3008 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 729-6181
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 11:00 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; the restaurant will close from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. until Labor Day; cash and checks only.
The first time I went to Harry Singh's new restaurant well-wishers kept parading back to the kitchen to wish Harry luck. The next time I went, ditto. Then again. "People in Minnesota are very nice, very polite, very kind," explains Singh in his lilting Trinidad accent. "And people around here in this neighborhood, they are very, very nice."
Well, far be it from me to diminish the niceness of Uptowners, but being nice to Harry is one of the more ego-gratifying ways to spend a few moments, because after an initial 30-second tour--the new photo mural of a Trinidad beach, the drawing of one of the typical homes of Singh's youth, complete with a grandma rolling out balls of roti dough--Singh starts to pepper his well-wishers with his signature blend of beguiling promises and flattering questions: When the beer and wine license comes through, hopefully by November, "we will have Carib, Red Stripe, Bank's--you ever had Bank's? That's a strong beer. That's a wicked beer. Oh, I know you. You're going to like that." When the new pepper crop arrives from Trinidad, not only will Singh make his signature yellow-pepper sauce, he'll also be making a sauce so hot he can barely bring himself to speak of it: "Oh, it's like hell, it is. Hot, hot, hot," he gravely shakes his head. "If you just take a toothpick and dip it in that sauce, people, their heads fall right off. I could give it to you, but I dare not do it."
And if that's not enough, the restaurant will soon see a lunchtime buffet, priced around $5.50, and, for an appetizer--clams! What do you think of clams? Will Uptowners like clams? And fish? What about trout? Salmon? What do you think? And soon, one day a week, the restaurant will be entirely vegetarian. What do you think--are there a lot of vegetarians in Uptown? Will vegetarians like to eat vegetarian on Tuesdays? Or Thursdays? Will they like okra? Spinach? Sweet potatoes?
So you stand there and nod sagely. Yes, vegetarians will like to eat okra on Thursdays. Certainly. Yes. By the time Singh gets around to dedicating one of those weekdays to vegetarians, 300 people are going to think that the deciding sage insight was theirs.
Until those glory days arrive, Singh's newest restaurant--opened this past June after a couple of years at Cedar Avenue South and East 32nd Street, which came after two decades in various other Minneapolis neighborhoods--is exactly like it's always been: good, cheap, plentiful, and rewarding in its exotic simplicity. As usual the best dishes are the rotis--the word refers both to a just-made big, round flatbread that Singh makes to order, and that bread folded around a generous pile of curried stew. (A filled roti sort of splits the difference between a burrito and an Indian stew with a side of bread--this makes sense if you consider that Trinidadian food is basically Indian food filtered through 100 years or so of Caribbean life.
Most rotis at Singh's are priced at $6.95 and are served very plain and homestyle--just a vast quantity of stew and bread, no fancy garnishes or sauces. (Singh does boast a signature hot-pepper sauce; and for those in the know enough to ask, homemade West Indian chutneys are an off-the-menu staple.) The rotis come filled with such things as chickpea and potato curry, curried chicken, curried beef, curried lamb, curried bay shrimp, or curried vegetables such as just-cooked and still-crisp carrots, celery, and cauliflower in a tomato-curry base. Any of these is an unimpeachable meal for the price, but if I had to pick favorites I might go for the vegetable roti, which in its yellow, fenugreek-accented curry does more for carrots than just about any local dish I can think of. Or I'd get the nicely gamy and dark-tasting lamb curry ($8.50).
Singh's jerk chicken is an interesting version, more a stew-pot jerk flavored with lots of aromatic vegetables in addition to the spices. Anyone in love with the Jamaican barbecued version should try this one, as it makes an interesting contrast. Ordinarily $12.95 gets you a portion so big it could serve two for dinner. Once I convinced the waiter, Singh's son Robin, to sell me two pieces of jerk chicken for the price of the chicken-wing appetizer, $6.50, which worked out well. So there it is--my suggestion for improvements in the appetizer list! Also, I'm putting my plea in for a roasted-sweet-potato roti. And, um, something with fresh spinach and peanuts. Yeah, that should just about do it for me and my deep insights.
As for you, it looks to me like you've got two options: either wait and wait for the vision to be realized--when this story hits the stands, Sonny's first production run of ice cream made with Harry's house-made mango, soursop, and chocolate-rum flavorings should have debuted--or get on in there and get your two cents' worth in, while the two cents are flying.
110 PERCENT ALMA: You know what's productive? Asking the dumbest questions imaginable. Like, get this: It seems that Restaurant Alma, already pretty great, has gotten about 10 or 15 percent greater since, oh, about April or so. Possible? If so, why? Of course, I had to call and put that question to co-owner Jim Reininger and Alex Roberts. Reininger didn't much know, but he did point out that wine dinners have lately become both more ambitious--a Kistler chardonnay single-vineyard vertical tasting? Unheard of! And also more easily discovered, thanks to a new Web site: www.restaurantalma.com. The $42 four-course menu is also available now every day, though on Friday and Saturday nights Alma might require that everyone at the table participate. Even more astonishing, there's now a $19.95 Sunday supper served every, um, you know, Sunday, and dreamed up by chef Mike Ryan, who has been cooking at Alma for a year. One Sabbath meal began with ricotta and goat-cheese ravioli in a basil pesto and anchovy sauce; proceeded to New Zealand blue-nose bass baked with a spicy curry rub and served with gingered vegetables and papaya salad; and finished with a dessert of Rainier and sour-cherry soup with crème fraîche and French mint. Cheaper? More accessible? Great restaurants never get cheaper and friendlier in the face of success, do they? Well, apparently this one does.
And what was head chef Alex Roberts doing while Ryan made his Sunday supper? Why, manning the dishwasher, of course. So he had plenty of time to talk to me, too. Turns out that Roberts had a good idea of how the restaurant could get better, namely, better supplies. It's not just that it's the height of summer harvest, though that certainly is a chunk of it; it's also that Alma recently added produce from Co-op Partners Warehouse, an organization created by several local co-ops to find and handle their fruits and vegetables. Ever since then, says Roberts, the gooseberries, currants, and cabbages he sees have all improved. "The purchasing is the weak link in a lot of food," says Roberts. "Do the purchasers that you are buying from know what a good clam or a good gooseberry is like? Or do they look at it like a box of nails, or any other product you'd buy for someone else that you don't necessarily have to look at? The people we're dealing with now, who also supply Sapor, know what to look for when they look at a carrot. Unless you get exceptional ingredients, you can't make great food. With the ingredients, at least you can try."
(Ahem: So, once again it all comes down, on some level, to our local co-ops. Will they ever stop giving and giving? Let's hope not. I swear upon this stack of carrots, I will never complain about a $6 head of broccoli again.)
Roberts also credits some of Alma's improvements on the Ryan Factor: "The Sunday suppers are pretty much his baby, and the first ideas other than my own that are creeping into the food," he says. "He helps me be a better cook by bouncing ideas off me, and by the conversations we have about technique."
And that, says Roberts, is the system that editor Ruth Reichl walked into one rainy Sunday night in June, which garnered them a mention in her column in Gourmet, and that is the system that is going to have them featured in Bon Appétit this October.
For me, one of the things that keeps writing about restaurants interesting is that some pretty basic questions--like "What makes a good restaurant good?"--have answers that are bottomless and often seem to apply to a lot more than restaurants. Restaurant Alma, 528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis; (612) 379-4909.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.