The Twin Cities restaurant scene has its share of empire builders, restaurateurs who find a formula that works and stick with it. In 2010, D'Amico's and Barrio expanded into the suburbs, while Parasole gained a majority stake at Lake and Hennepin and 50th and France, arguably the two most significant retail intersections in town.
But despite the dominance of a few key players, individuals retain a significant role in defining Twin Cities dining. Half the names on this list of 2010's best new restaurants represent a chef's first solo venture. This year's most interesting eateries are those that eschewed mass appeal and carved out new territory.
A business consultant focused solely on the numbers might have told chef Doug Flicker that his dining room was too small, or advised Landon Schoenefeld that his space was too big, or warned Mike Brown and James Winberg that their neighborhood wasn't trendy enough. But such data can't account for distinctiveness. By putting their own personal stamp on the dining experience, and devising something truly unique, these chefs have created something craveable.
4300 Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis
Doug Flicker, the lauded chef-partner of the late, lamented Auriga, is once again leading his own kitchen at a 36-seater in south Minneapolis. Piccolo is an instrument Flicker plays with individual flair, through a constantly changing menu that highlights seasonal ingredients. The list features plates that are portioned like appetizers yet composed as entrées, and whether you'd rather call them appetrées or entretizers, they're an innovation that allows both Flicker and his diners more flexibility. Piccolo's dishes may have an Italian bent, but they're far from familiar. Flicker's idea of comfort food is not spaghetti and meatballs but scrambled eggs with pickled pig's feet and truffle butter. Even a pasta dish as simple as Swiss chard ravioli comes with an unexpected mix of duck tenderloin, dates, and pickled walnuts. Flicker's flavor pairings are complex and his cooking techniques precise, so dishes like pine-cured veal breast or black cod with hazelnut purée intrigue as much as they satisfy. In these play-it-safe, hedge-your-bets, recessionary times, Flicker is a risk taker. The payoff is that Piccolo has pushed the culinary envelope further than any other new restaurant this year.
TRAVAIL KITCHEN AND AMUSEMENTS
4154 West Broadway Ave., Robbinsdale
Travail takes its name from the French verb travailler, which means "to work," and chefs James Winberg and Mike Brown, alumni of Victory 44 and Porter & Frye, are showing some serious hustle at their Robbinsdale gastropub. The crew works both the line and the room, pulling double duty as chef-servers with an approach that makes for a more intimate experience with the restaurant's compilation of fine dining and pub fare. The same menu that includes rabbit four ways and sous vide octopus might also feature a house-made charcuterie plate and a delectably rich ground sirloin burger. While the cooks keep things interesting with their molecular gastronomy tricks, it's the convivial atmosphere and affordable prices that ultimately make Travail an ideal neighborhood joint. Travail is this year's best new restaurant to become a regular—that is, if you can ever snag a seat.
3001 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Though Il Gatto technically opened in late 2009, the restaurant just missed last year's cutoff—and it benefited from the extra time to earn its spot on this list. When the Parasole restaurant group replaced its old workhouse, Figlio, with a seafood-focused Italian eatery, Il Gatto got off to an inconsistent start. But then, this fall, Figlio veteran Tim McKee—yes, that Tim McKee, the one who now runs a whole family of award-winning restaurants that earned him the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Midwest title—was called in to redo the menu. McKee protégée Jim Christianson now leads the Il Gatto 2.0 kitchen, which offers, essentially, an Italian version of McKee's La Belle Vie crossed with a neighborhood bar. The fare is as fresh and inventive as you'd find in fine dining, though with larger portions and less affectation. A rich preserved swordfish with tonatto is balanced by the lightness of heirloom tomatoes and lacy-thin radish slices. Tender bobolotti noodles float in a fiery seafood stew. Zampone di Milanese takes pork trotter meat that's been breaded and sautéed and turns it into the gourmand's version of a chicken McNugget. Here's hoping that the Il Gatto partnership launches future collaborations between McKee's finesse and Parasole's muscle.
119 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis
Chef Landon Schoenefeld's intense and sometimes impulsive nature has matured significantly since he was famously fired from the Bulldog after dousing a server with mustard. At Haute Dish, in the pretty vintage space formerly inhabited by Café Havana, Schoenefeld is convincing diners to focus on his talent, not his temper. His menu takes the unusual tack of preparing Grandma's flavors with French technique, and some of its best dishes are gussied-up, Midwestern man food. The signature Hot Dish is the best of any chef-y revision of the classic casserole: deconstructed into a beautiful and tasty sculpture of short ribs, haricots verts, porcini béchamel, and homemade tater tots. Even a basic steak and eggs transforms into a fancy beef tartare with an egg-in-the-hole and a bloody Mary oyster shooter. Schoenefeld takes dishes you've seen a hundred times before and turns them into one-in-a-million creations.
4552 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis
In France, the term "patisserie" may only be used by a bakery that employs a licensed maître pâtissier, or master pastry chef, and at Patisserie 46, that role is filled by John Kraus, who was most recently an instructor at the nation's top pastry school in Chicago. The Twin Cities are home to many fine bakeries, but this cute Kingfield shop brings a new level of refinement to the local pastry craft. While other artists work in oil paint or jade, Kraus's medium is flour, butter, and sugar—and he turns it into edible gold. Patisserie 46 offers the usual delectable chocolate croissants and gemlike petites gateaux, as well as such hard-to-find sweets as canelé, a spongy rum cake with a lovely, caramelized crust that looks as if it sprang from a tiny bundt pan; and gibassier, a delicate, Provencal bread that's fragrant with anise seeds, orange peel, and olive oil. But Patisserie 46 also has a savory side, with lovely artisan breads sliced for sandwiches including the croque monsieur or used to sop up soups such as bean stew.