We had several places reopen as revamped, reimagined versions of their former selves, and a few of those have made our list. But there were also totally fresh concepts, a bit of new flavor infused into our rapidly expanding dining scene here in the Twin Cities. Read on for our favorite additions to the restaurant roster and check them off your list as you sup, brunch, sip, and lunch at the best new spots of 2014.
10. La Fresca, 4750 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis With his third restaurant, La Fresca, Ruiz completes his Kingfield trilogy. Several years ago, when he opened Cafe Ena, Ruiz introduced high-end Latin fusion to the area, while his second installment, the tapas bar Rincon 38, debuted just last year with a more straightforward Spanish flavor. Now Ruiz rounds out this array of styles and influences with what he's calling "nouveau Mexican," a cuisine that highlights the produce of coastal Mexico as well as a handful of dishes from the Mayan tradition.The food, as the name implies, is very fresh, with bright dashes of acidity, crisp herbs, palatable heat, and a noticeable lack of grease. The unique chilatl is particularly excellent: Grass-fed ground beef is stuffed into a roasted chile "capeado" and then roasted with raisins, olives, and a very light roux-based sauce. The classic juicy, herb-roasted pork tenderloin with roasted fennel, potatoes, asparagus, and smoky bacon gets the Hector Ruiz treatment with an ayocote black bean mole, poblano peppers, and pickled onions. Service is warm and professional but unpretentious, and even though there is no full bar, the malt-based margaritas do the trick. If Ruiz's restaurants were really a trilogy with La Fresca as the exciting conclusion, we'd buy the boxed set.
9. Tongue in Cheek, 989 Payne Ave., St. Paul This year a number of historic buildings were suddenly bought up by young restaurateurs in Payne-Phalen, a strip on St. Paul's east side. "I definitely think there's a bit of a renaissance happening here," says Leonard Anderson, the talented chef behind the neighborhood's latest addition, Tongue in Cheek. Anderson owns and runs the eclectic, meat-centered eatery with his wife, Ashleigh Newman, and fellow W.A. Frost alumnus Ryan Huesby. "It's cheaper over here," says Anderson. "But we just genuinely like it. We want to bring something new to this community. They've certainly succeeded in that regard. For one thing, they have an entire six-course vegetarian tasting menu (plus one for carnivores) in which Anderson works his way from two-bite super-clean combinations like compressed watermelon with cave-aged AmaBlu cheese from Fairbault, to house-made gnocchi with thinly split, slightly caramelized string beans, shallots, soy, and a subtle mascarpone foam. Clearly, Anderson enjoys having room to play on the tasting menus as well as with the regular dinner lineup, which is divided into one to two-bite "teasers" (a la the microplates at the Rookery), a few plates designed for sharing, more standard entree-sized dishes, and three desserts. Overall, Tongue in Cheek shows savvy, creativity, and respect for its diverse audience both in price point and in its food and drink offerings.
8. Sonora Grill 2.0, 3300 E. Lake St., Minneapolis Technically it was late December 2013 when the perennially popular Sonora Grill stall at Midtown Global market took its operation a little farther down Lake Street to the former home of Molly Quinn's in the Longfellow neighborhood. But it was in 2014 that we all fell in love with its new incarnation. To the delight and relief of Sonora's devotees, they brought their greatest hits along with them: the caramelos (spectacularly tasty, creative, three-bite tacos), the bocadillos (South American-style sandwiches, served here on Salty Tart buns), and the pinchos (a Sonoran take on shish kebab, skewered, seasoned, and expertly grilled). To capitalize on the larger-capacity kitchen and open dining area, they also added a number of made-to-share entrees, a couple of desserts, and of course, one of the most welcome additions of this expansion, a full bar. Fans of the original market stall can still swing by for a quick bite (the stall isn't going anywhere) and will be happy to re-visit old favorites (yes, they still have that bacon-wrapped hot dog). Meanwhile, Sonora Grill newbies are bound to be impressed by the inspired take on Latin fusion. Lucky Longfellowans. [page]
7. Corner Table 2.0, 4537 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis In its newest iteration, Corner Table ventured down South -- geographically, a few blocks down Nicollet to 46th, and in influence, further into the deep culinary traditions of the American South. Cradling Boemer's signature crispy pork belly, for instance, we found a tart and tangy chow chow, a pickled relish popular in the South, and the country fried rabbit served over a sweet potato waffle -- a brunch standout, later cruelly ripped from our grasp when Boemer discontinued brunch service -- was a twist on the fried chicken and waffle craze. Corner Table does not have a full liquor license, but the team whipped up a few aperitif-based cocktails we loved, including the extremely tart and refreshing Rhubarb of the Moment made with rhubarb shrubs, a dry spring cava, and lemon peel. The new set-up also features two patio areas, elegant decor, and much improved acoustics by way of cozy, tall-backed booths.
6. Hola Arepa, 3501 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis It seemed inevitable that fan-favorite food truck Hola Arepa would spin its meals on wheels into a full-fledged restaurant. Start with the arepitas -- lightly fried arepa dough filled with chevre, chopped peppers, and served with quince jam -- and then move on to the shiitake cachapas, a sweeter, doughier corn cake that's loaded with shiitake mushrooms, huitlacoche -- a.k.a "corn smut," a fungus that's regarded as a delicacy in Latin countries -- creamy dollops of chevre, truffle oil, and a wobbly, just-barely poached egg. As for the arepas, the shredded beef and plantain version will win most hearts with its juicy, slightly spicy meat, a salty, pungent cheese, bright and crunchy pickled onions, and mushy sweet plantains, but there are also plenty of veggie-filled alternatives for vegan and vegetarian diners. Final tip: Don't skip the Latin-by-way-of-Midwest cocktails or the ridiculously addictive corn cookie ice cream sandwich, available seasonally.
5. Workshop at Union, 731 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis A lot has changed in the main-level dining room of Union since the triple-decker restaurant first opened in downtown Minneapolis at the tail end of 2012. Its current iteration is the aptly named Workshop, a mostly small-plate, contemporary American (with some Asian flourishes) spot helmed by chef Stewart Woodman (formerly in self-imposed exile) with a more simplified menu. Several dishes stood out, including the braised duck, a playful and perfect intersection of traditional French cassoulet (toothsome beans, fat-laced, crispy shredded duck) and a down-home Southern barbecue dinner (corn fritter and anise-y molasses-based sauce). A similarly haute yet homey small plate came in the form of a deconstructed, semi-Cuban-inspired tater tot casserole, made with house-made tots over a spicy beef gravy, chunks of primo, stinky blue cheese, super-tender ropas viejas, and some of those sweet-hot little teardrop peppers. From a purely culinary standpoint, it's well worth spending an evening (Thursday through Saturday only) tinkering around Workshop.
4. Brasserie Zentral, 505 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis If Meritage gave us an updated taste of Paris in the 1920s, Brasserie Zentral, the newest from Russell and Desta Klein, gave us a modern twist on Budapest in the 1880s. We think of brasseries -- the white linen, all-day, full-service European analogue to our loose, Americanized gastropub -- as being an important part of France's dining culture. But the Kleins are onto the broader range of brasseries across Central and into Eastern Europe. Anyone who has explored this region, once known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, either in person or on a plate, knows how rich with tradition, delicious dumplings and doughs, and utterly fanatic about animal fat this area and its people are. Pair that culinary inspiration with a multi-award-winning executive chef, a dynamic bar program featuring a number of exclusive types of schnapps made by 45th Parallel, a storied dessert chef who is as agile with sweets as she is with savories, and an obvious commitment to formality in the dining room and technique in the kitchen, and you have a patent-worthy formula for a successful restaurant.
3. Travail and the Rookery, 4124 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale In the animal kingdom, a rookery is a sort of informal colony, a place where gregarious animals -- usually birds -- come together to nest and breed. It aptly describes the nature of the seemingly chaotic open kitchen at the Rookery restaurant in Robbinsdale, which is like an intellectual salon for food nerds, a place for them to come together and breed new ideas. The chalkboard menus here list each item starkly: marrow, sunchoke, garden, hamachi. There's no telling what form any of those ingredients will take or with what other components underneath or on top of them: a tiny square of medium-rare lamb, perfectly seasoned and served with golden layered potato pave and a pungent chimichurri; the brandade perfected with a chunky and creamy salt cod inside a crispy fritter; tangy hearts of palm in a bowl of delicate shrimp bisque; a lollipop of liver mousse inside a chocolate-fruit coating that was like a bite of decadent meat cheesecake; sinfully salty French fries saddled up alongside a dollop of creme fraiche and Osetra caviar; leeks made three ways and served with teardrops of leek oil encapsulated in isomalt, which won't melt in water, but dissolves as soon as it hits your tongue; and finally, speaking of tongue, the tender beef tongue slider, with discs of crispy radish. There is so much to take in, so much detail and ephemera and visual brilliance, it practically leaves you breathless, which is absolutely the goal here.
2. Spoon & Stable, 211 N. First St., Minneapolis While our review of this Minneapolis hotspot has yet to hit stands (look for it in January), we would be fools to leave Spoon and Stable off our list. Not only because decorated chef Gavin Kaysen is the ultimate "hometown boy made good" and one of the most buzzed about chefs of the year, but because what he creates here in his North Loop restaurant is wholly unexpected. Forget what you know about the spectacle of haute cuisine -- Spoon and Stable is highly accessible, with cheffed-up homey favorites and impeccably attentive service, and a dream team of chefs, bartenders, servers, and managers. Here Kaysen uses his clout and culinary powers for good, building the kind of dining experience that all can revel in, regardless of whether you know the difference between celery and celeriac or who the heck Daniel Boulud is. In the words of bartender Robb Jones, "I want people to leave and feel like they've had the best, most accommodating time they've ever had at a bar. I don't want any pretentious bullshit."
1. Heyday, 2700 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis In a bold departure from the complicated, often overly fussy plates that have come to signal New American cuisine, the dishes at Lyn-Lake's long-awaited Heyday, helmed by La Belle Vie alums chef Jim Christiansen and, until recently, front-of-house manager Lorin Zinter, are mostly very straightforward and singular. Under other circumstances, that would be a Minnesota nice way of calling the food one-note. But the plates we enjoyed at Heyday, from the sweet clams in sherry with rye bread and sea lettuce to the exquisite filet of monkfish with thin yogurt and a few florets of roasted cauliflower, were all quite remarkable. It's food that has the ability to be simultaneously surprising and very "what you see is what you get." With the exception of more molecular-leaning desserts (formerly crafted by pastry chef Diane Yang, now at Spoon and Stable) every element is recognizable and identifiable, clean and perfectly isolated but still playing nicely with the other pieces in the dish.
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