Time for Eggplant
4300 Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis
Five years ago loyal reader Josh first challenged me to find a good eggplant parmesan sandwich in the Twin Cities, one that would match the corner-shop just-plain-goodness of the millions that dotted his old Connecticut stomping grounds. Five years ago I chuckled smugly to myself, figuring this was a time-saver of a no-brainer. I headed out to the usual suspects, the old mom-and-pop Italian spots and the red-check-tablecloth neighborhood bars. Uh-oh. I found versions that were oily, versions that were sugary, versions that lay like fallen soldiers, buried and forgotten under a three-inch cap of white cheese. I allotted days to the search, I did not make good time. I made bad time.
I had nothing but bad times. I found slices of eggplant that were clearly frozen cutlets. I found eggplant cutlets that were clearly, nastily deep-fried, boasting a half-inch of super-crisp crumb where none should be. Most of all, I found layered eggplant casseroles. For true eggplant parmesan, each slice of eggplant needs to be breaded and fried, but each slice needs to be breaded and fried lovingly, coated in a thin egg wash to prevent it from soaking in the grease, then breaded, fried under gentle, low heat in a pan, covered with homemade tomato sauce, and sprinkled with real, identifiably tangy cheese--mozzarella, and ideally mozzarella with a sprinkle of parmesan. In short, in the perfect eggplant parmesan, you should have the sense of an aunt, a grandma, an uncle, someone laying slices of just-fried eggplant on a paper towel, because that's how it's done.
But that's not how it's done here. And so, I took my notes documenting the Twin Cities' best eggplant parmesan, buried them under a three-inch cap of white cheese, and ate them with a nice Chianti.
Five years ago. Ever since, I have devoted countless precious hours to this hunt. No dice, no luck, just me, making bad time.
Until a quiet day last month, when I was taking a shortcut, to save some time, and I saw a cute little brand-new, can-do corner shop, Amie, on the bucolic, flower-and-grade-school-child-filled corner of 43rd and Bryant. There it was! Perfect, perfect eggplant parmesan, each slice of eggplant fried by hand so it's all sturdy and squiggly, layered with homemade tomato sauce, topped with real cheese, and generally hitting all the notes that it ever could: sweet, meaty (though it's meat-free), piquant, herbal, salty, rooted-in-Italy but made-in-postwar-American-domestic-abundance. At $8.75 a pound, or $35 for a 9x13 inch pan that serves eight or so people. Finally! I wrote to Josh to gush the great news. Josh went, and fell in love with the sandwich, and five years later, we reached the ribbon on the race, which, for half a decade, had given no sign of having an end.
Of course, this all came about because of yet another coastal transplant's frustration with finding something no one has time to make--though in this case the something in question was a knish.
"That's my mission, the knish," explains Amie's co-owner Randy Kustanowitz, when I spoke to him on the phone for this story. "The knish, they're delish! They're all over the place in New York. You can get them at the ballpark, everywhere. But I was never able to get one around here, and it pissed me off. Ideally, I would like to make 100, 150 a day. That's my mission."
Now, a knish is basically mashed potatoes wrapped with dough--and so you'd think they'd be a no-brainer in this land of cult spud worship. But no! As far as I know, while you can find the standard issue square ones in a couple of local freezer cases (like at Fishman's Market, in St. Louis Park) and, um, unfrozen at a couple places as well, Amie is the only place in town right now that is making them from scratch. Here, Kustanowitz puts his handmade fillings in the middle of a square of puff pastry, and ties the ends together in a little knot around the fillings, so they peek out in little gaps. They run $2 for a plain potato one, the tuber mashed with a touch of onion; or $2.25 for any of a realm of turnovers that share the knish's shape but don't hold much else in common.
I had one filled with caramelized onions, sautéed red bell peppers, and a bit of cheese. Sometimes you'll find ones filled with lentils or even broccoli. Pair one with the little deli's homemade ever-changing soups, like Wednesday's fantastic matzoh-ball soup, full of real chicken, and you've got a perfect take-out supper.
That's actually the point of the business, which Kustanowitz opened with wife Michelle Wood this past March. "In Long Island there are tons of take-out places everywhere, and here we've been watching the take-out counters of Lunds and Byerly's grow and grow, and we keep asking ourselves, don't people get sick of going into a grocery store and the whole mishegoss?"
A mishegoss is basically Yiddish for a rigamarole, a "mess of trouble," and my guess is that most Minnesotans haven't ever considered whether parking in a lot, standing on line at the deli counter, and then standing on line at the checkout line is a mess of trouble or not, because there hasn't been much alternative. But once you all experience the joy of parking on the street in front of Amie, running in, and snagging a homemade dinner for the family in five minutes flat, I'm guessing you will delightedly ditch the mishegoss. You might even simply get Amie to put together the entrée for your next dinner party, so you can stand around looking cute and making vinaigrette.
If you do that, consider serving the tasty, low-fat turkey meatloaf, $4.50 a slice, replete with the mom-perfect tomato-sauce top; or spicy caponata ($8.75 a pound), a tangy version of the eggplant dip; and the tzimmes ($6.50), which is basically Yiddish for sweet-potato-bake, except instead of marshmallows, they use apricots and prunes, and instead of tasting like sugar, it tastes like everything maple and orange that you love from Thanksgiving, with a hint of cayenne.
What's with all the Yiddish? Actually, says Michelle Wood, Amie is very nearly a kosher restaurant. It's not certified by the Jewish authorities that do such things, which would be prohibitively expensive. However, says Wood, all the meats are certified kosher, meat and dairy dishes are prepared separately, there are no dishes that mix dairy and meat, and they sell a number of dishes that can be eaten with either meat or dairy, because they're "pareve," which means they have no meat or dairy. (However, they might contain eggs, so vegans should ask, although the place usually has a number of vegan dishes on hand too.) That's why the little spot is closed on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturdays. Otherwise, it's open 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Friday and Sunday.
In addition to the outstanding home-cooking reheatables, Amie also makes sandwiches, kosher cold cuts, egg salad, chicken salad, and such. And they'll even pack sandwiches and sides into a picnic basket for you, if you leave a deposit on the basket. Then you can take it to nearby Lake Harriet, or into your canoe, or simply over to a stressed-out friend's house, for one of those good-living, pre-indictment Martha moments you never have time for.
Like how you never have time to make your own eggplant parmesan. Though you, or someone you've read about, might have five years to drive around in circles looking for it. Or maybe you do have the time, maybe we all do, locked away.
"For 10 years, I worked in the downtown Dayton's shoe department," says Kustanowitz. "On a sale day--ugh. It's absolutely sick what a woman will do for a $14 dollar pump. I thought if I ever passed out, women would be walking back and forth over me, holding one shoe. It was like a battlefield, with boxes and clumps of tissue. After that, I was a broker--people yelled at me all day long. Then I got cancer, and it sounds funny, but we never would have started this if I didn't go through that experience, it gave me more guts to do things: Life is short, what the hell.
"People are nicer when you have your own business, now we've got this neighborhoody thing going on, and I feel like I'm making a lot of friends. I'm back there in the morning twisting my pastry knots, and I feel at one with my knish. It beats being yelled at all day. John comes in, Bob comes in, one lady comes in for a couple of knish on a regular basis. We got to talking about stuff, it turns out that she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, I had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It's kind of like being a bartender--except, I'm a bartender with potatoes. You get to meet people on a deeper level.
"I get up in the morning, and the quiet time is meditative, cutting up eggplant. I mean, it's quite a pain in the ass actually, the cutting, the peeling, the dredging in the egg, the frying, the layering, the sauce, and the cheese. But I like it, that time you spend quietly."
And, so it seems, more and more in this world, when one person gives their time generously, it pours a richness all around, to all of us. And thus concludes the great Twin Cities eggplant parmesan roundup, which I have to conclude was a good time, and worth the wait.
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