Nick and Eddie: the New Neighborhood Hangout
NICK AND EDDIE
1612 Harmon Place, Minneapolis
I don't know about you, but I was never really cool enough to hang out at the old Loring Café, Minneapolis's arty mosh pit of creative cross-pollination. Sure, I could look the part: Doc Marten boots, striped tights, red velvet garage-sale dress. And I could follow the drill: Bushwhack through the potted-plant jungle, order a glass of red wine, lay claim to an overstuffed couch, and discuss who was showing at what gallery. But I couldn't really ever get comfortable. I always feared that the people who made the Loring the Loring—the goths, the riot girls, the men wearing skirts—could tell that I wasn't one of them. They knew I'd come from a place where everybody played sports and went to church. And for that, they would resent me.
Still, the Loring had its allure, especially on those evenings when a saxophonist crooned in the corner, even as the old brick building slowly crumbled around him. When you stepped into that big, crowded room with the gorgeous picture windows, you embarked on a night of possibility, never knowing if you'd end the evening being cast in a play, going home with a busboy, or retrieving your car from the impound lot (the latter being the only scenario I personally experienced).
In the six years since the Loring went dark, the boho-mojo dispersed, and the city has lacked a definitive artists' boîte. A few pioneering hipsters headed to gentrifying Northeast, while others still hang out at Café Lurcat, the Loring's replacement. Backed by D'Amico and partners, Lurcat is a nice enough place, but the scene has always felt a little stiff by comparison, lacking the Loring's heart, its throb, and charisma.
I was reminiscing about the misfit Loring on my way to Nick and Eddie, which recently moved into a space next to Joe's Garage. While the city's recent crop of celebrity-chef, institution-backed restaurants has injected new life into the dining scene, it's also served as a reminder of the value of quirkier, more personality-driven eateries. When I approached the entrance to Nick and Eddie, I noticed the sidewalk was no longer clean and dry, as it was in front of Lurcat. Instead, the pavement was banked by a curb of scuzzy gray snow, strewn with cigarette butts, scattered like birdseed. It was the only time in my life I've smiled at such a sight. It reminded me of the Loring.
Inside, Nick and Eddie is unexpectedly white, with tall ceilings. The bar and dining room, which were created by combining the former homes of Loring Grill and Exile clothing shop, feel very modern, except for a few retro details, like the flocked wallpaper (go ahead, touch it) and the garage door against the back alley. Diners can gaze omnisciently over the dining room from the loft, or steal away from the crowds at the tiny table tucked under the staircase.
Nick and Eddie is a partnership between Jessica Anderson, who started Bakery on Grand with her husband, Doug (who recently owned A Rebours), and chef Steve Vranian, who has worked at a bunch of local restaurants, including California Café, Murray's, and NorthCoast. Vranian and Doug Anderson worked together in the mid-1980s at Jeremiah Tower's notable Stars restaurant in San Francisco, and reconnected when both had moved to the Twin Cities. "Doug called me when Bakery on Grand first opened," Vranian recalls. "He said, 'Do you remember me?' and 'Do you have any cooks that can work tonight?'"
While the Andersons had success with neighborhood bistro fare at Bakery on Grand and fine dining at A Rebours, and Vranian is known for his California cuisine, the style of the new restaurant is more difficult to pin down. Named after a New York institution called Nick and Eddie where Doug once worked as a server, the emphasis seems less about a specific cuisine style than a sense of hospitality. After financial troubles closed A Rebours, Doug—the guy with the long, scraggly hair and owly spectacles—has come out of the kitchen to again work front-of-the-house, overseeing the room between copious cups of coffee and cigarettes.
Vranian's midwinter menu is mostly comforting fare—part French bistro, part middle-Europe deli fare, part California cuisine—made interesting again. Take, for example, the beef cheeks, a dish you don't see too often, as people tend to get squeamish about "face meat." (Taquerias sometimes serve it as barbacoa de cabeza, derived from a traditional way of cooking a whole cow's head by wrapping it in burlap and cooking it in a dirt pit for half a day—and you thought tossing a steak on the grill was manly). Anyway, these beef cheeks are marinated overnight, browned, and then braised to taste like a rich, moist meat butter, a combination of rib meat and bone marrow, that's balanced by the sweetness of puréed parsnips. If the sauce, a veal-stock reduction, hadn't had the eerie consistency of Elmer's glue, I might have sworn off pot roast for good. My favorite dish was another brasserie riff: salmon poached in apple cider, served with browned spaetzle, sauerkraut, and Brussels sprouts, a pairing likely never made before and likely never to be made again, but nevertheless fantastic.
To create the California-inspired portion of the menu, Vranian installed a mesquite grill in the kitchen, which sends lovely scents into the dining room. The complicated process of feeding and raking its 800-degree charcoal fire (Vranian calls it "a Zen thing") is worth the work, as it imparts a smoky char to otherwise straightforward steaks and fish specials. The grilled duck is especially magic, paired perfectly with a side of wild rice, hominy, and sweet potato, which would be a killer contribution to any Thanksgiving dinner.
The entrées are all $21 or less, but it's easy to graze even more affordably. Pair a salad with a plate of gnocchi—hollow puffs made like tiny, savory éclairs—or a plate of toasts spread with chicken liver pâté, its steely richness balanced by watercress and bits of bacon. For four bucks, there's a generous bowl of borscht, which starts with a base of beef-cheek braising liquid, beets, and cabbage, and finishes with a whirl of dill, sour cream, and a kick of smoked paprika and chili. Appetizers generally run between $5 and $8.
There were only a few dishes I wouldn't order again. The pork with creamy polenta and roast vegetables was rather unassertive. The whitefish salad (served with potato pancakes) tasted good, but if I'd wanted to pick out the bones myself I would have made it at home. And the risotto, which I ordered twice, had hardly any flavor, as if every ingredient it contained (mushroom stock, various vegetables, pistachios, tangerine oil) had somehow caused a mysterious chemical reaction in which each flavor canceled out another.
The desserts, on the other hand, could be ordered over and over again, between the homemade chocolate Ho-Ho, the butterscotch pudding, and the ginger cake, which is one of the best I've ever tasted. Jessica Anderson, who was the baker behind Bakery on Grand, counters the spicy burn of fresh ginger with a dollop of tangy crème fraîche, a slather of caramel sauce, and a dusting of powdered sugar. If you skip dessert—though it's not recommended—you can sample her sweets when the check comes accompanied by dollhouse-cute cookies (hope she's been making meringues).
Interestingly, Vranian tends to downplay the role of his food—"Everyone's thinking too much about this stuff," he says. "Just eat it."—and says that he's more interested in creating an inclusive neighborhood hangout. A place, as I see it, with some of the same energy that used to flow through the Loring and the also-arty New French Café, Doug's former "post office" when he'd hitchhike back to Minneapolis from New York. ("It's the first place I would go," he says. "I'd leave a card there to let people know where I was staying.")
While the crowd at Nick and Eddie has a funky, arty feel, it's inclusive enough for those who engage with art from a board member's perspective. One night, when I visited, it seemed as welcome a place for two guys with scruffy beards and hoodies having a platonic man-date at the bar, as it was to those having a romantic one. For every guy lugging an instrument case, it seemed, there was one carrying a baby bassinette. That's what differentiates Nick and Eddie from the Loring: What it lacks in edginess, it makes up for in egalitarianism. Yet it possesses a haunting sense of familiarity that makes people want to be there. (Perhaps it's the old New French bartender behind the counter, or the music on the stereo, which I found to have ever-hummable melodies, though I don't think I recognized one tune.) If you wait around long enough, it seems, everyone you know will eventually show up, be it your ex-girlfriend, mother, or dental hygienist.
My last visit, for a delicious chicken hash lunch, confirmed that Nick and Eddie had become the city's new arty hangout. I was about to pay the check when who should arrive but the aging Loring/New French fixture Scott Seekins. Sporting his signature black suit, black shock of hair, and Harry Potter glasses, Seekins carried a painting under his arm—a self-portrait of himself marrying Britney Spears. Doug Anderson walked around the restaurant, holding the painting against the wall, trying to decide where to place it. I was confident he would find a spot, just as he had for the rest of us.
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