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The Mystery of Mona

A good restaurant plays real-estate roulette

The Mystery of Mona
Photo by Todd Buchanan

A friend e-mailed me: “You should review Mona, in my neighborhood. Really good.”

It didn’t surprise me that he liked the restaurant. The chef/owner is Lisa Hanson, who worked at New York City’s Aquavit, Four Seasons, and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon before serving as chef de cuisine at Corner Table. Her solo debut, Mona, is tucked into the base of the Accenture building at Third Avenue and Seventh Street in downtown Minneapolis. The neighborhood isn’t stoop-and-lemonade-stand territory; it’s mostly populated with office workers who inhabit its glass-clad towers during the day and decamp the city come evening.

Hanson made a significant investment in improving the space—the former inhabitant, the largely unmemorable Black Bamboo, had all the ambiance of a food court. Mona’s dining room is lined in dark, glossy wood that matches the construction of the island bar. A crisp, white-tiled open kitchen brightens up the back corner. In the right light, the space hints at Parisian bistro, but, lacking the historic romance or patina of a place like Meritage or Murray’s, it can feel somewhat generic, like a suburban hotel amenity.

Mona’s menu, by contrast, reads as personal as a chef’s diary. It’s a collection of small plates—scratch made, seasonally changing, and incorporating local ingredients—that aren’t so much designed to be shared with a group, but compiled to create custom tasting menus.

Take the bone marrow, for instance: a somewhat ghoulish dish whose instinctive appeal has endured since proto-hominids scavenged carcasses. There’s something primordial about the substance—gelatinous, creamy, rich, and nutty, yet delicate enough to melt instantly on the tongue. Spread on raisin toast with sweet apple butter, it’s sublime peasant food. The chicken-liver pâté and headcheese also taste far better than they look: one, a brown paste; the other, jelly-smeared clods. (But what can be done, really, to mitigate the fact that you’re eating a foodstuff made from an animal’s organs and face?)

These first few bites sent a message that I received loud and clear: Mona isn’t like most downtown restaurants. Downtown real estate tends to favor the safe bet, not restaurant concepts that are quirky or intimate. The fine-dining spots tend to be insulated by big-budget hotels and event centers, or serve a business clientele’s straightforward diet of steaks, fish, and chops.

Hanson’s cooking feels uninfluenced by marketing teams or focus groups. A few dishes feel haphazard—a white-bean-and-watercress salad seemed like something an amateur cook might throw together, instead of a chef’s thoughtful composition—but most plates, even the simplest ones, bear the subtle stamp of culinary expertise. Half an artichoke arrives in a lush pool of egg yolk and caper vinaigrette. Plain polenta is enriched with roasted mushrooms and their earthy broth. Pink snapper and mashed potatoes are sweetened with a hint of vanilla.

In some kitchens, chicken and waffles seems like a gimmick, but Mona’s is the best version I’ve ever had: the chicken’s crisp, spicy jacket keeps the meat juicy, and pairs excellently with a pear-topped waffle soaked in brown butter/honey syrup. The poached shrimp in creamy dill mayonnaise is sheer summer bliss. To finish a meal, there are doughnut holes—add the house-cured bacon, natch—and a loveable sundae studded with fudgy chocolate chunks and whiskey caramel.

One jarring oddity about the Mona experience (besides the reggae music I encountered during one lunch): the restaurant’s generic, institutional plates and bowls resemble those ubiquitous to cafeteria salad bars. The visual suggests that the food isn’t special, when, in fact, it very much is.

Hanson proves she has the chops to please foodies, but the question is: can she lure them? Her restaurant sits just at the edge of downtown’s retail district, adjacent a parking garage and massive, concrete heating-and-cooling plant that don’t exactly scream “destination.” It’s not near the Convention Center, Orchestra Hall, or any of downtown’s theaters, so drawing evening diners isn’t a gimmie—you might as well be asking diners to descend into the bowels of the Hennepin County Government Center.

When I dined at Mona a few weeks after it opened, I attributed the sparse crowds to its less-traveled location and lack of signage. But part of the problem may be its own self-promotion. One gorgeous Saturday evening, close to 6 p.m., Mona’s patio had half the furniture stacked and the umbrellas folded away indoors. Meanwhile, five blocks away, Seven’s and Solera’s rooftops were bumping.

Food geeks will follow chefs to out-of-the-way places, as restaurants such as Piccolo and Travail have proven. But, in both those cases, the food was innovative enough to get people talking (pine-needle panna cotta! Foie-gras lollipops!) and the leadership had already been recognized for putting its stamp on another place. While Doug Flicker can trade on his reputation from Auriga, and the Travail team was credited with transforming Victory 44, Hanson cooked in the shadow of Scott Pampuch, who was Corner Table’s brand identity.

Hanson’s debut menu offers a mix of more accessible dishes with those that are a bit of a stretch. But I think that, going forward, she may have to adjust the balance between giving people what she wants them to want, and giving them what they actually want. Mainstream diners may not find some of the menu’s luxury ingredients worth the premium, particularly during lunch. A few bites of rabbit with a foie-gras bread pudding for $14, or $3-a-swallow smoked oysters can be a tough sell to those not dining on expense accounts. The elk rib-eye, which tastes a little like jerky, being tougher and wilder than its beef equivalent, is novel, but unlikely to become a repeat order. Especially when it costs $13 and the lovely pork options—belly with potato pancake, and tenderloin with creamed kale and fig sauce—run half the price.

Hanson says she’s working on developing the patio, which can’t happen fast enough—it’s one of the restaurant’s best features. New décor and greenery might create a lush oasis for office workers seeking a more upscale lunch or happy-hour experience than squatting on a curb with a food-truck purchase or enduring the 8th Street Grill’s awful sidewalk seats, tucked under a parking ramp’s armpit. Mona’s location will be an even tougher sell come winter, so now’s Hanson’s chance to get diners hooked.
 

THIRTY-SECOND SCOOP

Chef Lisa Hanson, formerly of Corner Table, opens her own small-plates spot, bringing chef-driven fare to an underserved corner of downtown Minneapolis.
 

BITES

Ideal Meal: Share the bone marrow, shrimp on brioche, and artichoke, but keep the chicken and waffles for yourself. Tip: Mona eliminates the parking hassle with free validation in the underground garage after 4 p.m. Hours: Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sat., 5–11 p.m. Prices: Small plates $5–$14. Address: Mona, 333 S. Seventh St., Ste. 190, Mpls., 612-259-8636, monarestaurant.com
 

Rachel Hutton is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.
 


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