Rhapsody in Lambchops
112 N. 3rd St., Minneapolis
Part of me? Part of me wants to tell you about the best new restaurant to hit downtown Minneapolis in years. Yet another part of me is meeting with local contractors to explore the feasibility of installing giant cloaks of invisibility on Third Street so that no one can see 112 Eatery but me, thus ensuring the availability of tables, for me. And mine. Me me me. Me!
What, you say? This is an unenlightened position? I should consult leading ethicists and historians to ask what wise old King Solomon would do? Well, nyah on you, I already did. And leading ethicists report that Sol never tasted any of these mind-boggling scottadito, these insane lamb chops that are pounded thin and seared on a blackeningly hot iron until they blister and crisp in a blossom of gamy, salty, crackling power, at which point they are served in a warm pool of goat's-milk yogurt decorated with bits of fresh herbs, the combined effect of which is so primal, so sweet and sour, so spring and meat, so crackle and lilt that nothing else matters. Except the price. Which is only $8! Yes, I said three cataclysmically marvelous lamb chops, for $8, within striking distance from your very own home.
See? Ergo, heretowherefore, and dipso facto, all of history simply goes right out the window. I doubt old King Solomon would spend all day offering to cut a lot of babies down the middle if he knew how few seats there are at 112 Eatery.
There are very few, just a handful arranged around the prettily carved wooden bar, at which you can sit and have a scotch and a bacon-and-egg sandwich that will make your head fly off your shoulders with pure propulsive joy. Just a few more seats in cozy booths. Just another few dozen at the various tables. Which is just how 112's owners, married couple Nancy St. Pierre and Isaac Becker, wanted it.
"It's a small enough place that we can still have a family," St. Pierre told me when I talked to her on the phone for this story. "My son can come visit after school, he can sit in the kitchen and talk and do his homework, and since we're not open during the day, we get to spend time with our baby. Most restaurants make you work too hard--we needed something more comfortable."
If anyone knows about the discomforts caused by restaurant stress, it's got to be St. Pierre and Becker: St. Pierre was a server for nearly 15 years at Minneapolis's most renowned fine-dining Italian restaurant, D'Amico Cucina; she and Becker met when he was a chef at Cucina, before he went on to Cucina sister projects, including several years as the opening head chef at American celebration destination Café Lurcat.
112 Eatery definitely feels like the work of restaurant lifers. That bacon, egg, and harissa sandwich feels exactly like the kind of nonsense a chef would put together back in the kitchen just for boredom, hunger, and kicks: a fried egg, sweet, thick-cured bacon, white toast, and, instead of a more typical condiment, a swipe of harissa, that smoky north African red pepper paste. Out of such nonsense genius is born: This thing is just amazing. Crispy and toasty from the toast, smoky and spicy from the harissa, sweet and chewy from the bacon, gooey and rich from the egg, and given a little bit of clean pop! from a sprig of cilantro. This little seven-dollar wonder is one of those devastating snacks that, even as you're eating it, you start planning the next time you will eat it.
Frankly, I think it's going to transform post-rock-show life downtown. Every time a set of house lights rise, little egg-and-bacon-sandwich thought balloons will rise with them. (112 Eatery is practically right out the back door of the Fine Line.) And they serve this marvel, along with everything else on the menu, till 1:00 in the morning! Why? Because that's when restaurant staffers eat, after everyone else.
The restaurant doesn't just serve restaurant-kitchen snacks, they also serve plenty of Things People Expect from Restaurants (rib eye steak, pork tenderloin, chocolate pot de crème) as well as Things That Are the Chef's Version of a Backward Somersaulting Dive (stringozzi with lamb sugo, choucroute bread pudding). In both instances, the dishes are pulled off with style. The rib eye ($23) is a tender, classically good version, here topped with potatoes that have been poached in a buttery anchovy bath beforehand, then sautéed crisp and layered with fresh wilted spinach to serve. The potatoes are thus rendered salty, crispy, and creamy, the trifecta of potato goodness.
The pork tenderloin is pink and so delicate you could cut it with a fork, yet it comes topped with a sauce so fragrant and magical that you might miss the pork beneath it entirely: This sauce is as bright as the skin of a green apple, has the sparkling, jellied consistency of something used to remove puffiness from beneath the eyes, and smells so extravagantly of fresh apple, perky tomatillo, and herbal cilantro that you practically just want to ask your server for a wide white towel to drape over your head, and your bowl, so that you might simply breathe. There's also a mint jus, a distillation of the bright green essence of mint, melded with the pork jus, that adds something wonderful.
The wine list adds something wonderful too, to your meal and to life downtown generally, as it's value-oriented from top to bottom. For $23 you can get a bottle of Rosenblum Cellars' Vintner's Cuvée XXVII Zinfandel, all deep spice and thrumming blackberry sea. For $29, a silvery ice bucket will stand glamorously beside your table full of the lemony and ethereal French bubbly from Saumur, Cuvée Bouvet Brut from Loire producer Bouvet-Ladubay. If you've got more to spend, you can snare big-name wines at a lot less than they're priced elsewhere downtown. I bet it's going to be one of those restaurants that servers from other restaurants drink at so they can learn the wine lists at their own workplaces.
Meanwhile, the main event for other chefs around town is sure to be the stringozzi with lamb sugo, a pasta unlike any other offered in the state. Chef Becker told me it took him three months to come up with the recipe for these wiry, twisty long noodles. It was worth it--they're just fascinating. Resilient and chewy, yet pliant and yielding, the pasta is the main event in the dish, as it should be, simply adorned by a few long-stewed bits of tender lamb and a sparsely added tomato sauce, which has, in its background, hints of depth from nutmeg and wine. The pasta costs $8 for a half-order and $16 for a full plate. All of the pastas are available in generously portioned half-orders; vegetarians, please note the adorable seared gnocchi with lemony slices of young artichoke.
But back to the stringozzi: When I thought about who out there isn't going to like 112 Eatery, I thought, there are going to be people who get this stuff and say, "This pasta's kinda hard. It's messed up. And there's hardly any sauce! For $8." So, if you're one of those people who like to write in and tell me to give Baker's Square another chance because it's such a good value, give this place a miss. But if you're one of those people who write in complaining, "Everywhere I go, I could have made everything that's on the table, but much better, for much less," I think we have finally found your restaurant.
If you want final proof, try the choucroute bread pudding, a $7 side dish. This stuff is crazy. Crazy how? It's a savory bread pudding made with sauerkraut, chunks of ham hock, shimmers of pork belly, beads of onion, and lumps of Italian sausage, all baked into an eggy, custard-knit bread pudding. It's echoing with caraway; it's rich, creamy, salty, chewy, and has texture to burn; there's a whole world in that sucker. Pair it with a big, bready beer, like a Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale ($6.50), and you will likely be so full up with the intensity of life that you won't even be able to speak.
Which is why you should get some soothing, restorative desserts. The sweets, by Leah Bolfing, are simple and charming. My favorite was the chocolate pot de crème ($5), a deep, dark chocolate pudding that will likely find an after-show cult following as strong as the one to rise up around that bacon-and-egg sandwich. The subtle, foamy stack of frozen mousses that make the mousse terrine (lately apricot, coconut, and light cinnamon) are a fun, frivolous, cheery way to end the meal, as is the complimentary cardamom caramel corn, a spicy little gem that accompanies every check as a cheerful little grace note.
Sometimes when I find myself this gaga over a restaurant, I ask myself: Have I completely slipped a gear? Am I on the take? What has happened to me? In this instance, I think the answer is that, after eight years of a professional life of minutely observing restaurants, I had gotten very sick of the typical cheap chintzy cheats of the industry: the 400 percent wine markups, the appetizers engineered solely for their marvelous food-cost ratios, the $12, nothing-special burger, the restaurants designed to please the lowest common denominator--which start at compromise and end with good enough, the oily up-selling, the entrées where the white space on the plate is supposed to connote some attainment of social status. I had gotten sick of it, without even knowing how sick of it I was.
112 Eatery is that rare thing, the cure for the malady you don't even know you have. It's a restaurant for restaurant people, for people who want and expect the good stuff, and know exactly what it costs. It's a place that knows exactly how things are done, but throws it all out the window and does something new. It is, in short, a revolutionary thing in this town, and something that speaks explicitly about the development of our local restaurant culture, about the size, number of participants, and sustainability of it all. And if St. Pierre and Becker can do all that, why can't I have just one little cloak of invisibility?
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