Hey, remember last winter's restaurant massacre, when all those restaurants closed, and Minneapolis went from being a national up-and-comer to a cataclysm in the space of three months? Well, it was a dark few months, but it looks like we're struggling up off the mat!
I mean: Steven Brown is back! When last we heard, he was searching for a bar to call his own, and now he's sort of found one. See, he's the new head chef at Harry's Food and Cocktails (500 Washington Ave. S., 612.344.7000; www.harrysfood.com), the large bar and restaurant that now occupies the former Nochee space on Washington between the skating rink and Guthrie-land.
The place opened July 13, and I did war with myself all opening weekend: Adhere to the critic's code of leaving a restaurant alone for its first six weeks, or give in to my overwhelming curiosity about the place? Ultimately, I let my ethics win, but it didn't make me happy. In any event, you're not bound by this code, so I'll tell you everything I know.
The place seems to be a gastropub with benefits—significant benefits. A gastropub is essentially a classic bar, the kind that serves burgers, ribs, and coconut cream pie, but one in which the food is made with integrity and art. Harry's will have all of those elements—and burger fans, rejoice! There will be 11 sorts of hamburgers on offer, including the Lonely Repairman ($9) made with Maytag Blue cheese, and a version of one of Minneapolis's great contributions to world cuisine, the Jucy Lucy, here stuffed with mozzarella and roasted red peppers ($11). (I can't tell if Brown is pulling my leg, but on the draft of the menu I saw, there's a "Dara" burger, topped with prosciutto and a snooty French cheese; as befits a burger named after yours truly, it's a wordy thing, with its own subtitle reading, "Oh, you're a critic, too?" It kills me that you can know before me whether I'm just being punk'd here....)
Salads will include things like Brown's memorable grilled romaine Caesar ($10) with massive grilled croutons—and when I say memorable, I mean it. I wrote about this thing in 2002, reviewing dear, doomed RockStar (CP 7/3/02), and I can still see it floating before me, in all its spicy, bold glory.
I'm pretty excited about the banana coconut cream pie ($8) too, as it's made by former Auriga pastry chef Juliette Lelchuk, and when was the last time you had a really good homemade cream pie? I haven't had one since Hamlin's Coffee Shop closed.
However, as I mentioned, the place starts with gastropub and goes on from there. Brown will be making a bunch of dinner entrees, some of which are supper-club classics and others that tilt a hat toward his white-tablecloth abilities. In the supper-club vein, there is pot roast (will Brown be going head to head with his best friend and former sideman, Phillip Becht, over at the Modern? Yegads!). There are also supper-clubby nightly specials, including a Friday-only Wisconsin fish fry ($16), a Saturday rock-salt-crusted prime rib (from $18), a Monday special of a cheddar-sauced burger and a Grain Belt for $9, and more. For those of you who want more cooking fireworks in your dinner, there seem to be plenty of options: duck meatballs with fettuccine ($16), a soft-shell crab po'boy with hot sesame-and-bacon dressing ($16), sockeye salmon served with a buttermilk cucumber sauce ($19), and more.
The place is already open for lunch and dinner, even though its "grand opening" won't be till mid-August. The kitchen is open till 10:00 most nights, and 11:00 on Friday and Saturday, though because they're using these first weeks to figure out various things, the hours could potentially be longer by the time you read this. How soon should you rush in there? Of course, all the usual restaurant-opening caveats apply, but dang!
"The first few weeks should be a train wreck," cautioned Steven Brown when I caught him in the final moments of mayhem trying to get his kitchen running. "We want to undersell and overachieve. My goal is to make simple food, to make simple food taste good. Maybe this time I've got a dining room that looks all right," said Brown, referencing the gruesome decor that doomed RockStar, his last casual-dining restaurant. "This is the thing I've been thinking about all winter: Where do I want to go and eat? As cooks, do we go to La Belle Vie every night? Hell, no! Do line cooks go to the drive-through at White Castle? I bet they do. In fact, I know a guy who's a huge gourmand in town who has a White Castle card in his wallet."
Well, be that as it may—oh, forget it. Here's what I really think: Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay, my, oh my what a wonderful day. Plenty of Steven Brown, back in the fray, zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!
In other news: Stewart Woodman is (almost) back, too! I've been plaguing Stewart and Heidi Woodman for months, demanding to know whether their rumored purchase of the former Pane Vino Dolce space on 50th Street and Bryant Avenue in south Minneapolis was going to happen. Still, I couldn't get a straight answer out of them until an alert City Pages reader wrote to tell me what happened at the community meeting about the restaurant's liquor license, thus forcing the Woodmans to spill the beans!
"Shouldn't you be working at the Washington Post or something?" groaned Stewart Woodman, when I interrupted the backgammon game he was playing with his wife to tell them the bad news about my super kick-ass awesome community snitch. "Are you going to write something about this?" Maybe, I lied. "All right. It's 99 percent going to happen. We have the purchase agreement, we negotiated a lease with the new landlord, and God willing, city of Minneapolis willing, we'll be open in September." Yes, you read that right, all that stands between south Minneapolis and the reestablishment of one of the city's greatest cooking talents is approval of the liquor license! If you live in the neighborhood and want this restaurant up and running, now is the time to call your council member!
And you do want this restaurant up and running. "It'll be me in the kitchen, and Heidi in the front of the house," Stewart Woodman told me. "Then we have a front-of-the-house guy—I don't want to jinx it, so I'm not saying anything, I've worked so hard on this for so long." I pestered him with names for a while, but got nothing. So I moved on to annoying him with questions about the food. Finally, something! It won't be Italian, French, or anything like that, but classic "Stewart cuisine," Woodman said. "We're going to be very aggressive pushing the envelope in terms of the cuisine, and also in terms of the price point: The vast majority of appetizers will be under $9, the vast majority of entrees will be under $19. We really want to make sure it's neighborhood-friendly, not a destination restaurant. We're going to stay true to what we do—" "Pheasant?" I interrupted. "Yes, pheasant. We're not going to do burgers—not that there's anything wrong with burgers, but there are a lot of people doing that now, and I don't think my voice added to that would be any great thing."
Once licensing approval is given, Woodman told me, the restaurant will be quick to open. "Ultimately, we're not going to change much about the space. We're hoping to fix the sound," as Pane Vino Dolce was notoriously loud, "but we've loved the location, the space, since we moved here," from New York after 9/11. With that, Woodman lost his game of backgammon and concluded he wasn't going to tell me any more than he had. "I've been working on this menu more than any menu I've worked on in my life," he said. "I hope that doesn't raise expectations too much, but as soon as it's 100 percent dialed in, I'll give you a call."
Also, for all you East-Coasters who mourned the closing of the Grand Italian Ice Café, put away your widow's weeds: Italian ices are back! They're not on Grand Avenue anymore, though, they're in the Midtown Global Market, where ices queen Mary Johnson is now sharing space with the Golden Thyme Coffee Café. (The Midtown Global Market is on Chicago and Lake in south Minneapolis; Golden Thyme's phone number is 612.872.2373.)
"Grand Avenue was just too expensive once we hit fall and winter," Johnson told me. "But I kept the equipment, because I had it in my mind to do it again. Then, on June 30, we opened. It's going very well." This new incarnation has all the same flavors as the last place: lemon, mango, orange, strawberry, blue raspberry, three sorts of cherry, and so forth. The only differences are that the sugar-free ices aren't there yet, and the frozen custard, in flavors including chocolate, dulce de leche, strawberry, and, of course, vanilla, is now served hard-packed instead of soft-serve. The ices are available from 7:00 a.m. till 8:00 p.m. most days, though only till 6:00 p.m. Sunday and Monday, and can also be ordered for large parties in catering-sized portions. All in all, it's good news for homesick easterners. "People used to come in here and say one of two things," Johnson told me. "Either it was: I'm from Chicago, I'm from New York, I wondered when someone would finally have Italian ice! Or it was: What is that stuff in there?" Glad to know there's once again somewhere to answer that question.
Finally, it seems silly to write about chefs Brown and Woodman without mentioning the third leg of last winter's troubles—chef Doug Flicker, of long-lamented Auriga. Doug Flicker has been back for a while, working at the Mission American Kitchen, downtown in the IDS Center, for many months now, but I've held off writing about his new gig because I wanted to write about it when it would be most helpful to readers, namely, when the restaurant was out of transition, and in a more or less final form. That hasn't yet happened, so I'm still not reviewing it. Flicker tells me, however, that in mid-September the place should be what it will be. Over the summer he has been hiring various Auriga cooks to replace former Mission staff, such as chef James Folye, who have been decamping to Edina for the August opening of Via, a new ambitious contemporary American bistro that is replacing the old Pizzeria Uno near Southdale and the Galleria. (Via Café and Bar, 6740 France Ave. S., Edina; 952.928.9500; www.viacafebar.com.)
"When I first started here, a lot of people came down here and expected Auriga food," Flicker told me. "But that's not fair to the owners of this restaurant—they want Mission to be Mission—and it's not fair to what Auriga was either, which was its own thing, unique in time and team. There were two guys who came to Auriga every Thursday night at 5:15 and sat at the same table. One night I saw them in the dining room here, went out and said hi, and they said, 'This isn't really our kind of place. We like smaller, more intimate restaurants.' And so I said, 'That's cool.' It's not my place to re-create Auriga, it's my job to try to make Mission the best it can be." To that end, Flicker told me, he's had a lot of trial and error: A cold smoked rib-eye, for instance, had Mission regulars calling it needlessly fatty, but once he took the same smoked rib-eye, sliced it, served it with truffled onions and smoked Carr Valley cheddar, the sandwich went over in a big way.
"I don't think any of us ever saw this resurgence in American retro-cuisine coming," Flicker told me, citing B.A.N.K., Harry's Food & Cocktails, and his own restaurant. "But I'm trying to embrace it and learn something new. I don't need to do a fancy fish special to cook well—I can make chicken and dumplings with the same amount of thought, integrity, and cooking skill I'd apply to a line-caught halibut fillet, even if they're different worlds of cuisine. But I think now is the time for me to learn some new business practices, heal, serve somebody else's vision." With half a year's perspective on the winter massacre, Flicker sees last year's disaster less as a cataclysm and more as a correction.
The pendulum swings both ways, he told me, and if you can survive on either side, you'll be better off in the long run. Here's hoping that this holds true for Minneapolis. In any event, we look to be on the cusp of a very exciting season for eating things that were, for a time, quite lost.
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