Photograph by Rau+Barber/Hewing Hotel
The dining room at Tullibee
The dining room at Tullibee.
The readers of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine deserve a coherent review of Tullibee, the newest ghastly expensive restaurant in Minneapolis and the star of the brand new Hewing Hotel, open since November and full of gorgeous leather couches and crackling fireplaces. Sensibly, I, the critic who has gone to Tullibee five times, should be able to provide such a review. Watch me fail.
For me, the first sign of Tullibee trouble was when the owners, the Chicago-based Aparium Hotel Group, decided to go with a “Northern Lakes and Woods” theme—the type we’ve been refining in Minnesota the past two decades. So they brought in a New Hampshire–raised chef, Grae Nonas, who had found fame in Los Angeles and Texas, and Nonas promptly announced he’d have local sturgeon on the menu—despite the fact it’s endangered and the commercial fishery has been closed since the 1930s.
Yet, I can’t blame Nonas. If you were going to open a Southern restaurant in Atlanta, wouldn’t you find a Southern chef? Why is a Northern restaurant in Minneapolis different? We have all been eating, supporting, and thinking Northern food around here since the early days of Lucia Watson and there’s no reason to think anyone outside the land of loons and lady slippers should know our 10,000 deep thoughts about rhubarb.
But still. Sending a willing soldier into unfamiliar terrain without a good map isn’t a great plan. And it shows in the dinner menu, which is mostly a high-concept disaster mangling Northern references. The worst was the Scandinavian bun–like tilefish fillet crowned with a mace-scented parsnip puree and bottarga. Imagine something sweet and vaguely Scandinavian pastry–like, turned into a wet paste and smeared on fish, then set all over with parsnip shards. Sweet, fishy, paste-textured, and then mouth-cutting sharp. The Wild Acres duck with what the menu called a “sauce of grilled bones”—is that the witchy thing we call a traditional French brown sauce these days?—was knife-screeching-on-the-plate tough. A $32 mutton chop was oily and ill suited to its licorice accompaniment. I can’t explain the licorice obsession. The carrot cake dessert is literally a bowl of finely torn crumbs tossed with raw lemon segments and mint leaves served on a black licorice cream. The whole thing was ugly, mealy, acidic, and jarring.
There were glimpses of greatness. I adored the tender, smoky bread, exquisitely presented with both butter and fresh cheese. The lefse, too, was gorgeous and fresh. The separate bar menu is dramatically less ambitious, and far better. The $19 housemade meat board is strong, and the burger is actually quite good, with a nice aged and smoky beefy flavor. Add the good duck fat fries and you’ve spent $21 on a bar burger. Add some excellent, if conservative, Bittercube cocktails, and you’re in a sexy-chic spot eating All-American food well. By my last visits, the bar was always full and the dining room always deserted, because we are not dummies.
We have an unsatisfying and incomplete restaurant looking like a million bucks in the North Loop.
Is this sustainable? Hell no. As of this writing Nonas had given notice, citing management interference. (Aparium declined comment.) Then, in late February, he won the local round of the pork-cooking contest Cochon555, and Minneapolis was in full gossip about which chefs the Tullibee job had been offered to and why they’ve said no.
Is that an unsatisfying and incomplete review? To my eternal shame and frustration. But six months along we have an unsatisfying and incomplete restaurant looking like a million bucks in the middle of the North Loop. It all reminds me of that old Ole and Lena joke about the time Ole was found digging holes and filling them up. “Why?” Lena demanded. “The guy who brings the trees never came!” said Ole. As any real Minnesotan knows, sometimes the guy who brings the trees doesn’t show up, and you still have to make decisions. 300 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 651-468-0600, hewinghotel.com/tullibee-restaurant