I’ve always wanted to live in Linden Hills, but my meal at Tilia sealed the deal over the weekend. I would move there just so I can spend the rest of my days walking over to Tilia for a few meals a week. This new restaurant is the type of restaurant I have been longing to see open in the Twin Cities . . . a small neighborhood eatery open early, serving late, hip in the best possible way, so that I feel like I’m not missing anything I am reading about in F & W Magazine. This is a real restaurant that understands I don’t want to spend big money all the time (there’s nothing over 20$ at Tilia), but that I also expect real food cooked with precision and expertise. It’s a place I can take my kid for breakfast, my wife for lunch, and my lawyer for dinner, a joint serving good food but where I can wear a t-shirt and yet is long on style, and most importantly a place that feels instantly comfy. And yes, I waited this whole time to tell you that Steven Brown is one of the co-owners of Tilia and is the chef in residence. Loring, Local, Rockstar, Levain, Porter & Frye, etc. . . . yep, that guy.I love all the other comparable neighborhood-style restaurants (from Heidi’s to BLG), but simply for the facelift alone that Brown performed on the old Rice Paper space (and yes even his partner concedes that Brown handled everything from the drywall to the beer sign, from the speaker covers to the floors) he deserves extra credit points. His art direction gives Tilia a vibe that I don’t feel in many other restaurants here. Sitting on 43rd Street helps too, but as I told Steven and his wife, Stacy, as I left the restaurant on Saturday, “The things a restaurant needs to get right from the get-go is all done right” at Tilia.First off, there is what some will think is the best beer list in town, including some Cali barley pops that my beer maven friends rave about (Hop-sicle and Old Rasputin), but for me there is the homemade ginger beer. I had five glasses. Enough said. The service is attentive and suits the vibe: friendly and tight. Steven’s wife was at the door on Saturday and they somehow need to convince her to stay. It’s a cliché to say familial assistance is best, but the Woodmans, Becker-St Pierres, the Russos, and many others have made their restaurants supremely welcoming just by being the first couple in the same room! It works. Anyway, I digress, the wine list seemed well chosen too, and the bar is quite the scene, small but hopping.
The white wood ceilings, burnished old flooring (vintage oak?), and the hand-blown glass lights all make the buzz and the vibe in this room a legit experience. You want to sit and eat the moment you walk in. So we did. It felt like Piccolo when I walked in for first time . . . I got hungrier just standing waiting for a table!
Leeks en Vinaigrette were warm, perfect for a cool night; the potted meat is the bastard love child of a rillette and a terrine and it works superbly—lots of fat and plenty of mustard and agro dolce shallots to hurry the beast into your belly. The fries are great, not sure about serving them in a napkin (crispy!?!?!?!,) but the seasoned mayo with the taters was off the charts. The gravlax was perfectly cured, and the pumpernickel/black rye toast was what I love with cured salmon, each slice topped with soft butter seasoned with fish roe. I even nabbed a mussel off a neighboring table and was thrilled that I did, big, plump, delish.I had the brisket, a really tough thing to pull off in a restaurant, and I thought it turned out neatly, perfectly braised, nice root veg, deep potato-y tasting whipped potatoes underneath. My wife had the cod: simple, elegant, and the truffle fonduta worked well. Neither was too big a portion but after all the first courses we had to pull the plug halfway through the entrees. But when the dessert menu came we both ordered the butterscotch pots de crème. My pal Zoe Francois helped Steven on the menu and the sweets alone are worth a trip from wherever you are. I need the pots de crème to come in a quart size to-go container.Anyway, Steven has created a large menu filled with really attractive food that you’ll want to eat for each meal. Period. The sweets and baked goods are killer, the beverages are well selected and if there is a better ginger beer in town I don’t know about it. I have rooted, privately and publicly for a long time for this chef to run his own show and have a small restaurant where he can be as ambitious as he wants. I adored his food at Levain and the birthday dinner he cooked for my wife’s b-day party one night there remains, to this day, the best meal I have eaten in Minnesota (and that includes the dinner that Marcus Samuelsson, Charlie Trotter, and Tatsuya Wakuda cooked for us one night at Aquavit). Brown’s skill set is immense and the oeuvre he chose for Tilia is less about pyrotechnics and more about cooking for his audience, and at the end of the day that’s what makes you successful. This is a great little neighborhood restaurant (lots of families with kids still there at 7:30 on a Saturday) that is going to make big noise on our local scene for a long time.