The English may have a well-established tradition of serving a light meal at their tea rooms -- tuna tartines and scones with clotted cream are commonplace -- but in Minneapolis? Not so much. Maybe our strong coffee culture acted as a natural interceptor, but dedicated tea rooms like La Société du Thé, Lady Elegant's, and the Tea Garden really didn't find their way into our local scene until relatively recently.
So when David and Lily Duckler opened Verdant Tea Tasting Room last year, it made sense that patrons weren't entirely sure what to expect. Would it be all petit fours and finger sandwiches? Or more like an austere apothecary?
The Ducklers' vision for their business lay somewhere in between, but was also more ambitious and community-oriented. In collaborating with local food artisans like Sweet Science Ice Cream, Tree Fort Soda, and Real Deal Chocolate, offering yoga and meditation classes, and hosting tea and cocktail tastings, Verdant has been functioning as much more than a place to have a hot cuppa something since its inception. Now, to the delight of Seward residents and fans of Zen spaces in general, the Ducklers have broadened their original concept to include full lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch service.
Though Birchwood Cafe has always stocked the bakery case at Verdant (if you must have a doughnut without gluten, their chocolate chai ones are quite good), they've hired chef Katriel Menendez to handle the savory side of things. To complement a long list of farmer-sourced Chinese teas — an ingredient they use freely in their cocktail program — the tidy lunch and dinner menu focuses heavily on Asian flavors. There are steaming, satisfyingly spicy bowls of vegan soba noodles in a sweet potato curry broth, topped with a nice balance of cooked and raw vegetables; street food-inspired skewers of mushroom, chicken, pork, or tofu cubes slicked with sweet-and-funky hoisin sauce; and a salad with radishes, crispy noodles, and sambal vinaigrette that recalls the traditional dishes of Yunnan province; stir-fry plates rich with ginger and tamari and thin, elegant rolled omelets speared with crunchy bean sprouts and dots of sriracha.
A couple of dinner dishes just missed it on the details. Their version of fried rice, an expected staple of any Asian-leaning menu, lacked the fluffiness and textural variance that can elevate that particular dish from just a collection of leftovers to something really special. Instead, it was creamy and a little bland, more like the base for a decent congee, which we would love to see Verdant do at brunch. Sandwiches are somewhat banh mi-like, constructed on Patisserie 46 baguettes and layered with pickled vegetables, cilantro, miso bean spread, and sriracha aioli. The flavors were bright and present, but the barbecue pork inside was cold and the bread was so over-toasted it cut up our mouths each time we tried to get a bite with a little bit of everything.
Menendez's food is simple, vibrant, and very vegetarian-friendly. We were especially delighted when his Argentinian roots came through and explained why humita — his home country's answer to creamed corn, served here with a sheep's milk cheese and sweet peppers — and piri piri chicken (the sauce is super popular in Brazil and other neighboring countries) made their way into the mix. He plays a little bit with familiar continental favorites, too, like the Dortmunder lager-battered fried cod, served atop a huge pile of fried shoestring potatoes and a spoonful of sriracha aioli, a welcome change of pace from the usual tartar sauce.
At brunch, Verdant puts a slight global spin on breakfast classics. Any meal that starts with potstickers is one we can generally get on board with, and while these had lovely, delicate wrappers that were crisped on the bottom, the fillings were a little ho-hum. A pleasantly pungent aged soy sauce makes up for that in a flash though. A plate of blueberry bourbon French toast expertly pulls off that trick where something that is not really healthy in any way seems like it might be. That's mostly thanks to the nutty, multi-grain bread they use and going easy on the sugar in the fruit and vanilla creme anglaise they put on top. The simply titled but endlessly edible breakfast hash was far and away the top pick at brunch. Thin noodle-shaped pieces of potato are blanched and then gently fried like hash browns, tossed with a generous handful of hoisin-glazed bacon, braised kale, and of course, topped off with the ubiquitous but entirely necessary soft-cooked egg. So delicious.
Almost everything here -- no matter the time of day you're visiting -- is fairly inexpensive, reasonably portioned, locally sourced, and light yet flavorful. And while we found very little to complain about food-wise, service was another story completely.
In our earlier visits several weeks ago, Verdant was mostly directing customers to order at the counter. More recently they were attempting to formalize their table service by having diners order from their servers, with the help of little tabletop signs meant to signal when diners need service and when they're "all good." Plenty of restaurants make a similar transition when trying to re-invent themselves, and we have even seen the call-button thing work elsewhere (notably the Rabbit Hole). But Verdant simply doesn't seem to have enough staff to handle it. What's the point of come-as-called signs if no one notices them because they're too busy running food and pouring beers? We also noticed tables forgot to flip their signs back over after their orders were made, which also made for some confusing interactions.
Cocktails, which were fairly complicated but should still have been mixed and served within 10 minutes, took closer to 20 on average. That said, the drinks menu is quite robust and interesting, if a touch pretentious in its theme, the commonly used symbols of magical realist author Jorge Luis Borges: Tygers, Labyrinths, Swords, and Clocks. No, you are not in a Portlandia sketch. Yes, the Dark and Stormy mocktail is delicious and their version of a Manhattan (the Tyger Tyger), made with Oolong tea, saffron, sherry, and High West rye, should be sipped slowly. It packs a major wallop, both of booze and complexity.
If the rusty spots in service can be polished away, there's no reason that Verdant's latest in a long list of partnerships, programs, and offerings can't be as successful as everything else the tea room manages to juggle. If this is Minneapolis tea culture, count us in and pour us a cup.
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