Join the conversation during Rick Nelson's weekly live Web chats. (There's one Thursday, from noon to 1 p.m.). Here's a sample dialogue, culled from a few weeks of chats.
Q Which "chef-driven" restaurant does the best work when the chef is not on the premises?
A The crew that Alex Roberts has in his kitchen at Restaurant Alma (528 University Av. SE., Mpls., www.restaurantalma.com) knows his ethos the way I know my way through my house in the dark. They've worked for him for years, and they're an extraordinarily talented group of chefs. I'd also put the crew at La Belle Vie (510 Groveland Av., Mpls., www.labellevie.us) up there, led by veteran chef de cuisine Mike DeCamp.
Q Along with La Belle Vie, what other restaurants are offering tasting menus?
A Plenty. Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market (289 E. 5th St., St. Paul, www.heart landrestaurant.com), Heidi's (2903 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., www.heidismpls.com), Vincent (1100 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., www.vincent arestaurant.com), Travail Kitchen and Amusements (4154 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale) and W.A. Frost & Co. (374 Selby Av., St. Paul, www.wafrost.com). And, of course, there's Piccolo (4300 Bryant Av. S., Mpls., www.piccolompls.com), where chef Doug Flicker creates a lineup that's essentially a build-your-own tasting menu. It is a remarkable dining experience, in every way.
Q Any suggestions for a beginner's cooking class in the cities?
Q Best hot chocolate?
A That's easy. Hands down, it's Kopplin's Coffee (2038 Marshall Av., St. Paul, www.kopplins coffee.com).
Q Where is the best brunch spot in Minneapolis-St. Paul?
A I've always loved the brunch at Spoonriver (750 S. 2nd St., Mpls., www.spoonriver.com) and I'm a huge fan of brunch at Tilia (2726 W. 43rd St., Mpls., www.tiliampls.com). Be'wiched also does an excellent and slightly offbeat brunch. I really enjoy brunch at the Modern Cafe (337 13th Av. NE., Mpls., www. moderncafeminneapolis.com):great stick-to-your-ribs food and reasonable prices, in one of the city's coolest rooms. Oh, and I've been having brunch at Lucia's (1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., www.lucias.com) since the late 1980s, and have always enjoyed it. That's saying something.
Q Any suggestions on the best brunches in St. Paul? Preferrably with a bloody Mary bar.
A I'd send you to the Strip Club (378 Maria Av., St. Paul, www.domeats.com), which has an excellent bar and terrific brunch fare.
Q What's your must-order item (or two) on the menu at Saffron Restaurant & Lounge (123 N. 3rd St., Mpls., www.saffronmpls.com)?
A I'd definitely start (wait, scratch that: I'd definitely end) with the tagines; they are some of my favorite things to eat in the Twin Cities right now. The kofta meatballs are incredible. The whole roasted branzini, definitely. And if I were seated at the bar, I would order the lamb bacon BLT.
Q Favorites at Bar La Grassa (800 Washington Av. N., Mpls., www.barlagrassa.com)?
A Where to begin? Calamarata with raw tuna. Soft eggs and lobster. Cavatelli with rabbit. Ricotta pizzette. Cauliflower gnocchi, with orange. How's that?
Q What are your favorite Friday fish fry locations in the metro?
A I'm all over the one at Red Stag Supperclub (509 1st Av. NE., Mpls., www.redstagsupperclub.com), which uses Wisconsin-raised tilapia. And the smelt fries (ordered a la carte) are phenomenal.
Q Where can I get the best Philly cheese steak in Minneapolis-St. Paul area?
A I'm sorry to say that you're not going to find what you're truly hankering for, unless you head to Pennsylvania. I would love to see the guys at Be'wiched Deli (800 Washington Av. N., Mpls., www.bewicheddeli.com) tackle the Philly cheese steak. They're the best sandwich makers in the Twin Cities.
Q I just moved to Bloomington from downtown Minneapolis and I would like to know the hidden gems in Bloomington.
A Two that I really like? Parma 8200 (5600 W. 83rd St., Bloomington, www.parma8200.com) in the Normandale Lake office complex at 494 and 100. It's owned by the D'Amico culinary/industrial complex, and it's terrific. I'm dreaming about that butterscotch budino as I type. I also love, love Wally's Famous Roast Beef Sandwiches (8120 Penn Av. S., Bloomington, www.wallysroastbeef.com) across the street from Southtown. It's a relatively new location for the quick-service icon, and it's terrific.
Q Travail and Tilia have been able to draw standing-room crowds in spite (or because?) of not taking any reservations. Will their success lead to more of this? And what are your feelings about the policy in general?
A To be honest, the policy makes this diner crazy. With Tilia, I get it: It's a neighborhood restaurant; ditto with Travail. They're both casual and informal. But mobbed. It might be slightly easier to deal with if both restaurants dealt with the onslaught of customers, but in my experience it can be frustrating. But so worth the bother, at both, honest. My final thought: Lucia Watson, a model restaurateur, has been reserving half of her dining room, and leaving the other half open to walk-ins, for more than 25 years, and it seems to work for her. Quite well, actually.
Q My in-laws are Vietnamese. Where is the best Vietnamese restaurant in the Twin Cities?
A In my humble opinion, it's Ngon Vietnamese Bistro (799 W. University Av., St. Paul, www.ngonbistro.com). Chef/co-owner Hai Truong is really into beer, and I particularly admire how he sources his proteins and vegetables from local farmers, which gives his food a fresh, flavorful edge. It's an exceptional restaurant.
Q What's your take on restaurants with "mixologists" rather than bartenders? A fad, or here to stay?
A I think it's here to stay. It won't work for every establishment, but I'm loving the trend that cocktails are getting the same TLC as the food in the kitchen.
Q Best food at a brewpub?
A Oh, boy, that's tough, because I don't know that we have a brewpub that does get that combination of really great house-brewed beer and really inspiring food. I would probably go with Herkimer (2922 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., www.theherkimer.com). I like a lot of the food coming out of the kitchen, and I really admire the beer. Its sibling down the street, moto-i (2940 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., www.moti-i.com) is probably better at doing both, although in that case it's sake, not beer.
Q Is there anywhere to buy good fish besides Coastal Seafoods (2330 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls., and 74 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul, www.coastalseafoods.com)? I have tried the upscale grocery stores and they seem to be hit-and-miss.
A Coastal is really the place in the Twin Cities. But here's a tip: For freshwater fish (Lake Superior, Rainy Lake), check out the market at Heartland.
Q Wondering if you have been to Rosa Mexicano (609 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., www.rosamexicano.com). Is it worthwhile?
A I have. I reviewed it in December, 2 1/2 stars. I liked it, more for the ambience and the bar program than for the food, which felt/tasted fairly corporate. But that said, it's a higher-end corporate than we've seen here. It's worth a visit, and I'm happy that it's occupying that corner of 6th and Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis.
Q What are your favorite restaurants in Las Vegas?
A Funny you should ask, I was there last week. I was delighted to dine at Twist (Mandarin Oriental Hotel) Lotus of Siam (off the Strip), Bartolotta's (Wynn), Jaleo (Cosmopolitan) and Central (Caesars Palace). I also got a kick out of Secret Pizza (Cosmopolitan), a late-night slice shop.
Q With baseball season on the horizon, what is your favorite food option at Target Field?
A It's an old saw, but I'll say it again: the awesome grilled sausages from Kramarczuk's. This year I'm hoping for some decent Target Field ice cream.
Q What's the hottest restaurant/food trend, and where locally would we see and experience this?
A Here's one from Boston: The chef/owner of Oleana, Ana Sortun, opened a much more casual restaurant called Sofra, and it was my favorite meal during a recent trip to that city. We've seen that here a bit -- Alex Roberts with Brasa (600 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., and 777 Grand Av., St. Paul, www.brasa.us) -- but I'd love to see more. Also, more food trucks, please. I'm looking forward to a long, hot, food truck-filled summer.
Q We got a $100 gift certificate to any Parasole restaurant, and missed a chance to use it at Il Gatto. We're not big Salut Bar Americain (5034 France Av. S., Mpls., and 917 Grand Av., St. Paul, www.salutbaramericain.com) fans, and don't want to deal with parking at Chino Latino (2916 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., www.chinolatino.com). Should we nosh at Manny's, (825 Marquette Av. S., Mpls., www.mannyssteakhouse.com), have a full meal at Muffuletta (2260 Como Av., St. Paul, muffuletta.com), drink (a little) at Manny's, or use it some other way?
A I think you missed something special at Il Gatto. Chef Jim Christiansen was cooking up a storm there. Here's what I'd do: I'd use it for movie night at the Edina theaters at 50th and France, and run over to Mozza Mia (3910 W. 50th St., Edina, www.mozzamia.com) for a delicious pizza and some of the hand-pulled mozzarella.
Q If we receive very poor service, how should we tip?
A I thought it was interesting that both Twin Cities etiquette experts I spoke with (for a recent story on tipping) said virtually the same thing: If the service is poor, tip 10 percent, and ask to speak to the manager. Stiffing the server isn't the answer: It could be misconstrued as having forgotten to tip, or the poor service you received could have been the fault of the kitchen.
Q Where can one find a good bialy?
A I'd say Rye (1930 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., www.ryedeli.com).
Q Do you only visit/write on new places? How do you keep the buzz going regarding great eats?
A I generally stick to new places, yes (putting the new in newspaper), but I think it's important to go back and revisit established restaurants, and find ways to get them into the newspaper. For example, each Sunday in the Variety section I highlight three restaurants.
Q Oceanaire Seafood Room (50 S. 6th St., Mpls., www.theoceanaire.com) is my partner's favorite. How is the new location?
A I like it, if only because dining there no longer involves the soul-sucking trudge through the depressing Hyatt Regency Hotel's shopping mall. It seems to have a new vitality now that it's on a busy street corner. And they're serving lunch, which is a good thing.
Q What would be a good alternative to an Oceanaire type menu if someone does not want to spend that much?
Q What do you think will be the next big thing in fast casual food similar to Chipotle and Noodles & Co.?
A Chipotle has a new concept, ShopHouse, and I imagine that the Asian-inspired chain is going to be huge. The first one opened in Washington, D.C., last year.
Q Recommendations in the east metro?
A Here are two places: Acqua (4453 S. Lake Av., White Bear Lake, www.acquawbl.com) and the Hanger Room (310 Stillwater Rd., Willernie, www.thehangerroom.com). Oh, and I like the Green Room (215 S. Main St., Stillwater, www.greenreoomstillwater.com) a lot, along with Ursula's Wine Bar (2125 4th St., White Bear Lake, www.ursulaswb.com).
Q Is there a dish you prefer to make at home as opposed to eat out? And vice versa?
A My editor just suggested popovers, and she's right. I have a thing for popovers, and I love to make them, although I also love to encounter them at restaurants, if they are prepared properly, which they rarely are. It's funny, I love to do really simple cooking at home, like a great roast chicken, but I find that I'd rather have a great chef's version instead; it's always so much better. I had dinner at the Craftsman (4300 E. Lake St., Mpls., www.craftsmanrestaurant.com) last night, and had a fantastic roast chicken with gnocchi, and I could have never made it so delicious on my own.