Northeast Social values old-fashioned camaraderie and great dinners

Catch up on the neighborhood gossip at Northeast Social

Catch up on the neighborhood gossip at Northeast Social

One warm summer evening not too long ago, I sat at one of Northeast Social's sidewalk tables and watched a man in a white linen suit pour a Belgian lambic into a glass as he chatted with friends. The scene made me think of a recent market research study in which undergraduates named Facebook their second-favorite thing—right behind the iPod—and tied with the former first-place holder, beer. Would the next generation be the first to find documenting their intoxication online more appealing than the actual thing?

I sipped a bit of my wine and noticed how the string of lights hanging overhead emitted a glow so flattering that everyone—even the frizzy-haired guy in the "Got Chlamydia?" T-shirt—looked eligible for a spot on People magazine's "Most Beautiful" list. Chatter floated through the large sliding window from the eatery's dark interior, where drinkers and diners gathered around the granite-topped, mirror-backed bar. A woman held up her iPhone to identify whatever sexy song was playing on the stereo as the ceiling fan whirled in a blur. The place was hot in more ways than one.

Northeast Social revives the old-fashioned notion of spending time together. It's steeped in the traditions of the neighborhood surrounding the Grain Belt Brewery, where Minneapolis's working class gathered in the churches and bars situated on practically every corner. Today, the 13th and University crossroads has become one of the coolest corners in the city, with its independently owned restaurants, galleries, and record shop. (Northeast Social is just east of the Ritz Theater, sharing a building with the century-old Polish National Association Hall.) Young artsy types are supplanting the neighborhood's aging longtime residents, but Northeast still feels more small-town than gentrified. "There's no pretentiousness, and everyone knows everyone," says Northeast Social co-owner Joe Wagner. "I don't get a lot done during the day because I'm saying hi to people."

Northeast Social's effortless-seeming appeal reminds me of Barbette in its ability to impress a date or an out-of-towner. It's a place you'd expect to find in a bigger city—New York, Boston, or San Francisco—yet it possesses enough of the Minneapolis vernacular that it doesn't feel like it's looking beyond itself for validation. That means you might see a tandem bicycle locked up out front, or a tattooed lady eating supper. Or a group of old men dressed in white parading past with jingle bells jangling from their ankles.

Northeast Social's owners, Joe Wagner and Sam Bonin, are longtime friends who grew up together in Rochester and worked in numerous Twin Cities restaurants—Al Vento, Nick and Eddie, and the Times, to name a few. Their families helped them undertake a massive renovation of the 1867 building that previously housed Europol Eva's Delicatessen. They exposed the dining room's original brick walls and its ornate tin ceiling, which Wagner says was "like finding buried treasure." Wagner and Bonin introduced themselves to their neighbor, the artist Nick Harper, when they pulled a piece of wood off the wall and stuck their heads through a hole into Harper's adjacent Rogue Buddha gallery. (Fortunately, Harper didn't take offense, and he lent his eerie paintings of long-necked ladies to hang on Northeast Social's walls.) The resulting space feels vaguely European and a little Latin—it might be described as Parisian bistro meets Buena Vista Social Club in the Midwest.

Wagner and Bonin tapped their longtime Rochester pal Eddie Hayes Jr. to run the kitchen, and Hayes's menu is inspired by favorite dishes he's cooked at Heartland, W.A. Frost, and I Nonni, among others. While nearby restaurants focus more on steaks (Erte and Jax) and Minnesota comfort food (the Modern and the Sample Room), Northeast Social's cuisine has a more global influence. The menu is short but will change frequently, Hayes says, because he doesn't want the regulars to get bored. "You have to keep ahead of them," he notes.

If I had eaten only one meal at Northeast Social, I would probably tell you to drop everything and head over there immediately, as my first visit proved to be one of the best dinners I've had this year. Hayes's simple snacks aren't the sorts of things you see on menus all over town. He serves matchstick fries with deep-fried okra, which have crisp tempura shells that contrast with their viscous core (sounds gross, but it tastes good—trust me). The appetizer, which also includes pickled chard stems and mustard aioli, should become a new classic for the paper-lined, red plastic basket. The Welsh rarebit may cause some to assume the menu-maker misspelled "rabbit," but it's actually a plate of cheese fondue. Crispy-soft, blue-cheese-topped toasts are drowned in a thick Swiss-cheddar mix—and they're absolutely delicious.

For the next course, I ordered a whole trout stuffed with chard and wrapped in a slice of parchment-thin smoked ham to infuse more flavor and moisture into the flesh. The trout paired well with roasted potatoes and watercress salad, and its leathery skin—an unloved treat that can scare people off—added a pleasantly fatty chew and a concentrated, almost smoky flavor. My friend ordered a lamb sandwich packed with meat medallions, blush-pink in the center, and a crunchy watercress and mint pesto. It tasted like spring had been slapped between two slices of bread.

For dessert, I wasn't about to pass up the panna cotta made with rosemary-infused cream and plated in a pool of honey. It was the best panna cotta I've ever had: cloud-like texture, golden sweetness, and an edge of underbrush that gave it a sophistication most of us can only aspire to match.

On subsequent visits, the heady rush of first impressions wore off a bit, and I encountered some of Northeast Social's humdrum aspects and quirks. After sampling each entrée from the brief list, none had nearly the impact of the trout. The only one I'd order again was the sirloin served with chèvre mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus—at $19, it's a great budget steak dinner. The St. Louis-style pork ribs from Fischer Farms were tender and smoky (the sauce is made with smoked Roma tomatoes), but I didn't love the seasoning blend. Ditto the burger: As much as I liked the tempura-fried jalapeños on top, it wasn't going to make anybody's top 10 list.

Many of Hayes's entrées have an Italian influence, and while the gnocchi and risotto were fine, they weren't as good as others I've had locally. Piled on the plate like charcoal briquettes, the gnocchi were a bit dense and gluey, and the crushed red pepper in the sauce masked its tomato-basil flavors. I found the risotto a touch al dente, though I liked the freshness of the asparagus, cherry tomatoes, lemon, and dill. When I paid my bill one night, I noticed the roast chicken was listed as "Airline Chicken," which might be interpreted as describing the cut, or as an inside joke about the kitchen's lack of enthusiasm for an obligatory menu item. While sides of wilted escarole and cannellini beans perked things up, the dish wasn't especially remarkable.

My impression of Northeast Social vacillated with each item that arrived at the table. When I tasted the dry, underseasoned lamb sausage or the too-sweet, bland ginger brew, my mood dipped. When I had the lemony olive tapenade and an arugula salad tossed with peas, bacon, red onion, and mint, I swooned. Northeast Social hasn't yet convinced me that it's a dinner destination, but with its boutique wines and worldly beer list, it's definitely a good spot to drink and snack.

For example, one night a friend and I split a 22-ounce Flying Horse lager, chilled tableside in an ice bucket. (They give you cute little juice glasses and you serve each other, as you would with a bottle of wine.) We paired the beer with a plate of roasted Pimiento de Padrón, a bright Spanish pepper with a fickle characteristic: About one in ten are spicy hot. Eating the peppers became a game of Russian roulette—a thrill that engaged my friend and me as well as others at the neighboring tables. Inside, I heard a clanging bell, signaling that it was time for Northeast's version of "cheers" or "salud," a toast they refer to as a "social." I raised my glass and drank a sip of beer. And resisted the impulse to Twitter about it.