Mona takes a chance on downtown Minneapolis
Mona's menu is full of creative twists, like steamed globe artichoke in a sauce of capers and egg. Take the tour...
For anyone who is still yammering on about the underwhelming poutine at Rye, or who can't keep from lamenting the loss of Duplex's classic take on the same dish, perhaps the problem lies not with the restaurant's preparation or your hazy memory but rather with, dare I say, poutine itself? Long the go-to example of over-the-top, gut-busting bar food, poutine is a symphonic ode to LDL, and that's part of the fun of eating it. But if you can keep an open mind about what some may deem a culinary sacrilege, then plan to arrive a little early for your dinner at Mona, Lisa Hanson's new restaurant on the ground floor of the Accenture Tower in downtown Minneapolis. If you catch the tail end of Mona's happy hour, when the tie-loosened business types have finally grabbed the light rail home, you can still order the Suicide Fries, a deceptively light-handed reimagining of poutine. Inspired by the favorite after-shift indulgence of one of the restaurant's servers, the dish is composed of a pile of crisp French fries accessorized gorgeously with frothy rosemary-speckled hollandaise sauce, wisps of shaved Parmesan, and tiny cubes of crackling house-cured bacon, Mona's signature meat made with local pork from Hidden Stream Farm, which can be added to any dish on the menu for just a buck.
Though Suicide Fries are not necessarily representative of Hanson's menu, her experimental streak, delight in the process, and commitment to the farm-to-table movement are absolutely evident, even in this lower-brow dish. After years of honing her skills at some of the most lauded restaurants in New York City, including L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the Four Seasons Hotel and Aquavit, before returning to her home state as chef de cuisine at Corner Table, she's now seeing her own vision realized. The menu Hanson has designed for Mona is made up of roughly two dozen plates weighing in at about three ounces apiece, allowing her to showcase the varied styles she has studied and mastered. That includes poached shrimp on brioche with creamy dill dressing and tiny globules of paddlefish roe, which achieves the elegant Scandinavian thing we Minnesotans are hopelessly attracted to; Hanson's own spin on Mediterranean with a vibrant fregola salad laced with pea shoots and pungent feta; and classic French cooking made approachable with rich, roasted beef bone marrow spread on sweet, toasted raisin bread. It would appear that, aside from using local purveyors (the entire back of the menu is a list of the farms and growers they use), the guiding principle at Mona is more about portion than place of origin. That gives diners the freedom to layer, share, and ultimately construct their own mix-and-match meal of varied flavors, and it leaves the direction of the restaurant open-ended, which can be a great thing for a mercurial chef.
Mona's main issue is its location. Though it can entice customers with free validated parking (after 4 p.m.) and outdoor seating, access to the restaurant is somewhat problematic, and summer construction won't help. Plenty of downtown restaurants have made their home in major office buildings and had varying degrees of success, but visibility is key to attracting diners who aren't already in the area or, in the case of Mona, already in the building.
The former tenant of this space was Black Bamboo, an Asian fusion restaurant whose main draw was two-for-one Miller Lites and oil-sodden cream cheese wontons. Mona is aiming for a happy hour with more unique yet affordable options like throwback deviled eggs and a crowd-pleasing, if a little meager, meat-and-cheese plate to go with the on-tap Hobo Wine, a mishmash red or white that a California-based company is making from the castoff grapes of other vineyards. If you prefer something with a more recognizable varietal, Mona has a fairly extensive wine list, and its beer list includes several local favorites on tap such as Fulton's Lonely Blonde. Mona has a full bar, but specialty cocktails, however inventive, were rather pricey at $10 or $11 for a martini. The Thera-pear was fragrant and lovely, imbued with the floral characteristics of St.-Germain and pear vodka, sweetened a bit with ginger syrup, soured with lime, and set off like a firecracker thanks to a little sparkling cava. On the more bitter, bolder end of the cocktail spectrum, Mona also mixes a drink called the Antica: a blend of Campari and bourbon finished off with kirsch-soaked cherries and a twist of orange.
It took about five plates to make a sufficient meal for two, and though each plate is fairly reasonably priced, with nothing above $13 and most in the $6 to $9 range, it's very easy to spend $50 or $60 before you even get to dessert. But several dishes impressed, like the pancetta-wrapped halibut in a grass-green parsley broth. The fish was flaky and moist while the pancetta had a crisp crust on top, sort of the effect of creme brulee but in savory entree form. The portion of chicken and waffles was reasonable and consistent with other plates, but I could have easily taken down a double order. The sour-cream-batter waffle was full of flavor and made a perfectly springy platform for a piece of super-juicy bone-in fried chicken. Grilled pork tenderloin was also well executed, with a smear of figgy jam to offset the pork's saltiness, but if this plate were auditioning for a role, the reason it would get the call back would undoubtedly be the creamed kale. Remember about 10 years ago when kale was used only as a sturdy green table dressing for caterers? Now kale, in its rainbow of varieties, is enjoying its moment as the hot new healthy green, appearing frequently in energy-boosting smoothies and wilted salads. I loved that Hanson also showed its potential to be luxurious and dangerous and rich.
Though her penchant for handling pork products is obvious, Hanson has made room for some decent vegetarian options too, often using interesting, unexpected ingredients like fiddlehead ferns or a whole steamed globe artichoke, delicious and tangy in a sauce of capers and cooked egg. The goat cheese and roasted vegetable focaccia sandwich, seemingly omnipresent on local lunch menus, was made distinctive with smoked mushrooms.
Letdowns were present but minimal. The lamb slider, touted as a "home run on homemade bun," was flavor-packed and pretty juicy for a small patty, but I was a little disappointed that the sandwich was unadorned. A smear of sauce or something crisp would offset the rich flavors in the meat and add interest. Desserts felt like a bit of an afterthought and didn't mirror the creativity in the rest of the menu: caramel-covered doughnut holes, apple pie, and a rhubarb cheesecake that was essentially just a dense filling in a cup, with a pale ginger cookie that was in no way an acceptable substitute for a buttery crumb crust.
As it stands, Mona is a little hard to place. It's not tapas, not bar food, not exactly global, and not 100 percent local. The overall experience was more like a picnic lunch from a really great deli, or one great big plate from an upscale potluck. Still, it seems as though Lisa Hanson's decision to go against the grain by setting up shop downtown instead of in, say, Lynnhurst, Kingfield, or Lowertown, is slowly, quietly starting to pay off.
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