When it came to snaring the lease on the former Cafe Twenty Eight, the competition was fierce. "Everyone wanted this spot," said Alain Lenne, a cocktail of pride and swagger in his voice. "But we got it."
For diners everywhere, I can only say, "Lucky us." The "we" is Lenne -- owner of the tiny La Belle Crêpe in downtown Minneapolis -- and chef Fernando Silvo.
The two have not squandered the opportunity. Their collaboration, the Harriet Brasserie, is special, and it astutely complements rather than mimics neighboring Tilia and the Zumbro Cafe. Now, more than ever, Linden Hills, which already rates high on the Charm-O-Meter, boasts a food lovers' critical mass that just might be second to none.
Silvo is a card-carrying member of the Local Foods Club (although, frankly, who isn't?), sourcing meats, poultry and produce from a top-shelf list of Minnesota and western Wisconsin purveyors. Yet he's going the extra mile, cultivating several acres in Lakeville and funneling its bounty of picked-that-day greens, herbs and vegetables back into the city. Still, it's all well and good to do right on the purchase-order side of the kitchen, but it's another to know how to take full advantage of such top-shelf ingredients. In other words, cook. In this regard, Silvo clearly knows what he's doing.
Entrees change with some frequency, and half the fun of having dinner is diving headlong into Silvo's latest inspiration. I almost couldn't believe my good fortune when the server placed a slab of crisply browned halibut in front of me, the fish's flesh blazingly white and succulent, the plate dressed with simple but effective pops of lemon, butter and spicy arugula.
The same could be said for a mouth-meltingly tender pork tenderloin, cooked to medium-rare dreaminess and paired with a roasted fennel that was so caramelized and tender that it could have passed for an artichoke. Other winners? Well-executed pastas, a fine steak au poivre and a juicy, deeply flavorful pan-roasted duck breast with a tangy vinegar reduction and gorgeous braised kale.
Yeah, there's a whole lot of cooking going on, particularly given the reasonable, neighborhood-friendly prices. Vegetarians also have a seat at the table. Pheasant eggs, coaxed in plenty of butter in the frying pan, were paired with grilled asparagus and a kohlrabi purée -- finally, a compelling use for kohlrabi!
Crisp-edged tofu was the basis of a spicy hash enriched with mushrooms and shishito peppers, each forkful brimming with a not-shy chile sauce (Silvo isn't afraid to insert heat into his cooking, an admirable trait in the Land O' Lutherans). A textbook risotto, peppered with mushrooms and leeks, proved irresistible, as did a mash-up of mint, roasted tomatoes and nutty, chewy bulgur wheat.
A variety of choice
Half the dinner menu is devoted to a dozen smaller, meant-to-be-shared plates, and it's full of unusual, well-crafted doozies. I was all over the crispy potato "dumplings" -- think oversized croquettes -- filled with chicken and an oozy triple-cream French cheese. Fried polenta was the foundation for silvery, pungent sardines.
A bison tartare was like velvet, ginger and lemon gave a kick to tender octopus and pairing sweet browned scallops with a sturdy blood sausage was a stroke of genius. Even something as basic as a charcuterie-cheese platter is chock full of tasty embellishments.
Silvo has an occasional propensity to over-gild the lily. Sometimes the strategy works, because who wouldn't fall all over that insanely over-the-top burger? I could feel my arteries clogging with each gotta-have-more bite. But a deconstructed fried chicken felt as if it were trying too hard. There's a playful tweak on the standard Niçoise salad formula, but it had a blazing seasoning that rendered it nearly inedible. The man can make a pancake, but then he fills them with bananas and tops them with a gigantic dollop of tangy crème fraîche and a heavy sprinkle of cocoa nubs; is it wrong to admit that he had me at the maple syrup?
That said, the daily daylong brunch is a treat. Several dinner-hour salads and sandwiches make cameo appearances, but the real draw is a handful of dishes that leap off the breakfast treadmill. Savory shredded beef and a perfectly poached egg are laid out over rice. Cheddar grits are fortified with zesty andouille sausage, dainty crawfish, avocado and another one of those elegantly runny eggs.
A delicate white corn blini is the basis for a Benedict starring a crisp crab cake and a hollandaise fortified with mellow roasted poblanos. The waffles are a lovely sight. Even plain-old oatmeal gets the 1 Percent treatment, with almonds, dried blueberries and a splash of crème fraîche. There are well-made scones, too.
Desserts, which follow Silvo's let's-play-with-classics mind-set -- are a high point. The chocolate cake comes close to being as decadent as any chocolate truffle, a sort-of Key lime pie has a teasingly tart bite and a flaky phyllo crust, and crunchy toasted coconut brings out a welcome texture in a tres leches cake. Oh, and do not miss the supple panna cotta, with its tangy yogurt and golden honey accents.
Fans of Cafe Twenty Eight already know that the space -- the ground floor of a former brick firehouse that dates to 1914 -- is an exercise in coziness. Lenne and Silvo apparently know a good thing when they see one, because they've left the room's character relatively untouched, minus a few subtle revisions, most notably converting a kitchen counter into a much-needed bar. The small patio is the same alluring destination it always was.
I'd like to think that the gracious service is a reflection of Lenne's tenure as one of the Twin Cities' top front-of-the-house figures. My memories of such much-missed restaurants as cafe un deux trois and A Rebours are burnished with the image of Lenne's generous, quick-minded hospitality (OK, his French accent doesn't hurt). What a pleasure to see those gifts light up his own turf.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib