There's a very funny story in the October Gourmet magazine, written by New York City chef Dan Barber, about the mad lengths he went to when he believed he had the New York Times restaurant critic in his then-newly opened restaurant, Blue Hill. What kind of mad lengths? The maddest: filling the dining room with friends and family to exclaim over the food, putting together an improvised soup of that morning's farmers'-market asparagus, cutting into a just-caught halibut to snare the fattest belly cut, wrapping the menus in factory-fresh menu covers, and more.
This story was particularly hilarious to me, because just last month I had a lengthy email exchange with another critic I know, during which we mused over when anonymity is helpful and when it isn't. I mean, I'm all for anonymity; I use it daily. Like most American food critics, I visit restaurants anonymously, fully armed with pseudonymous credit cards, pseudonymous reservations, a caller-ID blocking phone, and, when absolutely necessary, wigs. Still, most of the time all of this is completely unnecessary. Why? Because very, very few restaurants have a fresh halibut in the kitchen, have a staff that knows how to cut it, or could tell the belly cut from a rerun of 30 Rock. What they do have is a frozen, Cryovacked, pre-portioned slab of protein and a jar of balsamic vinegar-based salad dressing to cook it in.
In fact, most critics I know feel reasonably certain that, with a solid chunk of the restaurants out there, you could send an engraved invitation announcing your visit, and you could arrange for chef Joel Robuchon himself to fly in on a gilded steed to assist in the cooking, and here's what would happen: For three hours the head chef would argue with Chef Robuchon about why no one can afford to make their own salad dressing, why the best possible sauce for chicken is a reduction of Mrs. Butterworth, soy sauce, and jam, and why there's really no difference between a cheesecake from Sam's Club and a homemade one.
That's all that would happen. I swear it.
Meanwhile, outside of a very few sushi bars, no one—not the customer, not the critic, not anybody—really gives a flying fig about center belly cuts of anything. Let's be real, most nights all you care about is the opportunity to have tasty food at a price you want to pay, served by people who are nice to you. Right? Right. Is that so hard? Of course it is. So this week I pay tribute to two very different new restaurants, which, while I wouldn't recommend anyone drive across town for, serve the needs of their different communities beautifully.
The first is Via, the new restaurant just south of Southdale on France Avenue in Edina. The first time I went to Via, for lunch, the entrance to the restaurant was blocked by a pack of women so identical to one another that one half-expected the narrator from the Westminster Dog Show to chime in: "The judge will be looking at key characteristics of the breed including a motionless Botox forehead, Pilates-enhanced hindquarters, and a minimum of three carats of white or pink diamond between elbow and first knuckle; approved coat colors include ash, tawny, and even strawberry blond...." They were examining the big, glossy urn that stood beside Via's front door, and discussing whether it was too much, or something to run inside and find the source of.
Oh, you think I'm too cynical? Well, it's been said that cynics are people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, and really it's all I can cling to when confronted with so very many people who know the price of everything and can write you a check.
In any event, once I got inside I was saddened by all the choices I've made in my life that prevent me from lunching at Via while complaining about my cat's acupuncturist: This place is easy on the eyes, entirely competent, and, across the board, thoroughly appealing. The space once housed a Pizzeria Uno, but I didn't detect even a whiff of the former tenant: Now it's all Casablanca tones of cinnamon and gold silk, sparkling chandeliers, French techno, outdoor fire pits, and, generally, pure, spacious, buzzy chic.
The kitchen delivers food that isn't particularly groundbreaking, but is uniformly likable. Cracker-crusted pizzas, called "brick-oven flats," are a highlight. For these the restaurant stretches a pizza crust till it's as thin and taut as a drum skin, decorates it with toppings, and cooks it at high heat in a brick oven until the crust is crisp as candy and the toppings fuse into a cheery burst of high-impact flavor. My favorite was the version made with little nubs of fennel sausage, slices of kalamata olive, and tangy Chèvre ($11); each square of the pizza was robust, strongly flavored, and lively.
A big platter of fresh-made potato chips ($5) was decadent and fun; the chips are so thin you could practically see through them and so crunchy that they snap between your teeth, though they don't crunch much once you pile them high with creamy spoonfuls of chive-flavored sour cream or a gentle roasted-corn pico de gallo. I did think Via's coconut rock shrimp ($11) could stand a little more coconut flavor in the batter, and I also thought the house spring rolls needed a lighter sauce than the accompanying sweet black bean one. However, these missteps were offset by positives such as a mellow Caesar salad ($8) featuring a nice, light, but appropriately bold dressing on large fresh leaves of Romaine. I could see how this hearty yet pretty version could become a local favorite.
The house burger ($13) is another winner: Tender Kobe beef is well seared, paired with your choice of cheese, stuffed into a perfectly tender bun, and served beside a generous pile of French fries that seem to be cut from uncommonly long potatoes that are fried till they're dark and caramel-tinged. The lunch-only house club sandwich ($12) was, oddly enough, one of my favorite things at Via: The kitchen takes fresh turkey, chops it up, dresses it, and stuffs gobs of the resulting moist turkey salad into a double-decker stack of wheat bread with lots of good bacon. It's not that there's anything flashy or pioneering about this turkey club, but it's comfort food with integrity, which I both respect, and, like anyone, crave.
At dinner the kitchen aims a little higher, and doesn't always hit the mark: A halibut fillet with lemon marmalade ($26) was jarringly sweet, though the accompanying haricots verts, fingerling potatoes, and little golden tomatoes were nicely fresh, and seasoned with refreshing restraint. Still, the majority of Via's entrees are solid, likable standbys like roast chicken ($18), a New York strip steak served with a red wine reduction ($32), and baked rigatoni with meatballs ($13), all of which are remarkably difficult to find in Edina at this price point.
The desserts are cheery and well made: A disc of mint ice cream enrobed in dark chocolate ganache ($8) is friendly as a child's smile and as unpolluted with ambition. An apple cinnamon brioche pudding ($8) tastes homemade and good.
Add a bouquet of amenities to this affable array of foods, and you have a restaurant you'd have to be incredibly crabby not to like. Amenities like what? Like a beautiful wine list featuring some of America's best producers. Like servers who are well trained, friendly, and quick. Like a $4.95 kids'-meal menu of scratch-cooking classics paired with fresh fruit juice or milk. Like a bunch of chef-made nonalcoholic drinks including house-brewed ginger ale. Like a killer-looking brunch menu (I didn't try it, and am so sad). Like the nicest patio in Edina, replete with multiple outdoor fire pits, fountains, patio warmers, a bar, and even complimentary cozy lap throws. Oh, did I mention acres of parking and a sexy, but civilized, bar scene? Sheesh. So you see why beautiful blondes are blocking the exits—Via is simply everything you want in a restaurant, minus the center-cut halibut belly, which I think we have established few people really want anyway.
Back in the city, new Gangchen is delivering a similarly likable, affordable package, although in a completely different idiom, at a completely different price point, to a completely different community.
The first few times I went to Gangchen I thought it was a Tibetan restaurant; after all, that's what the menu says, and the restaurant is the second project from the people who brought us the short-lived Uptown restaurant Tibet's Corner. However, if you thought as I did, you would be wrong: The 60-something-item menu has only a very few Tibetan dishes, and otherwise serves a hodge-podge of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai home cooking.
Even more difficult for anyone seeking to characterize Gangchen: It seems to take strong drinks of inspiration from neighborhood booze-heavy successes Red Dragon (Gangchen offers super-potent cocktails and frequent two-for-one happy hours) and Azia (Gangchen has Azia's signature cranberry curry and cranberry cream-cheese puffs). So what is this place: fish, fowl, Thai, neighborhood mimic, or what? After a bunch of visits, I decided that it really is a rare bird: It's a home-cooking, small-town kind of good, unassuming restaurant that happens to make tom yum and sweet-and-sour soup instead of chicken-and-dumpling and beer-cheese soup. Does that make any sense? I hope so.
The idiosyncrasy in Gangchen's offerings stems from the fact that the chef at Gangchen is not the old one from Tibet's Corner, but was hired away from Azia's sister restaurant Kinh-Do. Which means that the cranberry curry ($8.99 with tofu or mock duck; $9.99 with shrimp, scallops, squid, or chicken) is a standup version—sweet, tart, a little fiery, and, next to some two-for-one beers (before 7:00 p.m. every night, or after 10:00 p.m.), a complete crowd-pleaser.
I usually don't care too much about generic Chinese food, but I thought certain versions of certain dishes at Gangchen were very good: The egg drop soup, for instance ($2.99 for a dinner-sized bowl, $4.99 for a tureen), was fresh and almost ethereally light, brightened with fresh scallions, and deepened with a bit of ground chicken. I've already instructed my loved ones that the next time I get sick, that's the takeout for me.
The Chinese hot-and-sour soup ($2.99/$4.99) is made with lots of fresh and dried mushrooms and plenty of tofu; when I had it, it tasted homemade, robust, and not at all too tart or fiery. I really, really wished I knew how to make it. A chicken tom yum soup ($3.99/$6.99) was likewise fresh, clean, and good; it lacked the subtlety of the greatest versions in Minneapolis, but it also costs less, and is served in such a mellow, unhurried, chill neighborhood spot that I'm sure it's going to become a favorite of everyone in Stevens Square and Loring Heights.
There is one dish worth traveling to Gangchen for, namely, the momo ($8.99), those traditional steamed Tibetan dumplings. They offer three different versions of momo here: pork, beef, and chicken. I actually like the chicken best; for these, chewy half-moons of pasta are folded around lightly oniony and herbal ground chicken, the crescents steamed till they glisten. The beef ones are fierce and gamy, and stand up well to the red-chile oil that comes with them. The pork ones are sweet and chubby, and as good as any pot sticker in town. Every version of the momo is hearty, chewy, rib-sticking, and good; they're all served with a simple carrot-cabbage pickled salad. Any fan of Ukrainian, Polish, or Russian food is particularly instructed to try these momo; you'll be amazed at the thread connecting Tibetan food with those seemingly unrelated cuisines.
The Tibetan special Tenthu is another remarkably Slavic-seeming dish that is delicious: Thick, handmade wheat noodles are combined with broth, cabbage, greens, and your choice of tofu, seafood, or meat ($7.99 to $9.99); the result is homespun, hearty, and good. Too bad no one knows about the restaurant but me: On two of my visits to Gangchen, my guests and I were the only people in the place. "Do you think people would come here instead of the Red Dragon if they knew how solid the food is?" I asked one of my friends. "I think a nuclear bomb could drop on the Red Dragon and people would drive in from Dinkytown to drink Fog Cutters in the glassy crater," he answered. Oh, right.
Well, someone out there has to like this place. Competency, good food, and value are not so easily done that we can afford to squander them when we find them in our midst.
Via Café & Bar
6740 France Ave. S., Edina
Gangchen Bar & Restaurant
1833 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
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