Ten Most Wanted
What kind of year did we have in the Twin Cities, in our restaurants? A very good year, mostly. It was a diverse year, a surprising year, a big money year—big, big, big money year. How much money went into the creation of Cue at the Guthrie? Add up the Jean Nouvel-designed, internationally acclaimed building; the crack team, headed by longtime Prairie cuisine champion Lenny Russo; the splashy dining room; the kirsch-marinated French cherries in the updated Manhattans, and what do you get? I'm guessing it all cost a gazillion dollars, if not a babillion. Which is to say nothing of our brand new Chambers Kitchen: To get that restaurant, they had to gut a dirty bookstore, revivify a 19th-century brick warehouse, shanghai a parking lot and transform it into a sculpture garden filled with priceless art, splash out for the worlds' most famous lighting designer, mix up acres of white terrazzo, fly Jean Georges Vongerichten and his team hither and yon, relocate various coastal chefs to the land of sky-blue waters, and corner the market on bread baskets which can double as cosmetic totes. This was a big money year that made our previous big money year of 2005—with the Wolfgang Puck restaurant in the new Walker, the Beaux Arts city incarnation of La Belle Vie, and the fancy rehab of the old Fifth Precinct police station into Five—look downright cheap.
Buy low! Sell high! You better, because this trend of big money restaurants shows no sign of abating: This new year should see pricy, splashy, well-cushioned restaurants debuting in the new Graves Mozaic hotel in Uptown, the new W Hotel coming to the Foshay Tower, the new Westin Hotel in the old Farmers & Mechanics bank building, and the new Ivy Hotel + Residences, a Starwood property going into that beautiful old ivy-covered pile near the convention center. Phew! Are there enough expense accounts to float all these yachts? We'll see. It was easy as pie to get a reservation in the highest-end restaurants in Minnesota this year (well, except for Levain and La Belle Vie on Fridays and Saturdays). The real difficulty was in getting in to what I'll call our value fine-dining restaurants: 112 Eatery, Town Talk Diner, Café Barbette, Salut Bar Américain, and the Modern Café. The same can kind of be said about jP American Bistro and Auriga: The bar tables at both restaurants are hotly fought over, while you can waltz into the dining rooms just about any time. So why do we see nothing but fine-dining destinations on the horizon? Don't ask me, I just work here.
Happily, so do lots of other people, and the other trends I've seen this year have nothing to do with expense accounts and everything to do with folks who work here: It was a great year for both Mexican food and for local farmers and farm products. I cannot say enough positive things about the twin jewels bestowed on Minneapolis this year: the Mill City Farmers' Market and the Midtown Global Market. Mill City presents the finest local produce all in one convenient, stylish downtown venue: If Tiffany's sold Swiss chard and Enoki mushrooms, it would be Mill City.
The Midtown Global Market, meanwhile, has managed to gather the breadth of what is best about food in Minnesota under one roof. There's Farm in the Market, a farmers' collective where you can buy the freshest possible, locally and sustainably raised chicken, pork, beef, bison, eggs, dairy, and more. The Birchberry booth, by the west entrance, sells wild rice, chokecherry jam, maple syrup, and other traditional hand-harvested Native American foodstuffs. On the weekends, Ames Farm sells their local single-pollen honeys, which I think are one of the truest and best slow foods in the Midwest. To round out your shopping, the Midtown Global Market has practically every specialty ingredient you can think of: Italian meats and cheeses can be had at Jakeeno's Trattoria, many of the world's misos and noodles are found at a small satellite location of United Noodle, the Produce Exchange is a budget shopper's ace-in-the-hole for everything from organic tangelos to Wisconsin organic cheeses to locally grown scallions. Meanwhile, the MGM has also consolidated much of what's best in Mexican food and markets in Minnesota. Everyone should go and pick their own favorites, but please know I spoke with a Los Angeles native this year whose parents demanded she bring tamales home with her from La Loma for Christmas; they're just that much better than any they can find in L.A.
Which is to say: What a great year it's been! When I look over my notes, some published, some not, of the greatest meals of 2006, I see it was a remarkably delicious year—and here's my hit parade.
Tasting Menus at La Belle Vie
The one sadness this year has been the devaluing of dishy insider information: People write to me to ask: "Is La Belle Vie really as good as everyone says?" I tell them yes, and then a few weeks later they write again: "Everyone was right!" So why do I continue to exist, exactly? Still, when they're right, they're right: Chef Tim McKee's multi-course tasting meals set the bar for fine dining hereabouts, and I would happily dwell forever in their embrace. When I sink into my memories, the dishes that race to mind include a slow-poached Shetland salmon with braised fennel that tasted like some kind of candied ocean dew; and a poached egg, black truffle, brioche, and frisée number that was like a fragrant meadow reaching up into your skull and playing a ruby-studded, solid gold harp—yes, it was that good. Any top list of the year would include the work of brilliant pastry chef Adrienne Odom. The one La Belle Vie dessert that I can never recover from was an espresso semi-freddo with a warm, buttery orange cake, pithless Satsuma sections, and cardamom foam. Eating it was like zipping through the clouds of an imaginary vacation in Milan: sensuous, cosmopolitan, and dreamy.
La Belle Vie, 510 Groveland Ave., Minneapolis, 612.874.6440; www.labellevie.us.
Amuses and appetizers at Auriga
An "amuse bouche" is the playful little mouthful that super-fancy chefs send out to show off their super-fancy skills, and the best are imaginative, difficult showpieces that announce to the diner: "Relax, you can't do this at home, and you're not going to regret it." If you've never had one, but generally prefer artful appetizers to meat-and-potatoes entrees, you gotta get one, stat. The only problem with amuses is you tend to encounter them only when you're splashing out half a paycheck for a fine-dining blowout, and chefs usually have the time and interest to make but one for the whole restaurant. Not so at Auriga! Here, chef Doug Flicker and his team make four or five available every night, in either the casual bar or the main dining room, all priced from $2 to $4. I ordered all five recently (no, not even medical science knows what's wrong with me), to make a meal of them and some appetizers, and was dazzled—I told everyone I knew for days. The best was a wee little globe of lobster mousse, breaded, fried, and placed on a little paintbrush swipe of a simultaneously mild and lively garlic puree, one side engulfed in a little bubble-up of olive-oil foam. It was simple, sweet, luxurious, delicious, gone! Another amuse was a tiny, truncated cone of apple-cider gelée topped with teensy slices of shaved black summer truffles, little crumbles of black walnut, and mica-like flakes of sea salt—the salty, the nutty, the truffly, the tart of the cider gelée: fascinating. And then gone! All in the space of a checker. At the same meal I had a mind-blowing plate of duck liver mousse ravioli that reminded me of a suspension bridge, as they were so shockingly light and sturdy at the same time.
Auriga, 1934 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.871.0777; www.aurigarestaurant.com
Taqueria Los Ocampo and Taqueria La Hacienda
These two restaurants have no connection other than the fact that when I reflect on the best Twin Cities food, these two Mexican counter-service spots rush to mind, and then when I try to pick a favorite, I can't. So, you'll have to taste them for yourself and decide. Los Ocampo is right in the Midtown Global Market, in the middle near the stage, and they specialize in homemade masa, fresh-ground cornmeal formed into all sorts of shapes and griddled till crisp, or, with the bigger masa cakes, both crisp and creamy. I can't resist Los Ocampo's long, flat "huarache," topped with your choice of spicy or rich meat with fresh radishes and crema, but all their offerings are great. Meanwhile, I wrote just a week or two ago about the phenomenal fare at the new location of Taqueria La Hacienda, which sells the city's best tacos; I dream of their sweet and spicy pork al pastor, but their carnitas is great too, and if they have their fresh grilled onions, the cebollitas, call it your lucky day.
Taqueria Los Ocampo: Midtown Global Market, 920 E. Lake St., 612.384.9959; www.midtownglobalmarket.com. Taqueria La Hacienda #2: La Hacienda Plaza, 334 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.822.2715
Grilled romaine at Willie's Wine Bar
Willie's Wine Bar was one of the homegrown surprises of the year: It opened as a coffee shop, but, over the summer, morphed into some sort of cross between a fine-dining tapas bar and a pretense-free wine bar. Chef Bruno Oakman really got my attention by deconstructing a Caesar salad, making me see that old restaurant workhorse afresh. The leaves of Romaine lettuce were briefly charred, which wilted, and, here and there in spots, blackened bits of them; the still-firm leaves were stacked and adorned with glowing yellow moons of preserved egg yolk and good anchovies, and the whole thing rested in a glossy, fondue-like pool of lemony garlic dressing. So rich, so intense, so balanced, so fresh!
Willie's Wine Bar & Cuisine, 1100 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, 612.332.8811; www.experiencewillies.com
Sea Salt Eatery
I know it's no fair citing a restaurant that will be closed until the buds swell in the treetops. But one of the criteria I use to generate this list is to ask myself what meals I wish I could walk through a time-space portal and re-experience, and when I ask myself this, myself says: Remember that lake herring at Sea Salt? I could eat that every day for the rest of my life. That lake herring, it almost pains me to remember it. It was a silvery whole fish, cleaned and grilled fast and hard till it was blackened, then served with a coarse tomato-olive sauce—roasty, eternal, historic. The best fish I've had in 10 years of eating fish in this town. Sea Salt reopens for the summer season in April.
Sea Salt Eatery, 4825 Minnehaha Ave., Minneapolis (in Minnehaha Falls Park); 612.721.8990; www.seasalteatery.com
The Modern Café
What's it like being one of the most appreciated but least critically acclaimed chefs in Minneapolis? Just ask Phillip Becht, who took over the kitchen at the Modern Café three years ago, and ever since has been quietly mastering what it takes to feed 100 people a night out of a kitchen smaller than most Minnesotans' mud rooms. I ventured into the Modern one warm December night and was gobsmacked with the quality of food Becht is turning out these days. An appetizer of a triple-tier sandwich made with lush gravlax, fresh herbs, and a deceptively simple fresh avocado mash was that rare combination of plush, posh, and homey. An entree of pan-roasted chicken was mahogany dark, so tender, and so deeply flavored it almost distracted me from noticing the least frivolous use of wild rice I've seen in a year or three—it was tender, fluffy, full of cubes of braised apple, and absolutely memorable.
Modern Café, 337 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis; 612.378.9882
Farm in the Market
Every time I publish a story like this one, my email account fills up with letters from those of you who cook, demanding: Why would I go out for roast chicken when I can stay in and do a better job myself? And why would you go to Paris when you can go to Bali? And why would you have a dog when you can buy a burglar alarm? I mean, I can't answer these things for you. I can tell them that finding a really good, top-quality, free-roaming, ethically fed, really fresh, never frozen chicken has been all but impossible for the home cook—until now. Last summer, Farm in the Market, a small joint venture by two family farm couples, opened in the Midtown Global Market, and now fresh, really fresh, chicken, pork, bison, eggs, dairy, and beef are available for purchase by home cooks—meaning you can cook all year round with the same quality ingredients that restaurant chefs have. Some of my most memorable meals this year were chickens and pork chops I got through Farm in the Market, and I rarely did little more than salt and cook them. Great chefs always talk about the importance of the ingredients to cooking; finally, everyday city cooks can play like the big boys do.
Farm in the Market, Midtown Global Market; 920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.870.2908; www.midtownglobalmarket.com
jP American Bistro
It was a summer night, the sun was setting, and the sky above Lyndale Avenue was a flamingo and sapphire riot, and we sipped bubbly wine while watching the oh-so Lake-and-Lyndale passers-by: the gossip boys with their little dogs, the motorcycle men on their rumbling hogs, the punk-rock girls upon their clunky clogs. It was a lovely summer night, like so many, and I remember it only because of the head-turning shock of what arrived on the plate at our outdoor table: A salmon entree of such enchanting subtleness that the whole street crowd should have paused to gather round and point. The salmon in question seemed raw, through it wasn't. It was low-temperature olive-oil poached until it was firm as custard and twice as creamy, then paired with a ripe avocado, roasted until it was black on one exposed surface and plush as clouds. The two rich, creamy things were united with a vinaigrette of preserved lemons, decorated with grass-green chive oil, and further adorned with teensy perfect cubes of marinated shallot and preserved lemon peel. Every bite captured the easy joy of summer, and it was the rare dish that could make an everyday day one whose memory I'll keep for a lifetime.
jP American Bistro, 2937 Lyndale Ave. S.; Minneapolis, 612.824.9300; www.jpamericanbistro.com
Lunch at the Dakota
It was not a great year for restaurant lunches. While I had several every week, the only ones I felt joy in were from chef Jack Riebel's all-American, incredibly creative menu at the Dakota. I went on and on in print about Riebel's craveable Cobb burger—and I meant every word. This deconstructed burger with its well-charred but very tender patty of environmentally conscientious, humanely raised beef was decorated with the best parts of a Cobb salad: creamy avocado, rich bacon, perky blue cheese. A blood orange and watercress salad was as crisp and frothy as a meadow in flower; peekytoe crab cakes were a sweet ocean song.
The Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612.332.1010; www.dakotacooks.com
Well, I've run out of room but see I've left out a lot here: the spicy, salted tofu at Peninsula; goulash and sausages at Kramarczuk; ice cream at Crema; the beef feast at Mai Village; the oysters at the Oceanaire; the banh-mi at Saigon and Jasmine; soup at Quang; pizza at Punch and Pizza Nea; pancakes at French Meadow; bread at Rustica; fish & chips at Brit's; any sort of cake at Patrick's Bakery; the eggplant and chicken parmigiana subs at Brianno's; the Italian subs and cannoli at Broder's Cucina; steaks at Manny's, the fries at Café Barbette, the fries, cheese gougeres, and tiny burgers at Bar Lurcat. Oh, and the Jucy Lucy at Matt's! And dim sum brunches, both at newcomer Jun Bo and old favorite Mandarin Kitchen. Sandwiches made of in-house-roasted local meats at the Linden Hills butcher shop Clancey's! It was a very, very good year.
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