With Tilia, accomplished chef Steven Brown offers a genre-shaking take on the neighborhood restaurant. Diners rejoice, in droves.
The scallop was evaporating inside my mouth, collapsing on itself in a cloud of ethereal juiciness. It was one of those dining-out moments where my body's involuntarily response was to slump into my chair, block out everything else around me and wallow in the bliss that was enveloping my taste buds. Seriously, wow.
When I regained consciousness, I had one thought: Yeah, chef Steven Brown is back. Sing hallelujah.
That out-of-body experience was taking place at Tilia, the Linden Hills restaurant (Tilia, pronounced till-ee-ah, is the genus name for the linden tree) that Brown opened in March. It's the first time in a long career where Brown has also been on the ownership side of the equation. Given the dizzying heights to which Brown and business partner Jörg Pierach have catapulted the standard for neighborhood restaurants, I'd say that it's about time.
At the House of Brown, familiar favorites are energized anew, brilliantly, at remarkably accessible prices. I'll never eat another chicken wing after falling head-over-heels for Tilia's roasted chicken thighs, the dark meat bursting with rich chicken-ey flavor and enriched with a sort-of jerk seasoning, minus the smoke. The fish taco model is crossed with the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich, and the looky, tasty results are spectacular. The turkey burger is tops in its field, and the Reuben sports a corned beef that can only be described as dreamy.
I particularly admire how Brown writes his menu, inserting a little bit of his life experience -- travel, friendships, his rural South Dakota upbringing, punk rock -- into each dish. Snappy grilled shrimp, paired with cool, bright spring peas, was born from an impromptu dinner he whipped up for his wife. Gravlax is an homage to former Nick & Eddie chef Steve Vranian, who taught Brown how to prepare the Swedish classic, a supple and beautifully presented version with the flavors of dill and juniper hovering in and out of each bite.
A catering gig's demands fomented the delicious idea of serving house-made grilled flat breads with a fruity olive oil and an addicting blend of cumin, coriander and toasted almonds. Brown also hoists the humble hot dog (actually, a pair of them per serving) up on a pedestal, cranking up the Chicago-style embellishments with sharply pickled cauliflower, strips of crisp bacon, a sharp stone-ground mustard and sprightly sprigs of dill, proving that hot dogs are an amazingly versatile flavor-delivery vehicle. The idea sprang from an ill-fated proposal, pre-Tilia, for the Lake Harriet refectory.
Smart snack ideas abound, whether it's grilled bread spread with house-made mozzarella, or the world's most luscious chicken liver pâté topped with a sweet-pungent swipe of puréed eggplant seasoned with fenugreek and honey. I've developed a serious craving for the snappy-skinned grilled kielbasa, dressed with a sprinkle of crispy garlic and laid out on a bed of sinfully creamy whipped potatoes.
True to Brownian form, the complex soups -- the dishes I most fondly remember from his stint at Porter & Frye -- are little adventures in a bowl, filled with surprise ingredients and carefully calibrated tastes. Salads are so artfully composed -- a sculpture garden in beets, a peony in full bloom constructed with miniature Romaine leaves -- that it's almost a shame to dig into them.
After boring a friend senseless with the minute details of a pork tenderloin so tender it could be cut with a dull-edge spoon, pot roast slow-braised in red wine until every molecule seemed to burst with beefy flavor and gloriously fat-rimmed, ruby red duck, he delivered an alarming diagnosis. "You sound as if you have the culinary equivalent of Bieber fever," he said. Guilty as charged.
If only the dining experience were the equal of the eating experience, a comment that in no way impugns the hospitable, hard-working service staff. There just doesn't seem to be enough within their ranks to meet the demands of the crush of customers that routinely rain down upon the restaurant.
"Why does this place often feel as if a few servers called in sick?" asked a pal as we passed the 20-minute mark -- one of many tantric-length waits I encountered -- since our beleaguered server had cleared away our entrees. At that point our lunch hour had tipped well past the point of no return, and we were forced to depart, minus a crack at the caramel-drenched date cake, a drool-worthy delight that had been calling our names since one had landed at an adjacent table. Bummer.
For me, a major issue is the less-than-adequate door management, which, coupled with a frustrating no-reservations policy and the distinct lack of anything resembling a lobby, can quickly escalate the vulture-like impulses I witnessed among the Hungry and the Impatient. Little touches -- chipped dishes, tarnished flatware, stained menus -- also broadcast a sort of harried neglect.
Back to the swooning
Still, there are countless other reasons to love, big-time. Start with the setting. All traces of the former Rice Paper have been obliterated, replaced by an animated storefront, its width bookended by an L-shaped bar and fascinating kitchen counter where Brown's ultra-cool-under-pressure kitchen crew -- Patrick Carroll, Sean Little, David Dahmes, Shane Oporto and chef de cuisine Sam Miller -- work their magic. It's a front-row ticket to Ivey Award-worthy dinner theater.
The build-out was a protracted do-it-yourself-er (Brown got up to speed on tile-laying by watching YouTube instructional videos), but the good-looking results don't resemble a craft project. Its cozy appeal only underscores the sad absence of modestly scaled eating-and-drinking venues in the Twin Cities.
Then there's brunch. Brown & Co. are demonstrating just exactly how to tackle this too-often tossed-off meal, deftly turning out one winning, imaginative dish after another. The top of the heap is what's easily the City of Lakes' most awesome way to greet the weekend: delicate cornmeal waffles topped with perfectly poached eggs, chunks of sweet poached lobster and so much supple hollandaise that it should be served with a cardiac defibrillator. It's a dish I could happily consume every Saturday. And Sunday. Forever.
Dessert, which bears the whimsical touch of consultant Zöe François, is also similarly fetching, with the aforementioned date cake -- an exercise in butter, love and chutzpah -- at the front of the pack, and the sublime butterscotch pot de crème running a close second.
Oh, and if I were a parent, my brood and I would definitely be beating a path to 43rd and Upton. That's because Tilia is that rare restaurant that views its under-12 patrons as diners possessed with discerning palates, a refreshing and enlightened development for a demographic too often grudgingly acknowledged by a lowest-common-denominator menu.
A caution: Be prepared. Chances are, you'll be waiting for a table.