A Very Big Year


None of us will ever know why you stole that Shriner's miniature car, drove through the jewelry store window, peeled off covered with diamonds, and subsequently gained international notoriety with that soft-headed cream cheese-icing defense, blaming it all on too many of Aunt Lil's cinnamon rolls. But while you may remember 2003 like that, for me, 2003 will forever be the year that Minneapolis got Big, in terms of ambition, execution, and plain old numerosity.

Yeah, I said numerosity. I mean, even three years ago restaurants used to open in this town more or less sequentially, and a girl could keep track of what was going on in the restaurant community pretty much on one hand. Now, all through 2003, things have happened in threes, and all at the same time.

First, consider the three biggest restaurant openings of the year: Cosmos (in the new Le Meridien Hotel, across from the Target Center), Levain (in the new Turtle Bread complex down on 47th and Chicago), and Solera (in the newly rescued Hennepin Avenue space on theater row, at Ninth Street). Any of these three would have been the biggest news of the year on its own, but all of a sudden we got three multi-million-dollar restaurants, with three name-brand chefs, all at once.

Meanwhile, we also got three brand-new, million-dollar big Grown-Up Beach Party restaurants: Tiburón, Babalu, and Mojito. The hullaballoo surrounding the Big restaurants nearly eclipsed three local, much-awaited, long-anticipated, chef-driven restaurants: jP American Bistro, Bakery on Grand, and Pane Vino Dolce. Restaurants even started closing in trios: Aquavit, café un deux trois, and Rockstar.

Do you remember how much ink was generated by the closing of the (still missed) New French Café? There's no time for that kind of lingering memorializing nowadays; everything's happening way too fast. I mean, we even had three new soul food restaurants open on Nicollet this year: Nardie's, Big E's, and the Soul City Supper Club. We had three Asian fusion restaurants establish themselves this year: Azia, Rice Paper, and Singapore! That exclamation point is theirs, but it may as well be mine. Where do we live these days, the future as envisioned by the Food Network?

It's been a great year to be eating out in the Twin Cities. And so, without further ado, I give you the best restaurants of the year!

Oh, you didn't fall for that old gag, did you? From Li'l Baby Numerosity? Please, you've got at least a dozen paragraphs between you and sweet release. I mean, there were definitely some problems in 2003, and I think we should talk about them. You weren't planning on going anywhere, were you?

For one thing, downtown Minneapolis was overrun, absolutely overrun and infested with chains. That fondue monstrosity. That Applebee's monstrosity. The horror show about the olives and the gardens. And that horrible place that one is forced to observe when one is innocently drinking at First Avenue--oh, what do they call it? The one where people mate according to the belief system specified upon their T-shirt? Limp Rock, Lard Sock...something.

Well, anyhoo, it's not just the chain-infestation that is so seriously depressing, but the critical pandering that has accompanied it. If I have to read one more review in a daily paper that runs, "This crap-fest chain pretty much sucks, but y'all might like it, 'cuz y'all really like big portions and you're kinda stupid," I am going to nail marshmallows to the walls. I am serious. That's just how mad I am.

For those of you tired of all the running to the dictionary, I will explain. Pandering is encouraging someone in their crappy taste, for personal gain. And I feel like it has just been the dark sub-theme to 2003, in everything from the speeches of George W. to the smarminess of the Democratic party to the magazine covers with Limp Bizkit and X-tina to my own damn review of Fhima. With the benefit of hindsight, I really wonder if I pulled punches from my Fhima review because, you know, it was in downtown St. Paul, and they're not really up to speed down there, and you have to be nice. How did I benefit? By not coming off as a bully, or a closed-minded jerk. From now on everyone is on notice: I am on a pandering-extermination campaign, as of now. Pander no more in 2004!

Someone make a T-shirt.


So, what's the big problem with crappy, lackluster chains, and the people who like them? Why don't I just let them alone, and quit being such a bossy buttinski? Because they provide a net public harm. First of all, crap chain restaurants feed you giant plates of salt and fat that they get from corporate factory farms. This a) makes you fat, b) ruins your palate, and c) gives you no nutrients or energy with which to lead your life, which d) makes you depressed, and e) leads to divorce and the dissolution of the family, while simultaneously f) allowing corporate farms to f-2) drive family farms out of business and f-3) contribute to the evisceration of the heartland and f-4) proliferation of rural drug use. This g) fills up local prisons and thus increases your taxes.  

Not to mention h)! Which is the fact that these crap chains have every little bit of their environments engineered to make you think you're having fun. I mean, everything, from wall color to chair-seat density to cup size. And even though you may not realize with your conscious mind that you are being treated like cattle with credit cards, your subconscious mind realizes it, and you become depressed, which means i) your sex life goes down the toilet, and j) you end up in constant therapy and on lots of psychopharmacological drugs, which k) bankrupts you. Wouldn't you just rather go to the Birchwood?

I will even grant that there are a few chains--the Oceanaire and Campiello come to mind--where the chain part of the establishment seems more like a shell of money and organization in the midst of which individual personalities with integrity can flourish. But the cynical cash-grab of the rest of it I cannot abide.

And since the giant story of the last few years has been the way you all have embraced organic and local foods in the grocery stores, I hold out great, great hope for the future.

Okay now, no kidding, the best restaurants of the year, and why. In no particular order, so don't even try to discern one:


Cosmos at Le Meridien: Chefs in the Twin Cities have often been great cooks, but the rest of the restaurant experience--service, room design, beverage program--has often seemed to happen on its own, on a weird catch-as-catch-can basis. No more! A beautiful room that's like a temple to Modernism and Wood, service that's so well carried out it's practically invisible, a truly reliable service of all three meals a day. Cosmos is the first restaurant in Minnesota to really just be a restaurant in every dimension.

Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty's commitment to working with the best small farmers in America allows his forthright cooking style to shine; try anything from local game producer Wild Acres, for example. Even more than that, I love the fact that Minnesota finally has a no-brainer of a restaurant where you can go and impress whomever you might need to impress: your boss, your date, your father-in-law, without any fear of anything going wrong. And if you don't think that's a feat worth being bowled over by, you obviously haven't squirmed through the mortifying restaurant disasters I have. (Cosmos at Le Meridien, 601 First Ave. N., Minneapolis, 612.677.1100); minneapolis.lemeridien.com)


Auriga: Last summer I took some out-of-town celebrities, and original Chez Panisse investors, to Auriga for dinner, and they were so blown away by Doug Flicker's harmonious songs of cooking they went back the very next night, finally proclaiming the place "the best ugly restaurant in America." What they, and I, didn't know about the run-down space was this: We almost lost Auriga this year. Turns out that when the young partners signed their original lease they locked themselves into exorbitant double-market-rate rents and obligated themselves to pay for endless physical building improvements. And that's why the room looked so down-at-the-heels! Because they were on the verge of bankruptcy.

Which is even further testament to Flicker's cooking, I think, because only someone operating at his genius level could have supported staff, double-market rents, and all on the mere profits from chicken quarters and reasonably priced wines. (If you want to experience Flicker's cooking, in which straightforward foods are transformed into essays of texture and tenderness, try the current offering of a two-day brined poussin, or tiny chicken, slow-roasted with thyme, deboned, re-roasted, gilded in a pan with walnut brown butter, and served with sautéed Swiss chard, smoked guancale, and porcini mushrooms.)

Those ugly duckling days may well be behind us now though, because a big-money investor also noticed how fantastic Auriga is and swooped in, Prince Charming-style, and bought them the building. So suddenly the kids have got a brand-new full liquor license, a brand-new bar, and soon will have brand-new bathrooms. Join them in the bar to celebrate the end of the bad old days: Happy hour at Auriga is Sunday through Thursday, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., with half-priced wine, beer, and rail drinks. Rail drinks! If ever a round of congratulatory drinks were in order, they surely are. Congratulations, Auriga! I'm so glad you made it. (Auriga, 1930 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.871.0777; www.aurigarestaurant.com)  

Solera: There's been a generational shift underway in Minnesota, and in the last five years we successfully have moved out of that part of the past when Ole and Lena only went out once a year, on their wedding anniversary, for white foods and rolls. Now we have a sophisticated restaurant-going public delighted to stop off for an $18 bottle of Rioja on a rooftop deck accompanied by spicy chorizo in a port-wine-onion reduction for no reason whatsoever than that it's a Friday. It is a true social revolution. And no one has done more to make this happen, no one has put their money where their mouth is more than the Solera partners of Josh Thoma and Tim McKee, who headed out of the safe lands of predictable Italian restaurants half a decade ago, determined that if they made spicy, sophisticated, pan-Mediterranean cuisine and paired it with value-priced, little-seen European wines, the public would follow. We did!

They had faith in us, and we repaid it by making their Stillwater restaurant, La Belle Vie, the toast of the state. They repaid our faith again by bringing a shuttered downtown Minneapolis building back to life, filling it with the most talented young chefs and front-of-the-house people in the state and producing adventurous, accessibly priced Spanish tapas. We repaid them by flocking to the building for beers and sausages, or cavas and octopus. They never dumbed it down, they never pandered, they presented us with adventure and value, and they are succeeding wildly. Am I happy now, now that I can't even get in the place on a Friday night? Yes, I really am. (Solera, 900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.781.6042; www.solera-restaurant.com)


Heartland: Actually, I have noticed that this story is almost all Minneapolis. St. Paul, I am sad to be the one to inform you that y'all are just not pulling your weight lately, restaurant-wise. In fact, without Zander, Frost's, Heartland, or the Southeast Asian community, you barely have a restaurant scene these days. I know, I know, you all are busy raising children, cooking family meals, and you think you're playing the sensible ant to Minneapolis's profligate grasshopper, but at some point being prudent and thrifty starts to bleed into denying the grandeur of your community and creation. I mean, y'all should think about getting out sometimes and living a little.

For instance, chef and owner Lenny Russo is doing magical things with Midwestern ingredients in little Heartland, showcasing the grandeur of the creation we live within with beautifully imagined menus. A recent one featured Minnesota lamb tartare with a fennel salad dressed with Canadian ice-wine vinaigrette; a grilled Michigan whitefish in a wild mushroom broth with a black walnut pistou (like a pesto); and a dark chocolate cognac pâté with cassis-poached Seckel pear, sumac butter cake, caramel sauce, and toasted wild Ohio black walnuts. If you feel like it's immoral to spend money on frivolities like going out to dinner, please note that you can have a vegetarian three-course dinner here for $25 and a great bottle of wine for less than $30. Hey, part of the reason we live is to appreciate the glories around us, right? And St. Paul, use 'em or lose 'em. (Heartland;1806 St. Clair Av., St. Paul, 651.699.3536; www.heartlandrestaurant.com)

That's it for now! Stay tuned, because next week I'll let loose with the best dishes of the year, and there will be tons of surprises--and not even one tiny bit of pandering.

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Le Meridien Minneapolis

601 First Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403



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