Best Twin Cities restaurants you haven't tried
As a rule, this column usually focuses on new restaurants — what's recently opened, what's fresh and hyped, what's hot right now. But what we've learned from leather jackets, fine scotches, and leftover chili is that newest doesn't always mean best. Yes, we're very lucky that our local scene is booming, and there's a seemingly unending list of up-and-coming restaurants to be excited about (currently Isaac Becker's Burch Steakhouse and Rincon 38, the semi-reincarnation of Cafe Ena, are on my personal list). Small breweries and taprooms are popping up everywhere from Roseville (Pour Decisions) to Northeast Park (612Brew) to St. Louis Park (Steel Toe's taproom is set to open this month). But this week we're taking a break from the world of grand openings and brand-new build-outs to take a second look at some places around the Twin Cities that we wouldn't call undiscovered but that are just tucked away enough that they don't always get the attention they deserve. Maybe this will encourage you to finally stop by that charming little place in your neighborhood that you've been meaning to try since you moved in ... five years ago.
This sushi spot near the U of M campus, next door to Mudsuckers Coffee shop, is a favorite of savvy students looking to stretch their dollar but who don't want to get shortchanged on choices or quality. The space inside is modest but comfortable, managing to be both a sanctuary in which to enjoy a slow-paced meal and, with its selection of Japanese beers and sake, an unexpected setting for a rollicking happy hour. I've never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a table, even at peak hours, a factor that always tips the scales when weighing a decision about where to go for impromptu weeknight dinner. Obento Ya's extensive menu offers sushi rolls (as well as nigiri and sashimi), bento boxes, robata (grilled skewered proteins like scallops, chicken thighs, meatballs, and filet mignon), izakaya (snacks and small plates like dumplings, fried eggplant, tempura, and saute of burdock root), and steaming udon, soba, and ramen noodle bowls — so satisfying, especially during this cold snap. (1510 Como Ave. SE, Minneapolis; 612.331.1432; obento-ya.com)
It's been around for more than a decade, but for whatever reason this diminutive bistro in the Diamond Lake neighborhood has stayed somewhat under the radar. It's definitely suitable for a pre-event nibble (I'd suggest the fried olives stuffed with blue cheese or the sheep's-milk cheese covered with raisin-curry chutney) and a glass of wine, but First Course is even better for date night, particularly because the date avoids the overcrowded, expensive-to-park Uptown and downtown areas of Minneapolis. The eclectic menu at First Course reveals a predilection for combining sweet and savory on one plate, and the chef is especially skilled at pairing fruits with meats, such as the spicy pork chop with a blueberry-pear relish and the seared duck with sour cherry sauce. There are also a handful of rich pasta dishes, lovely seasonal preparations of seafood (the halibut with vanilla and wild mushrooms is a particularly good example of hearty and delicate balanced on one plate), and a rather tasty tres leches cake. (5607 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.825.6900; firstcoursebistro.com)
Starched white tablecloths and sticky barbecue ribs generally don't go together, but at this charming restaurant near the St. Thomas campus, the half or full racks are a must-order. Due to lease issues, the cafe was briefly forced to close a few years back, but bolstered by the support of pork fanatics and other regulars, the restaurant was quickly revived and came back stronger than ever. The food — tried-and-true, meat-and-potatoes type fare (save for a few global-inspired dishes like duck samosas and Thai braised pork) — is consistently good, but the ambiance is really what makes 128 Cafe worth seeking out. The two dining rooms, full of dark wood detail, are cozy and relaxed, making dinner here feel like you're eating at a friend's lovely historic home. The roasted garlic appetizer with apple chutney — soft, sweet, and spreadable — has become one of the restaurant's signatures. Between the centuries-old building, well-priced wine list, and the light food coma that only ribs can provide, by the end of the evening you'll wish 128 Cafe was a bed and breakfast. (128 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul; 651.645.4128; 128cafe.net)
Having opened in the late '80s, the Barbary Fig is another good example of a local restaurant that has survived while so many others have struggled, and yet it doesn't always get the recognition it deserves. However, unlike some of the other overlooked places on our list, Barbary Fig enjoys a prime piece of real estate, on St. Paul's Grand Avenue. Still, there's a lot to compete with along this busy stretch: Brasa, Salut, and Punch Pizza, to name a few. You may be most tempted to make a reservation for dinner, and you should. Go and enjoy puff pastry stuffed with scallion and tuna and served with spicy harissa for dipping, classic Moroccan chicken tagine, open-faced gyros, and very reasonably priced lamb specials. But longtime fans know that Barbary Fig is also great for brunch, when chef Brahim Hadj-Moussa serves decadent pear-and-chocolate crepes, spanakopita with tomato chutney, and scrambled eggs with caramelized onions and merguez sausage. It's an awesome and flavorful break from the old Sunday-morning pancakes-and-omelettes routine. (720 Grand Ave., St. Paul; 651.290.2085; barbaryfigrestaurant.com)
Linden Hills is home to so many fabulous restaurants it's easy for a place like Trattoria Tosca to get lost in the shuffle. But the next time you're in the neighborhood, make it a point to skip over the newer hot spots and you'll be handsomely rewarded in the form of perfect homemade pasta. Connected to the Turtle Bread at West 44th Street and Beard Avenue, Trattoria Tosca has served as the training grounds for a handful of chefs who went on to make their own mark on the Twin Cities dining scene, including Ian Gray of Gray House (this is where that ham hock and fig tortelle was first born), Adam Vickerman of Cafe Levain (Trattoria Tosca has been called the Italian version of Levain), and Landon Schoenefeld of Haute Dish. In addition to the aforementioned pastas like orecchiette with lemon mascarpone, bucatini with pancetta, and pappardelle with lamb sugo and Swiss chard (all available by the half and full order for sampling and sharing), you'll find small plates celebrating ripe and bountiful produce (think beet carpaccio) and gorgeous preparations of duck, chicken, and fish. Though the plates coming out of this kitchen often showcase impressive technique, the overall approach is simple and seasonal. The best food always is. (3415 W. 44th St., Minneapolis; 612.924.1900; trattoriatosca.com)
Tucked away in a charming nook of Prospect Park, Signature Cafe may have been quietly operating for over 10 years in this same historic building, but it is certainly keeping up with the times on its menu. Signature is not only committed to local and organic ingredients, it is also very accommodating to diners with dietary restrictions, and on Tuesday nights it hosts a whole gluten-free dinner. Wednesdays feature half-price bottles of wine, and for the underagers who still want to feel a little fancy, Signature has not-too-sweet house-made sodas in flavors like ginger orange and pink guava. Other nights of the week you'll find homey dinner specials ranging from pot roast with mashed potatoes and broiled chicken breast, as well as more finely tuned plates like ginger-glazed scallops and slow-roasted duck leg confit. (130 SE Warwick St., Minneapolis; 612.378.0237; signaturecafe.net)
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