A diner's diary: one week of eating around the Twin Cities

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2011 - 2:03 PM

Take a page out of our critic's dining diary.

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Plates don't have far to go from kitchen to table at Scusi. House-made veal meatballs with San Marzano sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Star Tribune

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It's been a few months since Java Jack's morphed into plain-old Jack's, and so far, so good.

While they're still doing the coffee thing, owners Pam and Jerry Nelson have hired chef Stephanie Hedrick (the Independent, Pi, Maverick's Wood Grill) to convert the place into a neighborhood restaurant (it helped to already have a working kitchen on the premises, the original home of Rustica Bakery).

Sticking closely to an all-American format, Hedrick doesn't offer a lot of surprises, but the cooking is fresh and satisfying, the brand of straightforward and affordable fare a person can rely upon when confronted by a distinct lack of interest in preparing a meal at home.

In a lot of ways, Jack's fills the drop-in void created after Blackbird, which was just four blocks to the south, was destroyed in a February 2010 fire and relocated to 38th and Nicollet late last year. While lunch and dinner are the main draws, no stone goes unturned, including a covers-the-basics weekday breakfast (and a fancier weekend brunch counterpart), a $12.99 Friday night fish fry and a terrific midafternoon weekday happy hour ($3 tap beers and wine pours, fun $1 snacks).

At noon, the emphasis is on well-made sandwiches -- love the seasonally appropriate sun-dried tomato BLT, and the knockout of a burger -- a few decent salads and a pile of wickedly good cheese curds. In the evening, Hedrick gets a little more serious, turning out big-portion dishes that you might make at home if you had the inclination, and the ingredients: a handful of house-made pastas (best is the hearty beef tip stroganoff), rich slow-braised short ribs and sweet pan-seared scallops with an ultra-creamy blue cheese risotto. Top price is $17, although most fall in the low teens.

Desserts are a weak spot -- I can't muster enthusiasm for the various chocolate layer cakes I've encountered -- but that creates an excuse to hoof it down 46th Street to Patisserie 46 or the new Sun Street Breads. The handsome, comfortable space is all autumn colors and sunshine pouring through big glass garage-door-style windows, and the sidewalk tables remain a premium south Minneapolis respite. "Perky" and "quick" best describe the service.

818 W. 46th St., Mpls., 612-825-2183, www.jacksmpls.com

Italian in Mac-Groveland

Sometimes service can make all the difference.

Food-wise, Scusi isn't the best Italian restaurant in the Twin Towns, although I'd venture that it's not trying to be, either. But it could certainly rack up awards for its sharp and enthusiastic service staff.

Along with its aims-to-please crew, this latest venture of the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. (Highland Grill, Groveland Tap, 3 Squares) has a lot going for it. For starters, the mostly Italian wine program is a keeper and a model for moderately priced restaurants everywhere. Also noteworthy is the long list of wine-friendly small plates, starting with a well-sourced variety of cheeses, cured meats and olives, all sold by single bites or in mix-and-match combos (also noteworthy: the flirtatiously spicy veal meatballs, the crostini topped with succulent duck confit and sweet figs, the thinly sliced eggplant wrapped, cannoli-style, around seasoned chevre).

The kitchen knows how to put up a memorable salad, whether it's a platter of grilled vegetables or a lovely plate of roasted beets with salty blue cheese. The rest of the menu is a bit hit-or-miss. Better to enjoy pizza elsewhere; the crusts are dull and formulaic, and they're clumsily topped. Osso bucco, chicken piccata, steak Florentine and other Italian-American classics receive dutiful if predictable preparations, and for every hearty lasagna (layered with eggplant, spinach, pine nuts and ricotta) and slow-cooked lamb ragout spooned over house-made pappardelle, there's a disappointingly fishy shrimp ravioli, or a gummy plate of angel hair pasta barely dressed with tomatoes and pecorino.

Prices rarely venture above $13, another bonus. As for dessert, unless it's a few scoops of Izzy's ice cream, skip it. The former Heartland has been given a sparkling makeover; the cozy wine bar has quickly become one of my new favorite destinations for a soothing pinot noir and a few bites.

1806 St. Clair Av., St. Paul, 651-789-7007, www.scusistpaul.com

Same good looks, great new tastes

"This is a really good time to be eating in our restaurant," said my beyond-sweet server at Uptown Cafeteria. When I asked why I'd hit the dining-out jackpot, she replied, "We have a new menu by Tim McKee, one of the nation's top chefs."

Good to know. The La Belle Vie chef, following in the footsteps of his successful makeover next door at Il Gatto -- also owned by Cafeteria parent company Parasole Restaurant Holdings -- and obviously flourishing in his burgeoning new role as a culinary consultant, has injected a serious dose of quality and imagination into this populist Uptowner, which opened last summer with a menu that didn't really match the photo-shoot surroundings.

No longer. What's missing in this kitchen reboot, thankfully, is a commensurate level of seriousness. The food, and the vibe, are still playfully Retro Diner. Prices remain firmly focused on the post-college crowd, and portions continue to be gi-hugic.

Fantastic turkey burger? Check. What might be the city's most impressive tuna melt? Yep. The kind of grilled cheese-tomato soup combo that Mom used to make on snow days, only better? Gotcha. Cream cheese blended with roasted shallots, along with bits of hard-cooked egg and crisp pieces of rye toast, were perfect complements to velvety cold-smoked salmon. I loved the lowbrow snack plate, which consists of a few thick slices of summer sausage from Kramarczuk (described by my server as "a famous little deli in northeast Minneapolis"), a few delicious pieces of aged Cheddar and a pimento-flecked cheese ball, the likes of which I have not seen -- and adored -- since the late 1970s.

The rib-sticking entrees include more-than-passable editions of Cheddar-choked grits with snappy grilled shrimp and hefty cuts of smoky bacon, half and full racks of generously glazed baby back ribs, crispy-skinned fried chicken paired with tender biscuits and other comfort-food classics.

As for dessert, the malts rank right up there, but Parasole baker Adrienne Odom is embracing pies, big time, filling light, flaky crusts (secret ingredient: lard) with tons of tender, well-seasoned apples or silky, ultra-rich chocolate mousse and a ruffled dome of sweet whipped cream. Don't miss them.

3001 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-877-7263, www.uptowncafeteria.com

Fry, baby, fry

Finally, there can never be too many doughnut shops, which is why I was so pleased to encounter Yo Yo Donuts & Coffee Bar. Was it wrong of me to snicker when I saw that the shop's neighbor was a diet center?

I taste-tested my way through a dozen treats, and while there were no ah-ha moments -- the raised doughnuts would benefit from a lighter, yeastier lift, and some of the cake doughnuts, which have a pleasant crumb, had a lingering butter-flavored-Crisco-esque aftertaste -- I fell head over heels for the fabulous long Johns dressed in a lavish layer of maple icing and topped with a crispy strip of bacon. Throw in a carton of Minute Maid and you've covered four of the five basic breakfast food groups, right?

Also impressive were the raised-dough rounds, liberally glazed with chocolate or vanilla icing and filled with gooey dabs of Bavarian cream. Prices are competitive (that ode to bacon-maple goodness is a steep $1.99, but worth it), they're pouring freshly brewed-by-the-cup coffees, with beans that hail from the quality-obsessed Dogwood Coffee Co. The hip, cheery setting is a welcome contrast to the dull strip-mall address.

5757 Sanibel Dr., Minnetonka, 952-960-1800, www.yoyodonuts.com

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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