Air travel and good food don't always fly together. So when airport concessionaire OTG Management set out to overhaul dining options at the Delta Air Lines G Concourse in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, it set it sights high.
He's back on Appetites to speak with MPR's Tom Crann about what's available to eat the next time your flight is delayed.
An edited transcript of their conversation is below.
TOM CRANN: How many of these new "locally inspired" places have sprung up?
JAMES NORTON: There are six OTG-managed restaurants that have formed strategic relationships with local chefs, and I ate at all of them — over the course of five ultimately very filling, uncomfortable hours during a visit to the airport.
CRANN: How legitimate is the connection to local food?
NORTON: The level of chef involved is top-notch: We're talking Russell Klein from Meritage and Doug Flicker from Piccolo, that sort of chef helping to set the menu and tone. The local food connection varies — there's more of an effort at these places to use real, local ingredients, but it's best connected at the Taste of Mill City Tavern, which offered dishes like an elegant steelhead trout gravlax and a credible fried walleye sandwich.
CRANN: Most of these places are using an iPad-based ordering system, right? Does that have an effect on the experience?
NORTON: It has a huge impact. The central thing is that you can order just by tapping on big colorful photos of food and pay, and tip, right at the table before the food has arrived. That way if you suddenly have to get up to make your flight, you don't need to sweat the check. You can also input your flight information, and they'll update you about delays and remind you when you're boarding, stuff like that.
On the down side: I actually like interacting with servers; they know the menu better than I do, for starters. The iPads can be physically clunky, too. They take up a lot of table space.
CRANN: What are some of the highlights of what you tasted?
NORTON: Shoyu is a restaurant opened in concert with Koshiki Yonemura Smith of the excellent Tanpopo, and they've got housemade noodles hanging right up in the concourse, which is rather marvelous. I thought their Tokyo-style pork ramen was quite tasty and it featured a really generous amount of pork.
The pizza at Vero, which used Ann Kim of Pizzeria Lola as a consultant, was good. It lacked her extraordinarily good, chewy-crispy-charred crust, but the topping quality was high and it was a real treat for airport pizza.
And believe it or not, I'd eat the raw oysters at the Russell Klein-inspired Mimosa again. Plus, the crepes Suzette there were impeccable.
CRANN: Did you stumble upon any culinary missteps as you went?
NORTON: Just a few. Ravioli at Volante were $17, and basically followed the format of that old joke — they only tasted of oil and butter, and the portions were tiny. And we went one for two on sandwiches at the Andrew Zimmern-inspired Minnibar. I liked the not-to-sweet pulled pork, but thought their Korean-inspired Sloppy Ko was just too much salt and acid and heat.
CRANN: But overall, you like what's happening on the G Concourse?
NORTON: I do. The overall verdict is really positive. OTG is making a serious effort to bring credible dining to the airport, and I think they've picked extremely strong chef-partners and done a very strong job. Some of these places would be competitive in the real world, which is saying a lot considering the logistical challenges of staffing, running, and supplying a restaurant behind the security curtain of a major airport.
CRANN: You won't be able to eat at these places unless you've cleared security and have a ticket, correct?
NORTON: You have to be able to get through security to get to the food.
CRANN: Is this a trend around the country?
NORTON:It is. OTG itself is one of the drivers for this trend. They've done a few other airports before. But we're seeing more attention being paid to the airport experience. And clearly there's money to be made there. People are stressed out, not keeping track of their budgets in necessarily the same way, it's a great chance to splurge, and people love good food now. And I think everyone's trying trying to take advantage of that.