Best new restaurants of 2011
Reecession? What recession? Last year, restaurants popped up as fast as dandelions but tempered with a reality check. The days of big-bucks bills for dinners served in rooms resembling Tiffany’s are over, thank goodness. Because that’s not how goodness is achieved. Today’s top chefs salute robust bursts of flavor drawn from local products, a reality check we all can welcome. Here are my picks for 2011’s best new dining spots.
Masu might be the splashiest newcomer this year, percolating with Japanese tweenyboppers’ munny toys, anime graphics and plinking pachinko machines. But beyond the Walker Meets Hello Kitty vibe lies top-notch Japanese comfort food, the likes of which are seldom seen in flyover land: sushi, sure, for the dainty geishas in the crowd, but mostly robust “lunch counter” dishes like robata—grilled skewers of everything from eggplant to chicken, offered in tapas-style portions. And who cannot love a restaurant that devotes an entire menu heading to bacon? Also, noodle bowls to slurp, starting with homemade ramen—a far remove from the stuff of college dorms.
330 E. Hennepin Ave.
Heidi’s, which reopened in late-late 2010 after a fire destroyed its original digs, is delectable proof that all superchefs don’t work in Manhattan (though Stewart Woodman used to). Now he’s marching to his own drummer, and I sure like the beat. Stretch your culinary comfort zone with a couple of bite-size starters, such as his “sundae” of scrambled eggs (stand-in for ice cream) topped with local caviar, or tongue with picked beets. Next, steer for apps, including scallops with celery root puree and black truffle/porcini vinaigrette. Then go for the gold: a hearty cassoulet or lamb shank, no more than $20.
2903 Lyndale Ave. S.
Clear sailing for Muddy Waters, which moved a few blocks south and a mile up the food chain this summer. The café that started life as an alternative coffeehouse has morphed into a full-service café for those of all stripes, and a delightful one, serving scrumptious comfort food—think pot roast sliders, fish tacos, shrimp po’ boys, Muddy burgers—abetted not only by the former barista, but facing off across the tables, a bartender, too, superintending 30 spigots.
933 Lyndale Ave. S
Saffron has been astonishing Warehouse District diners for a couple of years, but this summer it closed down for a complete makeover in order to reappear as a reinvented café. Gone are the stuffy white tablecloths in favor of an invitingly informal setup, matched with a menu revamp that favors food from the wider Mediterranean in smaller, more affordable portions—hummus, kibbe and grandma’s long-simmered green beans, to be sure, but also new entrees that favor savory, slow-cooked lamb and sweet, sweet salmon. What hasn’t changed? The talented touch of its young, James Beard-nominated chef/owner.
123 N. 3rd St.
Saffron’s got a new neighbor in the Warehouse District, and it’s Swedish—ya, you betcha. The Bachelor Farmer is owned by two young bachelors (sons of Governor Dayton, to be precise) who’ve conjured up an IKEA-like setting, complete with cutesy hearts on the wallpaper, and a menu straight from a Swedish grandmother’s stove: chicken with browned potatoes, rabbit with cabbage, and, better believe it, meatballs—sided with lingonberries and mashed potatoes, just as the Bible tells you to.
50 N. 2nd Ave.
Redrossa proved to be the sleeper of the year, showcasing inventive Italian faves created in a scratch kitchen rather than a Kraft lab, and housed in the unlikely, but oh-so-welcome confines of a Best Western near the MOA. It’s food you recognize, and savor, at family-friendly prices, from bruschetta to bread pudding livened with lemon curd, including a classic caprese salad, superior pastas (think sirloin, asparagus and mushrooms in Gorgonzola sauce), followed by Chianti-braised pot roast nudging cheesy polenta.
1902 Killebrew Drive
From Redrossa to Rosa Mexicano—downtown’s classy new restaurant, which takes the Mexican cocina to altitudes never dreamt of in your mom-and-pop taqueria. No one-size-fits-all salsas here; they’re freshly made and unique to each dish—pastilla peppers livening one, habañeros in another, melded with lots of tropical fruit. Tacos? Sure, as in the uber-trendy pork belly/scallops combo. Salmon rates a smoky mole sauce, but it’s rich, rich chocolate for dipping the buñuelos on the dessert list.
609 Hennepin Ave.
Honorable mention to the new look, and menus, at the Guthrie’s Sea Change, Walker Art Center’s Gather, the moved-and-reinvented Rice Paper at 50th & France and its neighbor, Pig & Fiddle (nee Pearson’s), and a shout-out to my fave food truck, Smack Shack, now wintering at the 1029 Bar in Nordeast.