Libertine was poised for success from the moment it was announced: culinary talent (Tim McKee) with deep-pocketed operators (Parasole) dropped into a hip, quickly gentrifying neighborhood (Uptown). The restaurant’s concept is basically what happens when McKee, chief of the Twin Cities fine-dining scene, gets loose: forming bratwurst into burgers, frying up pig ear, and pouring whiskey shots through bones just licked clean of their marrow.
Photo by Kelly Loverud
Three decades ago, Parasole paved the way for the democratization of fine dining: Its restaurants emulated gourmet kitchens, but its dining rooms left behind the formality and the fuss. Back in the ’80s, its first Uptown eatery, Figlio, made Metropolitan Home’s list of the top 10 bistros in the country—alongside Spago in Beverly Hills—while serving “school lunch” meals of meatloaf or turkey dinner with a half-pint carton of milk. Yet by the time Parasole debuted Uptown Cafeteria in 2010, diners desired something more sophisticated than eating off plastic trays. Ergo, McKee’s Libertine reboot in the same space.
On the surface, Libertine is a steak place, a companion to Parasole’s Manny’s that takes cues from Isaac Becker’s nearby Burch. But instead of boomer clientele blowing $500 on a business or anniversary dinner, it’s millennials and Gen-Xers spending $50 every other Tuesday. Well-chosen cuts, careful cooking, and generous slathers of herb-marrow butter ensure that it’s one of the few places one can confidently order an inexpensive steak. And while the casual fare, including a lamb-Brie Juicy Lucy, satisfies, the delicate likes of blue-crab/avocado salad or a Moroccan-style riff on a burrata Caprese are upscaling the vibe of Uptown’s typically beer-soaked roof decks. • 3001 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., 612-877-7263, libertinempls.com
Photo by TJ Turner
Just a decade ago, all the ambitious eateries seemed to cluster downtown, but today the residential neighborhoods have eclipsed the core. In southwest Minneapolis, especially, you can hardly take the dog for a walk without passing multiple restaurants attracting the attention of the James Beard Awards committee.
This year, the young-and-scruffy Lyn-Lake neighborhood landed a serious culinary coup in Heyday. The new restaurant’s modern menu and rustic-chic décor have erased any trace of the former Sunnyside Up, best known for serving breakfasts as greasy as the waiters’ hair. Burnished wood now serves as a cozy backdrop for a chandelier constructed from utensils, and oversize paintings in vibrant hues. And the kitchen turns out colorful compositions—pink lamb belly with sugar-snap peas and grilled romaine, for example—as hip as the art.
Photo by TJ Turner
It was high time for chef Jim Christiansen to strike out on his own. With the help of his former La Belle Vie colleague Lorin Zinter, who runs the front of the house, the restaurant runs with a seasoned pro’s polish yet feels as personal as a dinner party. In his years cooking under überchef Tim McKee, including at Sea Change and Il Gatto, Christiansen developed a reputation for dishes that were at once simple, novel, and refined. Heyday showcases this style through pairings of, say, delicate branzino (European seabass) with avocado and pistachio, or cold asparagus speckled with Parmesan. Lowly chicken liver is elevated to exquisite when whipped into a mousse and served as a rhubarb-compote-topped tart. And picking up where Sunnyside left off, Heyday’s brunch includes a croque madame with ultra-tender, house-cured pastrami and one of the best plates of biscuits and gravy in the Cities—its golden pillows are so buttery they practically melt.
Despite the kitchen’s impeccable technique, its attitude is playful. (Sip it for yourself in a hot pink drink called the Beetnik, which pairs the earthy root vegetable with tequila and lime.) The restaurant proves that success isn’t necessarily about prestige or size. Christiansen may have been sky high when he ran the kitchen at downtown’s glass-domed Union, but that wasn’t his heyday—this is.
• 2700 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-200-369, heydayeats.com
At St. Paul’s beloved Meritage, Russell Klein has expertly mined the vast middle ground between trendy and tired with his fresh take on traditional French cuisine. After building a devoted following for his cassoulet, oysters, and steak frites, this spring he and wife Desta opened a restaurant complex on the other side of the river and shifted culinary territory accordingly.
The flagship, Brasserie Zentral, draws on Russell’s Austro-Hungarian heritage and highlights an underappreciated corner of the Old World. It’s true, much of Zentral’s menu reads like Grandma food: boiled beef, schnitzel, stuffed cabbage rolls. But these most comforting of dishes have an elegance about them, as well as brightness and balance. Other fare feels historically rooted yet decidedly contemporary: nettle pasta; seared foie gras with rhubarb and marjoram; rabbit with fava beans, asparagus, and prunes.
Brasserie’s adjacent wine bar, Foreign Legion, offers cozier seating and dimmer lighting along with gourmet snacks. Most are petite bites of, say, specialty cheeses and charcuterie, or marinated olives and duck-liver mousse. But there’s also a sloppily sharable raclette, a sort of plated fondue native to Switzerland that mounds melted cheese atop new potatoes, pickled onions, and gherkins. (It’s a delicious mess—and just the sort of pairing that might stump a sommelier with less savvy than Nicolas Giraud, who has long curated the list at Meritage.)
During the daytime hours, the Kleins also run the casual Café Zentral, which offers quick breakfasts and lunches in the skyway level. For those on the go, the wieners encased in pretzel buns—a grownup’s pig-in-a-blanket—are both craveable and portable, as are the made-to-order crepes brought over from Meritage’s sidewalk stand.
The Kleins also transported Meritage’s famous hospitality to the new eateries, where staff members are cannily attentive to guests’ needs without being intrusive. They’ll inquire about your time restrictions at the outset of the meal or offer to replace a drink if they sense it’s being sipped a little slowly. It’s an
approach to service that’s not to be taken for granted—and that will never go out of fashion.
• 505 Marquette Ave. S., Mpls., 612-333-0505, zentral-mpls.com