It's Friday night, nearly 11. Somehow, a party of four has come into Tilia and managed to order full meals—complicated stuff, like cod with miso-soy glazed turnips and carrots, black trumpet mushrooms, and white truffle fonduta—even though the kitchen was supposed to have switched over to its simpler late-night menu an hour ago. Through some sort of miscommunication or special request, the server apparently allowed it, and now he's leaning his tattooed forearms on the kitchen's empty pass, pleading.
The cook rolls his eyes. He's been here since 9 this morning. He's already started breaking down his station, cleared all the pans from the stove, and replaced them with an enormous stockpot set to simmer.
The server fetches the boss. Chef Steven Brown is the leader of this white-shirted, knife-wielding team, though between his baggy jeans and shaggy hair, he might be mistaken for a jam band member or your old college landlord. Instead of tapping a clipboard, calling a huddle, or invoking Jesus Christ, Coach Brown produces an armful of PBR tallboys and doles them out to his cooks by the deuces. In a low voice, he says, "I just want to make them happy."
During the dinner rush, the room's raucous din has prevented conversation with anyone outside a two-foot radius, but now the noise has finally lulled. The tension's release is audible: Crack. Psht. The beer cans open. The crew digs deep and fills the order.
Perhaps some day Steven Brown will have his own Cook Whisperer television series, but for now he's known as one of the Twin Cities' most followed chefs. Brown made his name at the fine-dining establishments Restaurant Levain and Porter & Frye, but diners whose memories stretch further back will also recall his shining stint at the short-lived RockStar. After a career working for everyone from Lucia Watson (Lucia's) and Brenda Langton (Café Brenda) to Kieran Folliard (the Local) and Jason McLean (the Loring), Brown is on his first stint as an owner at Tilia. "I'm tired of suffering under someone else's regime," he told the Star Tribune, with a bit of dramatic flair.
Some liken Brown to our local Anthony Bourdain, and there's surely some resemblance beyond the lanky builds and silver hair. Both chefs wield a pen (Brown writes a cheap-eats column for Mpls./St.Paul magazine), hold a few antiestablishment attitudes (during brief, late-night conversation with diners, Brown has been known to bring up the legalization of marijuana), and project the sort of swagger that comes from having just arrived on the other side of an adventurously lived youth (you'll have to make your own inquiries on that one).
A few years ago, "at the ripe age of 44," Brown became a father and started thinking about how his new role as a parent might better mesh with his love of food and cooking. "You don't see a lot of 60-year-old chefs," he jokes. "You either died or became a sales rep." Yet the idea of owning his own place—the holy grail for many restaurant workers—still held its allure. So when several restaurateur friends simultaneously encouraged him to check out a vacant space in Linden Hills, he couldn't resist having a look-see.
The location was a marked shift from Brown's most recent stint at Nick & Eddie—a move from one of the city's most bohemian neighborhoods to the one most aspirational for young, middle-class families. But what Linden Hills lacked in artists and bars it made up for in children's bookstores and potential for cultivating regulars. "The thing I love most about restaurants is the community that gets created out of them," Brown says. "Of all the places I've worked, I remember the food and the spaces a lot, but what I remember most is the people."
Every day, hundreds of them now cycle through his 14-table eatery. Brown has successfully democratized gourmet dining better than most of his peers. The only way to make his concept more populist would be to put it on wheels. To retain an accessible vibe, Tilia doesn't take reservations, so if you arrive at, say, 8:30 p.m. on a weekend, you might not be seated till quarter of 10. But the restaurant is a pretty enough place to wait, with its wooden booths, denim-upholstered chairs, and retro light fixtures. In a way, Tilia feels like it's been here forever, as if the space had never displayed a bamboo mural and served Vietnamese dishes during its previous tenure as Rice Paper. The restaurant's servers sport vintage eyewear and feathered barrettes and look like extras cast in some Brooklyn-set sitcom or romantic comedy. It's a worldview filtered through the iPhone's Hipstamatic camera app.
Diners can comfortably kill time strolling through the neighborhood's charming, two-block business district or sticking around and sampling the craft beers from Tilia's lengthy and well-curated row of taps. Brown has plans to create a lovely patio on the east side of the building to accommodate more diners, but as soon as the weather grows cold, the potential waits will likely seem far less appealing when crowds pack the bar, puffy coat to puffy coat.
Use the lag time to socialize and decide what to order. The theme of Tilia's menu, "Good Food Tastes Good," comes off as a sort of anti-slogan, especially from a team certainly capable of coming up with something cleverer (Brown's business partner, Jörg Pierach, owns the marketing agency Fast Horse). But its vagueness accommodates the American bistro-esque spread: There are mussels, burgers, beef brisket, a couple of pastas and salads, even celery root chowder with oysters and vermouth. Much of the list is comfort food, fussed with just enough. The foods are familiar, but with fine-dining refinement, and none costs more than $20. Brown has swapped some of his past experimentation with things like cheddar ice cream, bacon paper, and deconstructed French onion soup for more classics. Trendy ingredients and cooking techniques, much like indie bands, Brown says, can lose some of their appeal as they catch on. "When everybody else starts to discover them it takes some of the shine off," he says.
So start your meal with the potted meat, which is an excellent bargain at $5 per half-pint German canning jar. (How many of the cute containers will inevitably be lifted, along with the glass milk bottles that accompany the coffee?) The meat spreads, usually duck or pork, are richly spiced, creamy with fat, and positively irresistible when slathered on crusty grilled toast and garnished with a vinegar-kissed shallot. The house-cured gravlax, served on rye with roe-flecked butter, offers another excellent, and slightly lighter, Old World bread-and-protein starter.
Balance those dishes' nostalgia with an order of the more contemporary, fusion-style shrimp and spring peas. The plate comes with a sweet-hot sauce that fuses the Italian influences of wine and garlic from scampi with the Chinese flavors of ginger, Szechuan chiles, and fermented black beans. The combination is as unexpected as it is addictive—fresh, fiery, briny, pungent—and the sauce would also be terrific as a sandwich condiment or French fry dip. The dish is also a testament to Brown's creativity, as it was inspired by a Stump the Cook-style creation Brown once whipped up at home in desperation, when the kitchen was sparsely stocked.
For entrées, let the unadventurous order the pork tenderloin, which is very tender but has its flavor upstaged by a side of Brussels sprouts. Then you can get the duck, which features the fowl of Minnesota's premium game-bird purveyor, Wild Acres, in what might just be its finest form. The ducks hang for several days in the cooler, like dry-aged beef, to concentrate the flavor and cultivate a slightly wild tang. The breasts are served with a stew of prunes, lavender honey, and shallots that adds a sweet complexity without overwhelming the bird.
Tilia's menu never overreaches, though it might be criticized in a few spots for dishes that don't add much to the discourse. Sometimes the kitchen's minimalist approach works, as in the case of beets served with toasted sesame seeds and yuzu vinaigrette. But other times the tactic seems too simple. The house salad, for example, is a lovely heap of arugula, lightly dressed with lemon, olive oil, and pecorino, but for $7 it's something that might just as well have been rustled up at home. Same with the grilled mahi mahi, which, even when covered in an achiote rub and served with pickled peppers and lime, still seems rather plain. Better to choose the arctic char, which is served on an assertive bed of shredded cabbage with bacon-onion marmalade and red wine sauce.
Likely, though, you will have to force yourself to back off the savory items to save room for sweets. They are well worth the sacrifice, especially the spongy toffee-date cake and the butterscotch pot au crème. The latter comes from a recipe offered by Brown's friend, the local cookbook author Zöe François, and it comes out with an unexpectedly dark flavor that's rich with undertones of brown sugar and molasses. The stuff could forgive many a sin, so keep it in mind next time you miss Junior's band concert or forget to take out the compost.
When Tilia's kitchen is cooking full tilt, the stools at the counter reveal both the exacting nature of a cook's work and just how dirty his fingernails can get. Simultaneously, he might be sizzling a thick fish fillet, rolling it with a giant tweezers to evenly sear each side; caramelizing vegetables, nestled with nubs of salty ham; and cranking up a roaring, six-inch flame. If the sight of a chef licking a spoon and then putting it back to reuse might freak you out, you'd best sit a little further back. ("I missed it!" one unconcerned diner lamented. "It's like trying to see a shooting star.")
Late in the evening, when the kitchen's pace slows, Tilia takes on a civilized ease. At times the convivial spirit feels almost like a house party at Brown's (if chefs kept their own larders as full as those of their restaurants) where, after a few hours of drinking, a few cook friends wandered into the kitchen and decided to start feeding everybody.
In the bright light of day, when a double order of Kobe beef hot dogs seems like less of a good idea, Tilia still exudes the same welcome, even if you can't help but wonder if the cooks even bothered to go home and instead just curled up in a booth. There are sunny window seats, strong coffee, and trays of freshly baked banana muffins or hot cross buns piled up on the bar.
The brunch menu revolves around perfectly cooked eggs. In addition to the omelets and scrambles, the kitchen prepares them at least three ways: boiled hot and fast, then warmed in a smoke-infused water bath; cooked low and slow at a mere 62 degrees for 45 minutes, in conditions precisely controlled by an immersion circulator; or steam-fried with cream instead of water so they resemble shirred-style eggs.
The eggs go on buttery toast with roasted tomatoes and a whisper of tarragon cream, or with biscuits and gravy that are blessedly delicate and not too salty. But their best platform is the Benedict. Two of the stark white orbs—with yolks not chalky or runny, but having a nearly gel-like consistency—settle into a nest made of cooked spinach, flakes of King crab, and lightly sweet cornmeal waffles that sop up a tongue-tingling hollandaise sauce.
At some point, mid-morning, Brown and his family will likely arrive: wife, child, and a dog that's obedient enough to wait for its master out on the sidewalk untethered. Then Brown might join his wife at a table while neighbor kids play Frisbee with his dog, and his tiny daughter—wearing a green-and-white apron and toting a Hello Kitty notepad—shadows a waitress. It's a moment in which Brown seems to have unlocked the secret to having life and work agreeably meshed.