Best New Restaurants 2013
We rounded up the best new dishes, drinks, and dining experiences that 2013 had to offer. Bon Appetit!
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3 for 3
With Burch Steakhouse and Pizza Bar, our Restaurateur of the Year, Isaac Becker, caps a can’t-lose decade in which he’s changed (for the better) the landscape of where and how we eat.
By Quinton Skinner
It’s nine in the morning—not the typical hour for spotting restaurant chefs in their natural habitat—but the kitchen at Minneapolis’ Bar La Grassa is home to a handful of cooks clattering the cookware. The atmosphere is informal with a hint of charged efficiency: Their boss, the James Beard Award-winning chef Isaac Becker, is due here any minute. The morning will be spent testing and tasting new recipes for potential inclusion on some of the most respected menus in town.
Daniel del Prado, executive chef at Becker’s newest restaurant, Burch Steakhouse and Pizza Bar, has put together a venison dish accompanied by farro flavored with red wine, pecorino cheese, and fresh mint. It’s easy to imagine that this entrée could end up at one of Becker’s eateries—it’s complex and original but not fussy or overwrought. Becker tastes it, offers a couple of observations on presentation, then gives a nod of approval.
Isaac Becker’s run of success as a chef and restaurateur constitutes the food story of the past decade in the Twin Cities. His three restaurants—112 Eatery, which opened in 2005, followed by Bar La Grassa in 2009, and Burch Steakhouse and Pizza Bar this year—have defined a coming of age for the local dining scene. They’re places where you can sit down to a fine-dining menu without social intimidation or financial ruin, a stark contrast to the early 2000s, when the most talked about, best regarded eateries doubled as the most formal.
“I’ve wanted to make a living on my own terms and serve the food I wanted to serve,” Becker says as he settles into a window seat and unwraps the plastic from a set of chef’s whites fresh from the laundry. Sounds straightforward enough, but it’s an explanation that understates his obvious knack for placing butts in seats. Becker’s a trendsetter appropriately pleased to be recognized as such, but he also depicts the process as 10 years of hard work and being sharp enough to learn from experience and avoid countless pitfalls. He gives the distinct sense that he places ego high on the list of hazards.
Back in the early 2000s, when Becker was under the employ of D’Amico and Partners, the best tables in town were anniversary-dinner places: D’Amico Cucina, Aquavit, Goodfellow’s. In 2003, a trio of ambitious, splashy eateries opened: Cosmos, Solera, and Restaurant Levain (while the latter’s space wasn’t so grand, its chef was the big-deal, New York City transplant Stewart Woodman). These new restaurants weren’t as stiff as their predecessors, but were still a little too pricey for most diners to make them a regular habit.
112 took things in a new direction entirely: modest in scope, more personal, seeming to look inward for ideas rather than to the coasts or around the world. While Alma and Corner Table shared 112’s intimate feel, they lacked the new eatery’s energetic buzz. If Alma was where a corner-office executive took his wife, 112 was where an artist (aspiring or otherwise) took a date or out-of-town agent in order to look cool and connected.
“112 was incredibly important in the evolution of the dining scene—it marked a major shift when it opened, and it influenced most if not every restaurant since,” says Eric Dayton, co-owner of Minneapolis’ The Bachelor Farmer, which opened its doors in 2011. “It democratized the experience of fine dining—that you can eat great food in a place that’s a little bit loud and maybe playing rock music and feels like a fun place to be.”
Becker had the vision (not to mention the cojones) to pair highfalutin with lowbrow in a way that charismatically blurred the differences—on 112’s menu, lamb scottadito with goat-milk yogurt coexisted with a famously irresistible bacon-and-egg sandwich (it’s slathered in Tunisian harissa and isn’t exactly a McMuffin, but you get the idea). The restaurant’s hours—serving a full menu as late as 1 a.m.— made it a go-to spot for others in the food business; it seems obvious now, and was surely not meant as a public service, but 112’s scale and informality made it a social laboratory for chefs, servers, and foodies throughout the Cities.
Becker is quick to point out that 112 didn’t come out of nowhere; nor did it fit the mold of what diners at the time expected of a “chef-driven” restaurant. “112 wasn’t about me trying to showcase myself,” he says. “One of the things I don’t know if people realize is that 112 didn’t just pop up—I had been in the business for 15 years; my wife [and restaurant partner Nancy St. Pierre; the two met in 1994 while they were co-workers at D’Amico Cucina and started dating a year later] had been in the business for 25. There was a foundation there already.”
“112 put pressure on a lot of operators to think about how much they’re charging,” Becker says. “I think we really had an impact on that aspect alone—and making things more accessible.” Dayton credits the eatery as having an even broader influence on restaurateurs’ psyches. “112 has allowed chefs and owners to take more risk,” he says. “With the idea that Minnesotans will respond to things that are a little more challenging—you don’t have to follow a formula to be successful here. And that was liberating for the restaurant community.”
The two restaurants that Becker has since opened, in partnership with financier and broker Ryan Burnet, have represented an expansion in scale and ambition. La Grassa’s wood-lined bar and dining-room sprawl on Washington Avenue ably trumps 112 in scope, while Burch luxuriates over two levels in the space once occupied by the former drugstore of the same name.
“112 was easy to manage—a piece of cake, because of the size,” Becker says of the days when his responsibilities extended to a single kitchen and dining room (when it opened, 112 occupied a single story). “And I didn’t have the pressure of making mistakes and having to answer to anybody. With La Grassa, I don’t like concepts but I opened up a concept, and I gave it an Italian name—I had sworn I would never do either of those.”
La Grassa’s much-larger kitchen enabled Becker to pursue a food program not possible in 112’s limited space; it was also a stylish update on the Italian neighborhood joint that most regard with affection if little fresh enthusiasm. It broke the mold, harkening less to a quaint trattoria (or to D’Amico Cucina or Buca di Beppo) than to a model of urbane fun and inclusive chic. “There were no bottles of wine and baskets on the table,” Becker notes. “No Tuscan farmhouse feeling or anything like that.”
It’s not as though La Grassa was some sort of exercise in minimalism—but it did embrace the confidence to embody a less-is-more ethic in presentation and ambience. Part of the eatery’s broad appeal has also been its multiple price points: It’s a spot where a dish of pasta for 10 bucks delivers as much taste complexity and offhand innovation as pricier entrées. And if you take a seat at the bar and plan to nurse said platter without ordering drinks and sides that pad the bill, you won’t be treated like a freeloader.
It might sound simple, this notion of delivering fine food without weighty cultural and class baggage, yet Becker is acutely aware that it’s integral to his success. In 2011 La Grassa was in the middle of a Twitter imbroglio when fitness pseudo celeb Bob Harper was turned away from a full reservation slate and took to social media to bemoan his lack of special treatment. There was probably little that Becker’s restaurant could have done to endear itself more to the local community of knowledgeable diners.
“Everyone waits in line,” he says. “People who are CEO’s or whatever, because they’re richer than anyone think they deserve to be accommodated. We’re not going for the hoity-toity here.”
What could be more musical to the ears of egalitarian Minnesota? People tend to really like restaurants that serve the highest-level cuisine, Becker says, and treat them like they deserve nothing less. He’s also quick to credit St. Pierre, who manages the front of the house in his operations. “Nothing gets decided without us both agreeing to it,” Becker says. “I wouldn’t have any of this success without her being my partner. She’s the face of the restaurant, and her attitude and philosophy are trained into her staff.”
St. Pierre comes across a few degrees warmer than the more reserved Becker, and seeing the two together reads with volumes of shared experience and mutual respect. She draws a through-line from her own days at D’Amico restaurants to 112 and beyond. “112 was small but we had a lot of the same values as D’Amico,” she says. “We’ve wanted to be as polished as (D’Amico) and yet more comfortable.”
Conversation with the two about their restaurants orbits inevitably around questions of scale. Becker points out that 112 started with six servers; today Burch counts as many guys waiting outside to park cars. Burch, like La Grassa, updates an old standard: the steakhouse (cue the smells of scotch and cigars, with men hunkered over one-pound porterhouses). Modernizing that traditional model with its raw menu, house dumplings, and steaks in a range of grades and sizes, Burch again offers a realistic range between affordable appetizer noshes and more serious financial commitment. “The other ones, you only go to once a year, if that,” Becker says of the paneled-and-padded steakhouse of convention. “Here you could afford to come once a week.”
Not that getting the joint off the ground was without turbulence. Becker talks about Burch’s infancy in the tones one might reserve for the hellion days of a particularly difficult child. “Opening a restaurant is really traumatic and dramatic. The hours are long and tempers are flaring. I don’t know why I thought I wanted to do this again. Now I’m happy, but at the time I asked myself why I was doing it again.”
While Becker had been involved in opening larger restaurants as an employee, Burch kicked up the challenge on every conceivable level. “We wrote the menu but didn’t really have the plan to get it to the table,” he says. An infinity of details needed to be worked out, from the arrangement of the cakes on the dessert table to a serving system that encompassed myriad choices and a great big room.
“That first month I questioned the entire program—maybe we had created something that wasn’t possible,” Becker admits. “We had 15 cooks on the line at once, and we were still facing a lot of difficulties. We had to think about how to get it down to eight or nine. It was expensive.”
Keeping a firm hand on the tiller, in other words, and juggling financial judgments from workforce to food purchasing until the waters calmed. “Owners who aren’t chefs would have panicked and gutted the whole program,” says Becker. “Because I’m the chef and the owner, I could say ‘keep it together here’.”
It’s easy to look at a winning streak such as Becker’s and assume that we’re witnessing the results of a seamlessly executed plan, But what he describes sounds more akin to riding over rapids with an experienced driver at the helm who understands how to stack the odds in favor of enduring. And Becker has also seen his endeavors buffeted by factors not of his doing; in 2010 Burnet severed ties with restaurateurs Josh Thoma and Tim McKee amid allegations of financial mismanagement that drained funds from La Grassa and resulted in a settlement without criminal charges. The dispute took a divisive toll on the close-knit Twin Cities food community and created rifts that still persist.
It seems impossible to believe that during the cold winter of 2005, before the reviews came out and hailed 112 the best new restaurant the city had seen in years, and reservations started booking up weeks out, that 112 did a mere $300 in sales some nights. Back then, Becker looked out over a nearly empty dining room and surfed the crest between informed faith and the clarity of realism. Recently he’s just re-upped his lease for another 10 years.
And while the life of a restaurant owner still means working plenty of nights, Becker and St. Pierre try to eat dinner with their two sons about three nights a week. “Our life has changed in some ways for the better with this restaurant,” he says. “I’m not cooking on the line like I used to.”
Some weeknights, like a recent one at Burch, St. Pierre heads home first, just as the staff clicks on the opening lights, with Becker following later. Before she goes, she has a question for him: What is he planning to whip up for dinner at home?
Becker shrugs. “I’ll think of something.”