Restaurant review: Mona is a hidden gem

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2012 - 11:18 AM

If you can find the restaurant, you'll discover a delightful meal of small plates.

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Pop quiz: Identify the Accenture Tower on the Minneapolis skyline. You can't, right?

That's a bummer for chef Lisa Hanson. Her Mona Restaurant & Bar is located just off the swank, marble-swathed lobby of the edifice formerly known as Lincoln Centre, Metropolitan Centre and Andersen Consulting Tower, and while the House of Hanson isn't particularly easy to find, the payoff for doing so can be considerable.

If I didn't know any better, I'd wager that Hanson's menu, roughly two dozen eclectic and well-constructed small plates, is catered to appeal to my own personal dining-out habits. You know, a little of this, a little of that, with affordable, user-friendly forays into unfamiliar territory.

For those curious about elk, here's your opportunity: Hanson selects a lean, deeply flavorful grass-fed rib-eye (like most proteins on Hanson's menu, it's a sane 3-ounce portion), grills it to coax out a gorgeous crimson color and dresses it with a mellow rosemary-scented Hollandaise and golden, thin-cut fries. It's an unintimidating $13 foray into game meats, repackaged in the more familiar guise of steak frites, and it's not to be missed.

Rabbit and foie gras get a brilliant double-header, the former braised to supreme juiciness and served over a bread pudding laced with the latter, its richness cut with tart rhubarb. More rhubarb plays against more liver in the form of a chicken liver pâté, swiped on toast and dressed with a tangy rhubarb compote. Another open sandwich treat: creamy, decadent beef bone marrow, spooned from carefully brined and roasted bones, with a sweet apple butter and raisins balancing out the beefy bite.

I can't imagine visiting Mona and not partaking in the shrimp salad, generously ladled over crispy toasted brioche. The cool, refreshing poached shrimp has just the right juicy texture, and it's finished with a sprightly chive oil, tons of garden-fresh dill and delicate, Lake Superior-sourced herring roe; it's the kind of snack you hope to encounter at cocktail parties and never do.

Hanson is slightly obsessed with pork, specifically bacon, which she produces in-house ("You would too, if you knew how easy it is to make," she told me) and offers to her customers at a dollar a pop on any dish.

"It's my version of super-sizing," she said with a laugh. Hanson's bacon is well-pedigreed -- the pork is sourced from Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, Minn. -- and with the drop of a buck it transforms many of the menu's vegetarian-friendly high points into veritable porkfests.

A succulent roasted artichoke, topped with a poached egg? Even better with bacon. A tantalizingly creamy polenta, studded with a medley of earthy mushrooms? Bring on that bacon, which can be, by turns, tender or crisp or both. The world's creamiest hummus, jazzed with crisp pickled radishes and mellow roasted garlic, or an artfully composed white bean-watercress salad, peppered with pickled fiddlehead ferns? Lovely on their own, but irresistible with -- all together, now -- bacon.

"I like to smoke things," said Hanson, one of the year's great understatements. She keeps the process simple, just a wood chip-filled pan ("I don't like contraptions," she said with a laugh), and the results can be spectacular. It's a technique that never feels overused, reaching its pinnacle with knobbly-shelled, briny and bracingly clean-tasting Malpeque or Wellfleet oysters, which Hanson gingerly smokes for maybe five minutes, nudging them toward medium-well doneness and garnishing them with a splash of sherry vinegar, a well-calibrated response to the aromatic smoke. They are almost indecently delicious.

Other seafood options impress, too, most notably a snowy white halibut, fall-apart tender, wrapped in parchment-thin pancetta and resting in a pool of spring-green loveliness, a delicate parsley-ramp broth. Like much of her cooking, Hanson's sole foray into pasta is rooted in the Mediterranean, specifically Sardinia: Small balls of Israeli couscous-sized fregola, toasted to a nutty (in both looks and taste) brown and tossed with bright pops of basil and preserved lemon. I could happily eat it every day.

A few quibbles

Mona has its issues. Grilled salmon with that marvelous fregola was disappointingly overcooked; ditto a dried-out pan-roasted snapper. Kudos to a fried chicken-cornmeal waffle combo, but both were overwhelmed by the toothache-sweet honey-brown butter sauce that was standing in for maple syrup.

The kitchen's pace can be noticeably lethargic. Pastry chef Crystal Wenaas' work, which follows Hanson's smaller-is-better edict, is mixed; a dressed-up apple pie and a clever chocolate parfait hit all the right marks, but a pot de crème's supple texture was sidelined by its astringent saffron profile.

Despite having tweaked her lunch offerings, including boosting the portion size on several sandwiches, will Hanson be able to get downtowners to step outside their ingrained noon-hour comfort zones and embrace her small-plates philosophy? It's a risky gamble to take with her only captive audience, namely the white-collar tenants laboring away in the floors above. Here's hoping, anyway.

Smart Associates, the Minneapolis design firm, has done us a favor by removing all traces of the space's previous restaurant tenant. Mona's better half is its dark and cozy Art Nouveau-inspired bar, a throwback to the kinds of cozy, timeless hangouts that once defined the phrase "downtown watering hole."

My favorite feature of the oddly configured dining room is the counter facing into Hanson's gleaming white laboratory of a kitchen. That and the print of a Renoir portrait, a cherished hand-me-down from Hanson's grandmother, which acts as something of a tongue-in-cheek substitute for the Mona Lisa.

Good news, bad news

Back to the location. To say it's a sleeper is generous, and the building's shortcomings as a dining destination are numerous. Signage is so minimal that it's borderline nonexistent, and an act as basic as locating the proper entrance is a challenge. Even the building's website is uncooperative; there's no mention of the restaurant, at least not one I could find.

That sound you hear is my own muffled cry for help on Hanson's behalf, although she knows what she's doing; prior to becoming a chef, Hanson, a Winona, Minn., native, had a career in finance, and that business background clearly complements her culinary chops.

The address does have its bonuses. There's free evening parking in the building's underground ramp, a downtown rarity, and the enormous lawn -- originally intended as the site of a second, mirror-image tower, now a much-needed downtown green space -- acts as a scenic backdrop for the restaurant's otherwise spartan patio.

Oh, and aside from Hanson's intelligent, subtle cooking -- and general manager Christine Whitt's engaging hospitality -- the fact that laid-back Mona encourages rather than stifles conversation is reason enough to seek the answer the following ages-old question: Just where the heck is 333 S. 7th St., anyway?

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib

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  • Bar at the Mona Restaurant & Bar in downtown Minneapolis.

  • MONA RESTAURANT & BAR ★★★

    Web: www.monarestaurant.com

    Phone: 612-259-8636

    Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., 5-11 p.m. Sat.


    LOCATION

    333 S. 7th St., Mpls.

    Parking: Free evening parking in the underground ramp.


    ATMOSPHERE AND SERVICE

    Timelessly appealing bar with deep, comfortable booths. Service is attentive and accommodating.


    PRICE RANGES

    Average $8 per plate.


    RECOMMENDED DISHES

    Shrimp on brioche, smoked oysters, elk, halibut, white bean salad, rabbit and foie gras, fregola.


    WINE LIST

    Well selected and competitively priced (kudos to the sparkling and rosé choices). Decent beer roster. Full bar.


    SPECIAL MENUS

    Vegetarians can dine well. Small but appealing selection of happy-hour snacks, served 3 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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