Best New Restaurants 2011
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This was a great year—a year when we returned to the go-go, we can do anything, we are unique, we are awesome food years of the early aughts. Some of this greatness is attributable to the super-crazy energy sprinkled across the whole metropolitan region by the success of the young crew at Travail, named earlier this year as Number 4 on Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurant list, and subsequently covered by Good Morning America. Travail was one of my top 10 picks last year. Will any of my top 10 for this year make national news in 2012? Maybe.
It could be Tilia. Or it could be the soon-to-open Butcher & the Boar. It probably won’t be anything in St. Paul, though, because while the capital city had a decent restaurant year—with the debut of Meritage’s magnificent oyster bar, the launch of the Thai-focused On’s Kitchen, and the opening of the Dutch pub Amsterdam—there wasn’t much in the way of fireworks. Contrast that with Edina, which built on its base of Mozza Mia and Arezzo at 50th and France and gave itself a full-fledged restaurant district in 2011 by adding Cocina del Barrio, the 50th Street Café, Pandolfi Gelato, and Pig & Fiddle. Minneapolis will cap off a year of astonishing restaurant growth with a frenzy of last-minute openings, like Rye Deli and Icehouse. But which were the best of the year, the top 10? Without further ado, here they are, in order. Did you visit them all? Do you agree with the choices? What about the order? Whatever your answers, you have to admit one thing: 2011 was delicious.
2726 W. 43rd St. / Mpls. / 612-354-2806 / tiliampls.com
The restaurant of the year is undoubtedly Tilia, for reasons both simple and big. The simple reason: this is where everyone wants to be. Proof of this lies in the line that forms outside the door each and every day. We want to be there for the sexy and cosmopolitan—yet very relaxed—atmosphere. We want to be there for the everyday prices ($7 for a potato-soup lunch!). And we want to be there for the classic Steven Brown signature on every dish. That’s no mere potato soup in that bowl—it’s a luxurious, vaporous, soul-satisfying wonder, given depth with smoke, sweetness with root vegetables, and a sense of splurge with an accompanying piece of toast, bacon miraculously fused to one side. These are the sorts of thing you would see at Brown’s previous white-tablecloth restaurants like Porter & Frye, Rock Star, and Café Levain (during its trying-to-touch-the-sky incarnation). They’re the things you always mourned when his restaurants closed.
Now, the big reason Tilia is the restaurant of the year: Brown has transformed himself from one of our state’s greatest chefs into a true restaurateur. The difference? A chef is responsible for making, say, a bacon crouton; a restaurateur is responsible for giving Dad the perfect beer to pair with it, offering Mom the beet salad she wants so she can stick to her diet, and providing their toddler a busy-box of toys and games—all in an environment that makes them feel well-rested, unstressed, and happy.
“It’s a completely different dynamic,” being a restaurateur, Steven Brown told me over the phone. “As a chef, you’re pretty singularly focused; as a restaurateur you have to have an appreciation of what other people are bringing or doing. I doff my hat to people like Larry D’Amico and Kim Bartmann. It’s easy to work in someone else’s restaurant. It’s totally different when you’re paddling the boat.”
Brown notes that when he planned Tilia, he figured he’d cook during the day, bartend at night, and make do with a steady trickle of customers who would make his life equal parts cozy and sustainable. “But our volume of business has indicated something other than that,” he notes, dryly. In other words, the place is usually packed. Many extra bartenders, servers, hosts, and cooks later, Brown finds his happiness and creativity in, of all things, management. “The challenge is to give the staff the opportunity to be part of something—something social, something creative. Instead of being the person who says, ‘I want to do this, I want to do that,’ I’m the person who draws the box and says, ‘You can do anything within this box.’ And that’s a beautiful thing.” The inevitable question then, is: will this chef-turned-restaurateur make more restaurants? Brown says yes. Perhaps not very soon, but he has enjoyed the process of getting Tilia on its feet more than he ever expected. “You get to be the decider—and that’s great,” he says. It’s great for the Minnesota dining public, too.
2903 Lyndale Ave. S. / Mpls / 612-354-3512 / heidismpls.com
Stewart Woodman has a starry resumé. After coming to Minneapolis from New York City (where he worked with Alain Ducasse) to cook at Café Levain, he was named one of the top 10 chefs in the country by Food & Wine. Woodman then went off to open his own big-money, event-center of a restaurant, Five, which subsequently flopped. He regrouped with Heidi’s, a one-man-one-pan eatery that cemented his local reputation as a truly gifted artist. That location burned to the ground in 2010, however, and Heidi’s 2.0, as many call it, opened on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis last January. The reincarnation is an ambitious operation, boasting a gigantic, state-of-the-art, open kitchen and a very downtown-style dining room, with Beastie Boys on the sound system and molecular gastronomy on the plates.
The food is often exquisite. The shrimp à la nage, for instance, is an utterly original dish featuring shrimp as delicate as berries and noodles made from shrimp broth that has been solidified in a bath of calcium chloride. What’s the benefit of turning broth into noodles? It gives them a depth of flavor and a delicacy that would be impossible to achieve in any other way, a layering and expansion of the essence of shrimp. Dressed with a bit of coconut and chili, the dish tastes more like a lyrical thought about shrimp than a mere appetizer.
As Heidi’s has reestablished itself over the last year, its identity has taken a distinct New York City angle: rock ’n’ roll for everybody out front, and an elite party for big rollers in the back. The back, also known as Heidi’s “kitchen table,” was built specifically so that diners could eat in the spectacular kitchen while chatting with the chef. Today, $175-a-person meals are served there. The dinners typically include 13 courses and reflect the guests’ fondest dreams: Woodman coordinates with the guests prior to the meal to best achieve their wishes. Want five courses of lobster? Just ask. “We have a table this Friday for a man whose uncle grows very specialized soybeans that are used in Japan for soft tofu, and we’ll be working them into several courses,” Woodman told me, on the telephone. “Last week we did a strip loin of bison cooked sous vide, and served it steak au poivre with three different [accompanying] spheres, one romaine, one potato, one au poivre sauce. We do a lot of mind-bending stuff.”
Do you see yourself in the rock ’n’ roll front, or the high-roller back? Wherever you end up, there’s no doubt that Heidi’s is bringing something of significant national caliber to our little bit of prairie.
3. Bachelor Farmer
50 Second Ave. N. / Mpls. / 612-206-3920 / thebachelorfarmer.com
There has always been a lot of disagreement among critics trying to identify the restaurants where local power players dine. Not anymore. When Eric and Andrew Dayton opened Bachelor Farmer in downtown Minneapolis, a bull’s eye—or Target, if you will—was drawn around power and where it eats. (If you’re unaware, these two are the sons of Governor Mark Dayton, their mother is a Rockefeller, and they’re the grandsons of the Daytons who built Target.)
So, you want to be somebody? Listen carefully. First, make a reservation a month in advance. When the day arrives, report to the Marvel Bar, in the building’s basement. This is harder than it sounds, so allow extra time. Located in the rear, the entrance looks like a service door. Inside, you’ll find a purple door. Open it, and voilà!
Order one of bartender Pip Hanson’s astonishingly original, delicious cocktails. When it’s time to head to your table, ascend the interior stairs to the main dining room and settle in for a hearty meal of chef Paul Berglund’s simple locavore assemblages. Get the toast. A whole section of the menu is dedicated to toasts: warm, grilled bread presented in delicate silver caddies and ready to be paired with roasted bone-marrow or herb-flecked gravlax. Also especially good: the seared Arctic char served on a bed of fresh sweet-corn kernels combined with cream, all of it bejeweled with pretty rubies of heirloom tomatoes. And don’t even think of skipping dessert, featuring true Scandinavian classics like fresh raspberry pie made with an all-butter crust.
As you finish your final bites, look around at the nice, quiet people surrounding you—yes, these nice people dining on toast and pie: they are Minnesota’s power players, hailing from the land of 10,000 lakes, where we speak softly and carry a big toast caddy.