Best New Restaurants of 2010
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Is the Great Recession over? A flood of new restaurant openings in 2010 are making restaurant hounds feel very bullish. Which are the best of the best? Here they are, in order. Of course, Twin Cities restaurant lovers have been waiting all year for two particularly important spots to debut, but as of October neither Stewart Woodman’s reborn restaurant Heidi’s nor Steven Brown’s new unnamed eatery have opened. How will they fit in with the top 10 of the year so far? Answering that question is what makes restaurant-hounding so much fun. And what a fun year it’s been.
6. Il Gatto
First, there was the dawn of time. After that, Figlio opened and, for eons, sat at the corner of Hennepin and Lake streets, with its signature mix of semi-Italian fare, presented on a menu memorably adorned with that blobby black tangle of a logo.
Then, last year, Parasole remodeled the place and relaunched it as Il Gatto. Except, there were two big problems: Il Gatto’s fish-focused, nowhere-Italy menu didn’t have the food to draw foodies—and it alienated the Figlio regulars.
Well, good for the folks at Parasole for having the wisdom to correct a mistake. In August, the owners handed over the design and execution of the menu to Tim McKee, the James Beard award-winning chef who runs Minneapolis’s fine-dining standard bearer, La Belle Vie, as well as Solera on Hennepin and Sea Change at the Guthrie Theater. McKee explains that he has the same arrangement with Il Gatto that he has with Sea Change: Namely, he hires, supervises, and inspires, but the business operations stay with Parasole.
McKee’s first official act was to install as chef-de-cuisine Jim Christiansen, the longtime sous chef at Sea Change but also a cook who has been with McKee since the Stillwater days of La Belle Vie. So, how is the new Il Gatto? In a word, soothing. The cooking is so much better, so much lighter and truer and more authentically Italian that eating at Il Gatto now creates the sort of experience that you have eating in Italy on vacation: You relax and delight. Among the delights is the pesce spada sott’olio (oil-cured swordfish) with circus-bright heirloom tomatoes cooked just long enough to intensify their flavor and remove their skins, paired with a nutty olive oil. The swordfish is meaty and rich, like a halfway point between pork tenderloin and good sushi mackerel, and the tomato and celery leaves on the plate give a fresh accent sprightly enough to make you think the Mediterranean is somewhere right over by Lake Calhoun. The uovo fonduta is remarkable, too: a simple poached egg surrounded in classic toad-in-a-hole style by a frothy fontina-cheese fondue, all of it served with massive swaths of grilled bread. Swipe bread through the egg and cheese and—heavens, that’s just the perfect blend of rich and indulgent and sophisticated and craveable.
McKee also retained the best of Il Gatto, like their antipasto plate with lush Iowan La Quercia prosciutto, and a vast fritto-misto platter that’s the best calamari in town, filled as it is with light-as-a-feather sweet scallops and just-right shrimp. (Keep in mind Christiansen’s background with seafood when you go; the seafood is the new Il Gatto’s strong suit.) The pizzas stretch the limits of what we’re commonly used to seeing on pies around here. Like guanciale! That buttery cut of pork jowl is one of Italy’s most prized charcuterie cuts and something California and New York foodies have been rhapsodizing about for years. Here it’s paired with mission figs and goat cheese; that’s taking dinner-and-a-movie date night in Uptown in the right direction. For too long Twin Cities Italian restaurants have lazily slid by on the inherent popularity of Italian food, doing little more than good-enough. The fact that Il Gatto is suddenly treating it seriously means that it’s without question the most important new Italian restaurant of the year.
3001 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls.
7. Smack Shack
Yes, it’s been the year of the food truck, but the best one is Smack Shack. It’s owned by Josh Thoma, a one-time cook at D’Amico Cucina who went on to help open Solera, La Belle Vie, Bar La Grassa, and Barrio and then got into some financial trouble that got him out of Bar La Grassa and Barrio. Well, no one ever said he didn’t know how to create a great dining experience: He staffed the Smack Shack with a gifted former Goodfellow’s cook named Chris Thompson, and—whoa! That’s good street food! The lobster roll is overstuffed with chunks of fresh claw and tail meat. The well-griddled bread bun from Salty Tart is so buttery, sumptuous, and toasty that it acts as perfect foil to the sweet, weighty lobster. But that’s not all! The shrimp in the po’ boy are diaphanous and light as bubbles, fresh and not overfried ’til rubbery—exactly what fried shrimp should be but never are. Specials like lobster grilled cheese with Taleggio and asparagus or lobster-corn chowder are so good you’d think they were being served at good old Goodfellow’s—and not in a parking lot in the bar district near the new Twins stadium.
What’s not to like? The fact that the truck vanished for a few days once because the fuel pump went out. And that Thoma plans for it to drive to California or Florida for the winter. What if it decides not to come back? It’s typically the restaurant-going public that seeks out greener pastures, not the restaurants. Oh well. If you love something set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If not, we’ll just all have to get plane tickets to get the best lobster rolls in the history of Minneapolis street-life.
Located at the corner of north First Avenue and Fourth Street.
8. Cake Eatery
People outside the food industry are mystified: Where did all these new cupcake bakeries come from? The answer is obvious to anyone with a subscription to Martha Stewart Weddings: Cupcakes have been busy the past decade. They started their time in the sun as a chic wedding-cake replacement for the most cutting-edge brides, then got a boost from pop-culture vehicles like Sex in the City, after which people realized they were less expensive than traditional wedding cake. And there you are: Chic plus cool plus cheap equals cupcake explosion!
Take Cake Eater, for instance: How can a business survive on the income of coffee and cupcakes from a scant dozen tables? The answer: Cake Eater supplies as many as half a dozen weddings a week, the real engine here is the thousand cupcakes they’re making for the people not at the tables, but waiting at the chapel.
But, happy you if you’re at the tables. Beeline for the more creative or more whimsical options, like the princess pancake cupcake, a maple-bacon cake topped with a maple cream-cheese frosting. Or savory, funky options, like blueberry–goat’s cheese scones or cheddar-chipotle muffins. Nail down your bragging rights now: “The TV show Cupcake Wars asked us for an audition tape,” says Sheela Namakkal, one of Cake Eater’s co-owners. “We sent it in. Haven’t heard anything yet.” But if you see princess pancake on a magazine cover or starring in its own television show sometime soon, don’t be mystified; a lot of hidden forces are behind that sweet treat.
Cake Eater Bakery
2929 E. 25th St., Mpls.