Lucia's lends local flavor to our list of $12 or less

To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.

Lucia Watson is in very good company. As a champion for local food and farmers, Watson is often compared to Alice Waters--the iconic owner of Chez Panisse and a leading advocate for locally sourced and organically grown products.

And in 2009, Watson became a knight of the French Order of Agricultural Merit. The honor--which is bestowed on those who've made noteworthy contributions in agriculture and food--places her in a distinguished group that includes culinary luminaries Julia Child and Jacques Pépin.

Not too shabby.

Although her cuisine has a certain je ne sais quoi, it is refreshingly free of ostentation. And with an abundance of small plates and lunch items less than $12, much of it is affordably priced. Which one will make our $12-and-under list?

When she opened Lucia's Restaurant on Valentine's Day of 1985, the idea was relatively foreign to the Twin Cities--save for the efforts of Spoonriver's Brenda Langton, who was running Cafe Kardamena at the time.

Since then, Watson has expanded her business, adding Lucia's Wine Bar and Lucia's to Go. "But Lucia has never changed her mission," says general manager Barbara Meyer. "Cook great food--local, sustainable, and organic--and give the people what they want."

It's all made possible by a network of suppliers that brings daily deliveries to Lucia's back door--like Callister Farm, whose chicken makes frequent appearances on the menu, and Star Prairie Trout Farm, which is across the border in Wisconsin.

But unexpected surprises also come knocking. "Sometimes a neighbor will have a bunch of mint that was growing in the yard, and they'll bring it over," Meyer says. "Or a guy will show up with a box full of mushrooms he just found in the woods. We'll buy it and then add them to the menu that night."

To take advantage of the freshest foodstuffs, Watson and chef de cuisine Ryan Lund reinvent the bill of fare every seven days. "I think about what's in season and then try to create a balanced plate of flavors," says Lund, explaining the weekly drill. He and Watson consult every Monday and engage their food buyer (Lori Valenziano) to confirm availability. Then they refine as needed and roll it out Tuesday.

While the food is certainly a focal point, it's just one part of Lucia's philosophy. "We want people to experience radical hospitality," Meyer tells us. "To have outstanding service, food to talk on and on about, and to feel like they've been really welcomed." Which is something more easily executed when you have a staff of long-timers.

Meyer has been at Lucia's roughly 15 years, and Lund has been in the kitchen for six. "It's a pretty small operation, and we don't have a lot of turnover," says Meyer. "We're a really tight-knit group, and we enjoy each other's company. Everyone's friends here."

Those who have been around the longest are probably most excited about Lucia's makeover, which is happening in the next few weeks. Don't worry, they aren't covering the tables in neon green or adding koi ponds. The walls will remain charmingly unobtrustive but will be repainted and subtly texturized. The food window will be revamped, and the waiting area will be freshened up with new materials and a paint job.

So now you have two excuses to head to Lucia's: To check out the facelift and sample its fresh fare for less than $12--like the Squash, Brussels Sprouts and Pommes Frites on the Small Plates menu.

In all honesty, this isn't actually one dish--it's two. But priced at $5.25 apiece, it makes for an inspired $12-and-under combo. Lund prepares the squash and sprout duo by first roasting the squash with olive oil and blanching the Brussels sprouts. The bright green orbs are tossed into a hot pan with brown butter, shallots, and finally the squash. Then it's all salt-n-peppered and garnished with some toasted sunflower seeds.

The Pommes Frites are even easier to pull together: The potatoes are roasted with olive oil, then salted and served with a béarnaise mayo. The sprouts are crisp, the squash is sweet, and the fries with béarmayonnaise is comfort food with a little flair.

Also in the Small Plates lineup is a Snack Board with assorted antipasti, meats and cheeses (available for either $11.95, $16.95, or $20.95). This week, they're stacking it with a house-made chicken liver pâté and pork rillette (similar to a pâte, but with a consistency closer to shredded meat). There's also goat cheese, olives, and pickled red bell peppers. And a chutney, a cracker, and crostini. Appropriately, everything is piled on a cutting board made out of reclaimed wood, courtesy of Wood from the Hood in Minneapolis.

And for our $12-and-under pick, we're choosing one of Lucia's longest-standing creations: the Farmers' Salad featured at lunch. Made from ingredients-of-the-moment, "it's up to the chef working that particular station--so it often changes daily," Lund says.

On the afternoon we visited, there were large chunks of Mountain Blue cheese, carrots, pears, and watermelon radishes--which are bright pink in the middle and more mild than its spicy cousins. It was finished with some blanched walnuts that had been roasted with honey, and dressed with a cranberry vinaigrette.

Like all of Lucia's dishes, it's incredibly tasty, but intentionally simple. "The quality of the food makes my job very easy," Lund admits quite happily. And that's exactly what makes Lucia's cuisine work. Watson and her team stay true to the food. When you work with the freshest and purest ingredients, sometimes the best thing to do is get out of the way and let them shine.

Top 12 dishes under $12 112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy Heartland: Cheese Course La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese Lucia's: Farmers' Salad Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans Sea Change: Arctic Char Tilia: Potted Meat

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Lucia's Restaurant and Wine Bar

1432 W. 31st St.
Minneapolis, MN 55408


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