EVEN THE FINEST RESTAURATEUR could take a tip or two from a practiced dinner party hostess. Home-cooked meals create a closeness that a restaurant just can’t replicate; guests tend to linger in conversation long after the feast has finished, perhaps even staying to pack up leftovers or to towel off plates. But dinner parties can also be a lot of work—and how many of your friends can whip up a salmon roulade? Enter Duplex, a restaurant housed in a Hennepin Avenue two-unit that combines a comfortable ambiance with skillfully made culinary offerings—a gourmet home away from home.
Duplex was formerly Pandora’s Cup, a funky Uptown coffee shop, until its owners, husband-and-wife team Michael Trebnick and Sonja Hayden, converted the space to a bistro and wine bar. They painted the walls a deep, dusky red, which changes shades in the flickering candlelight, making the main dining room feel like a cavernous, illuminated heart. The place’s new décor—butcher-block maple tabletops, slim water glasses, a few fresh flowers—caters to a more sophisticated breed of bohemians than those who frequented the caffeine-fueled Pandora’s, but the convivial coffee-shop ethos hasn’t disappeared (it seemed appropriate that our affable, tongue-pierced server addressed our group as “peeps”).
Michael Hart, a longtime chef at St. Paul’s Zander Café, created Duplex’s seasonally changing menu, which mostly focuses on Italian dishes and French cooking techniques. One exception to the European bent was a plate of wild mushroom tamales, accented with fresh tomatillo salsa and crunchy curried pepitas (pumpkin seeds)—a tasty twist on the traditional. Another starter we tried, a tangle of organic greens and duck confit tossed with bits of candied orange zest and savory garlic chips, had a surprising range of textures and flavors as well.
The entrées at Duplex tend to be upscale yet reasonably priced ($15 apiece, on our visit), and those among us with a thrifty sense of gourmandise quickly found two favorites. First, a chicken breast, pounded tender, breaded with panko (coarse Japanese bread crumbs), and served with a bright lemon beurre blanc and balsamic-glazed green beans. And second, a bison burger served with sides of steamed broccoli and pommes Anna (thin-sliced baked potatoes) in lieu of a bun. The lean meat was enhanced with foie gras butter and a shiitake mushroom sauce. With hints of pepper and nutmeg, it tasted like a rich, well-seasoned meatball. The pasta special we tried placed a distant third, though: we tired of the single-note flavor, a creamy pistachio nut pesto, long before we finished the dish.
We concluded the meal with a luscious bread pudding laden with banana slices, caramel, and whipped cream. As we cut the sweetness with a few cups of coffee, we found the brew to be, ironically, a major letdown. The java was served in $4 plastic pots (containing just two cups) that seemed unrefined and overpriced compared to the entrées. Overall, though, if Duplex continues to delight, some enterprising Uptowner trying to make an affordable-yet-classy date even more convenient may ask about moving into the unit upstairs.