1. Gavin Kaysen
2. Russell Klein
3. Isaac Becker
2. Potter's Pasties
3. Tot Boss
1. The Lexington
3. Saint Dinette/Upton 43
1. Gluten-Free Everything
3. Food Trucks
3. Authentic Anything
Burch Steakhouse feels fantastic these days. The light-filled room glimmers like something in Paris, and servers read guests like old hands. The food is a notch better than that, sensuous and precisely arranged. The menu is equal parts finely prepared meat and potatoes (steak, mashed spuds with poutine sauce) and chef-driven foodie adventure land (uszka, Polish mushroom dumplings, in aspic with kelp or foie gras boudin blanc). How does one restaurant straddle these two vastly different worlds? “There needs to be things that I would order,” explains chef and owner Isaac Becker. “Sure, it costs more money and it’s harder to have a big menu, but when I go out to eat, I don’t get the chicken or the shrimp. I order the things I haven’t tried before. If you go with a big group, with your family, chances are half of them won’t want sweetbreads. But if I’m part of that group, I do. Every time I’m at Burch now and I watch the food go out, I think: ‘This is a place I’d want to eat if I didn’t own it.’” That goes double for the rest of us. ✚ 1933 Colfax Ave. S., Mpls., 612-843-1515, burchrestaurant.com
Take note of who is in the oh-so-tiny kitchen at Tilia; it’s very likely they’ll end up behind their own line someday. Steven Brown has had a hand in the careers of many of the big names on these pages—at Porter & Frye alone he hired Erik Anderson and Jamie Malone, Doug Flicker, and a couple Travailians, to name a few. Since Tilia has settled into its Linden Hills neighborhood, Brown’s tendency to lead and mentor has only grown deeper, from the farmers’ market he helped establish to the outdated laws restricting liquor licenses that he helped abolish. So when you see him standing at the pass, proofing a plate of lighter-than-air gnocchi or a sturdy jerk chicken thigh that can never leave the menu, you know that this undercurrent of support and trust is part of what keeps this place clicking. Fresh ideas from fresh cooks will be nurtured and honed into plates that continue to define this warm and friendly place. This is of great importance as it leaves Brown free to undertake another adventure, creating St. Genevieve in the former Lynn on Bryant space, while knowing that Tilia is at once and always in safe hands. ✚ 2726 W. 43rd St., Mpls., 612-354-2806, tiliampls.com
It’s important to understand that Heyday may not be for everyone. You’re not going to find a burger on the menu. If you’re looking for a big old bowl of pasta, you’ll have to look elsewhere. What you will find here though is adventure and discovery. Jim Christiansen is as creative and innovative as any artist, any app developer, any young breakout who just sees the world differently and has finally figured out how to convey it. The dishes at Heyday don’t need to be fussy or bizarre, a simple plate of roasted vegetables is wholly driven to new heights with bagna cauda butter and a smattering of charred herbs, all so delicate and elemental on their own, but together becoming a fresh force. A hearty blend of rabbit loin and ham form the Rabbit Royale, with crumbled bits of house-made Cheez-Its, because all of this cleverness is not without a sense of humor. It all plays into the restaurant’s mission, to keep edgy and innovative dining as fun and accessible as possible. When you’ve already eaten burgers and pasta for the week, head to Heyday and see what’s next.✚ 2700 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-200-9369, heydayeats.com
It’s a funny thing when a restaurant changes ownership and chefs, but soldiers on with the name. The original CT was widely acclaimed for being a force in establishing the local farm-to-table movement. When it changed hands and came under the watchful and eager eyes of Nick and Chenny Rancone and chef Thomas Boemer, what was already a great restaurant bloomed. The ingredients are still lovingly chosen for farm freshness and local pedigree, but that is just the beginning. These humble bits are transformed into dishes that, under Boemer’s classically trained touch, sing with skill and technique while remaining both familiar and thrilling. A ravioli sits simply in rich broth until you crack it open and the soft egg inside melds into the golden liquid. This is the definition of CT, in the new space that is refined, but at its best when packed with joyous eaters. The hospitality is palpable, with Nick running from table to table pouring beautiful wines from a spectacular list, and servers greeting regulars like old friends. While this place keeps humming, just down the block, in the original CT space, a southern kitchen called Revival is being built to showcase Boemer’s home-spun fascinations: fried chicken, buttery biscuits, and slow-cooked pork. You can imagine the commitment to quality will have that one blooming, too. ✚ 4537 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls., 612-823-0011, cornertablerestaurant.com
It’s going to be a watershed year for Restaurant Alma, the sustainable, intuitive, and easy-feeling restaurant from which chef and owner Alex Roberts has made his empire (Brasa) and name (a James Beard Award). Here’s what’s coming: Sometime later this year, the coffee shop next door will be replaced with Café Alma, an all-day eatery with a full bar program. Roberts wants to turn the area above the eateries into a six-room inn. (This hinges on city council approval.) Why all the changes? Partly so that the various employees who have been sticking at Roberts’ side for 11, 12, and 13 years can have a new job to grow into, and partly so that loyal guests who want Alma classics like the clam stew with homemade chorizo and white beans can get them whenever they want—freeing the original restaurant for further cheffy explorations. “The challenge for us,” Roberts says, “is how do you grow and change, how do you keep a culture where people can thrive and grow and learn—without creating complacency in the kitchen, and giving the customers what they want?” That is indeed the million-dollar question, and 2015 is the year that Alma tries to answer it. ✚ 528 University Ave. SE, Mpls., 612-379-4909, restaurantalma.com
It is no small undertaking to create the biggest oyster festival in the metro, flying in thousands of fresh bivalves for a hungry crowd of slurpers as Russell and Desta Klein have done for three years. But it’s an even bigger accomplishment to do this just a few months after opening a sister complex of eateries (Brasserie Zentral, et al.) across the river. But Meritage would not be forgotten. It sits comfortably in the middle of downtown St. Paul, confidently and assuredly serving the eaters who have come to wear down the floor tile by pushing their chairs back from a great meal, again and again. Indeed, you can easily rely on the French bistro for your pre-Wild or post-Wits noshing because amid the chaos of expansion, Klein and his team have kept the place humming. Checking in for a soul-satisfying cassoulet or a benchmark steak frites, not to mention a round or six of those oysters, just feels like coming home. ✚ 410 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651-222-5670, meritage-stpaul.com
There’s nothing that can really prepare you for a meal at Travail, unless you’ve been there. It is, by leaps and bounds, the most creative and unique dining experience in the entire state, maybe even the five-state area. And that is because a meal in the hands of Mike Brown, James Winberg, Bob Gerken, and their crew is free of convention, free of restraint, and free of the need to meet your expectations, which they then blow by at the speed of light. Take part in the coursed Travail tasting menu, and you are in for a show. It’s a dance of chefs and plates that is skillfully and joyfully choreographed, down to the mariachi band and the slices of meat hanging above your head (which you are to eat hands-free, like a fish on the line). It is a gleeful surrender that you can trust. But if you feel the need for a bit more control, there’s also The Rookery, which is the open-menu dining room on the back end of the space. There, you can construct your own joyful experience by ordering plate by plate of the same mind-blowing food. ✚ 4124 Broadway Ave. W., Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131
Lenny Russo is not afraid of change. First he creates an iconic restaurant that celebrates the bounty of our local ingredients in a singularly spectacular way, then he moves it to a bigger space downtown. Next, he adds an in-house butchery and tacks on a farm-direct market, offering his great ingredients to home cooks. But the neighborhood is about to change around Heartland, with the addition of the new Saints ballpark. And Russo is up to the challenge. He’s already debuted a new and fresh burger menu in the bar, with a richly turned pork burger under a mantle of cheddar, not to mention a corn dog you can trust. The market is also getting a makeover with additional seating and more casual eats for not only Saints fans, but also the growing number of loft-dwellers choosing this neighborhood. All the while, managing this change, Russo and his team continue to put forth a menu of elegantly plated flora and fauna from within our reach. Whether it’s rabbit loin on winter vegetable hash, or hot and sour soup with cured duck egg yolks, we can all be grateful that Russo doesn’t sit on his laurels. ✚ 289 E. 5th St., St. Paul, 651-699-3536, heartlandrestaurant.com
The thing about these guys is that they just keep chugging. A few restaurant closings in their past has not deterred them. Instead, it’s done nothing but make them stronger, more agile, and assured. Perched on the hill that makes the sunset view from the balcony seating a honeymoon postcard of St. Paul, this tiny shop brims with attitude, hospitality, loyalty, and meat. Owner Tim Niver waits tables while chef and co-owner JD Fratzke leads a kitchen of cohorts who know how to richly gild the two paths to any hedonist’s heart: beef and brunch. For the beefy, it might be a delicate beef tartare, a heartier 10-ounce strip, or a stacked burger. For the brunchy, it might be the Instagram-able house-made donuts (a limited amount, get them before others do) or the Logger’s Tower stack of pancakes, grilled ham, and fried eggs, which, in the end, seduce you, laughing all the way. This generous mirth will undoubtedly be carried down the hill when the team opens Saint Dinette this year off of the St. Paul Farmers’ Market. It will be more ambitious in size and a challenge to create the same homey familiarity that has turned their regulars into acolytes, but then again, when have these guys backed down from a challenge? ✚ 378 Maria Ave., St. Paul, 651-793-6247, domeats.com
Sameh Wadi is one busy local chef. Along with his brother Saed, he owns and operates three highly regarded dining spots—Saffron, World Street Kitchen, and the WSK food truck. He’s battled on Iron Chef America against the rarely conquered Masaharu Morimoto and lost by a scant five points, despite the secret ingredient being fish, Morimoto’s comfort category. He’s produced a line of spices called Spice Trail, was nominated for a James Beard Rising Star Chef award in 2012, and he’s publishing a cookbook, The New Mediterranean Table. Last, but not least, he regularly contributes to many of the collaborative dining fundraisers that are a distinctive facet of our thriving food scene. There’s no question that both chef Wadi and Saffron deserve to be included in the top echelon of any “Best of the Twin Cities” rankings. Wadi has a special talent for the deft use of spices, whether it’s how he uses them in his multiple takes on hummus or the superlative ras el hanout spiced duck meatballs or the magical black truffle-taleggio cheese fondue that flavors his version of sauteed Parisian gnocchi. Just about every bite of his preparations is a flavor epiphany. ✚ 123 N. 3rd St., Mpls., 612-746-5533, saffronmpls.com
Every Thursday, for the more than five years since it opened, one table at Piccolo has been occupied by Doug and Jerry, a couple on a regular date night. What could sustain a diner’s attention through some 270 visits? Plenty. Chef and owner Doug Flicker’s menu has veered over the years from the precise, detailed, yet lyrical exploration of organ meats to the disciplined, adventurous, and sensuous deep fascination with smaller birds. In fact, why not treat yourself to an exploration of small birds, as Doug and Jerry might? Start with roasted carrots with foie gras and duck fat powder, proceed to scrambled eggs with pickled pigs feet and young chicken with chestnuts and ham hock jelly, and move on to dry-aged squab with maitake mushrooms in sherry and black garlic. As you eat, you will discover why the city’s smallest restaurant is undeniably one of its best. “As you live in a restaurant kitchen, you learn to use it better,” Flicker says. “You can put out better and more intense food just in the way you use the space. I’m touched at how many people have committed so much of the time in their lives to that little restaurant. It’s a tiny shining star. It’s my happy place.” And for Doug and Jerry, and many thousands more. ✚ 4300 Bryant Ave. S., Mpls., 612-827-8111, piccolompls.com
Did we all get a little nervous when Gavin Kaysen came to town and poached two of LBV’s big talents? (Namely affable front-of-house manager and wine-freak Bill Summerville and dessert savant Diane Yang.) This after Johnny Michaels had left the bar. Suddenly, our old favorite spot for glam and elegance seemed in question. Would it, could it ever be the same? Well, no. But what if it’s better? Managing director Matthew Anderson is a gracious and seasoned presence in the dining room, with a bright smile and generous nature. Niki Francioli, no slouch in the pastry department herself, has taken the sweet end of the meal to new heights. Adam Gorski, in the bar, is an old-school soul with the mind of an innovator. He understands the unique hospitality required by a barman. Underneath all of this wobbly disquiet has been the kitchen of Mike DeCamp (a.k.a. YC) and Tim McKee. They never waivered, never sidestepped, just kept creating mind-blowing dishes that crush the definition of fine dining, from butter-poached lobster with kale tortellini on the grand tasting menu to crispy-fried pouisson legs (the most sophisticated fried chicken for your bubbles, ahem) on the bar menu. Even with YC’s fresh departure for the Hotel Ivy, you can be assured there is nothing but an exhilarating next dance for this old girl. ✚ 510 Groveland Ave., Mpls., 612-874-6440, labellevie.us
Isaac Becker’s freshman effort is still one of the best places in downtown Minneapolis to hunker down for a bit of late-night noshing. The kitchen is open until midnight through the week, and 1 am on weekends for not only the legendary burger, but frog legs, Chinese fried eggs, signature steak tartare, pan-fried gnocchi, and more things way better than a run to the border. ✚ 112 N. 3rd St., Mpls., 612-343-7696, 112eatery.com
Maybe you’ve started taking it for granted, this North Loop spot that consistently creates delicious dishes honoring our Nordic heritage. That would be a shame, because it is fresh and seasonal, from a full menu of tomato dishes celebrating the height of summer to grilled lamb chops and caramelized rutabaga to tuck you in during the winter. As the restaurant prepares to open an annex café for lunch and breakfast, you’ll come for a fresh look and remember what you’ve almost forgotten— to eat here. ✚ 50 2nd Ave. N., Mpls., 612-206-3920, thebachelorfarmer.com
It really should be no surprise that this venerable Isaac Becker spot regularly tops our Readers’ Poll year after year. An evening at Bar La Grassa is a solid bet for perfectly prepared Italian dishes, served by a loyal and dedicated team who know hospitality. Whether you’re still gaga for the soft eggs and lobster, need your fix of pillowy gnocchi with cauliflower, or just crave a plate of foie gras meatballs, you are justified in coming back time after time. BLG has become an institution in our local dining scene. ✚ 800 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-333-3837, barlagrassa.com
Tracy Singleton and Marshall Paulsen pack a powerful one-two punch. The duo took the well-worn neighborhood café and gave it a loving refresher. The space is now modern with clean lines, yet remains cozy and relaxed. More seating, a private room in the back, and a communal table round out the vibe that pairs perfectly with locally sourced and thoughtfully prepared food. ✚ 3311 E. 25th St., Mpls., 612-722-4474, birchwoodcafe.com
Anthracite doesn’t mean much to most Minnesotans, this is taconite country, after all. But when it comes to pizza, the clean-burning, red-hot coal produces amazing crusts at Black Sheep. Chef Jordan Smith somehow manages to create a chewy crust, with coal-kissed crispness. The toppings are first rate. Now with a third location on Eat Street, and an expanded menu that includes wood-grilled meats, Black Sheep is well on its way to dominating what’s become a truly excellent Twin Cities pizza scene. ✚ 600 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-342-2625; 512 N. Robert St., St. Paul, 651-227-4337; 2550 Nicollet Ave., 612-866-1233, Mpls.; blacksheeppizza.com
Though the chefs may have shuffled, Borough remains one of the best places to hang in the North Loop. Diners gather at big tables in the buzzy room for Drew Yancey’s imaginatively turned seasonal plates that surprise yet satisfy. Downstairs, Parlour Bar is a dark den where the kids go for crafted cocktails and a chill vibe (not to mention the legendary Parlour-only burger that has a cultish following). During summer, the loading dock patio bar is the perfect place to grab a chair and relish the richness of city living. ✚ 730 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-354-3135, boroughmpls.com
It doesn’t get much simpler than pulled pork, chicken, and smoked beef. But super-chef Alex Roberts gives it his magic touch with slow roasting, deeply seasoning, and perfectly executing. Crispy yucca, roasted yams and sausage, collard greens with smoked chicken! Roberts designed this place for his family, so lucky for all of ours. ✚ 600 Hennepin Ave. E., Mpls., 612-379-3030; 777 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651-224-1302; brasa.us
The Kleins took on a massive project last year by crossing over into Minneapolis and creating Zentral. Not only did they birth a fine-dining spot, but they also added a separate wine bar and skyway café, just for fun. More importantly, they brought to our scene a first: Central European–inspired food that hearkens to our heritage, but thrills in modern-day presentations. In true brasserie fashion, it has become a warm and buzzy spot where you can be well fed and soul satisfied at once. ✚ 505 Marquette Ave. S., Mpls., 612-333-0505, zentral-mpls.com
The Broders clan seems well poised to keep trucking into the next century. South Minneapolis would not be the same without the pasta bar and its no-reservations neighborhood charm. The menu is reinvigorated every time the family heads to Italy and returns inspired. Cucina is a place where kids who’ve grown up on the pizza slices come back as adults to stack their own larders with spicy olive oils, cured meats, and stunningly fresh house-made mascarpone. ✚ 5000 Penn Ave. S., Mpls., 612-925-9202; 2308 W. 50th St., Mpls., 612-925-3113; broders.com
How can you possibly have any argument against a place that keeps the beer garden open year-round. In Minnesota. “Live full boar” is not only its motto, it’s a religion. Wild boar head cheese, turkey braunschweiger, and a veritable river’s worth of bourbon are not for the meek. Sure, you can get wood-grilled oysters and addictive-with-a-health-halo red-hot Brussels sprouts, but what you really want is the smoked beef long rib. ✚ 1121 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-238-8888, butcherandtheboar.com
Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson were among the first in town to peddle luxury street food from a truck. Now with a fleet, they’ve set their sites on more permanent footings. Chef Shack Bay City is a Twin Citian’s day-trip spot that will not disappoint. The seasonal food is made with soul and the surroundings couldn’t be more relaxing—the backyard pizza oven situation alone is worth a summer evening. In the metro, Chef Shack Ranch keeps it all together with cowgirl-chic and smoky meats, not to mention your Indian-spiced donut fix in winter. ✚ 3025 Franklin Ave. E., Mpls., 612-354-2575; 6379 Main St., Bay City, Wis., 715-594-3060; chefshackranch.com
When it comes to Ethiopian cuisine, this is the hands-down winner. An East African meal is a fun and unique experience. Assorted vegetables, lentils, and meats simmered in complex gravies are arranged on a large piece of spongy indigenous flatbread called injera that you tear off in strips to convey bite-sized portions of food from the platter to your mouth. It can be a messy challenge—and to be respectful, only your right hand should be used—but you’ll be rewarded with an amazing spectrum of tastes and textures. ✚ 510 Snelling Ave. N., St. Paul, 651-646-4747
Landon Schoenefeld remains the king of Gen Y chefs. He gives no flying figs and proves it with his undeniably great, no-rules, no-apologies cooking. You see it most during the brunch crowd raging every weekend when young attractives with hangovers and good taste recap the morning-after play-by-plays. Schoenefeld is in the window during those brunches, plating the pig in a blanket (with smoked pork and poblano gravy) or homemade cinnamon toast crunch on panna cotta, just happy to hang out with good friends and good food. ✚ 119 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-338-8484, haute-dish.com
Need a sunny spot to land and perhaps change your mood or adjust your levels? Just off of I-35W, you can escape to the tropical tones of this small place where simple arepas are stuffed with richly braised meats, accompanied by cocktails of all hues and strengths that come quickly to your spot. Brunch has become an equally great divergent from the arrival of the Sunday night blues with the fried chicken on a sweet corn cake alongside eggs, bacon, and chipotle-maple syrup. ✚ 3501 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-345-5583, holaarepa.com
If you’re in to music and care a lick about what you actually lick, Icehouse has your ticket. The stage hosts acts from gospel to rock with a menu that is equally as thrilling. Chef Matt Bickford brings the heft of a serious kitchen to this house of merriment. His food is playful but dead-on in technique. We’ve all waxed rhapsodic about the foie burger and the wicked wings, but don’t overlook plates like smoked potato gnocchi or lamb carpaccio with tzatziki. ✚ 2528 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls., 612-276-6523, icehousempls.com
There is nothing more glorious than all-day brunch. And there may be nowhere as snug and welcoming as the House of Plaid that is The Kenwood. Don Saunders took one of those never-successful restaurant spaces and created a new classic. Day-eaters gather for leisurely meals with stunning plates like the huevos rancheros heaped with braised pork and soft eggs or sturdy pancakes touched with black walnut butter or a luscious Kenwood burger with pork belly and fried egg. Oh, and yes, dinner is worth staying for, too. ✚ 2115 W. 21st St., Mpls., 612-377-3695, thekenwoodrestaurant.com
Libertine’s brunch gives the people what they want (bottomless bloody marys and mimosas). This goes hand-in-hand with giving the people what they didn’t know they wanted—and after tasting, can’t live without: quivering balloons of delicate tofu served with lush and primal charred avocado, or the bacon chop, a lightly smoked fat-capped pork chop that has to be one of the best in the country. This is what happens when the structures of a solid food company (Parasole) fuses with the talents of a visionary (Tim McKee), and they come together in Uptown. ✚ 3001 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., 612-877-7263, libertinempls.com
Little Szechuan is still bringing the sizzle we’ve come to love, expanding into Dinkytown to light up a whole new generation of heat seekers. But the best addition to our frozen landscape has to be the revamping of the original location as a hot pot spot. It’s never the same meal twice, depending on which of the more than 100 items you pick, who’s with you to dip things in the pot, and how adventurous you’re feeling. ✚ 422 University Ave. W., St. Paul, 651-222-1333, littleszechuan.com
When Lucia Watson retired last December, what most shocked her many fans was that it seemed like nothing had changed. Specials like a pan-seared striped bass with blood orange vinaigrette, black lentils, arugula, and snap peas are just the thing Lucia would make. That’s when we all realized that Lucia wasn’t just a monumentally important local chef, but one hell of a manager. Pastry chef Annamarie Rigelman has been there for 23 years, chef de cuisine Ryan Lund for eight, and sommelier Victoria Norvell for a full 20. Watson’s true legacy: Her palate is so well defined, and her vision so well supported, that everyone carries it forward. ✚ 1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., 612-825-1572, lucias.com
Whether you call us Midwest or North, you should know that steak isn’t going anywhere. Vegetables can trend, vegans can triumph on Kickstarter, but there will always be a thrum of goodwill and red meat at Manny’s. Unapologetically huge cuts of gorgeously cooked beef monopolize your table along with thick fatty slabs of Nueske’s bacon, possibly some sharply crisped hash browns if there’s room, and no one will judge you. ✚ 825 Marquette Ave. S., Mpls., 612-339-9900, mannyssteakhouse.com
This Nordeast spot has a cult following, partly due to its proximity to taprooms, but mostly due to the amazingly fresh and delicious Mexican food. Recently expanded with a backroom bar and more seating, Maya is still humble in nature, but stellar in flavor. You can’t beat the salsa bar where you can zing up your tacos, tamales, burritos, or tostadas how you’d like, and the brunch buffet is a steal at $11.99. This place deserves a look. ✚ 1840 Central Ave. NE, Mpls., 612-789-0775, facebook.com/mayacuisine
There are so many great Vietnamese joints in town, but Ngon brings it to another level. The mission is not only to bring authentic recipes from the homeland, it’s about inspiration of French-Vietnamese food prepared with local, sustainable ingredients: Indochin by way of St. Paul. The Wild Acres duck pho is outstanding, as is the crispy lumpia rabbit dumpling served with a graceful coconut curry. With a full bar, the drink menu has been equally amped with craft spirits showcased in classic cocktails. ✚ 799 University Ave., St. Paul, 651-222-3301, ngonbistro.com
You could order pizza in or you could surrender to the lunacy that is brioche crust pizza served in a smoke-filled dome. Which one sounds more fun? In the original Travail space, this place is staffed by the same tenor of chef: Mad scientist meets beer-drinking pizza chef. Because the medium is pizza, there’s a bit more license for light-hearted but serious-minded culinary experimentation here. Your cheese pizza might be topped with cheese curds and Parmesan foam. Go with it. ✚ 4154 Broadway Ave. W., Robbinsdale, 763-537-7267
Has it only been four years since Ann Kim completely upped the bar for pizza in Minnesota with a chef-tossed, lighter, smokier crust, and profoundly elevated toppings like house-cooked Niman Ranch short ribs as Korean barbecue? It’s hard to even remember Minnesota pizza without Lola marking its height. And yet it all still seems so new, so surprising, so fresh—Red Table meat and Kramarczuk sausage waltzing through smoked onions on a rosemary-flecked special. That’s just like Lola, so young, yet so giant, in a crisp-crust sort of way. ✚ 5557 Xerxes Ave. S., Mpls., 612-424-8338, pizzerialola.com
A darkly lit star in the Midtown Global Market, Thomas and Kat Kim’s Korean-inspired gastropub is one of the freshest new entrants to the local dining scene. It’s all edgy whimsy with a loose Alice in Wonderland vibe, and the menu plays along. You can go the relatively safe route with tasty burgers (known as Goobers) jacked with embellishments like kimchi aioli or bourbon onions, or you can dig into grilled Hamachi Kama or chili-bacon ramen with gochujang hot sauce. Win either way. ✚ Midtown Global Market, Mpls., 612-236-4526, eatdrinkrabbit.com
Will the burger wars ever end? God, we hope not. Now with three locations, this locally owned burger joint is a top contender and clicks on all levels. It’s a beer bar, with plenty of craft on tap. It’s a wine bar, with 32 by-the-glass options. It’s burger-centric with more than just one winner: All hail the cheeseburger, but the turkey burger is the best in town. ✚ 3624 W. 50th St., Mpls., 612-767-4411, redcowmn.com
Our most light-hearted, mirthful restaurant (hibiscus soup, tuna with hot pepper nougat sauce) showcases possibly the world’s first serious chef to goof around with gummy bears, Patrick Atanalian. Recently made part owner of the restaurant, he announced plans to change very little, which is great news for both the light-hearted and the tight-fisted, because the $35 five-course tasting menu remains the best fancy deal in town. ✚ 903 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., 612-339-5058, sanctuaryminneapolis.com
Lobster as a casual weekday food was rare before Josh Thoma opened Smack Shack. Minneapolis food truck license No. 1 matured impressively into a full-blown restaurant in the red-hot North Loop. They pack in the crowds for good reason: The lobster roll is like a taste of the ocean, the andouille po’boy sandwich is the non-crustacean hit, and the happy hour is cheap and lively. No special occasion needed. Bring a group of friends, boil a lobster, and enjoy the beach party that happens every night. ✚ 603 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-259-7288, smack-shack.com
There seems to be a giant influx of taco shops in town. But if you’re looking for something a bit more than a few morsels tucked in a tortilla, please report to Sonora Grill, pronto. You can make a quick stop at the stall in the Midtown Global Market (especially since the neighboring brewery opened), but for a complete freewheeling, south-of-the-border experience, head to the Longfellow location where the mezcal drinks kick it up. There you’ll find finely tuned ceviche, whole baked chicken asado, and more. ✚ Midtown Global Market, Mpls., 612-871-1900; 3300 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-722-2500; sonora-grill.com
Gavin Kaysen’s North Loop restaurant has to have been the most-talked-about opening in an age. With wine maven Bill Summerville on the floor, pastry queen Diane Yang on desserts, and Robb Jones heading the cocktail program, how could it not be? The stylish space is both bright and warm, the main room buzzes with packed tables of well-heeled guests, while the bar is jammed with all manner of noshers, from hipster artists to office ladies. It seems like the center of the city, with eaters passing plates of the killer bison tartare and grilled pork with crackling Thai chilies. A new scene has been born. ✚ 211 N. 1st St., Mpls., 612-224-9850, spoonandstable.com
Brenda Langton’s spot next to the Guthrie and the Mill City Farmers Market has become a lovely hang for the booming condo-dwellers and theater-goers alike. Though Langton made her early mark in town as a vegetarian chef, she’s earned a more rounded reputation for not putting odd soy proteins or gimmicky mock meats center plate. Instead, she focuses on the great local produce and organic ingredients that make all plates shine, whether meat, fish, or vegetarian in construction. ✚ 750 S. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-436-2236, spoonriver.com
The Broder brothers opened a wine bar on one of the last corners that the family didn’t already occupy at 50th and Penn. The small space can be jammed with those seeking great Italian wines and plates of exceptional chow, as well as those biding their wait-list time for the pasta bar across the street. This summer, a walk-up porchetta window debuted at Terzo, and it did so well that an all-day porchetta menu was added on the weekends. ✚ 2221 W. 50th St., Mpls., 612-925-0330, broders.com/terzo-vino-bar
Loring Park had a sneak attack this year when Kim Bartmann opened TTB in the former Nick & Eddie space. It takes advantage of the picturesque and vastly undersung alleyway as the true front door to a space that is innately cool. Like, “Yeah, we’ve just been here waiting for you.” Lucas Almendinger mans the stoves, and the result is damn alluring. Wood-fired smoke scents fill the air as plates like roasted carrots glazed with coffee and parsnip tortellini with mushrooms, hibiscus, and grapefruit land in front of you. ✚ 1612 Harmon Place, Mpls., 612-767-9495, thethirdbirdmpls.com
Erick Harcey is set to have a banner year with the opening of Upton 43, his new eatery/chicken shack/kitchen lab in Linden Hills. But that doesn’t mean you should discount V44, which just recently got a cosmetic refresher. The provisions space is still churning out great cold-press coffee and a spectacular brunch in the early hours. But the dining room also seems joyous with diners digging into the seasonal, artistic plates like carbonara made with spaghetti squash and cured egg yolks, chicken boudin blanc with smoked date puree, or whatever whimsy suits the chef. ✚ 2203 44th Ave. N., Mpls., 612-588-2228, victory-44.com
It’s not every day that an established city chef vacates the urban landscape for the suburbs. But so did Philip Becht when he opened this Italian spot in the heart of Excelsior. So far, so very good. His pedigree of using local purveyors and the best farm-fresh ingredients has been put to good use, and it’s not even summer yet. Pasta dishes sing with freshness and vibrancy. Ice cream is elevated with the addition of parsnips, by god. ✚ 205 Water St., Excelsior, 952-474-8879, victorsonwaterstreet.com
All winter, chef and part owner Vincent Francoual was letting guests add real French black truffles to their dishes at cost, because he is convinced that if we just experience the true joys of the French table, we’d never leave. Witness $3 chocolate pot de cremes during happy hour, the legendary two-course lunch for $13.50, the best French wine list in town, and a mille other fine French grace notes. ✚ 1100 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-630-1189, vincentarestaurant.com
Though the neighborhood may be getting busier, there’s still nothing quite like a night at Frost. It’s old-world elegance meets new-world cooking, brought together in a warm and easy space that reminds you some things can, and should, last. The lower lounge never disappoints for an after-meal drink that feels like you’ve discovered an old friend after many years, and (thanks to low lighting) you’ve both gotten better looking. ✚ 374 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 651-224-5715, wafrost.com
Sameh Wadi is heralded earlier in this story for his work at Saffron. But he should be equally crowed about for WSK, the wild little sister to Saffron. There seems to be no rules for what can come out of this place, other than it has to exist on earth somewhere and be tasty. Step up to the counter for burritos stuffed with Korean BBQ short ribs, Thai-inspired curries, or a Moroccan fried chicken sandwich with spicy feta spread. ✚ 2743 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-424-8855, eatwsk.com
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
A menu full of global mashups can often be cause for concern; it usually means the owners are simply trying to jump on the latest fad. Not at World Street Kitchen, where a rock ’n’ roll ethos has led to a Middle Eastern chef putting out Bangkok burritos stuffed with curried chicken or Korean short ribs. At WSK, it seems like a no-brainer to find the Yum Yum bowl (a bit of a riff on bibimbap) alongside a stuffed falafel burger and lemongrass meatball lettuce wraps. Most amazingly: It all works, because the cooking is from-scratch, the ingredients are top quality, and the vibe is good fun. 2743 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-424-8855, eatwsk.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