Hot Plates

The reservation was hard to come by. I’d called last minute, and the only availability was 8:30. “You’ll probably have to wait,” the host warned me. “Tomorrow’s the marathon. Every place serving pasta is going to be busy.”

It was a chilly Minnesota night, and the restaurant was packed, filled with petite women in track pants and thin men wearing heavy sport watches. They might have been long-distance runners or simply denizens of south Minneapolis—the two are often indistinguishable. But the late seating and the crowd were hardly deterrents: Once I’d gotten it into my head that a bowl of fresh pasta from one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants would make a great supper, nothing could dissuade me.

Twenty minutes after we ordered, our server arrived with the dish that I had every time: a knot of pappardelle, generously ladled with lamb-eggplant ragout, and finished with a ball of goat cheese. It smelled of cloves. It reeked of autumn. I leaned over the plate and inhaled.

“Happy?” asked our waitress.

I was. And looking around, I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one reveling in the familiarity of the restaurant’s menu, clatter, and candlelight. Moments later, I heard our server ask a party of diners whether they’d like to hear about the nightly specials. “Just tell me,” one of the women replied, “is there any reason why I should get something other than what I always get?”

I knew how she felt.

But I couldn’t help wondering how Minnesota Monthly’s dining critic Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl might have answered that question. She’s no spoiler, of course. You like mac and cheese? Then order the mac and cheese (but see if the kitchen will make it with Gruyere, she’d add). You like dining at Manny’s three nights a week? Then do it—but get your cholesterol checked regularly. Dara is as appreciative of tradition as she is baseball, motherhood, and good apple pie (or, more likely, apple galette with a scoop of house-made cinnamon gelato). But like any passionate foodie, she’s also an avid advocate for trying something new.

Restaurant critics, of course, are always on the lookout for the next new trend—ostrich burgers, for example, or desserts flavored with tobacco. But in recent weeks, Dara has set about researching what’s new in Twin Cities dining with a level of journalistic zeal that would’ve made Woodward and Bernstein blanch. She ate curries and custards and Cornish hens at every new restaurant she could find. She hounded chefs to find out what they were planning to put on the menu at new establishments, and peered into windows to see how build-outs and remodels of restaurants-to-be were coming along. In at least one instance, she quizzed the drywall crew about the expected menu.

The result of such tenacity is this month’s cover story on the best new restaurants of late 2009 (see page 52). The story examines the green shoots of culinary promise that have begun to poke through the recession-scorched dining landscape. In some cases, a new restaurant has emerged. In others, a fresh perspective by a new chef has reinvigorated an existing eatery.

Should you go where you always go? Get what you always get? Dara would nudge you toward something new.

So next time, I’m ordering the ravioli.

Joel Hoekstra, Editor

Joel Hoekstra writes frequently about design and architecture for Midwest Home and has contributed to a wide range of publications, including This Old House, Metropolis, ASID Icon and Architecture Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis in a 1906 Dutch Colonial that is overdue for a full remodel—or at least a coat of fresh paint.