After three years in business, Mona Restaurant & Bar chef/owner Lisa Hanson has resigned herself to the realities of her restaurant’s low-wattage address, deep within an office tower on downtown’s periphery.
With that in mind, Hanson has dropped her Saturday hours and replaced them with weekday breakfast. Smart move, since the neighborhood is a weekend ghost town and has a decided lack of business breakfast destinations. Hanson’s second wise decision can be encapsulated into a single word: bacon.
It’s produced on the premises (“You would, too, if you knew how easy it is to make,” she once told me), and it’s spectacular.
Rather than the thin-and-crispy variety, this bacon arrives in long, slab-like strips, expertly grilled, cut thick and noticeably weighty, with glorious smoke and fat notes. A single piece could satisfy a marathoner’s hunger. Can anyone actually consume the pair that’s part of the standard serving?
The menu taps most a.m. basics. Steak and eggs is a flank steak, an omelet is filled on a changes-daily basis, and oatmeal is dolled up with honey, almonds and berries. An egg sandwich goes all-out, filling a croissant with a pair of fried eggs, a slab of ham, a bold Cheddar and a vibrant herb-packed bite.
There’s a limited selection of does-the-job breakfast pastries and bagels, baked elsewhere. Instead, test-drive the kitchen’s ability to handle pancake batter. They’re masters. It’s a tangy sourdough formula, and a single short stack will make anyone a believer.
Service is fleet and friendly, and the top price is a very manageable $13.
333 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-259-8636, monarestaurant.com. Breakfast served 6:30 to 10 a.m. Mon.-Fri.
A hotel restaurant redo
Also downtown, and similarly slightly off the beaten path, lies Monello, the new Italian restaurant in Hotel Ivy.
Chef Mike DeCamp is serving breakfast daily — part of the restaurant’s status as a hotel amenity — and it’s lovely.
Like Mona, the menu is limited, maybe a half-dozen items. All are approached with a scrupulousness that comes naturally to DeCamp, given his long distinguished tenure at La Belle Vie.
The lox and bagels, for instance. For the bagel — wonderfully chewy, by the way — DeCamp bolsters the flavor by replacing a portion of the white flour with rye flour, and then a jolt of caraway. Ribbons of expertly cured and smoked salmon are finished with an herb-packed cream cheese schmear, followed by jabs of sharp onion and punchy capers. As breakfasts go, it’s close to perfect.
DeCamp doesn’t overdo it. French toast is made with a quietly luxurious brioche and topped with a flavorful berry compote. Harissa brightens but doesn’t overwhelm a fried egg sandwich on a tender English muffin. A frittata pops with rich tomato and tangy goat cheese flavor.
The service staff couldn’t be more gracious and accommodating. The stylish setting — a complete (and welcome) 180 from its drab predecessor, Porter & Frye — appears far more expensive than the menu (which stays in the $10-and-under range) might otherwise indicate.
A patio is on the way. “It’ll be here in a week, maybe two,” said DeCamp.
1115 2nd Av. S., Mpls., 612-353-6207, monellompls.com. Breakfast served 6:30 to 11 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 7 to 11 a.m. Sat.-Sun.
Think Austrian and Hungarian
Patio-free Brasserie Zentral isn’t exactly an ideal summer restaurant. Still, the recent addition of Sunday brunch is giving diners plenty of warm-weather reasons to check out the year-old, four-star homage to all things Austrian and Hungarian. Be sure to ask for a table near the big patio-door-style windows fronting Marquette Avenue.
Chef co/owner Russell Klein sticks within the geographic boundaries of the European regions where the restaurant finds its inspiration while still staying recognizably brunch-like.
The showy Zentral kitchen lacks a griddle, so Klein gets his pancake on with a gorgeous panakuken, a great big golden thing topped with spiced apples and sweet golden raisins. I’ve developed a head-over-heels crush on the delicate, crispy yeasted Belgian waffle.
Another don’t-miss dish is a play on the classic eggs en cocotte that Klein serves at Meritage, his downtown St. Paul restaurant.
In the Zentral version, he incorporates the kitchen’s dreamy spaetzle, earthy mushrooms and buttery leeks.
The thin, crisp pork schnitzel that’s such a hit at lunch and dinner also gets the brunch treatment — with eggs, of course — and plenty of salty capers, and other Zentral lunch and dinner classics made the switch: the exceptional house-made weisswurst, the signature quark spaetzle, the sublime foie gras terrine.
(For those who can’t make Sunday brunch, that yeasted waffle pops up roughly once a week as a special at Cafe Zentral, the restaurant’s skyway-level quick-service companion. Appearances are plugged on Twitter, @CafeZentralMN.)
Little touches make an outsize impression. The orange juice is fresh-squeezed, a night-and-day difference from the from-concentrate stuff that’s (sadly) standing operating procedure at most Twin Cities brunches. The cocktails are delicious.
Most notably, pastry chef LaShaw Castellano fills a cute cart with inexpensive, skillfully prepared temptations — muffins, doughnut holes, éclairs, croissants — that hit the exact sweet spot.
“It’s funny how so much of what constitutes brunch food is designed to put you right back to sleep,” said Klein with a laugh. “If you get a full-size pastry right away, you’re full before you even start. That’s why we make them small, so you still have your appetite.”
505 Marquette Av., Mpls., 612-333-0505, zentral-mn.com. Brunch served 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sun. Note: The restaurant is closed this week in observance of the Independence Day holiday. Brunch service resumes July 12.
Beyond traditional brunch
Finally, Hola Arepa is killing it on the weekend brunch front.
Yes, the kitchen’s signature cornmeal griddle cakes are in attendance, with brunch-appropriate (fried eggs, chorizo, a spicy Benedict) flourishes.
But venture into chef/co-owner Christina Nguyen’s other excursions into weekender fare, starting with the spectacular chilaquiles.
Nguyen stacks brittle tostadas between layers of black beans, well-seasoned pulled pork, a punchy tomatillo salsa, pickled onions and runny-yolked fried eggs, and the combination is a knockout of such proportions that it recently made the cover of Food & Wine magazine. It’s also big enough to feed two, and a steal at $11.
Instead of chicken and waffles, it’s (fabulous) fried chicken and cachapas, a pancake-like South American staple made with ground corn.
A yuca hash is a riot of color and texture. And bright, intense flavors. As for dessert, there’s a luscious yogurt flan dressed with garden-fresh blackberries and a crunchy pumpkin seed granola. So good.
The vast majority of the menu is gluten-free, libations are high-spirited, the staff bubbles over with enthusiasm and there’s plenty of open-air seating. My favorite? The tiny indoor-outdoor bar.
3501 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-345-5583, holaarepa.com. Brunch served 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
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