428 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612.375.1971
1610 Harmon Pl., Minneapolis; 612.904.1163
Mildred Pierce At Harriet Island
105 Harriet Island Rd., St. Paul; 651.222.7373
Chest tight? Anxiety working its way under your fingernails like so many splinters? Wait--check to see if you're running for governor in a three-way race that no one seems to care a whit about. Are you? If not, then you, my soon-to-be-sunlight-deprived friend, are exhibiting symptoms of the biggest non-blood-borne danger currently working its way through the Upper Midwest: End-of-Summer Panic.
Yes, it is here. And no, not even DEET will save you from this one. But you have a month--maybe six weeks, if you're lucky--so consider this your shot-across-the-bow to scurry, scurry, scurry and make your reservations for food in the sun. Because no one likes to sit in front of the fire all winter reminiscing about how you forgot to have any fun last summer.
I'm already reminiscing about the fun time I had at Sapor, cobbling together my own do-it-yourself tasting menu-slash-happy hour out of their bar-and-patio menu, a little thing of $2 to $4 mini-plates called "One Bite, Two Bites." Been to Sapor's patio? It's really nice, a big stretch of elevated sidewalk with tables, umbrellas, artsy oversize planters and a warehouse view that makes Minneapolis seem very old-world industrial indeed. On one of the prettier evenings I can remember, I watched golden light bathe the red bricks of the Warehouse District while I sampled a glass of the earthy, cedar-edged Spanish red wine Señorio de los Llanos ($5.50), and feasted on a couple of delicious little creations.
Such as an unforgettably tasty pile of grilled green beans, the tender little dears striped with black from their time on the fire, topped with a salty, creamy, frothy pile of Gorgonzola zabaglione ($2.50). It's about all I can do not to buy a chest freezer and fill it with 600 to-go orders. I also tried a subtle house-made chicken sausage ($2) in a little bowl of piercing harissa, a hot red-pepper sauce. A little cheese biscuit ($2) was awfully good, but paired with a sweet house-made honey butter it was just about the perfect thing to have with a beer in the sunshine...like a Bell's Oberon ($3.50), maybe.
Don't get too attached to any of the dishes I've just mentioned, since Sapor is changing their "One Bite" menu every week or so; just remember that there's a pretty outdoor patio right off downtown with an absolute plenitude of free, after-6:00 p.m. surface parking in the lot across the street. In fact, when I was there one evening, four stunningly attractive young mommies all piled into the parking lot in stunningly attractive Range Rovers, unloaded their stunningly attractive children into stunningly attractive baby strollers, and proceeded to hold a very intriguing two-tiered gathering under the low summer sun, mommies at table level, sharing a bottle of wine (Sapor has a lot of nice mid-$20s bottles, like the pretty Louis Latour Valmoissine pinot noir, for $27), while the babies convened at stroller level, plotting their takeover of the world while digitally manipulating Cheerios.
But there are no strollers up on the rooftop deck at Joe's Garage, where the vibe is more along the lines of "I'm pretending I can't get any cell-phone reception and ignoring my boss." And what a nice hideout it is, now spiffed up with fancy new planters everywhere, and with the menu finally having hit its stride. I always thought the kitchen at Joe's a little rocky, neither comfortably unambitious nor successfully haute. But my latest visit made me think they've finally found their oeuvre: comfort food with a bit of spice. My favorite thing was a bowl of lamb meatballs in tomato sauce topped with mint and crumbled feta cheese, served with a basket of admittedly lackluster French bread. The meatballs were good, and isn't that a rare treat--to have meatballs on a fork under the stars? There are potatoes available all sorts of ways, as skin-on fries served with your choice of veggie gravy, basil aioli, cilantro sour cream, or red-bell-pepper mayonnaise. A curried yellowfin tuna burger ($10.95) was better than I remembered, cooked through and spiced throughout, it tasted like one of those new highfalutin' Boca burgers. The red Thai curry risotto ($8.95) was gummy and it overwhelmed whatever peas and shiitake mushrooms were lost in it.
But for some reason everything I tasted at Joe's reminded me of coming home from college and getting to raid my parents' fridge, but with a lot of beers and martinis lying around, and it seemed pretty fun. Maybe part of that was the sense of getting to have this spectacular view under the stars, and maybe only for the price of a $4.25 Newcastle and a $3.95 plate of fries. I don't know, there's something about Joe's that just makes you feel like you're being subsidized by somebody else. Counterintuitive, I know, when you're paying $20 for a beer, burger, and fries, but there it is.
Counterintuitive, too, is the path to Mildred Pierce at Harriet Island, the "restaurant barge" in the Mississippi across from downtown St. Paul. Here's how you get there: While heading out of downtown on the Wabasha Street Bridge, go east (left) on an unmarked road that looks like a construction cut. Not only is this a street, it is Water Street. It will hook down and under the bridge, leading you eventually to the barge's parking lot. It feels like you are up to no good and trying to dump a body, but really you are heading toward the prettiest restaurant view in the Twin Cities: a double-level barge with a large dining room and normal-height ceilings up top and pretty waterside tables out on the decks with a breathtaking view of St. Paul from below.
The restaurant's food reminded me--surprise!--very much of Mildred Pierce 1: really stunning only when it came to meat and potatoes, and otherwise a bit incompetent and perplexed. Greasy vegetable tempura ($8.50) wasn't anything like Japanese; it was more like a pan full of zucchini and bell peppers fried in oil that wasn't very hot. Crisp, yes, but oily, oily, oily, and served with a dipping sauce that tasted like soy sauce out of the bottle.
The best appetizer I tried was the tomato carpaccio ($9), actually a baseball-sized ball of mozzarella wrapped in a thick sheath of prosciutto, cut into slices, and arranged on a bed of thinly sliced tomatoes dressed with capers and balsamic-vinegar reduction. Tasty in a salty and substantial way, absolutely--but it's a dish that's excited about cheese and ham and not about tomatoes in any imagining.
As might be expected, the best thing on the menu is the pork, namely a pork porterhouse ($20.50), a full pound of pork chop, grilled, served with a balsamic reduction and half a grilled peach, some grilled red onion, and a bit of squash. The pork yielded flavors both piquant and sweet, and everyone at the table was fighting over it. The beef dish was nice, a pleasantly charred slice of strip steak ($22.50) topped with a fluffy lid of blue cheese and accompanied by rosemary roasted red potatoes. Are you one of those people who considers blue-cheese burgers a triumphant part of the culinary landscape? Consider this your personal siren song.
Non-meat things weren't quite there. The pan-seared walleye ($20.50) was odd. It came in a bowl of couscous in a tomato-pepper broth, the little grains swollen and overwhelmed by the thin soup, the fish topped with a lot of cooked chunks of pineapple. The thing reminded me of baby food.
Out of all the desserts I tried, I can recommend only the granità, a bowl of fresh fruit ices halfway between sorbet and chopped fruit. I tried the honeydew, which was brimming with chunks of melon: quite delicious.
Yet, with all that carping, would I go back? In a hummingbird's heartbeat, and I'd bring as many people--and preferably out-of-towners--as I could find. Because have I mentioned that Mildred Pierce at Harriet Island has the best view of any restaurant in the Twin Cities? It does. (Runners-up: Kikugawa, Sophia, the patio at Brit's Pub, and Swede Hollow coffee shop in St. Paul. Tune in next week for the answer to how many muffins fit on the head of a pin.) Definitely work it into your rotation for out-of-town guests.
You know the kind--the ones that come here and you dazzle them with museums and parks, and then they say it's such a great place to live but they could never stand the winters. So you say, "Ah, it's not that bad." But--which inflection did you use? The one like, "Yeah, if you're not a wimp like you, it's not that bad. Weakling." Or the one that goes, "It's not just great, it's so great that ungrounded spiritual tramps such as yourself will never know the half of it." Or, did you slip and use the inflection that suggests, "Just get me a job and I'm gone! Any job! At all!" Or, worse, the kind that reads, "Don't pity me. I can be brave, except in the face of your pity."
If you want to be in control of those inflections, now is the time to fill the chipmunk cheeks of your soul with sunshine: The rooftop deck at Joe's will be open through October 15; Mildred Pierce at Harriet Island will be open through September; and the deck at Sapor will be open as long as weather permits. So get going. Because you-know-what is coming. You know, here.