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The appeal of a toast cannot be overstated.
We were deep in conversation when the ting-ting of an unseen bell chimed through the house, setting a ritual into motion. The crowd at the Northeast Social quickly raised their glasses, and a two-word chorus -- how did people know what to say? -- rang through the house. "The Social," they said, and a lovely camaraderie hung in the air for a few moments before chatter resumed.
I loved it. In standoffish Minnesota -- this is the place, after all, where communal dining tables come to die -- connecting with strangers, even for a few seconds, is no small feat. "It's a way for us to interact with our guests," co-owner Sam Bonin later told me. "And a way to keep our team on their toes, to raise their morale, you know what I mean?"
Absolutely. While Bonin and co-owner Joe Wagner keep the front of the house humming, chef Edward Hayes Jr. and his crew are cooking an engaging, uncomplicated and value-conscious menu. I'm not surprised that one of the best dishes I tasted all summer came out of his kitchen. Its honesty and integrity set the tone for the entire single-page menu. The dish? A chicken breast, butchered with the wing connection still attached and roasted, skin-side down. What a treat, encountering plain-old chicken so indecently flavorful and juicy.
Another standard-setter is what Hayes calls a pâté. Technically the square slices are a terrine, a coarse blend of Minnesota-raised pork shoulder, thyme, rosemary, port wine and sunflower seeds. ("I like sunflower seeds," Hayes told me. "Everyone identifies with them because you can see them growing all over the city.") For a while Hayes was pairing it with a mellow red wine reduction, then with a tangy onion jam; both were excellent. Other don't-miss items include snappy house-made lamb sausages, each bite best swiped with a hearty dose of coarse stone-ground mustard, as well as the pair of seared scallops served over a heaven-sent combination of crunchy sweet corn, smoky bacon and drops of a pert limoncello syrup.
Now that we've entered frost season, I fear that Hayes' platter of peak-season heirloom tomatoes might be history. At least until next year. That's a bummer. Adding mozzarella, basil and just the right quantities of olive oil, salt and pepper, Hayes had a way of making the formula fresh and vital, despite how it seems to make an appearance in every professional kitchen within 100 miles. The same could be said for the inventive soups.
Not always perfection
Some of Hayes' ideas don't quite play out. A basket of fried okra had a sloppy, State Fair-ish aura. Chicken wings, nicely meaty, were brazenly overspiced. On the flip side, the snappy mint-watercress pesto made a favorable impression in a lamb sandwich, but the virtually flavorless meat did not. Gnocchi was wonderfully pillowy, but the tomato-ricotta accompaniment always teetered on the drab. The appeal of ham- and spinach-wrapped trout was lost on me; it was pretty, like a roulade, but the pork overpowered the fish's delicate flavor. It's off the menu now, replaced by a gorgeous slab of grilled salmon. Like chicken, it's a seafood staple that's often indifferently prepared, but not here; Hayes treats it as if it were foie gras.
There's a mean burger, too, each half-pound monster topped with Cheddar and pickled, deep-fried chiles, a clever touch. Oh, and a thick-cut pork chop, sizzling outside, gently pink inside and teased with a bit of fat, is flat-out fabulous. It was served with zucchini and summer squash that had been cut into thin ribbons, sautéed in a scandalous amount of butter and layered like lasagna; suddenly two of the most boring vegetables in the late-summer repertoire were as exciting as a late-game Brett Favre touchdown pass.
Pastry chef Amy Zander's desserts may be short on selection but they're long on flavor: a luscious panna cotta finished with complementary honey and rosemary accents, a pitch-perfect blueberry cheesecake crowned with a rapturous blueberry-balsamic vinegar sauce. But the real attention-grabber is a moist, dark-chocolate cake covered in thick milk-chocolate icing, the kind of layer cake that we all wish we could make at home but which gives us a reason to patronize well-run restaurants instead.
The sound of music
Back to the bell. It's Wagner's great-grandmother's dinner chime, and how this antique instrument pierces its way through the Social's nightly cacophony is both a minor mystery and a small miracle. I'm not sure if the room's tough noise level is due to its handsome but hard surfaces (brick, glass, pressed tin, glazed tile) or the acoustical dynamics of its rectangular shape, but I wish someone would figure out a fix.
After enjoying several meals on the sidewalk, sucked in by the considerable charms of accordionist Paul Tomczyk, the neighborhood's no-nonsense surroundings and the blissfully temperate late-summer weather, I eventually found myself seated inside on a standing-room-only Friday night. Not good, as the sound level was punishing.
"I know this is going to make me sound old, but this is like walking into Abercrombie & Fitch and wishing they'd turn the stereo down, that's how loud it is in here," said my friend. Actually, he said it twice. I couldn't hear him the first time.
Then the darndest thing happened: Someone rang that bell, and, for a moment, a room full of strangers seemed to come together. Well, almost everyone. While diners all around me cried, "The Social!" my inner contrarian raised my Grain Belt Premium aloft and offered a separate salutation. "To noise abatement," I whispered.
Who knows? Perhaps the food-and-drink deities were listening. Let's hope they could hear over all the racket.