At first glance, Sameh Wadi might not be the most intuitive hire as a steakhouse culinary director.
The chef/owner of World Street Kitchen in south Minneapolis and the former Saffron Restaurant & Lounge is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of spices and his contemporary approach to Mediterranean cooking.
But when Seven owners Ro Shirole and Ken Sherman — the latter was Wadi’s Saffron landlord for most of the restaurant’s decadelong run — decided to reinvigorate their shopworn steak-and-sushi property, Wadi was their guy. Turns out that Wadi loves steakhouses — his first job, post-culinary school, was in a steakhouse, and as a diner he’s always loved the genre’s simplicity and a la carte format.
Wadi’s version of Seven is more interesting than your average beef palace, and eons better than its predecessor. For starters, all traces of Hidden Valley salad dressings and other schlocky, off-the-truck shortcuts have been abolished, replaced by honest, appealing cooking that politely tweaks classic expectations.
Those traits are front and center in a wildly decadent crabcake ($22), a must-order that’s roughly 95 percent sweet lump crab, barely held together with a pinch of fresh breadcrumbs and egg. It’s one of those dishes that is completely irresistible, made even more so by a rémoulade perfumed with smoked paprika. If I could consume one on a daily basis, I would.
The stars of the eight beef cuts are a pair of 40-day dry-aged choices, a 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye ($79) and 32-ounce porterhouse for two ($95), the meat dense and velvety, with a deep, intense flavor.
Even better? The lean, flavorful lamb chops ($45), marinated in lamb fat, peppercorns, oregano and garlic. They’re grilled to sizzling perfection and served with a just-right lemon-mustard-oregano sauce. They’re based on a formula Wadi perfected at Saffron. Best lamb chops in town? Possibly.
The side dishes ($10 to $17), portioned to share, are often excellent. Don’t miss the superbly crisp and decadent hash browns, fried in beef fat infused with garlic and thyme. Or the baked potato-like fingerlings, cooked in brown butter and seasoned with the same garlic-onion-sesame-poppyside formula in the “everything” bagel wheelhouse. Or chewy roasted broccolini, sprinkled with crunchy hazelnuts.
Seven remains a work in progress. A few days ago, Wadi launched Nam Nam on the vast property’s second floor, a setup he laughingly describes as “the most inauthentic Asian restaurant in town.”
Half the menu is sushi, the other half is a vivid patchwork of Filipino-inspired fare from his cooking staff, complemented by dishes that captured Wadi’s imagination during a 40-day tour of Southeast Asia that he took last year.
Dishes range from a Thai-style tempura shrimp redolent of tamarind and ginger to a whole branzino stuffed with turmeric, garlic and ginger, wrapped in a banana leaf, baked and finished with a roasted tomato- Thai chile paste. “It’s fun things that taste good,” he said.
When weather conditions allow for the property’s popular rooftop to open, Wadi plans to serve the Nam Nam menu, supplemented with burgers, sandwiches and other bar snacks.
Meanwhile, Grand Catch (1672 Grand Av., St. Paul, grandcatchmn.com), Wadi’s global ode to the Cajun seafood boil, is set to (ssshhh) quietly debut next week.
Seven, 700 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-238-7770, 7mpls.com. Dinner daily, starting at 4 p.m.
A star in the corner
The personification of a rising star is now running the kitchen at Corner Table.
She’s Karyn Tomlinson, a French-trained vet of Meritage and Borough. Her menu is a fixed-price format ($45), with four options offered within three courses. Although she’s retained a few of the staples that chef/co-owner Thomas Boemer ingrained into the appetites of his customers — the butter-drenched drop biscuits, the glorious sweet potato doughnuts — Tomlinson has dropped much of the Southern accent that hummed through her boss’ cooking.
Instead, you’ll find the essence of carrots in a color-saturated soup, or pint-size, piping-hot popovers, hazelnut brown and enriched with beef tallow and a Wisconsin-made Beaufort-style cheese.
Her subtle, cerebral cooking is best exemplified in velvety roast lamb, served in a pork bone broth made green with mint, parsley, nettles and watercress, every bite heralding the promise of spring. Or sweet potatoes coaxed into creaminess, with crackling popped wild rice cleverly acting as an opposites-attract textural foil.
She also has a sense of humor, taking a Pronto Pup approach (minus the stick) to prawns. And Tomlinson’s sense of place — and season — is spot on. Witness the foraged sour cherries that landed in her kitchen, now the centerpiece of the most impressive dessert I’ve encountered in ages, a snowball-shaped Pavlova, finished with a rambunctious pop of Meyer lemon sorbet. Yes, this is one career to watch.
Corner Table, 4537 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-823-0011, cornertablerestaurant.com. Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Meanwhile, near the Guthrie
When Gary Stenberg stepped into the kitchen at Sanctuary last fall, he was walking into a total completing-the-circle moment.
When Sanctuary opened in 2007, Stenberg was at the helm. But he was quickly replaced by Patrick Atanalian, who went on to spend a decade in the restaurant’s (tiny) kitchen. When he departed last fall, owner Michael Kutscheid (he’s the hospitable presence at the door) offered Stenberg his old job.
How great is that?
Under Atanalian, the menu emphasized whimsy and quirkiness, in a marvelous way: vanilla bean-infused pork, or scallops in a broth of rosé Champagne and a finish of squid ink-dyed flying fish roe.
By comparison, Stenberg’s cooking is much more straightforward, focusing on big flavors underscored by surprise elements. I loved rich, coral-tinted salmon, resting on a savory onion bread pudding and brightened by a hearty tomato relish and a sweet-hot maple finish. Ditto a fork-tender beef filet paired with rich mushrooms, and plump, snappy shrimp, wrapped in smoky bacon, perched on a punchy blue cheese flan, the plate dressed with a no-holds-barred Buffalo sauce. Dessert? A lovely tres leches cake, or a discerning cheese plate.
There’s one major holdover, a five-course tasting menu (available Monday through Thursday) at a double-take-inducing $35 (that price, by the way, has remained unchanged since 2008), easily one of the metro area’s most remarkable dining-out deals.
It’s billed as a “chef’s whim,” and when I ordered it a few weeks ago, Stenberg was composing courses primarily by cherry-picking dishes from up and down the menu. Portions were generous, far beyond the usual tasting menu standard.
Service was as gracious as always. If I had one wish for the restaurant, it would be that Kutscheid would invest in a refresh of the dining room’s decor. The long, narrow space has enchanting bones — heavy timbers and rough-hewed stone, for days — but most everything else has a dated vibe. Stenberg’s contemporary handiwork deserves better.
Sanctuary, 903 Washington Av. S., Mpls., 612-339-5058, sanctuarympls.com. Dinner Mon.-Sat.