YOU DON’T HAVE TO like the idea that you may have descended from a chest-thumping Neanderthal, but you have to agree—everything evolves. Restaurants included. Since the first restaurant by today’s standards arrived on the scene (1725 in Madrid, according to Guinness World Records), new concepts have cropped up as fast as fry cooks can griddle plates of hash: the Colonial tavern, the London coffeehouse, the cafeteria, the supper club, the drive-in, the automat, the theme restaurant decorated with vintage guitars or mechanical animals.
In the Twin Cities, dining trends have come and gone over the years as restaurateurs continue to innovate. Not only do the Cities now boast a dining scene with a breadth of cuisines across a range of price points—from $5 bowls of Vietnamese pho to eight-course, $150 tasting menus—we’re also cultivating a culture of original thinking, the kind of award-winning cooking that garners national attention. The public has become sophisticated to the point that novelty—serving Californian or Tibetan cuisine in meat-and-potatoes land—isn’t enough. We want oysters as fresh as those we ate on Cape Cod, served in an attractive space by a knowledgeable staff member who will help us pair them with the right Sauvignon Blanc. If your restaurant can’t do that, there’s probably another one that can.
Five of this year’s notable new restaurants—an ethnic eatery, a combination wine shop/bistro, a mall restaurant, a breakfast spot, and a wine bar—are a harbinger of things to come: eateries that are classier and more convenient, serving more inspiring food than their ancestors. So put down that caveman’s club, pick up a fork, and dig into 2007’s latest.
Ethnic Goes Upscale
When seeking out great ethnic food, foodies seem to think strip-mall joints decorated with a few maps, photos, and rugs tacked to the wall, the way they might look in their country of origin, have the most cred. Brothers Sameh and Saed Wadi, whose cousins own the Holy Land deli in northeast Minneapolis, are challenging that notion with Saffron, which presents Middle Eastern flavors in a formal, fusion cuisine as hip as its Warehouse District digs.
Photo by David J. Turner
On a recent visit, Saffron’s white tablecloths felt a bit too formal for the funky space, with its big windows, brick walls, orange hues, and high ceilings. So we chose seats at the bar, sipped Saffrontinis, and grazed a few of the small plates. Sameh, the 23-year-old chef, has created a menu that expands American expectations for Middle Eastern cuisine beyond gyros, kebabs, and falafel. The platings are as delicate as the flavors are complex; many of the dishes are based on staples from Western Europe—duck breast, quail, ravioli—with tabbouleh, tahini, an Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian marinade called chermoula, sultana grapes from Turkey, and dukkah, an Egyptian mixture of crushed nuts and spices. The East-West fusion sparks inventive dishes such as curried blue-crab salad and foie gras with pistachios and rose-petal jam. My favorites were the braised-beef ravioli with eggplant and harissa and the tangy, house-made yogurt cheese that served as a base for a “flight” of spices: sumac, za’tar, and dried mint. Europe may still corner the market on culinary clout, but other cultures are catching up with their own brand of haute cuisine.
One-Stop Wine Shop
Photo by David J. Turner
With Costco selling everything from crab cakes to caskets, it was only a matter of time before restaurateurs got into the convenience game, fusing related needs into restaurant-takeout-grocery shops. The I Nonni/Buon Giorno complex in Lilydale and the expanded Lucia’s bakery/deli in Uptown got things going a few years ago. The latest innovator is the wine shop/market/bistro France 44. In 2001, the owners added a deli and market to the liquor store and started hosting wine dinners. This winter, they remodeled again: shrinking the deli case, rearranging the shelves, bringing in new tables, wineglasses, and wait staff to create Cafe 44. Once you’ve trucked a bunch of great wines and foodstuffs to one spot, why not open a new revenue stream by serving them on-site?
The new cafÃ© space has soaring ceilings and bright murals of abstracted diners. It’s a bit loud and chaotic, not the place for a romantic dinner, but its classy, casual vibe is perfect for a weeknight meal. It’s the rare wine bar with a kids’ menu—Johnny can have his chicken fingers while Mommy sips a Chardonnay.
The cafÃ©’s cheese and antipasto plates are as well-considered as its wine list. We ordered by the glass—a brassy French Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc and a more laid-back California Pinot Noir—but wines are also available in tasting portions or, for a $10 corkage fee, from bottles purchased next door. We found the kitchen’s cooking to be as impressive as the wine shop’s 4,000-bottle selection. Short ribs braised in red wine were tender and rich, served with fluffy potatoes and crisp green beans. A whole trout was paired with caramelized fennel—there’s never enough caramelized fennel—and a risotto that was neither soupy nor clumpy, cooked perfectly, as if an Italian grandmother had stirred it. On the way out, we picked up a bottle of wine to take to a party that evening and deli items for the next day’s lunch.
Mall Meal Makeover
Just a decade ago, mall dining meant food courts, the realm of teenagers with 10-inch bangs scarfing Taco Bell burritos and Cinnabon rolls. Mall restaurants have evolved into destinations—with shopping an added convenience. When Southdale remodeled a few years ago, adding an Epcot-esque faÃ§ade of big-name chain eateries (the Cheesecake Factory, P. F. Chang’s, Maggiano’s), it drew thousands of diners on a typical weekend night, who waited for hours and drove in from as far as Wisconsin.
Crave, the newest restaurant at the Galleria in Edina, is geared toward those who want more adventurous eating than the Good Earth’s chicken salads and cinnamon teas—women who identify more with Desperate Housewives than Ladies’ Home Journal. They might be moms, but they shop at Hot Mama. With its earthen colors, decorative stone, and floor-to-ceiling glass-encased wine room, Crave’s dining room is reminiscent of its owners’ other restaurant, the trendy Bellanotte in downtown Minneapolis. The menu offers an array of American basics, but with carefully
Photo by David J. Turner
chosen ingredients those simple dishes shine. Penne with rotisserie chicken is spiked with kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, local goat cheese, and organic basil. Pizza is topped with portobello mushrooms, fennel, Brie, and ricotta. Crave may be a mall restaurant, but it’s one that stays open until 2 a.m. on weekends, staffs a full-time sushi chef, and serves ceviche. The lime-marinated shrimp, served in a bright red, blossom-shaped tostada, tasted fresh and piquant, and had a manicured beauty equal to that of the restaurant’s well-heeled diners.
A Finer Diner
Judging from the crowds at the Good Day Cafe, there must be many more patrons than brunch spots in the area surrounding the Metropolitan Ballroom in Golden Valley. I made the mistake of dropping in at 11 a.m. on a Sunday, the bewitchingly busy hour when heathens hunting down the first cup of coffee converge with churchgoers un-sated by a communion wafer. The scene was country-club chic: men in white shorts and golf visors, women in capri pants and canary-yellow blazers. Though its name is as quaint as that of a Main Street diner, there were no farmers or second-shifters looking for trucker breakfasts and black coffee. The modern, airy cafÃ©’s only nod to bygone days is its lack of reservation system. The chaotic arrangement of lists involving three frantic hostesses and multiple sheets of paper was prone to abuse by patrons practicing identity theft. (Note to the jerks who claimed to be “Rachel, party of three”: your reservations in diners’ hell are waiting.)
Once we were seated, our food came faster than the caffeine buzz I extracted from a fancy coffee drink called the Almond Joy. (As soon as I ordered it, our server broke out a knowing smile; I did the same as soon as I tasted the sweet elixir of espresso, chocolate, almond, and coconut cream.) The rest of the meal was everything a well-rounded breakfast should be: lively smoothies made with pineapple and pomegranate; a dense but silky quiche; a bang-up egg sandwich piled high with ham and avocado. We’d heard good things about the glazed doughnut pancakes, but when a plate of silver dollars arrived, we feared the order was wrong: Shouldn’t they have holes? One bite set us straight. We’d never really thought of “doughnut” as a flavor, but this was it: ultra sweet and vaguely vanilla. The cakes had a luscious, melting texture—were they 50-percent butter?—which made them irresistible. We scraped every bite off the bright, fiesta-style plates.
Down on the Minneapolis riverfront, tailgater tastes are being replaced by more refined ones as the neighborhood continues to gentrify. Last spring, Liquor Depot (known for its drive-through window) was demolished to make room for a condo development. Frank Plumbing, with its homely hand-painted signs and stacks of radiators in the parking lot, was converted into a wine bar. While local wine bars tend to be cozy affairs, with a few tables tucked into a small space, Spill the Wine approaches the concept on a grander scale, with the bohemian sophistication you find in San Francisco. It’s a two-part restaurant/lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows, hardwood floors, and paintings of both bold bathing beauties (by cutting-edge artists) and pedestal sinks (former Frank’s signage). Wine barrels prop up the bar.
When I visited, however, the space proved more inspirational than the wine and food. If you’re going to be a wine bar, your wait staff can’t just toss customers a list of 100-plus bottles and leave them to fend for themselves. Interactions with three servers left us with little to go on, so we ordered a few flights served in clunky metal racks. The rattling and clinking felt about as classy as bottles of Lone Star and trays of Tater Tots at Grumpy’s Bar and Grill next door. And if the Wines from Spain flight is going to include a Tio Pepe Fino sherry, give your guests a little warning. Our server acknowledged that it was “different,” describing its musty acridity—it smelled like nail polish remover—as “an acquired taste.” He also admitted it was the last bottle to go when the staff had dibs on leftovers. (Spill the Wine has an off-sale liquor license so diners may purchase bottles to take home.)
Photo by David J. Turner
The food was hit or miss, as well. Appetizers—tender calamari, gnocchi in cream sauce, and a fantastic carrot-ginger-squash soup with both depth and bite—trumped our entrÃ©es and desserts. Both the ravioli and cheesecake were on par with what you’d take out of the freezer, and a mahi-mahi served with tomato sauce and mashed potatoes seemed ill-conceived, at best. The glob of starchy mush paired with mild white fish reminded me of a lutefisk supper—never a good sign.
But these things can be fixed as servers are trained and menus are tweaked. And diners are part of the process, expected to challenge and develop their palates, to acquire a taste for what’s to come. (I heard one fledgling diner complain of Spill the Wine’s fresh-herb-topped mahi, “I’m trying to have some fish and it’s loaded with grass.”) Evolution is inevitable. There’s no going back to casseroles now.
Rachel Hutton is associate editor at Minnesota Monthly.
When You Go:
Saffron Restaurant & Lounge
123 N. Third St., Mpls., 612-746-5533
Lunch served Mon.—Fri; dinner Mon.—Sat.
Appetizers $4—$12; entrÃ©es $16—$29
Parking at meters, adjacent lot, or nearby garages.
4351 France Ave. S., Mpls., 612-278-4444
Lunch served Mon.—Sat.; dinner Tues.—Sat.
Appetizers $5—$15; entrÃ©es $14—$26
Free parking in adjacent lot.
3520 W. 70th St., Edina, 952-697-6000
Lunch and dinner served daily.
Appetizers $7—$11; entrÃ©es $9—$35
Free parking in Galleria lot.
Good Day Cafe
5410 Wayzata Blvd., Golden Valley, 763-544-0205
Breakfast and lunch served Mon.—Sat.; breakfast Sun.
Does not take reservations.
Free parking in adjacent lot.
Spill the Wine
1101 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., 612-339-3388
Lunch and dinner served daily; brunch Sun.
Appetizers $8—$12; entrÃ©es $13—$27
Free parking available in lot behind the building or at meters.