Last month, while researching our annual “Best Restaurants” feature, I ate out nearly every night—and spent a lot of time reflecting on the local dining scene. What strengths could we build on? What things are lacking? With the holidays approaching, I decided to draw up my personal wish list for the Twin Cities dining scene.
But first, in the spirit of the season, a few things I’m thankful for:
Â» Devotion to top quality ingredients
A meal is only as good as its raw materials, and local chefs are continually seeking the highest quality ingredients—both those produced a few miles away and those made halfway around the world. Lenny Russo, owner of Heartland in St. Paul, is an example of a chef who shows deep devotion to Midwestern cuisine: A typical menu might feature dishes made with local elk, lake trout, foie gras, and salad greens. One bite of Russo’s goat-cheese-stuffed squash blossoms and you’ll understand why capturing fleeting freshness is such a delicious philosophy.
Yet, here in Minnesota, sticking too strictly to a locally grown diet means everyone else enjoys coffee and chocolate while you subsist on soybeans and sugar beets. We’re fortunate to be Northwest Airlines’ main hub, with nonstop flights to both coasts allowing chefs access to Maine lobster or Seattle oysters harvested just that morning. Thanks to Scott Pikovsky, a wholesale luxury foodstuff importer, chefs don’t need to trek to Spain to find the best smoked paprika. Pikovsky sources everything from Austrian pumpkin-seed oil to Swiss yogurt to Sicilian anchovies. I’m personally hoping to see Thai mangosteen and rambutan, recently approved for import by the USDA, showing up alongside Minnesota-grown apples and raspberries.
Â» Chef-owned, chef-driven restaurants
Flashy, high-buck restaurants like the Chambers Kitchen have won us recent notice as a food-forward place. A Food Network casting director who recently oversaw auditions in Minneapolis, explains why she chose us: “If Jean-Georges was interested in Minneapolis, there’s got to be a reason,” she says. But it’s the longtime chef-owned restaurants focusing on fresh, local ingredients—Lucia’s, Alma, Zander, Vincent, and Cafe Brenda, for example—that deserve the real credit for laying the foundation for our reputation.
Luckily, many of our top talents have chosen to stay in the area instead of heading to higher-profile restaurants in larger cities. The locally owned D’Amico restaurants have become something of a feeder school, training great chefs who have gone on to open their own restaurants, including J. P. Samuelson of JP’s American Bistro, Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery, and Tim McKee of La Belle Vie and Solera.
Â» A gourmet approach to humble fare
Americans are eating out more often than ever, spending about half of their food dollars on meals prepared away from home. More often than not, diners seek casual fare when they go out—a better version of the comfort foods they make at home. The 112 Eatery, Minneapolis’s Ã¼ber-popular gastropub, meets this need for casual luxury by serving tagliatelle with foie-gras meatballs and scrambled eggs with lobster. The new Be’wiched Deli is another example: Two alumni from Alma and Solera devote a gourmet’s enthusiasm to humble sandwiches, going so far as to smoke and cure their own meats. CafÃ© Maude, a bohemian-feeling neighborhood spot, serves carefully crafted bistro fare, yet nothing on the menu costs more than $14. Fine foods at affordable prices—call it the Targetization of dining—is certainly a welcome trend.
Â» Excellent ethnic eats
Though our state’s population is almost 90 percent European ancestry, all those Andersons and Johnsons have a taste for mole and pho, judging by our bevy of authentic, inexpensive ethnic restaurants. Minnesota’s Asian community, which makes up less than 4 percent of our population, more than pulls its weight, contributing a number of reliably good restaurants: True Thai, Tanpopo, Jun Bo, and Mai Village, for starters. Though Hmong and Somali immigrants have less of a restaurant culture in their home countries, perhaps that’s something they can develop here. I’d love to see more street food: noodle stands and taco trucks lined up all along Nicollet Mall.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Here are a few areas I’d love to see us develop:
Â» Boundary-pushing cuisine
Dine at one of the Twin Cities’ most expensive restaurants and you’ll be hard-pressed to find something on the menu that you’ve never seen before. Most Minnesotans would likely reject Altoid-encrusted rack of lamb, cubes of deep-fried mayonnaise, or edible menus as sheer gimmickry, but chefs can keep diners interested by experimenting more with uncommon ingredients (like the tartare paired with dwarf truffle peaches I recently had at Cosmos) or with cooking techniques (when Doug Flicker and Steven Brown cooked at the now-shuttered Auriga and Restaurant Levain, they delighted diners with their foray into sous vide, a cooking method where foods are slow-poached in a vacuum-sealed bag). Last year, some of our most creative chefs (Flicker, Brown, Stewart Woodman) were forced to downscale their ambitions after they lost their fine-dining venues. Let’s hope they’ll get another chance at bold, daring cooking in 2008—and that Brown’s new job at Porter & Frye, in the luxurious new Hotel Ivy, is a harbinger of things to come.
Â» Service, service, service
Bring on the high-end restaurants—as long as we have enough experienced servers to staff them. When I visited Chambers Kitchen shortly after it opened, I was treated more like a patron at an Irish pub than an upscale hotel—a suspicion confirmed by my waiter’s admission that he previously worked at the Local. I’ve always had knowledgeable, polished, and personable service at La Belle Vie and Cosmos, but at restaurants that charge 90 percent of those prices, often I’ll get 50 percent the service. I think it’s fair to expect expertise when selecting a $30 entrÃ©e or an $80 bottle of wine.
Â» Dining options in the suburbs
Restaurateurs need to know their markets, making sure their concept is located in its most viable spot. Auriga, Levain, and Woodman’s Five all suffered from the same fatal flaw: locations that were too far from downtown to draw expense-account crowds and cuisine that was too expensive for neighbors to make regular visits. Some of the best emerging markets will be out in the suburbs, where supply hasn’t yet met demand. Judging from the full reservation list and six-deep bar crowds at the new Pittsburgh Blue Steakhouse in Maple Grove, there are plenty of hungry suburbanites with money to spend. And the success of Wayzata Eatery, which serves curried-egg-salad sandwiches and fried manchego cheese, shows that outer-metro diners are interested in fare that’s more creative than what’s typically available.
Â» Weekday diners
Judging from local reservation books, you’d think 7:30 on a Saturday night is the only time restaurants are open. Restaurateurs turn people away on the weekends—then look out on near-empty dining rooms during the week. We can’t expect restaurants to survive if they’re only open two days a week, so shed your Midwestern frugality and treat yourself on a Tuesday night.
Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly. Visit her blog, Matters of Taste, at www.minnnesotamonthly.com and offer your thoughts on the Twin Cities dining scene.