Reinventing the Meal
Willie's Wine Bar & Cuisine
1100 Harmon Place, Minneapolis
It's entirely usual for a destination restaurant to swap out her corsets and heels for sweatpants and slippers after a few years, and slide into a cozy, sloppy, "neighborhood restaurant" identity. It's far, far more rare for a neighborhood restaurant to set out white tablecloths, get a haircut and a nice new dress, and swan around the town as a destination restaurant. And a coffee shop? Turning into a destination restaurant? When pigs fly! But check the windows for hogs piloting Cessnas, because Bunky, it's happened, and the proof is Willie's.
You may know Willie's, though probably you do not, as the coffee shop with benefits that opened betwixt Loring Park and downtown last year. If you did know Willie's, you have probably thought of it fondly as a good place to get a coffee or a glass of wine while... waiting for a table to open up at Buca? Waiting for that Lund's to get built downtown? Waiting for the locksmith to come and open up your car? Something like that.
"Things weren't quite working out with the coffee side of things," chef Bruno Oakman told me. "People were like: Do we sit down? Do we get our own stuff? What, you have food? What's with the coffee? Where am I?" All good questions. So Willie's closed its doors for a few days over the Fourth of July weekend, did some remodeling, added some art, set out table linens, and so on. The place reopened with a remarkably ambitious menu of tapas-sized plates, and its full name was changed from Willie's Wine Bar & Coffee House to Willie's Wine Bar & Cuisine. A few weeks ago, I happened along and began to fall in love.
I knew there was something special about Willie's the moment the grilled romaine salad ($7) hit the table. This twist on a Caesar featured charred, but still firm leaves of the lettuce arranged in a long, thin pile, prettily adorned with yellow moons of translucent Asian preserved egg yolk and good, heavy anchovies, all resting in a glossy pool of lemony, garlic-touched dressing. Each bite was intense in every dimension—the bitterness of the char, the pop of the garlic, the richness of the egg and dressing, the salt of the anchovy—and yet held together in confident balance. More than that, it was a Caesar salad, more or less, and if you can do something new on this earth with that old restaurant workhorse, you deserve bouquets and gifts from all the restaurant workers and goers in the land. I would subsequently learn that chef Oakman has a stunning talent for making tried-and-true restaurant favorites fresh and lovable, which is really an incredibly difficult thing to do. His pea and bell pepper pizza ($9), for instance, which I know sounds terrible, is made by topping a crisp, light crust with a puree of artichokes and cream, scattering that with wee bits of Spanish onion and red pepper, adding green peas, and topping it with fresh mozzarella, all of which results in something creamy, sweet, light, and in that way of comfort foods, utterly forgettable, because you take it for granted as soon as you swallow it: Of course, pea pizza, that old no-brainer, who can't make that taste good?
It turns out that chef Oakman is a Waconia, Minnesota, native who has put in some time in various prominent Twin Cities restaurant kitchens, including two years as the executive chef at St. Paul's Pazzaluna and three years working in the kitchens at the Graves 601 Hotels, and if one is so inclined one can trace a few influences: The pizzas, including a good, sturdy one made with red sauce, a variety of sliced mushrooms, and spicy sausage ($9), are as good as you would expect from a Pazzaluna veteran. And a few of the $3 tiny bites seem like the amuse bouches that precede a meal at Cosmos at the 601 Graves; if you go, be sure to try the parmesan crisp ($3), a lacy doily of parmesan cheese molded into a shallow cup and filled with a simple salad made mainly of itty-bitty micro arugula and roasted red peppers—it's such light, fun fingerfood. Mostly, though, Oakman's food seems very much his own. Seared sesame salmon in brie cream ($9 for a tapas-sized portion or $16 for a full entree-sized one) was another dish that I thought sounded terrible but was truly impressed with. For this, a salmon fillet is roasted with sesame seeds, and presented in a thick, spoon-sticking pool of a sauce made with toasted sesame oil, roasted garlic, and, yes, brie cheese—cheese that seems to unite the various intense, roasty flavors along an axis of weight and sweet that complements those qualities in the fish. It was delicious, and both familiar and surprising—familiar in the sense of being yet another white plate of salmon and sauce, and surprising in the sense of being very different from anything I've had in several years. The menu at Willie's is, as I mentioned, mostly not entree-sized. There are half a dozen small "bites," priced at $3 each, which, literally, vanish in two or three mouthfuls; then there are another dozen or so standard appetizer-sized options, most of which cost less than $10, such as the summery strawberry soup made with mascarpone, honey, and fresh ginger ($7), which smelled so good I was somewhat sad it was a soup and not a perfume. Finally, there are the pizzas and a number of more substantial meat- and fish-based entrees that can be ordered in either small appetizer sizes or full entree ones. The grilled sirloin steak, for instance, can be had in either an $11 or $17 size, but either one features meat marinated until it's memorably flavorful, then seared and served thinly sliced in a spicy bowl of roasted corn broth amped up with roast shallot and blue cheese. The white sea bass ($13 or $19) is sautéed skin-side-down until that skin is crisp enough to bounce a quarter off, finished in an oven, and served in bowl full of scarlet watermelon broth given a tinge of edge with chili pepper, the whole thing made lively with various add-ins jazzing up the broth, including ripe tomato pico de gallo, fresh mint, and crisp watercress. It was a flawless dish, and refreshing, and if you're the kind of person who gets worked up over what sort of wine to pair with which entree, you should know that every single dish on Willie's menu comes with a suggestion for pairing, printed right beside the menu item, in small type.
Is that too rigid a way to pair wines and foods? Then you could just order all the wines that you think might go with your dish, and sort it out later. Well, you could, since most of Willie's 80-odd wines are available in two-ounce tasting pours, as well as in standard glass and bottle sizes. The wine list at Willie's tends to feature many of the most popular, most well-liked wines commonly for sale in the metro, serves them all in fine Riedel stemware, and presents them ingeniously, with accompanying business cards that have the name and varietal composition of the wine clearly printed out so that you have no excuse for forgetting what you liked. And if that's not enough, the place has a relationship with the liquor store chain Haskell's, and if you bring the card naming your chosen wine over to Haskell's, they'll give you a 10 percent discount on any single bottle of wine, or 15 percent off a case.
What, you say, that's awful nice and darn convenient, too! Willie's is kind of like that. They've got a series of happy-hour specials that seem thoroughly out of character for such a fine-dining restaurant: Mark your calendar for happy hour from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. weekdays, and from 10:00 p.m. to close other nights. The kitchen stays open till midnight Wednesday through Saturday, too, so if you're looking for a $4 glass of wine and something wonderful to eat at 11:00 p.m. on a Thursday night, by god, there's a new option for you.
What, you say, this doesn't sound like fine dining to you—it's too affordable, too convenient, too friendly to non-fine-dining types? You say if Willie's offered free live entertainment you'd just roll over and let them scratch your belly? Get rolling—Wednesday through Saturday nights a lovely, none-too-loud jazz combo plays in the midst of Willie's long, simple space, prompting one to order plenty of desserts and stretch the night out—desserts such as the Mexican chocolate cake, in which a warm, modest, slightly spicy chocolate cake is paired with giant slices of an airy macadamia nut-frozen meringue ice-cream concoction ($7.50). Did I mention that there's free street parking after 6:00 p.m., too? Of course there is. It's a win-win-win—except for the Loring Park neighbors who have had Willie's to themselves all summer. They're about to know the unique, unusual pain that occurs when your local undiscovered gem becomes the darling destination of drivers from Downtown to Dundas and Delano and back again.
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