Walking into Tullibee at the end of 2016 for its opening-event media party was a jarring experience. There were luxury cars parked out front, two massive spotlights waving through the sky, and a crowd of taut-skinned women who would have looked more at place in a Real Housewives franchise than at a Minnesota potluck. I could not have felt more out of place. Was I there to eat food, or to pose with humans made up to look like woodland creatures perched on stilts? It was mildly off-putting and, more than anything, so odd.
But, thankfully, a recent dinner showed me that much has changed—for the better—at Tullibee.
“We missed the mark on that opening,” says Pablo Molinari, general manager of Minneapolis’ Hewing Hotel, where Tullibee is located. The restaurant hosted me for dinner on Saturday night, and Molinari’s charming frankness was appreciated. And he was right: What once felt so off-kilter now landed with the resounding sigh of full bellies.
The calm, cozy space was dotted with families grabbing dinner before dashing out to see Hamilton. There were a few dates, a couple of hotel guests, but mostly people simply enjoying one another and the food, rather than being part of a “scene.”
When Jason DeRusha and I reviewed Tullibee, we seemed unsure of what was going on. I was “startled” by duck hearts, and he thought an entrée was “ridiculous.” What was mostly missing for me was the yummy. Intellectually, the dishes were beautiful, but I couldn’t really recommend it as a great place to go. The good news is that now I can.
Finally, the kitchen has found its groove with Matt Leverty, an actual Minnesotan—like, born in Stillwater, went to college in Duluth Minnesotan. Leverty worked with Wolfgang Puck, first at the 20.21 restaurant in that monster head attached to the Walker Art Center, and then at Spago. He understands how the whole hotel restaurant thing works, but he has also brought a desperately needed bit of heart into this kitchen.
On Saturday, the dishes were all rooted in the season and packed a wallop of yummy. Foie gras was served with a layer of little, charred onion petals and edible flowers in a bed of house-made vinegar. It was lush and crunchy and a deliciously reasonable little serving size.
Rabbit dumplings are all I could ever want for fall: squooshy puffs of dough and herbs in velvety bone broth, formed around fat-finger-size carrots and super-succulent rabbit meat. It was like Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor’s garden got together for a dance party in my mouth.
I wanted to order more of the side of charred corn, just to have some waiting for me in my fridge the next day. Off the cob, tossed with herbs and just a little bit of salty cheese, I couldn’t stop scooping it into my mouth, as if it were savory Corn Pops.
Steak is something I rarely order out, but this one was worth the occasion. One thing retained from the opening days is a dedicated-to-the-restaurant butcher, who breaks down and then ages the meat onsite. The steak, with charred exterior/crimson interior, was so beefy, and it didn’t rely on any tricks or sauces—or even the super-salty crust that some places do. Instead, restraint let the meat shine.
So, no, Tullibee wasn’t the restaurant we were told we were getting—but it’s finally the one that the North Loop deserves.