FREE SPEECH ZONE | Eight Best Eateries of 2012


It’s almost as if the food police had a quota to meet this year, ticketing anyplace foisting boring food onto the dining public and writing stern citations for overpricing. This patrol squad of the palate pretty much kept the city a no-chain zone, too. With one exception, my favorite newcomers arose from cozy digs with chef-driven, locally-sourced menus saluting squadrons of small plates.

Heading this year’s list is Mona (33 S. 7th St.), the sweet, little small-plates mecca launched by Chef Lisa Olson, whose list encourages patrons to create their own mix-and-match tasting menus from dishes that range from patrician (marrow bone—a local first?) to plebian (chicken and waffles, anyone?). Don’t miss the smoked oysters on their bed of spinach or the pork belly weighting a potato pancake, among the mini-masterpieces.

Next, in no particular order, the new Loring Park site of Café Maude (1610 Harmon Place) where, on Sundays, diners can dive into a three-course menu plus glass of vino for $30. Talk about dinner divine for a dime or two: cod terrine aside tendrils of spaghetti squash jiving with pumpkin curry, followed by lamb shank partnering risotto (or choose fish and chips), then a properly wicked devil’s food cake (or choose almond panna cotta).

Harriet Brasserie, current occupant of the former Linden Hills fire station (2724 W. 43rd St.), concentrates on creative small plates, too. Start with that ultra-rich and utterly luscious pork belly, this time atop a platform of corn grits and sided with husky braised greens. Then proceed to the divinely silky bison tartare, topped with a raw pheasant egg to stir in. If you meat-eaters prefer your carne cooked, head for the signature burger. Bypass the key lime pie at your own peril.

he Lynn (5003 Bryant S.) is another grass-roots success story, with casual, all-day dining in the front of the bakery-cum-café and more formal fare in the back room. Orchestrate a supper of small plates, beginning with the kitchen’s elegant mushroom tart or goat cheese soufflé, or opt for one of the five entrees that salute grandma’s cooking—pork, chicken, or by far the best choice, black cod, served with kale and parsnips, along with pickled pears. A side of creamed spinach could have doubled as dessert, and the addictive house-made bread is gratis.

At last, Kenwood has a club to call its own—the new Kenwood, in fact (2115 W. 21st St.), which backs onto the Kenwood School, whose alums were quick to claim its tables and indulge in small plates that vault from tame to avant, including the pastry “cigar” stuffed with duck offal (not as awful as it sounds—rather, shreds of trimmings mixed with organ meats), a creation you couldn’t have given away a few years back. More mainstream, and just as yummy: gnocchi with pesto and satiny chevre cheese; a sumptuous mushroom tart topped with—what’s this, again? Thank God!—pork belly, along with a gently-poached egg. Plenty of burgers on adjoining tables, too.

Nightingale (2551 Lyndale Ave. S.) is yet-another small-plates magnet, with choices in two columns: standard bar food (burgers, wing, fries) and foodie fare, such as the fabulous salt-and-pepper prawns with zingy slaw, or pulled pork atop baked grits. Even the veggies here sing: Brussels prouts with bacon; Swiss chard with raisins and pine nuts; and roasted cauliflower hopping with harissa.

From Nightingale to Birdhouse (2516 Hennepin Ave. S.), a former people’s house that salutes veggie fare so tasty you won’t be reminded how good for you it is. And (or course) it’s offered in small plates. Winners start with the divinely sweet green pea pate (trust me!), topped with a silvery slick of goat cheese, and the richer-than-Buffet mushroom pate. In between, consider the quinoa and wild rice croquettes and the faro salad, along with a few flesh items (salmon, buffalo short ribs) for the cavemen among us.

Finally, hosannah to the one major player on this list, the new restaurant called Prairie Kitchen in downtown’s Hyatt Regency Hotel (1300 Nicollet Mall). With a menu that heralds Minnesota’s Scandinavian forebears, the chef thinks both locally and in Swedish, rolling out (yet more) small plates, such as a spectacular rendition of the Old Country’s trinity—  cured salmon with fingerling potatoes and dill—and a sumptuous version of a Nordic grandma’s meatballs, served with a cache of earthy morel mushrooms in a cream sauce you’ll dream about for days.  Excellent trout cakes and walleye, too.

One final hurrah for a sweet spot that opened too late in 2011 to make that year’s listing, and that’s Zen Box (602 Washington Ave. S.), serving the comfort foods of Japan in (all together now) small-plate servings: Think slurpy noodles and savory dumplings—the stuff you really want to eat—rather than fashion-forward sushi.  And for dessert? Rice, three ways.



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