prepared food in an approachable environment--a concept that had been formed years before the inaugural pan was fired.
Prior to 112, Becker worked under Jay Sparks at D'Amico Cucina, then took over as head chef at Campiello and later as executive chef at Café/Bar Lurcat. While running his own kitchens, he also took notes from others--particularly on the East Coast.
"There were two restaurants in New York that were big influences on me in the early 2000s," he says. The first was Craft. "I went to Craft in the winter of 2001-2002 and loved it," he says. Its mantra was great ingredients and simple preparation, embodied in an item like a flawlessly roasted carrot.
The other was aKa Cafe, one of Wylie Dufresne's predecessors to WD-50. At WD-50, Dufresne is a molecular gastronomic master--a deep-fryer of hollandaise and defender of foam. But things at aKa were a little different. "It was super casual, but the food was very special," Becker remembers. "It probably sat about 20 people and the kitchen was a closet. He was doing really interesting combinations, and at the time it was very forward food."
112 Eatery was unveiled on January 13, 2005. But Becker and St. Pierre didn't have grandiose expectations: "The goal was to open our own business, do things on our own terms, and make a living," he says.
There was the initial lull, but eventually things began to take off. Local accolades. National press in Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, and the New York Times. And then last spring, a JBF medallion.
"It's really great. I've never won anything remotely close to that," he says. "But it's also a relief," he admits. "I'd been nominated four times, and I was starting to worry I wasn't going to get nominated again." That, of course, is no longer a problem.
Although some things have changed over the years, the food remains the same. Becker's cuisine is brilliantly accessible, utterly addictive, and thrillingly affordable. And with most of it priced under $12, it's going to take some serious effort for us to settle on just one dish. But it's a challenge we'll gladly accept. Let the eating begin.
We start by skipping to the end first: dessert--specifically Nancy Silverton's Butterscotch Budino. A bona fide baking goddess, Silverton founded La Brea Bakery in 1989. Although she's probably best known for her artisan breads, she also makes a mean budino (which is Italian for pudding).
"I think Nancy's really great at what she does, and her recipes are spot on," says chef de cuisine Dennis Leaf-Smith. The base is a luscious egg yolk cream with fresh vanilla beans, which is layered with house-made butterscotch, crème fraiche, and a sprinkle of Hawaiian pink sea salt. It's sweet, salty, and served in a small glass jar resting on a paper doily--making it even more delightfully homey. Says general manager Sarah Dalton, "I think of it as an adult snack pack."
You can linger over the budino as long as you like because 112 closes late. "Back in 2005, being open at midnight or 1 a.m. in Minneapolis was crazy," Becker says. Of the other options he can recall, there was a Mexican restaurant with extended hours "and White Castle," he jokes.
For our favorite bedtime snack (although it's good day or night), the $7 Bacon, Egg, & Harissa Sandwich is an obvious choice. Harissa is a sauce traditionally used in North African cuisine, and 112 makes its version by caramelizing Fresno chilies and garlic, and then adding chopped tomatoes. The mixture is seasoned with paprika, cumin, and coriander, run through the food mill, and spread on toasted bread. Then it's topped with crispy bacon, cilantro, and an over-easy egg. The bacon is smoky, the harissa gives your taste buds a slap, the cilantro adds a fresh bite, and the egg oozes over everything. "It's the comfort of bacon and eggs," says Dalton. "Like having breakfast for dinner."
But for our ultimate $12-and-under pick, we're selecting the king. The oft-cited, much heralded pasta perfection that is the Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs. A half order is $11--but it's a nice, generous portion.
Since Becker grew up in D'Amicoland, it's no surprise he knows his noodles. Made with egg yolks and semolina flour, they're expertly crafted and tender. But the meatballs are somewhat shocking. Not because of what they are, but because of what they aren't. "It's a basic meatball," says Leaf-Smith. "They're equal parts chicken and foie gras, combined with bread crumbs, parmesan, and milk." The pasta is tossed in butter, and it's all buried under a heap of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
It's unfussy, but the results are phenomenal. The tiny rounds are moist and indulgent, virtually dissolving on your tongue and sending you into a blissful food coma.
They're just one of many reasons for 112's long and successful run--something Becker appreciates even more as they reach yet another anniversary. "I'm proud of the fact that people are still coming in," he says. "It's common for restaurants not to be around very long. But after seven years, 112 is still as busy as it was back in '05 and '06."
As for the future, the plan is pretty straightforward: "Our goal is to maintain what we have," says Becker. "I hope it lasts."
And so do we.
Top 12 dishes under $12 112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy Heartland: Cheese Course La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese Lucia's: Farmers' Salad Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans Sea Change: Arctic Char Tilia: Potted Meat