MOM DESERVES a decent brunch once a year—and, you know what, so do you. If you think you’re too macho for mimosas, you’re only missing out. Put down your copy of Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, and pick up the telephone.
Because if you haven’t already made a reservation for Mother’s Day brunch at the Nicollet Island Inn, the restaurant staff advises you do so “as soon as humanly possible.” (It may already be booked, but they do keep a wait list.) The Inn’s popularity is well deserved, as it boasts the comfort of tradition in its 1893 walls and a five-course plated brunch ($30 per person) with the polish and panache of an evening meal. But don’t wait for Mother’s Day to tell your mom, or anyone else, for that matter, that she’s the best—the grand cru vintage, the frosting-smothered corner piece of the sheet cake. Take her any and every Sunday you want.
The Inn’s greatest asset has always been its location. Tucked between Hennepin Avenue and an old train bridge, the window-lined dining room (once a loading dock, when the building housed a sash and door manufacturer), looks out onto the Mississippi River.
On Sunday mornings, the dining room fills with celebrating families and overnight guests. Meals begin with petite house–made pastries: muffins, scones, and jam–stuffed tarts fit for a dolls’ tea party. Birthday presents are unwrapped. Coffee cups clink. Champagne corks pop in the background like Muzak.
The second and third courses are bites and tastes, small–but–not–skimpy portions. On a recent visit, some of chef Erick Harcey’s items were traditional, such as a top-notch eggs Benedict and an onion-bacon tart. Others were more experimental: a delicious pumpkin flan topped with pear confit and a fried sage leaf that added a flirtatious diversion of savory–crisp crumble. The most playful dish was Harcey’s take on “pigs in a blanket”: two tiny corn dogs—house–made sausages, skewered, dipped in savory pancake batter, and fried—dunked headlong into a puff of maple foam. The syrup–flavored fluff is the best use I’ve seen of this so–trendy–it’s–already–over cooking technique, but the sausages and their jackets were unfortunately bland.
The brunch’s fourth and most substantial course offers dishes that resemble small entrées: pot roast piled atop buttermilk mashed potatoes, chicken sausage stuffed with dried cherries, a roasted salmon fillet served on a cassoulet. It’s evening–caliber elegance at the day’s first meal.
When we concluded breakfast with…dessert, we found a ginger stout spice cake and candied lemon tart to be good but not worth moving up a dress size for.The rubbery chocolate layer cake was an outright pass.
We pushed back our chairs and took in the view—of the joggers who seemed to pass by every few minutes, subtly suggesting some post–meal exertion. Yet just as the river out the window keeps rolling, new eateries open as fast as others take their places at the great buffet line in the sky. A few of the newest options:
For a buffet that is Cracker Barrelian in volume but with three times the class, the Walker Art Center’s 20.21 may be one of the last places you’d expect to find a communal table packed with platters of lox and scrambled eggs (served buffet style, $25 per person). The club–like ambiance—pink backlighting, trance music, slick, black–clad staff—makes it a hip perch from which to overlook the Hennepin–Lyndale snarl. Is that a Warhol? Pass the blueberry pancakes.
The digs at Fugaise, a windowless dining room on East Hennepin, also have a mod feel. Chef Don Saunders fulfills the breakfast and lunch sides of brunch with omelets filled with chorizo, red onion, tomato, and chèvre, and pappardelle pasta with beef short–rib ragout.
Tryg’s, on the former Nora’s site near Lake Calhoun, is yet another trendy temple for gastronomes. Its original chef, Philip “The Peripatetic” Dorwart, departed soon after his brunches received rave reviews. Former executive sous–chef Justin Frederick has taken over and scaled the menu back a bit to mostly breakfast basics—waffles, oatmeal, and steak and eggs—but Dorwart’s beloved prime rib hash is still being served.
Former Chet’s Taverna owner Mike Phillips has moved on to the Craftsman on East Lake Street, launching a brunch menu featuring French toast, frittatas, and maple pork sausage. Phillips has never been one to shy away from often–eschewed veggies; he’s probably the only chef in town serving a kale–and–turnip–stuffed omelet.
Near the intersection of Lyndale and Lake Street, Emma’s is a similarly welcoming neighborhood spot. Chef Emily Streeter creates high–quality renditions of old–time favorites: biscuits smothered in sage and sausage gravy, eggs fried in a sourdough toast cutout served with apple–wood smoked bacon and spicy harissa. Emma’s prices attract the young and the paycheck–to–paycheck: $4 for a Bloody Mary, $5.50 for French toast, and $9 for eggs Benedict.
Judging from the Sunday morning crowds at the local Perkins, you’d think Edinans considered the place their civic commissary. But now they have two new options for brunch, or, shall we say, le brunch. The French-themed café at Alfred’s Grand Petit Magasin serves a menu that’s decidedly dainty: fresh fruit parfaits with yogurt, quiche du jour, ham and cheese croissants. A few blocks away, Salut Bar Américain has a something–for–everyone mentality: eggs six ways, five types of burgers, apple cinnamon pancakes, and tuna tartare.
If you crave an American classic, Hot Plate in south Minneapolis has the retro kitsch of a 1950s diner, but serves breakfast food made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Chef Sam Beberg prepares buttermilk pancakes, baked egg stratas, and pumpkin–buckwheat waffles with candied pecans, whipped cream, and Minnesota–made maple syrup. Memorable and Mom–worthy.
Nicollet Island Inn
Salut Bar Américain
Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.