Best Dishes of 2007
I feel like a teenager. Every December when I look back at the year in Twin Cities food, I can conjure an emotion that more or less captures the past 12 months, whether it's: Wow or ho-hum or almost! This year? This year is different. First, there was the roller-coaster aspect. Let's review: We kicked off with the nuclear obliteration of Minneapolis's fine-dining scene. (And no, I'm not going to write one more sentence on the tragic closings of Restaurant Levain, Auriga, and Five, because I have it on good authority from several readers that if I do they will cut my throat while I sleep.) We ended with the near-obliteration of St. Paul's fine-dining scene. (Argue among yourselves as to whether Fhima, Café Margaux, and Au Rebours closed because of business errors or character flaws of individual St. Paul diners.)
In between there were fits and starts of something hopeful: At first, the new Bulldog in Northeast looked to be the great hope of the future, as they were plating bar food to swoon over. That imploded in the Great Mustard Fight of '07, betwixt bartender and chef, which led to the chef's firing, and, in this critic's opinion, Bulldog's quick recession from something phenomenal to something merely very good, which, in a town of great bar burgers (including but in no way limited to Ike's, Vincent, and the St. Paul Grill), doesn't mean all that much. The young chef in question, Landon Schoenfeld, landed at Café Barbette in Uptown, which at the time I thought was a match made in heaven, but, as of this writing, he's off again. Speaking of unsatisfying, so it went at downtown Minneapolis's Harry's Food and Cocktails, which, when it started life as the new home of chef Steven Brown, late of Levain, looked like it would be the gastro-pub that would reestablish Minneapolis. Fast-forward several months, and Brown is now head of the fine-dining restaurant Porter & Frye in the Ivy Hotel, which looks like it will re-establish Minneapolis on strong fine-dining footing—but now not till February of '08. And how is Harry's? Not currently ready for prime time: I went last week and most everything I had was underseasoned within an inch of its life.
Speaking of restaurants not-quite-ready-for-prime-time, that's about all we've got right now. All the restaurants that look to be the great hope of the Twin Cities' dining future either just, just opened, or haven't quite: Stuart Woodman opened Heidi's, his neighborhood fine-dining sequel to flame-out Five, and I've been once so far. The food was spectacular, but if the hosting and seating had been any more chaotic, all 40 of us in the room would have just sat on the floor and wept on one another's shoulders. It wasn't dissimilar at Mission American Kitchen, which, as of my last visits, had truly spectacular original cooking led by chef Doug Flicker, and a front of the house that all but prevented fine dining. Meanwhile, I stopped in at Meritage in its first few weeks, that being the St. Paul brasserie that has replaced Au Rebours, and they, too, are stumbling through opening-restaurant discombobulation: forgetting components of dishes, serving simple things overcooked, and so on. Jasmine 26, the fancy big sister to Eat Street favorite Jasmine Deli, seems promising, but whenever I've been, the owners impress upon every table that this incarnation is merely provisional, and that everything will change with the grand opening, now scheduled for late January of '08. Can't wait.
But: So it goes. It's all very adolescent. As I write this, I feel we are a food city with big ambitions and big, stumbling puppy feet on gangly, spindly puppy legs: We stutter, we sputter, we surge forward, we stumble, we blush, and we retreat. I take solace in the idea that an awkward adolescence is pretty much the prerequisite for a cool adulthood—but that don't mean it ain't painful. Still, in a painful, peculiar, and unresolved year, there were plenty of spectacular dishes, plenty of wonderful memories, plenty of grist for the mill. And, courtesy of my memory book, in no particular order, here are the best of the best:
1) Pheasant at Heidi's
My visit to Heidi's re-taught me two things: One, Stewart Woodman is an amazing chef; and two, there is a point at which complications in seating can pretty much ruin a meal. (And no, don't ask me why I'm always surprised when I go to a just-opened restaurant and it acts like a just-opened restaurant.) In any event, if you don't know, Heidi's is the tiny, long-anticipated south Minneapolis restaurant by Stewart and Heidi Woodman. Stewart was once the opening sous chef at New York City's Essex House by Alain Ducasse, and later the opening chef of Restaurant Levain and Five. His own little jewel-box of a restaurant opened in November, and the food is nothing short of spectacular. There was a poached pheasant breast in a clove-touched pheasant jus paired with cauliflower and arugula ($19), which was like nothing I've ever had, and that's saying a lot. The pheasant itself was as tender as flower petals, the jus smoky and rich, the cauliflower and arugula contributing unexpected notes of acid and flint. Amazing stuff. I can't wait to try more. Heidi's, 819 W. 50th St., Minneapolis, 612.354.3512; www.heidismpls.com.
2) Tasting menu at Mission
My meals at Mission this past fall were all over the map (see full review in CP 11/07/07). Yet, when I look back in my little mind, the tasting meal of one Saturday night shines and beckons to me: If you could relive one meal of the year, wouldn't this be the one? Yes, Mind, I answer, and since I've got you on the line, where exactly is the spare set of house keys? But then I find my Mind is unresponsive, again dwelling on that magical Saturday: a king crab souffle like some kind of cream-salt vapor reaching up from the ocean depths; squab as scarlet as berries, as deep and winy as Port made flesh; spaghetti with a pigeon Bolognese as earthy and rich as a whole forest; foie gras thrumming with the freshest, most elemental notes of iron and butter—what a night, what a night! Mission American Kitchen, 77 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis, 612.339.1000; www.missionamericankitchen.com.
3) Scallops at Grand Café Minneapolis
High on my list of restaurants to watch is the Grand Café Minneapolis (the former Bakery on Grand.) This is because chef Jon Radle, formerly a cook at Auriga, La Belle Vie, Corner Table, and many others, took over in August and has been slowly rolling out his own menus, replacing ones I found decidedly ho-hum. Radle tells me he'll consider the restaurant truly ready for prime time in late January, when his sideman comes back from paternity leave, and frankly, I can't wait, as one dinner I had there has haunted me with its excellence. The highlight was four diver-caught scallops perfectly seared, presented on a bed of saffron-and-tomato risotto that was as evocative and bewitching as a melody heard over water. Grand Café Minneapolis, 3804 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.822.8260; www.grandcafempls.com.
4) So much at La Belle Vie
I field a lot of reader requests looking for the best restaurant in town for an engagement, major birthday, anniversary, gift certificate for the parents, and whatnot, and lately my answer feels like a skipping broken record: La Belle Vie, La Belle Vie, La Belle Vie. What can I say? It seems like the only place in town these days that has service to match the food. In my experience, servers there roll about on silent wheels, meeting your needs before you even know you have them. I love that. Does it sound like I'm damning the food by praising the service? I don't mean to—the food remains nothing short of spectacular. And here's a hot tip: Did you know the lounge offers a $40-per-person tasting menu? It's true. They've been doing it all year now, and when I dropped in to try it, I was blown away. There was a gorgeously clear and dark pheasant consommé with foie gras agnolotti and a darling poached quail egg; sautéed skate with roasted beets, blood orange, and black olive; a grilled beef fillet with Jerusalem artichokes, porcini mushrooms, and a beautifully gelatinous and silky oxtail marmalade; and, for dessert, lemon-scented financier (a light French pastry) with blood-orange curd, mascarpone sorbet, and candied kumquats. Add a supplemental wine flight for $25. This is just the sort of opulent but not bank-breaking splurge that these days of constant mortgage crisis call for. La Belle Vie, 510 Groveland Ave., Minneapolis, 612.874.6440; www.labellevie.us.
5) Just about everything in the wine bar at Heartland
I entertain visiting restaurant critics and super-power foodies pretty often over the course of a year, and I've noticed two things: One, they always want to go to 112 Eatery. (Which I ate at four or five times this year, and, frankly, I find it less than it was when it opened. Am I just poisoned by opening memories? It's not like there's anything wrong with it, it's just that all year I find the place superior but never spectacular. Maybe I'm just ordering wrong. I don't know. It's probably me, not them.) And two, I always want to show off the wine bar at Heartland, which I find nothing short of spectacular, and spectacularly reliable. One unforgettable bunch of appetizers featured a house-made duck breast prosciutto that had a salty, gossamer-berry intensity; a hedgehog-mushroom wild rice soup that tasted like everything I love about shade-saturated Minnesota wild lands, focused to a laser-like intensity and shot through with cream; and smoked lamb ribs so meaty, so big-flavored, so intense and pleasurable I wanted to pound my fist on the wine-bar counter in satisfaction with just how show-offable the great foods of the upper Midwest really are. Heartland Restaurant, 1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul, 651.699.3536; www.heartlandrestaurant.com.
6) Pasta with wild boar at Broders' Pasta Bar
When I asked readers for their recommendations for the most essential, can't-miss restaurants for an ongoing project, one answer came thundering in: Broders', Broders', Broders'! Well, thank you, readers, because were it not for your letters I would have missed one of the best pasta dishes of my life, namely the "Fettuccine con cinghiale": soft, silky house-made fettuccine topped with staggeringly concentrated, spoonably soft bits and shreds of wild boar cooked with porcini mushrooms, chestnuts, and caramelized onions. Mmm, it was like eating the atmosphere in a Brothers Grimm fairytale: big, dark, wild, unknowable, irresistible. Broders' Pasta Bar, 5000 Penn Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.925.9202; www.broders.com.
7) Beef ribs at Big Daddy's
When I got my beef ribs at the outdoor barbecue stand on the corner of University and Dale in St. Paul last summer, I waited about 20 minutes. Plenty of you wrote in to tell me that my article bumped that wait up by about two full hours, and for that I am deeply sorry. Still, I'd be lying if I said those beef ribs weren't some of the best I've ever had in my whole, entire, barbecue-saturated life: beefy like pot roast distilled to its most intense possible super-beef-guise, fatty and gelatinous and devourable like nothing else. Are they even out there this late in the winter? I put in some phone calls to the Big Daddy crew, and hallelujah, yes they are! They've taken over over the the former Abundant Bistro space next to their parking lot, and are cooking outside and delivering the gorgeous goods to customers who wait inside at warm, cozy tables. If you wrote in to tell me that you kept driving past the Big Daddy's tent but were intimidated by the lines, take heart, you've got all winter to get the ribs of the year, if not the decade. But the spot they're in is scheduled for demolition in July of '08, so you snooze, and you just might really lose. Big Daddy's: The Giants of Outdoor Cooking, 651.276.3101.
8) Roast pork at Brasa
If I was going to name the Most Important restaurant of 2007 I'd probably crown Brasa, the quick-serve spot that renowned white-tablecloth chef Alex Roberts opened in northeast Minneapolis last summer. Why? Because I think Brasa is brilliantly forging a path for the future of Minnesota cuisine, showing a way that the best, most naturally fitting products of our local family farms (chickens, pork, veggies) can be minimally but brilliantly gilded for happy consumption by our great urban metropolis. However, since I'm not crowning Most Important, but Tastiest, I'll highlight this aspect of Brasa: Holy cow, do I love their roast pork! That 12-hour-roasted local Berkshire pork shoulder is just phenomenal: rich like fudge, spicy and salty enough that you want to eat it by the pound, real and elemental enough that eating it by the pound seems reasonable. And yes, I'm head over heels for their grits and cole slaw, too, thanks for asking. Brasa, 600 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.379.3030; www.brasa.us.
9) Whole flounder at Tea House 2
People keep asking me: So, which is the better Szechuan restaurant, Tea House, Tea House 2, or Little Szechuan? I honestly have no idea. As near as I can tell, they're all operating at extremely high levels of excellence, and which one is "better" falls to a dish-by-dish, hour-by-hour sort of how-many-angels-fit-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. It's out of the realm of criticism and into the realm of the personal. I will tell you who makes the best whole fried flounder in the history of Minnesota: That would be Tea House 2, up on the hill way east of downtown St. Paul. Called "sautéed filet flounder," the dish features little morsels of fried flounder filet served in a bowl made of the whole flounder itself. I know on paper that sounds a little gruesome, but it's actually delectable: tender, preciously light fish; crispy potato-chip bones. The stuff is only available when the flounder is fresh, and you'll only find it on their specials menu, but it's one of those rare dishes that's worth building your day around. And their juicy buns are no kidding, either. Tea House 2, 1676 Suburban Ave., St. Paul, 651.771.1790; www.ourteahouse.com.
10) Dan-Dan noodles and beef short ribs at Little Szechuan
But then if I was in a meaty or noodley mood, I'd always head to Little Szechuan: How I love their beef short ribs, their cumin lamb, their wonderfully numbing beef in spicy broth. And if a magical genie appeared in my house, there's a good chance my one wish might be for a never-empty container of leftover Little Szechuan dan-dan noodles in my refrigerator. Little Szechuan Chinese Cuisine, 422 University Ave. W., St. Paul; 651.222.1333; www.littleszechuan.com.
11) Pho at Ngon Bistro
When I had the beef pho at St. Paul's newest, nicest Vietnamese restaurant, Ngon Bistro, I thought their bowl of beef soup and noodles was the best in town, but half a year of actually tasting everyone else's pho in light of the Ngon pho has changed my mind: The Ngon pho isn't just the best in town, it's the best by a country mile. It's intensely rich and beefy brown, hauntingly spiced with warm notes of anise and all sorts of pepper, sweet and meaty with onions, light and bright with herbs. I'm hereby updating my opinion of the place: If you don't know Ngon, you don't know pho. Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, 799 University Ave., St. Paul, 651.222.3301.
12) Paradise duck at Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine
When I reviewed Lemon Grass, I couldn't decide which of its updates of traditional larb salad I liked better: Was it the crazy duck, which marries cold, roughly chopped duck with lots of mint, cilantro, lime juice, chile peppers, and, of course, traditional roast-rice powder? Or was it the paradise shrimp, made similarly, but so light, lively, and zesty? Absurdly, months later, I still can't decide. I do know that both those dishes stood out as some of the best of what was inarguably a very, very tasty year. Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine, 8600 Edinbourgh Center Dr., Brooklyn Park, 763.494.8809.
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