Traditionally, guests are welcomed into an establishment with the offer of a beverage. At the newly opened Inn, in downtown Minneapolis, servers greet diners with bulky glass goblets that require some effort to hoist one-handed. The chalice-as-water-glass suggests having dropped into a Monty Python sketch. Because, really, who spent the day wearing chain mail and raiding castles?
But don't fixate on such questions. Just order a cocktail and you might be treated to an "amuse booze" from the bar. That's a liquid version of the fine-dining restaurant's appetite-whetting free snack—and if it's a shot of brandy-spiked coffee and mulling spices, it will probably be preferable. If that can't quite combat winter's weary chill, there's always a pour of Scandinavia's favorite toasting beverage, aquavit. The spirit's name is derived from the Latin phrase "water of life," and it tastes of straight alcohol with an infusion of woodsy spices. The server's explanation of "linie" aquavit—meaning the spirit has matured while being shipped across the equator and back in wooden sherry casks—makes no more sense than one given by a drunk Norwegian uncle, but no matter. Shoot it quick and chase with a mug of Grain Belt. Skål!
The faint of heart, and stomach, might prefer the Slim Shim. It's an agreeable gateway to Scotch drinking, as the spirit is blended with maple syrup, lemon, ginger, and rosemary, which lend sweetness, tartness, and a hint of heat and forest. If you didn't fill your eggnog quota last December, try the Inn Flip, a frothy sipper rich with a whole raw egg and heady with allspice. Its slightly bitter finish makes for a nicer denouement than the cloying holiday beverage tends to exhibit.
If a man with dark, curly hair who comes by and shakes your hand looks familiar, it's not the alcohol's influence. Visitors to the dearly departed Town Talk Diner in Minneapolis, or the Strip Club in St. Paul, will recognize him as restaurateur Tim Niver, who created the Inn with his Strip Club cohorts. As with Niver's previous restaurants, the Inn's space and menu have a comforting, retro vibe, which brings a rare sense of neighborhood to an area awash with quick skyway-level lunches, rowdy bars, and formal fine-dining restaurants. The Inn experience falls somewhere in between: Here, craft beer is poured by the pitcher.
Jim Hays, the moneyman backing the short-lived Subo, is still involved with the restaurant that replaced it, but he and the rest of the group didn't do much to change the space, besides banish the bamboo. It's still a narrow shotgun layout with big windows in front, a bar in the middle, and kitchen in the rear. The front wall is covered with rustic, hand-hewn wooden boards and a quilt-like graphic that evokes old-time Americana. The front dining area is preferable to the Siberia seats in back and the ones across from the bar, which abut a row of windows offering an unfortunate view of glaring safety lights and a drab, utilitarian hallway. The restaurant's soundtrack has a KS95 quality to it: classic hits you recognize, maybe too well, and often flip past.
Chef Tyge Nelson (pronounce his first name like the word tiger, without the r) created the Inn's menu of upscale American and European tavern fare with assistance from Strip Club chef J.D. Fratzke. A veteran of both La Belle Vie and Solera, Nelson was working at Barrio St. Paul when he was introduced to the Inn team by Mark Latz, a former Barrio co-worker who had accepted a position as the new restaurant's manager.
A seasonal assortment of dishes includes oxtail—an often-overlooked meat—in a beguiling broth speckled with barley pearls. The meat is pot roast-tender and fatty with collagen. A nudge of the spoon separates flesh from spiky bones, which you're welcome to gnaw on if that's to your liking. The dish's only flaw, when I tried it, was a pair of shapely orange carrots. The garnish looked like a Barbie doll's legs and, lacking any expected sweet earthiness, had an equally vapid personality.
The charcuterie plate may include a few lesser-seen items, such as a fatty porketta, which looks like uncooked bacon and tastes like soft, porky butter; and a spreadable sobrasada (a Spanish pork sausage made with paprika, not to be confused with soppressata, the Italian dry-cured salami, which can also be on the plate). Nelson's house-pickled herring has just come off the menu, unfortunately, due to the close of Lake Superior's fishing season, but was a welcome variant on commercially produced versions, having a firmer, more dense texture.
The Inn's roasted red and yellow pepper plate is a hearty alternative to a green salad. The peppers are meaty and sweet, plump as a starlet's lips, with the juicy succulence of heirloom tomatoes. The lively accompanying flavors—sherry vinaigrette marinade, marjoram pistou, arugula, shaved pecorino, and a creamy anchovy aioli—make it my top appetizer pick, as does its reasonable $7 price tag.
Honorable mention goes to Nelson's deceptively humble dinner roll. The $3 charge may miff those expecting a gratis breadbasket, but these are a different species entirely from the mass-produced muffs sold in dozen-packs on supermarket shelves. Buttermilk dough boosts the roll's flavor, and its fluffy surface is best spread with whipped butter and gooey orange marmalade spiked with bitter peel. Paired with coffee or tea, it would make an excellent Continental breakfast.
Most of the straightforward, meat-heavy entrées are value-priced at less than $20, but there is a grass-fed rib eye for those seeking a $32 splurge. I'm a fan of the Strip Club's version, which is also from Thousand Hills Cattle Company, but this one disappointed. The steak's flavor was robust, but it arrived at the table so well rested it was cool to the touch. I had better luck with the beef short ribs with farina (Americans know it as Cream of Wheat) and the pork "handle steak," or bone-in loin chop, with a thick, steaky texture and a side of simmered apple cubes.
Nelson modeled his chicken dish after a cream-poached pheasant he used to make at La Belle Vie, and the tender, slow-cooked bird marries nicely with a mustard-flecked crème fraiche. Be sure to add a vegetable side to round things out. The gussied-up turnip puree could edge mashed potatoes out of any holiday spread.
The Inn's fish and chips comes with a side of mild curry sauce, which is traditional in some parts of Europe but less palatable than tartar sauce to those who haven't developed a taste for it. The fried potatoes are dusted with powdered malt vinegar—think salt and vinegar potato chips—that succeeds in keeping the chips from getting soggy. But if you like seafood, be sure to ask about the day's fish special. One night the kitchen offered a lovely plate of five scallops laced with thyme brown butter for just $20.
Culinary concepts aren't complicated at the Inn, but the cooking tends to be as consistent as the friendly hospitality. The $18 burger is the rare outlier: While the grass-fed beef patty and soft egg on an English muffin make an interesting evening riff on a Benedict, the thick slather of foie gras seems misused. The foie's delicacy gets lost as it melts into a livery mush between the beef and bread, serving little more function than to boost the price.
The Inn's dessert list is also something of a missed opportunity. There are just a few items provided by Salty Tart, but the ones I tried, including the dry, Guinness-infused chocolate cake, weren't as good as some of the sweets I've had at the bakery. Still, the Inn offers a nice spread and a more personal touch than most downtown eateries. Though if you need a place to lay your head at the end of the night, you'll have to walk down the street to the Hilton.