Bringing it all home at Brasa

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 6, 2007 - 9:15 AM

Chicken and pork have rarely tasted as good.

Buying takeout at Brasa can be problematic.

Picture this: I was driving home from the restaurant. There was a large brown paper bag on the passenger seat, and the aroma quickly enveloping my car was as mentally distracting as a behind-the-wheel cell phone chat. Figuring that I was a few inhales away from a fender bender, I pulled over, rifled through the glove compartment for one of the disposable forks I keep on hand, grabbed the first container within reach and started eating. Given my driving record, I hope none of this was caught on camera by law enforcement officials.

Not that it wouldn't have been worth a ticket. At Brasa, chef/owner Alex Roberts, who more than proves his culinary mettle every night at his nearby Restaurant Alma, is taking aim at home-cooking traditions from a wide-yet-interconnected cultural swath that starts in West Africa and moves through the Caribbean, the American South and Central and South America. "It's the food I like to make at home," he told me earlier this summer, and now I'm thinking it might be the food that I want to make in my own kitchen, too. It isn't elegant or cutting-edge and it doesn't have the looks to make the cover of Bon Appetit any time soon. But it sure is satisfying.

This particular brand of home cooking probably requires a co-op membership and perhaps a farm crop share, because while Roberts and his crew (led by longtime Alma go-to guy Ricardo Saltos) are embracing a time-tested cooking ethos, they aren't forgetting their own roots as chefs who champion high-quality, locally raised ingredients. Roberts, perhaps borrowing from Chipotle's brilliant green-is-good marketing strategy, also seems to be using his new moderately priced platform to persuade a whole new audience that going to the added expense of treating animals ethically is not only good for all kinds of environmental and moral reasons, but also because the resulting meat and poultry just taste better.

It's a message we should all listen to, and we don't have to go far: It's practically stamped on that amazing pork, raised with care in southwestern Minnesota, marinated in a peppers-chiles-tomato sauce and cooked low and slow until it literally falls apart when nudged by a spoon. It's succulent and supremely flavorful, so much so that the accompanying ginger-cilantro and chipotle sauces seem like unnecessary afterthoughts. If Brasa's rotisserie chicken isn't consistently in the same league, that's only because it has a tough act to follow. It's still top-notch, thanks to plump and juicy birds from central Minnesota, brined in sea salt and roasted for about an hour until the skin is a deep tawny gold and the abundant meat -- especially the savory dark stuff, right off the bone -- is rich and flavorful.

The Brasa menu is easy to navigate: It's choosing between those two proteins (the smart folks know to go with the combo plate) and among a dozen or so companion dishes. You can buy a little or a lot, depending on your appetite. My favorite way to dine at Brasa is to bring a few fellow diners and order everything family style, with a table full of food that everyone shares.

Those side dishes are disarmingly simple, but obviously well-tended. Smoky, thin-sheared andouille sausage adds a burst of heat to mellow, slightly nutty yams. Bits of a Cannon Falls, Minn.-made ham add depth to mildly seasoned rice and tan pigeon peas. Lots of lime juice and cilantro, plus hints of serrano chiles, put a kick in shaved cabbage salad. Fried yuca prove to be supremely comforting -- ditto the nicely caramelized plantains -- and the pickled cauliflower and carrots are bracing palate cleansers. There are ultra-creamy grits enriched with a pleasantly sharp one-year-old Wisconsin Cheddar, and while they don't have an underlying bacon umph, the nicely chewy collard greens get a little blush of richness from crème fraîche. I was less impressed with the dull potato salad and equally flat-tasting black-eyed peas.

Baker Carrie McCabe is a corn muffin maestro, turning out hefty round things busting with whole kernels of fresh corn simmered in cream and thyme, a trick that keeps the end result tender and dense rather than dry and crumbly. They're served with a few cubes of insanely good Pastureland butter, and I could eat them every day. McCabe's sweets include a single-serving chocolate Bundt cake -- dark and springy and topped with pert candied oranges -- a creamy biscuit topped with fresh fruit and a voluptuous dollop of heavy whipped cream and a so-so tropical fruit tapioca. I have to admit that my favorite isn't her concoction, though. It's an import from Wuollet Bakery, a back-to-basics square of sprightly, single-layer white cake adorned with a fat swipe of rich buttercream icing and nothing else; birthday cake, all year.

The setting, a former service station that most recently enjoyed a brief run as a coffee house, was given a quick low-budget once-over that added inviting marigold-washed walls, sturdy seating, quirky test-tube lighting and a pair of glass garage doors that bring in sunshine and breezes and open to a flower-lined patio that just about doubles the small dining room's seating capacity. That got me wondering how the hyper-popular Brasa will manage crowd control in, say, al fresco-unfriendly January, but Roberts said he's got that covered. One idea he's mulling over is a neighborhood delivery service. And I imagine that takeout will really take off. Note to self: Transport dinner in the trunk.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

 

 

Rick Nelson • rdnelson@startribune.com

  • BRASA

    3 out of 4 stars

    Location: 600 E. Hennepin Av., Minneapolis, 612-379-3030, www.brasa.us

    Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday.

    Atmosphere: Playful and informal, with a rare indoor-outdoor feel.

    Service: Fast and friendly.

    Sound level: Loud when full.

    Wine list: Six well-chosen options, all by the glass ($7) or the bottle ($28). Nice beer and soda selection, too.

    Price range: Nothing over $14.50.

    ONLINE EXTRA

    To see a slide show of Brasa, see startribune.com/taste.

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