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5 best things our food critic ate in Twin Cities this week

From chocolate cake to hand-pulled noodles, here’s a rundown of my dining diary’s recent entries. What were your top eats of the week? Share the details in the comments section.

Breakfast sandwich at Hot Hands

Let’s just say that owner Tara Coleman knows how to bake a biscuit. Golden brown, crispy-on-the-outside and tender-and-flaky on the inside, they’re ideal vehicles for all kinds of a.m. mayhem ($9.95 to $10.95). At her cheery, just-opened bakery/cafe, Coleman splits and toasts them to use them as a foundation for a few variations: smothering them in a pepper-laced sausage gravy, or piling on sliced avocado, fried shallots and crunchy onions. Consider starting with a hearty disk of pork sausage, a slab of gooey American cheese and a runny-yolk-ed fried egg; this is a kitchen well-skilled in the intricacies of the Fried Egg Arts. By the way, along with the gorgeous apple turnovers and cinnamon rolls (served warm, buried under a swipe of thick, not-too-sweet icing), the so-called “Nutter Betters” – thin peanut butter wafers sandwiched around a creamy, peanut butter-laced filling – are not to be missed. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to my friend Scott, a baker so talented that he won the 2010 edition of the Star Tribune’s Holiday Cookie Contest. “These cookies restore my faith in baking,” he said. Now that’s an endorsement. 272 Snelling Av. S., St. Paul, 651-300-1503

Chocolate Lux cake at Black Walnut Bakery

The wait is over: Black Walnut Bakery quietly opened this week, hurrah. Those who have followed baker Sarah Botcher’s first-rate ability to fill the counters at Spyhouse Coffee with all kinds of beautiful laminated dough specialties – croissants, Kouign Amann, pain Suisse, Danish – will be delighted to learn that she’s placing those beautifully crafted goodies front and center in her sunlight-soaked storefront (and you can watch those doughs being made in a showy, state-of-the-art workspace next to the front door), but she’s not stopping there. Of particular note are five artfully composed cakes, sold whole and by the slice ($6 per slice, $35 for a 6-inch whole cake, $65 for a 9-inch whole cake). Predictably, this chocolate hound’s appetite went directly to a rectangular beauty that Botcher has christened “Chocolate Lux,” and the name is more than suitable. It’s a decadent exercise in chocolate on chocolate on chocolate: four layers of delicate sponge cake held together with a rich crémeux (imagine the world’s dreamiest, most intensely chocolaty pudding) and topped with a thick whipped cream. A hint of buttery caramel acts as a palate cleanser. In a word, wow. I can’t wait to return and test-drive the flurry of pineapple, coconut, caramel and meringue, and the colorful knockout that’s all about cassis and vanilla. But first, I’ll need to spend a month at the gym, working off that Lux. 3157 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

Jucy Lucy at Matt's Bar

It’s been ages since I’ve been to Matt’s Bar, a character flaw that I rectified when I found myself in the neighborhood on a late-afternoon weekday. Naturally, the place was packed, and I lucked into the last open seat in the house, which fortuitously happened to be the bar stool next to the grill. What a perch: I watched as dozens of the house specialty, the fabled Jucy Lucy, came to life. Minnesota’s most famous burger starts as wide disks of ground beef with a low-rising dome in the center; masked beneath that bubble is a hunk of American cheese. I’d forgotten about the flat-top grill’s shockingly modest dimensions; it’s a miracle that owner Scott Nelson can manage to feed his throngs of customers, and fascinating to watch his quietly disciplined approach to burger-making. The Jucy Lucy ($7.75) was, of course, sublime. Nelson carefully nurtures the generously seasoned patty’s outer surfaces to a crisped-up, flavor-packed char, leaving the center at a no-nonsense medium. Chopped onions – they fall on a continuum between soft and sweetly caramelized to blackened and crisp – contribute all kinds of flavor dimensions, and three pickle chips contribute a contrasting vinegar-ey bite. There’s a reason that “Fear the Cheese” is the bar’s motto, because the stove’s heat converts that American from blandly solid to dangerously molten; best to take a careful bite to break the beef’s seal around the cheese, then let a bit of it ooze out and cool to a more palatable temperature. Add it up, and the Jucy Lucy is nothing short of hot, salty, beefy, cheesy, bready perfection; why hasn’t the Minnesota Legislature designated it the state’s official cheeseburger? As for the slim, golden, salty and altogether fabulous fries, my half-order ($4.50) was beyond plentiful. 3500 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., 612-722-7072

Chicken pot pie at Colossal Cafe

The moment the temperature took a nosedive, my mind immediately went into comfort-food mode, the kind where someone else does the cooking (although I’m eventually going to be getting around to baking this recipe, from Taste contributor Meredith Deeds). Although this breakfast-and-lunch operation doesn’t feature pot pies on its menu, they’re available on a to-go basis ($13), and they’re fabulous. Let’s face it, the crust is what makes a pot pie, and too many restrict that element as a topper. Not here: a golden, flaky crust – think “two-crust pie” -- surrounds tons of tender chicken that’s tossed with peas and carrots and drenched in a rich, butter-packed cream sauce. A single serving easily feeds two. They’re refrigerated, not frozen, and bake up in about 30 minutes; the scent coming out of the oven is intoxicating. Pick up a few extra to stock the freezer. A second tip: the Golden Fig (794 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-602-0144) sells the Colossal’s vegetarian pot pie ($16.95), which places an ever-changing seasonal veggie (butternut squash, Brussels sprouts) in the spotlight. 1340 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-414-0543 and 2315 Como Av., St. Paul, 651-797-4027, colossalcafe.com

Shanxi shaved noodle soup at Magic Noodle

Half the fun of dining at the University Avenue newbie is the noodle-making show, an action-packed circus that takes place in a window into the open kitchen. For this dish, a wide, flat, hand-cut wheat noodle, tender and slurp-inducing, shares a generous bowl ($11.95) with a steaming, deeply flavorful beef broth, chunks of chewy brisket, tangy green onions and teasingly sour pickled mustard greens. Pops of a pair of tableside condiments -- chile oil and vinegar – boosted good into great. 1337 University Av. W., St Paul

Rustica Bakery & Cafe coming soon to Southdale

Rustica, which has been dazzling bread and sweets fans with its premium artisan output since 2004, is getting ready to open a branch at Southdale.

Owner Greg Hoyt can explain his decision to invest in a suburban shopping center by invoking a single word: parking

“I have very strong convictions about parking,” he said. “To be successful in this business, parking is a necessity. Let’s face it: today, people in Minnesota drive. And we drive alone. If we want to open another Rustica location, we know that we need parking, and lots of it. Southdale has a cornfield of parking. It goes on, and on.”

Ok, there were other reasons, too. 

“That part of Edina also feels like a city, with all the density in that area,” said Hoyt. “It’s also about demographics. Our customers live there. I also like the idea of being connected to a co-working space.”

Rustica is taking a berth in the Life Time Work building, a component of the massive, fully loaded Life Time fitness facility that’s opening soon on the site that was formerly home to JC Penney. Rustica’s location in the complex is adjacent to Southdale’s northwest entrance. Shoppers will have to exit the mall to enter the bakery/cafe. 

“It will have its own entrance, and its own outdoor seating,” said Hoyt.

A cool design detail: the space will feature interior windows that overlook Life Time’s indoor soccer field. Yes, there will be an indoor soccer field. 

What the 2,000 square foot Rustica space won’t have is a kitchen. Everything edible will be produced in Minneapolis and trucked to Edina, from the bakery cases’ entire line of breads and pastries to a full range of grab-and-go salads and sandwiches. A complete line of coffee products will also be available. 

Rustica’s 70-seat Southdale location will keep longer hours than its Minneapolis counterpart (which is pictured, above, and located at 3220 W. Lake St.). Doors will open at 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. on weekends, and remain open to 9 p.m., two hours longer than the Minneapolis location’s 7 p.m. closing time. 

“That’s going to force us to be interesting in the evenings,” said Hoyt. Rather than offering beer and wine (“I’m not interested in that,” said Hoyt), the plan will be to emphasize desserts, along with an abundance of tech-friendly electrical outlets. 

“We hope to be known as a great place to study,” said Hoyt. “We want to be comfortable, to encourage people to linger. I love it when people linger, it creates a vibe, it creates an energy.”

Three cheers to Simon, the mall’s ownership, for recruiting a local, quality-obsessed quick-service food tenant. It’s a welcome foil to the Panda Expresses, Qdobas and Jimmy John’s that frequently populate the mall landscape. 

Hoyt hopes that the Southdale Rustica will be up and running by year’s end. 

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