Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Minneapolis

I recently had the opportunity to visit Minneapolis.  After attending a few years of college over in St. Paul (at the wonderfully liberal and global, Macalester College), I had not been to the Twin Cities in a very long time.  A short visit in June reminded me why I loved the area, but I must admit, it was awfully nice to be there in late June and not November through March.  As is the case with all my travels, I made sure food took center stage.  Here’s a brief rundown of my dining experiences.

Brit's Pub – I spent much of two afternoons at Brits working on my book.  On day one I sampled the Scotch eggs.  Oh my, they were soooo good.  Crisp on the outside, just spicy enough to wake up dreary taste buds and perfectly cooked eggs.  A couple hoppy IPAs recommended by my server and a few hours later, I had fallen in love with the place even if I had not written as much as I had hoped.  The next day I committed to drinking water and root beer – I had to get work done – but had to sample the cod bites.  True to a good pub, the fish was great.  More important to me on days like these was the accommodating staff.  I love feeling as though they truly don’t mind me taking up some space and dropping lots of money.  In these situations I am always inspired to tip particularly well.  So thank you staff at Brit’s for your patience and your recommendations.  A word about décor…If you are looking for a British pub, you’ve found it.  A fireplace downstairs that features a shrine to the royal family, soccer and rugby on the tube, appropriate pub grub, and rooftop lawn bowling…what can I say?
Loring Kitchen and Bar  – Just on the north edge of Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis sits a quiet, comfortable restaurant with a diverse menu, trendy, cool interior and sidewalk seating perfect for passing a summer afternoon.  We had a couple drinks, cauliflower fritters, quinoa and black bean sliders and walleye sliders.  Every bite was delicious.  The flavors in the sliders popped with freshness and made wonderful afternoon snacks.  Though not exactly on a thoroughfare, the park across the street provided for good people watching.  In the evening we have to assume this place is very hip. 

The Local – Nicolett Mall`s other ode to the traditional pub (a few blocks north of Brit’s) has a more Irish theme and a very lively evening culture.  The atmosphere of this place is something special.  A gigantic back bar, multiple snugs, including one called the Kissing Booth and an overwhelmingly dark, intimate interior, the place feels like the kind of place I would love to call my local.  The food is also excellent.  The quinoa salad had some of the creamiest avocado and the fish and chips met all expectations for a good pub.  Service was great.  The only reason I didn’t spend some writing time her was the lack of wall plugs for my laptop.
Bar La Grassa – This place is special and precisely the sort of place I look for.  At 8:30 there was a 45 minute wait unless we wanted to sit at the kitchen bar and watch the work.  That was right up our alley.  But this speaks to the popularity of the place.  The music was hip, and the décor respected the history of its warehouse setting.  There were guests dressed in coat and tie and others in jeans and all seemed comfortable.  However, as every big city has seen in recent years, it’s easy to make a place hip and comfy and not so easy to support that with quality food and great service.  BLG need to worry.  From the moment we took our seats at the far side of the kitchen we were treated to amiable, helpful, very well-informed service.  We were first treated to an amuse bouche of marinated gigante beans that were flavorful and bright.  This served to heighten our expectations for the rest of our meal, and we were not disappointed.  Our server poured my wife’s wine, but then poured another small glass of her second choice wine just so she could try it.  We sampled a bruschetta  with white anchovies and avocado and a crispy salad saporoso – both truly excellent.  Next I had to try the carbonara.  This too, though not as great as Salt Lake City’s Vivace, was delicious and creamy.  Our server explained that they are prepping the eggs for carbonara using sous vide.  I love that he knew this and that the chef is looking for ways to safely stay committed to traditional carbonara in light of most Americans’ squimishness with “raw” eggs.  My wife had the pasta negra (black pasta made with squid ink) and sea urchin, mussels and tomato.  Exquisite…one of the most delicious pastas I’ve had in a long time.  For dessert we tried the house made limoncello – also very flavorful, but maybe a touch thin.  By the time we were done much of the restaurant was empty.  The hostess offered to call a cab if one wasn’t on the corner, but that wasn’t a problem.  A wonderful evening marked by all the elements of a great meal – great, knowledgeable and warm service, casual, comfortable atmosphere and excellent food.     

Key's at Foshay Tower  – Looking for a typical diner breakfast?  This is it.  Keys feels like it’s been here forever, the sorts of place that politicians and journalists shared stories off the record over coffee and cigarettes 60 years ago.  Breakfast here can be as large and artery-clogging or as simple and healthy as you like.  The sausage patty satisfied any craving for grease and spice I needed for June.  The oatmeal hit the spot, warmed the soul.  My egg was cooked perfectly with a runny yolk, but crispy burnt edges.  Efficient service showed just the sort of warmth to out-of-towners that makes a diner a perfect place for breakfast. 
Zelo – For those unfamiliar with Minneapolis, Nicolett Mall is a wiggly downtown street made so to slow traffic and encourage pedestrian meandering.  It is lined with shops and restaurants, many on the second floors accessible by skyways – elevated sidewalks that connect most of downtown (it gets very cold during Minnesota’s very long winter).  Those restaurants at street level virtually all have sidewalk seating in the summer along Nicolette, and it must be one of Minneapolis’ true gifts.  And perhaps by virtue of those long, frigid winters, the sidewalk seating is exceptionally popular all summer.  We took in one of the most inviting of the sidewalk seating areas and ate at Zelo.  Zelo sits at a busy intersection featuring a bus stop and Target’s flagship store; the people watching is superb.  We tried four dishes, the fried calamari, ahi spring roll, salad Brasiliana and lemongrass crabcakes.  The calamari was very lightly breaded and tender.  The spring roll was beautifully presented and so delicious it was hard not to come back to Zelo again just for that.  The Brasiliana was crisp and bright with hearts of palm and bib lettuce, one of the best restaurant salads I have had in a long time.  And the crabcakes…filled with flavor, filled with crab and amazing.  In fact, they may be the best crabcakes I’ve had – and certainly the best I’ve had anywhere more than 10 miles from the ocean.  As delicious as the food was, the service was actually better.  Lauren, our server, recognized our pace and let us linger between courses, just as we wished.  When we asked her for places to see, drink spots, live music spots and other places to eat on our visit she was warm, welcoming and helpful.  In fact, she was the first one to mention Bar La Grassa.  She was a great ambassador for her city.  Furthermore, our server truly made the experience at Zelo memorable – thank you.
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