The Star Tribune’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year has the showiest fireworks in town — literally — thanks to a theatrical 20-foot hearth. While the entire dining room was designed to exploit the view, zero in on the long kitchen counter for the full sensory impact, which is not only visual (the Food Network’s programming isn’t this riveting) but visceral, because you’ll feel the heat radiating off that massive stone-and-iron setup. Chef Thomas Boemer and chef de cuisine Jeff Lakatos make all kinds of magic with that fire — don’t miss the trout, duck hearts, uni, langoustine, pheasant sausage or grilled lettuce hearts — but the menu’s centerpiece is venison, in a half-dozen iterations, from a showy leg (hung on a hook, roasted, sliced and stacked on a platter, with tons of lingonberries) to a ragu over cavatelli. When it comes to dessert, the ingenious, honey-infused mash-up between baked Alaska and s’mores is not to be missed. Another plus: co-owner Nick Rancone’s discerning wine list.
928 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-237-9630, inbloomstp.com
This contemporary Mexican restaurant is like no other. Chef Jose Alarcon has a lot to do with that singularity, but another factor is the restaurant’s cozy ambience, ingeniously fashioned from a former adhesives factory. The dining room’s most-engaging seats are at the kitchen counter, a front-row perch that’s tailor-made for soaking up the fire’s warmth and observing Alarcon and chef de cuisine Jason Sawicki as they go about their work. They make full use of the fierce heat, transforming familiar ingredients — Wisconsin-raised pork, sweet potatoes from the root cellar — with the assistance of Alarcon’s knowledge of the culinary traditions and innovations of his native Mexico. Even dishes that don’t encounter the fire — a jicama salad, brimming with citrus and mint — are a revelation. Do yourself a favor and book a table. Better yet, a seat at that counter.
1414 NE. Quincy St., Mpls., 612-345-5527, popolvuhmpls.com
Settle in at the kitchen counter and watch the fire crackle and blaze while perusing chef Matt Leverty’s menu, which celebrates regional ingredients. The pinnacle experience is trout, with the fish’s delicate flesh subtly perfumed with smoke from the hearth and the Brussels sprouts-bacon combination serves its intended purpose of fortifying winter appetites. For those dropping in at lunch, the wild rice soup is a must.
300 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 651-468-0600, hewinghotel.com
Walk into this lively Linden Hills restaurant, and the first impression that’s made is the tickle of smoke inside your nose, a welcome campfire reference on a cold winter’s night. Chef Daniel del Prado makes the most of his kitchen’s wood-burning grill, but doesn’t overdo it, marshaling the forces from the glowing cherry and oak but not allowing the smoke to overpower his lively cooking, which represents both sides of his Argentine and Italian heritage. Citizens of Brunch Nation need to indulge in Martina’s daytime efforts, because the almond flour pancakes, crab carbonara, poached lobster-fried egg toast and the charred avocado-pickled shrimp bruschetta are all best-in-show dishes; ditto Marco Zappia’s refreshing, one-of-a-kind libations.
4312 Upton Av. S., Mpls., 612-922-9913, martinarestaurant.com
On the main floor — the steakhouse side of this animated, always-packed restaurant — James Beard award-winning chef Isaac Becker and executive chef Ben Pichler finish well-sourced cuts of beef over white-hot white oak, the intense heat burnishing a mouthwatering char onto every steak. Downstairs, in the restaurant’s cozy pizzeria, an oven — trimmed in classic white subway tile — illuminates the space with its flickering wood-burning fire and turns out pizzas of genuine distinction. When there’s a blizzard — which, this month, feels like a near-daily occurrence — lucking into a seat inside Becker’s hygge-for-days pizzeria feels like winning the lottery. Becker and his crew cook to midnight on Friday and Saturday.
1933 Colfax Av. S., Mpls., 612-843-1500, burchrestaurant.com
Is there a more impressive locally owned chain? Doubtful. It doesn’t take much for the dough on these Neapolitan pies to blister and char inside the intense heat of domed, tile-covered ovens — 90 seconds, tops — which makes this attention-to-every-detail operation an ideal quick-service meal (to call Punch “fast food” is to commit culinary blasphemy). Pizzas are sold in classic formulas (check out the Adriatico, with feta, salty capers, pungent Saracene olives and fragrant oregano) or go the design-your-own route, but remember this: the “Margherita Extra,” made with first-rate Italian mozzarella di Bufala, is a genuine thing of beauty.
Eleven Twin Cities locations, including 1018 E. County Hwy. 96, Vadnais Heights, 651-429-1061, punchpizza.com
When the Polski family relocated their landmark restaurant from Eat Street to northeast Minneapolis in early January, they didn’t give up their brick-lined barbecue pit. They rebuilt it, mirroring the exact specifications and recycling a number of key components. “It’s basically a fireplace,” said co-owner Steve Polski. “It’s the oldest way to cook on Earth, and it’s the way we’ve been doing it since 1946.” Want to get a glimpse at the action? The Polskis have thoughtfully included a window into the operation, and whenever the pit’s door opens, the dining room is perfumed with the scent of burning oak. “This is what makes us special,” said co-owner Anthony Polski. “It’s unique, it’s special to our family’s history, and to this restaurant.”
220 Lowry Av. NE., Mpls., 612-872-1111, marketbbq.com
Chef/co-owner Ann Kim uses the menu at this northeast Minneapolis dining magnet to tell the story of her life. The Star Tribune’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year is the place where Kim replays her first success — Pizzeria Lola in southwest Minneapolis — but then goes beyond that wood-burning oven (wrapped in gleaming copper, just as it is at Lola) with a hardworking wood-burning grill, using it as an instrument to ignite her Korean heritage through a long array of gotta-have dishes: prawns brimming with a red chile-lime bite, roasted sweet potatoes topped with crème fraîche and pickled fresnos, and glorious whole fish preparations. Kudos also for the restaurant’s layout, with its many counters (including a front-and-center stretch of seats at that hearth) and shared spaces, encouraging standoffish Minnesotans to — gasp — interact with strangers.
165 13th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-345-5719, youngjoni.com