I put out the call a few weeks ago for readers to nominate their most essential Minnesota restaurants. The plan? To celebrate the good, to reorient the column a little away from "news," which inherently leans toward the new, and, generally, to see what happened.
What happened was fascinating.
For one, the letters flooded in. Given no guidelines, people didn't follow any. Some readers sent heartfelt, moving stories praising a single restaurant. (You'll read some of those in the months to come.) Others sent in full metro-area annotated restaurant guides, which filled me with awe at their complexity and depth, and scared me a little in terms of my job security. The largest group of writers sent in simple lists of their favorite restaurants, usually three to 20 items long. A fourth group sent in two- or three-word emails as brief and to the point as a Saran Wrap bikini: "Lucé, numbnuts!"
I didn't know exactly where this project would go when I launched it, but a few things became instantly clear. For one, when I say Minnesota restaurant, you hear Italian restaurant: Italian nominations outstripped any other category by about two to one. Ultimately, though, it became clear why pollsters ask leading and inflexible questions: If you put strict guidelines to your questions, you get clear answers. In my very open call, I got a very open mish-mash response—a vibrant, exciting, creative, invigorating, wonderful mish-mash, but nothing to feed into a computer for an Answer.
But who cares, right? This open, ongoing, reader-driven project obviously demands a flexible response from me, so welcome to the first of what will be a series on Essential Minnesota Restaurants.
Our kickoff topic? Broders' Pasta Bar. How we got here? Out of all the restaurants on all the lists readers sent in, Broders' appeared most frequently. First thought, best thought. You speak, I eat! Broders' it is.
As we drove to the restaurant I explained Broders' Pasta Bar's reservation system to my date: They're not reservations, exactly. You call Broders' the night you want to dine there and put your name on a list. When you get there, they highlight your name on the list and hand you a light-up pager doohickey. Then you wait. In the summer, you wait on the pretty outdoor patio and can enjoy a glass of wine or a beer and any number of little antipasti; in the winter, you stand in the hallway with a drink. (I have my doubts as to whether this calling ahead is anything but a psychological placebo for guests, but I do it anyway.)
Once I finished explaining the reservation policy, I relaxed into the evening and became slightly giddy. Holy buckets, we were going to Broders'! What a treat. So often a restaurant critic's nights are crapshoots—unknown restaurants bearing unknown rewards—but Broders' is Minneapolis's sure bet. As soon as those thoughts crossed my mind I cursed myself: Now you've done it, it'll be awful.
I shouldn't have worried. We started off with fresh clams in a spicy tomato sauce ($8.25), one of those simple dishes that are so rarely pulled off well in Minnesota. Sweet—almost banana-sweet—mineral-edged Littleneck clams were paired with just enough spicy, chunky tomato sauce to showcase the lively purity of the quahogs; we devoured them.
Marinated crimini mushrooms grilled with thyme and slices of young fennel ($6.95) were similar in that they were unadorned enough to taste pure and bold, but adorned enough to taste polished and precisely prepared. Another plate devoured.
A classic Caprese salad ($6.50) contained some of the last ripe summer tomatoes and disks of real Italian water-buffalo mozzarella, which were as light and fresh as dew. We demolished that one, too.
Glasses of good, basic Italian wine accompanied our meal: We split a split of apple-edged but dry Carpene Prosecco ($9.50) and shared a carafe of 2004 Castello di Farnatella Chianti ($6.50 a glass; $13 a half-bottle carafe; $26 a bottle), which neatly pulled off the rustic Italian wine trick of being just fruity, acidic, and deeply plummy enough to stand up to any amount of tomato and spice you could throw at it.
As we ate we noticed that we had the same servers we always have at Broders', and we watched the line cooks furiously filling, flipping, tossing, and dumping sauté pans as flames and plumes of steam burst around them. They looked like some kind of operatic cross between toreadors mid-bullfight and Lucy confronting the conveyor belt of incoming candies in the famous I Love Lucy episode.
I have some years of experience as a line cook myself. "I would last two minutes out there," I concluded. "That's the hardest-working line I've ever seen."
These pan pounders soon produced an exquisite plate of wild boar braised in milk and fennel and served on a bed of their house-made linguini ($12.95). The boar was as soft as a cheese, but each morsel had a winy, gamy taste as deeply resonant as the darkest, most peppery chocolate. Paired with the chewy, silky pasta, it was like eating forkfuls of a cold night by the fire in a Mediterranean forest.
The fettuccine Bolognese ($9.25) could have been in the dictionary illustrating the concept: The meat was tender, creamy, sparely placed on the pasta just as it should be, like lace on a window; the pasta was chewy, graceful, sturdy, elegant.
We finished our meal with some simple workhorse desserts: a rustic apple pie ($4.95) and a pair of sweet, fresh mini cannoli ($5.25).
The meal couldn't have been any nicer: Not a dish could have been done any better, service was quick and knowing, the wine was pre-selected to pair perfectly with the cuisine. I rolled out of there fat, happy, and rejoicing in the wisdom of the people.
On my next visit, though, I began to second-guess the people. Would-be diners were stacked 10-deep at the door, the parking lot was packed, the phone was ringing off the hook with more diners hoping to get in. As I stood in the throng, I wondered: Is it even remotely helpful to tell any more of you to dine at Broders' Pasta Bar? What is the point of giving self-evident advice? What's next? Hey, kid, you want to know how to make a killing in the market? Buy low, sell high. Hey, another thing: It only takes five things to raise a perfect kid: Love, wisdom, time, money, and luck. Want a good marriage? Find someone you can live with, laugh with, and change with, and then work at it every day. If you want more of this, have your fortune-cookie factory contact me and we'll see what we can do.
Sadly, the meal I had on my doubtful night at Broders' was just as good as ever. An appetizer of Parmigiano gelato ($5.25) revealed a ball of creamy cheese as buoyant as bubbles and as appealing as frosting. I was beside myself as to whether it tasted better straight from the fork in its buttery intensity, or spread thin on the house-made cracker-breads, which highlighted the simple rusticity of the flavors.
A lasagna ($12.95) made with spinach-flavored noodles, nutmeg-scented lamb, and ricotta in a pale-pink tomato cream sauce was as substantial as a roast and as rich as a layer cake; it was a celebration on a plate. As I scanned the various other triumphs on the table, taking in the menu of entrees priced from $7.95 (toothy stringozzi with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil) to a mere $13.95 (pricey prosciutto, asparagus, local chicken, and mascarpone adorning quadrucci), I despaired: What was the point of writing about this place? To stack you all up 40 deep instead of 10 deep?
I called up Molly Broder the next day to try to find something to add to this discussion that wasn't obvious from the heaps of fan mail or the proficiency on the plates.
Molly opened her deli, Broders' Cucina Italiana, with her husband, Tom, 25 years ago. They added the Pasta Bar 13 years ago, partly because they loved Italian food but more so because they were looking for a business model that would, unlike most American jobs, support their young family both structurally and financially.
"We used to live in Chicago before we moved here," Molly told me, "and I drove to Oak Brook every day for work. After two years of that I decided I didn't want a life like that, I didn't want to ever commute again. People always ask us now, 'Will you open a Broders' in St. Paul, in Eden Prairie, in North Carolina?' No. I've got my family, my neighbors, and my customers right here all around me within arm's reach. Why would I want to wreck that?"
Broder explained that the ability to bring her three boys to work, to bounce back and forth between work and her house two blocks away, to intimately understand the needs of her neighbor-customers (because she was one of them), and to actually integrate life and work is the real secret behind the success of Broders'.
The idea of work-life balance is one that's kicked around a lot these days, but no one really seems to know what it means. At Broders' it means that the business respects the importance of the employees' lives outside of work. The owners offer health and dental insurance, paid vacations, and other benefits for all their full- and part-time workers, a phenomenon more rare than unicorns in the restaurant business. Every fall a flu-shot bus is commissioned to arrive on site and vaccinate the entire 80-odd-person staff.
They also encourage key employees, like longtime chef Michael Rostance, in side projects such as the culinary tours he leads to Italy (www.historicitaly.com).
"When you're in the Italian food business and you don't go to Italy enough, you start to lose it, and the food becomes conceptually stale," Broder told me.
Because of commitment, both economic and philosophical, to work-life balance, the Broders have one thing that almost no restaurant has: long-term employees. Many of the Pasta Bar servers have been serving chef Rostance's food since the first year the restaurant opened. Rostance himself has been with the company an astonishing 20 years. Now his son works there. All of the Broder sons now work in the company, too.
This place is the rarest of birds—a thriving, functional, multigenerational family business. Chef Rostance told me that his average line cook has been there for five years. (Because the work is so grueling they try not to schedule any of them more than three nights a week on that hectic dinner-service line.) The person who makes pasta has been there for 10 years.
"It never made sense to me in the restaurant business, the way we have this throwaway mentality about people," Chef Rostance said. "Most places get someone in there for a few months, and then they're gone. But your customers really benefit when you spend a little more on the back end, because when they order the number 11 they want number 11."
Speaking of that back end, no line cook works the line at Broders' Pasta Bar until he has trained for three months. No dish makes it onto the menu until it's been cooked by every line cook, Rostance told me, "at least a dozen times. We have wonderful employee meals here. Then we get feedback from all the servers. I'm not the kind of guy who comes out and says, 'This is what [the dish] is, like it or lump it.' I think you're always learning, and no one knows the customers' taste and reactions like the servers. I'm in love with the whole concept of local, seasonal, regional, rustic, simple things made with the very best ingredients. It's a fairly humble vision, but it makes people happy, which is what I'm interested in."
Somehow I'm not surprised when a little digging reveals that the most essential Minnesota restaurant comes out of those most essential old-Minnesota values: family, making people happy, value for the money, humility, and a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. Of course, there will be those of you who won't get your head around a place with wild boar on the menu being any sort of Minnesotan restaurant, much less an essential one. I didn't tell one of my friends the premise behind our visit until we were in the parking lot after dinner. "But that's not a Minnesotan restaurant!" she laughed with the special laughter that rejects something absurd. It was as if I had just told her that Broders' big stucco building was, in fact, an armadillo.
"Au contraire," I thought, as we parted. It may not be the essential Minnesota restaurant of our Lake Wobegone press releases, but it is an essential Minnesota restaurant nonetheless.
BRODERS' PASTA BAR5000 Penn Ave. S., Minneapolis