This has been a good year for restaurants in the Twin Cities. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl from Minnesota Monthly says that 2011 was surprisingly delicious. She writes about the Best New Restaurants for the current issue of the magazine, and joins MPR's Tom Crann to talk about her picks.
Tom Crann: Why do you think it's been such a good year?
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: Restaurants take a lot of time to make it from the drawing-board to reality. In retrospect, I think the reason 2009 and 2010 were such dismal years for restaurant openings was simply because 2008 and 2009 had the local restaurant community in terror. Sometime in 2010 I think people realized that life was going to go on, albeit differently, and so the plans and the restaurants started coming again.
Kim Bartmann's two restaurants this year, for instance -- Bread and Pickle at the Lake Harriet bandshell, and Pat's Tap, which made my list -- are not restaurants which could have opened here 10 years ago. They're both based on being smart about locavorism. She owns several local restaurants, like the more high-end Cafe Barbette and the Red Stag Supperclub, and she bought a little unassuming coffee shop in south Minneapolis which happens to conceal a giant catering kitchen.
Now she receives whole animals from Minnesota farms into that kitchen, and portions the steaks out for her high-end restaurants, and moves the burgers into Bread and Pickle and Pat's Tap. Even five years ago we didn't have that farm-to-table infrastructure to draw on, which requires everything from farmers direct marketing their meat to kitchen staff having the skills to butcher whole animals, and we didn't have the diners.
Years ago people would pay anything for Tall Food, or cared a lot about Yuzu Wasabi Foam, but now people are much more interested in a really good farm-driven burger.
Crann: You have on your list what you've called "undoubtedly" the new restaurant of the year -- Tilia. What is so special about it?
Moskowitz Grumdahl: So much. Chef Steven Brown has been kicking -- and has been kicked -- around Minneapolis so much for the last 15 years. As long as I've been writing about restaurants, he has valiantly opened one restaurant after another to critical acclaim, but they always close around his ears due to various management issues.
The Local, for instance, opened with Haute Irish cuisine, which Brown cooked brilliantly. But they changed direction and went with a pub menu, and that sort of thing happened to him again and again. He's sort of the ultimate Gen-X underdog, and this is his first restaurant he's owned and been able to call the shots on from concept to the price of the pancakes, and it's just a joy.
The way he cooks duck -- it's magical. His soups make your knees weak. But he's selling his food at diner prices. And when there are kids at the table they each get a little "busy box" of toys and their food is raced to the table with lightning speed. It's so friendly, so thoughtful, so Minneapolis at its best, and so people are waiting three hours for a table.
If you're familiar with that theory that great cities are made great by their creative class, this is the restaurant of that creative class.
Crann: You say that The Bachelor Farmer is Minneapolis' version of a power restaurant, because of the guys running the place.
Moskowitz Grumdahl: They're very famous -- the sons of the governor! Eric and Andrew Dayton, heirs and scions. If you're into Minneapolis history it's almost sort of creepy. It's a mixed-use building with retail in the front -- a store called Askov Finlayson -- with a restaurant in the back that serves popovers -- just like they used to serve at the Oak Room at Dayton's.
It was actually given four stars by the Star Tribune this week, so don't expect to get in anytime soon. I say it's very good, but not entirely great, which is why it's my No. 3 restaurant of the year.
Crann: What does this year tell us about the restaurant scene is in the Twin Cities?
Moskowitz Grumdahl: I think it tells us that we're not going to get stopped by no stinking recession, even if it is a Great Recession.
The trends we've been seeing over the past 20 years all point in one direction. I'm bullish on chefs, farmers, burgers, turnips, taters, and people in the Twin Cities having a good neighborhood life over having a good vacation in Vegas life. I'm bearish on big chain restaurants which get their food out of giant buckets. Which doesn't mean I'm against junk food; French fries are still critically important.
Crann: Bread, real good bread and french fries! Where would you go to get that?
Moskowitz Grumdahl: Baker Solveig Tofte is famous around here for competing on what is essentially the U.S. Olympic team of baking, in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. When she opened her bakery, Sun Street Breads, everyone expected her bread to be fabulous, which it is. But her French fries are knee-weakening, double-fried, golden brown, oh-so-potatoey, unbelievable. Of course her bakery had to go on this list.
Crann: The challenge for these places is longevity. What will they have to do to continue down the road?
Moskowitz Grumdahl: Consistency, and building a regular audience are the biggest challenges for restaurants. Though I'll note that being noticed as one of the best new restaurants of the year in Minnesota Monthly can be a stepping stone to national publicity.
One of our winners from last year, Travail in Robbinsdale, was later named by Bon Appetit magazine as the No. 4 new restaurant of the year in the entire country. Would I be surprised to see Tilia on that list next year? No, I would not.
By the way, the Travail chefs all used to work for Steven Brown, when they were all at Porter and Frye, for those keeping track at home.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl's complete list is in the December issue of Minnesota Monthly, out now.