"Is there a block party happening tonight or something?" my dining companion wondered aloud as we approached what looked like a human barricade outside the Harriet Brasserie, a new French restaurant with a Brazilian accent that has quickly made its home in the former Cafe Twenty Eight space. "Because I'm ready to eat some delicious meats, and I don't want any of those meats to be a hot dog," she said.
Well, knowing the level of culinary talent on display in the Harriet Brasserie's kitchen, including chef Alain Lenne, the charming workhorse behind La Belle Crepe, and chef Fernando Silvo, the dynamo who spent years perfecting his techniques at French Meadow Bakery, I assured her we would be transcending hot dog territory.
We had arrived ravenously hungry and a touch queasy from the circuitous roads one must navigate to score parking in Linden Hills, and were surprised to find a flock of people milling about, chatting, drinking wine, and waiting for a table. The sight of would-be diners swirling tempranillo around oversized glasses should have been our first clue, since we knew the Harriet Brasserie had not yet obtained its liquor license, but the fact that, at 8:45 on a weeknight, everyone looked so prepared, serene even, in the face of what appeared to be an interminable wait was the vowel that helped us solve the puzzle. Oh, yes, the Brasserie's next-door neighbor is Tilia, a restaurant that seems to have avoided the usual slings and arrows that come with overexposure and still draws droves of diners willing to brave a no-reservations policy in the name of paying less than 20 bucks for a plate of braised beef cheeks. I don't blame them, of course, but make no mistake: The Harriet Brasserie should not be treated as Tilia's waiting room. It isn't just a runner-up in the competitive world of top-notch neighborhood hideaways. Silvo, Lenne, and the rest of their crew have managed to get all of their global influences to mingle beautifully. Some of the dishes merit careful contemplation, while others are just asking to be inhaled.
It is bold to call yourself a brasserie before you're open for dinner or are able to serve wine or beer. After all, the French word brasserie means brewery, and in France the authentic ones are open from breakfast to dinner, seven days a week. Harriet Brasserie started with just brunch and lunch and, though they were allowing BYOB for a spell, nothing in the way of spirits. So maybe it isn't going to deliver a perfectly manicured French brasserie experience, in which you dine on sole meuniere, oysters, and blanquette de veau, but it is doing its own take on other classics like steak tartare, replacing the beef with finely chopped bison. It's lean, rich, and just a little chewy — absolutely the right density and texture to contrast the sturdy piece of smoky grilled baguette and the almost tangerine-colored pheasant egg yolk that accompany it. Feel free to smear on a touch of the garlicky remoulade and pulverized jalapeños, but this is really the sort of thing that is best unadulterated. I mean, as long as you're into raw meat.
Other overt nods to the restaurant's French roots include a daily-changing charcuterie-and-cheese plate, steamed mussels bolstered by the strong Asian flavors of cilantro, ginger, and sambal oelek (a simple hot chile paste), and steak au poivre, which expresses its rebellious streak in the form of an aggressively herbaceous chimichurri, drizzled over perfectly cooked skirt steak and garlic fried rice.
Similarly, a few South American dishes take the direct approach, while others veer more toward an off-road adventure. The coxinha (teardrop-shaped dumplings filled with spiced shredded chicken and fried in the fashion of a croquette) don't stray far from the traditional Brazilian recipe, except that they include a little French infusion via some Brillat-Savarin, which is a triple-cream Brie cheese. There's also a bauru, Brazil's version of a torta, which would make an ideal quick lunch. Theirs has a thin, pounded piece of steak, tomato, onion, mozzarella, and plenty of aioli. Most of the seemingly Italian dishes on Harriet Brasserie's menu still have strong ties to Brazilian cuisine, since Brazil's large population of Italian immigrants introduced gnocchi, lasagna, and other pasta dishes. A striking example here is the homemade fresh pappardelle with guanciale, peas, and wild mushrooms. Though guanciale, an Italian cured but unsmoked bacon, is generally made from pig's jowls, our server tells us the type they use has a "bit more of the pig's head in there." His description may sound a little crass, but it follows suit with the restaurant's "whole and slow" approach that the staff takes very seriously. Silvo has even started a small farm outside the city where he is sourcing some of the produce that pops up on the menu, including radishes and arugula.
Other dishes that fall outside the main regions of influence still remain cohesive with the flavors and concepts on the rest of the menu, like the outstanding small plate of not-too-fatty braised pork belly, crispy epazote, and coarse cheese grits. I rarely am impressed with grits, which in my experience have tended to remind me of salty Malt-O-Meal, but I could easily eat a bowl of these. Duck, though not common on the modern American table, was presented as the most straightforward "meat 'n' potatoes" thing on the menu. A pan-seared breast is served just a little pink, with a stack of slightly creamy scalloped potatoes, and roasted onions.
Then there is the Hill Burger, which is in a category all its own. The burger just explodes with intense flavors, but each bite mellows quickly and never overpowers the aged-in-house, freshly ground meat. "What are they doing back there?" my friend asks our server, marveling after her first bite of burger. His answer could be rehearsed but seems very heartfelt: "They just take time with everything," he says. "But they try not to intervene too much with the ingredients." Yes, there is help from some luxurious truffle aioli. Yes, cheddar cheese, bacon, and some oyster mushrooms cap off this spectacular sandwich. But it's clear that the X-factor here is the meat itself, which is easily the best grass-fed burger I have had in years.
Desserts showed range. A light and relatively healthy yogurt panna cotta came with a crisp but too grainy pear-and-riesling sorbet. A dark and thickly ganache-coated chocolate cake was not lifted enough to be a pound cake, not dense enough to be bete noir, and too sticky to act like a brownie. The can't-miss dessert is the toasted coconut tres leches cake, a recipe our server tells us has been tested and perfected many times over the years. It shows. Silky and not-too-sweet coconut milk is used as one of the tres leches, giving the light-as-air cake and softly whipped cream a bit of substance instead of just more sucrose.
Given that Harriet Brasserie is now open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, only shutting down for a prep period between 3 and 5 p.m., it has a lot of opportunities to create loyal customers. That means it's entirely possible that in a month or two Harriet Brasserie's lines could rival Tilia's. Secretly, selfishly, I hope that's not the case. I want this homey place to be like the band you discover, love, and then have to try to keep your big mouth shut about so their shows don't get overrun and their ticket prices don't go up. I want them to stay 7th St. Entry even though they're worthy of the First Avenue audience. Of course, in this case, the hope is that I can always get a no-wait savory scone in the morning, split that impossibly sumptuous burger with a friend on the patio for lunch, and be able to make a reservation for a dinner of small plates and carafes of wine when friends come to visit from out of town. So much for keeping it under wraps, right?