Pat Weber is probably best remembered for his time as the chef at Mojito, the early 2000s-era churrascaria that is now a CVS in St. Louis Park. When the restaurant failed, instead of seeking another flashy gig in the kitchen, he decided to go to work behind the scenes of the industry. It’s a decision that has given him more muscle and a greater impact on the dining scene than if he’d stuck it out behind another set of stoves.
In fact, today Weber’s food is all over town, though you won’t find his name on a menu or being tossed around in any of our reviews. As one of the Twin Cities’ most sought-after restaurant consultants, he has had a hand in many well-known restaurant openings. Smack Shack, The Buttered Tin, and Kaskaid’s new Boneyard all have a bit of Weber on the menu. He’s the consultant owners bring in to help round out the menu, deliver insightful counterpoints, and provide some outside perspective on the concept. “Every once in a while a client has this great idea that may not actually be so great at all,” he says. “I have to sort of dance around it to try and make it better. Or I have to simply tell them, ‘You really don’t want to do that,’ because they don’t pay me to lie to them.”
His other job may have an even greater impact, though. As an instructor for the Art Institute’s culinary program, Weber is helping to shape the next generation of Twin Cities chefs. “I see far more talent coming into the industry, and it’s evolving at a much faster pace than it was in the past,” he says. “When I was a line cook, the chefs that taught me, such as Jay Sparks at Azur, were more classically rooted—there were more restraints. Now chefs avoid confinement; they’re all over the map.”
To his students, Weber’s experience in the industry gives him valuable street cred, but it’s his easy-going personality, the “Hey dude” vibe, that makes them truly listen. What he’s teaching these kids (and maybe a few restaurant owners along the way) is that success is better defined by what challenges you and what you put out into the world—whether or not your name is ever in lights.
There’s a new fish purveyor in town, and it’s a game changer: Ocean Providence, whose other locations are in Las Vegas and New York, is one of the country’s best importers, thanks to partnerships in Japan that give it a direct link to Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market. On a nearly daily basis, you can find folks from OP at the airport picking up shipments of high-quality fish from around the globe, fish that haven’t graced local plates before. And whether it’s third-generation farm-raised bluefin tuna, kampachi yellowtail, prized uni, or huge mackerel (all of which were swimming the day before), they can be found in the OP cooler. So how did world-famous fishmongers end up in land-locked MSP? Because Hisashi Horibe, who runs this outpost, is betting that Japanese investments in North Dakota energy futures will drive sushi consumption in the northern states. Whatever the reason, Twin Cities restaurants—and local diners’ palates—are reaping the benefits.
Let’s take a moment to understand that the chefs behind Travail, namely Mike Brown, James Winberg, Bob Gerken, and Kale Thome, have done something extraordinary. They essentially built three restaurants in nine months—with their own hands.
When the team decided to close Travail in Robbinsdale, they turned the space into Pig Ate My Pizza. Though it was mostly a cosmetic change, they built the new tables and installed equipment themselves. Turns out they were just getting started.
Not long after, they took a stripped-bare chicken shack in north Minneapolis and—in nine days—turned it into another fully functioning restaurant, Umami.
While that was happening, they were also building another new place: a newer, bigger version of Travail, one that would also have a cocktail bar and a whole other restaurant attached, called The Rookery.
In a spot just a few doors down from their original space, the team took an old building down to its foundation, dug a basement, and then proceeded to recreate the whole thing according to their own vision: pouring concrete, sealing floors, tiling, grouting, framing, building walls, landscaping. Anything that didn’t require an official tradesman (like an electrician), they did themselves—all the while cooking at various local pop-up restaurants and charity dinners.
Why do it? Why go through all the work and aggravation? For these guys, the more appropriate question is “Why not?”
While some foodists love to wax on about creation, process, and handcrafting, these guys barely have time to define their boundaries as they’re blowing past them. There’s no fear, no food-world convention they care to coddle, just like in their cooking. Once, when plotting a dinner for a charity event, Brown wondered if the organization might have a problem if he set the table on fire so that guests could cook something. There’s little doubt that no other chef in the room wondered that.
Through all the smoke and insanity, it’s that sense of fearlessness that is at the root of their process, a method that has ripped the roof off of our scene and continues to redefine what cooking and eating means in this town.
When you see the new Travail, you’ll notice a four-seat counter in the corner. It’s there so that other chefs can come in and work if they’re between gigs or just feel like doing something different. For these guys, the question isn’t why they would let someone else use their precious dining space. It’s why wouldn’t they?
It’s a powerhouse at the height of its powers, the best restaurant between Chicago and the West Coast. And it’s not just because of the food, which is at once delicate, lilting, and vigorous. La Belle Vie has turned into one of those spots where the sum is much greater than the parts, and that’s due to the team, a core group that has been working together for 16 years or more. The servers understand the food, the cooks understand chef-owner Tim McKee’s perspective, and everyone is confident enough in their work and consistency to build on that foundation—and take risks. The 13-course grand tasting menus offer all the theater of actual theater, but with all the joy of food. Stability and longevity are not much celebrated in restaurant culture, but it’s the combination of people working in concert at La Belle Vie that makes it such an impeccable joy. 510 Groveland Ave., Mpls., 612-874-6440, labellevie.us
One afternoon last year, I sat at the bar of Victory 44 waiting for a friend. It was the middle of the afternoon, well past lunchtime, but my pal was late. I ordered a few plates and watched as two cooks—a woman with serious knives and a young man cracking wise—danced around each other, carefully and casually creating a plate that took my breath away. Bits of perfectly cooked rabbit sat among curls of zucchini and swaths of tart berry coulis. Six months on, I still think about that dish: how simple and exciting it was, how unexpected and comforting, and how it totally represents what I’ve come to expect from Victory 44. 2203 44th Ave. N., Mpls., 612-588-2228, victory-44.com
Dinner with new friends? Trying to impress an out-of-town foodie or a picky in-law? Go to Corner Table. Since buying the tiny south Minneapolis restaurant two years ago, Nick and Chenny Rancone have quietly made it shine. It helps that one of them is always working the room, and that Thomas Boemer is an exceptional chef. How do you not order the housemade bologna sandwich topped with a fried egg? Or the crispy pork belly served over pickled cabbage? Perfect food. Excellent service. Trust me, the in-laws will thank you. 4257 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-823-0011, cornertablerestaurant.com
There is an apples-to-apples problem inherent in any “best” list: It’s one thing to compare La Belle Vie to Vincent. It’s another to compare it to a small family-owned and operated scratch kitchen. Shouldn’t those restaurants make the cut when the quality of their food merits inclusion? I think they should, which is why Marla’s deserves to be here; I think it is better than half the well-known white-tablecloth restaurants in town. The food is honest and well-prepared, unique and wholesome, and the entire experience envelops you in a warm embrace of hospitality. Marla wants you to be happy when you are under her roof—and with one nibble of her roti, you will be. 3761 Bloomington Ave., Mpls., 612-724-3088, marlascuisine.com
The food at Grand Szechuan is some of the most authentic fare to be found in the Twin Cities, particularly when it comes to the restaurant’s extensive selection of Szechuan specialties. My favorite: the Chung King chili shrimp: a pairing of fresh, lightly battered jumbo shrimp and hot peppers tossed in sauce with an amazing breadth and depth of flavor. And while nose-to-tail cooking has become au courant in recent years, the wok stars in the kitchen at Grand Szechuan have been serving up tripe, tendon, kidney, belly, and ears for years. 10602 France Ave. S., Bloomington, 952-888-6507, grandszechuanmn.com
Though I live far from Seward, Birchwood is my neighborhood place. The minute I enter, I can relax in the vibe of this artful, simple café, where I often bump into old friends in line. Chef Marshall Paulsen’s vibrant menu matches the welcoming scene, from the seasonal savory waffles (fresh corn-studded cornmeal beauties in August; kale, kernza, and fontina in January) to the burger favored by my son or the tempeh tacos beloved by his vegan girlfriend. I go for the delicate, flaky hand-pie stuffed with roasted squash and creamy gruyere and brightened with tangy cranberry gastrique. 3311 E. 25th St., Mpls., 612-722-4474, birchwoodcafe.com