Being small doesn't mean you can't think big. That's certainly the ethos behind the wave of intimate, independently owned, chef-centric bistros that sprouted up across the Twin Cities this past year, improving the dining-out fortunes for downtown St. Paul loft dwellers, south Minneapolis bungalow owners and everyone in between as the genre sparked a major shift in the local restaurant landscape. These smaller-scale efforts may lack the financial heft of their deep- pocketed corporate counterparts, but they more than compensate for their limited resources with creativity, passion, individuality and spunk. They have the power to transform neighborhoods, and their driven, food-obsessed ownership practically guarantees an adventurous, one-of-a-kind dining experience.
At Corner Table, chef/owner Scott Pampuch is clearly having the time of his life. Pampuch, whose long tenure at the Modern Cafe is the equivalent of a graduate degree in neighborhood bistro studies, sets himself apart from the dining pack by emphasizing locally raised foods. His deftly crafted menu (made in tandem with chef de cuisine Keven Kvalsten) makes particularly imaginative use of affordable cuts of meat while it rolls with the seasons. (The joint is Braising Central, with Pampuch slowly and expertly coaxing every drop of flavor into the limelight.) The cramped, spare setting has the conviviality of an overgrown dinner party, and prices are structured to encourage repeat business. In other words, serious fun. Isn't that the very essence of the neighborhood bistro?
A duo lineage runs through festive, friendly al Vento: Its address is the former home of Marimar (neighborhood bistro, class of 2001), and chef-owner Jonathan Hunt spent some serious time at Pane Vino Dolce (neighborhood bistro, circa 2000). But log an evening or two in Hunt's back yard, and both ancestors quickly fade into the background. The restaurant's southern Italian focus is all lusty, straightforward flavors and mouth-watering, ever-evolving ideas. The dining room's autumn-leaves color palette sets just the right mood. The sincere greeting at the door is a pleasant bonus, as is the priced-to-move, all-Italian wine list. Translation? Hunt has taken a handful of old ideas and beautifully repackaged them into something new. And marvelous.
A Rebours serves its downtown St. Paul environs morning, noon and night, a rhythm co-owners Jessica and Doug Anderson perfected when they created Bakery on Grand in Minneapolis last year (they've since spun off their ownership of that model neighborhood bistro). Partnering with former Aquavit executive chef Roger Johnsson ensures that the menu -- clever, sharply executed twists on classic brasserie fare -- is a class act, and chef de cuisine Don Saunders nimbly keeps the whole operation running at top speed. The crisply understated room, which doesn't have a stiff bone in its body, boasts a dazzling stretch of placemaking windows and has the uncanny ability to seamlessly segue from an all-business breakfast to a late-evening tete-a-tete without breaking a sweat. It's the neighborhood bistro, deluxe version, and it's brilliant.
Rick Nelson is at firstname.lastname@example.org.