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3 for 3
With Burch Steakhouse and Pizza Bar, our Restaurateur of the Year, Isaac Becker, caps a can’t-lose decade in which he’s changed (for the better) the landscape of where and how we eat.
By Quinton Skinner
It’s nine in the morning—not the typical hour for spotting restaurant chefs in their natural habitat—but the kitchen at Minneapolis’ Bar La Grassa is home to a handful of cooks clattering the cookware. The atmosphere is informal with a hint of charged efficiency: Their boss, the James Beard Award-winning chef Isaac Becker, is due here any minute. The morning will be spent testing and tasting new recipes for potential inclusion on some of the most respected menus in town.
Daniel del Prado, executive chef at Becker’s newest restaurant, Burch Steakhouse and Pizza Bar, has put together a venison dish accompanied by farro flavored with red wine, pecorino cheese, and fresh mint. It’s easy to imagine that this entrée could end up at one of Becker’s eateries—it’s complex and original but not fussy or overwrought. Becker tastes it, offers a couple of observations on presentation, then gives a nod of approval.
Isaac Becker’s run of success as a chef and restaurateur constitutes the food story of the past decade in the Twin Cities. His three restaurants—112 Eatery, which opened in 2005, followed by Bar La Grassa in 2009, and Burch Steakhouse and Pizza Bar this year—have defined a coming of age for the local dining scene. They’re places where you can sit down to a fine-dining menu without social intimidation or financial ruin, a stark contrast to the early 2000s, when the most talked about, best regarded eateries doubled as the most formal.
“I’ve wanted to make a living on my own terms and serve the food I wanted to serve,” Becker says as he settles into a window seat and unwraps the plastic from a set of chef’s whites fresh from the laundry. Sounds straightforward enough, but it’s an explanation that understates his obvious knack for placing butts in seats. Becker’s a trendsetter appropriately pleased to be recognized as such, but he also depicts the process as 10 years of hard work and being sharp enough to learn from experience and avoid countless pitfalls. He gives the distinct sense that he places ego high on the list of hazards.
Back in the early 2000s, when Becker was under the employ of D’Amico and Partners, the best tables in town were anniversary-dinner places: D’Amico Cucina, Aquavit, Goodfellow’s. In 2003, a trio of ambitious, splashy eateries opened: Cosmos, Solera, and Restaurant Levain (while the latter’s space wasn’t so grand, its chef was the big-deal, New York City transplant Stewart Woodman). These new restaurants weren’t as stiff as their predecessors, but were still a little too pricey for most diners to make them a regular habit.
112 took things in a new direction entirely: modest in scope, more personal, seeming to look inward for ideas rather than to the coasts or around the world. While Alma and Corner Table shared 112’s intimate feel, they lacked the new eatery’s energetic buzz. If Alma was where a corner-office executive took his wife, 112 was where an artist (aspiring or otherwise) took a date or out-of-town agent in order to look cool and connected.
“112 was incredibly important in the evolution of the dining scene—it marked a major shift when it opened, and it influenced most if not every restaurant since,” says Eric Dayton, co-owner of Minneapolis’ The Bachelor Farmer, which opened its doors in 2011. “It democratized the experience of fine dining—that you can eat great food in a place that’s a little bit loud and maybe playing rock music and feels like a fun place to be.”
Becker had the vision (not to mention the cojones) to pair highfalutin with lowbrow in a way that charismatically blurred the differences—on 112’s menu, lamb scottadito with goat-milk yogurt coexisted with a famously irresistible bacon-and-egg sandwich (it’s slathered in Tunisian harissa and isn’t exactly a McMuffin, but you get the idea). The restaurant’s hours—serving a full menu as late as 1 a.m.— made it a go-to spot for others in the food business; it seems obvious now, and was surely not meant as a public service, but 112’s scale and informality made it a social laboratory for chefs, servers, and foodies throughout the Cities.
Becker is quick to point out that 112 didn’t come out of nowhere; nor did it fit the mold of what diners at the time expected of a “chef-driven” restaurant. “112 wasn’t about me trying to showcase myself,” he says. “One of the things I don’t know if people realize is that 112 didn’t just pop up—I had been in the business for 15 years; my wife [and restaurant partner Nancy St. Pierre; the two met in 1994 while they were co-workers at D’Amico Cucina and started dating a year later] had been in the business for 25. There was a foundation there already.”
“112 put pressure on a lot of operators to think about how much they’re charging,” Becker says. “I think we really had an impact on that aspect alone—and making things more accessible.” Dayton credits the eatery as having an even broader influence on restaurateurs’ psyches. “112 has allowed chefs and owners to take more risk,” he says. “With the idea that Minnesotans will respond to things that are a little more challenging—you don’t have to follow a formula to be successful here. And that was liberating for the restaurant community.”
The two restaurants that Becker has since opened, in partnership with financier and broker Ryan Burnet, have represented an expansion in scale and ambition. La Grassa’s wood-lined bar and dining-room sprawl on Washington Avenue ably trumps 112 in scope, while Burch luxuriates over two levels in the space once occupied by the former drugstore of the same name.
“112 was easy to manage—a piece of cake, because of the size,” Becker says of the days when his responsibilities extended to a single kitchen and dining room (when it opened, 112 occupied a single story). “And I didn’t have the pressure of making mistakes and having to answer to anybody. With La Grassa, I don’t like concepts but I opened up a concept, and I gave it an Italian name—I had sworn I would never do either of those.”
La Grassa’s much-larger kitchen enabled Becker to pursue a food program not possible in 112’s limited space; it was also a stylish update on the Italian neighborhood joint that most regard with affection if little fresh enthusiasm. It broke the mold, harkening less to a quaint trattoria (or to D’Amico Cucina or Buca di Beppo) than to a model of urbane fun and inclusive chic. “There were no bottles of wine and baskets on the table,” Becker notes. “No Tuscan farmhouse feeling or anything like that.”
It’s not as though La Grassa was some sort of exercise in minimalism—but it did embrace the confidence to embody a less-is-more ethic in presentation and ambience. Part of the eatery’s broad appeal has also been its multiple price points: It’s a spot where a dish of pasta for 10 bucks delivers as much taste complexity and offhand innovation as pricier entrées. And if you take a seat at the bar and plan to nurse said platter without ordering drinks and sides that pad the bill, you won’t be treated like a freeloader.
It might sound simple, this notion of delivering fine food without weighty cultural and class baggage, yet Becker is acutely aware that it’s integral to his success. In 2011 La Grassa was in the middle of a Twitter imbroglio when fitness pseudo celeb Bob Harper was turned away from a full reservation slate and took to social media to bemoan his lack of special treatment. There was probably little that Becker’s restaurant could have done to endear itself more to the local community of knowledgeable diners.
“Everyone waits in line,” he says. “People who are CEO’s or whatever, because they’re richer than anyone think they deserve to be accommodated. We’re not going for the hoity-toity here.”
What could be more musical to the ears of egalitarian Minnesota? People tend to really like restaurants that serve the highest-level cuisine, Becker says, and treat them like they deserve nothing less. He’s also quick to credit St. Pierre, who manages the front of the house in his operations. “Nothing gets decided without us both agreeing to it,” Becker says. “I wouldn’t have any of this success without her being my partner. She’s the face of the restaurant, and her attitude and philosophy are trained into her staff.”
St. Pierre comes across a few degrees warmer than the more reserved Becker, and seeing the two together reads with volumes of shared experience and mutual respect. She draws a through-line from her own days at D’Amico restaurants to 112 and beyond. “112 was small but we had a lot of the same values as D’Amico,” she says. “We’ve wanted to be as polished as (D’Amico) and yet more comfortable.”
Conversation with the two about their restaurants orbits inevitably around questions of scale. Becker points out that 112 started with six servers; today Burch counts as many guys waiting outside to park cars. Burch, like La Grassa, updates an old standard: the steakhouse (cue the smells of scotch and cigars, with men hunkered over one-pound porterhouses). Modernizing that traditional model with its raw menu, house dumplings, and steaks in a range of grades and sizes, Burch again offers a realistic range between affordable appetizer noshes and more serious financial commitment. “The other ones, you only go to once a year, if that,” Becker says of the paneled-and-padded steakhouse of convention. “Here you could afford to come once a week.”
Not that getting the joint off the ground was without turbulence. Becker talks about Burch’s infancy in the tones one might reserve for the hellion days of a particularly difficult child. “Opening a restaurant is really traumatic and dramatic. The hours are long and tempers are flaring. I don’t know why I thought I wanted to do this again. Now I’m happy, but at the time I asked myself why I was doing it again.”
While Becker had been involved in opening larger restaurants as an employee, Burch kicked up the challenge on every conceivable level. “We wrote the menu but didn’t really have the plan to get it to the table,” he says. An infinity of details needed to be worked out, from the arrangement of the cakes on the dessert table to a serving system that encompassed myriad choices and a great big room.
“That first month I questioned the entire program—maybe we had created something that wasn’t possible,” Becker admits. “We had 15 cooks on the line at once, and we were still facing a lot of difficulties. We had to think about how to get it down to eight or nine. It was expensive.”
Keeping a firm hand on the tiller, in other words, and juggling financial judgments from workforce to food purchasing until the waters calmed. “Owners who aren’t chefs would have panicked and gutted the whole program,” says Becker. “Because I’m the chef and the owner, I could say ‘keep it together here’.”
It’s easy to look at a winning streak such as Becker’s and assume that we’re witnessing the results of a seamlessly executed plan, But what he describes sounds more akin to riding over rapids with an experienced driver at the helm who understands how to stack the odds in favor of enduring. And Becker has also seen his endeavors buffeted by factors not of his doing; in 2010 Burnet severed ties with restaurateurs Josh Thoma and Tim McKee amid allegations of financial mismanagement that drained funds from La Grassa and resulted in a settlement without criminal charges. The dispute took a divisive toll on the close-knit Twin Cities food community and created rifts that still persist.
It seems impossible to believe that during the cold winter of 2005, before the reviews came out and hailed 112 the best new restaurant the city had seen in years, and reservations started booking up weeks out, that 112 did a mere $300 in sales some nights. Back then, Becker looked out over a nearly empty dining room and surfed the crest between informed faith and the clarity of realism. Recently he’s just re-upped his lease for another 10 years.
And while the life of a restaurant owner still means working plenty of nights, Becker and St. Pierre try to eat dinner with their two sons about three nights a week. “Our life has changed in some ways for the better with this restaurant,” he says. “I’m not cooking on the line like I used to.”
Some weeknights, like a recent one at Burch, St. Pierre heads home first, just as the staff clicks on the opening lights, with Becker following later. Before she goes, she has a question for him: What is he planning to whip up for dinner at home?
Becker shrugs. “I’ll think of something.”
Restaurant of the Year: The Runners-Up
With its cozy, window-lined dining room and WASPy plaid décor, the Kenwood restaurant feels as if it’s been around forever. It’s only been a year, though, since The Kenwood moved in to its eponymous neighborhood, and in that time, chef/owner Don Saunders (of the dearly departed Fugaise in Northeast and In Season in Armatage) has turned the space into a civilized cafeteria for its affluent neighbors. The eatery is the only place to dine in Kenwood’s one-block “downtown,” so versatility was imperative. It’s become a place where regulars drop in to grab a latté or croissant on their way to work or herd a passel of kids in for an early supper. But they also bring clients and out-of-town guests for dinner (for everything from barramundi ceviche to boutique-beef burgers) or one of the best brunches in the metro (cheddar grits and blue prawns, eggs en cocotte). The only thing they can’t get is a reservation.
2115 W. 21st St., Mpls., 612-377-3695, thekenwoodrestaurant.com
Union Fish Market
The city of Minneapolis did a collective neck swivel toward Union’s pioneering glass-encased roof deck when the restaurant opened last winter. The accompanying basement club, Marquee, attracted its fair share of attention, too, between its gritty alley entrance and pricey bottle service. Meanwhile, the first-floor restaurant received all the attention of a middle child. So its owners (the team behind the Crave empire) rebooted the space this fall as Union Fish Market, a seafood concept with a more contemporary menu than the traditionalists down the block at Oceannaire. Sure, the Fish Market waiters still wheel around the conventional tableside cart of iced crab, oysters, and prawns, but the rest of the restaurant’s fare is more chef-driven than any of its sister eateries. And Fish Market certainly wasn’t the first place in town to introduce some of its trendiest elements—the hand-hacked ice hunks in the craft cocktails, the sea beans paired with ahi, yogurt, and olives. But the kitchen has contributed several innovations to the local culinary conversation, among them a miniature, shrimp-filled version of our favorite cornmeal-crusted, stick-wielded fair food, and smoked sturgeon rillettes topped with lingonberry jam to spread on lefse discs—Scandinavia’s answer to peanut butter and jelly. Finish your meal with the buttered-potato ice cream. It sounds awful, but tastes surprisingly good.
731 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-455-6690, unionmpls.com
These days, the North Loop seems to be hatching hip locals faster than its warehouses used to churn out baking soda and tractor parts. And this year, Borough restaurant, along with its lower-level cocktail bar, Parlour, became a major player in the neighborhood’s dining scene by remaking a former o-ring factory with an of-the-moment industrial/heritage/found aesthetic (think: exposed ducts, warm wood floors, cheese-grater lampshades). Fortunately, the food and drink keep pace with the place’s style. The kitchen crew, led by Nick O’Leary and Tyler Shipton, has turned out such avant-garde dishes as champagne potato-chip soup and Thai-style octopus that are as different in their inspiration as they are similar in their layering of flavor. Barkeep Jesse Held’s drinks do the same, by incorporating hard-to-find spirits, house-infused liqueurs, and at least a dozen kinds of bitters. The result is a place that has the convivial spirit of a neighborhood watering hole yet draws crowds from all over the metro.
730 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-354-3135, boroughmpls.com
For most diners, learning exactly how much butter and salt goes into the average restaurant dish might be enough to trigger a heart attack. Not so at Marin, sister restaurant to Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park, which brought healthful, California-inspired cuisine to the swank Chambers hotel in downtown Minneapolis. The restaurant prints the nutritional information right on the menu, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much flavor can be packed into, say, a 360-calorie bison burger. With judicious application of acid and spice, chef Mike Rakun makes lean proteins such as marlin crudo and whole grains like lemon quinoa taste indulgent—he knows how to satisfy diners without having to wrap everything in bacon and deep-fry it. The space’s handsome, rich makeover, which dispensed with the stark, gallery whites, feels both luxurious and inviting. This is especially true when nursing an after-dinner cocktail among the stacks of artfully arranged tomes in the lower-level library.
901 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-252-7000, marinrestaurant.com
The Lynn on Bryant
To think we once believed the barometer of a modern urban neighborhood’s quality of life was its corner coffee shop. Gradually, we set our expectations higher, first to a coffee-shop-with-benefits, and today to a full-service restaurant. The Lynn plays that role for Lynnhurst, where a “community hub” means a mod, spare, barn-wood-lined dining room serving meals created by a well-pedigreed chef (Peter Ireland, of Blackbird in Chicago and, before that, Café Boulud, New York). At dinner, French staples—croque monsieur, duck confit, omelet, and pâté—meet locally grown ingredients, from honey to grass-fed beef. At brunch, the baked pancake, known as the gateaux de Bordeaux, tastes like an angel’s wing. And for picnics or home entertaining, the Lynn offers a full takeaway menu (call 24 hours ahead), should one wish to pick up cassoulet for six. It seems the concept was exactly what the neighbors wanted: Ireland’s Kickstarter campaign for the Lynn revealed pent-up demand to the tune of $35,000.
5003 Bryant Ave. S., Mpls., 612-767-7797, thelynnonbryant.com
5 Best Dishes of the Year
Burch’s Sea Bean and Crab Salad
Sea beans are a relatively new arrival on local menus—the Burch crew discovered them on a recent trip to England—and their briny, grassy crunch pairs impeccably with tender, fat hunks of Dungeness crab. Each cool, light bite tastes as delicate and fresh as a sea breeze. • burchrestaurant.com
World Street Kitchen’s Yum-Yum Rice Bowl
For a while, the only way to get the Yum-Yum rice bowl—the sticky starch topped with your choice of protein, fresh herbs, sauces, nuts, and other goodies—was to track down the WSK truck. Now, the brick-and-mortar restaurant grants easy access to this addictive blend of flavor (spicy, soothing, savory), color (green, white, mahogany), and texture (crunchy, creamy, crisp). • eatwsk.com
Borough’s Foie Gras
At Borough, the richest of the meats—foie gras—likes to go sweet, changing its accompaniments with the season: Thanksgiving style, with sweet potatoes and homemade marshmallow, or a more summery strawberry and pistachio, for example. Appetizer or dessert? Let your mood decide. • boroughmpls.com
The Kenwood’s Beef Tataki
Don Saunders, chef/owner of The Kenwood, created this Japanese-style beef tataki for his pal, the barman Pip Hanson. The meat is briefly seared and sliced very thin to reveal its rare center, then garnished with black sesame seeds, Japanese mayonnaise, pickled vegetables, and artfully painted soy sauce. • thekenwoodrestaurant.com
Marin’s Scallops with Lobster-Fingerling Hash
Plump scallops, seared just ’til their crusts crack, rest atop a potato hash studded with bits of lobster. The trio is enhanced by the triple play of whole corn kernels, a sweet-corn purée, and popcorn puffs. The playful dish tastes far more indulgent than its 390 calorie count. • marinrestaurant.com
5 Best Drinks of the Year
Verdant Tea’s Chai
Verdant Tea’s chai harnesses three base teas (Wuyi oolong, Yunnan black, and Laoshan black), two kinds of honey, raw cane sugar, and almond milk—plus 20-some spices, everything from the expected cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger to saffron and elderberry. The result is subtly sweet and intriguingly complex. • verdanttea.com
Parlour’s Ango Flip
In Borough’s basement bar, they take a staid bar ingredient, Angostura bitters, and flip expectations on their ear—instead of a topper, it’s the base of the Ango Flip. The result is heady, herbal, and spice-infused, with an ultra-creamy finish. • boroughmpls.com
7th Street Social’s Cry Baby Cry
The barmen at this neighborhood joint may exude old-school hospitality, but their drinks—including our fave, the Cry Baby Cry—often look ahead. The Baby’s mix of hard cider, prosecco, and ginger beer blends the crispness of a fall day with tart apple, bubbly buzz, and ginger zing. • seventhstreetsocial.com
Union’s Margie Had Sex in the Pantry
Feeling frisky? Margie Had Sex in the Pantry is quite the flirt (go figure). Think White Russian, but with a more beguiling blend of vanilla, maple, and cardamom. Best sipped during a blizzard, snow-globe style, under the glass dome on the restaurant’s rooftop. • unionmpls.com
The Torpedo Room’s Corn Tiki
The visuals at Eat Street Social’s new Torpedo Room are bold—thatched roof, stuffed marlin, open flame—but the drinks are skillfully subtle. The Corn Tiki is an Upper Midwestern reinvention of the classic Painkiller, with sweet-corn cream in lieu of coconut, and mulled apple cider instead of pineapple and orange juice. It’s both jolly and complex, a sort of craft-cocktail eggnog gone tropical. • eatstreetsocial.com
The Most Anticipated Restaurant of the Year
By Tim Gihring
On September 10, the chef-owners of Travail had the greatest payday of their lives. They posted a video on Kickstarter of themselves dressed as farm animals, asking for $75,000 to replace their Robbinsdale restaurant with a new Travail three doors down—twice the size of the original, including a craft-cocktail lounge called The Rookery. Within hours they had the money; when the campaign ended several weeks later, they had more than a quarter-million dollars. “Overwhelming and humbling,” says James Winberg, one of the chef-owners who began the restaurant with $2,000 in 2010. “We were on the verge of tears.”
The verge, but no waterworks. These are dudes, after all. Dudes with sweet ’staches known to blast Outkast, challenge patrons to beer-chugging contests, and rarely lose. (“If you want to throw down,” they warned on their Kickstarter webpage, “you will most likely be destroyed by one of us.”) Dudes who promised backers a “volcanic 2014 Travail Sexy Chef Calendar,” in which they’re hoping to include an image of the rather hirsute chef-owner Mike Brown posing shirtless like a bear, with another chef standing over him with a rifle, as though he’d bagged him.
On a recent weeknight at Pig Ate My Pizza, the spinoff pizza joint now occupying the original Travail, the bartender dances to disco while a Miss Piggy movie plays overhead. And yet the food is uniformly exquisite, from the charcuterie to the tomato basil soup to the creamy dessert poured out, in typical Travail form, with a puff of liquid nitrogen. “Travail wouldn’t have worked five or eight years ago,” asserts Travis Stanfield, manager at Pig Ate My Pizza. “The average person is now a foodie. More people now realize how good food can be.”
That’s partly Travail’s doing. They’ve democratized fine-dining, trading big, expensive entrées for smaller, more affordable plates, and swapping hushed, hidden kitchens for boisterous, in-your-face cooking that practically begs the diner to participate in the fun. The full name of the restaurant, after all, was Travail Kitchen and Amusements. And they meant it—they wanted to party.
They still do. Most of the Kickstarter cash will go toward new kitchen equipment—these dudes are gastro-gearheads and “we don’t want to stop pushing ourselves,” says Winberg. Read: more party tricks. The new Travail, which at press time was expected to open between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, will only offer tasting menus, as though you’d crashed a dinner party (at Will Ferrell’s house). The Rookery will feature micro-plates between $2 and $20, and cocktails that will no doubt be invented when something flung from the kitchen lands in something flung back. There will be long communal tables and counter seats that invade the kitchen space itself. “We want our guests as close as humanly possible,” Winberg says.
Such populism may appear gimmicky, a ploy to ply money from anyone crazy enough to fork it over to a for-profit business on Kickstarter. But such craziness isn’t unprecedented: The forthcoming Veronica Mars movie recently reached its $2 million crowd-funding goal in 11 hours. People will pony up, cult-like, for things to which they’re deeply attached. They feel part of the club. As they certainly should at the new Travail—they paid for it.
Four More of Our Most Anticipated Restaurants
Brasserie Zentral, Café Zentral, Foreign Legion
Russell and Desta Klein melded comfort and sophistication, St. Paul-meets-Paris-style, at Meritage. Now they’re taking over most of the Soo Line building in Minneapolis. At street level, Brasserie Zentral will serve up schnitzel and schnapps and other Central European classics, and the adjacent Foreign Legion wine bar will focus on the region’s wines and cheeses. Café Zentral will bring wieners and crepes to the skyway masses. They’re all slated to open this spring.
It took way too long for Sonora, Mexico’s famous hot dogs, to migrate to Minnesota, when Sonora Grill opened in the Midtown Global Market back in 2012. Starting this month, the bacon-wrapped beauties will also be available at the restaurant’s second location in the former Molly Quinn’s space in Longfellow. The sit-down menu will keep beloved the market’s pinchos (meat skewers), bocadillos (sandwiches) and caramelos (tacos), while adding more scratch-made, gourmet Latin dishes.
Betty Danger’s Country Club
A Ferris wheel in Nordeast? The city approved, so here it comes! Psycho Suzi’s revived the tiki bar; now its sister restaurant/destination will bring an amusement park experience into the city, with mini golf, a Minnesotanized Tex-Mex menu and, yes, a dine-in Ferris wheel, which will start spinning in early 2014.
Kim Bartmann defined the food-forward neighborhood hangout for a generation of young Twin Citians, with Bryant–Lake Bowl, Barbette, Red Stag, and Pat’s Tap. She’s also been a pioneer in greener eating, promoting local, sustainable ingredients, composting programs, and LEED-certified building. Her new Powderhorn eatery, Tiny Diner, expected to open this month, builds on this ethos with a solar array that dwarfs the tiny restaurant itself and produce picked from an onsite garden and urban Honey House Farm, just a few miles away.
Twin Cities Chefs Pick their Best Meals of 2013
John Kraus of Patisserie 46
This past January I went home to Paducah, Kentucky. In my quest for great barbeque, I always go back to the standard: a $3 pulled pork shoulder sandwich on Bunny bread. Starnes Barbecue hasn’t changed since I was a kid, and the ordering is simple: pork, beef, turkey, or ham. I always opt for the pork. It’s smoked slowly over hickory with salt and pepper about ten feet from where you sit at the Formica counter drinking only RC products or iced tea. The juice from the pork and the vinegar-based sauce creates a memory 40 years in the making. It never disappoints.
Diane Yang of La Belle Vie
It would have to be Piccolo. I’m teaching a class with Doug Flicker and Steven Brown at the U of M on food design. Everyone from the class was there and we all sat in the back. We had everything, but chestnut agnolotti with shredded duck neck, skin, and porcini powder was my favorite. I really love crispy skin.
Sarah Master of Barbette
My husband and I were in St. Lucia celebrating our 10-year anniversary, and we heard about this shack on the beach that was serving up some delicious fresh fish, caught same-day, served up with a little side of attitude from Miss Marie, the owner of the place. We found it tucked off in the trees at the end of the beach and I have to say, I didn’t expect much when I saw the place. It really was a shack: no stove, only a pile of coals in a clay pot on a table and a grill out back. Miss Marie made a curried lentil dal with the typical spicy St. Lucian hot sauce, grilled mackerel marinated in some soy, simple greens and tomato salad, and these fried bread dumplings that were just killer. They were a little salty, a little sweet, hot, chewy, amazing—like a St. Lucian beignet. I ate mine, my husband’s, and begged Marie for the recipe. She said I couldn’t have the recipe, but if I came back the next day, and she had enough flour left over, she’d show me how to make them. So the next day I sat at her counter drinking Piton Lager until she was ready to put up with me in her kitchen. I kneaded the dough, portioned it out with her watching me like a hawk, and fried it in a pan of oil perched over the coals. She was impressed when I pulled them out of the oil with my bare fingers (I was never so happy to show off my “kitchen hands”). Mine weren’t as delicious as hers, but I think she was proud of me. And the dumplings sold out in less than five minutes. What an experience.
Jim Grell of Modern Cafe
In February, [local chef] Mike Phillips and I went on a road trip to Louisville, Kentucky, for the Cyclo-cross Worlds. In Chicago, our first stop was at Big Star Taco: loads of chorizo, carnitas, and salsa verde. Next stop, The Publican and a charcuterie plate that had a very memorable pork pie. We enjoyed a small plate of battered sweet breads with five-spice honey. Then a straw-smoked ham chop and Swiss chard. Wow, good eats!
Paul Berglund of The Bachelor Farmer
At Joe Beef in Montreal, the meal was wonderful, but I can’t stop thinking about the Parc Vinet salad they harvest to order. They make their own cider vinegar and the salad is nothing more than leaves and herbs from their garden. So many simple touches highlighted how important small details are to truly great food.
Jack Riebel of Butcher and the Boar
I suppose it’s cliché to say Le Bernardin when I was at the [James] Beard Awards. No, the best meal was at Amasia in Maui. Chef Chris Damskey, you know, he’s a Minneapolis guy? We had moi [a Hawaiian fish] with young ginger gelée and citrus with white soy. Beautiful food and restaurant—absolutely stunning.
Jamie Malone of Sea Change
I had an incredible meal at Next in Chicago this past September. The menu was inspired by the Bocuse d’Or cooking competition and Paul Bocuse himself. Surprisingly, the non-alcoholic beverage pairings were the most memorable part! My favorite was a peanut soda paired with a ham terrine.
Tanya Siebenaler of Sapor
I loved Copper Pot in downtown Minneapolis—Indian cuisine is one of my favorites. They had this lentil black dahl dish that was so good, but the best was this bread they cooked on a griddle, stuffed with onions and cheese. I’ve never had it before, but it was kind of like a gourmet quesadilla.
Christina Nguyen and Birk Stefan Grudem of Hola Arepa
Banh Xeo 46A in Saigon serves its specialty [rice-flour pancakes] fried crispy and thin and packed with herbs: cilantro, mint, and something that smelled like wet dog, but tasted really good. They’re cooked over fire on six burners by four different women and eaten outdoors. We ate banh xeo all over Vietnam, but none were as good as those.
Thomas Kim of The Left Handed Cook and The Rabbit Hole
That foie at Cafe Boulud. Oh, yeah, Chef Gavin Kaysen did a play on textures that was everything that makes foie so good. It was creamy, minerally, super rich with a tarragon macaroon cookie. The flavors were insane. Salty, sour, sweet, creamy—so good.
- Shiso leaves
- Growing your own
- Honey shops
- Backyard pigs
- Midwestern Modern
- Ginger Beer
- Fresh chickpeas
- Harvest-to-order salads
- Foraging wild mushrooms
- Backyard bees
- Pizza farms
- Homemade bitters
- Sustainable seafood
- Shisito peppers
- New Nordic
- Sunday suppers served family-style
- Craft distilling
- Pickled veggies
- Kickstarted food businesses
- Cask ale
- Food truck concepts going brick-and-mortar
- Upgraded concessions at sporting events, movie theaters, airports, and parks
PAST ITS PRIME
- Pork belly
- Backyard chickens
- Put a soft-cooked egg on it
- Asian Fusion
- Naming your restaurant “social”
- 7 p.m. Friday night
- Every neighborhood bar having 16-plus beer taps
From Sandcastle’s upgrade on park concessions to Hello Pizza nailing the New York slice, each of these eateries made a noteworthy impact in their respective genres.
It turns out that Piccolo chef/owner Doug Flicker, the modern cuisine wiz, really just wants a hot dog. And so he’s brought his Dog Flicker—topped with kimchi and a soft fried egg—to the masses via his park concession, Sandcastle, and given picnic food its biggest upgrade to date. Who thought we’d ever sup ceviche on the shores of Lake Nokomis? • sandcastlempls.com
The Buttered Tin Bakery
Like a shot of triple espresso, The Buttered Tin Bakery woke up Lowertown’s daytime dining scene with its perky riffs on breakfast classics, such as the twofer Huevos Rancheros Benedict (it incorporates cornbread and salsa in place of the English muffin and hollandaise). The bakery’s also hand-making the mass-market snack cakes you loved as a kid—oatmeal-raisin pies and cream-filled sponge cakes—in a way that pleases adult palates. • thebutteredtin.com
The name Terzo, or “third,” indicates the number of Broder eateries now occupying the corner of 50th and Penn in south Minneapolis. The chic Italian wine bar, run by Molly and Tom Broder’s three sons, offers a selection of about 50 by-the-glass options to pair with a more modern menu of wine-friendly noshes that has included everything from fried anchovies to vitello tonnato. • broders.com
We need a new cuisine style called Midwestern Grannies Gone Wild—that’s easiest way to describe Parka’s cheffy remakes of goulash, meat loaf, and Jell-O salad (in this case, it’s house-made cranberry gelatin paired with pineapple, apple, celery, pecan, and goat cheese). It takes no shortage of inspiration to take pot roast out of the Crock-Pot and turn it into something that belongs in a modern-art museum. • parkampls.com
Sure, you could always load up on tandoori chicken and saag paneer at Copper Pot’s lunch buffet, but its dinner specialties are what distinguish this Indian eatery from its peers. The fried fish, meen varuval, is marinated in a spicy paste of lemon, ginger, and garlic. Blue crab is served smothered in rich coconut milk. And tellicherry duck, a French-Indian fusion, serves tender breast meat in aromatic gravy. • copperpotus.com
Flavors sing at the Nightingale. The chic neighborhood eatery and nightspot beats to a quicker pulse than the surrounding Lyndale Avenue dive bars and cafés and its menu includes the sorts of modern American dishes that beg for mixing and matching: bruschetta topped with roasted mushrooms, bitter greens salad, and excellent seared scallops paired with grapes and a creamy almond purée. But you’ll want to keep the burger all for yourself. • nightingalempls.com
The Gray House
Dinner at The Gray House in Lyn-Lake begins with a gratis snack plate of whatever the kitchen has whipped up—house-made Cheez-Its, anyone?—a hospitable gesture that has endeared the eatery to its neighbors. The pastas are especially strong (no surprise, chef/owner Ian Gray used to work at Tosca), and Gray is a big proponent of turning Americans on to goat, incorporating the meat in everything from burgers to breakfast burritos. • thegrayhouseeats.com
The Cossetta family opened its eponymous market in 1911, and it’s been St. Paul’s primary source for Italian food ever since. This year, the family undertook a massive expansion and added a full-service, upscale restaurant, Louis. The flagship cioppino is spendy, but it’s both delicious and abundant. • cossettas.com
One Two Three Sushi
This slick, build-your-own sushi concept—the Japanese version of Subway or Chipotle—created by the team behind Masu Sushi and Robata is rolling out new stores practically as fast as its cooks make your maki. Diners can stick with the typical sushi-roll fillings, or mix-and-match everything from lobster to green-tea-smoked chicken to Asian pear.
Hector Ruiz, chef/owner of Café Ena, put a contemporary spin on tapas when he launched this neighborhood eatery on the rincón, or corner, of 38th and Grand in south Minneapolis. He offers Spanish staples such as patatas bravas and sardines, but also reinterprets classics to create the likes of seafood-and-cheese-stuffed cannoli. • rincon38.com
Glam Doll Donuts
This pinup-themed donut shop serves its flamboyant wares—from the peanut-butter-and-sriracha Chart Topper to the maple-bacon Showgirl—until 1 a.m., Thurs.–Sat. Breakfast or dessert? • glamdolldonuts.com
East Coast transplants have long lamented the Twin Cities’ lack of truly great thin-and-chewy-crust pizza—and the ability to buy that pizza by the slice. That is, until Hello Pizza brought us slices that are short on wait time, but long on flavor. One bite of the pared-down, yet high-powered Hello Rita margherita will render that trip to Brooklyn obsolete. • hellopizza.com
Year in Review
- Figlio reborn! Former regulars dust off their shoulder pads and order the tortellini.
- Eat Shop replaces Joe Senser’s and introduces golf-cart parking lot shuttle service.
- The Gray House opens, serving three types of goat.
- New airport eats prove MSP isn’t flyover country.
- Indefatigable restaurateur Doug Anderson returns with the confusingly named The Belmore/New Skyway Lounge.
- Union introduces the country’s first retractable glass rooftop. So far, only one panel leaks.
- World Street Kitchen gets a permanent home in Lyn-Lake and brings new meaning—any meaning, perhaps—to “Minnesota Spice.”
- The Bachelor Farmer introduces food-pairing cocktails, a modern take on the three-martini lunch.
- Borough’s packed seats prove that the North Loop is still the hottest growing ’hood.
- Parka serves apple cobbler with house-made cheddar ice cream. Grandmothers call it “different.”
- Smack Shack introduces East Coast lobster boil to Twin Citians, who struggle to crack open the claws.
- Dessert masquerades as breakfast at the pinup-themed Glam Doll Donuts.
- Another old Blockbuster is reborn as a restaurant: the Edina burger joint Red Cow.
- One, Two, Three Sushi brings the Chipotle fresh fast-food model to Japanese cuisine.
- Ann Kim opens Hello Pizza less than 2 miles from her Pizzeria Lola, which sees no reduction of its crushing crowds.
- With its co-founder having departed for a pastry chef gig, Sweets Bakeshop goes under, leaving cupcake lovers without a Kettle Corn or Feisty Goat fix.
- Cossetta’s celebrates a century in business by adding a fancy new restaurant, pasticceria, and roof deck.
- Kramarczuk’s wins a James Beard award, proving sausage is the new bacon.
- Cleanse fiends reach for their $9 bottles of Truce Juice.
- The most metro-proximate plein-air pizza joint, Red Barn Pizza, opens in Northfield.
- The Broder family conquers its third corner of 50th/Penn with Terzo, run by the founders’ three sons. How long until they supplant Bruegger’s?
- Buttered Tin homemade Hostess Twinkies—Lowertown TwinKeys—do childhood nostalgia right.
- Sandcastle’s fry bread tacos prove that Lake Nokomis’s concessions can be just as hip as its west-side cousins.
- Beleaguered landmarks bow: The Lexington and Peter’s Grill fade into history.
- Marriage equality = more rainbow-colored cakes for everybody!
- Lift Bridge Brewery introduces mini-donut beer at the Minnesota State Fair.
- Eat Street Social launches its tiki-themed Torpedo Room. Barkeep Nick Kosevich manages to avoid igniting his beard on the flaming drinks.
- Travail crushes fundraising campaign, considers next goal of one MILLION dollars.
- Favorite Seward eatery True Thai closes.
- Minnesotans take over food TV with Sara Johannes dominating early Top Chef episodes and Amy Thielen launching a new Food Network series.
- The Bryant-Lake Bowl turns 20, and boy do we feel old.