Critic Rick Nelson takes a first look at the ever-expanding array of Minneapolis restaurants.
At Broders' Antipasto Bar, Michael Hoolihan serves wine to Jay Krough, Susan Smith and Alayne Krough of Minneapolis and Andrew Smulski of Pittsburgh. In background are sous chefs Laurel Somerville and Elizabeth Tinnucci and chef Michael Rostance talking to Katie Mader and Anna Martignacco.
My summer ideal: sunny skies, light breeze and upper 70s. Oh, and a seat at the new outdoor antipasto bar at Broders' Pasta Bar. With its state-of-the-art cooking facilities -- gift-wrapped in smooth limestone counters and pretty landscaping -- owner Molly Broder's new toy is bound to inspire a tremendous amount of outdoor kitchen envy.
It's also going to transform the wait-for-a-seat experience at this perennially popular restaurant. In past summers, diners could do little more than sip wine while waiting for the host to call their name. Now they can snack on a well-considered and well-prepared small-plates menu prior to heading inside for the main event. Me? With the scent of sizzling Minnesota-raised lamb floating off the grill and the wine list's crisp Sicilian rosé hitting the spot, pasta was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I kept my perch at the bar and ordered a light, multicourse meal.
The selection is simple and delicious. Nibbles ($2 to $4) include tender gorgonzola-laced biscuits topped with a sweet-smoky tomato butter, crispy house-made breadsticks and almonds rubbed with a gently spicy kick. On the cold side ($3 and $9), there's a marvelous salad of white beans, fennel, arugula and tart bits of orange, as well as a few cured meats from Seattle-based Salumi (the swell artisan shop run by Mario Batali's father) paired with a pert house-made candied fruit sauce and a lovely slice of pecorino dressed with floral-scented honey and juicy blackberries.
The grill gets put to very good use ($5 to $10) by roasting sweet red bell peppers and slow-burn shishito peppers, putting sizzle into Minnesota-raised baby lamb chops, searing Italian sausages and cool grapes (and finishing the combo with a rich balsamic reduction). It pumps garlic and lemon into calamari and adds heat to shrimp and asparagus and then wraps them, respectively, with uncured bacon and prosciutto.
Summer in the city doesn't get much better than this.
Victory 44 is the third restaurant in as many years to jump into the trim brick storefront anchoring the corner of 44th and Penn. Drop the building into the south Minneapolis street grid (a hypothetical exercise, since the intersection would be submerged off Lake Harriet's western shore), and the location would be hot stuff. But this address lies in the Victory neighborhood on the city's restaurant-starved North Side, where success requires a whole lot more than mere geography.
I'm thinking the restaurant's skinny, gently salty house-made potato chips might be a smart first nudge toward black ink. Co-owners Erick Harcey and Ben Hiza treat them like a salutation, serving them by the basket with a punchy crème fraîche-chive-Grana Padano (in the Parmesan family of cheese) dip; the winning combination speaks volumes about this engaging new enterprise in just a few delicious bites. But rather than letting the menu do the talking, I asked Harcey to put his business plan into words. He described the venture as a cost-conscious twist on the gastropub. "But not so pork-driven," he said. "More neighborhood-oriented."
It's not exactly a game-changing formula, but the menu's scratch cooking, attention to detail and affordablity (most prices falling below the midteens) are refreshing. Highlights include bacon-wrapped dates that shine with a brandy glaze. Cold, medium-sized prawns have a cool, snappy bite. Fried calamari is crispy outside, tender inside. A thick blue cheese dressing and bits of smoky bacon make an iceberg wedge stand out. There's a burger with fries (the house-made ketchup is a treat), roast chicken, tempura-quality fish and chips, a decent charcuterie plate and a nicely sloppy Reuben, just the kind of easygoing, everyday fare to keep the neighborhood coming back, often.
From noon on, Harcey drops the word lunch in favor of daytime. "Because my favorite meal is breakfast, but I never eat it for breakfast," he said. That explains why half the offerings have a hearty a.m. vibe: fish cakes Benedict, corned beef hash, French toast with bananas and walnuts, sausage gravy over buttermilk biscuits.
Harcey, a longtime Nicollet Island Inn vet, and Hiza -- both the Inn and 20.21 are on his résumé -- have plans to take the concept to other metro-area neighborhoods ("It's a very good time for finding real estate," said Harcey); their Gas.tro.nome, which was scheduled to have opened this spring, is still on the planning board for the space just a few doors down from the new Butcher Block in northeast Minneapolis. Props to Harcey and Hiza for test-driving their strategy in an area of the city that's crying out for dining venues.
"I kind of wonder why people don't know about this neighborhood," said Harcey. "It's such a gorgeous area and the neighborhood has already been so hospitable to us. It's really one of the gems of the city."
2203 44th Av. N., Minneapolis, 612-588-2228, www.victory-44.com. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.Cutting it up on East Hennepin
Turning around a troubled location is no easy feat. That's why their infectious, glass-half-full optimism is one of the many reasons why I admire restaurateurs. Case in point: former I Nonni chefs Filippo Caffari and Darin Koch. They're following in the footsteps of the Victory 44 crew by taking on a challenged address, the oddly configured northeast Minneapolis spot that was, until this past winter, home to Fugaise. At their Butcher Block, the duo are aiming for a casual, midpriced neighborhood trattoria with an emphasis on house-butchered meats.
The menu gets right to the point, with four $14 pastas (pork ragu over spaghetti, ravioli filled with lamb ragu and mint), an equal number of $17 entrees (a daily fish special, braised short ribs) and a handful of starters ($5 to $12), including a half-dozen crostini ($6). After 9 p.m., the focus shifts to sandwiches ($10), including pulled turkey, prime rib and a half-pound lamb burger, as well as a handful of egg dishes ($8), all prepared until 2 a.m. four days a week and 4 a.m. the other three -- truly late-night hours, how great is that? Another plus: the moderately priced, mostly-Italian wine list, with 16 options going for $5 a glass and $15 a bottle.
The puzzle, at least to me, lies in the menu's centerpiece: platters piled high with a dozen plump chicken wings, each order done up in one of a parade of flavor finishes, from strawberry-balsamic and green coconut-curry to coriander-cumin-lime and honey-mustard. It's a highly edible idea, but I wonder: If someone in the kitchen is putting a cleaver between chickens and their wings, what's happening to the rest of all of those birds? The menu features a tasty chicken liver crostini, a straight-up chicken breast entree and a pounded breast that's part of a grilled-meats platter, but that's it in the pollo department. Mathematics has never been my strong suit, but something here doesn't quite add up.
Does it matter? Not really. I'll retire the abacus and concentrate on the gnocchi.
308 E. Hennepin Av., Minneapolis, 612-455-1080, www.thebutcherblockrestaurant.com. Open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.