French onion soup at Normandy Kitchen
Few things are more comforting than classic French bistro cooking. The long simmered stocks, the lack of restraint with butter, the rich cuts of meat. And a perfect embodiment of that cooking is a simple and perfect French onion soup. Done right, there are no shortcuts, just long, slow simmering, and then more long, slow simmering, and then a fistful of cheese is dropped on a big crouton as if from a giant’s fist. Broiled until it has a sealed lid of cheese, this is one of the world’s most delicious ways of giving winter a lively middle finger.
405 S. Eighth St., Minneapolis
Bar snacks at Heyday
Hey, remember Heyday? It was the reddest-hottest restaurant of 2014. Food like nobody had quite seen around here — all charred and ashy and festooned with flowers and ices and, well, it was different. Really different. It had people getting breathless, and then it kind of went quiet. Why? The food is still all of those things, and here is a best-kept secret: They’re putting out lovely, inexpensive renditions of it in the bar. Oysters with lemon granita, great piles of thick, grainy bread with tangy butter, boudin blanc with hot mustard, slabs of lamb terrine served in sort of an open-faced sandwich-style with beautiful green blankets of herbaceous sauce. Get it all for a fraction of what you pay in the dining room. (Though you should plan some dining room meals, too, because we need to keep these restaurants around that are different enough to make us go all breathless.)
2700 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Relish plate at Mancini’s
Okay, you gotta buy a steak at Mancini's to get a relish plate, but it’s worth it. The old-school touch of sitting down to a table that’s already been dressed with a relish plate and a big basket of grilled bread and butter gives the impression that someone is really glad you’ve come. It’s also just the right way to begin a leisurely meal at this West Seventh institution. Reach across from your date and pluck another pickle or pepper off the plate while sipping a pre-dinner drink. Then an iceberg salad, a baked potato with packaged sour cream and butter, and a well-grilled steak complete the picture. These are the unchangeable touchstones that keep people coming back, in a world where everything else is all too frighteningly changeable.
531 W. Seventh St., St. Paul
Tacos by Mercado at Earl Giles
What do we love? Tacos! How do we love them? Any way we can get them! Mercado at Earl Giles has a new way for you to get them: in an apartment lobby. If that doesn’t sound appealing, consider that this place is fast-casual, so it’s almost, almost like a taqueria. Tacos, tortas, and a few brunch items are all they do, and they do them well. (They also mix up a mean margarita.) Tacos are just the way we like them, on double corn tortillas, with a restrained number of ingredients treated with care. Shrimp were nicely al dente in garlic butter, topped with slaw and a crema zinged up with Crybaby Craig’s hot sauce. And plus, because it’s an apartment, you can bring your dog. That should sweeten the deal significantly for the vast section of the Twin Cities that loves tacos and dogs.
2904 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Seafood cocktail at the Lexington
If you’ve had one shrimp cocktail, you’ve had all of them. Jumbo shrimp, little ones, al dente ones, water-logged ones — a shrimp dipped in a spicy red ketchupy sauce is a shrimp dipped in a spicy red ketchupy sauce. But in the Yucatan area of Mexico, chilled seafood treats like aquachile are always just a little bit different. They're made with the day's freshest catch, plus a lot of lime and a little chile, and whatever else is inspiring to the chef — maybe cilantro, onion, a little olive oil. The Lexington has boldly nudged the overly familiar shrimp cocktail out of the picture in favor of something more original, something more Yucatan. Standard (but delicious) cocktail sauce and saltines are still served on the side like a comforting security blanket. Relax. You're still getting shrimp cocktail and it’s all going to be okay.
1096 Grand Ave., St Paul