A diner's diary

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2010 - 9:15 AM

The search for a neighborhood pizzeria, a fantastic Sunday brunch, a new (and improved) Blackbird and a French bakery. It's all in a week's worth of eating for restaurant critic Rick Nelson.

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Blackbird co-owners Gail Mollner and Chris Stevens, at the counter in their reincarnated Minneapolis restaurant.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Because my metabolism seems to be hard-wired to crave carbs the moment the snow flies, I've spent the past week obsessed with pizza. Specifically, my never-ending search for the independently owned pizzeria that my neighborhood sorely lacks. My primordial hunger took me to three pizzerias in as many days.

Count me a newly converted fan of Papa's Deli. This north Minneapolis gem feeds its neighborhood with a steady diet of sandwiches, salads and pastas, but the robust pizzas are what caught my appetite. The crusts are thick, chewy and lightly charred, and while the design-your-own toppings selection has a familiar ring to it, I prefer to stick with the "Ann Kaari" (named for the former Minneapolis School Board member), which subs out tomato sauce in favor of a garlicky butter, which is then sprinkled with crisp bacon, juicy chicken and fresh spinach.

One other tip: Try the terrific "East Coast Tomato Pie" variation, which drops the marinara in favor of olive oil and straight-up crushed tomatoes, and goes easy on the cheese. Decent prices, too; a 10-incher starts at $9.99. Oh, and do not leave without checking out the exceptionally light (and crustless) cheesecake.

4159 Thomas Av. N., Mpls., 612-521-7272, www.eatatpapas.com

Meanwhile, the 10- and 14-inch pies at the cozy Amici Pizza and Bistro sport wonderfully thin and crisp crusts, and the lightly golden beauties ($11 to $20) are judiciously topped with complementary ingredients: sweet roasted apples against salty prosciutto, with each bite ending in a fragrant thyme finish, or a bright tomato sauce dressed with feisty sausage, hot pickled peppers and creamy ricotta.

2851 NE. Johnson St., Mpls., 612-781-5711, www.amiciusa.com

I wonder if Tommy Chicago's Pizzeria is going to single-handedly reignite the deep-dish pizza craze that pushed places like the Green Mill to the pizza forefront all those years ago. These 12- and 14-inch pies ($15.50 to $27.95) are monsters that seem to value gleeful excess over subtlety -- there's so much cheese that you wonder about kickbacks from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, a red sauce brims with big chunks of tomatoes and herbs proliferate. Don't get me started on the calorie-killing double-crust versions. While most pizzas make for a welcome morning-after meal, these could be categorized as Leftovers Heaven.

730 Main St., Mendota Heights, 651-209-7701, www.tommychicagos.com

Weekend edition

Be'wiched Deli is serving Sunday brunch, and, like everything that co-owners Mike Ryan and Matthew Bickford touch, it's golden. Because Ryan and Bickford run the city's best sandwich shop, their brunch options naturally turn to the genre they know best.

The star of the show is what the dynamic duo refer to as "P&E," a pile of their gloriously peppery house-smoked pastrami (the "P") dressed with a fried egg (the "E"), roasted peppers and a blazing harissa that's a better wakeup call than an alarm clock, all stuffed into baker Hollis Roads' herb-flecked focaccia.

Two other sort-of sandwich options include a pair of tender baking powder biscuits (naughtily fried in a little bacon grease) and smothered with a hearty pork shoulder sausage gravy and a pair of eggs, and a Benedict built with luscious house-cured salmon, a silky Hollandaise and house-baked English muffins.

My favorite? The ever-changing platter of cheeses and house-cured meats (I lucked into a fantastic pork-potato sausage, its snappy grilled exterior yielding to a smooth, allspice-kissed interior). Most prices are under $10, and be sure to grab a few of Roads' deliriously delicious chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons for the road.

800 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-767-4330, www.bewicheddeli.com

Hoping for more

Walking into Chez Arnaud is a bit like entering an Alternative Bakery Universe. At least that was my experience. I dropped by the spiffy new Maple Grove bakery three times over the course of six days, and on each visit I was greeted with next to nothing to buy.

After encountering near-vacant cases twice -- on both occasions it was before 9:30 a.m., prime baked-goods hours -- I inquired about an optimum time to return. "Right away, when we open," was the response.

OK. So I set the alarm and hauled my sleepy self to the far reaches of the 763, arriving a few minutes after the shop's 7 a.m. opening, only to discover that just two items were available. "We should have croissants in two or three hours," said the very nice man behind the counter.

Huh? Thrice burned, my snarky side wanted to ask if the kitchen crew stumbled into their workplace and thought, "Gosh, maybe we should bake something," but the folks working the front of the shop are so uniformly sweet that yanking out the sarcasm seemed wildly inappropriate.

I'm secretly hoping that I ran into a severe case of opening-week jitters -- seriously, a battery of chiropractors couldn't iron out these kinks -- because most of what I did taste was first-rate.

The baguette was a tad doughy and pale for my tastes, but a tender, baton-shaped eclair, filled with coffee-flavored custard and glazed with more coffee goodness, was exceptionally good. Airy, eggy, bite-sized choux pastry balls, rolled in decorative sugar, disappeared as fast as I could inhale them. Fluted, palm-size brioche melted in my mouth. Ditto the delicate, gloriously buttery pain au chocolat. May we have more? Please?

13332 Bass Lake Rd., Maple Grove, 763-568-7756, www.mygourmandise.com

Looking good

What a pleasure it is to see Chris Stevens and Gail Mollner back on the job. Sit at the copper-topped counter at their new Blackbird and catch glimpses of Stevens as he cooks up a storm in the kitchen, or take a perch in one of the roomy booths and observe Mollner as she makes sure the great-looking dining room operates like clockwork.

Preferably you've got a big bowl of fiery udon noodles in front of you, or roasted chicken with fried chicken livers, or a marvelously made banh mi, the traditional Vietnamese pork sandwich.

The couple lost their life's work in a devastating fire on Feb. 18, and after plenty of grit and determination, they've relocated their charmer of a restaurant to a new Kingfield neighborhood address.

It's a win-win scenario. Not only is Blackbird 2.0 a welcome jolt of privately financed economic stimulus for 38th Street and Nicollet Avenue S., but the larger, sunnier digs are an improvement over the old space, which always felt cramped.

Now with nearly twice as many seats, the restaurant -- still charmingly quirky, by the way -- can accommodate the throngs who know to come for Stevens' sharp, affordable, crowd-pleasing cooking and Mollner's attentive hospitality. They're role models for overcoming adversity, and this diner is thrilled to have them, and their restaurant, back.

3800 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-823-4790, www.blackbirdmpls.com

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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