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The Best Restaurants of 2004

Jane Sherman

From my side of the fork, 2004 was a strange, strange year, marked by volatility, opacity, and surging rivers of really crappy truffle oil. (Hey--knock it off already with the synthetic and/or rancid truffle oil out there!) When I look back on the year, I don't really see a consistent narrative, which has made this wrap-up kind of like trying to pass an armadillo through a sieve. But, you know how it is, to the victor goes the armadillo goo, so let's all put on our waders and do this.

The restaurant scene in 2004 was dominated by about five major trends, all of which seemed pretty much unrelated. First, there was the disturbing phenomenon of the Imploding/Exploding Restaurant. Never has there been a year in which so many restaurants either lost or fired their chefs, or just closed altogether, often mere moments after receiving glowing reviews. I'm thinking here of the chaos at Red, the volatility at Levain and Little Jack's, the baffling vanishing of always-packed El Rey de Oro, and even the puzzling goings-on at Goodfellows, the one-time Twin Cities superpower that has let go just about every chef that made their name, including recently departed pastry legend Joan Ida (who has now resurfaced at North Oaks' Tria).

Second, we had a trend I'll call "Safety First, Safety Last, Safety Only!" in which big-ticket restaurants opened with the most timid, crowd-pleasing menus imaginable. Here I refer to the something-for-everyone, even-people-who-hate-restaurants menus that NorthCoast, Nochee, and Mission American Kitchen all debuted with.

The third major trend was unusually positive and encouraging. Many well-known chefs or restaurateurs who had put in years in the trenches finally got some due: There was new investment in Auriga; Scott Paumpuch, longtime chef at the Modern, struck out on his own to open Corner Table; John Hunt, longtime chef at Pane Vino Dolce, opened his own place; Steven Brown, that cooking wonder who lost his job (and his knives) when RockStar closed overnight, without warning, saw an utter reversal of fortune in 2004 with his deservedly high-profile appointment to head the kitchen at Levain; meanwhile, Brown's second-Musketeer Phillip Becht was given the reins at the Modern Cafe.

I would also put in this category the well-deserved and highly gratifying expansion, renovation, and general rebirth of longtime favorites Origami, Sakura, and the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, some of the hardest-working restaurants in show business. I'll note that this all adds up to a heck of a lot of positive news, good karma, and all-is-right-with-the-world to fit into a single year in a singularly cruel and unforgiving industry.

Fourth, there was a flurry of ambitious restaurants opening in places with no obvious customer base. I'm grouping together here both the scads of interesting immigrant places (like Taiwanese restaurant E-Noodle, in a strip mall in Roseville) and high-ticket joints debuting in areas more rural than suburban, like, oh, Tria, Confluence, and about a dozen others. Are you still here? That's four major trends, four, and if four isn't enough for you, I'll throw in a fifth for free: How about that coming wave of super-high-end dining, as national chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Wolfgang Puck plan on opening restaurants here in, respectively, the new Chambers Hotel and soon-to-be-reborn Walker Art Center?

Now, what do any of these things have to do with any of these things? As far as I can tell, the only common denominator is--no, no, not a growing sophistication on the part of local diners, settle down there, Horshack. Not everything is a referendum on how smart and tasteful you are. Oh, and now that I mention it, what was up with that, in the local press, when the Jean-Georges news came, and everyone was acting like we just got an A-plus gold star on our smart good taste? All we got was an A-plus gold star on the likelihood that we could provide $2.5 million a year for someone to wire-transfer off into the stratosphere. Anyway, the only possible connection I see between all of these trends is easy credit.

Well, that's kind of a psychic letdown, isn't it?

Merely easy credit, mountain-movingly easy credit.

I think all the virtually free money available around here lately (because of the simultaneous rocketing of housing values and low interest rates) has resulted in nothing short of a capitalist flurry of activity in every direction. That's what the five trends have in common: More money equals more everything.

Except, perhaps, more customers. So I'm going to make a dire prediction: Look for a metro-wide bloodbath, restaurant-wise, next fall. Summer is traditionally the slow season for fine dining in the Twin Cities, and when those bills come due in the fall.... No one would give me any good on-the-record quotes, but lately when I've been talking to chefs in the gossip-heavy restaurant world, certain extraordinary phrases keep being repeated, phrases like "teetering on the edge of extinction," even in reference to some longtime local powerhouses. I mean, God save anyone who hasn't been doing backflips to cultivate regular customers.

 

Which is the one thing you'll notice about the following list of what I think were the best restaurants in the Twin Cities in 2004. Each of these places excels in service, in ambience, in presenting something interesting to drink at a decent price; in short, in turning every walk-in customer into a lifer. To some extent, value has played a role in my thinking here--not value as in cheapness, but value as in, you walk out feeling like the experience was well worth the price and you would do it again. This might not seem like a very controversial position for me to take, but it's actually a big freaking deal in restaurant-critic circles. Many people feel that value should never factor into an evaluation of a restaurant, and while I can see the value of places with brilliant chefs, fistfights in the aisles, erratic hours, and hit-or-miss individual dishes, that's not what this list is about. This list is about recognizing places where the front of the house (the servers, hosts, managers, wine lists, napkins, silverware, lighting, noise level, architecture, music, decor and so forth) and back of the house (cooking talent, ingredient quality, food) were both excellent.

If you remember last year's best restaurant list, you'll remember that it ended with a bit of tough love and naked threats toward the city of St. Paul, threats that ran along the lines of Use 'em or lose 'em, pal. To my great delight and gratification, St. Paul chose to use 'em, and a year later, fully half of the best restaurants in the metro are in the brick-filled beauty of the east.

Well, since it worked last year I'll grow even more bossy and insane this year. Not only am I going to make threats, I'm going to revoke the right of many restaurateurs to make their own New Year's resolutions. So watch me go!

If you own a restaurant in the Twin Cities and find it to be sometimes kind of teetering, I'm telling you that things are about to get worse, and whatever you thought you were going to do in 2005, you are hereby ordered to invest deep sleepless nights of worry in getting the front of your house in order, in figuring out who your customers are and giving them little emotional or edible treats whenever you see them (what am I talking about? smiles, nice tables, remembering their birthdays, warm cookies, warm breadbaskets, stuff like that). If 2004 will go down in history as the year of easy credit and a consequent metro-wide flurry of activity and investment, make sure that 2005 is the year you're on the right side of things when front of the house issues separate the wheat from the chaff.

Well, that's your spoonful of medicine to make the sugar go down. And here are the treats--the 10 best local restaurants of 2004:

 

W. A. FROST

Hard to believe it's been three years since young chef Russell Klein took over St. Paul's venerable mansion on the hill, but in the last year the place has made the final push to become more than a beauty with big laurels to rest on. Now it's a first-class restaurant. General manager Bob Crew deserves a lot of the credit; his new wine list may define lists for the next decade around here. The thing first divides its hundreds of bottles of wines by region and varietal, but then makes a little pocket at the end of every section for value wines under $40, exactly serving the way people really live. For the deep pockets, there are deep vintages, for the everyday Joe, there's plenty to pick from without feeling stressed out.

There's a model cheese program, in which five ever-changing artisan cheeses are maintained in peak condition and served in biggish $5 portions, perfect for making a cheese course whenever you want to stretch out the meal, or simply have them with wine in the afternoon. The single-estate coffee program, tea service, single malt scotch list, and just about endless beer list are all among the best in the metro. The dining room, with its countless fireplaces and longtime servers (Frost is heading into its 30th anniversary year!), is as comfortable to cozy up in as any in town.

Yet, it's the cooking of Russell Klein that provides the focus and interest that has finally centered this sprawling giant. On a recent visit I had an appetizer of seared scallops wearing wee shredded phyllo-dough bonnets and set in an apple-cider and veal stock reduction; each bite was both rich and grounded, and sprightly and lively, like lace woven from dark silk. I tried an entrée of venison from a Chisago County farm that was coated outside with ground black trumpet mushrooms and seared in such a way that it was utterly black outside and bright ruby red within, a sight accented by the hotly scarlet sauce of red wine and beets that surrounded it. On the plate were also wee crisp Brussels sprouts, a decadently rich square of potato and cheese gratin, and a savory red-wine poached Seckel pear. It was a rich winter feast with a dozen deep and roasty flavors gathered together in a single chandelier of rubies. (W.A. Frost & Company, 374 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 651.224.5715; www.wafrost.com.)

 

 

SOLERA

I feel like you could go into Solera every day for a year and never be bored, a testament to the giant creativity with which the chefs there approach the Spanish tapas idiom. The tasting menus have been a boon to foodies; that's when $30 gets you eight courses, and takes you on a journey in which you can learn quite a lot about your date (how does he feel about eating octopus?). However, Solera is much more than a foodie destination, because of the following attributes: The lengthy wine list, magnificent desserts, efficient hosts, well-trained servers' assistants, front and rooftop bar-lounges, pretty glassware, killer happy hour, and quick and well-informed servers. I think it's the only place in Minnesota that offers something for everyone, and yet is never stupid in all those million guises. And if you think that's easy, there are a couple of national political parties that would like to talk to you. (Solera, 900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.781.6042; www.solera-restaurant.com.)

 

BAKERY ON GRAND

A late-year ownership change--the restaurant was sold to some of the original partners, including charcuterie master Gerard Boissy, chef Andrew Zachow, and Keith Poppe--has changed what was once a restaurant I likened to cats stampeding into tar into what it was supposed to be: a classical European country kitchen, with benefits. Benefits like what? Like the way that all of the charcuterie is handmade, on site, including the rich pâtés, chunky country terrines, numberless sausages (garlic and lamb, British bangers, duck apple, boudin blanc), house-cured lardons, Irish bacon--the works. At night the simple country specialties, like braised brisket and cassoulet, are rich comfort classics. The prices on the wine list have come down, and the place is now resolutely affordable--and, of course, all of the homemade bakery lovelies are still there, those delicate yet sturdy breads, that enchanting butterscotch pudding, that shatteringly crisp strawberry daquoise. If that isn't enough for you, please note that they've added antique wooden booths in which, in the mornings, you might consume French toast as light as the noise of birds on the wing. (Bakery on Grand, 3804 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.822.8260.)

 

COSMOS

I've always loved Cosmos for its Charles and Ray Eames do the Matrix decor, for the rich, savory, powerfully surprising cooking, as led by Seth Bixby Daugherty, and for the deeply competent service, but when I heard that Cosmos has recently morphed its everyday breakfast and lunch into an all-day brunch extravaganza, I truly began to worry about the likelihood of anyone getting any work done downtown, ever again. (Cosmos, Le Meridien Minneapolis, 601 First Avenue N., Minneapolis, 612.677.1100.)

 

TANPOPO

Having Tanpopo in your world is like possessing one perfect glass bowl, one exquisite vessel that is just exactly right for every occasion, for flowers in summer, fruits in winter, for heart-joy every time you observe its vast simplicity. As a restaurant, the place fills every need: It provides peace and serenity through the high-ceilinged, templelike room with its distantly spaced tables; it provides filling, hearty multi-course teishoku meals for an evening's deep and diverse sustenance (at around 10 bucks); it restores with steaming bowls of noodles; rejuvenates with a hearty, sturdy, glass of wine; and, generally, performs the magical act of returning you to the world feeling much less like an empty vessel, and much more like an exquisite one. (Tanpopo Noodle Shop, 308 Prince St., St. Paul, 651.209.6527; www.tanpopo-noodle.com.)

 

A REBOURS

I recently wrote a full review extolling the virtues of St. Paul's newest bistro, so I'll make this brief: The big news here is that some of the Twin Cities' most talented restaurant folks learned deep lessons from previous stumbles and put it all together in a glorious way. Roger Johnsson, executive chef and partner, put behind him the stratospheric prices and weird inconsistencies of closed gastronomic destination restaurant Aquavit to unveil a menu both bold and clever, and also priced to move. Doug Anderson, emcee and part owner, and Jessica Anderson, brilliant baker and part owner, left behind the madhouse art-clique vibe of Bakery on Grand to embrace service that clicked along like the insides of a Swiss watch. It's said that you learn more from your failures than from your successes, but glittering, reliable A Rebours proves that you learn more from both. (A Rebours, 410 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651.665.0656.)

 

 

MAI VILLAGE

I never dreamed I'd see a million-dollar Vietnamese restaurant that maintained its $7 price point, but then we got Mai Village. On further reflection, Mai Village, with its hand-carved interior pagoda, bridge, and waterfall, wine list and full bar, and proud family vibe is in many ways a dream come true: an American dream of what immigrants can do with ceaseless hard work and a little community support. (Mai Village, 394 University Ave., St. Paul, 651.290.2585.)

 

HEARTLAND

It looked touch-and-go for a while there at Heartland, a restaurant with a brilliant vision (all proudly Northern Heartland ingredients, prepared with excruciatingly detailed French technique) but without much of a marketing budget. Luckily, folks with taste rallied round the little Macalester-area restaurant, and now the future looks more secure. So why not treat yourself to dinner in a dining room where many of the servers have been there since the place opened, where most of the 270-bottle wine list is priced at retail, and the applewood-smoked Pequot Lakes Chukar Partridge with preserved cranberry glacé de viande and Canadian wild rice cake is beyond compare? (Heartland, 1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul, 651.699.3536; www.heartlandrestaurant.com.)

 

LUCIA'S:

Chef Lucia Watson is so important, so brilliant, so integral to the entire idea of a Northern cuisine and a good Minneapolis restaurant that it's sometimes hard to remember to give thanks. Just as Americans should probably think about Thomas Jefferson at least once a day, Twin Cities diners should give a nod of thanks to Lucia Watson whenever they approach a restaurant soup that wasn't made with beer and cheese. That said, I had a fettuccini special there a few weeks ago in which each ribbon of pasta was as light and ethereal as a dandelion puff on the wind. I washed it down with an Alsatian Riesling that trilled with the chill energy of the cold night sky. I was waited on by a server as invisible as she was competent. And I almost failed to notice any of it, because that's just what you expect from Lucia's. What's fair about that? (Lucia's, 1432 W. 31st St., Minneapolis, 612.825.1572; www.lucias.com.)

 

OCEANAIRE

If there's a more satisfying sight in the Twin Cities than the chalkboard bearing the oyster list at the Oceanaire, I don't know it. Kumamoto? Wellfleet? Blue Point? I'll take all of them. Servers who have been there for years and years, a wine list that has recently grown much more inclusive and accessible, daily specials that demonstrate both the chef's creativity and brilliant sourcing only heap more glitter upon this seafood citadel, which was pretty darn sparkly to begin with. (The Oceanaire Seafood Room, Hyatt Regency Center, 1300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612.333.BASS; www.theoceanaire.com.)


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