Appetites: A 'golden decade' for the Twin Cities' dining scene

Piccolo chef Doug Flicker garnishes dishes with fresh herbs before they are served to customers Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, at his south Minneapolis restaurant. The ever-changing menu consists of five sections where diners create a five-course meal by selecting one item from each section.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

We have long known that the Twin Cities are great restaurant towns. This year, the rest of the country finally noticed. President Barack Obama visited the Bachelor Farmer, which was subsequently featured in the New York Times, and on Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurants list.

Rachel Hutton, senior editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine is here to help us trace the evolution of the Twin Cities' foodie "cred."

Photos: Piccolo draws accolades

MPR News: In the past decade or so, Minnesota cuisine went from hotdish to haute dish. How did all this begin?

Rachel Hutton: Looking back, 2003 stands out as a watershed year for the local dining scene. It was the year that Cosmos, Restaurant Levain, and Solera opened. These were big-deal, big-buck operations with high-profile chefs. They demonstrated that Minnesotans had a taste for ambitious, contemporary cuisine.

MPR News: Fine dining established a stronger foothold?

Hutton: Yes, particularly when La Belle Vie moved from Stillwater to Minneapolis in 2005. La Belle Vie's executive chef/owner Tim McKee has been a great mentor to many cooks and his restaurants have been something of a feeder school for culinary talent. Many of our young, up-and-coming chef/owners, such as Sameh Wadi of Saffron and Matt Bickford of Icehouse, worked for one or more of McKee's restaurants before going out on their own.

MPR News: What developments were beneficial to small, casual eateries?

Hutton: Like biological ecosystems, diversity is good for restaurant scenes, so it's important to have a strong network of casual restaurants, too. The opening of the Midtown Global Market in 2006 was a big deal: it allowed small food businesses to get started with less capital. A couple of the newer Global Market eateries, Sonora Grill and Left-Handed Cook, already seem successful enough to open a second location.

MPR News: Then there are the food trucks, of course.

Hutton: Yes, in 2010 the Minneapolis City Council relaxed its restrictive street vending ordinance, which allowed a whole fleet of food entrepreneurs to again launch businesses with less capital than they'd need for a full bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

MPR News: What about the whole local food movement?

Hutton: Midwestern farmers are among some of the country's best producers of meat, dairy, vegetables, and grains. And having easy access to great ingredients — whitefish from Lake Superior and heritage pork breeds among them — has helped; 2006 was a significant milestone for the local food movement, when Spoonriver and Cue opened in tandem with the new Guthrie [Theater], Midwest-grown foods arrived on the "big stage" being prepared in an elegant, sophisticated manner.

MPR News: Cue is closed now, isn't it?

Hutton: Yes, among the many setbacks to our dining scene's progress has been the closure of several good restaurants. When Restaurant Levain, Five, and Auriga, all closed back-to-back in late 2006, early 2007, that was a substantial blow, as was the fire that destroyed Heidi's and Blackbird in 2010.

Chef Doug Flicker's restaurant Piccolo, photographed just before opening for the evening on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, at West 43rd Street and Bryant Avenue South in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

MPR News: Both those restaurants have since re-opened?

Hutton: Heidi's and Blackbird are arguably stronger concepts in their second incarnations. And after Auriga closed, its chef, Doug Flicker went on to open Piccolo, which Anthony Bourdain recently said served him one of the best and most inspiring meals he'd eaten.

MPR News: And the James Beard Awards keep rolling in, as well.

Hutton: Yes, after the awards redistricted in 2009, Twin Cities chefs Tim McKee, Alex Roberts, and Isaac Becker swept the Best Chef Midwest category three years in a row.

Not that we modest Minnesotans need the recognition. We know we're doing well without needing anyone to tell us, though a few kudos now and then never hurt.

Rachel Hutton is restaurant critic and food editor at "Minnesota Monthly." Her work has been featured in the "Best Food Writing" series. Follow her @rachel_hutton.

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