This year, after many long years of kneading, fermenting, and pot-stirring, the Twin Cities dining scene finally received the attention it deserves. Sure, it took a visit by President Obama and a reporter from the New York Times to make the rest of the country take notice, but the coasts finally clued in to what you and I have known for quite some time: the Twin Cities are serious food towns. We have a talent-rich, ingredient-forward, wide-ranging dining scene that deals in everything from haute French technique and laboratory science to Hmong sausage and cave-aged cheese.
Remember the architecture boom of 2005 and 2006, when a slew of new, high-profile buildings caused the rest of the country to crane its neck toward our wind-swept plains and perceive, for the first time, a little arts mecca on the prairie? Our dining scene has now had that same effect, proving once more that Minnesotans are more than our nose-to-the-plow Ole and Lena caricatures. We’re creative, ambitious innovators.
In the decade I’ve spent following the development of Twin Cities restaurants, I’ve watched the give and take of this evolution. Bite by bite, restaurateurs nudge diners out of their comfort zones and, over time, the edgy becomes mainstream. Guided by exacting chefs, bar patrons who formerly made do with mass-market lager and frozen commodity meat developed a taste for hopped-up craft brew and grass-fed beef—ground in-house and hand-pattied, of course. Five years ago, with some trepidation, chef Sameh Wadi listed lamb brains on his opening menu at Saffron. Now he can’t take them off.
Last year’s pack of new Twin Cities restaurants reflect Americans’ desire for more flexibility and choice—even if they’re sometimes contradictory. And the best of the crop embody several national dining trends. Read about them here and then go taste them for yourself.
These days, calling yourself a carnivore is almost a dare. If you’re not sucking marrow out of bones or filling your gullet with foie gras, you’d better be gnawing gristle off a dinosaur bone.
The Spot: Butcher and the Boar
Butcher and the Boar is an unapologetic meat fest, pairing grilled-and-smoked flesh with bourbon and beer. If you’re in the mood to eat what looks like a Neanderthal murder weapon, chef/owner Jack Riebel and his headband-wearing crew do smart work with their beef long rib, slicked with tar-black molasses barbeque sauce. Even more impressive: Riebel’s ability to match his meats with complementary flavors that round out a dish.
The Signature Dish: Berkshire Pork and Cheddar Sausage
Not content to merely slide his cheese-stuffed, house-made Berkshire pork sausage into a traditional bun, Riebel adds broccoli, apple, rye crisps, and a hard-cider sauce—a combination that sounds crazy, but tastes fantastic. // Butcher & the Boar, 1121 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-238-8888, butcherandtheboar.com
Technology has collapsed geographical distance into the space of a button’s push and the Internet has improved chefs’ access to ingredients, techniques, and tools from all over the world.
The Spot: Harriet Brasserie
Harriet Brasserie feels very rooted in Minneapolis, inhabiting a vintage fire station, but its menu is très multicultural, possessing French, Asian, and Latin influences. The decadent burger is as much a classic as the bison tartare, Brazilian coxinha, and crawfish and grits.
The Signature Dish: Crab Benedict
Harriet’s Benedict circles the globe, pairing French hollandaise with Latin poblano peppers and Slavic blini. // Harriet Brasserie, 2724 W. 43rd St., Mpls., 612-354-2197, harrietbrasserie.com
Items I’ve eaten in the course of reviewing this year: two foie-gras-topped burgers, three bacon-topped doughnuts, and a bacon ice-cream sundae, along with pork-belly-stuffed lettuce wraps, buns, and savory éclairs. (Let’s hope my physician is not reading this….) Counterbalancing the bacon-topped-bacon trend, diners are also seeking more healthful options when they dine out.
The Spot: Birdhouse
At Birdhouse, Stewart and Heidi Woodman of Heidi’s have created a place where diners might eat every day—without packing on extra pounds. But forget the vats of undercooked chickpeas and bricks of dense whole-wheat bread that you subsisted on in college: this is California spa cuisine reinterpreted, as flexible as it is substantial. For example, the kitchen cleverly reimagines pork charcuterie as terrines made from mushrooms and pâté made from peas.
The Signature Dish: Sweet-Pea Pâté
The mint/goat cheese/sweet-pea pâté topped with a swirl of tangy crème fraîche tastes like the first day of spring—and far more indulgent than its calorie count would suggest. // Birdhouse, 2516 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., 612-377-2213, birdhousempls.com
Whenever I visit grand dining rooms, I’m awed by the cathedral ceilings, the chandeliers, and the mile-long banquettes. And then, inevitably, I start to feel uncomfortable and underdressed, wishing I had brought a signal lamp to attract the waiter’s attention. Fortunately, all sorts of talented chefs have taken to cooking in quarters that feel as intimate as their own living rooms.
The Spot: Sparks
Tiny Sparks, which inhabits a former coffee shop, is part of this micro-restaurant movement. Jonathan Hunt (of al Vento and Rinata) moved into the quaint Bryn Mawr neighborhood and, with his business partner, Amor Hantous, created exactly the sort of restaurant you wish you had on your own block. It’s classy, yet casual; versatile enough for a quick weeknight pizza, a date with your sweetie, or taking your in-laws to brunch. The restaurant’s wood-fired oven serves as a hearth, the neighbors’ gathering spot. And a menu of fire-roasted dishes from around the world—from the Mediterranean to the American South—proves that small size need not limit aspirations.
The Signature Dish: Lamb Merguez Pita
Sparks’s fresh-baked pita bread is pillow soft, and the puffy half-moons make perfect pockets for spicy lamb sausage and creamy coleslaw. // Sparks Restaurant, 230 S. Cedar Lake Rd., Mpls., 612- 259-8943, sparksmpls.com
Millennials want to try everything—and they don’t want to commit. But the flexibility of small, sharable plates allows diners the chance to maximize their menu-sampling.
The Spot: Mona
Mona chef/owner Lisa Hanson makes a fine fried chicken, a luscious shrimp salad, and a decadent pappardelle with sweet-corn cream. They’d be hard to choose between, but thanks to her sample-size portions, you don’t have to. Order all three.
The Signature Dish: Bison Skirt Steak
Ever had bison skirt steak? Me neither. Mona’s a great place to try it—in a small portion with a smaller price tag. The bison is as tender as beef, cooked delicately to maintain a ruby-red center, with its slightly wild flavor tempered by earthy Brussels sprouts. // Mona, 333 S. Seventh St., Ste. 190, Mpls., 612-259-8636, monarestaurant.com
Scandinavian chic is hot enough to melt a glacier right now: what major American city isn’t home to both an IKEA and H&M? And chefs are exploring the region’s seasonal, minimalist cuisine far beyond the usual Swedish meatballs.
The Spot: Fika
The American Swedish Institute’s modern, airy Fika is an apt setting for chef Michael Fitzgerald’s artfully composed fare, including seared pork belly, spelt salad, and grilled white asparagus draped with glistening gravlax. Fika has become so popular that, last time I visited, the crowd of retirees could have filled the “A Prairie Home Companion” cruise ship. Fortunately, many are early birds—one group had arrived for lunch at 10:45 a.m.—so seating tends to open up around half-past noon.
The Signature Dish: Salmon Smörgås
The salmon smörgås, or open-face sandwich, offers a perfectly cooked fillet—crusty exterior, just-rare interior—that’s duly matched with the robust flavors of rye bread, beets, and sinus-clearing mustard. // Fika, 2600 Park Ave. S., Mpls., 612-871-4907
Fancy Fast Food
Our lifestyles have gotten so hectic that Heinz redesigned its ketchup packets to make it easier to eat in the car. The car! I know you are busy—a lack of free time has replaced the Rolex as a status symbol—but please don’t succumb to drive-thru defeat when a new generation of fine-dining-trained chefs are applying their skills to fast casual fare.
The Spot: Left Handed Cook
At the Midtown Global Market, a onetime sushi chef, Thomas Kim, and his partner, Kat Melgaard, launched the Left Handed Cook with a small-but-wide-ranging collection of eat-in or takeout dishes. Left Handed Cook specializes in Asian-influenced comfort foods, so erstwhile McDonald’s or Chipotle customers can try something more creative, such as kimchi-and-curry-topped poutine and Chinese burritos, a.k.a. “chintos.”
The Signature Dish: Pork-belly Lettuce Wrap
Kim’s pork-belly lettuce wraps are healthy and hedonistic all in one, contrasting fatty richness with crispy cool. But it’s the details—lacy-thin chili peppers, garlic confit, and pickle garnishes—that really make the difference. // Left Handed Cook, Midtown Global Market, 920 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-208-0428
Dinner and a Show
Though many dinner theaters have said Bye Bye Birdie since their 1970s heyday, other entertainment venues are picking up the slack. Cinemas, stadiums, and concert halls have improved their menus to make food and drink a part of the performance.
The Spot: Icehouse
Nicollet Avenue’s industrial-chic Icehouse is a triple-threat bar, restaurant, and music club. Two culinary talents—chef and co-owner Matthew Bickford, of Be’Wiched Deli, and La Belle Vie’s cocktail guru Johnny Michaels—ensure that the listeners’ fuel is as harmonious as the tunes.
The Signature Dish: Foie Gras Burger
Bickford excels at taking a haute approach to humble fare, so, unsurprisingly, his hamburger gets gussied up with seared foie gras and truffle demi glace. (Those fries, by the way, are also excellent.) // Icehouse, 2528 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls., 612-276-6523, icehousempls.com
A modern restaurant can hardly call itself full-service without a craft-cocktail program—fresh-squeezed juices and an assortment of rare spirits have become as essential to success as Facebook fans and funky restroom décor.
The Spot: Eat Street Social
When Northeast Social spawned Eat Street Social, it gained a full liquor license and a staff of dapper barkeeps who infuse their own spirits and furiously throttle their shakers.
The Signature Dish: Tea & T
The bar’s Tea & T is a gin and tonic, adapted to the season. Cold weather brings house-made tonic spiked with warm, sweet spices and gin infused with yerba mate tea, which tastes like autumn hayrides and bonfire smoke, and lends the drink a frothy head. // Eat Street Social, 18 W. 26th St., Mpls., 612-767-6850, eatstreetsocial.com