To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.
Sameh Wadi is our culinary Boy Wonder. Still in his 20s, he's already gone knife to knife with Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef America and been recognized by the James Beard Foundation several times as a semi-finalist for its Rising Star Chef of the Year award.
Wadi and his brother, Saed, co-own Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, and are also the masterminds behind the World Street Kitchen foodmobile and Spice Trail (a gourmet line of seasoning blends).
The Middle Eastern and Mediterranean menu at Saffron is loaded with items for less than $12, and our pick delivers a serious one-two punch.[jump]
Wadi's food reflects his eclectic cultural background. Of Palestinian descent, he characterizes his cuisine as "Middle Eastern, with a Midwestern sensibility." "I've lived half my life in the Middle East and half here," he says. "It's natural for me to draw on both for inspiration."
But his cooking is also the product of a diverse culinary career. He's cranked out tapas at Solera and gone Greek at Cafe Europa. He's done sushi, steak, and the seasonally driven. "Each time, I went in to see a different style of restaurant," Wadi explains.
What he doesn't take from personal experience, he borrows from the past. He speaks fondly of his nomadic ancestors following the spice route. And as a student of food history, his menu is full of stealthy references to yesteryear. "People will say, 'Your restaurant is Middle Eastern, why do you have foie gras?'" He smiles as he reveals the connection: "Foie gras actually originated in Egypt."
As we scan his menu for $12 jewels, it isn't surprising to see options from a variety of countries. When Wadi overhauled the menu last summer (in a renovation that also included a dressing down of the dining room), he tipped his hat to Europe in several places--specifically Spain.
In addition to typical Spanish croquettes, he unveiled an Octopus "A La Plancha." Cooked sous-vide for a whopping 12 hours, it has the tender chewiness you'd expect from octopus, but steers clear of the rubbery dark side. Wadi chars it in a hot iron skillet with pimentón (Spanish paprika) and toasted garlic. Then he tops it with a sherry dressing, sea salt, and parsley, and serves it for $8.
If the notion of a menu change has you concerned, never fear, many of the oldies but goodies are still here. Most notably, the Lamb Bacon "BLT." A dish that helped him hone his Middle Eastern gastronomy early in his career, Wadi's been tinkering with it for years. The current iteration features a brioche with house-made lamb bacon, saffron-tomato jam, arugula, and tarragon aioli. Translation: smoky and sweet, with some pepper and anise on egg bread. All for $9.
With so many choices, it's difficult to decide. So we're going with a two-fer under $12 instead. And since they're each $6 items, we're technically playing by the rules.
The first of the dynamic duo is Wadi's Fried Cauliflower. Added a few years ago, it's now his number-one seller. The cauliflower is blanched in saffron--which gives it a bright yellow color--and then battered and deep-fried. It's coated with a North African spice mix and served alongside a feta fondue made of Bulgarian sheep's milk. The cauliflower has a tiny crunch, the batter's nice and light, and the smooth and creamy fondue is worthy of its own shot glass.
And then there are the Slow-Cooked Green Beans. Recently, Wadi came across a cookbook that his parents wrote but never published: The Encyclopedia of Palestinian Cooking. Buried in the pages was a dish that completely blew his mind--his grandmother's recipe for green beans. "I said to my brother, 'I want to do this dish,'" he says. "But I had to rethink my entire notion of cuisine."
On the surface, it seemed simple: green beans, aromatic spices, a little tomato and olive oil. "But it is the most complex dish I've ever had the pleasure of cooking," he says, with equal parts awe and respect. "If you mess up the process, you'll taste it. You can't hide it with a cream sauce. It's a green bean with spices and oil."
Thankfully, he does it exceptionally well, and the result is a warm and spicy bite of comfort food goodness. The only downer is that it isn't exactly "aesthetically pleasing"--and Wadi knows it. But that's part of the fun. He laughs as he tells us how they considered jazzing up the presentation. But eventually he realized, "It didn't need anything, so we decided to be bold and just put it on a plate with a lemon. It's not pretty," he says with a grin. "But it sure as hell tastes good!"
Apparently, not even Boy Wonder messes with his grandmother's cooking.
Top 12 dishes under $12 112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy Heartland: Cheese Course La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese Lucia's: Farmers' Salad Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans Sea Change: Arctic Char Tilia: Potted Meat