Is it just us? There’s a new spark in the kitchens. A new fire being lit. Scores of new eateries hit the scene in 2014 and everyone brought game. Tons of new talent and new ideas are raising the bar on our already-happening local eating scene. We’ve got a breakfast joint revival, a classic run at Old World cuisine, a new dynamic duo hitting it big—heck, even a beachy bar with bottled cocktails. Our own Stephanie March and Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl led the effort to find the ones you definitely shouldn’t miss. Grab a pencil and start checking ’em off.
Bread is back, in a big way, whether it be gluten-free or gluten-full. Though it may be the staff of life, it certainly isn’t the only thing you’re going to eat today, right? Copper Hen is one of a new generation of bakeries that do more than just bake—they cook. This one does it with farmhouse sensibilities by paying due homage to local ingredients in a rustic space that has high ceilings and thick wood beams.
Score a great baguette and some serious rabbit liver pate to spread upon it, a benchmarking turkey and brie sandwich on toasted whole wheat, or a burger with house beer Cheez Whiz on brioche. Then there’s the satisfying and comely chicken pot pie under a buttery crust, the savory hand pies, and the bacon blueberry muffin. Also new to the bakery scene, beer and beer flights, and a Bloody Mary made with sake and topped with bacon and a bacon cupcake. Yowza.
All this forward motion, and still time to make lovely cakes in the back. Farmhouse baking and eating never looked so good. 2515 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-872-2221, copperhenkitchen.com
Chef Leonard Anderson has created an exciting, interesting, and delicious menu at this, his first solo venture. Do yourself a favor and order the entire menu of $2 “teasers” at this spot on the East Side of St. Paul. Having one or two bites of the lively scallop crudo with wasabi and apple, or the perfectly roasted pork with jalapeño, peanut, and stonefruit, should prepare you for a menu that plays to neighborhood sensibilities while also trying to elevate expectations and bring something new.
Feeling fancy? Order the grilled and roasted scallops in a smoked corn bisque. Want to be more chill? Don’t miss the beef cheek sandwich that straight-up rocks. The bar at Tongue In Cheek is fun and welcoming. During happy hour, bartenders will serve little tastes of six of their cocktails in a flight for $15, and in a brilliant move, the drinks are organized by flavor profile instead of spirit: sweet, spicy, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. While other newcomers to Payne Avenue have set the bar for new ideas, this one stretches it even further. 989 Payne Ave., St. Paul, 651-888-6148, tongueincheek.biz
If it weren’t for the location, House of Curry in Rosemount would probably have a line out the door all week. The Sri Lankan cuisine featured at this strip-mall storefront is as nuanced, complex, and multi-dimensional as any you’d find cityside. Make the drive and you will be rewarded with one surprising great dish after another—lightly fried cauliflower florets swaddled in a chili glaze, a superlative bowl of luscious creamy dahl simmered in a coconut curry sauce, sweet ’n’ sour tempered deviled lamb incorporating lean cubes of meat with tomatoes and bell peppers, and an indigenous rice noodle dish known as “string hoppers” topped with a knock-out coconut curry sauce.
Particularly of note, in contrast to so many restaurants serving dishes from this part of the world, the greasiness quotient here was almost nonexistent. Toss in a staff that is as personable and patient as can be, a decent wine and beer selection, and an adventuresome group of friends, and this outing wins top honors. 3420 150th St., #119, Rosemount, 651-344-7744, houseofcurrymn.com
This little place on Payne Avenue is a cure for heartbreak and jaded old souls. It’s a very simple lunch-and-dinner joint (which took the place of legendary Serlin’s Café), where Eddie Wu and Charles Cook work hard to welcome all walks and be a part of the neighborhood. There’s much talk among the hip kids about the tasty Korean dishes that dot the menu, but really, it’s the dedicated quality of the standard American diner eats that bring a new joy to weary bones.
The creamy chicken wild rice soup is the real deal like you’ve never had before, purely creamy in the way that wipes all memories of gummy corn-starch renditions, taking the pain away with plump hunks of tender chicken. The bread, made in-house, is sturdy and dense, and griddled to a buttery edge; now that, trendsters, is toast. The rest follows suit, from the salt-crusted roast beef on a Commercial sandwich to the honorably encrusted Monte Cristo hiding smoked ham and fontina.
All of it comes with a warm smile, especially from a deft server named Amanda who has handled the entire packed room by herself, dancing from table to table remembering people’s favorites, making sure all are served, never once showing a moment of disdain. It’s everything you really ever wanted a diner to be. 1124 Payne Ave., St. Paul, 651-756-1787, cookstp.com
The ladies who began the food truck revolution in town finally set down some roots in the metro. Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson quietly took over a little place on the edge of Seward and created Chef Shack Ranch, where the trucks could roam and the kitsch could hang. Known for creative renditions of luxury street food, and some seriously addictive Indian-spiced mini-donuts, the kitchen at the Ranch plays it a bit more reimagined Route 66.
The signature piece is the Big Boy Ranch Plate, which is basically half a sheet-pan piled with tenderly house-smoked brisket, zipped-up pulled pork, a sausage of some worth, and sundries like baked beans, a flaky biscuit, and some righteous potato salad. Then there are Trucker Fries, which are what poutine always wanted to be: addictive, meaty, saucy, righteous. But smartly, this kitchen knows where it’s parked and also offers a rock-star kale Caesar salad, curry over steamed rice, and specials like a tempeh Reuben.
It’s a tiny, counter-service spot that does a load of takeout, but don’t let that fool you: This is high-class low-class cooking. In an era where chefs are prone to take themselves too seriously, this place is refreshingly homey. 3025 Franklin Ave. E., Mpls., 612-354-2575, chefshackranch.com
How long has it been since anyone not turning 21 has been excited about hitting Uptown to eat? In 2014, Uptown eating came back, and you can trace that almost entirely to the opening of Coup d’État. The same team who dropped Borough and Parlour Bar in the fast-changing North Loop, tapped into the new flow in Uptown.
Turns out, high-end apartment dwellers want more than chicken wings, so chefs Tyler Shipton and Nick O’Leary give them beautiful octopus seasoned with harissa for their small-plates pleasures. Since you can’t impress your date with Red Bull vodkas anymore, bar wizard Jesse Held created the Duck Duck Grey Duck—a take on the Old Fashioned with Earl Grey tea-infused tequila. In fact, it is the bar that is often the focus of Coup, where up-and-coming commercial real estate mavens mingle with future law firm partners.
The 200-seat design is striking: two stories of modern elegance, providing the perfect backdrop for seeing and being seen. But this isn’t all stuffy seriousness or foodie snobbery, it’s more serious fun. You can walk up to a window at Coup d’État late night on weekends and get cheese curds and a sandwich. Call it cliché to point out that Coup d’État is leading a coup of its own in Uptown, but it’s also true. Happy to join the revolution. 2923 Girard Ave. S., Mpls., 612-354-3575, coupdetatmpls.com
You’d think, with our frosty climes, that we’d be replete with tropical-like eateries where one might stop in mid-January and shed one’s parka for a moment to remember what July feels like. Maybe Hola Arepa can fix that. Born from Christina Nguyen and Birk Grudem’s very popular street food truck, this Caribbean-blue painted escape delivers that vacation vibe on plates brimming with food from the warmer cultures.
Arepas are griddled corn cakes stuffed with all manner of richly braised meats, then decked with bits of sunshine such as mango cilantro sauce, pink pickled onions, cotija cheese, and chipotle aioli. Utterly warming from your gut on up. Don’t ignore the plantain tostadas topped with braised beef, fried arepa balls stuffed with goat cheese and jalapeño, and yucca fries with sauces to dip them in. Another thing you can’t ignore is the bar. The very accomplished crew includes Dan Oskey, who has created a ton of bottled cocktails, which means you don’t have to wait for your high-class drink to be mixed. Just pop the top and sip.
When the sun is hot and the windows/walls are thrown open, this is your good-time beach bar. The great news is that, due to the hospitality of the staff and the friendliness of the menu, it feels the same when the windows are closed. 3501 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls., 612-345-5583, holaarepa.com
Ever seen Loring Park in the snow? The snow sparkles; the streetlights twinkle. It’s one of the prettiest and most romantic spots in all of Minneapolis—and now it has all sorts of new tables with a view, boasting the food of young talent Lucas Almendinger. What’s on those tables? Check our review for details. 1612 Harmon Pl., Mpls., 612-767-9495, thethirdbirdmpls.com
The original Sonora Grill counter has been one of the highlights of the Midtown Global Market since 2011, serving modern and playful dishes with an infusion of Spanish, Mexican, and South American flavors. But when co-owners Alejandro Castillon and Conrado Badilla took over a former East Lake Street Embers and put in a full-fledged Sonora Grill restaurant—boy, howdy! What a restaurant. It’s one of those spots where everything goes right, and it’s cheaper than you have any right to expect. The complimentary chips (thick chips that crack with a beautiful freshness when you bite them) and salsa (dark, smoky, and bitter) are some of the best in town. Chilaquiles, made with trembling eggs on top of those thick chips soaked in a tart salsa of your choice, are the ideal combination of bold and comforting. The short ribs are beefy and lush, the massive seafood plate ($45 for four or five people) is gorgeous. The big bonus is the bar program with crave-able margaritas made with fresh-pressed juices and a serious eye to ingredients. Nothing short of an instant classic, it makes you feel grateful, and breathless for the next visit. 3300 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-722-2500, sonora-grill.com
The Rabbit Hole’s location in an office building/condo/community-market complex had the hardcore eating set worried that the owners of the Left Handed Cook would never turn it up to 11. Fears allayed. Thomas Kim and Kat Melgaard have retained the humming undercurrent of punk-rock food and managed to keep their burger-loving loyalists happy, while continuing to dial it up and up again at this Koreatown-flavored joint.
Once they folded the counter-service of Left Handed Cook into the space, it all came together. They added a section called To Share or Not To Share of small plates that blaze with creative flavor and quirky attitude. Van Damme Good Brussels play bacon against orange and mint to elevate this ubiquitous dish. Hot Tails pairs crisp pig tails with ginger sauce. Return of the Mack places broiled mackerel on Asian greens, with a deeply flavored gochujang and brightly fermented Yuzu.
This isn’t to say that the burgers (a.k.a. Goobers) should be ignored, not when they’re topped with luscious hits of bourbon onions, kimchi aioli, pickled watermelon rinds, and seared pork belly (why not?). All this fun can only be matched, and then exceeded after about an hour, by the cocktails. That same flavor-driving force in the kitchen hustles the drinks and thinks nothing of using fat-washed tequila in a margarita, peppercorns and Chartreuse in a gin and tonic, and Besk/Malort (with caution). The beauty of all this is that it truly feels like they are just getting started. 920 E. Lake St., #101, Mpls., 612-236-4526, eatdrinkrabbit.com
It’s about time that Tim McKee got back in the game: Take that James Beard Award out for a drive and see what happens! Not that he’s been sitting on his laurels since his big win in 2009, but with all the movement in modern dining since then, we were getting a bit itchy to see what he had up his sleeve.
Enter Libertine, the total overhaul of the Uptown Cafeteria space, and McKee’s first real creation within the structure of Parasole Restaurant Holdings. With Uptown caught among the new condo dwellers, the dude-bro bar hoppers, and the lake-mansion set, Libertine shows up as a cool new crossroads. Casual bar culture and communal tables make it an easy mix ’n’ match for the young and hungry. But the food is for real, a serious statement about where casual dining can go: affordable, meaty, eclectic, innovative.
The bacon chop is a fat slab of pork with just the right touch of smoke. Feather steak is an under-$20 alternative cut that is given due respect. Tasty bits like fried baby artichokes and crab salad with avocado deliver blissfully fresh on the non-meat side. If this is the new paradigm of what a Parasole restaurant as driven by McKee could be, count us as waiting for more with baited breath. 3001 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-877-7263, libertinempls.com
It’s nothing short of a massive undertaking. Russell and Desta Klein, those longtime icons of St. Paul dining and creators of Meritage, finally jumped the river this year and came to Minneapolis, announcing their presence with authority. In one fell swoop they created three intricate, sophisticated, unique dining places that bring something entirely new to the city.
The skyway’s Café Zentral is a lunch spot leagues above anything else you can find in the Habitrail, with cured salmon salads, crisp-edged panini oozing with Gruyére and smoked mushrooms, and a miraculous München dog that is a sausage encased in a toasted pretzel bun. Then there’s Foreign Legion, a dark, bohemian wine- and cheese-focused bar that feels secret and hidden like you are actually on holiday eating a tableful of raclette and carafes of wine. Dear God, where are we? Finally, there’s the grand dame, Brasserie Zentral, which is stately, substantial, and ultimately welcoming, like a good Austrian should be. With a menu focused on central European dishes, the plates dance between rustic and refined, but always nourish.
In our dining landscape where people often complain of frivolity and the need to stop for pizza after a modern small-plates dinner, Brasserie Zentral is an island of contentment. It feeds your soul with tender, rich pork cheeks braised in Maibock beer, a whole roasted chicken stuffed with silky foie gras, and little spaetzle nubs dancing with braised rabbit in a light-handed cheese sauce that warms you from your toes. A huge feat, this collection dazzles and fortifies at the same time, as do the Kleins in their commitment to delivering high-quality hospitality. 505 Marquette Ave. S., Mpls., 612-333-0505, zentral-mpls.com; 105 S. 5th St., 612-333-0505, foreignlegion-mpls.com; 5th and Marquette skyway level, 612-520-7686, zentral-mpls.com/cafe
Imagine a great white shark trying to break through the floor of a glass-bottom boat. Now imagine that the shark finally crashes through, and it’s the best thing to happen all year. It sounds silly, but for the past five years that’s what the career of red-hot cooking talent Jim Christiansen, young protégé of Tim McKee, has been like: a powerful, almost dangerously talented chef making the best boned-out pig’s foot (that no one would order) at the ill-fated Il Gatto, and carrots that blew up your understanding of carrots (that no one would order) at the ill-fated Union. We began to wonder if Christiansen would ever have a restaurant where he could do what he was capable of for customers who would appreciate him.
Then Christiansen and longtime friend and fellow La Belle Vie alum Lorin Zinter opened Heyday. Their place hums with laid-back, cool-kid confidence and hospitality that emanate from the entire team. This is a place where they want to be; this is a place where you want to be—with barn wood and sexy giant paintings on the walls, the Replacements and the Cure on the sound-system, and nothing but audacity on the plates.
Audacity like half-frozen mussels served on a razor-clam gelatin, buttressed with cucumbers, and buried in snow generated by freezing razor-clam emulsion with liquid nitrogen. Audacity like roast squab balanced on a delicate field of tiny beet and hibiscus spheres. Audacity like a bowl of ice cream that looks like a crumpled-up second-grader’s art project, but tastes like a grownup’s lollapalooza sundae with red paper made from rhubarb, black sculptural clumps fashioned from brewer’s licorice, and a bunch of other scribbly adornments crowning hay-scented crème fraîche ice cream.
Having roared and gnashed his way to freedom, what will this great white shark of a chef do next? Who knows! But we’ve never felt such great curiosity, excitement, and desire to find out what’s going to happen next to someone who’s been trying to smash into our lives for years. 2700 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-200-9369, heydayeats.com
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