2817 Lyndale Ave. S.,
Is Emily Streeter the youngest chef with her own restaurant in Minneapolis? Could be; even after a year running the line at Bakery on Grand and three years in charge of the pots and pans at café un deux trois, the new chef and owner of Emma's Restaurant just turned 24. Intimidated? Don't be: Her new incarnation of Three Muses is unpretentious and attitude-free.
How unpretentious is it? How about fried egg cutouts for weekend brunch? Brunch is my favorite meal at Emma's; it's available both Saturdays and Sundays and features such treats as light-as-a-feather biscuits graced with a thick, sausage-rich cream gravy and a few fried sage leaves ($7); pillowy, buoyant slices of French toast scattered with fresh blueberries ($5.50); a big, hearty plate of smoked trout hash--loose and vegetal with lots of sautéed red and yellow bell peppers, onions, and potatoes; generously fishy with chunks of dense, smoky trout; and crowned with a poached egg ($9.50).
I was especially delighted to see the bull's-eyes, slices of white sourdough bread, crusts cut off and with holes cut in the middle for pan-fried eggs. My mom used to call them "eggs in a hat," and I was delighted to find them in a grown-up form, next to a good cup of coffee, some thick Nueskie's bacon, and a spoonful of harissa, that spicy red-pepper sauce.
The Holy Grail of Uptown has long been a good, affordable brunch without an hour-long wait. Will Emma's fix that? Probably not. As of this writing, the place has been dead empty for weeks, but once word gets out all I can promise is that those of you who score a table in the warm leather-and-spice toned room won't regret veering from your customary crowded haunts.
Dinner at Emma's has far fancier fine-dining aspirations. Emily Streeter's most accomplished appetizer is her "peas and carrots" ($7), a sweet-pea flan made with fresh English shell peas blanched with mint leaves and pureed with a little cream and egg, then cooked in a water bath until jiggly-firm and bright as a leprechaun. Streeter sprinkles a few julienned, dehydrated salted carrots, which taste a bit like sweet, roasty matchstick French fries, on top, adds a sprig or two of fresh pea sprouts, and dots the plate with jewel-like pools of bright green mint oil and a dark orange vinaigrette made with reduced carrot juice, Champagne vinegar, and a bit of oil. The overall effect is that of eating the springtime, in all its frivolous, hopeful, sweet, and airy guises.
Steamed mussels ($8) are utterly simple and terribly French, nestled in a bowl of broth made perky with white wine, shallots, parsley, garlic, and butter. The beet salad ($7) balances the earthy weight of roasted red and gold beets with the sweet crunch of slightly spiced pecans and the tart tang of fresh goat's milk cheese. A composed salad of smoked trout tossed with chilled fingerling potatoes in a creamy dill pesto ($8) was like something lifted from a Scandinavian smorgasbord, but translated with Midwestern trout instead of ocean fish.
The best things I've had for dinner entrees at Emma's have been the specials on the weekends. A recent concoction of herb-crusted duck was wonderful, and spoke strongly of Emily Streeter's strengths as a chef: When it comes to making harmonious, complementary chords of flavors along a single theme, such as the springtime fresh of the peas and carrots, or the summertime earthiness of her duck, her work shines strongly. This duck was crusted with a fresh-minced blend of French fines herbes--thyme, tarragon, and the like--then braised in goose fat until the leg meat was pulling from the bone, but before the duck was strictly as dense as something made fully confit. It was concentrated and rich, but not too rich, and garnished with a stack of floppy, julienned smoked tomatoes and heavenly ultra-crispy bits of duck-fat cracklings (like pork rinds, but better). The whole thing was served on a silky spoonful of pureed potatoes resting in a pool of reduced duck stock made with more smoked tomatoes. Beside the duck was a summertime tangle of sautéed baby leeks and fresh fava beans. It was a dish that perfectly brought together the delectable earth of the Minnesota harvest.
Unfortunately, I didn't often find entrees this strong. Many were just sort of neither here nor there--technically adequate, but sort of flat and unspecial after that. I tried the red pepper risotto ($16) a few times, and always found it to be just gummy with rice and a bit meaty with chunks of andouille sausage, a real ho-hum. The gnocchi with mushrooms ($16) featured soft and elegant gnocchi swamped by a load of tough wild mushrooms. Thinly sliced spirals of stuffed flank steak on a tarragon-saturated cauliflower ragout ($17) were technically accomplished, the meat perfectly tender and absolutely appealing, yet tasted so plain they might as well have been boiled.
I never made it to Emma's on a Sunday night, but Streeter says she's putting gourmet sandwiches on the menu on that day of rest, $7 to $9 compositions such as hoisin-barbecued pulled pork on an onion bun, or an open-faced duck liver crostini paired with a blueberry gastrique. My hope for this promising newcomer is that they would leaven the menu with just such less expensive options, because right now it's hard to see how they're going to thrive in the high-stakes world of fine dining with so many highly polished competitors, such as jP and Lucia's, so close at hand.
Many other aspects of the restaurant have similar proficient but not passionate shortfalls. Servers are well-meaning and eager, but far from polished. There's little agreement among them when or why bread plates might be distributed, or when and why to clear plates or take orders. The wine list is tidy, useful, and affordable, but is also neither here nor there, neither a barrier to fine dining, nor an enticement to wine people.
Ironically, my complaint about the restaurant Emma's has replaced, Three Muses, was that it had too much attitude without the cooking chops to back it up; now the cooking skill is abundant, but I long for a little more personality.
You can find a bit of that personality in the back bar, the domain of the chef's big brother Jake Streeter, who has a very nice sense of how to make a strong, cheap drink taste good: All of his specialty cocktails cost $6, and fresh-squeezed citrus or fresh herbs enliven a number of them. The Mostreeto, for instance, is made with light and dark rum, mint-infused lemonade, and fresh lime juice. The Mexican Mule has got to be the only top-shelf tequila drink made with fresh lime juice in Uptown or adjacent areas that costs less than a movie ticket.
The bar is a great place to take a friend if you miss her birthday. You can have a cocktail and sample some of Emily Streeter's desserts, the most likable of which are the simplest. There's a very nice Sonny's ice cream sundae jazzed up with little squares of homemade chocolate refrigerator cookie and layers of chocolate sauce, and a chocolate pot de crème, which has a bit of Pinot Noir reduction in it, to give it a lighter and fruitier aspect.
In fact, I think if the Streeters got better music they'd be thronged with folks gobbling up fancy cocktails and fancy ice cream sundaes at pocket-money prices. Right now, however, they're curiously enamored with Steely Dan, Jim Croce, and other various mellow classics from the 1970s.
"I love this place, except I feel like I've been on hold with Menards for two hours," noted one of my friends, voicing the only complaint registered at our memorably flawless (albeit completely deserted) brunch. When I told him the woman in charge of it all wasn't even born until the Reagan era, he picked up his fork, explicitly so that he could drop it in shock.
"Kids," he muttered. "They were so much younger when I was a kid."
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