How easy is it to have an eating adventure in the Twin Cities?
In the name of learning something new, I tested our boundaries this week, vowing to try something new from every menu I encountered. Not necessarily because it sounded delicious (though it sometimes turned out to be) but because it sounded different.
Some were better than others. All turned out to be worth a shot.
Here they are:
Fermented squid from Origami
The delightful and criminally underpriced happy hour menu at local sushi juggernaut Origami is hiding an undersung secret: the adventure points menu.
Direct your attention to a few dishes that go way beyond spicy tuna rolls and chicken wings to things like raw octopus, or cured squid with spiced cod caviar.
When we ordered the shiokara, our server politely tried to gently nudge us away from what the menu describes as fermented squid with malted rice. (Don't worry, waiter: I like fermented things and malted things!)
Wikipedia describes shiokora thusly:
“Various marine animals that consist of small pieces of meat in a brown viscous paste of the animal's heavily salted, fermented viscera. The raw viscera are mixed with about 10% salt, 30% malted rice, packed in a closed container, and fermented for up to a month. . . . One of the best-known chinmi ("rare tastes"), it is quite strong and is considered something of an acquired taste even for the native Japanese palate.”
And here comes the best part: “One method of enjoying it is to consume the serving at one gulp and to follow it with a shot of straight whisky.”
Helpful advice, that, and something our server neglected to mention.
The texture was slippery, and the flavor was “peppery” in a way that you don’t really want something to be peppery. A taste sensation not soon forgotten.
1354 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis
Kushari from Zait and Zatar
This carb-bomb has street food written all over it, with its mishmash of seemingly disparate ingredients. Combined, they make for a wackadoo dish that may not be for everyone, but could certainly come in handy while drunk, short of cash, or on the eve of a marathon.
The kushari is a mashup of rice, macaroni, chickpeas, lentils, and fried onions topped with red sauce, plus a container of green sauce so good you'd consider eating it off an old shoe.
The Egyptian street stall dish has various supposed historical origins, including from Indian and Italian influence on more traditional rice and pasta dishes. The explanation I like better: The pantry got full of lentils, rice, macaroni, chickpeas, and tomato sauce. At the end of the month, you throw it together, because it’s what you’ve got.
Who hasn’t been there?
1626 Selby Ave., St. Paul
Tofu pockets at Masu Sushi and Robata
If you’re in constant search of the sweet/salty yin-yang, look no further than the inarizushi at Masu. Actually a relatively common style of sushi in Japan (you can buy the skins at the grocery store and also locally at United Noodle), the more familiar nori gets swapped out for a flat tofu skin.
At Masu, the tofu wrapper is on the sweet side — they could easily double for a subtle desert if you’re not a sugar-bomb person. Inside, find sticky rice and a variety of changing fillings. Pickled plum with mint and sesame seeds is my favorite. (Pickled plum, by the way, is another noteworthy taste sensation to get at.)
Also excellent stuffed with assorted Japanese mushrooms, these are great options for those trying to avoid eating fish; if you're not, try it with snow crab.
Baby cucumbers in warm anchovy dressing from Bar Brigade
Pushing aside familiar “cool as a cucumber” comfort, Bar Brigade takes liberties with the common cuke. Instead of pickling or brining it to make it snappy, the kitchen bathes these beauties in a heavily garlicky, lightly fishy sauce that renders the veggies lightly tepid, making your brain question common notions of more customary reparation.
But it works. There’s a lot going on in this little dish, just as the bar itself packs a huge wallop into a diminutive but captivatingly lovely space.
470 Cleveland Ave., St. Paul
Taro root dumplings at Jun’s dim sum
Like many dim sum preparations, all the painstakingly executed layers and steps of these lead to little triumphs finished off in a bite or two. A crunchy deep-fried batter reveals a beautiful taro root dough beneath; under that, there's a sort of saucy chicken puree studded with black mushroom.
It’s a recipe that requires separate recipes within it (the meat gets a marinade). One write-up I read had the directive: “stay patient and remain organized.” Got it.
Or, head over to Jun, where they’ve just rolled out an all-day every-day dim sum menu prepared by a 35-year Hong Kong native, and an expert of the dim sum arts. This little morsel is supposedly difficult to find in even the finest Chinese restaurants, and we’ve got it right here, right now.
730 N. Washington Ave., Minneapolis