Psycho Suzi's, Blackbird, and Rice Paper return better than ever
On Tuesday, November 2, Chris Stevens tested the fire extinguisher at his reincarnated Blackbird restaurant at 38th and Nicollet in south Minneapolis. It was a poignant moment, because the original Blackbird, which Stevens ran with his wife, Gail Mollner, at 50th and Bryant, was destroyed by fire last February. So when Mollner posted a photograph of the extinguisher test on the restaurant's blog, she added the following caption:
Dear Powers that Be: Please, for the love of all things happy and smiling and fun in the world, can we never EVER EVER have to use this?!?!?! That would be really, really awesome. Thanks, Powers that Be.
If any of you want to repeat that prayer on Mollner's behalf, it probably wouldn't hurt.
Stevens and Mollner, who worked together many years ago at St. Paul's now-defunct Table of Contents (he cooked, she waited tables), have endured a restaurateur's worst nightmare. But by focusing on the tragedy's silver lining, they summoned the wherewithal to rebuild their dream in new digs that are twice as big and even more beautiful. Reopening for business in less than a year left little time for dwelling on, or mourning, the past. "We're the type of people who suck it up and move on," Mollner says.
Blackbird's new home has floor-to-ceiling windows that lend an airiness to the dining room and invite diners to stretch a lunch into the late afternoon by lingering over a cappuccino or a slice of gooey mocha chocolate cake. The decor is spare but eclectic: a display of mismatched mirrors, a decorative door that doesn't open, and the famous antler collection, a few pairs of which were retrieved from the fire's ash. Mollner says she knows the "kooky" antlers aren't for everyone, but she likes the way they represent the restaurant's DNA: Blackbird is not a replicable chain designed to please the masses, but simply to suit the tastes of the owners and their regular guests.
Prices have crept up a few dollars since the first restaurant opened in 2007, but the majority of menu items have stayed the same, and most of the old staff has returned to cook and serve it. Though nearly everything on the menu might be classified as gourmet comfort food, the list avoids the slider trios and panko-crusted mac and cheeses that have made the trend feel clichéd. Blackbird's fare manages to seem familiar while featuring dishes that are rarely if ever seen on local menus. For example, the stellar celery/Brie soup is as pleasant as a classic beer-cheese, yet offers a much more intriguing combination of fresh grassiness and funky tang.
Blackbird's sandwiches are prepared with the same care as entrées, and the walleye po' boy is a fitting tribute to Minnesota's most revered fish. Its flaky fillet comes from the state's only commercial walleye fishery at Red Lake and is fried in a cornmeal batter to be crisp without getting greasy. The accompanying braised, pickled red cabbage and spicy Cajun mayo easily surpass the typical tartar sauce.
By serving an $11 version of the budget-minded banh mi, the restaurant sets itself up for scrutiny: Is Blackbird's sandwich three times as good as the banh mi served at hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joints? In a vacuum, perhaps not. But through a relativist lens, where ambiance counts for something, as do ethically sourced ingredients, the sandwich seems fairly priced—particularly because it's perfectly assembled. A French Meadow organic focaccia bun offers a crusty-soft contrast that isn't as extreme as the usual French/Vietnamese baguette. It's stacked with a thick wedge of shredded, naturally raised Duroc pork and a swipe of paté, then piled with house-pickled carrots and cucumbers, plus a few sprigs of cilantro and kicky jalapeno slices.
In the same vein, the spicy peanut noodles pull the punch they might at an exclusively Asian restaurant. Chewy udon curlicues and bok choy stalks are smothered with a nutty, fiery sauce that can be made even richer by blending in the runny yolk of the fried egg perched on top.
Blackbird is an equally good spot for breakfast in a cozy booth or a late-night nosh at the bar. The huevos rancheros are good—eggs, cream cheese, salsa, hash browns—and even better when prepared Colleen O'Brien style, with crumbles of house-made chorizo sausage and hunks of avocado. But you could do just as well with a beer and an order of the duck-filled egg rolls or a plate of nachos topped with ground lamb.
Dinner is the restaurant's weakest area, and that section of the menu contains a few items to avoid. The tuna hot dish, for one, doesn't quite hit its upscale ambitions. Though the garlic cream sauce goes nicely with pasta spirals and spinach, it just doesn't seem the right application for ahi tuna, and the sun-dried tomatoes impart an off-putting bitterness. And while the appeal of a $20 steak is undeniable, Blackbird's London broil is a dish that doesn't seem worth bothering with—the meat is too plain and chewy. A side of gnocchi improves the plate, but frankly, the braised beef Longhorn sandwich is a better choice.
At its best, Blackbird has the same sort of aw-shucks appeal of a quirky, talented individualist: It's a restaurant that isn't ashamed to be what it is. The owners aren't afraid to call a glass of cheap bubbly "cheap" (it tastes better than expected for $4 a glass but is still unpleasantly harsh) or admonish cell phone users. If you leave your device on the table, the management says it reserves the right to "accidentally" douse it with water.
If that last part makes Mollner sound rather mom-like, that's because she sees the restaurant as an extension of her home, and its patrons as her friends. "That's really the purpose of our restaurant: We want everyone to feel like they're a regular," she says. "I love that I'm serving a dinner party at my house every night."
AN EVENING AT PSYCHO SUZI'S Motor Lounge hasn't really begun until you've sipped from Leilani's Fire Bowl, touted on the menu as a "cadre of booze and boozosity." The ceramic vessel might look like a bundt pan on a pedestal—something your hippie aunt might have created in a 1970s pottery class. But the drink is as stiff as the bowl's $35 theft-prevention deposit: booze, booze, and more booze, with a splash of juice and a little ice, plus a few citrus slices and maraschino cherries. In the center of the drink bowl—an island of booze within booze—Bacardi 151 burns with a blue flame. The drink's straws are dangerously short, so beware of lengthy facial hair—certainly more than one hipster has had his ironic mustache singed.
An even greater joy than a shared bowl of booze is sharing the camaraderie at Psycho Suzi's, which continues to draw a decidedly mixed crowd that includes both Northeast's gentrifying class and its longtime residents, including that middle-aged guy in the corner with an honest-to-goodness Nordic mullet.
The new Psycho Suzi's moved into the old Gabby's space at 19th and Marshall, just down the street from its original digs. Owner Leslie Bock, who founded the iconic Uptown tattoo shop Saint Sabrina's Parlor in Purgatory, took everything great about the old Psycho Suzi's and gave us more of it.
The tiki drinks are still served in available-for-purchase decorative mugs, but they've had their recipes reworked by local cocktail gurus Johnny Michaels of La Belle Vie and Pip Hanson of Cafe Maude. They look right at home set on a tacky laminated tabletop, illuminated by a kitschy light fixture. Even the old restaurant's floor covering made the move—$50,000 worth of custom-designed carpet that looks like thick wood planks. Psycho Suzi's self-styled "poor man's paradise" is exactly that, between the entryway waterfall, the walls lined with bamboo and thatch, and the three upstairs bars that open only on weekends.
The bar's menu is still a solid execution of Midwest Americana: deviled eggs with yolk mounded like soft serve, those pickle-ham-cream cheese roll-ups that always seem to appear at family reunion picnics, or pizza you'd dig into after working the third shift at the Harley Davidson plant. Okay, a gussied-up version of such a pie, since the deep-dish Four Barrel pairs spicy sausage with red peppers and feta and the Sunny Buick includes roasted garlic and pine nuts. Still, both are delicious.
And when the enormous patio opens this summer, the new, improved Psycho Suzi's will have nearly 800 seats—and certainly the hottest ones on the Minneapolis riverfront.
THE RECIPE FOR the sticky-sweet peanut sauce that comes with Rice Paper's spring rolls is still top secret—even the waitstaff doesn't know what it contains. And after the restaurant moved from its sleepy Linden Hills shoebox to a larger, splashier space at 50th and France, the favored appetizer continues to sell out quickly.
In its former home, Rice Paper developed a reputation for serving Southeast Asian fare calibrated to south Minneapolis tastes, in digs far more serene than the pungent, sun-scalded food markets of owner An Nguyen's native Vietnam. The new dining room has more seats and bigger windows but retains the restaurant's signature sense of calm.
Besides a new list of sakes, most of the menu hasn't changed. The Mekong Encounter isn't such a torrid affair, but a mild, coconut-based Thai-style red curry. The Lunar Clay Pot is heavy on the shiitake mushrooms, in a bright ginger sauce. Overall, dishes are composed with a light hand, their flavors fresh but not too spicy. They tend to be less intense and a little more expensive than most local Southeast Asian eateries.
True to the restaurant's health-conscious image, indulgences at Rice Paper feel heavily taxed: A small, spendy cup of gritty chocolate mousse can't compare to the wares at the cupcake or ice cream shops down the block.
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