Our Predictions for the Oscars of Local Dining: The 4th Annual Charlie Awards


Sunday is the 4th annual Charlie Awards at the Pantages Theatre, where food industry pros are honored by their peers in formal, ceremonial, celebratory style. Some sneak peeks for this year's festivities include chef Steven Brown of Tilia and a band of mates literally banging on pots and pans, and conceivably, other instruments too.

According to Rick Nelson of the Star Tribune, Brown says Sue Zelickson, mastermind of the awards, thought he was a musician. "I love Sue Zelickson, and if she asks me to do something, I say 'Yes,'" said Brown. "She thought I was a musician, but I'm not. But there are so many people who work in restaurants who are involved in music, so we put out an open call."

Should be interesting. And if that ear candy doesn't, um, pan out, attendees will be treated to an afterparty at the IDS Crystal Court with the more traditional sort of chef contributions.

Without further ado, here are our Charlie Award predictions.

See also: Charlie Awards finalists announced


Outstanding Restaurant: Heyday

When it comes to eating out, you thought you had been there and done that. But Heyday drops itself in the middle of Uptown, takes classic dishes you thought you knew all too well, and renders them quite new. Take mussels, for instance. Picture the opposite of the tired old mussels you always find bobbing around in a bowl of hot broth with a ubiquitous nub of hard toast, slightly blackened at the edges. Heyday's mussels are chilled, and even chilled becomes novel here, as these sea creatures are delightfully obfuscated in a snowy dome of seafood ice, infused with whiskers of dill and pops of briny cucumber. And it's not just the play on the plate that enchants, it's in every nuance from the barmen (and women) who dote like old pals, the utter hipness of every detail right down to the lightbulb filaments, the evocative Brooklyn/Mpls/urbane style. This is the kind of place that inspires the deep sense that despite its recent arrival, it's been here on this corner of Lyndale all along, and here it will always be.

Outstanding Chef: Nick O'Leary & Tyler Shipton, Borough/Parlour, Coup d'Etat, Marche

Shipton took the prize for emerging chef last year, but any sense that he and partner Nick O'Leary aren't fully fledged chefs on the scene should be obliterated by this year. The two proved their prowess first with fine and funky Borough and Parlour, but the recent addition of kid sisters Coup d'Etat and Marche has sent them into the ranks of culinary royalty with the attendant flourishing empire. Whether they're tinkering with the many parts of lamb on a precious composed plate, or pressing a simple panini (though not simple at all, considering the cheese is imported, corned beef is house-cured, onions are slow caramelized) the technique is always meticulous, the quality stellar, and the concepts ingeniously artistic.

Outstanding Emerging Chef: Christina Nguyen, Hola Arepa

First it was everyone's favorite food truck, and now everyone's fave casual spot for any meal of the day (and everyone's pet gripe that the truck is parked, indefinitely, due to the wild success of the restaurant). Hola Arepa has deservedly edged its way onto all the best-of lists. You don't hear Christina Nguyen's name as often as you ought to on those lists, as her talent is formidable with not just with luscious takes on South American street food, but also original dishes like shiitake cachapas (sweet corn pancakes) with huitlacoche, truffle oil, goat cheese, and soft poached egg. Take that dish and put it up against any fine dining barometer and it would be right at home -- but we're glad its not, as the Caribbean blue building with the cool island vibes and the humbly diligent chef suits us just fine.

Outstanding Pastry Chef: Niki Francioli, La Belle Vie

Now that Diane Yang has headed to Spoon and Stable, the reigning queen of impossibly elaborate, technically exacting, butterflies-inducing sweet treats has made way for apprentice and alum Niki Francioli to fill some damn big kitchen clogs. She opened Brasserie Zentral with authentic takes on Viennese pastry tradition that would have your Nana swearing someone swiped her recipe book. She says she's been waiting for the opportunity to be placed as lead baker at La Belle Vie for 12 years, or essentially her entire career. Since she's already worked under the auspices of Tim McKee as lead pastry at Sea Change, the transition has been as smooth as rolled fondant.

Outstanding Bartender: Robb Jones, Spoon & Stable

With his culinary background, Robb Jones has been bringing a chef's perspective (he has a culinary degree and worked the kitchen at Bradstreet Crafthouse before jumping behind the bar there) to potables since before that was a thing. We've known that he's the city's best bartender for years, thanks to his ability to divine what you're thirsty for practically before you darken the doorstep of his bar. And once he does, the libation is always incomparably balanced, nuanced and unique, but never gets wonky or weird. He's got a respect for tradition that keeps things refined, but he's also not above doing what you came for-- getting you drunk. If you want further proof that he's the man, he's been tapped by the biggest deal happening in food right now, Spoon & Stable.

Community Hero: Alex Roberts, Alma/Brasa

Legend has it he's bought bikes for dishwashers so it would be easier to get them back and forth to work. He's an utterly devoted family man who got the idea for Brasa when it dawned on him that much in the way of restaurant food simply isn't good for you, and wanted a place where he could say with conviction: This is good, wholesome food, food that children can grow big and strong on. Apple juice and milk is organic and OJ is fresh-squeezed on the kids menu, all the meat and dairy are organic and free range, and even picking up takeout for the family is a lot less fraught than at other places. His family values extend to his staff as well, and they tend to stay with him ten years or more. He's a champion of women in the kitchen and has gone on record as saying he likes women in the kitchen for their unique talents and more sensitive palates.

Outstanding Local Craft Brew: Size 7 from Steel Toe.

It's big and hoppy, as is the norm in Minnesota beers, but with a nuanced citrus that overrides any lasting bitterness. Delicate, bold, and balanced all in one. A beer for craft beer obsessives and casual beer drinkers alike.

Outstanding Service: Travail 2.0

It's a new day. Stellar restaurant service doesn't have to mean butler-style, chin-daubing deference, and silver butter knife polish. Where else but at Travail do you get not one, but multitudes of servers, who all also happen to be the very chefs who prepared the course they are about to present? Sure, they might be dangling a slice of charcuterie off a fishing rod, or escorting you through the kitchen to suggest you build your own foie gras burger, or even performing a dance number, tableside. But, this? This is the very definition of service with a smile.

Outstanding Interior Design: Brasserie Zentral

It's a four million dollar build-out with a glittering, top-of-the-line island suite French Top anchoring the open kitchen. That little detail is every chef's wet dream, but it's got plenty for guests, too. Housed in the restored, historic Soo Line building (former railroad headquarters) with picture-window views of the new light-rail, the whole of it evokes a sense of old-timey luxury. Indeed, it's meant to look like it was original to the building when it went up in 1915. Low ceilings create intimacy, brass fixtures flash glitz, tufted booths are impossible to emerge from, and a gorgeous iconic clock behind the bar mimics the original on the building's facade. It's timeless, European, and fancy in the "They don't make 'em like that anymore" way.

Lifetime Achievement: Doug Flicker, Piccolo

He's every chef's favorite chef, and now, five years into his second time doing it his way (at Piccolo, and before, Auriga) he's at the peak of his esteemed career. Ask any chef where they'd like to spend a hundred bucks this Monday night, and the answer is always the same: Piccolo. There's a legion of big-name young-gun chefs who've come up the ranks with and under him: Erik Anderson (of upcoming Brut), the late Jon Radle, TJ Rawitzer of Kim Bartmann's empire, and many, many more. He's forever making "most underrated lists," despite the also constant national attention that the restaurant receives. It's an interesting line to toe, one that suggests no matter how many accolades he gets, it will never be too many. He's one of the godfathers responsible for churning out chef pedigree that continues to put Minneapolis on the map.

Outstanding Beverage Program: Parlour

There's Jesse Held, one of the top names in the beverage biz, in an apron frantically bussing tables. Because here's the thing at Parlour -- it ain't about the tinctures in the tiny eyedroppers. It's about you, and as they say, "They remember your name and your poison." That said, the intoxicants are irresistible and deadly -- with little $12 thimbles of speakeasy goodness (or badness, depending on how willing you are to push boozy boundaries) that are as pretty to behold as they are delicious to down.

Outstanding Food Truck: World Street Kitchen

It's been around since the get-go -- the brothers Wadi were having their truck wrapped when the question of local street food was still being legislated. So, WSK feels original and real, the big, red, brand-with-attitude street meat cruiser that slings signature burritos so exemplary, so recognizable, they've made the Urban Dictionary: "1. a life-changing experience."

Outstanding Menu Item: Red Table Meat Co.

It will find itself onto every important menu in town to be sure -- it's already happening at Pizzeria Lola, The Kenwood, Alma, La Belle Vie. Red Table Meat Co. is a true American craft triumph, a world-class product that in Europe would garner itself a controlled designation of origin classification. The true slow-food creations from charcuterie master Mike Phillips and apprentice Tyler Montgomery are not only expertly made and utterly delicious, they're important. Important because they utilize animals in a deeply respectful and humane manner, taking care to include the farmer, the hog, the tradition, and the ethics and somehow wrap them all into a months-long labor of love that you get to put on your tongue. The proof is in the pancetta.

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