Five signs the Minneapolis restaurant scene is growing
It was a good year for eating, as Twin Cities kitchens in 2008 turned out one delicious dish after another. Some of my favorites highlighted the Midwest's best homegrown ingredients, such as Heartland's primal pork belly with cranberries and squash or Porter & Frye's riff on wild rice soup. Other delightful dishes didn't look or taste like Minnesota at all. A bright, gel-encased blob of blood orange juice could have just as easily been served in the Twilight Zone as at Cosmos.
This past year, adventurous eaters lapped up slices of once-wagging tongue at the 112 Eatery, while classicists inhaled the killer ginger cake at Nick and Eddie. From gooey cheese curds to gobi Manchurian, many dishes were worth going to great lengths to acquire—which right now involves piling on enough layers of clothing to rival the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and digging the car out of a snow bank.
Restaurateurs are bracing for a slow winter, but I think we have reason to be optimistic about making it through the upcoming months. Overall, the Twin Cities restaurant scene is diverse, exciting, and offers good value. Looking back at developments of the past year or so, there are several signs that the Twin Cities dining scene just keeps getting better.
Highbrow talent tackles humble fare
Minnesotans aren't known for their pretensions—we invented Spam, after all. Our top chefs don't sequester themselves in ivory kitchens or morph into product-endorsing, TV show-starring culin-ebrities. Catching up with three locals previously lauded as Food & Wine magazine's "best new chefs," we find that, today, they've made their talents more accessible, not less. Seth Bixby Daugherty started a nonprofit group, Real Food Initiatives, to bring more healthy foods into schools. Stewart Woodman opened a tiny neighborhood bistro called Heidi's, where everything on the menu costs less than $20. When Tim McKee moved his stunning La Belle Vie to Minneapolis, he retained the indulgent multicourse menus but added scratch-made bar fare for those with haute tastes and homemade-potato-chip budgets.
In the past few years we've seen several chefs with fine-dining pedigrees turn their attention toward diner fare (Town Talk) and Latin fast food (Brasa). This year, three others made their mark on even more modest cuisines: food cooked over campfires or served on the street. At the Lake House, Joan Ida, formerly of Triä and Goodfellow's, put a chef's spin on fish fry and s'mores. Ritz cracker-crusted crappie fillets tasted as delicate and sweet as a shore lunch—except they came with arugula and smoked-tomato aioli in lieu of a brewski. For dessert, a graham cracker crust topped with dark chocolate ganache and a homemade, flame-kissed marshmallow ruined me from ever enjoying the supermarket version again.
This summer, two Barbette/Spoonriver alumni, Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer, rolled out local, natural, fair-style fare straight from their gleaming white kitchen-trailer, Chef Shack. Carlson's bison burger packed enough punch to be eaten plain—though how could one resist the homemade ketchup, pickled vegetables, and sauerkraut? When followed by a sack of Summer's cardamom mini donuts or just-torched crème brûlée, indoor eating seemed highly overrated.
Ethnic goes upscale
While fine dining has perhaps scaled back, ethnic food appears headed in the opposite direction. In the recent past, local Mexican, Vietnamese, and Indian restaurants were no-frills, mom-and-pop-type operations that offered cheap, tasty eats and not a whole lot more. Recently, though, several ethnic eateries have upscaled the dining experience. Masa may have pioneered the trend, with its Nicollet Mall address, splashy decor, specialty cocktails, and polished service. Since then, we've seen several others follow a similar formula: Frogtown's elegant Ngon Bistro; Jasmine Deli's hipster sister, Jasmine 26; Dancing Ganesha's debut of haute Indian fare; plus the chic, Mexican-inspired eatery La Chaya. None of them really left the starting line with all cylinders firing, except perhaps for Barrio, the new Latin venture from Tim McKee and Josh Thoma. With time, I hope the others will create a more consistent dining experience that lives up to their venerable culinary traditions.
Restaurants reclaim historic spaces
How many cities can say they have a restaurant that operates in a gorgeous, impeccably restored, historic bank building? Well, Minneapolis now has not one but two—Bank and Max, each replete with marble columns, grand staircases, chandeliers, and vaulted ceilings. Restaurants can revive our most beautiful historic spaces by bringing them back into public purpose. This year, the 1870 Forepaugh's mansion in St. Paul received an influx of cash from its new owner, which should keep it looking great for decades to come. And the Foshay Tower transformed from depressing office space to urban gem with its posh hotel rooms and trendy restaurants. It's now home to Manny's, which might be the most important VIP restaurant in town, and my favorite new bar, the sky-high speakeasy Prohibition. The mahogany-lined cigar box was once the private study of the building's owner, Wilbur Foshay, but now anyone who buys a drink can enjoy its thrills. Sure, a restaurant's primary function is to feed us, but it doesn't hurt the city to have them as partners in historic preservation.
Taking eco-chic beyond the plate
Menus that highlight local, seasonal, or organic ingredients have become common enough to start sounding clichéd—and that's a good thing. Whole cadres of Twin Cities chefs have committed to conscientious shopping, and now a few restaurateurs are incorporating environmental considerations throughout their buildings—from the energy-efficient light bulbs in the lobby to the low-flush toilets in the restrooms. Kim Bartmann, of Bryant-Lake Bowl fame, opened Red Stag, the first restaurant in the state to meet the strict eco-requirements of LEED certification. Even small cafes, like Common Roots, are looking at their business decisions with a more holistic bent. At several local eateries diners can take leftovers home in biodegradable containers, or leave scraps on the plate knowing they'll head to the compost bin.
Hip neighborhood restaurants in underserved neighborhoods
I mean no offense by implying a lack of hipness in the Como, Victory, or Dayton's Bluff neighborhoods. I'm just saying that they tend to be sleepy residential spots, without much nightlife or commercial activity. (And that can be a good thing. Who wants to actually live in a hip neighborhood when you can never find parking and drunks pass out on your porch?) But these neighborhoods are now home to the food-forward eateries Obento-Ya, Sauced, and the Strip Club. Obento-Ya's bright little jewel box expanded our view of Japanese cuisine (sure, they serve sushi, but also little grilled skewers called robata) at university-student prices. Sauced, housed in an old 3.2 bar, brought contemporary bistro food and a nice wine list to an area mostly populated with diners, pizzerias, and sandwich shops. The cheeky steak joint the Strip Club revived a century-old building to serve retro cocktails and pasture-grazed meats and quickly became a neighborhood hangout.
St. Paul, often considered Minneapolis's shy sister in terms of its dining scene, has lost several restaurants in recent years—Fhima's, À Rebours, Margaux—but made a big comeback in late 2007 and 2008. The biggest coup was Meritage, former W.A. Frost chef Russell Klein's take on French-American bistro dining served in cute, Parisian-esque digs. Several of the west side's favorite weeknight-appropriate, family-friendly hangouts opened St. Paul branches, including Pop, Salut, and the Bulldog. I'm hoping 2009 will see St. Paul bring in more original concepts, like the Blue Door Pub and its mission to retool our indigenous burger, the Jucy Lucy. A little healthy competition never hurts.
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