"Sometimes I just get a craving for this food," said my friend. Same here. We were at Flamingo Restaurant, tearing pieces of injera, that spongy, crêpe-like Ethiopian flatbread, and using it to scoop up a mini-smörgåsbord of Ethiopian-Eritrean deliciousness. There were tender cuts of chicken breast seared with garlic and jalapeño, bits of savory lamb stir-fried with garlic, slow-cooked collard greens, red lentils simmered in a fiery red chile sauce, earthy stewed mushrooms, a warm potato-cabbage salad seasoned with turmeric, and a sweet beet purée finished with garlic and ginger accents. You know: a bit of this, a bit of that, all flavorful and lovingly prepared.
For starters, we ripped through delicate fried pastry triangles filled with mildly seasoned ground beef, washed down with a fresh, frothy mango-guava juice. We ate extremely well for about $20, and, best of all, sitting inside co-owners' Shegitu Kebede (she cooks) and Frewoini Haile (she's the gracious smile at the door) charming and spotless dining room felt a little bit like being invited into their homes. "This has been a many-, many-year dream of ours," said Kebede. "Finally, God has made a place for us." And for us.
490 N. Syndicate St., St. Paul, 651-917-9332, www.flamingorestaurantmn.comFrom market to restaurant
I've always had a thing for the beautiful handmade dumplings, each carefully filled with energetically spiced chicken, beef or yak, that Rashmi Bhattachan has been serving for the past few years from her Curry Lane stand at the Mill City Farmers Market. Scarfing them down, particularly on a cool autumn Saturday, always made me wonder how many kinds of goodness she would deliver if she operated her own restaurant.
Well, my curiosity has been satisfied. Bhattachan has teamed up with Sarala Kattel to open Gorkha Palace, cooking a short survey of Nepali, Tibetan and Indian fare that naturally starts with those fantastic dumplings. Along with puffy, blistered, buttery naan straight out of the oven, every meal here should start with paapaddum, the long, delicate lentil crackers, used to scoop up a spicy tomato relish or a cool cucumber-yogurt dip.
There are several fragrant biryanis and a handful of chicken and lamb items prepared in the kitchen's tandoor oven. What really impressed me were the stews, a dozen or so (chicken, lamb, vegetarian), including tender goat, braised on the bone in a thick yogurt-ginger sauce and served over rice. Most prices stay south of $12, and the welcoming setting (formerly Mairin's Table), done up in rich spice-rack colors, is a lot cozier than the off-the-beaten-path location might otherwise suggest.
23 NE. 4th St., Mpls., 612-886-3451, www.gorkhapalace.comSuburban Italian
"Are you guys foodies?" asked our engaging server as he prepared a brazenly garlicky Caesar salad for two, tableside (a gimmick that never grows old, at least not in my book). "Um, we dine out a bit," I replied, rather sheepishly ("world's biggest understatement" was how my partner later assessed my little white lie). We were at Roman Anthony's, the Italian-with-a-capital-Eye restaurant that chef Justin Grecco (of Grecco's on the St. Croix in St. Croix Falls, Wis.) opened a few months ago in a White Bear Lake strip mall.
There are no major surprises here -- it's straight-up Italian-American -- but Grecco inserts a chef's phrasing into his familiar-sounding dishes, preparing his own pastas, taking care to source ingredients, sending his plates out looking good. Prices are more big-city than suburban (at dinner, pastas average $19 and entrees run in the low $20s), although portions are uniformly enormous. Just in case you missed the whole you're-in-an-Italian-restaurant vibe, the room is bathed in so many shades of red that it's like dining inside a corpuscle, the stereo seems like it's on a continuous loop of "The Three Tenors in Concert" crossed with Frank Sinatra's "September of My Years," and the candles are inserted in wax-covered wine bottles. Yeah, we got it.
1350 E. Hwy. 96, White Bear Lake, www.romananthonys.comTaste of Minnesota
The name Bars Bakery just begs to be spoken in a thick Minnesota accent, doesn't it? You know, Buh-arz. This Cathedral Hill newbie, owned by the mother-daughter team of Sandi Younkin and Kara Younkin Viswanathan, doesn't limit itself to exploiting all that can sprout from a 9-by-13-inch pan, although they make a Congo bar that transports me right back to my childhood, if only my mother had baked with premium ingredients like Hope Creamery butter, rich chocolate and long, chewy strips of coconut. Mom, conscious of feeding four hungry kids, always cut them in measly little squares, but here they're sold as long, generous rectangles.
The selection isn't huge, but it's choice. Along with a dreamy caramel roll, the Younkin gals also bake the kind of Snickerdoodle I wish my oven would produce, the crisp, crackled top collapsing into the thick center, heavy from so much butter, and flecked with high-octane cinnamon that just explodes in your mouth.
It's not all sweets, either. I love the single-serving, free-form, flaky crusted, herb-flecked savory tarts -- potato-leek-speck, or roasted tomato with basil and sweet corn -- made utilizing garden-fresh vegetables raised at the Plato, Minn., farm operated by Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis. Younkin Sr. was a founding owner of the Swede Hollow Cafe, and sold the business a half-dozen years ago. Welcome back. You've been missed.
622 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-224-8300, www.barsbakery.comStreet scene
After enduring a summer of ridiculous regulatory rigmarole from City Hall, a handful of high-performing food trucks have finally started operating in downtown Minneapolis. First up: Dandelion Kitchen. Co-owners Natalie Jade Coleman and Alexander Brand keep it simple, with an ever-changing selection of contemporary versions of the sub sandwich ($6.50), meticulously built with crusty baguette and premium ingredients (get the BLT, made with thick slabs of maple-glazed bacon, juicy heirloom tomatoes and creamy chunks of avocado), washed down with spectacularly refreshing house-made sodas ($2), including a bracing ginger-lemon lovely that has to be tasted to be believed. Look for the fully loaded bright yellow panel truck -- if it were a Sherwin-Williams paint chip, it would be called "Dandelion" -- on primo Nicollet Mall real estate in front of the IDS Center.
"This is my dream come true," said Sameh Wadi, chef/co-owner of Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, as he handed me his version of a banh mi from the window of his World Street Kitchen. "Just me and the people eating my food, one on one, no servers, no bartenders to communicate between us." That's the beauty of the food truck movement: No filters or barriers between you and, say, one of the city's rising food stars.
Curious about how chefs eat (well, at least the lucky Saffron staff)? How about a portable fusion of Vietnamese tradition and Middle Eastern flavors in the form of a crispy baguette stuffed with a pulled chicken (braised in a wicked brew of coconut milk, chiles, lemongrass and a curry blend), fresh Thai basil and cilantro and crunchy carrots and pickled Daikon radishes. In a word, wow. The harissa-laced meatball version, another favorite during staff mealtime, is similarly exceptional.
Wadi and his brother Saed are also running the city's best mobile taqueria, nudging considerable heat into barbacoa-style lamb and topping it with a cabbage salad, or simmering portabella, porcini and oyster mushrooms with cumin and clove and topping the combo with tangy pickled onions.
Salad for lunch? Wadi twists the traditional fattoush by tossing peppery arugula and colorful heirloom tomatoes, mint and parsley in an aromatic sumac vinaigrette. Top price is $5.50.
Even his lemonade, made with whole, slow-roasted lemons, which gives each sip a tart kick, is a winner. Do yourself a favor and look for the bright red truck in the parking lot at 5th and Nicollet; there's handy seating across the street in Xcel Energy's starkly renovated plaza.
In my never-ending search for the neighborhood restaurant that I wish would plop itself down around the corner from my house, I've been dropping into Citizen Cafe and liking what I taste. Chef/owner Michael MacKay may be dealing in workaday dishes (at workaday prices), but he showers them with attention, whether he's making sausages and pâtés, pickling vegetables, curing salmon and serving it with pumpernickel toast or slipping it into sturdy toasted biscuits, cleverly crossing a pasty with a Sloppy Joe. When I see the words "walnut burger," I refrain myself from running for the hills, but not here, and MacKay puts a gloss on roast chicken and slow-cooked pork that makes a plain-old Tuesday night dinner a semi-special occasion. Now if only I could selfishly persuade him to move his business to Mac-Groveland.
2403 E. 38th St., Mpls., 612-729-1122, www.citizen-cafe.comSugar hounds, listen up
Finally, there are more reasons than I can count to admire the just-opened Farm Direct Market at Heartland, so here's one: the you-can't-eat-just-one sugar buns ($2). Baker Margaret Calhoun piles layer upon layer of delicate dough, cuts it into round biscuits, fills them with sweet vanilla pastry cream, bakes them into golden brown loveliness and then proceeds to ruin the self-discipline of every lucky soul who can snap them up before they sell out for the day.
Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, 289 E. 5th St., St. Paul, 651-699-3536, www.heartlandrestaurant.com
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757