The Best Dishes of 2003
The fact that 2003 was a very big year, full of ambition and delight, made the 10 best dishes of the year so hard to pick that my initial list was more like two dozen. Making that first cut was physically painful to me! No kidding. By the time I got to the sudden-death part where I had to select a mere 10, well, you'll see what happened. But here they are, my 10 best dishes of 2003. (Just, if you're actually counting them off on your fingers, you might want to make sure you're a Quadrillion Zegon from the Ninth Galaxy, or something.) Have fun recreating them, because I know I had a great time finding them.
Roast lobster at Levain: When it arrived, two spirals of half shells balanced on each other like a wee little spiral jetty in a bay of brown butter, the world stopped. Chef Stewart Woodman's succulent, understated, and utterly confident dish was adorned with little more than roast onions, but it didn't need anything more. The dish was as simple, assured, and luxurious as a single tulip standing over a wide meadow. (Restaurant Levain, 4762 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis, 612.823.7111; www.turtlebread.com.)
Sushi at Origami: I regard the new Origami at Ridgedale with a certain amount of trepidation, because if anything disturbs the phenomenal heights the original warehouse sushi spot has been achieving, I'll cry into my aji sashimi--little horse mackerels served so fresh they are like robust flower petals from the sea. (Origami, 30 N. First St., Minneapolis, 612.333.8430; www.origamirestaurant.com.)
The burger at Ike's: A new burger to reckon with is a monumental achievement in this burger-rich town. But little, classy, budget-friendly Ike's pulled it off: Enter this wood-paneled temple to the Eisenhower era and you find the burger plate of your poodle-skirt dreams: A big, fresh, hand-formed tender pillow of beef tucked into a big, sweet, grilled, buttered roll. The charmer is served with classic fresh fixings as well as an enchanting pile of real homemade fries. (Ike's Food & Cocktails, 50 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis, 612.746.4537.)
Roast crispy pig at Tai Hoa: Crisp as a potato chip, tender as the morning dew, rich as Paris Hilton and twice as attractive, those pork sides hanging in the window at unassuming Southeast Asian barbecue Tai Hoa aren't just for show. Oh no. They're the best homegrown barbecue we've got right now, irresistible both as succulent finger food or a killer secret ingredient to add to your own fried rice at home. (Tai Hoa B.B.Q.; 854 University Ave. W., St. Paul, 651.298.8480.)
Banh mi sandwiches at Saigon: I know you're all getting sick of reading about how great I think the banh mi sandwiches at Saigon are. But I fear that, alas, there may still be someone between Madison and Montevideo who hasn't tried the things, and I will not rest until each and every North Star stater tries one of these French/Vietnamese hybrids: a crisp French baguette with homemade mayonnaise and pâté combined with sweet Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon, slices of jalapeño, sprigs of fresh cilantro, and your choice of filling--and all for well under four bucks. (Saigon Restaurant and Bakery, 601 University Ave W., St. Paul, 651.225.8751.)
Desserts at Solera: Adrienne Odom's plate last summer of mixed warm-weather treats still haunts me: It included a delicate little rectangle of torrone ice-cream sandwich, a wee little plum-vanilla ice-cream soda, and a rich dollop of minced black plum compote. It was like a startling but satisfying chapter at the end of a great book, and it impressed me once again with this amazing pastry chef's reserves of creativity and astonishing ability to never ever be constrained by the rote expectations at the end of the meal. Recently I had one of her winter creations, a mixed plate including, of all things, a panna cotta topped with corn nuts, and darned if she didn't pull it off. Incredible. Still, though, I may never forget that three-inch high plum soda. It was just that cute.
Tortilla Española from Solera: If this ruddy, traditional potato and chorizo Spanish tortilla could talk, he would look up at you from beneath his dripping crown of spicy garlic aïoli and say, "I am the spiciest, tastiest, and bar-snackingest omelet in the history of Minnesota, and I defy you to resist me!" But you just never could, and then he'd be sorry. (You know, I would have put the octopus ceviche at Solera on here, but I went a few weeks ago, and the former incarnation of a lace of purple paving stones resting on single pulp-sacs of lime was replaced by something tired and chewy. Please God, let the theme of 2004 not be Troubles with Consistency. (Solera, 900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.781.6042; www.solera-restaurant.com.)
Tasting menu at Auriga: If ever you are free on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, here's the lowdown on the best chef-driven private fireworks around: For around $45 a head, chef Doug Flicker will customize an eight- or 10-course meal for you, delicate course after delicate course designed to amaze. I treat myself to this at least once a year, and this year a poached egg was magically transformed to velvet snared on spears of wispy beet greens, a scallop quivered like a kiss blown in from the sea, a drop of caviar trembled on a glistening oyster, and, and--oh, it was quite a night, I'll tell ya. Now that Minnesota's Little Restaurant That Could finally has its full liquor license and full bar, I fear for the ladies of Minneapolis, because I am sure that we will all be rendered truly helpless by the possibility of a Cosmo along with that heart-touching Doug Flicker cooking. Oh dear, be brave, my lovelies. You have been warned. (Auriga, 1934 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.871.0777.)
Steamed fish at Yummy: Pick out the likeliest looking finny friend from the lively tanks at Hong Kong-accented newcomer Yummy, order it "steamed," and, voilà! It will arrive as succulent as a cloud and as delicate as April mist, but with far more green onions. Order the young pea shoots with garlic on the side and you will have the best Chinese meal we've ever seen in the Twin Cities. (Yummy, 2450 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, 612.870.8000.)
Veal cheeks at Cosmos: Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty managed to draw all eyes at my table away from the most breathtaking dining room in Minnesota with this one dish: Veal cheeks braised in red wine and set in a lentil stew thickened with foie gras. Tasting this tender, beyond tender dish was like floating along on a velvet tide. (Cosmos, Le Meridien Minneapolis, 601 First Ave. N., Minneapolis, 612.677.1100.)
Egg custard at Midori's Floating World: One of the biggest comfort-food treats of the year was the home-style Japanese cooking at Midori's. But the most memorable dish had to be the restaurant's chawan-mushi. This traditional dish is difficult to make well, but order it in this unassuming little spot and you'll receive an elegant eggy custard made with subtle fish broth, the little dish of it barely gelled so that it coats the spoon but never resists it. Plunge beneath the glassy surface to rescue bits of mushroom and shrimp, and let the sensual combination of custard and sea lull you into purring contentment. (Midori's Floating World Café; 3011 27th Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.721.3011; www.floatingworldcafe.com)
Escargot at Cavé Vin: You know, I've always heard that old wives' tale about how the fastest way to a man's heart is through soup bowls of garlic butter filled with snails, but I never believed it until I saw otherwise composed and stoical men get a glazed and maniacal look in their eyes as they chased little tubby snails about their plates with heels of bread--hoo boy. Cavé Vin has quickly established itself as the premier south Minneapolis only-got-the-sitter-for-two-hours date destination. And not only because of its sexy lighting, good, inexpensive wine list, and aphrodisiacal appetizers. But also because you just don't want your eight-year-old knowing you eat snails. (Cavé Vin, 5555 Xerxes Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.922.0100.)
Smoked chicken and duck from Bar Five: As of this writing I have a smoked goose on special order from John Wemeier, and if you never hear from me again it may well be because I have ascended to heaven in a cloud of delight. High hopes, I know, but the poultry from this Arlington, Minnesota, family farm is just astonishingly great. Bar Fives red, red smoked duck is like some kind of cross between prosciutto, cherries, and butter. Their smoked chicken is subtle with the forest flavors of herbal wood, and when one of the Wemeier girls counts out your change for you at one of the farmers markets, its hard not to feel like youre in some charmed universe where Julia Child and the Waltons live on the same block. (Bar Five Meat & Poultry, 23160 441st Ave., Arlington, 507.964.6512. The Wemeier family will be selling their Bar Five products at both the St. Paul and Minneapolis Winter Farmers Markets this year, which will run the following Saturday mornings: January 10 & 24; February 7 & 21; March 6 & 20; and every Saturday in April. Check out www.stpaulfarmersmarket.com or www.mplsfarmersmarket.com for more information.)
Coq au vin from Bakery on Grand: Wine-soaked, intense, and profound, this simple peasant chicken dish seemed to contain every elemental fall flavor there is, from mushroom to onion to huddling close by a fire as the wind crackles the treetops. One bite and the white-on-white simplicity of this big bakers quarters seemed less like a bakery and more like a chapel to praise the greatest of humble European cooking traditions. The restaurants buttery, charming scones and time-stopping twice-baked brioche were also some of the most memorable creations of the year, and once the downtown St. Paul location opens theyre sure to be the toast of both towns. (Bakery on Grand; 3804 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.822.8260.)
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