Friday night and it was standing-room only at Cafe Maude at Loring.
Owner Kevin Sheehy was proudly working his bustling new venue like a winning candidate on election night, and roughly half of my fellow diners appeared to be there for the bar's striking, scrupulously prepared cocktails, with good reason.
But chef Matt Kempf's kitchen was running full-tilt, too. Some of the plates would be familiar to regulars at Cafe Maude in southwest Minneapolis, although Kempf is admirably using the opportunity of a downtown address to expand the menu's appealing framework.
Kempf re-energizes the familiar small-plates format, layering a creative, around-the-world array of flavors into each dish. Flaky, golden empanadas are filled with a subtle chorizo and hints of a sturdy white Cheddar. Wild rice and maple lend a Minnesota air to tender fried quail. Sumac's tart bite is tempered in an aioli that dresses dainty lobster croquettes.
A long, rectangular flatbread connotes the Mediterranean with its blanket of seasoned ground lamb and halloumi cheese. Even a potential dullard along the lines of a linguini primavera gets a new lease with plenty of dried chiles and a splash of fruity California-pressed olive oil.
More substantial appetites can find refuge in a short list of entrees: lamb shanks with risotto, duck breast with brown butter gnocchi, a saffron-infused fish stew. The kitchen's charcoal-fired grill is the instrument of choice behind an expertly charred rib-eye or a big, juicy burger.
Other reasons to celebrate: Prices fall in the mid-teens for small plates and flatbreads, and the low $20s for entrees. Wines are similarly reasonably priced, and there's a pleasant weekend brunch.
Desserts, mirroring some of the savory counterparts, have a tendency to be a bit overwrought. The crush of customers -- and ensuing onslaught in the kitchen -- meant, at least on one visit, that several parts of our order never materialized. And when cover-charge-free live music starts on weekend nights, conversation pretty much grinds to a halt.
Smart Associates, the Minneapolis design firm, has carefully re-branded the former Nick and Eddie space, retaining its spare urbanity while discreetly echoing some of Cafe Maude's style imprint, including jolts of ruby and garnet and romantic visual cues to Sheehy's beloved Turkey and points east.
It's roomier and livelier than the original Maude, and warmer (literally, did someone finally fix the boiler?) than its predecessor. I'll miss Nick and Eddie, but Miss Maude is a worthy replacement.
1612 Harmon Place, Mpls., 612-767-9080, www.cafemaudeatloring.com. Dinner served 5-10 p.m. Sun.-Wed., 5-11 p.m. Thu.-Sat. Brunch 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Happy hour 4-6 p.m. daily, 10-11 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 11 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. Reservations accepted.From Northeast to (just off) Nicollet
Meanwhile, denizens of the cocktail culture will find plenty to celebrate at the Eat Street Social. Mixmasters Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz are the top-shelf whizzes behind the bar's seriously impressive menu, which is immersed in originality and a painstaking dedication to the craft of cocktail-making. Kudos also to the focus on non-alcoholic beverages, with spiffy updates of phosphates, egg creams and other yesteryear soda-fountain favorites.
But the kitchen keeps up its end of the Eat Street name, with an eye squarely on the seasons and a nod to revitalizing crowd-pleasing favorites. Voluptuously tender duck, carved thin, the center tantalizingly pink, wasn't garnished with the usual sweet touch but instead went slightly acidic. Pillowy gnocchi was laid out on a succotash of up-to-the-moment vegetables.
Those wondering where to find crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside pan-seared chicken should look no further. The superb house-made sausages, grilled and split, are another don't-miss item, as are the colorful, robust soups.
Lunch is anchored by a dozen grown-up sandwiches -- the horseradish-kissed Reuben is particularly enchanting; ditto the lovingly embellished burger -- and weekend brunch showcases items along the lines of biscuits smothered in gravy enriched with house-made pork sausage and a hedonistic blend of creamy scrambled eggs fortified with butter-enrobed lobster. Prices land squarely in the middle market, and service is smoothly professional,
Co-owners Joe Wagner and Sam Bonin have successfully transplanted the infectious bonhomie of their Northeast Social to 26th and Nicollet (when the crowd is going full-tilt, the sound level isn't quite as ear-splitting as its 13th Avenue NE. sibling), and have handsomely transformed a former Mexican restaurant into an urbane charmer. Good going, guys.
18 W. 26th St., Mpls., 612-767-6850, www.eatstreetsocial.com. Open 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Sat.-Sun. Reservations accepted.Hennepin Avenue, squared
Finally, welcome to Eli's East. It took some foresight to envision a Northeast address that old-timers associate with a branch of Rudolphs Bar-B-Que as a more modern-day tavern version of the downtown Eli's historic and cozy Hennepin Avenue location. But it's a success, particularly when factoring in the restaurant's dynamic patio, which, given last week's brush with snow, can't return fast enough.
The lengthy menu goes beyond the expectations of typical bar fare, and when it works, it's great: well-seasoned pulled pork spooned into corn tortillas and lavished with a bright corn salsa, crisp-edge pork belly nudged into slider-size buns and topped with tangy pickled carrots, a well-executed crab cake finished with a fiery mustard, notably fresh and well-dressed salads, a number of excellent sandwiches (including a fabulous tempura-style walleye po' boy and an equally fine combination of flavorful grilled steak, sweet caramelized onions, tangy blue cheese and the teasing bite of sriracha) and a few well-handled steaks and chops. The bar's strength is its knack for tapping small-batch craft beers.
Less consistent is the weekly chalkboard roster. For every divine meatball sandwich and gorgeous duck confit-wild rice salad, there seem to be a few dishes outside the kitchen's comfort zone: deadly dull butternut squash risotto, or a too-salty, fishy-tasting walleye tossed in gummy linguine.
Service is friendly and fleet, the kitchen cooks to 1 a.m. daily and the reasonable prices are just what you'd hope to encounter at an all-American neighborhood hangout. Which is exactly what this neighborhood needed.
815 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-331-0031, www.elisfoodandcocktails.com. Open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Sat.-Sun. No reservations.
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