When temperatures drop, Minnesotans instinctively turn to soup, taking refuge in everything from pho to chicken noodle. Rather than turn their backs on winter, many Twin Cities chefs find inspiration in our deep-freeze climate, conjuring up magic in their soup pots. A typical response comes from Ben Jacoby of the Craftsman in Minneapolis. “I love making soup,” he said. “It’s not like a steak, that you salt and pepper and put on the grill. With soup, you really have to put time, and attention, and love into it.”
Here are nine standouts:
Every swoon-worthy spoonful of the onion soup at Cafe Levain represents hours and hours of slow, deliberate cooking. Chef Adam Vickerman constantly maintains a pot of carefully caramelizing onions on the stove — their natural sweetness countered by gentle vinegar notes — and the intensely flavorful veal knuckle stock, nurtured overnight on a low simmer, is embellished with scraps of rib eye. Each heavy crock is capped with a pungent Fontina cheese and cleverly garnished with sweet, cornstarch-coated onion rings. What a bargain: All that labor, for $8.
4762 Chicago Av. S., Mpls., 612-823-7111, www.cafelevain.com
The first surprise regarding the lentil soup ($5 and $9) at the Kenwood is its texture: Instead of chewy legumes — in this case, French green lentils — it’s a smooth purée. The second? The sigh-inducing smoky pork flavor. (“If you’re a chef, and you’re not a vegetarian, you’re always thinking, ‘That would be so good with pork,’ ” said chef/owner Don Saunders with a laugh.) Smoked ham hocks — from Fischer Farms in Waseca, Minn., a summit in Midwestern pork circles — is the principal player in the soup’s stock. As for the garnish, it’s tidy little dices of whatever root vegetable — celery root, parsnip, Chioggia beets — happen to be occupying the restaurant’s larder. Oh, and shredded ham hock, of course.
2115 W. 21st St., Mpls., 612-377-3695, www.the kenwoodrestaurant.com
Belmore/New Skyway Lounge
At the Belmore/New Skyway Lounge, Doug Anderson refers to his cooking as “idiot-proof,” but no dummy could craft the superb tomato bisque ($5) served at this breakfast-to-late-night-er. It’s simplicity itself, with roasted Roma tomatoes underscored by slow-sweated onions, traces of garlic and rosemary and a splash of cream. Its vivid color is an eye-catching contrast to the bright green (and bright-tasting) pesto garnish. Enjoy it with one of Anderson’s warm, melt-in-your-mouth buttermilk biscuits.
25 N. 4th St., Mpls., 239-300-6975
When dining at the Bachelor Farmer, the understandable temptation is to start a meal with chef Paul Berglund’s ingenious toasts. But a diversion into the kitchen’s masterful soups ($8) is similarly rewarding. The current talker is a gossamer potato-sunchoke soup, as pale as a sun-starved Scandinavian and as modest in its nuanced riches. At its center: Manila clams, steamed in white wine, then marinated in a tangy sort-of vinaigrette made using a reduction of that clam juice and wine. The only downside? Root vegetable season isn’t going to last forever (when was the last time you heard that lament?).
The Bachelor Farmer, 50 2nd Av. N., Mpls., 612-206-3920, www.thebachelorfarmer.com
One don’t-miss item on the newly rolled-out lunch menu at Rustica — a collaboration with Victory 44’s Erick Harcey — is chef Jen Farni’s spectacular cream of cauliflower soup ($8). “I wanted to use components that the bakery already had on hand,” she said, which explains why a deep bowl arrives with shaved hazelnuts and a painterly swoosh of puréed currants enhanced with clove and cinnamon. Pickled cauliflower florets round out the cleverly crunchy-chewy-sweet-tangy garnish, then comes the big finish: that silken soup, dramatically poured from a glass jar. It’s as gorgeous as it is delicious, and it sets a pretty lofty standard for Farni’s soon-to-come dinner menu.
3220 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-822-1119, www. rusticabakery.com
It’s a good thing that Craftsman diners are crazy about their Wisconsin-raised trout, because that demand leaves chef Ben Jacoby with a happy surplus of trout bellies, which he puts to exceedingly good use. After gently running the delicate fish through a cold-smoke process, Jacoby and his crew turn their attention to flavor-building, extracting every last tasty molecule from chicken bones for building a stock, and seasoning the soup pot by browning hearty, house-made pancetta. Potatoes and cream come next and then, moments before it leaves the kitchen, in goes the main attraction: generous, mouth-melting chunks of that barely smoky trout. A swirl of paprika-infused oil and a few colorful and crispy shoestrings of fried sweet potatoes later, and a memorable dinner ($7) is served.
4300 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-722-0175, www. craftsmanrestaurant.com
There isn’t a time-honored tradition behind the salsa mai fun soup ($7) at ChinDian Cafe. “I made it up,” said co-owner Nina Wong with a laugh. Turns out Wong had leftover pico de gallo from a catering gig, and incorporated its tomato-onion-jalapeño building blocks into a golden chicken broth and long, slurp-inducing (and gluten-free) rice noodles. Tangy and not-too-spicy (that’s reserved for the kitchen’s incendiary red curry noodle soup), it’s a melting-pot spin on traditional chicken noodle soup, and a customer favorite. “Who knows?” said Wong with a laugh. “One day we just might open a noodle soup shop.”
1500 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-676-1818, www.chindiancafe.com