Photos by Craig Bares
Tofu puffs from Rice Paper
Tofu puffs at Rice Paper are a crispy, creamy delight.
When Rice Paper first opened in its tiny Linden Hills location in 2004, it was a leading-edge concept. It featured lots of healthy ingredients—most notably tofu and fresh vegetables in engaging combinations—and the creative take on Vietnamese cuisine was contemporaneously unique and fun.
So when the restaurant recently moved to new digs in Edina’s 50th & France neighborhood, the dilemma may have been whether to stick with the tried and true or to take on a new persona. Owner An Nguyen appears to have taken the cautious route. Save for a handful of new items, the menu is fundamentally a replay of what might once have been pioneering but is now a bit long in the tooth. In fact, if I had to choose three great plates there today, they’d be the same ones I highlighted in my March 2004 review.
One is the tofu puff appetizer, a pretty arrangement of crispy-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside cubes of fried soy swaddled in a sweet, tangy Thai sauce sprinkled with chopped peanuts and fried shallots. A second is the signature tamarind rice trio, with each segment of rice sporting a different topping: a scallion oil infusion, a peanut sauce, and a sauce with toasted coconut flakes. (Unfortunately, the accompaniment of cooked chicken was dry from overcooking, a tendency that marred several poultry dishes.) The third is the only dish on the menu for red-meat lovers: Song Huong beef, a variation of the Bo La Lot dish I highlighted in 2004. Although my memory is hard-pressed to compare this dish precisely to Bo La Lot, the fundamentals are the same: char-grilled, lemongrass-marinated steak designed to be wrapped in lettuce leaves with a slew of condiments. Another standout is the exemplary spring rolls—tightly wrapped with a choice of chicken, shrimp, or tofu and served with a thick, tasty peanut sauce.
Several dishes did not satisfy, among them a serving of poorly executed coconut shrimp; an order of chewy, soggy, and unappetizing-looking green onion Chinese pancake wraps; and a set of mushy, dry-skinned vegetable dumplings. Indeed, my lingering impression is of more effort being spent on sprucing things up with colorful garnishes than on assuring the underlying content.
However, the biggest disappointment of all was service. Whether it was bringing out entrées mere minutes after serving appetizers, failing to refill tea cups, or failing to engage on pretty much any level, these weren’t the kind of gaffes I’d expect of a seasoned crew. I do very much like the more open and functional space the new site affords. And, based on the throngs dining contentedly on a couple of weeknight evenings, the concept continues to resonate. 3948 W. 50th St., Edina, 952-288-2888
Marrakech's bistella is a sweet, savory, nutty, and exquisite treat.
Marrakech is a new spot specializing in the cuisine of Morocco. Although many of the country’s dishes mirror those of other Middle Eastern lands (think kebabs and couscous), there are a couple of indigenous specialties that are less widely shared.
One of those is tagine. The term refers both to the special domed ceramic pot used in the cooking process and the savory, slow-roasted stews that emerge from it. Marrakech serves a handful of different tagine combinations, the best of which is arguably the kefta tagine: a tasty, rich, and generous serving of meatballs cooked with egg in a tomato sauce. Also quite representative is the lemon chicken, consisting of breast and thigh braised in assorted spices with green olives, preserved lemon, and large wedges of potato—though considering all the ingredients, it was rather bland and a tad salty.
The other Moroccan specialty, widely heralded as Morocco’s national dish, is bistella (one of many spellings, but the one used here). This layered meat pie is customarily made with young pigeon, but owing to the scarcity of that ingredient, it’s more commonly made (as it is here) with chicken. The preparation is lengthy and labor intensive, involving pre-cooking saffron, ginger, and cilantro-seasoned fowl, reducing the braising liquid and scrambling with eggs into a custard, making the special phyllo-like warka dough, diligently layering ingredients, baking or pan-cooking the resultant cakes, and then topping them with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The result is a sweet, savory, nutty, crunchy, and exquisite treat that comes across as something between an entrée and a dessert. Unfortunately, the availability of Marrakech’s bistella is spotty, so I’d advise calling ahead to make certain there will be one when you arrive.
Other notable items are the zaalouk salad (a marvelously spicy condiment of eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes that is absolutely addictive when spread on fresh bread) and the endless pots of slightly sweet mint tea.
This is a no-frills spot where you order at the counter, and the service is leisurely and not always focused. Marrakech is perfectly clean, comfortable, and welcoming, but not well-suited for the demanding. 1839 Central Ave. NE, Mpls., 612-788-0405