Weekends at four Twin Cities restaurants are making a favorable impression on our restaurant critic.
Brunchers on the prowl for a fruit plate, granola-laced yogurt or other lightweight brunch items are advised to steer clear of HauteDish. It's not for you. Trust me.
But for those with a hankering for envelope-pushing -- and breezily cholesterol-laden -- brunch fare, you've totally placed yourself in good hands, because chef/co-owner Landon Schoenefeld applies his ever-tinkering culinary mind-set to this taken-for-granted meal, and adventure-seeking diners benefit. Enormously.
As a toddler, Schoenefeld must have been obsessed with Play-Doh, because as a grownup he seems fixated with reinvention. I love how he bends the classic Monte Cristo formula into something resembling a breakfast strata, finishing it with a rich foie gras mousse -- Schoenefeld is one of the Twin Cities' leading charcuterie practitioners -- and cutting each decadent bite by inserting pops of maple and raspberry. Ditto his ingenious open-faced Reuben Benedict, with its divine thick-cut, heart-attack-inducing corned beef, and cabbage coaxed into the consistency and gentle sweetness of caramelized onions.
I'm still daydreaming about his fried-chicken/sourdough-waffle combo, its uncharacteristic simplicity enriched by a bacon-infused syrup, because isn't everything better with bacon? There was a tease of fiery heat in the braised collard greens that adds a dash of color to a small mountain of tender, cheesy biscuits smothered in a maple sausage gravy. Naturally, Schoenefeld turned plain-old French toast into a celebration, dressing raisin brioche with peaches and pistachios.
The cool, dark environs are a refuge for the hangover-afflicted. Ditto the variety of carefully crafted bloody Marys, each packing a complex flavor wallop. There's no dessert, and it's not missed. After a meal like that, what sane person could handle it?
"Dim sum?" said my friend, his voice sounding the way I imagine it did when he was a kid, uttering the words Halloween candy or Christmas present. "I'm there." Soon enough we were parked at a table at Pagoda and watching the steam carts rumble past our table, stacked high with small, round, covered tins, each bearing a different serving of deliciousness.
There's a reason why the Cantonese call this particular style of small-plates dining "heart's delight," because there's truly something for everyone in this enormous, ever-changing assortment.
The usual suspects are all here -- shrimp, crab, pork, beef, tofu -- and they're presented in myriad ways: steamed buns, potstickers, dumplings, rice balls and fried concoctions. There are noodles and sweet pastries, too, and those who TiVo "Bizarre Foods" will enjoy the chicken feet and tripe specialties. (One wish: More steamed vegetables, please. Clams would be nice, too.)
It's all prepared fresh on the premises, no small asset in the heat-and-serve dim sum world. Prices are modest -- we sampled more dishes than this glutton cares to admit, and walked out paying less than $20 per person, gratuity included -- and service is casual, friendly and fast. Yeah, we'll be back, with a table full of friends.
If there were awards for making lemonade when handed a lemon, Chris Stevens and Gail Mollner would be showered with accolades. When a fire destroyed their south Minneapolis restaurant in February 2010, the couple bounced back by re-opening in a different and more spacious location, and they did it in less than a year, a herculean feat, both logistically and emotionally.
Their new and improved Blackbird is particularly appealing at brunch, when the airy room is soaked in sunlight and the expanded real estate accommodates the first-come, first-serve crowd. They line up early for a crack at Stevens' cooking, which nudges the familiar a.m. format in thoughtful, imaginative directions.
A zesty house-made chorizo adds a welcome kick to huevos rancheros. Slow-roasted oxtail beefs up a colorful root vegetable hash that's crowned with a pair of oozy, gently basted eggs. Instead of build-your-own omelets, the vehicle of choice is the frittata. There's a wonderfully smoky bite to salmon that's tossed with scrambled eggs and plenty of fresh dill. The hash browns -- tender on the inside, gently crispy on the outside -- are prepared with a deft touch, and fruit-packed muffins are a smart way to greet the day.
Stevens also shakes up his menu with a few seasonally minded specials. Last weekend, he was celebrating August with thick, golden pancakes packed with crunchy kernels of sweet corn, their candied bite tempered by green onions and a giant dollop of bacon-infused butter. We devoured every morsel, and we should have opted for seconds.
Mollner and her service staff handle the front of the house duties with grace and warmth; this is no anonymous "Welcome to Applebee's" setup. Top price is $13 -- for Stevens' fantastic cornmeal-crusted walleye po' boy, a beloved lunchtime staple -- but $9 buys what have to be the city's best Swedish pancakes, delicate beauties topped with tangy ricotta and a lively cranberry compote. Come on, Saturday, hurry up and get here already.
Chef Lenny Russo, the locavore's locavore, is now serving brunch at his Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market. Those voices you hear are a choir of foodie angels, because Russo's weekender menu, like its nighttime counterpart, is impeccably sourced and prepared.
The dozen or so entrees change seasonally, taking full advantage of the kitchen's unparalleled Midwestern-farms network, and it's peppered with marvelous surprises. My favorite: eggy brioche, toasted and topped with thick-cut house-cured ham, a runny poached duck egg and an ultra-silky, chive-flecked hollandaise sauce, a concoction I would happily consume for the next 52 weekends.
I loved the hearty buckwheat pancakes, dressed with a walnut butter and a flavorful apple syrup. For larger appetites, there's a grass-fed tenderloin steak with eggs and hash, a fried egg-topped breakfast burger and a fish of the day; on the morning I stopped in, it was gorgeous pan-fried Lake Superior herring.
All brunches should commence with Russo's scrupulous and generous cheese selection, paired with vibrant fruit chutneys and house-baked whole-grain crackers. The kitchen boils and bakes its own chewy bagels, topping them with velvety house-cured lake trout and rich cream cheese. Desserts are simple: a pastry assortment, or a few ice creams or sorbets, many boasting garden-fresh flavors.
Most entree prices hover in the $10 to $14 range. The serene dining room, previously a dinner-only venue, is lovely in daylight, and is conveniently perched across the street from the St. Paul Farmers Market. Don't leave without browsing through Russo's own farmers market, a key component of his impressive local-foods showplace.