Enlightened eating at Eat Street Buddha Kitchen
On a stretch of Nicollet renowned for its Asian dining options, a new Asian fusion restaurant has a lot to prove. Eat Street Buddha Kitchen, now open at the corner of 26th and Nicollet, holds its own — starting with its exceptionally polished service.
That's not to say the food didn't leave its own mark. But the timing of the courses, the explanation of the menu, cocktail suggestions, and general management of tables at ESBK made such a positive impression, it led to an in-depth discussion about the state of service at Twin Cities restaurants in general, and at new ones in particular. Of course, even the most experienced servers can end up in the weeds from time to time; we imagine many more diners return to a restaurant because of its fabulous food rather than its silver service. But with a place that positions itself in the fine dining market, should we have to choose?
The conversation had just gotten started as the first small plates were delivered. The flash-fried calamari served in a bowl-shaped wonton with napa cabbage and miso-lemon vinaigrette was crisp and well seasoned on the outside, thinly sliced but tender on the inside — a good litmus test for the rest of the seafood-slanted items on the menu. ESBK's chicken wings were impressively crispy, particularly seeing that they came slicked in a sweet sesame glaze. The Land and Sea spring rolls, which can be made vegetarian despite their moniker, were bound together with a delicate rice paper wrapper and stuffed with fresh herbs and such fat, sweet Key West shrimp that the under $10 price tag came as a surprise. The much-pushed curry-cranberry wontons were not a total miss — we never expect to have our souls stirred by a plate of cream cheese wontons — but they lacked the promised curry oomph and were more dessert-like than we look for in an appetizer.
The first round of food barely scratched the surface of what one page of ESBK's menu offers. Usually when you're presented with a big binder-like menu, it's a bad omen: Restaurants that try to do too much to please everyone often end up being too scattered to please anyone. But executive chef Grant Halsne seems to be managing the extensive menu exceptionally well, no doubt thanks in part to his tenure at both 20.21 at the Walker and Stella's Fish Cafe. The raw bar here brims with oysters, lobster claws, and all kinds of spiny critters; hard-to-find cuts in the sashimi section, including blue-fin tuna and fatty toro; traditional sushi rolls, like the perfectly ratioed rainbow roll made with a hefty heap of delicate crab and slivers of fish ranging from translucent to opaque; more experimental "Buddha Rolls" that had a tendency to be slightly overworked; and an option to do big, chef-created sharing platters of rolls and raw bar salads.
Whatever curry flavors were hidden in the aforementioned wontons surfaced loud and proud in several of the entrees. The stir-fried tofu, served with a rich yellow curry sauce, baby greens, and almost nutty florets of roasted cauliflower, created a nice contrast between the crisp, but not deep-fried, texture of the tofu and the silky sauce. It's a no-brainer order for visiting vegetarians, though if you don't eat fish, there isn't a whole lot else for you here. If you are a pescetarian, take this opportunity to go all in and order the elegant shellfish curry for your entree. It's a slender boat of steamed mussels, gently poached lobster meat, jumbo prawns, and seared scallops, all atop a bed of bok choy and savory, sweet coconut-based curry. It's like the Asian fusion version of cioppino, expect instead of sopping up the sauce with bread, here you gradually add in spoonfuls of fluffy rice to soak in the flavor. The only entree we questioned was the pepper-crusted big eye tuna, seared gently and served with wasabi mashed potatoes and a light blueberry-tinged sauce. Though each individual component worked well enough on its own, they made for odd bedfellows, especially matching the near-raw tuna with the hot and hearty mash.
With most every pocket of Asian cuisine (save for sushi, oddly enough) well represented along these few blocks of Nicollet, what reason is there to go here? Though the service and elegant presentation are compelling, and the juice bar-like cocktails, muddled with everything from fresh figs and snap peas to blackberries and peach preserves, are delicious, the tipping point here is brunch. That's right, brunch. ESBK's midday meal is convincing proof that all hollandaise sauce should be sriracha hollandaise sauce, and this spicy take on a decadent brunch staple is second only to ESBK's fantastic French toast dishes. Sure, they go pretty far off theme by having banana cream pie, berry-stuffed, and candied bacon French toast slabs — even for the catchall "East meets West" theme — but the toast is rich with flavor, and not weighted down with batter. It's thick, but still moist; sweet, but not overly so; and not covered in too many toppings. The Vietnamese crepe, stuffed with chicken and peppers, was a little like a dry breakfast fajita, and there's better Thai sausage to be had around the corner at Krungthep, but these are small quibbles in the grand scheme.
A more than worthy replacement for Azia, its Asian fusion predecessor, Eat Street Buddha Kitchen is most certainly the only place on Nicollet, and maybe in all of the Twin Cities, where on any given Sunday you can go and get stellar French toast while your friend orders equally good sushi. Maybe you never knew you wanted that all in one restaurant, but it's amazing what the power of suggestion will do to diversify your appetite. Even more amazing is how ESBK's house bloody Mary will kick-start your Sunday, simultaneously waking you up and mellowing you out. Isn't that exactly how the sages describe the state of total enlightenment? Huh, what a coincidence.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.