Top 11 most interesting food moments of 2015

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Oak Grove Grocery thrums as the heart of a neighborhood

By now, we already know the best new restaurants of 2015. The jury has been out on those for some time, and there's really no surprise to it. Without the food cognoscenti telling us what they were, anyone with the faintest interest in such matters could have written the lists themselves.

The chefs and owners of those restaurants are culinary royalty around here, and anything they touch is almost bound to be great — Gavin Kaysen, Thomas Boemer, Landon Schoenefeld, Jack Reibel. They're the Bill Murrays of cooking. They almost can't fail, regardless of how audacious the curveball may be.

But how many of those best new restaurants are doing the most interesting things? Some of them, to be sure. But not all of them.

So I offer my Top 10 coolest, sexiest, happiest, strangest, saddest, most interesting food moments of 2015, because interesting is always better than "best." 

11. The survival of Oak Grove Grocery 

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Photo courtesy of Rainbow Chinese

Not because it's old-timey, though it is that. Not because of its crumbling charm, its dedicated staff, or its irresistible history (they've been stuck up by a Norelco razor, among other things).

I loved writing about Oak Grove Grocery because they stay open 364 days a year. The staff insists on it. People in the neighborhood might need something, you see.

Long before Whole Foods, Lunds, the Wedge, or any other store was around to provide sustenance to the tangle of apartments on the crest that overlooks Loring Park, Oak Grove Grocery was there. It's been there for 95 years. While it's changed, it's changed relatively little.

There's no parking, modern refrigeration equipment won't fit into the space, the handicapped ramp is usable but not up to of-the-moment specs, and on and on. If it closes, no store will go into its place. Old and bockety it may very well be, but it still thrums as the heart of the neighborhood the way an antique refrigerator might do — noisily, but relentlessly and reliably. Read the full story here. 

  1. Tammy Wong's incredible display of strength

    Tammy Wong gets her own category for so many reasons. Because the only way I can fully describe her is "warrior." 

    She's survived 30 years as a restaurateur, sometimes of many establishments, but always of at least one: Rainbow Chinese. Her dad handed her the keys to the place when she was barely an adult and said, "You figure it out." And she did, becoming one of the biggest names in food around here.

    She lost her oldest son earlier this year to suicide, a loss she has been generously, courageously open about. She didn't miss a beat, inviting her legions of loyal friends and customers (they are always one and the same) to Rainbow on the night of his funeral to eat. She could be seen filling water glasses in between hugs.

    Now, in her 50s, she's embarking on another act, carefully but surely refreshing her brand, readying things for a new generation. I've spent time in the kitchen with Tammy, and at a decade her junior, there is no keeping up with her. None. If you've stayed away from Rainbow in recent years, consider revisiting. You might be surprised. And say hi to Tammy, because she never fails to surprise or to delight.

    Read about Wong here, and her new menu here. Read about her son Euyon Hua's death here.

  2. Dinner at Bret's Table 

    Dinner at a stranger's house is almost always a treat. It also almost never happens.

    People rarely throw dinner parties for friends anymore, much less for people they barely know, or don't know at all. It requires dragging out a vacuum cleaner and a can of Liquid Gold, cookbooks and tablecloths and long forgotten napkin rings. It's a hassle. 

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    But not for Bret Bannon, an avid home cook who works in the medical industry by day, and obsessively, relentlessly cooks by night and weekend.

    He's a self-professed Francophile who stays in Julia Child's former residence when he's abroad. He's not rich. But that doesn't stop him from diligently making pate choux, bouche noel, creme brûlée, and profiteroles. A quick peek at his Facebook page says he's making French pinwheel cookies at the moment, a maneuver that takes years for the best pastry chefs to master.

    Amid all this, he regularly invites friends and strangers to his home to partake of Bret's Table. They're dinner parties, often impromptu, where he feeds people all of this goodness, because he wants to and because he can. He's a former seminarian who traded the church for a life of communal conviviality. He says he sees the face of God in his dinner guests.

    A dinner at his home was one of the most surprising and most relaxing of my year. Read more about it here, and then try to finagle your own invitation. I won't tell you how. Maybe do something nice for the man. His own generosity has it coming. 

    8. The fight for Kev's Korner

    Way, way too many worthwhile endeavors linger in the shadows, because there is no money for expensive PR, because the din of novelty and newness is far too loud, because daily work is relentless.

    The now shuttered Kev's Korner was an anachronism, yes. A place fallen out of favor because it's an extra stop on the way to Aldi. Because there was no Facebook page. Because it was strange and broken down and beautiful the way a Toulouse-Lautrec painting is beautiful. It was a place on the margins, and who has time for that? 

    Kevin Huebscher is a lifelong farmer and farm stand operator with a Fargo accent, a golden lab who shadows him devotedly, and a constitution for doing little else but his lifelong work. He lost his business on Halloween night after failing to raise the cash it would have costed to buy the land upon which Kev's Corner was situated for the past three decades (the owner of the land is no longer interested in renting it).

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    Kev's Corner is no more.

    I stopped by to buy a last pumpkin and a jar of jam and he said he hopes to reopen in a new locale, after the Sisyphean feat of figuring out what to do with all his stuff. We hope so too. Read more about Kev's here. 

    7. Omakase at Sushi Fix

    Billy Tserenbat is not just a chef but a bona fide madman beloved to all who know him and have nads enough to go toe-to-toe with his liver. The son of geologists, he had the birthright and pedigree to go on to be a geologist himself, but instead became a family black sheep because he wanted to be a sushi chef. (He's Mongolian, not Japanese).

    Sushi Fix is nothing if not a brick-and-mortar model of self-actualization. The ski-shots (shot glasses affixed to a ski so everyone must do one, all at once — no cheating) are a well known piece of foodie legend, but it's the more elegant side of the place that transfixes. Course after course of the finest sushi you're likely to get outside of Tokyo, plus Wagyu beef. If you can, try it sometime. It's worth saving up for. Oh, and he doesn't like being called "chef." Just call him Billy. And then buy him a whiskey. Read more about Sushi Fix here. 

    6. The shuttering of La Belle Vie 

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    Because they can: Omakase at Sushi Fix tends to be an over-the-top affair.

    When somebody asked me, "Is La Belle Vie closing?!" I literally scoffed. Who scoffs anymore? Isn't scoffing supposed to be relegated to 19th century books and the British Parliament? But that's how I felt.

    La Belle Vie doesn't close. Like a celestial being, reliable if you just look into the sky, La Belle Vie doesn't close! But it was true. The first restaurant to put us on the map as a truly serious food city was closing after almost 18 years, which proves that just because you do everything right does not guarantee anything. Especially in the food business.

    The events leading up to the closure were many, and you can read them anywhere. But what endures for me is the unflagging grace of Tim McKee, our town's very own culinary godfather. We need another word for class to describe this guy. Read our coverage here.

5. The rise of Thomas Boemer 

Who had even heard of the man a few short years ago? Now, everything he touches turns to gold. Thomas Boemer is every chef's favorite chef. Travel to Revival any night of the week and spy the crush of bodies in the vestibule: black, white, young, old, all hungry. Perfect fried chicken has that effect on the multitudes.

But that's not all: Corner Table is still thrumming away, an impossible-to-define neighborhood place that's one part fine dining, one part pasta bar, one part BBQ, and all parts brilliant. And he's the 2015 Cochon 555 Grand Champion, which means, in some circles, he's got a better touch with pork than anyone else in the entire nation. Read our coverage here. And here. And here. 

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Tim McKee and chef de cuisine Shane Oporto. McKee remained steadfastly gracious through the entire La Belle Vie closing process.

  1. The arrival of Spoon and Stable 

    By many accounts both critical and public, opening reports were strangely underwhelming. The drumbeat of its impeding arrival was like the Phantom Menace. How could it live up to the gargantuan expectations?

    But as of this month, it's on everyone's Best New Restaurants lists, if not taking top slot. Publicity behind the place has somewhat single-handedly put Minneapolis in a national spotlight. Nobody is questioning that Gavin Kaysen is a brilliant chef and that he deserves all of the accolades he receives.

    Still, it's kind of a roundabout Cinderella story isn't it? But in this version, the dazzling princess becomes the put upon redheaded stepchild before she finally becomes queen. Read our coverage here.

3. Salt Cellar's boondoggle/redemption 

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Thomas Boemer holds court at Revival.

It was supposed to be a new generation of steakhouse, a hip, less stuffy version of the classic, the Haute Dish of the beef world with a young forager chef at the helm.

Its beautiful dining room on Cathedral Hill with a stone hearth, hand-carved farmhouse tables for 10 and a presentation kitchen promised greatness. Sadly, the place came out of the gate miserably flailing, according to most accounts, both inside the critic community and among the public at large.

But the place has begun to redeem itself, in part thanks to quiet help from chef Andy Lilja, a longtime talent under Lenny Russo and now of OxCart Ale House, which probably boasts the best bar food program in St. Paul.

We're not sure how many people have given the place a second chance; it was by far the worst review we had to write in 2016. But they're still open, albeit with a more traditional steakhouse menu, while many other places are not, so maybe that's a sign of better days to come. Read our coverage here.

2. The Working Families Agenda backlash 

Don't mess with our food community. Born of good intentions, the city of Minneapolis drew up a list of rules and regulations as a rejoinder to the problems facing many adults working in the food industry: lack of sick and family leave pay, lack of benefits, and lack of schedule prediction.

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Spoon and Stable: riches to rags to riches once more.

The proposal the city drew up (swiftly and unpredictably, without input from any restaurant owner) seemed unrealistic and maybe even draconian to folks in the biz. A kerfuffle quickly ensued with a large swath of restaurant owners (and many of their staff) on one side, and the city and some representatives of the working community on the other.

In the end, the city backed down, and many restaurant owners are making moves to provide some measure of sick pay and benefits to their staff. The city says it will continue to work on policies that are more agreeable to all involved. Read our coverage here. 

1. The uproar over the missing women of the MSP Best Chefs Cover

As far as food scandals go, it was a big one. In a nutshell, MSP Magazine assembled its top picks for a cover story of the best chefs in the Twin Cities. Glaringly, there were no women represented on the cover.

Stephanie March quickly issued something akin to a mea culpa, or at least an acknowledgment of the ostensible problem.

Female chefs and their allies went on a concentrated campaign for the better part of 2016 for greater acknowledgment, recognition and publicity. While the problem is many-faceted and pernicious, the two things that have lingered with me are these: When we (the media) make a mistake, it's public, embarrassing, and permanent. That sucks for the consumer, and it sucks for us, too.

The second is: What constitutes the best? Who's the decider? We, the media? The dining public? Foodists? The purveyors of the products themselves? And has food media become a game of mirrors, reflecting and deflecting a tight, cliquish circuit of players, pausing only to allow in a couple of new members annually? Food for thought if there ever was any. Read our coverage here. 


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