Photo by Caitlin Abrams
dishes at Libertine in Minneapolis
These days, Uptown on Friday night is a conga line—a ceaseless parade of people led along by tiny rectangles of light that inform them where their friends are. Uptown is having boom years, the likes of which none of us knew was possible, with thousands of brand-new luxury apartment units tricked out with Melrose Place–style pools and Entourage-style concierges and thousands of 20- and 30-somethings thronging the streets every night in a vast uncontained cocktail party.
Not too long ago, the Uptown Bar was the defining business in the area, home of the scruffy and anti-young-professional band The Replacements. Then it was bulldozed for an Apple store. I don’t know anyone who has lived in Uptown for 10 years who can get their heads around the loss. Many think it’s the worst thing that ever happened: the Uptown Bar, ripped from our hands like candy from a baby. Many more think it’s spectacular: the rise of the Apple store is the triumph of the creative class! And now with the transit hub and all the gyms it’s a true Minnesota neighborhood where you can live and work, and never need a car.
Whichever side you are on, the signature cliché character of Uptown is no longer a train-hopping gutter punk with a mutt on a frayed rope begging for change in front of the McDonald’s. Nope. It’s now a gym-toned 20-something in a fishbowl of a hot tub, lit with color-changing lights and jutting out over Lake Street like a disco, like a sword of Damocles, like a dude-bro soup of conspicuous consumption, like a toy-shop-window of Eros for all of Minnesota to press our noses against. It’s a fact that makes no sense and is never going to go away.
Yup. Uptown. It’s hard to get your head around it these days.
And bravely, or maybe foolishly, into it has blundered perhaps Minnesota’s greatest chef, our first James Beard Award winner and former Food & Wine top 10 chef in the country Tim McKee. He is not wearing the hat of artist-knight, which he wears when leading the elegant La Belle Vie, but one of vice president of culinary development at Parasole, the large local restaurant company that owns Manny’s, Chino Latino, Salut, Burger Jones, Good Earth, and spun off the two now-national chains Oceanaire and Buca di Beppo.
This beauty and the beast mash-up came around (I’ll let you pick who’s the beauty and who’s the beast) when Parasole found itself culinarily stumbling and McKee found himself a fine dining chef caught in the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Even though it’s been ongoing for several years, this partnership has always seemed a bit of a head-scratcher. Sure, McKee did great work turning Edina’s Mozza Mia from a distant also-ran in the local Italian scene into one of the most underrated restaurants in town—but isn’t that like hiring Mario Andretti to help you change the oil in your car? Libertine is the first time Parasole has bought McKee a car and let him drive.
The space is the former Cafeteria, now given a lot of midcentury modern details and a lot more tables, which lent it the feeling of being a lot like the living room of every important graphic designer in Uptown. Cocktails from Johnny Michaels, the Tim McKee of local bartenders, as it were, are of a piece with the great work he does everywhere, with his alluring yin-yang signature of bright fruit acids and deep smoke fragrances.
The main thing a local cocktail connoisseur will notice is that they are cheap, compared with everywhere—the $7 fresh blueberry, cardamom, vanilla bean concoction with vodka is as pretty as a Swedish morning bun, but nicer to see at night. The Shadow Knows, with black pepper gin and smoked absinthe, tastes like a great vacation on the dark side of town.
As far as drinking in Uptown goes, which is the main thing the new Uptown has in common with the old Uptown, Libertine is a new height. And the food? The food is nothing short of spectacular. But does this even matter in the new Uptown?
Fried baby artichokes are delicate as frost, hot and crisp, tangled together with just enough ham to make a meal beside a glass of prosecco. A salad of avocado and citrus segments, strung along like a tangle of jewels linked by a spindly chain of paper-thin hot pepper rings and a gossamer web of blue crab meat, delivers with each bite a signature Tim McKee melody of pings and pops—a glissando of flavors pittering and pattering along.
The avocado crab salad came as a complete surprise, as I had heard that Libertine was a “meatery” or even a steakhouse, something to compete with Butcher & The Boar or Joe Beef. That’s really not it. It has steaks, yes, and they are excellent—the $19 point steak, for instance, has a rich earthy flavor and a springy texture. And it has burgers—the $11 steak burger is truly phenomenal, beefy and robust, and in a league with the best local restaurant burgers. But Libertine also has vegetarian joys.
The crisp tofu swept me off my feet, with little clouds of fried tofu stacked up like blocks beside charred wedges of broccoli and black-flecked halves of a grilled avocado, all served with a lilting citrus ponzu for dipping. Who wants tofu next to their steak? Because of this, everyone. The burrata was like cream somehow tied into a purse, and the bounty of heirloom tomatoes with little yarny tangles of roasted bell pepper only served to make the cheese taste fresher.
But don’t miss the bacon chop, a pork rib chop with lots of good sweet fat left on. It has to be the best pork chop in the history of Minnesota: sweet as an apple, plush and tender, with all sorts of beautiful notes like caramel and mushroom. Also don’t miss the spare ribs! For $19 you get a big pile of Korean black bean–touched country-cut spare ribs, each tender and devourable. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to watch the Super Bowl at a great chef’s house, it’s like this.
I tried nearly all the menu and found only one or two things that weren’t fully spectacular: The lamb ribs are far too fatty for my taste, and the wax beans were boring. I don’t understand the New Orleans–style barbecued shrimp, though they were tasty. The wine list is weak, short, and unsurprising.
Other than that, I wish I could eat every meal I had there entirely again. I never think that. Just when I thought roasted beef marrow bones had been done to death by the new carnivores, here they are better than I’ve ever had before: whole femur–sized, darkly roasted, sizzling, fat and rich, served with salt flakes the size of the first fat snow clumps on a 32-degree day, paired with a bacon jam that sounds like a gimmicky horror, but in fact has a smoky, hard-to-place flavor of low, dark half-sweet notes which makes the marrow bloom from something rich to something shimmering and sensuous.
Desserts were another triumph by Parasole’s pastry guru Adrienne Odom, who was once the La Belle Vie pastry chef before she moved on to work at Aquavit in New York. The calamansi curd was the best dessert of my year, a sort of casual pavlova, with a crisp meringue island cradling a lagoon of buttery curd made from calamansi, which is like an extra-fragrant lime, while elsewhere on the plate blackberries as plump as eggs, raspberry sorbet, and charred wings of peaches arranged in stars are deployed with the greatest possible generosity and joy.
All the servers will tell you to get the baked Alaska, and they’re right: It’s a hundred points of meringue, charred, but still dewy and marshmallow-like, arrayed like the spines of a particularly tasty sea urchin around a little igloo of ice cream. It’s the very definition of whimsy made through skill.
Does this sound like any kind of tavern of the new carnivores? After tasting nearly everything on the menu, I can tell you Libertine’s food kept bringing to mind Steven Brown of Tilia’s maddening motto, “good food tastes good.” You know, it really does.
More than anything, Libertine is the sort of restaurant that you get when you tell Tim McKee to do whatever he wants, but stay on a 20-something’s budget. I feel like it’s the greatest restaurant to open in Uptown since Lucia’s. But will anyone go?
We all remember the day the grown-ups walked away from the Warehouse District in downtown Minneapolis, walking away at the same time from the then-extant New French Café, Cafe Brenda, and D’Amico Cucina. The restaurants remained as strong as they had been, but somehow the humans in the ecosystem totally shifted, like foxes in a forest suddenly displaced by coyotes. You could have watched it from a window, everyone who wore interesting Italian eyeglasses replaced one by one by everyone who did shots of Jägermeister.
As the ecosystem of Uptown goes through its own changes, the restaurants battle to be the preferred hunting grounds of the new top predators. Do these new top predators eat food for sensuous, taste-driven reasons, or merely as fuel for drinking and working? Can the old top predators cohabitate in the hunting grounds, or will they depart?
Anyone given to pondering the human parade is advised to pull up a stool, order a round of bone marrow, and watch.
3001 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-877-7263, libertinempls.com