"I'm kind of an Alice Waters type, I guess." Lisa Hanson, chef/owner of Mona, is talking about the fresh, seasonal produce that comes through the door, and how treating it with respect, and just a few simple ingredients, is going to yield the best possible result, as far as she is concerned.
But don't suggest that women chefs are more likely to bypass culinary tinkering. When I do, she bristles visibly. "I wholeheartedly disagree."
See also: Mona: The Tour[jump]
That tinkering might just look a little different. She does't think she needs cans of Co2 or an immersion blender to bump her dishes outside of the realm of ordinary and edge them into the memorable yet comforting column. Her restaurant dreams have been subject to the demands of her market, and like any good businessperson, she's followed the tide. Mona is tucked deeply into the Accenture Tower, a gray office building in a far-flung stretch of downtown where gray building after gray building combine to make a boring, grey Gotham cityscape. No matter how many times I dine at Mona, my mind's eye can never remember where, exactly, it is.
And it isn't fair, because enter, and all gray is left behind and the warmth of a casual urban bistro envelops like walking out of fluorescent and into candlelight. Hanson says she knows it's not sexy to eat in an office building, but she's become a touchstone for the people of that building, keeping them well satiated at lunch and wet at happy hour (her patio has 70-plus seats and she's planning on doubling that), and they count on her quite sincerely for both. She's probably adding breakfast soon, as yet another service to the building. Call it the world's most gourmet cafeteria, if cafeterias served baked carrot Alaska or shrimp on brioche.
She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York City's Hyde Park and then went on to work at Robuchon, the eponymous NYC restaurant of the most Michelin-starred chef in the world. This is no tiny thing. It is here where she developed her chops, and she says that having returned to Minnesota, she's not encountered a single cook who could stand up to the rigors or pace of NYC cooking. "Well, maybe one."
Like any chef who dreams of opening her own place, she had notions of what she wanted to do -- lots and lots of dinner business and high creativity. But dinner just won't happen in that space.
"People come in here and say, 'This is awesome! We're totally going to bring like 30 people in here!' And it never happens."
So she's adjusted to savvy preparations that stealthily turn your favorites on their head, while still remaining approachable for the office set. Back to that tinkering: A grilled cheese gets pressed in the waffle machine with garlic béchamel and crushed potato chips inside. She cold smokes her oysters. Her risotto gets ground cashews. Simple things all, but clever simple things that make a big impact, like painting your toenails blue instead of pink. And there's no substitute for solid technique. "There are really no tricks to most of this stuff. But if you overcook it or undercook it, it will be gross."
Still, she says she can sometimes feel insecure. "I feel like the chef police are going to come through and say: 'You're in violation! It's too simple!'"
But its not, really. She's a native of Winona, Minnesota, and her Minnesota Nice is showing through. To wit: She wanted to put a pie on the menu. Simple, right? That pie: duck confit, lentils, leeks, foie gras, and "the most epic pie crust."
So don't cry for her, and her "simple" food in the "strange" location.
"This is a successful restaurant. I make money."
But she's not all pragmatism. Why Mona?
"Mona comes from the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci! I thought since she is the woman with the mysterious smile, it might be a good name for my restaurant. I thought that since I only worked in one real restaurant in Minneapolis before I opened my own (Corner Table under Scott Pampuch) that there might be a bit of 'mystery' about me -- who is this woman opening her own restaurant and we have never heard of her?"
And if you haven't already, now is a good a time as any to get to know this mystery woman.
Bonus incentive: Happy hour goes all night! From 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday - Friday.