This year's 10 unforgettable dishes, high-profile conversions and a reminder of the record number of significant restaurant closings.
Ten unforgettable dishes
1. Fish and chips at the Anchor Fish & Chips: A generous slab of delicately battered Alaskan cod, laid over a pile of thick-sliced, Minnesota-raised potatoes is singularly good deep-fried perfection, priced at just $8.50. This is the happy result of restaurants that relentlessly focus on perfecting a single item.
2. Mushroom-rosemary pizza at Black Sheep Pizza: Owner Jordan Smith spent the past 12 months demonstrating how to do a neighborhood pizzeria right. Case in point: his spellbinding combination of smoked mozzarella, thin-sliced oyster mushrooms and fragrant rosemary, artfully scattered on a sturdy, red sauce-free crust. If only they delivered.
3. Lettuce wraps at Sen Yai Sen Lek: Lettuce wraps, so P.F. Chang's, right? Wrong. Chewy dried shrimp, tangy cubed ginger, smoky toasted coconut, crunchy toasted peanuts and blazingly hot Thai chiles are just some of the well-chosen condiments that make up this mood-setting appetizer.
4. Frozen custard shakes at Burger Jones: A good-to-the-last-spoonful example of belt-stretching excess, visited upon us by the folks who practically invented the genre, Parasole Restaurant Holdings.
5. Bison pastrami at Northern Waters Smokehaus: A long summer weekend in Duluth yielded plenty of culinary treasures, but none so notable as a ludicrously tall stack of owner Eric Goerdt's sublime, thin-sliced bison pastrami, stuffed in between slices of toasted pumpernickel and topped with sauerkraut and Russian dressing.
6. Ragu alla Bolognese at Acqua: Chef Chris Whalen's spot-on incarnation of this soulful Italian staple epitomized the Great Recession's rush to all things comfort food.
7. Baby lamb chops at Broders' Pasta Bar: The mouthwatering scent of sizzling Minnesota-raised lamb chops wafting off the grill in Molly Broder's fabulous new outdoor antipasto bar ranks as one of my favorite warm-weather sense memories. The flavor was right up there, too.
8. Fried oyster slider at Sea Change: Sure, the raw bar at the Guthrie's remade restaurant scores all kinds of points for high-class seafood creativity, but they were upstaged by a lowbrow slider, albeit one fashioned from gloriously fatty pork belly and a pillowy fried oyster.
9. Pork pâté at Northeast Social: Chef Edward Hayes Jr. went down the right locavore road with his coarse blend of pork shoulder, thyme and sunflower seeds, beautifully paired with a tangy onion jam.
10. Gnocchi with cauliflower at Bar La Grassa: Chef Isaac Becker burnishes delectable layers of caramelized flavor on to tender, thimble-sized gnocchi and thin slices of cauliflower, proof that slow and steady really does win the race.
Chambers Hotel owner Ralph Burnet replaced his globe-trotting star chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with a notable Minnesota name: D'Amico, and the Chambers Kitchen quickly morphed into D'Amico Kitchen (look for our review in January).
Another local powerhouse, Parasole Restaurant Holdings, pulled the plug on its Figlio, and in seven short weeks the longtime Calhoun Square anchor was reborn as Il Gatto.
Around the world
A wide-ranging host of newbies imported the globe's flavors to the Twin Cities. Indian cookbook authority ("660 Curries," "The Turmeric Trail") Raghavan Iyer lent his considerable expertise to the ambitious Om Restaurant & Lounge (check out our review in January). A rainbow of Chinese flavors awaits at Tian Jin and Grand Szechuan. It's all about Pakistani traditions at Pak Zam Zam. Cocina Latina showcases Ecuadorean fare, L'Ecosse embraces Scotland and chef Neil Guillen revisits his Filipino heritage at Subo. Banh mi, the traditional Vietnamese sandwich, gets the glam treatment at Bun Mi.
Two Minneapolitans grabbed their passports and ventured east to St. Paul: Barrio replicated its lively taste of Mexico on Mears Park, and Brasa took its southern/Latin-influenced fare to Grand Avenue. Asian fusion turned out to be all the rage at Ginger Hop, Zen Asian Contemporary and Kona Grill, and Japanese restaurants seem to pop up faster than Anytime Fitness franchises, including Sawa Japan, Sakana Sushi, and Wakame Sushi & Asian Bistro. Koyi Sushi relocated to the former home of the Seward Co-op; its last night in the Minneapolis Warehouse District is New Year's Eve. Coming soon: Raku Japanese Restaurant on 50th Street at France Avenue S. in Edina.Burger battle
It was an all-burgers-all-the-time mentality in 2009, and the charge was led by three newcomers: the first Twin Cities outlets of Smashburger and Five Guys Burger and Fries, plus the appearance of Parasole's homegrown proto-chain, Burger Jones.When did they sleep?
Several local luminaries seemed to work 24/7 in 2009. Erick Harcey left a longtime gig at the Nicollet Island Inn to launch both Victory 44 and the Kitchen. Brothers Keyvan and Kam Talebi opened not one but two editions of their Crave, in the Mall of America and in St. Louis Park's West End development. Kieran Folliard cut the ribbon on his West End-er, Cooper, and then announced that he's moving his Kieran's Irish Pub six blocks to Block E; opening date is March 16.On the street
The Twin Cities is no street food leader -- hmm, could the weather have something to do with that? -- but that's changing, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Chef Shack, Curbside, Magic Bus Cafe and others. P.S. Let's hope Big Daddy's BBQ returns in 2010.Keeping cool
Summer's heat got more tolerable with the advent of La Chiquita, where owners Raul Saud and Victor Cruzalta churn out intensely flavorful Mexican ice pops, and Jackson's Coffee & Gelato, home to a sinister frozen extravagance known as "black chocolate." Frozen yogurt is making a comeback: Freeziac arrived in Eden Prairie in 2009, and Frulalà is coming soon to Dinkytown.Tea time
Finally, a downtown Minneapolis hotel is serving a restorative and relaxing afternoon tea. Even better, the Hotel Ivy (via its Porter & Frye restaurant) really does it right, putting out a luxe spread at a value-oriented ($15) price.Bummer
The Weisman Art Museum's long-awaited $14 million expansion is finally underway, but it won't include a full-service restaurant after all. Instead, a "coffee kiosk" will offer light lunches and desserts prepared elsewhere.A helluva cookbook
In "Damn Good Food," Hell's Kitchen co-owner Mitch Omer (with an assist from former Minnesota Monthly food writer Ann Bauer) is generous with both his restaurant's signature recipes -- love those lemon-ricotta hotcakes -- and his profanity, which makes Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain sound like a couple of choirboys.Keeping up
Rustica moved to much-needed roomier digs (now its baking operations - and its sexy TAG Italian oven - are in plain sight, where they belong) and wisely paired up with another quality-obsessed operation, Bull Run Roasters. Steven Brown was out and Joan Ida is in at Porter & Frye. Steve Vranian left Nick and Eddie, replaced by 23-year-old talent Derik Moran. Robert Moore said goodbye to Heartland and set out to enrich the restaurant-starved northern suburbs with Restaurant Cru (be on the lookout for our upcoming review).
The year's flashiest transformation, stage-managed by Rainforest Cafe founder Steve Schussler (who else?), souped up the frumpy Wagner's into the flashy Galaxy Drive-In. Patrick's Cafe & Bakery became Volnay Bistro. Hemisphere Restaurant Partners downscaled their Via Cafe & Bar into Tavern on France. Il Vesco Vino relocated from Cathedral Hill to W. 7th Street. Margaret Doran returned to her White Bear Lake roots and launched her lunch-only Margaux's Table. Matthew Holmes left restaurant Max for a top job at the Guthrie Theater, and Kevin Kathman (from Tarbell's in Phoenix) briefly took the reins.
Alex Weidt departed Harry's Food & Cocktails and transformed Laredo's Tex-West Grill & Cantina into a destination. Galooney's East Coast Pizza became an Uptown outpost of St. Paul's Red's Savoy Pizza. Musashi bowed out and Zake took its place. Blondies Cafe became Geordies 454. Thom Pham brought a branch of Thanh Do to Anoka. The biggest exurban news: Hospitality legends John and Kathleen Schumacher returned to New Prague and resuscitated the historic Schumachers Hotel with casual Grill 212.Notable newcomers
Other major openings included Trattoria Tosca, Northeast Social, the Anchor Fish & Chips, Acqua, Cheeky Monkey Deli, Risotto, Loring Kitchen, Kings, Sen Yai Sen Lek, Roat Osha, Pairings Food & Wine Market, Bibo Restaurant & Wine Bar, the Butcher Block and Molly Cool's Seafood Tavern.Crunching the numbers
Eleven, as in Chapter, was the number that loomed over the Oceanaire Seafood Room and Seven as the bottom fell out from under big-ticket restaurants. Both reorganized their balance sheets under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.Sweet news
It's been a banner times for bakeries, what with the appearance of newcomers 3 Tiers, Sweets Bakeshop, the Bikery and Pardon My French. Patisserie Margo opened a second location in Excelsior, and Jerabek's launched a downtown St. Paul outpost.The winner was ...
Congratulations to Tim McKee of La Belle Vie, the first Minnesotan to be named Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation at its annual gala -- the Oscars of the food world -- in New York City in May.Web voyeurism
D'Amico Kitchen installed cameras in its kitchen, giving those who log on to the restaurant's website an unedited (and unprecedented) peek into the triumphs, travails and tediums of chef John Occhiato and his hard-working staff. Oh, and my favorite chef-driven blog: Shefzilla.com, the pulls-no-punches mouthpiece of Heidi's Minneapolis co-owner Stewart Woodman.Out and about
Following in the footsteps of Outstanding in the Field, Corner Table chef/owner Scott Pampuch brought together Minnesota farmers, chefs and several hundred diners in a series of roving dinners he dubbed Tour de Farm.Hot ...
Rabbit, bargains (or at least the perception thereof), coziness and sustainable everything.Not ...
Deafening dining rooms, texting while dining, and the eternal (and infernal) "Are you still working on that?"So long
While the year racked up a record number of restaurant openings, 2009 also witnessed significant closings, starting with a few established players in the local dining scene: Figlio (25 years), Cafe Brenda (23 years), D'Amico Cucina (22 years), Tejas (22 years), Morton's the Steakhouse (18 years) and Bayport Cookery (17 years). Other departures included Fugaise, Bellanotte, Bella, California Cafe, Alaska Eatery, Cafe Agri, Manhattan's, Bali Restaurant, La Bodega, Vera's Cafe, Times Bar & Cafe, Jitters, Tin Cup's, Pastrami Jack's, Mairin's Table, Snap! Pizza, Lake House, Gusto Cafe & Wine Bar, Trocaderos, Dinkytowner Cafe, Sauced, Checkered Apron Cafe, Neptune Cafe Italiana and T-Asia Bar & Restaurant.Coming in 2010
There's plenty to look forward to in the coming months. Former Auriga chef/owner Doug Flicker is getting back into the business in a big way with Piccolo (Italian for "small"), focusing on a design-your-own tasting menu format.
Parasole will launch its Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group (how long before that name gets shorthanded to plain-old Cafeteria?) next door to Il Gatto in Calhoun Square. Chef Ryan Aberle (formerly of NorthCoast) is making a charcoal grill and an ever-changing around-the-world menu the centers of attention at Ringo, located in St. Louis Park's West End district. When Target Field opens in April, Murray's will be there, serving a sirloin steak sandwich made on a Franklin Street Bakery ciabatta roll; let's hope that other locals follow. Finally, rumor has it that a famous North Shore piemaker -- no names, please -- has its eye on a Mall of America address, and that 2010 will be the year the lights come back on in the priceless art deco wonder that is the former Goodfellow's space.Thanks
For the memorable meals I enjoyed in 2009 on my own dime - and not on my Strib expense account - at Al's Breakfast, Birchwood Cafe, Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, Lucia's Restaurant, Meritage, Modern Cafe, Restaurant Alma, Sapor Cafe & Bar, the Strip Club and Yum! Kitchen and Bakery.
2008: Manny's Steakhouse
2007: Brasa Rotisserie, Heidi's Minneapolis, Saffron Restaurant & Lounge
2006 (Year of Thinking Differently): Chambers Kitchen (now closed), Town Talk Diner, Masa, Midtown Global Market, Mill City Farmers Market and Copper Bleu (now closed)
2005: 112 Eatery
2004 (Year of the Neighborhood Bistro): A Rebours (now closed), al Vento and Corner Table