My favorite wish-I'd-said-that quote of the month comes via my colleague Jon Tevlin, and his recent column on the friction between food truck operators and downtown Minneapolis skyway restaurant owners.
"I understand the fear-based reasoning, because this business has been taking it in the shorts," said Zimmern. "But the fact is, half the restaurants in the skyway are serving some of the worst food in the city. They are coasting on convenience."
Ouch. And, true. Actually, I'd say more than half.
But after recently ducking through skyways in a 20-block area adjacent to downtown's most popular food truck locations, I also encountered a welcome number of gems. Here they are, in no particular order.
Nothing against Chipotle – the burrito chain really does it right, in so many ways – but for once could there be a longer line at the neighboring Brothers Deli? That said, the place is always hopping during prime lunch hours, and with good reason: pastrami, corned beef, brisket and other deli classics, all well-prepared, fill out a lengthy menu that’s peppered with careful touches (excellent pickles, a mustard selection that rivals the condiment aisle at Byerly’s) and served in a flash. Jockeying for a table is something of an art, and the kitchen also serves breakfast, a skyway rarity. The place also drips with Minneapolis history. Diners with long memories will recall an earlier Brothers Deli, a popular mini-chain owned by brothers Leonard and Sam Burstein. It closed in 1983. Ten years later, Leonard’s son Jeff Burstein opened his version of the Brothers Deli, and it has been a skyway lunch magnet ever since. Location: Nicollet Mall and 6th Street. Seating: Yes.
There’s always something new on the skyway, and the newcomer du jour is One Two Three Sushi. It's a fast-casual proto-chain from Sushi America, the innovative supermarket sushi supplier and owner of Masu Sushi & Robata. Rather than offer the same-old, same-old pre-prepared rolls, customers can go the build-your-own route, with an impressive variety of choices at prices that start at $7.99. Location: IDS Crystal Court, Nicollet Mall between 7th and 8th streets. Seating: Limited.
Of all the slice shops that dot the skyway, Torby’s Pizza stands out for its sturdy crust and top-quality (and generously applied) toppings. Another plus? Owner Bob (Torby) Torbenson offers a parade of specials, including Monday’s cheapskate magnet: a slice and a soda, for $4. A super-friendly staff works the counter, and Torby's just started delivery, through grubhub. Location: Baker Center, Marquette Av. between 7th and 8th streets. Seating: Limited.
The independently owned coffee shop is a rare breed on the skyway, which is overrun with Starbucks (three skyway locations, seven downtown locations), Caribou Coffee (11 skyway locations, 15 downtown locations) and Dunn Bros. (3 skyway locations, 10 downtown locations). Which is why it’s great to see little Café Patteen plugging along against the tide of the coffee conglomerate. Yes, there’s coffee (from Roastery 7), but the real draw is owner Patteen Leverson’s buttery, lovingly made baked goods. Giant cookies, scones and fruit-packed muffins are the headliners, but the ever-changing daily specials (banana bread, sticky buns and brownies; Wednesday is devoted to 9-by-13-inch pans of mac-and-cheese). For breakfast, there’s quiche, and they’re terrific. Location: Oracle Centre, 2nd Av. S. between 9th and 10th streets. Seating: Limited, but nearby atrium seating.
In US Bank Plaza (nee Pillsbury Center), business lunches tend to gravitate to the first floor’s Atlas Grill. Those without expense accounts know to stick to Good to Go. The counter-service operation – owned by the team behind Atlas and the nearby Mission American Kitchen – puts a Mediterranean twist on sandwiches (made on terrific house-baked foccacia), wraps and salads, all prepared to order using fresh, vibrant ingredients. Don’t miss the well-seasoned lamb and pork, or the tuna-pesto salad. Top price is $6.75, proof that fast food doesn’t have to taste manufactured. Location: US Bank Plaza, 2nd Av. between 5th and 6th streets. Seating: Yes, with sunlight.
It’s easy to find a burger in the Minneapolis Human Habitrail, but the one to beat is at My Burger, where the marquee product is a juicy quarter-pounder, slipped into a first-rate buttered and toasted bun and topped with slightly sweet grilled onions and crunchy sweet pickles. There are add-ons, of course (bacon, mushrooms, fried eggs, five varieties of cheese) and the fries are nothing short of excellent. The only thing missing is a cold beer, but the thick, hand-mixed malts make up for the oversight. Service is fleet, prices are reasonable. (Runner-up: The Burger Place, now in much-improved quarters in US Bank Plaza). Location: 6 Quebec, Marquette Av. and 6th St. Seating: Yes.
Strolling through Secondfloorland can sometimes seem like a stroll through Bad Asian Fast Food World. A happy exception is Zen Box, a sushi-free refuge specializing in familiar Japanese quick-service fare, freshly prepared and reasonably priced. Menu items include chicken-filled gyoza, potato-carrot curry over white or brown rice, grilled tofu with steamed vegetables and cold buckwheat soba noodles tossed with edamame and splashed with a sesame-miso vinaigrette. (Runner-up: Tea House, at 330 2nd Av. S.). Location: 6 Quebec, Marquette Av. and 6th St. Seating: Limited.
How many downtowners know that one of the Twin Cities’ best bakeries is located on the skyway? It’s Cocoa & Fig, and the tiny Gaviidae shop is the source for a slim but wickedly tempting array of imaginative cupcakes (get the C&F riff on the Hostess cupcake, with the word “Love” etched in white icing, just in time for Valentine’s Day), cookies (the colorful almond macaroons are first-rate, as are the heart-shaped faux Oreos) and festive cake lollipops. Here’s a tip: the four-packs of bouchons, intensely chocolately cork-shaped brownies, makes for the perfect $5 gift. Fun fact: The shop’s first downtown presence was as a popular booth at the Thursday farmers market on Nicollet Mall. (Runner-up: Wuollet). Location: Gaviidae Common, Nicollet Mall between 6th and 7th streets. Seating: None, but nearby atrium seating.
Another great here’s-how-we-opened story is Turkey to Go, which started as a Nicollet Mall street vendor before matriculating upstairs to permanent quarters a block away on the skyway. The kitchen concentrates on – you got it -- turkey. Pulled turkey, wonderfully juicy and nicely seasoned and paired with a flurry of sauces, cheeses, condiments and add-ons and served as pitas, salads and two-fisted sandwiches. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because TtoG, an offshoot of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, has a high-profile presence at both Target Field and the Minnesota State Fair. Location: Baker Block, Marquette Av. between 7th and 8th streets. Seating: No.
Why settle for Subway or any of its sandwich brethren when there’s Real Meal Deli? The locally owned mini-chain started in the St. Paul skyway before jumping across the river with two Minneapolis locations. The house specialty is creative made-to-order sandwiches (turkey with goat cheese and a cranberry-apricot compote, meatballs dripping in red sauce and dressed with Parmesan, roast sirloin finished with red onions and Dijon-honey aioli), plus salads that don’t taste as if they came off the supermarket grab-and-go shelf, a minor miracle, at least on the skyway. Reasonable prices, quick service, nice people, it's all good. Location: Baker Center, Marquette Av. between 7th and 8th streets, and TriTech Office Center, 2nd Av. and 4th St. Seating: Baker Center location is strictly buy-and-go, but there’s plenty of seating at the TriTech Office Center outlet, with the added bonus of actual sunlight.
Her review is likely to be overtaken by another talker for best-read, this from Pete Wells, restaurant reviewer for the New York Times, who wrote a blistering commentary of Guy Fieri's Times Square eatery, Guy's American Kitchen & Bar -- and did so entirely in the form of questions.
"Has anyone ever told you that your high-wattage passion for no-collar American food makes you television's answer to Calvin Trillin, if Mr. Trillin bleached his hair, drove a Camaro and drank Boozy Creamsicles? When you cruise around the country for your show 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,' rasping out slangy odes to the unfancy places where Americans like to get down and greasy, do you really mean it? Or is it all an act? Is that why the kind of cooking you celebrate on television is treated with so little respect at Guy's American Kitchen & Bar?" Wells wrote.
Later, Wells asked, "Is this how you roll in Flavor Town?"
We will see. Will the tourists in Times Square notice?
UPDATE: Poynter (the journalism think-tank in Florida) interviews Pete Wells about the review.
On a per-capita basis, Madison, Wis. (population 236,900), just might be the Midwest’s most dynamic food city.
The riches are in every direction, and cover every genre, switching seamlessly from, say, the action-packed Dane County Farmers Market on the city's beautiful Capitol Square (pictured, above), to the sublime signature product at Michael’s Frozen Custard, to the high-wire locavorism of recent James Beard award winning chef Tory Miller at the landmark L’Etoile.
It had been a few years since I’d been to Madison, and a lot has happened in the interim. Here are a few highlights of my recent 24-hour eat-a-thon.
Two newcomers made highly favorable impressions. I was warned by a Madison food savant that I needed to arrive at Forequarter (pictured, above) as soon as the doors opened at 5 p.m., or risk being shut out of the first seating. He was right. I was the first customer at 5:02, and by 5:20, every seat (granted, we’re talking roughly 35 here) was taken. The storefront setup is basically a long bar and a tightly packed row of tables; picture the Wisconsin lake cabin of a small group of Brooklyn hipsters — ironic taxidermy, anyone? — and you’ll get an idea of the pleasant surroundings.
Not that it matters, because the focus is on the plate. The kitchen is run by a group that bills itself as the Underground Food Collective, and their work is fascinating. On the one hand, they live and breathe pork — their activities range from carefully crafted charcuterie to hog-butchering courses — but they’ve also got a healthy obsession with vegetables.
Which means that it’s possible to revel in an extraordinary pork rillette — a layer of pearly fat protecting an almost creamy potted meat, spread over toasted slices of multigrain bread, with a swipe of pungent, grainy mustard — or a lovingly made and expertly grilled sausage.
But then the kitchen turns around and offers a revelatory approach to, say, cauliflower (pictured, above), exploiting its textural qualities: One version gently fried it to nudge the florets into releasing some of their stubborn chewiness, and another sliced it thin and then pickled it, each energetically crunchy bite exuding a teasing vinegar. The bar happily maintains a number of healthy mixology fetishes, and the service staff has an infectious sense of fun. I hated to give up my seat, but there were people waiting.
Besides, I was just getting started. So I zipped about 10 blocks over to another Madison newbie and hot spot, A Pig in a Fur Coat. Yes, that’s the name, derived from a riff on a Kazakhstani dish (it’s a long story), but a brainstorm-ey moniker should not get in the way of an otherwise marvelous experience.
One of the (rephrase: perhaps one of the only) benefits of dining alone is that it’s far easier to slip into a crowded restaurant, particularly a former pizzeria barely large enough to contain a pair of long communal tables and a half-dozen closely-crammed two- and four-tops. The utterly charming hostess took pity on my rain-soaked single self and guided me to the last open (and highly coveted) seat in the house.
Jackpot. Fortunately, I didn’t have to play the game where I wasn’t pretending to eavesdrop on the conversations of the out-on-a-date couples surrounding me, because chef Daniel Bonnano’s cooking held my rapt attention. Bonanno, who trained at the Cordon Bleu School in Mendota Heights and cut his teeth at Chicago’s Spiaggia, is clearly a chef to watch.
The Mediterranean-inspired (and locally sourced; this is Madison) food surrounding me was certainly making me hungry. When the woman to my left started digging into an enormous, mahogany-glazed turkey leg — roasted in the kitchen’s wood-burning oven — I nearly reached over for a bite. Ditto the paper cone filled with golden, duck fat-fried fries that she was sharing with her husband.
But just then my first course arrived: Cool, silvery house-brined sardines, served on crisp crostini, a toss of oranges and thinly sliced fennel acting as a palate-cleansing counterpoint. Lovely, and that was chased by a shimmering slab of pork belly, dressed in the Thanksgiving flavors of pumpkin, sweet potato and maple. The evening's crowning achievement was a ravioli filled with the runny yoke of a duck egg, topped with a crisp, paper-thin strip of pancetta and bathed in brown butter. Two tastes into it and I knew that I’d found a new contender for my ongoing Last Meal contest.
Dessert sounded promising, but I needed a dining intermission. Or at least a walk. So I headed to Capitol Square, the city’s geographic and spiritual heart, and made a few strolls around the spotlight-bathed State Capitol, hoping for a seat to open up at Nostrano.
Is there such a thing as Wisconsin Nice? If there isn’t, the woman at the front door must have Minnesota roots, because she couldn’t have been more welcoming and accommodating, leading me to what I correctly assumed was a highly sought-after berth at the bar. In a case of extremely poor timing on my part, the Italian restaurant, owned by chefs and spouses Tim and Elizabeth Dahl, opened just after my last visit to Madison, nearly two years ago, and during the intervening months the buzz has been promising.
My stalled appetite was refusing to order even one of Tim’s savory dishes — and believe me, the grilled octopus over plus-size white beans that the woman to my right was sighing over was totally calling my name — but it was revived after one look at Elizabeth’s dessert menu. “The chestnut waffle is amazing,” said the bartender, another card-carrying member of the restaurant’s Jovial Club. “But the tortino is my favorite.”
Sold. What arrived was a warm, barely sweet buckwheat cake, fortified by blueberries and dressed with an unearthly scoop of pistachio gelato; in short, a magical blend of ingenuity and technical prowess. My only regret? Not ordering the bourbon-sour cherry Old Fashioned that I watched the bartender mix for the man seated to my left. Chalk it up to another downside to dining solo, the acute shortage of designated drivers.
The following morning, newly hungry, I took a sun-soaked stool at the counter at Madison Sourdough and tucked into one of baker Andrew Hutchinson’ textbook croissants — so flaky and golden on the outside, so tender and pull-apart on the inside. It had been filled with thin slices of house-smoked ham and a mellow aioli, and it could not have been more satisfying, with a slightly decadent edge that a person could easily learn to live with. There was a stack of newspapers nearby, but my eyes were glued to the wall of beautiful breads (pictured, above), which serve as the foundation for much of what comes out of the kitchen of this popular bakery/cafe.
After grabbing a spiraled morning bun — again, so tender, and twinkling with just the right eye-opening amount of sugar — I dashed over to another Madison newcomer, 4 & 20 Bakery & Cafe. It took a while to find it — turns out it’s located behind the sub sandwich shop that I kept driving past — but once inside I was not disappointed, particularly by the deft hand that owners Mandy Puntney and Evan Dannells take to biscuit-making, smothering them in pork sausage gravy or using them as building blocks for well-stuffed breakfast sandwiches (pictured, above).
Having filled my coat pocket with several of the bakery’s swoon-worthy takes on the Oreo, I ran across town to make a free recital at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society, a Friday noon tradition and a marvelous way to fully experience the landmark building’s gifts, particularly those of the acoustic variety. But post-concert, my mind was occupied with a burning question: Where to have lunch?
Although, really, who was I kidding, as the outcome was a foregone conclusion: Marigold Kitchen. I can’t imagine visiting Madison and not checking in on this loud, generally swamped counter-service spot (chefs/owners John Gadau and Phillip Hurley also operate the nearby Sardine, a justifiably popular dinner-only bistro, and just opened Gates & Brovi, a neighborhood burgers-and-beer joint a few miles outside downtown).
I’ve always thought of the Marigold as a kind of modern-day diner, one where the breakfast-and-lunch cooking deliciously improves upon all-American norms. Besides, the crowd is a colorful mix of politicos, business folks and tourists, and the prices rarely venture north of $10.
My instincts didn’t fail me. Lunch (pictured, above) turned out to be a carefree toss of garden-fresh argula and feathery frisee dotted with pulls of roast chicken, olive oil-kissed toasted bread and warm roasted cherry tomatoes. Thanks, Marigold-ers.
The restaurant is just off Capitol Square, a neighborhood that boasts a remarkable critical mass of dining establishments. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate so many of them: Soothing, seasonally focused Harvest and its rambunctious sibling The Old Fashioned; the Tornado Room, the epitome of an old-school steakhouse; the modern sensibilities of Shinji Muramoto’s 43 North and the pristine sushi and clever Asian fusion cooking at his Restaurant Muramoto; and the funky eclecticism of Natt Spil.
But I have to admit that I am forever circling back to L’Etoile. The 36-year-old restaurant has recently undergone a remarkable transformation. In 2010, the restaurant moved from its longtime second-story home to an airy new street-level setting a block away (pictured, above). Owners (and siblings) Tory Miller and Traci Miller took the opportunity to re-invent the business they bought from founder Odessa Piper in 2005, reserving half of the space for L’Etoile’s formal dinner-only dining room, and using the other half to create Graze, a crowd-pleasing (in a good way) bar/restaurant serving lunch, dinner, brunch and a counter-service weekday breakfast.
The setup is strictly walk-in, and the menu embraces the L’Etoile locally sourced ethos, but in a much more approachable and affordable way: smoked paprika-topped deviled eggs, a tangy array of pickled vegetables, a sandwich of panko-breaded fried perch, an exceptional Rueben, well-dressed burgers and my idea of a perfect lunch (OK, a second lunch, but who’s counting?), a steaming bowl (pictured above) of slurp-worthy noodles, fatty pork belly, long strips of nori, crunchy radishes and a runny poached egg, a steal at $10. The refreshing, copper-tined pale ale from southwestern Wisconsin’s Potosi Brewing Co. didn’t hurt. No wonder the place was packed.
The square, by the way, has never looked better, thanks to a lengthy restoration of the Capitol itself (one that Minnesota could look to as an example for its endangered Cass Gilbert masterpiece) and a sensitive remake of the Capitol’s grounds and surrounding streetscape.
A handful of food and drink purveyors are also contributing to Capitol Square’s renaissance. Square Wine Co. focuses on small-scale producers and turns its skinny, loft-like space into Madison’s most jovial drinking destination on Friday evenings, when the staff starts pulling corks and pouring tastings of a half-dozen or so varietals, based on a theme (“California favorites,” for example) for $15.
The square’s chicest storefront belongs to Candinas Chocolatier. The supremely minimalist surroundings — seriously, it took a few moments for me to realize that I was standing inside a retail shop, that’s how stark it is — turn out to be a potent backdrop (pictured, above) for a limited selection of exquisitely crafted chocolate truffles. Owner/chocolatier Markus Candinas — with a name like that, could the man have gone into any other business? — produces them in his factory in nearby Verona, Wis. I bought a delicious-sounding selection as a gift, but the box didn’t even make it to the Minnesota border. Yeah, they were that good.
No visit to the capital of America’s Dairyland would be complete without a visit to a cheese shop, right? Naturally, the square has that covered, and how. As a showcase for Wisconsin-made cheeses (pictured, above), Fromagination has no peer, but the carefully curated shop is also stocked with American and European selections (love the cheesemonger-selected tastings, paired with wines and Wisconsin craft beers) and a discerning selection of gourmet groceries. The kitchen turns out all manner of picnic items (there’s even a picnic blanket rental service), including a wide range of meticulously constructed sandwiches. Truly, a gem, and a well-perfumed one at that.
Even the Wisconsin Historical Museum gets into the act. Well, its gift shop, anyway. I wasn’t tempted by the selection of hilarious foam cheeseheads, but I did walk away with a few amusing t-shirts, mugs and magnets, printed, retro-style, with slogans like “Friday Night Fish Fry in Wisconsin,” “No thanks, I’m having butter” (pictured, above) and "Real Wisconsin Cheese Curds."
Next time? I’m definitely staying longer.
In the rarefied world of restaurant reviewing, chain eateries seldom get recognition. That may be one reason that Marilyn Hagerty’s review of the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks, N.D., caught the attention of the food world. Then again, it may be the prose from the 86-year-old reviewer for the Grand Forks Herald, who has also reviewed Taco Bell in the 30-plus years she’s written the column. "At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water," Hagerty wrote.
How do reviews go viral? The Huffington Post reports that, in this case, the review was picked up by a food blog called The Denver Omelette, which is written by a North Dakota native. One of the next stops was City Pages, which called it the "greatest restaurant review ever written." From there, Gawker and others picked up the story.
The Grand Forks Herald reports that her Eatbeat review attracted more than 100,000 hits online within 36 hours of being posted. Her name became a hashtag on Twitter, where some questioned if the review was real. Boingboing.net reports that Duluth, Minn., reporter Brandon Stahl checked out Marilyn with a Grand Forks Herald editor and reported on Twitter: "Oh, that's for real. Marilyn has been reviewing restaurants for the Herald for decades. She also writes a sort of celebrity column and has a sewage lift station named for her, as does Dave Barry." Brandon also noted that the editor said Marilyn's review wasn't as positive as a casual observer might think. "By the way, her readers will recognize that as a fairly negative review since she spent a lot more time on the ambience than the food."
In an interview with the Village Voice, Marilyn noted that she had received some unpleasant emails about the column, including one she considered "snotty." Her response should be the what every journalist turns to: "Thanks for your message."
Marilyn is not deterred by negative comments. "I don’t have time to sit here and twit over whether some self-styled food expert likes, or does not like, my column. The publisher likes it," Hagerty told the Village Voice.
"If anyone’s got time to sit out there and nitpick, I kind of feel sorry for them. Get a life." Then Hagerty went back to work, polishing her Sunday column. She writes four articles weekly, in addition to the restaurant review.
Can a phone call from David Letterman or Jay Leno be in her future?
Is Minnesota ready for soul food? It seems to be, judging from the long line Monday when Soul Daddy opened its doors at the Mall of America as the winner of the nine-week TV reality show, "America's Next Great Restaurant," or as it's referred to on Twitter, #angr. At lunch, diners waited patiently, snapping photos as the line snaked its way outside the restaurant and along the mall's hallway, Most, if not all, were fans of the TV show -- and of the winner, Jamawn Woods.
Anyone expecting a traditional taste of soul food will be in for a surprise since the premise of this restaurant is soul food with a twist -- a healthier, lighter version -- or as the subtext of the restaurant says, "new home cookin'." There's no mac-and-cheese or fried chicken here, but you'll find ribs, roast pork, pulled pork, baked chicken, biscuits and buns, albeit whole wheat ones.
You'll find them in a setting reminiscent of a Chipotle restaurant, which isn't surprising given that judge Steve Ells is the founder of the chain (something that followers of the TV show heard repeatedly). That means a long aisle at the entrance that channels guests to the counter, from where they choose their side dishes the way others at Chipotle do the makings of their burritos. It's an efficient model for a fast-casual restaurant. Like Chipotle, there's a vaguely industrial look throughout (cement block on a wall, metal light fixtures), but Soul Daddy also has a touch of country: sturdy wooden communal tables and dark oak plywood wainscotting and booths (instead of the metal of Chipotle). The most striking feature (photo at left) are two walls of what appear to be chalkboard drawings -- actually a wallpaper graphic -- of Jamawn Woods and the Minnesota connection to the restaurant (including a walleye, Mary Tyler Moore and MOA). The restaurant doorway looks far more refined, a montage of maple, fir and cherry strips in the horizontal pattern that's de rigueur these days. Followers of the show will be relieved to know that Jamawn's desire to paint the place purple was kept, though just barely, limited to a small wall and the color of the T-shirts worn by the staff. Motown, too, has taken a back seat from his original concept. Stevie Wonder sings quietly in the background, but so does Dionne Warwick. A patio out front offers some extra dining space.
Soul Daddy takes the Southern approach to a menu with "meat and three" -- a main dish and, in this case, two side dishes and a bread. Meals range from $7.95 (vegetarian or pork) to $11.95 (ribs). Side dishes a la carte are $2.50 each, with breads (biscuits or waffles) at $1.
Corn bread waffles. If these were what Jamawn was serving from his home catering business in Detroit, no wonder he had a following. The waffles are light and delicious, with a mild flavor of corn. At three inches in diameter, they're just the right size for a "healthy" meal. Wouldn't mind them for breakfast, should Soul Daddy want to open earlier. (Photo, from left: grits, baked chicken, waffle and sweet potato salad.)
Whole wheat biscuits: Warm and light, despite their whole-wheat touch, with a smattering of cracked black pepper atop.
Cheese grits: Very good -- creamy and thick, like cheesy polenta --though I speak as someone who doesn't have a long history with grits. Other diners complained vigorously that the grits were too salty. Ash King, general manager, suggests that these are suitable for a kids' meal, should your child be looking for mac-and-cheese.
Pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw: Moist and flavorful, though the whole-wheat bun is no match for the bread Alex Roberts uses at Brasa in Minneapolis and St. Paul for his Caribbean-based dishes that include pulled pork.
Sweet potato salad: Think potato salad, but sweet, colorful and tasty. Served cold, with a vinaigrette rather than mayo.
Black-eyed pea salad: Too much celery for my taste, but other diners were raving about the simple salad with peas, red pepper and celery in a vinaigrette.
In general: The food is fresh and made on the premises. (There's no freezer at Soul Daddy -- none at Chipotle either.) But the flavors tend to be on the bland side, with the exception of the sauces, which have punch.
Ribs: Soul Daddy is located next to Tony Roma's and a few doors down from Famous Dave's. If you're going to compete with ribs, they better be good. Soul Daddy's were tender, with a spicy rub that carried much of the flavor, but served dry, with the sauces (Jamawn's Hot Sauce, a memorable sweet-molasses mustard sauce, and a bbq sauce) to be added by the diner at the table. At $11.95, it's the most expensive item on the menu and the three ribs don't fit the "value" concept that Bobby Flay, judge and investor, emphasized. You can find better -- and bigger -- slabs of ribs elsewhere.
Chicken: There's nothing wrong with the baked herb chicken. There's just nothing interesting about it. I can make more flavorful chicken at home. You can, too. Bring me the fried chicken and I might indulge.
Wild rice salad: Soul Daddy's version has the optimum crunch of a good wild rice sald, and dried cranberries give extra flavor. But it's not soul food in any incarnation, except for Native Americans in Minnesota. And wild rice is an acquired taste, which may not find a following in Hollywood or NYC. Why is it on the menu?
Hot food vs cold: To the surprise and disappointment of many diners, the side dishes are mostly cold (six of them), with only the collard greens and cheese grits warm.
"Soul food is not cold," said Michael Cole Smith of Minneapolis, an outraged diner who had scheduled his lunch via Facebook with many friends, who were equally unhappy. "I was excited about having a soul food restaurant. But we still don't have soul food. And the food is bland. This is what you'd serve in a hospital to diabetics or those with high blood pressure."
Well, not everyone agrees. Karen Swanson, of Florida (but formerly Minneapolis) was there with her friend Kandace Condon of Shakopee to taste the food. Why? "We're in love with Bobby Flay," they said with a laugh about the judge who hosted the TV program. They agreed the grits were too salty. "In fact, all the sides are on the salty side," Karen said. However, as they sampled each other's food, they grinned. "I love this food," said Karen.
Despite the fact that much of the staff had only a few days training, and some only a single day, service at lunch was smooth and swift, given the potential for chaos at a widely publicized opening of a new restaurant.
Jamawn Woods will be in town next week to check out the MOA outlet. Stay tuned for details.
Photos by Courtney Perry and Lee Svitak Dean
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