You already know about the thriving ethnic restaurant scene along Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis, where the dining options range from Afghan, Colombian and Indian to Mexican, Middle Eastern, Moroccan and Thai. And every serious foodie has spent time at the hip new (and hip old) eateries around the University Ave. and Marshall Ave. N.E. – the Modern Cafe, Erte, Northeast Social, the Sample Room, Anchor Fish and Chips and the relocated Psycho Suzie’s, just to name a few.
But a couple of interesting new restaurants have opened up in a less discovered corner of Northeast Minneapolis – the intersection of Johnson and 29th St. N. E.
I have only dined at Amici Pizza and Bistro, 2851 Johnson St. N.E. once, not counting a slice of take-out pizza during Art-A-Whirl, but I was sufficiently impressed by that evening visit that I would like to return. We started by sharing a warm beet salad ($7), shown here – obligingly split for us by the kitchen. With the rise of regional and seasonal cooking, beet salads have become practically a staple at trendier local cafes, but Amici’s version was one of the best I have had lately, dressed with a pomegranate vinaigrette and enlivened by goat cheese, walnuts and a savory canneloni bean puree.
We next shared a pasta course of orechiette, ear-shaped little medallions of fresh pasta, tossed with a creamy sauce of sun-dried tomatoes, peas and pistachios ($13). This was spectacular – intensely flavorful, but not overwhelmingly rich and creamy.
Our only disappointment was the Hollywood pizza, topped with oven-dried tomatoes, spinach, fresh mozzarella and too much toasted garlic ($11/$19), which just didn’t have much spark. We finished on a happier note, though – a silky pannecotta topped with a rhubarb raspberry compote ($5), which hit just the right balance of sweet and tart.
There is a lot more on the menu that I would like to try on a return visit, including the steamed mussels in a tomato-red pepper broth ($9), the black barley risotto with roasted mushrooms and hazelnuts ($13), and the lunchtime offering of a red wine braised beef sandwich served with pickled vegetables and aioli on a ciabatta roll ($13).
Wednesday nights, a selected list of wines by the bottle is offered for half price. The wine and beer selection is pretty pedestrian, but we picked out a perfectly drinkable Manyana Tempranillo, a decent value at $22, and a great deal at $11. Amici’s website says they use local ingredients, including Fischer Farms pork from Waseca, and eggs and chicken from Larry Schultz Organic Farm in Owatonna.
Hazel’s Northeast, 2859 Johnson St. N.E. brings small town Minnesota cooking to the big city – which may or may not be a good thing. These days, a lot of the trendiest restaurants here in the Cities are trying to connect farm and countryside, buying locally grown produce and featuring seasonal cooking and artisan breads and grass-fed beef and free-range eggs. But that’s not the kind of cooking that you’ll find at most small-town cafes, at least in my experience, where the fare tends more towards white bread, frozen pizzas and factory meats.
Owners Adam and Andrew Sieve are the offspring of a family that has operated a cafe in Long Prairie, Minnesota for generations, and many of the dishes on Hazel’s menu are the kind of fare you might expect to find at a small-town eatery – burgers, a turkey commercial sandwich, a pork chop dinner.
On a weekend breakfast visit, I had a hearty and very tasty entree of black bean cakes served with two eggs over easy and a mess of fried potatoes ($9) – cafe cooking at its best. And on a lunchtime visit, I loved the turkey commercial sandwich ($10) – a mountainous open-faced sandwich of white bread, mashed potatoes, roasted turkey and gravy with cranberry relish on the side.<
But an evening visit was less satisfying. It might seem a bit unfair to knock the Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and cream sauce ($11) for being pale and bland, because Swedish meatballs are supposed to be bland, but this rendition seemed even paler and blander than usual. Lingonberry preserves added a bit of color and flavor, but not enough. We were equally unimpressed by the pasta pomodoro ($13), overcooked angel hair pasta swimming in tomato sauce with some prawns tossed in that added little flavor to the dish.
But here, too, there are other dishes on the menu that I would like to explore, including the chicken fried steak and eggs ($10, served for breakfast and weekend brunch), a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with pulled pork on the lunch menu ($10), and an adobo chicken breast with polenta cake and Spanish chili sauce at dinner. Best time to go might be for breakfast or brunch, usually a strong suit of small-town (and neighborhood) cafes.