112 Eatery strikes a chord in the Twin Cities -- and wins a standing ovation from diners.
Isaac Becker had one goal in mind when he was formulating his menu for 112 Eatery.
"I don't like small menus, so I wasn't going to write one," he said. "I wanted a big menu, with lots of options for how you could dine. You could come in at 7:30 and have four courses with different wines, or you could drop by at 11 o'clock and have a bacon sandwich and a beer."
It's a strategy that has clearly struck a chord. Becker owns and operates the cozy, convivial Warehouse District restaurant with his spouse, Nancy St. Pierre -- he's the cook and she is the friendly ringmaster, keeping the front of the house humming. Their spot has justifiably caught on like wildfire, making it the obvious choice for our Restaurant of the Year.
Not bad for a couple of hometown kids. Becker, a Minneapolis native, got a taste of the restaurant biz fresh out of Southwest High School in 1989, when he started as a line cook at the former Lowry's in Minneapolis. By 1994 he was working in the D'Amico empire, a culinary education that culminated in an acclaimed two-year stint at the helm of the company's successful Cafe Lurcat and Bar Lurcat.
"I loved working for the D'Amicos," said Becker. "There was nowhere else I would rather work, other than for myself."
He met St. Pierre, a Richfield native, while he was cooking at D'Amico Cucina, where she was a longtime server. Late last year, when the couple made the decision to strike out on their own, the stars quickly aligned. Within a week they had found their location, which had most recently been home to the short-lived Amsterdam Bistro. The turn-key deal was a fully stocked property, right down to the china and flatware; the couple theoretically could have opened on the day they signed a lease in November 2004.
With just a few minor adjustments -- a few rolls of wallpaper, a couple of artworks, some new kitchen equipment -- the restaurant quietly opened on Jan. 13. And it's been a mob scene ever since.
Partial credit for why the restaurant is the town's toughest reservation goes to the supply-and-demand pressures of a setup that just barely accommodates 50 diners. But a big reason is its blissfully uncomplicated, user-friendly approach to everything: genuinely reasonable prices, accommodating service, night-owl hours, comfortable setting, cleverly composed wine list and a fun-loving, great-looking clientele.
There's also seriously delicious food, with a deceitful side. Becker sneaks in premium ingredients and masterful preparations that in other kitchens would turn fussy and overproduced, but at the 112 remain refreshingly straightforward and inviting: Sweetbreads in a clam sauce. Foie gras with sticky rice. Proscuitto-wrapped medallions of Berkshire pork stuffed with leeks and Parmesan. A stew brimming with shrimp, mussels, clams and monkfish. Gigantic New Zealand tempura-battered prawns with a Sriracha sauce-laced aioli.
Some dishes became signatures from the moment they left the kitchen, from the salad of herbs, cabbage and sweet crab to the sizzling grilled lamb cooled with goat's milk yogurt.
Another Becker trick is twisting the familiar until it feels almost brand new. His burger is unapologetic decadence, a thick patty composed of ground beef, eggs, thyme and onions liberally sautéed in butter, grilled to mouth-melting perfection, crowned with a fat slab of melted Brie and wedged into an English muffin.
Fried eggs, a jolting after-midnight favorite, are cooked sunny side up and paired with serrano chiles and liberal dashes of oyster sauce. Brioche adds a touch of luxury to a tidy bacon and fried-egg sandwich slathered with scorching harissa. A tres leches cake has a shamelessly beguiling richness.
Even the menu's verbage is delightfully deceptive. In Becker-speak, "Cold cuts and pickles" translates into a top-flight prosciutto, a chicken terrine, a rabbit pâté and thinly sliced cucumbers pickled in rice wine vinegar and chiles. It's that heady combination of creativity and quality -- minus even a scintilla of pretension -- that has made the 112 such a diner's magnet, a phenomenon that has floored its happy but presumably exhausted owners.
"Not in our wildest dreams did we imagine any of this," said Becker. "We figured that at first we'd lose money hand over fist. Our goal was just do what I wanted to do, and pay our bills."
BY Rick Nelson email@example.com.