Hopkins gets three new worldly restaurants
Most small-town Main Streets are rather depressed these days, as empty storefronts form a hollow shell of what was once a vibrant economic and social core. But suburban Hopkins's downtown is an exception. The thoroughfare's new and historic facades house an art center, an acupuncturist, and an antique store or three, along with a movie house, a boutique, and even a clock repair shop. The place is so quaint its mascot is a raspberry.
But until this past year, Hopkins's restaurant scene lagged behind its other amenities, consisting mostly of homogenous tavern and diner fare. The recent arrival of three new ethnic eateries—Samba Taste of Brazil, Curry 'n' Noodles, and Aji Contemporary Japanese—has enhanced the city's culinary diversity.
WHEN SAMBA TASTE OF BRAZIL replaced Mainstreet's most upscale restaurant, Gusto Café & Wine Bar, the new owners redecorated the loft-like space with a few artifacts from their native country, including a photo of samba music percussion instruments and, of course, a bright yellow soccer jersey. The Pantano family previously owned the Brazilian Connection grocery store in Minnetonka, and their foray into the restaurant business offers a traditional, home-style take on a South American cuisine rarely seen in the Twin Cities.
Brazil is a world-famous cultural melting pot, so it's not surprising that the country's national dish is an import—a traditional Portuguese stew called feijoada (pronounced fay-ju-ada) that the Europeans brought to their colonies. After hours of slow cooking, the black beans turn creamy and absorb the meaty flavors of various bits of bacon, sausage, rib, dried beef, and bone. The stew is served in a clay pot, accompanied by rice, finely shredded collard greens, and the Brazilian version of pico de gallo called vinaigrette, along with a pile of what looks like breadcrumbs but is actually farofa, a toasted yuca, or cassava, flour. Lighter appetites might prefer the moqueca (pronounced mo-kek-a), a mild seafood stew served with either shrimp or cod simmered in coconut milk with onions and peppers. And if you look like an adventurous eater or make a request, your hosts will bring a small sample of their house-made four-pepper hot sauce, along with a prudent warning about its wallop.
Fogo de Chao, the national chain restaurant famous for its gaucho waitstaff serving a never-ending parade of grilled meat skewers, is really the only other Brazilian eatery in the Twin Cities, and fans of its carnivorous orgy will be pleased to partake in Samba's churrasco options. One plate offers generous portions of grilled top sirloin, pork loin, and a kielbasa-like pork sausage for $19.50. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays the restaurant offers an epic, all-you-can-eat combination of churrasco and feijoada for $34.50.
Among the expected South American staples such as pastels (a.k.a. empanadas), Samba's menu offers several examples of Brazil's ethnic diversity. The country is known as having the largest population of Italians outside of Italy, thus Samba serves pastas and risotto. The restaurant also makes kibe—a moist bulgur-enhanced meatball sweetened by mint and cinnamon—to reflect Brazil's sizable Lebanese community. Interestingly, the traditional Brazilian salad called salpicao would fit right into a Midwestern church basement spread, as it's a sweet-salty mayonnaise-dressed mix of chicken, celery, carrots, peas, corn, raisins, and apples topped with crunchy shoestring potatoes.
Samba's menu offers many rare tastes, from guarana soda (it's rather like ginger ale) to juice made from the fruit of cashew trees (it tastes a little like an overripe peach or pear). Both beverages are available in the retail section in the front of the restaurant along with other Brazilian staples such as coffee, sweet potato paste, cassava flour, and, oddly enough, some pricey cans of beef stroganoff. Those are surely better skipped in favor of whatever the Pantanos are cooking.
CURRY 'N' NOODLES distinguishes itself from the typical Indian restaurant for its menu's geographic depth: There are northern-style kebabs and southern-style curries, along with Indo-Chinese dishes of the east not commonly seen at the average American Punjabi-focused eatery. Some of these eastern fusion dishes are traditional, such as sweet-sour, fried-cauliflower dish gobi Manchurian, while others, like the Chinese-style fried rice with Indian spices, are new creations.
Despite the prominence of noodles in the restaurant's name, the Singapore-spiced strands of rice vermicelli tend to be mushy and bland. Better to go with, say, a wok-cooked Chinese-style chili chicken. The menu also offers several meats not commonly served in America, including a few goat and mutton dishes like the Hyderabad-style maikhaliya, a mildly spiced, slightly nutty stew that's not a bad introduction to the meats' slightly gamey flavors.
A visit to the restaurant's rotating, $8.95 lunch buffet covers many of the Indian standards. Chicken is baked tandoori-style, simmered in a rich, tomato-based butter sauce, and buried in a fluffy biryani. There are always multiple vegetarian options—soupy dal, muttar paneer, and pakora fritters in a tangy curry sauce, for example—along with lettuce salad, flaky naan, and a sweet, milky dessert.
The small restaurant expands a bit in warm weather with its patio seating, but it can still fill quickly with weekend moviegoers. The restaurant itself can feel like the set of an indie film, particularly on the night when a man wearing a stately orange turban was in the kitchen cooking to a soundtrack of the Chipmunks covering Katy Perry's "California Gurls."
SUSHI PURISTS—those who won't be satisfied with a Japanese meal that doesn't involve roundtrip airfare to Tokyo—will view Aji with the same disdain they reserve for the ignorant masses who mix green-colored horseradish straight into their soy sauce. But for less-discerning diners whose sushi budgets can't match their appetites, the new restaurant is a welcome option.
Sure, the restaurant serves hibachi dishes, noodle bowls, and bento boxes, but its most noteworthy feature is an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet. If the idea sounds familiar, that's because Aji's owner is also involved with the Bloomington restaurant 98 Pounds, which is based on a similar concept. In Uptown Minneapolis one can hardly toss a chopstick without hitting a sushi restaurant, but the stuff gets much scarcer beyond the inner metro. Aji intends to introduce raw fish to a wider market of sushi neophytes at a price that won't stretch the wallet.
The buffet costs just $12.75 at lunch and $16.75 at dinner. Offering a smorgasbord selection at such prices—about what an upscale sushi joint might charge for one roll—involves some obvious concessions, for example the use of mock crab in lieu of the real thing. But compared to its equivalent in pre-made, refrigerated, supermarket sushi, Aji's buffet offers more freshness and variety, not to mention sheer quantity. The spread includes the common California rolls and tuna nigiri, as well as wilder, sauce-drizzled, tempura flake-topped combinations. If you've always wanted to find out what salmon and cream cheese tastes like when wrapped in a wonton skin and deep fried, this way you can to sample a few bites without committing to a whole roll. The buffet also offers a selection of green and fruit salads, soba noodles, and the like, but aside from the kitchen's special concoction of mayonnaise-laced mock crab, green apple, and mango, they feel extraneous.
At Aji, the sushi buffet is treated like the Japanese equivalent of the gratis house salad—it's also included with the price of an entrée, so if you pay an extra $5 to $15 you can have a steak or seafood dish after stuffing yourself with sushi. And yet this is not the restaurant's most value-oriented option. That would be the Cherry Blossom Dinner for Two offered at the auspicious price of $68.88. The meal begins with a bottle of house sake or wine (i.e., B.V. Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon, the sort of drinkable but unremarkable bottle found on the menu of, say, a pizza parlor). Then there's a choice of appetizer to share—the vegetable tempura could be crisper, but it is a monstrous assortment—and a trip to the sushi buffet. As the meal progresses, two entrées of your choosing arrive. The teriyaki sirloin steak is tender and well seasoned; the meaty sea bass could have a more robust broth, but it's perfectly cooked, artfully presented, and fully twice the size of a typical portion. The enthusiastic but inexperienced waitress may then forget to bring the complimentary tea or coffee, but you'll likely be taking both desserts to go at this point, so no matter. The sweets come from the nearby Truffles of Tortes bakery, and the moist chocolate layer cake is highly recommended.
Aji is also a relatively pleasant place to linger, with its gas fireplace, plush booths, and ambient lighting. For late-night diners—and, remember, there are 9-to-midnight happy-hour discounts on Fridays and Saturdays—there's even a little mood-setting R&B music and a rainbow-colored light show shining from the soffit above the sushi bar.
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