Mill NE revitalizes an old favorite

Mill NE revitalizes an old favorite

Brunch: We go back and forth on this trendy midday meal. On one hand, it's the one meal during which you can order a burger and a side of waffles, and no one will bat an eye; when it's just as acceptable to have a cocktail or two as it is to have six cups of coffee with half-and-half in one sitting. There are no judgments, and indulging every one of your vices is encouraged. Brunch is patient; brunch is kind.

Unfortunately, brunch is also a little over-hyped and often a lot overpriced. Waiting 45 minutes for a table only to be charged $11 for eggs — for eggs! — is maddening, especially when the majority of common brunch dishes could be whipped up in your home kitchen in under 30 minutes.

So, when brunch is underwhelming, the entire experience can be a big letdown — probably bigger than it would be for lunch and certainly bigger than it would be for breakfast. That's a lot of pressure for one meal, but every so often we come across a restaurant that stands up to the challenge, crushes it, and turns out a consistently enjoyable meal with plenty of unexpected delights. This is true in the case of the Mill NE, the reboot of the former Mill City Cafe.

After an 18-month hiatus, the restaurant is now re-opened and revitalized. As a bonus, the owners are not relegating their fabulous brunch to just Saturday and Sunday mornings. Every day of the week from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m, you can get braised beef hash with crispy fried parmesan potatoes, buttered cabbage, perfectly runny over-medium eggs, and peppery wild mushroom cream gravy ladled over a biscuit-scone hybrid pastry that the Mill has christened "the biscone."

You'll also be able to get your paws on the Mill's signature nutty wild rice pancakes. A big, fluffy plain buttermilk pancake is all very well and good, but can get a little dull. These wild rice pancakes, studded with diced apples and dried cranberries and topped with crunchy granola and maple syrup, never lost our interest for a second. You can get a whole order of three or just a single cake, which is the perfect portion for sampling purposes.

The Mill NE isn't looking to completely reinvent the brunch wheel; instead, co-chefs Matt Kempf and Tommy Begnaud are focusing their innovative talents on the Mill NE's dinner menu. For example, they've included a tender and briny octopus confit, served with caramelized cauliflower, and licorice-like roasted fennel over a smear of creamy poi, traditional Hawaiian taro root mash that has subtle taste and a brilliant lavender color. The whole dish is wildly confident and makes an exceptionally good showing of the co-chefs' talent for matching and contrasting textures. Our only disappointment is that the Indian spices listed in the description didn't come through very strongly.

Perhaps more conventional, but no less successful, in the small plates section was the Bibb lettuce salad, a perfect combination of the salty, sweet, and sour flavors of vinaigrette-soaked cherries with the creamy and crunchy consistencies of a generous amount of blue cheese and a scattering of walnuts.

In terms of value and experience, we couldn't in good conscience recommend the over-sauced and, at $18, overpriced, lobster and foie gras pot stickers on a bed of wakame seaweed. Using such fine, expensive ingredients only to roll them in wrapping paper and cover them further in a thick, almost caramel-like sauce seems sacrilegious. The overall taste was still good, but if someone had told us the filling was pork, we would have believed them — not a ringing endorsement for something you expect to be uber luxurious.

There were also moments we found ourselves wanting to order an entree not for its star protein, but rather for all its accompaniments. For instance, we were so intrigued by the idea of blistered shishito peppers, orange marmalade, and squid ink creme fraiche that the dish's main ingredient, a diver scallop, became an afterthought. To satisfy those urges, the Mill NE wisely offers many of the entree dish components as sides on their own, like battered and fried cheese curds with sweet, earthy beet ketchup or a pile of white cheddar polenta so smooth, you'd swear it was whipped potatoes. That particular side dish is even better under the substantially portioned savory crepes, stuffed with smoky shredded pork and complemented by a very piquant green tomatillo salsa. It has homeyness, heartiness, and great balance.

In between the excellent brunch and inventive dinner, the Mill NE holds a happy hour with $6 cocktails and $5 food, which makes it about the happiest hour of all in these parts. The light-filled dining room of the former Falafel King — home to Porky's burger joint before that — has been remodeled with casual-cool ambiance and ample bar seating. Its vibe welcomes lingerers with lovely craft and classic cocktails and menu items such as simple sliders, velvety butternut squash soup with maple mascarpone that could be eaten as dessert, and a wild boar sausage with giardiniera. The Negroni was textbook perfection, and the Mill's own creation, the Crimson and Clover made with bourbon, creme de cassis, cinnamon, and crunchy honey granules on the rim, was festive and potent.

Northeast has other restaurants in this vein, ones that riff on American comfort food, heavily borrowing from the bold flavors of other global cuisines. Sheridan has Northeast Social and Audubon Park has Hazel's. But neither are quite so sophisticated and charming as the Mill NE. Devotees of the original location will be happy to have this place resurrected, but we predict this incarnation of the Mill City Cafe will find legions of new fans.

Matt Kempf (left) and Tommy Begnaud bring their innovative talents to the Mill NE
Benjamin Carter Grimes for City Pages

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