Highlights of a year of eating

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I don’t do ten best lists, but looking back over the last year, I can recall some memorable dining experiences. For now, at least, I am going to limit myself to the new places – the list will just get too long if I try to work in more than just a mention of old favorites like the Grand Café Vincent, and Atlas Grill.

My nominee for best new restaurant of 2007 is Saffron, where chef Sameh Wadi brings together the flavors of the Middle East and North Africa with the techniques and presentation of contemporary haute cuisine in very stylish surroundings. Highlights of my visits included an entrée of fork-tender lamb shoulder, over a savory bed of chick peas and a tagine of salmon and clams with roasted peppers, olives, fennel and saffron.

Other favorite new places:

Heidi’s Café: The same talent that the husband and wife team of Stewart and Heidi Woodman demonstrated at Restaurant Levain and Five (both now defunct) is again on display at Heidi’s, but this time at much more affordable prices: poached pheasant breast with cauliflower arugela salad for $19; a vegetarian entrée of pappardelle Bolognese for $12 .
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Meritage: Chef Russell Klein, cooked Regional American at W.A. Frost, but as chef-owner at Meritage, (in the former A Rebours space in downtown Saint Paul) he is free to return to his first love, French cuisine – which he delivers up with some playful and creative twists (like a Nutella and matzo sandwich for dessert.)

Rotisserie Brasa, which Alex Roberts opened this summer in a former gas station on E. Hennepin remodeled to look like a Caribbean chicken shack. Roberts, known for much pricier and refined cuisine at Restaurant Alma, sets out at Brasa to show that local and sustainable can also be affordable. Only two meats are offered – rotisserie chicken and a terrific roast pork shoulder, along with a bunch of classic southern sides like cheese grits and collard greens.

Keefer Court Bakery & Café. This funky little Chinese bakery at Cedar and Riverside recently hired Jack Ma, one of the most talented Cantonese chefs in the Twin Cities, to run their kitchen, and now serve a menu of traditional rice plates, noodle soups and stir-fries, at bargain prices.

Pagoda in Dinkytown: The décor is much trendier than the usual noodle house, but the menu here, too, is traditional Cantonese street food plus a smattering of Japanese, Thai and Korean dishes in very stylish surroundings, at student-budget prices.

Shiraz Fireroasted Cuisine: The chicken and lamb koubidehs (ground meat kabobs) at this new Persian restaurant at 61st and Nicollet tasted so authentic to me that I assumed that the chef must be from Iran, but it turns out it’s the same Mexican chef who ran the kitchen when the place was called Cintia’s of Mexico.

Little Szechuan: The best Sichuan cuisine in the Twin Cities, plus some amenities you won’t find at many other Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities, like a small but decent selection of wines. Try the fish fillet and tofu with spicy tasty broth.

Café Ena: I live a few blocks from El Meson, and I have been a fan of chef-owner Hector Ruiz for years. His new Latin American fusion restaurant at 46th and Lyndale is just a tick more upscale, but the cuisine is just as lively and imaginative.

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro: A lot of the restaurants that attempt East-West fusion wind up with the worst of both worlds, but this stylish storefront in Saint Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood is an exception: smart combinations of Asian and Western flavors in dishes such as Vietnamese beef over pappardelle noodles, ahi-tuna mango salad, and a succulent lamb shank with pho spices, served over lemongrass rice.

Well, that’s about as many highlights as I can think of at the moment, but check back – I’ll probably add a few more to the list.

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