LORING PARK’S MOST RECENT restaurant addition, Nick and Eddie, nearly toppled me with déjà vu on my first visit: The vast sheets of window glass, the gallery-white walls, and—in the midst of all this light—the old bartender from the New French Café, with his shock of white hair and chunky black glasses, pouring French wine for artsy types on barstools. Surely I had been sucked through a time warp into Minneapolis’s old Reagan-era New French? ¶ No, a bowl of soup soon shocked me back to reality. The year was clearly 2008, and Nick and Eddie is obviously very now. How else could there be chili pepper in the beef borscht?
That soup, by the way, is masterful: The broth is thick and mahogany brown, swimming with beef as tender as noodles, while small cubes of potato and vanishing shreds of cabbage lend just the right vegetal notes. And, uniting all: a fierce nerve of chili spice balanced by a calming dollop of crème fraîche blended with finely chopped dill. “Is this the best borscht we’ve ever had?” I asked my date, as we sopped the last beefy bits from the bowl with bits of brioche smeared with butter, creating a super-comfort taste-sensation of sweet, meat, and heat.
That brioche is baked by Nick and Eddie co-owner Jessica Anderson, who made her name at Lucia’s and Bakery on Grand, but the eggy glory is just one of the many joys that cycle through the Nick and Eddie bread basket. Equally good are the creamy baguette, pungent semolina, and sweet, airy white rolls. Still, while the bread alone is worth driving across the state for, I think it’s the borscht that most deftly sums up this restaurant.
Because this borscht has three fathers. Seriously. The recipe is inspired by the one from the original Nick and Eddie, a long-gone SoHo restaurant that originally helped usher in the comfort-food revolution. (The current Blue Ribbon empire in New York traces back to that original Nick and Eddie.) The chili kick and creamy dill counterpoint, however, are very much Nick and Eddie chef and co-owner Steve Vranian’s own, and they rely on tastes for heat and simplicity he developed while cooking at Stars, a San Francisco restaurant at the forefront of California cuisine. Finally, this borscht has its Minnesota parent—not À Rebours, the St. Paul bistro Jessica Anderson and her husband, Doug, owned until recently, but the long lost New French Café. After all, what says “We love food, but we’re not snooty—warm up, why don’t you” more than a hot meal-in-a-bowl for four bucks?
Photo by Terry Brennan
Yes, I said four bucks. Other homey bargains abound: Five dollars will get you three slices of grilled bread smeared with chicken liver and paired with a lively, peppery salad of watercress, chopped bacon, and radishes. It’s a dish that pulls off the deft trick of being both plain old yummy and downright fascinating—a creative, light version of that old classic match of bacon and liver. An entrée of a mesquite-roasted chicken breast perched on a mountain of skin-on French fries and served with braised Swiss chard is $15. A pot roast made of beef cheeks braised until they’re practically jelly, then combined with roast beets and mushrooms and served with a creamy, nutty parsnip purée seems like the greatest version of winter in a bowl, and runs $17. (As great as the beef cheeks are, don’t order them if you’re getting the borscht—they’re too similar.)
Not everything at Nick and Eddie is so heavy. The delicate, buttery cider-poached salmon was so ethereal it practically floated over its accompaniments of sauerkraut, Brussels sprouts, and wisps of spaetzle, the little potato dumplings sautéed until a good number became spotted with brown, crisp spots that made them nothing short of scrumptious.
But even if you eat six bowls of borscht and nine bread baskets, save room for Jessica Anderson’s desserts. There might be a special like a crisp brioche pancake, ladled with a spoonful of crème fraîche blended with caramelized bananas. Is it good? Picture everything you like about warm cream-cheese icing on a cinnamon roll, and multiply it by 20: There’s your answer. Look too for everyday classics like a fluffy, moist ginger-spice cake topped with a ladleful of buttery, homemade caramel and a crème-fraîche icing. One bite in and it’s not just dessert—it’s a relationship. Or it was for the woman beside me who declared to her server: “Ordinarily I get the spice cake, but I’m not getting it. I can’t. We have a party to go to.” When her server departed, the woman continued, “I can’t. I won’t. It wouldn’t make any sense. It’s madness.” I pictured her going on like this for the rest of the night, a soliloquy of regret for love lost.
At the time, I found the woman’s construction particularly amusing. “Ordinarily I get the spice cake….” Nick and Eddie had just opened. Soon enough, I understood what she meant. The place feels like it’s been around forever, in the best way: It’s a new restaurant with an old soul.
I’d guess a third of that soul comes from Stars, where Doug Anderson, now a Nick and Eddie’s manager (and Jessica’s husband) worked along with Vranian. “To me, the heart of California cooking has always been the grill,” Vranian says. “When we were building the restaurant, this kind of cosmic thing happened. A restaurant-supply guy drove up, opened up the back of his truck, and there it was: a mesquite grill.”
Tangled up with a lot of other abandoned restaurant equipment, the grill was something so rare in these parts—and, if bought new, so expensive—that Vranian hadn’t even hoped for one. He bought it on the spot. Then, another cosmic moment: “Four weeks before we opened, I was like, Wait, who has mesquite charcoal in Minnesota?” he says. “I called everyone in town; there was no one. What have I done? In desperation I called my old California supplier and he said, ‘Minneapolis, is that anywhere near St. Paul?’” Turned out he had a St. Paul warehouse full of the stuff. The rest is history: Vranian uses the mesquite grill, which burns at 700 degrees, for nearly everything: It has a rolltop-desk sort of front that turns it into a smoker (for the delicately smoky whitefish salad, served with potato pancakes) and also works as a high-heat oven. “To me, that’s my heart and soul, that’s what West Coast cooking is about: The grill. Fresh, simply prepared food—no fuss, no muss.”
More than either the New York, California (or cosmic) influences though, it’s Nick and Eddie’s third parent that makes the biggest impression: “The New French was in the forefront of our minds when we built this place,” says Doug Anderson. “What I remember most about the New French was, there was no clutter. It was extremely simple and good—food, décor, service, you name it—and that brought all the interesting people: artists, accountants who were passionate about politics, people who have been worn a little bit by the world they were in, and, so, aren’t easily impressed. I think this town has too many people right now that are trying to be masterful but that are not old enough to be masterful. We see ourselves as a respite from overly complicated cooking. It’s better that people go home with a full belly and do other things with their life besides think about your cooking. Just give people a break. Life is hard enough.”
Do you second that emotion? If so, you’re not alone. Nick and Eddie hosts a New French reunion the first Tuesday of every month. The last one took place during a classic Minnesota stay-home snowstorm, but 200 people showed up anyway.
Nick and Eddie
1612 Harmon Pl., Minneapolis, 612-486-5800
Open for lunch Mon. through Fri.; dinner Mon. to Sun; brunch weekends.
Parking available at meters or by valet.
Prices for appetizers range from $4–$10, entrées $7–$17
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.