Maybe it’s my Lutheran background, or perhaps it’s the three generations of plain-spoken Midwestern reserve swirling through my DNA, because breathless proclamations — you know, “The most shocking event in culinary history!” — have never been this critic’s modus operandi.
Which is why I’m aiming for modesty when I declare, with utter conviction, that Borough is the Twin Cities’ most exciting new restaurant.
Enthusiasm builds with each successive dish. A smoky, mouth-melting slab of pork belly, each taste reminiscent of the world’s best Easter ham, is beautifully balanced by bitter broccoli raab, a sweet carrot purée and mellow, quietly nutty farro.
Another brilliant bout of porkiness comes in the form of a deeply fragrant ham hock broth — each spoonful revealing teasing traces of citrus brightness and rich truffle — that’s poured over a pristine slice of grilled sturgeon and buttery gigante beans.
After spending half a day tenderizing in low-and-slow heat, meaty Spanish octopus hits the grill and is garnished with soy, peanuts, lime and other Thai benchmarks. Delicate ribbons of house-made linguine are generously tossed in a trio of compound butters and finished with the oh-so-agreeable combination of squash, sage and hazelnuts.
Briny, shimmering oysters are dressed with a cannily calibrated lemon- and smoke-infused ice. The menu also boasts the Scotch egg to end all Scotch eggs, a marvel of textures and colors, right down to the pungent, magenta-hued mostarda.
I could go on — and trust me, I will — but suffice it to say that in the few months since opening their doors, chefs Nick O’Leary and Tyler Shipton have become forces in the local dining scene. They cook as if they were lifelong pals, yet the collaborators became friends just two years ago while working at that hotbed of culinary creativity known as Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale.
When they teamed up with money guys Jacob Toledo and Brent Frederick and headed to the North Loop, the duo clearly borrowed some key elements from their former employer, yet what they’ve created is hardly a carbon copy. Instead, a superb restaurant has spawned another superb restaurant. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?
Comparisons are inevitable, so here goes. Both kitchens share a penchant for artful presentation and an interest in molecular gastronomy techniques. But if Borough feels less playfully improvisational than Travail, the upside is that O’Leary and Shipton’s disciplined cooking leaves the impression that each dish is the final permutation of a well-thought-out idea.
There’s a night-and-day approach to atmosphere, too. Rather than adhering to Travail’s interactive, let’s-put-on-a-show quality, Borough’s different but equally appealing route involves filling its more formal dining room with a phalanx of (mostly) well-trained service staffers.
Easy on pocketbook
Like Travail, Borough is remarkably affordable, a gift for food lovers everywhere. The only over-$20 price I spied over a succession of menus involved ruby-red, fork-tender New York strip, paired with taffy-sized agnolotti stuffed with slow-braised, vanilla-scented oxtail. It was $25, a bargain.
Also a steal: The wildly appealing fried chicken dinner, where breasts and thighs from ultra-flavorful Amish-raised birds are broken down and rolled, roulade-style, in between a thin layer of liver-giblet stuffing. The topper: ridiculously rich mashed potatoes and a pool of devour-every-drop onion gravy. So long, Popeyes.
Sweetbreads? Check. Bison tartare? Oh, yeah. O’Leary and Shipton are at their most exuberant — and that’s saying something — with foie gras, pushing the sweet-savory envelope with pecan, marshmallow, ice cream embellishments. It is a must-order dish.
Even the kitchen’s drop-in-anytime items — served in Parlour, the appealing lower-level bar — aren’t treated like toss-offs.
The opposite, actually, starting with an epoch-making burger. At its center is a fine-grind patty of sirloin and New York strip, boosted with beef fat, thyme, garlic and butter and grilled to a bodacious juiciness. It’s slipped into a toasted bun and dressed with thick-cut bacon, tangy pickles, caramelized onions and an over-the-top dollop — ok, blob might be a more descriptive word — of frothed cream enriched with, yes, melted American cheese.
What a hilarious — and brazenly delicious — way to approach the taken-for-granted cheeseburger. Ditto the fish and chips, with its succulent, snowy white cod and coin-shaped skin-on potatoes, crispy outside and fluffy inside, each nibble exuding a salty, vinegar-nudged bite.
More good work
Pastry chef Lashaw Castellano’s eye-catching desserts land squarely in the deconstructionist mode. Salvador Dali himself could have shattered and reassembled the flourless chocolate cake’s clever clashing-yet-complementary tangy beet ice cream and tart yuzu foam.
A carrot cake, decorated with a carrot reduction, carrot powder and parchment-thin dehydrated carrot slices, could have been devised in a food-science laboratory. Best was the least manipulated: delicate brioche doughnut holes, with the flavors of bacon, cinnamon and macadamia nut swirling on the plate.
Like his comrades in the kitchen, bartender Jesse Held approaches his nuanced work with both an admirable meticulousness and a rousing sense of fun.
There were missteps. Sometimes the problem was intrinsic (a too-sweet combination of scallops, parsnips and maple, or a goes-nowhere hearts of palm salad), while on other occasions, enthusiastic seasoning was the issue (someone at the stove clearly loves their salt). Pacing was oddly erratic at times, and basics (lukewarm food that should have been hot, an undercooked vegetable) were botched. Here’s hoping for a practice-makes-perfect scenario.
Designed by ESG, the Minneapolis architectural firm, the L-shaped space boasts all the elements that ignite loft envy: big windows, exposed brick and raw concrete.
Like nearly everything about Borough, it’s expertly done, and on my last visit, seated at the lively, marble-topped kitchen counter, I was compelled to offer a silent prayer of gratitude. And why not? It’s enterprises like Borough that are making the Twin Cities a major American dining destination. Amen to that.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib