For What It's Worth
Fine dining for a new economy
When are restaurants cheap, and when are they not cheap? This is a harder question to answer than you might think. I’ve sat through heated meetings during which a room full of adults tried to define “cheap eats” or “splurge dining” with a particular dollar figure, and the main thing I’ve learned is that one man’s splurge is another man’s cheap, and if those two men work in an office together, they will not be friends. Seriously, I think that’s one of the definitions of friendship as an adult: Your friends are the people who like to spend about the same amount of money you do at dinner.
If you like to spend about $12 or $14 for an entrée, rejoice! The credit crunch has brought value back to a city near you. In St. Paul, the new value restaurant is Pop!! (The two exclamation points are theirs, not mine. Pop!!’s sister restaurant in northeast Minneapolis has only one exclamation point; it is Pop! Before this parenthesis runs out, let me enter into the permanent record that exclamation points are one thing, but this critic will frown on any restaurants opening with emoticons in their names.)
Where was I? Oh yes. The new value restaurant in Minneapolis is Rinata; Rinata’s sister-restauarant is Al Vento, the noted budget-Italian spot near Lake Nokomis. Why do all the new notable restaurants have older sister restaurants? I think because that’s where their proprietors worked out the kinks.
Rinata, for instance, could go in an encyclopedia to illustrate the concept of “perfect neighborhood Italian restaurant.” It skips all the things that chefs like but that leave diners unconvinced, like fennel pollen and meerkat. (On hearing that a Minneapolis fine-dining restaurant was serving kangaroo, one of my coworkers quipped: ‘Why? Were they out of koala?’ I think that sums up most people’s feelings about avant-garde food.) In addition to skipping the kangaroo, Rinata serves all the things that diners want but that chefs often think are too common, like chicken soup or fettuccine with clams.
Their chicken soup is fantastic, a hearty bowl of bean-thickened, rosemary-scented soup so lively, with chunks of chicken and thick-cut vegetables, that it makes a hearty dinner on its own, but so lush and fancy—due to its garnish of fried sage leaves—that you’d never do it at home. The fettuccine with clams is even better: For this dish, chef Jon Hunt piles about a pound of Manila clams on top of a generous tangle of tender, fresh, garlic-enlivened fettuccine. It’s a simple dish—just clams, garlic, oil, and a little fresh parsley—but elemental and delicious.
I suppose I shouldn’t have expected any less from chef and owner Hunt, who made his name cooking at the long-lost Pane Vino Dolce, and then went on to open Al Vento. But like every other restaurant-goer in Uptown, the old Giorgio’s space that Rinata calls home makes me terrifically nervous. I think the last meal I had there involved ravioli congealed into a solid block. Hunt told me the biggest challenge Rinata has faced thus far is this: “People walk in and ask, ‘Is Giorgio around?’ I say, ‘No, this is a new restaurant; it has nothing to do with Giorgio.’ They say, ‘Good, because if Giorgio’s around I’m leaving.’ People are really afraid it’s the same restaurant with a new name.”
It’s a sad indictment of a figure who once defined the best of Italian cooking in the Twin Cities. But I understand. In its last gasps, Giorgio’s was awful. I also understand why people might assume the restaurant is still Giorgio’s, for it looks more or less the same: The pretty front wine bar in mute tones of gold and burgundy, the basic back dining room with simple tables, the simple banquettes, and the simple candles that could be anywhere in the world. The Italian classics on the menu could be served anywhere in the world, too: beautifully tender, oversized classic Italian-American meatballs with spaghetti and a zesty red sauce; a feisty salami-topped pizza with a nicely blistered crust; delicate ravioli filled with butternut squash and served in brown-butter sauce; a generous platter of olives, salamis, and tender mozzarella; and inexpensive-but-good glasses of young cherry-berry Chianti to wash it all down, with a decent cannoli for dessert. And you’ll get out the door for roughly the price of six Big Macs. A bargain.
Why do I bring up Big Macs? Economists use something called the Big Mac Index to value global currencies against one another. The idea being that all Big Macs should cost about the same, but if one costs $8 in Norway, $3.50 in the United States, and $2 in South Africa, the Norwegian currency is overvalued and the South African currency undervalued. I’d say a really indulgent dinner at Rinata runs about six Big Macs, but you could get out the door for two or three Big Macs, which makes it perfect restaurant for the current moment: Tasty, unpretentious, affordable.
Across town, Pop is also offering good food at Big Mac prices, although in a different cuisine. Which cuisine is that? That’s the one stumbling block. Chef and owner Clark Knutson, who actually lives just a few blocks from Pop, in Lowertown St. Paul, has what I can only call his own cuisine. It’s not fusion, even though there are elements of Thai, Spanish, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Italian, and Swedish food to it. It’s kind of a hodgepodge, a cuisine of Things Clark Knutson Likes. Some of this is excellent: His black-bean soup, for instance, is thick, savory, subtly but hauntingly spiced, and it would be the best in town even without the charming little fried risotto balls and sofrito-garnished sour cream that enliven it. Pop’s picadillo empanadas achieve the perfect balance of tender and comforting (thanks to their pillowy, doughy crusts) and spicy and intriguing (due to their lively beef filling). Other options miss the mark. The little soup cup of melted smoked cheese topped with blue cheese that makes up the queso fundido is strange, and not particularly improved by its pairing with papery plantain chips, dry grilled-vegetable skewers, and even drier planks of French bread toast. The Swedish meatball entrée is adequate and bland. (Or am I missing the point—and that’s how it’s supposed to be?) On the other hand, the restaurant has opened with one of the strongest South American wine lists Minnesota has ever seen, and deserves applause simply for taking so seriously undeservedly ignored varietals like malbec and torrontes. Stick a glass of malbec on the table with the sandwich that is, unquestionably, the best thing on the menu, the vast pork-asado sandwich, a gargantuan pile of citrus-marinated barbecued pork that’s as tender as cake. Follow that with an enormous, well-made dessert to share, like the tres tres leches cakes (three cakes made with the signature Latin American blend of three milks—condensed, evaporated, and fresh), and you’ve got the one thing downtown St. Paul has long lacked: a stylish, budget destination worthy of date-night, but costing only four or five Big Macs.
They say if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Now I see that if life gives Minneapolis and St. Paul a credit crunch, Minneapolis and St. Paul give us stylish, cheap date restaurants that rank well on the Big Mac Index. Who says there’s no romance in a recession?
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.