Airport Eats Fly High
Chefs from top local restaurants create a dining destination
Last year, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport began making upgrades to Delta’s G Concourse in partnership with a new dining management company, OTG. Big promises were made—legitimate fine-dining options, conceived by top local chefs from restaurants such as Meritage, Piccolo, and Heartland—and many, including myself, were skeptical. But the shiny, iPad-driven result has radically improved travelers’ dining experiences in a way that the old McDonald’s never could. What follows is a recap of what my wife, photographer Becca Dilley, and I encountered on a recent, gut-busting visit.
Chef Consultant: Koshiki Yonemura Smith of Tanpopo
The sight of house-made noodles drying on racks in the midst of a modern American airport concourse is a sign of civilizational progress—at least in my book. The elegant, dangling strands are the foundation of Shoyu’s simple menu of noodle dishes, supplemented by fresh-made sushi. The Tokyo-style pork ramen may not fully rival its cousins at Tanpopo and other local Japanese hot spots, but it smartly plays crisp spinach off of an understated broth and a hefty helping of seasoned pulled pork. And those noodles? Positively tender and soothing.
For dessert, the restaurant’s signature chocolate mousse is spendy—$13—but it’s great conversation fodder to share with your airplane seatmates. The mousse is served in an edible, Chinese restaurant–style takeout container constructed of thick, excellent-quality chocolate. Just as adorably, two strawberry Pocky sticks sub in for chopsticks.
Chef Consultant: Russell Klein of Meritage
For lovers of fine food, a French bistro means comfort food with a profoundly elegant backbone, a harmonious marriage of id and ego. And yet, we were nervous: eat raw oysters in an airport? Really? Even chef Russell Klein was skeptical of the concept before plump Blue Points on the half shell proved quite popular with airport-goers. Perhaps it helps that Mimosa is in a corner of the concourse for international travelers?
Our meal had several high points that would have withstood scrutiny from the other side of the Atlantic: the rich, seasoned gravy and delicate, perfectly browned Parisian-style gnocchi that accompanied a competent chicken moutarde and a vibrant, not-too-sweet crepe Suzette.
Chef Consultant: Ann Kim of Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza
The theater of pizza is the thing at Vero, which trades on the appealing sight of a cook, his paddle, and a never-ending stream of quickly baked pizzas to draw crowds of travelers to its indoor plaza.
But the pizza at Vero falls down in exactly the area where Ann Kim’s restaurants succeed so completely: the crust. Lola and Hello pizzas have chewy, crispy, carbon-kissed crusts that can stand up with the best that New York or Boston have to offer. Despite the 700-degree oven, our pizzas had crust that was soft and largely characterless.
This doesn’t, however, mean that Vero is serving bad pizzas. High-quality toppings and great flavor combinations are on par with those at Kim’s other shops. Vero’s Hot Hawaiian, for example, features fresh-tasting pineapple, stinging jalapeños, and bacon that pops with smoky/salty flavor. Our Margherita pizza was heavy on the olive oil, but overall boasted a balanced flavor profile. Outside the airport, it would be a good pizza, but nothing worth Instagramming. But inside MSP’s climate-controlled, Sbarro-inhabited confines, it was a major hit.
Chef Consultant: Doug Flicker of Piccolo
Chef Doug Flicker is known for exquisitely calibrated food, precision plating, and petite portioning—three things that don’t necessarily translate to airport dining.
Volante’s attempt to square Flicker’s considerable ambition with the chaotic concourse environment resulted in what may have been the only full-on food failure of our visit: an underdone, oily, house-made ravioli. The dish’s small strips of guanciale (cured pork cheek) resembled fried pork skin, and merely crunched instead of providing flavor or substance. The ravioli tasted only of oil and butter. Worse, for $17, the portion seemed meager.
After Ravioligate, our waitress pushed the pressed half chicken on us, and we were glad she did. The chicken had lovely browning, just the right amount of char, and a bit of fresh fennel to accent its rich flavor. It was a tender, juicy, comforting—not to mention substantial—dish.
Chef Consultant: Andrew Zimmern
The appeal of locally based, globetrotting TV personality Andrew Zimmern lies roughly at the intersection of Guy Fieri’s bro-friendly approachability and the cerebral, jet-setting cool of Anthony Bourdain. The food at Minnibar hits the same sweet spot: hearty, easy-to-love sandwiches with cosmopolitan twists, presented in a setting as smooth and polished as a nightclub—despite being located in an airplane terminal. (There are actually two Minnibars in Concourse G, a flying-saucer-shaped location at the end of the terminal, and a bar-like space near the terminal’s start, both tricked out in pearlescent décor.)
The Korean-inspired Sloppy Ko overdoes things a bit—the meat on our sandwich had a glistening sheen that was almost indecent, and the flavors and textures went beyond “bold” into the realm of “loud”: too much heat, chew, acid, and especially salt.
The Southern Gentleman, however, was more genteel. Tender pulled-pork dressed with a tomato-y, house-made BBQ sauce that was not too sweet made for an enthusiastic bear hug of a meal.
Taste of Mill City Tavern
Initial Chef Consultant: Lenny Russo of Heartland
Of all the restaurants on Concourse G, the Mill City Tavern feels the most traditional, and the most complete: you order by talking to a server, and you sit in a traditional restaurant/ bar environment, sans the iPads used to make your selections at the other restaurants.
When we ordered the Taste of Mill City Tavern’s Pre-Flight Flight of local beers, I was surprised—and charmed—when the waitress launched into an educational spiel about the brewers.
Beyond the beer flight, Minnesota plays loud and strong at Mill City Tavern: from steelhead-trout gravlax (an elegant presentation of a light, lovely dish), to a straight-down-the-middle fried-walleye sandwich (with lettuce, tomato, creamy dressing, and a toasted roll), to bison tartare that boasted a deep rich flavor, a raw egg topper, and a lovely, pronounced onion bite.
Although Russo’s contract with OTG expired at the start of this year (his former sous chef Rob Moore is now in the pilot’s seat), he remains positive about the project. Establishing the Tavern and the other new local-food focused restaurants was “a huge win” for the Twin Cities, he says.
“Oftentimes, people passing through never get to see anything but our airport,” Russo adds. “Having an opportunity to put forward the best face possible to those weary travelers was something that appealed greatly to me.”
James Norton is the author of the Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin and editor of the Heavy Table.