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.
4. Pizzeria Lola
5557 Xerxes Ave. S. / Mpls. / 612-424-8338 / pizzerialola.com
Watching pizzeria lola owner Ann Kim slide pizzas in and out of her gargantuan copper-clad, wood-fired pizza oven is one of the more enchanting sights in the Twin Cities’ foodie scene. As if the juxtaposition of Kim—ever so slight—and the pizza oven—a veritable fairy-tale beast—wasn’t enough, just watch Kim’s face as she works: her expression is so serious, so watchful, that you feel like you’re witnessing something momentous.
Of course, you forget Kim’s rapt look when your pizza arrives. Now it’s the bready, biscuity, smoky depths of the crust and the delicate balance of the toppings that enchant. Take the dewy and sensuous “Sunnyside” pizza, for example, generously topped with local La Quercia Guanciale cheese, melted into invisibility; a salty dash of pecorino; a bit of cream; buttery leeks; and, in the middle, a just-set egg.
Once your pizza is devoured, you may once again turn your thoughts to Kim, and muse upon what miracles evolve when a thoughtful woman gives a project her deepest attention.
5. Pat’s Tap
3510 Nicollet Ave. / Mpls. / 612-822-8216 / patstap.com
A late entry to this year’s dining scene was Pat’s Tap, the hotly anticipated bar and restaurant by Kim Bartmann, the restaurateur behind Barbette, Red Stag Supper Club, Bryant-Lake Bowl, and the also-new Bread and Pickle, the locavore-focused reimagining of the snack bar at the Lake Harriet bandshell in Minneapolis. Pat’s Tap was hotly anticipated because Bartmann seems to have found the perfect teammate in chef Kevin Kathman, who joined Bartmann last year and provided the chefly talent and operational insight that allowed Bartmann’s formerly small empire to turn into something suddenly dynamic and large.
Kathman, of course, is the Cold Spring, Minnesota, native who returned to his home state after a three-year stint at French Laundry in Napa Valley. In addition to being a massive cooking talent, Kathman has a remarkable grasp of restaurant operations. Together, he and Bartmann seem to have cracked the code on how to serve restaurant meals worth $50 for just $20. How is such a feat possible? The key is the invisible part of the Bartmann empire: Gigi’s, the coffee shop Bartmann bought earlier this year for its giant commercial kitchen.
Gigi’s now operates as a commissary for all the Bartmann properties, and allows the company to do things like bring in full sides of beef from local farms. Once the beef is at Gigi’s, they remove the prestige steaks and chops and send them off to the Red Stag and Barbette, and turn the rest into hamburger for BLB, Bread and Pickle, and Pat’s Tap. In fact, they get all sorts of locavore goodies: whole chickens, hogs, ducks, lambs, all of which are delivered into the hands of chef Geoff Hausmann, the charcuterie master once known for his work at Travail. Hausmann takes in these meats and creates charcuterie (salamis, rillettes, patés, etc.) for Barbette, Pat’s Tap, and so forth. That’s how a cute corner bar can have the cooking firepower to take your breath away.
Take the Buffalo chicken terrine, for instance. To make this daffy bit of brilliance, Hausmann pulls out a few tricks from his molecular gastronomy toolkit, deboning chickens and separating the fillets from the rest of the meat (which is destined to be finely ground with chives and Buffalo sauce powder). The two are then reunited in a terrine mold, cooked sous vide, and sliced into pretty pink slabs, which are garnished with blue cheese, paper-thin celery slices, buttery hot sauce, and more buffalo-sauce powder. It’s hilarious and delicious, flavored like chicken wings but dainty enough for high tea. Set that Buffalo chicken next to a local beer or one of the many 100-percent organic, biodynamic, or otherwise rigorously sustainable wines on Pat’s Tap’s list, and you’ll be charmed.
Actually, you’ll be charmed even if you skip the food. While Bartmann was renovating the building, she unearthed vintage wallpaper showing poodles in the midst of a chic Parisian 1950s courtship, smoking near the Eiffel Tower and so forth. Bartmann had the motif recreated throughout the bar and installed some vintage mechanical Skee-ball games in the back. The food is very now, but the atmosphere is a vacation in the cutest version of the past.
Overseeing Pat’s Tap’s kitchen is Charlie Schwandt, a veteran of 112 Eatery. Schwandt does a great job with the simple-but-excellent menu: the goat-cheese fritters are like little tangy clouds captured in batter, and the vegetable curry I tried contained a whole farmers’ market of well-showcased vegetables. The burgers at Pat’s Tap are also very good, with the bacon burger (half ground bacon, half ground beef) being the one most people talk about. But if you have to choose between the calories in the burger and the calories in the French fries, get the fries. They’re utterly potato-y, crisp, sweet, and beautifully caramelized—a true contender for the best in the state. Is there more you want from a corner bar? Is there more you could want?
330 E. Hennepin Ave. / Mpls. / 612-332-6278 / masusushiandrobata.com
Masu was a game-changer in local sushi this year. The new restaurant made waves by installing Tim McKee, our most famous James Beard-award-winning white-tablecloth chef, in its kitchen and poaching our most famous sushi chef, Katsuyuki Yamamoto, known to his friends and fans as Chef Asan, from his longtime home at Origami. With two titans in the kitchen, Masu had the audacity to sell sushi for less money than its competitors (try the $18 a person omakase menu) with a promise of completely sustainably sourced fish. Oh, and Masu also serves the best ramen in the Twin Cities, especially the rich and spicy tonkatsu curry ramen.
7. Muddy Waters
2933 Lyndale Ave. S. / Mpls. / 612-872-2232 / muddywatersmpls.com
Muddy Waters is legendary. It was one of Minneapolis’s first stand-alone, modern coffee shops, and since the 1980s has probably been responsible for more homework assignments getting done, more song lyrics being written, and more Uptown workers showing up to their jobs well-caffeinated than any other place. The legend took on new dimensions this summer when the old Muddy Waters moved five blocks down Lyndale Avenue into greatly expanded digs, adding a full bar (including 30 local taps) and a full kitchen. It’s now the absolute apex of the local gastro-bar phenomena, in which establishments that used to look like plain old liquor-drinking bars are revealed to have ambitious and accomplished kitchens.
Muddy Waters’s new status is courtesy of chef Scott Hurlbut, fine-dining veteran of Porter & Frye. “I was a beer drinking chef before I came to Muddy Waters,” he says. “I think ‘beer-and-food,’ instead of ‘wine-and-food,’ is going to become more accepted with every year.” When more bars have dishes like Hurlbut’s fork-tender, riveting, delicious pot roast—which he makes through a five-day process that involves a dry salt cure and a lot of Surly Bender—food that pairs with beer will not merely be accepted by pub patrons, it will be celebrated with dancing in the streets.
1750 Hennepin Ave. / Mpls. / 612-253-3410 / walkerart.org
The headline when Gather opened was, “D’Amicos chase out Wolfgang Puck!” But for a lot of people, the transition to a lunch-only eatery (except for Thursday dinner) was a head-scratcher. Why sacrifice the dinner service that goes with one of the metro’s prettiest, most romantic dining-room vistas—the panorama views from the Walker Art Center? Insiders would be quick to tell you it was so D’Amico could cater weddings in the space, but the big surprise for the metro was just how good a restaurant serving dinner just one night a week could be. Chef Josh Brown’s cooking is exquisitely developed—his tuna crudo, with jewels of tuna paired with other gems of carefully cut orange, is elegant and light; his slow-cooked wild salmon on warm faro salad is as light as a sunbeam, but much more filling. If you happen to have any excuse to visit Gather on a Thursday, perhaps a Thursday birthday or a Thursday anniversary, you’ll walk out feeling as if you’ve been somewhere incredibly special, and will likely write a headline of your own: “Yum!”
9. Sun Street Breads
4600 Nicollet Ave. / Mpls. / 612-354-3414 / sunstreetbreads.com
When solveig tofte announced she was opening her own shop, it was gratifying. Finally, a dedicated showcase for the talents of one of Minneapolis’s premiere bakers, known for her work as Turtle Bread’s longtime head baker, and for her inclusion on the 2008 Bread Bakers Guild of America team in the Olympics of bread baking, the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in France. But when her shop actually opened, the city quickly cleaved into two camps: the baking groupies—and those who love the French fries.
The French fries—who saw those coming?—had just the right amount of tenderness and just the right amount of crispness. They tasted like roasted potatoes, like the French fries made by grandmothers in farm kitchens of yore.
But, cried the bread groupies, how can you bypass the bread for the French fries? Tofte makes a robust applejack rye, a dark and wintry walnut-and-buckwheat-flour bread, a challah as light and tender as cake, and baguettes beyond compare. The two camps will never agree, but now they have the chance to argue the point into the night: Tofte started serving dinner in November.
10. Cocina del Barrio
5036 France Ave. S. / Edina / 952-920-1860 / barriotequila.com
Twin Cities residents have gotten pretty comfortable with the Barrio concept over the last few years, that concept being culinary cocktails exploring tequila and a menu treating Mexican street foods with seriousness. This past March, we got comfortable with the deluxe, sit-down, big-entrée variation on the Barrio style in Edina, Cocina del Barrio. It’s the best Mexican restaurant outside of Minneapolis’s core, and a terrific place to explore what’s possible when great Minnesota ingredients, like pork from Compart Family Farms in Nicollet, Minnesota, meet noble Latin ingredients and techniques, like a robust red mole sauce.
The Next BIG Thing?
The end of the year always brings a flurry of restaurant openings. As we went to press with this issue, I was on the edge of my seat wondering if the following would open in 2011:
Butcher & the Boar
Jack Riebel has been a sleeping giant in the Twin Cities food world the last few years. Of course, the food he has been cooking at the Dakota has been nothing short of wonderful, but this former top toque from La Belle Vie and Goodfellow’s has been lured away from the jazz club by a restaurant going in on the corner of 11th Street and Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. The concept? All-American cuisine, especially wood-grilled and smoked meats, like wild-Texas boar; loads of craft bourbon; and scads of craft beers. There will also be an outdoor beer garden. Is this finally the locavore restaurant for your boozy annual fantasy-football kickoff party? Could be. 1121 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-222-7171, facebook.com/pages/Butcher-the-Boar
Be’Wiched Deli’s new jazz-house and restaurant will be called Icehouse, and will open in Minneapolis on Nicollet Avenue’s Eat Street near 26th Street, in the old Sindbad space. Co-chefs and co-owners Matthew Bickford and Mike Ryan will offer their signature smoked meats and farm-driven, informal plates at everyday price points, to be served beside cocktails designed by La Belle Vie’s bar wizard Johnny Michaels. Watch Twitter for updates. 2528 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., twitter.com/#!/bewicheddeli
What would a homegrown Jewish delicatessen sell in Minnesota? Famed local restaurant consultant Tobie Nidetz and restaurant-owner David Weinstein promise they’ll take their deli to unimagined, uniquely Midwestern heights in Minneapolis’s old Auriga space. Their offerings will include homemade bialys, grass-fed locally produced pastrami, brine pickles, kugel, potato knishes, matzoh ball soup—the works. 1930 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls. ryedeli.com