Mainstream Tried and True
I've lost control of two interviews in my reportorial life so far. One was with a Southern literary lion who, halfway through the interview, started flattering me and, I think, trying to seduce me, leaving me blushing, giggling, and generally acting like an extra from Clueless. The other time was even worse, when I interviewed a very old cooking-contest queen who was exceedingly hard of hearing and, I think, delusional. I shouted questions about cookies, she murmured back dreamy uninterruptible speeches about death and the decay of the nation. I felt like an extra from Cat's Cradle. (Best of all, I have these moments on tape, so I can relive them whenever I'm feeling unreasonably competent.)
I was reminded of these awful moments recently when I was simply checking a price for this column on the phone. The proud owner of this brand-new restaurant intercepted the waiter who was answering my question and said, "Can I ask you something? It's 9 o'clock on a Tuesday night and you're working--don't you have a life?" He laughed heartily at his own bizarrely passive-aggressive joke, then asked, "But seriously, rock-bottom, what do you look for in a restaurant?" I nearly answered him, and I nearly answered "Sidney's"--but I caught myself. I realized the last thing you'd want to tell an idealistic, fiery-eyed new restaurant owner is that he should try to make his restaurant more like a suburban powerhouse. Thus I narrowly avoided turning a simple price-check into my third interview-run-amok.
The reasons why Sidney's doesn't have any restaurant-zealot appeal are many. It's a chain, albeit a small one, with six locations in Minnesota, Arizona, and Montana; it's unabashedly trendy (quoth the menu, "A 'wrap,' the newest trend from California to Sidney's, is like a sandwich..."); it's neither breathtakingly pricey nor frighteningly cheap; you don't have to know Italian, Vietnamese, or really anything at all to navigate the menu; and, very worst of all, everybody and their grandmother knows about it and goes there. Trust me, you never want to tell a food snob that you really, really like Sidney's. But I do.
At least three things Sidney's does are truly impressive. First, they have a menu that is as appetizing to people who drink from sippy-cups as it is to those who voted for FDR. I love the fact that they're not embarrassed to have a kid's-sized peanut-butter-and-jelly pizza ($3.95) listed with their grown-up asparagus-and-Brie ($9.50) and Portobello-mushroom ($9.50) pizzas. Second, the management must be great, because the food is rigorously consistent, and the waitstaff is always friendly and on top of things. Management isn't something you tend to think about at a diner, but we've all been at restaurants with wildly overburdened waitstaffs, or where the food arrives at staggered intervals from the kitchen, or where luck determines the quality of your meal from month to month--all signs of bad management.
Lastly, and perhaps primarily for me, Sidney's has a menu with some of the healthiest, lowest-fat, most-nutritious options I've ever encountered. For example, they always have fresh juices, like orange, carrot-apple, or Granny Smith apple ($2.25), or smoothies made with fresh fruit and yogurt ($3.50), which are incredibly healthy, make you feel like a super-charged vitamin hero, let you feel fancy and indulged while you're dieting, and even stuff your unwitting children full of vitamins while they wait for their pizzas. For breakfast there's a generous fresh-fruit-and-yogurt plate ($4.25). For lunch and dinner, any of the enormous salads, made with organic greens, can be had with dressing on the side or with the addition of a grilled chicken breast or salmon fillet. Factor in any of the rotisserie chickens or a cheese-free pasta or pizza and you've got one of the few menus you can eat from happily if you're on a strict low-fat diet. I particularly love the Tandoori chicken ($9.95), an Indian-influenced, yogurt-marinated half chicken served with a rich tomato chutney that's flavorful and delicious.
Of course, Sidney's offers many tasty nondietetic options. I think some of their pizzas are excellent, particularly the American ($6.95), a plain pizza-sauce-and-cheese pizza to which you may add traditional toppings like pepperoni, or the Margherita ($8.75), with fresh mozzarella and fresh tomatoes. The pizzas are all made in their wood-fired ovens, just like they do in Italy, and the crisp, slightly smoky crust is aces. Their pastas are handmade from organic flour, and the simpler ones are excellent. The chicken-and-sun-dried-tomato fettuccini features a light cream, shallot, and wine sauce on wide delicious noodles, and is simple in the best sense: one clean, unmuddied flavor playing off another, without obscuring the full taste of the pasta. Even their risottos--which I've had as flavorless mush for twice the price--are very good. The risotto primavera ($8.95) is a large bowl of plump, flavorful grains tossed with firm wild mushrooms, generous amounts of asparagus, and other veggies.
Sidney's also has an extensive beer and wine-by-the-glass menu; good coffee drinks; and a variety of big crowd-pleasing desserts like their famed Apple Pie Pizza ($4.95), a buttery pastry crowned with pie-style apples and topped with homemade caramel sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Crowd-pleasing might just be the operative phrase at Sidney's. It's hard to imagine someone not finding something appealing on the menu--and I didn't even mention their delicious breakfast crepes ($7.75), their wonderful, spicy huevos rancheros ($7.75), and their super skin-on mashed potatoes. It's always on my short list for business lunches with people I don't know, and, judging from the tables around me, it's a perennial favorite with big families celebrating birthdays. While I can honestly say I've never felt weak-kneed or blissed-out by any of Sidney's creations, I've never been disappointed either. Birthdays, business lunches, calorie-counting, and accommodating for other people's tastes are some of the facts of life made more pleasurable when places like Sidney's exist, and sometimes you'd rather be pleased with the crowd than run with the snobs.
HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS KIDS: Because you're never going to believe it, more after-bar dining in Minneapolis! Adding to the ranks of Pizza Luce, Figlio, and Caffe Solo, welcome the Mpls. Cafe, open now on the southwest corner of 11th and Hennepin, convenient walking distance from both First Avenue and the Loring Bar. They're serving gourmet noshes like Mediterranean Tapas ($8.95), "paper-crust" pizzas (from $8.25), and breakfasty options like eggs benedict ($7.50) and waffles ($5.25), and they're serving them until 2 a.m. This is a positive development of unheard of proportions. What next? A building on Block E? Just call us Paris of the Plains.
IN SEASON: And for all you vegetarians, here's a quick recipe for the local sweet corn and tomatoes coming ripe just about now:
Corn-and-Tomato Salad with Chipotle Vinaigrette
6 cups sweet corn
1 small zucchini, finely diced
3 large tomatoes, finely diced
4 scallions, slices
1/2 cup of water
1 chipotle pepper
2 tbsp. olive oil
Juice from 1 lime
2 tbsp. minced cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large, covered pot over high heat, bring four quarts of lightly salted water to a boil. Add corn, cover, and cook about two minutes. Add zucchini and cook one minute more. Drain well and turn into a large bowl. Add tomatoes and scallions and toss to mix.
In a covered three-quart saucepan, bring half a cup of water to a boil over medium heat. Add chipotle pepper and cook for three minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool for five minutes. Remove stem and discard, then finely chop the pepper. Return pepper to saucepan with cooking liquid and stir in olive oil, lime juice, cilantro, salt, and pepper.
Pour dressing over corn and zucchini and toss thoroughly. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Serves eight.
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