Did you hear something loud echoing across the metro sometime late winter? You should have; it was the sound of the last shoe dropping. It was the sound of a new center of a particular universe. It was the sound of Steven Brown, the last of the great Minneapolis chefs without a restaurant, opening his own place. In doing so, he joined Doug Flicker (Piccolo), Don Saunders (In Season), and Stewart Woodman (Heidi’s), thus officially changing the page in Minneapolis’ restaurant history from the era of Great Shuttering to the era of Great Rebirth.
Brown’s new restaurant is called Tilia, and it’s marvelous in some ways and small in others—small in that it has only 40 odd seats and they don’t take reservations. Plan on a two-hour wait during crunch times, or do what I did and leave the house at four o’clock in the afternoon to ensure a table for the five o’clock debut of the full dinner menu. Ridiculous? Ridiculous! But I’d do it again because Brown is one of the finest homegrown chefs the Twin Cities have produced.
Brown grew up in Custer, South Dakota and got his start in the restaurant business cooking at a Ground Round. It didn’t take long, however, for his talents to emerge, and in the 1990s, he worked everywhere in Minneapolis that mattered: Lucia’s, Café Brenda, and the old Loring Café, where he cooked with his good friend Doug Flicker. Brown soon began captaining his own kitchens, and he developed a reputation as a genius underdog—the hero chef of Generation X, the chef who cooked exquisitely but got fired anyway when the original business plans foundered. At the Local, he was chef when it was haute Irish (but not when it changed to a pub); at the dismal nightclub-wannabe Rock Star, he cooked exceptional rustic European cuisine (at the worst-located restaurant in history); at Restaurant Levain, his breathtaking elaborations of lobster and foie gras had the whole city swooning (until the owner decided a simple bistro would be more profitable); and at Porter & Frye (before it, too, fell on hard times), Brown garnered a Mobil 5 Star rating for such jaw-dropping dishes as a wild-rice soup made with a celeriac bisque and wild-rice grains transformed into grape-sized roasted puffs. Now, finally, he’s got his own place, sharing ownership with Jörg Pierach, the owner of a local marketing company.
What does Brown serve now that he’s in charge? A rather idiosyncratic, very affordable menu of his favorite hits.
Not to be missed are the soups. The celery-root chowder with oysters is knee-weakening—a velvety, intensely celery-scented bisque poured hot over a few just-shucked oysters. By the time your spoon finds one of the mollusks, it has achieved an amazing state of tenderness—the midpoint between raw and cooked, between steadfast and soaring. Each spoonful is a world of fragrance, enhanced by a bit of Noilly Pratt vermouth, with echoing and resonant flavors. The smoked-potato soup is nearly as good and would be worth ordering just for the bit of bacon-fused bread it comes with. Yes, bread fused to roasted Iowa bacon by an imperceptible layer of Parmesan cheese, so that the two layers become something better than the sum of their parts—meaty, sweet, and roasty, but also bready and empty, in a good way; more savory, less intense, and thus more delicious.
The biggest difference I noticed in Brown’s cooking at Tilia is that there’s more quietness to the plates, more breathing room than there was at his old haunts, Levain and Porter & Frye. There are never six elements on the plate when three will do, though on careful inspection you may realize that those three ingredients have each been treated in such a way that while they seem plain, thanks to careful cooking they are anything but.
The restaurant serves all sorts of meals: brunch on the weekends, a light menu of sandwiches and snacks during the afternoon, dinner from five to ten o’clock, and the lighter menu again from ten o’clock till after midnight. For culinary thrill-seekers, dinner is the meal to aim for. One thing to note in particular: Brown has made his name partially on his great talent for preparing local duck. His first version at Tilia is dry-aged, with skin crisply sizzled and meat as red as berries—exquisite. The cod, simply glazed and seared, is served with a deeply flavorful white-truffle fonduta and a mass of black trumpet mushrooms. The dish is both plain and complex, with layered-mushroom flavors that are at the same time intense and not intense, like an energetic Riesling that is full of flavor but not overly saturated.
On the lunch menu are some plain but good little things: a bright and clean-tasting fish torta, or a nicely zesty plate of chicken thighs. The desserts, made by local baking guru Zoë Francois, continue the underplayed-but-excellent theme. Try the mahogany-brown, toffee-date cake topped with salted molasses caramel.
The only disappointments I had came when my expectations of Brown’s talents intersected with Tilia’s humble aspirations. A simple hamburger made me think: It’s just a simple hamburger! I assumed since it came from Brown’s kitchen it would be something else, a cloud or a soufflé or a conveyance to a place far away. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.
Speaking of conveyances to a place far away, the dining room is precisely that. Designed by Heather Keena, a local art director for films and television, the room feels like a train car or maybe a gondola descending from a romantic Art Deco Zeppelin. At the small bar hangs a clever train-station-evoking menu board for the 20 frequently changing beers on tap. The selections come from breweries near (Fulton in Minneapolis) and far (Belgium), and the assortment is especially food friendly. As for the wine list, it’s vest-pocket-sized, and not bad for being so tiny, a feat achieved by highlighting wineries known for intense personal styles, like Ridge and Ken Wright Cellars.
Speaking of intense personal styles, Brown told me that Tilia represents a new evolution in his thought: out with locavorism and historical cuisines, and in with a more mystical reckoning with the aesthetics of quality. “We sense quality in a way that we sense other things,” says Brown, “like color or lines; that there’s an aesthetics of quality.” Is this new thing—quality that registers in subconscious ways—the key to enduring success for Brown? Let’s hope. And let’s hope too that the next sound you hear echoing across the state is the sound of a homegrown restaurant culture maturing instead of forever debuting.
Local foodies have been waiting all year for the debut of Stephen Brown’s new Linden Hills restaurant, Tilia. And now that it’s open, they’re all there—good luck getting a table!!
Ideal Meal: Anything soup, anything duck, a Belgian-style ale, a spicy dessert with caramel. Tip: Go early, or plan on waiting (with a beer). Hours: Monday–Friday, 11 a.m.–1 a.m.; Saturday–Sunday, 9 a.m.–1 a.m. Prices: Appetizers from $7, entrées from $15. Address: 2726 W. 43rd St., Mpls., 612-354-2806, tiliampls.com