Think about it: When was the last time you hosted a get-together over a meal in your house? Or received an invitation? People don’t seem to be gathering around the table the way they used to, at least not in homes. But in restaurants? All of those packed dining rooms and hard-to-get reservations are a reflection — in part, anyway — that many of us are doing more of our socializing in restaurants.
Chef Jamie Malone is here for those who fall into this demographic. When she and comanaging partner Dennis Monroe took over the downtown restaurant last fall, Malone decided to cater to group dining for a few reasons. One was practical: The restaurant’s roomy scale is conducive to larger parties.
“It’s also a fun way to eat,” said Malone. “You don’t have to think too much, and it’s casual. I love tasting menus, but not everyone wants that experience all the time. This large-format dining is an opportunity for me as a chef to sort of curate things, and have a little bit of control, without it being a tasting menu.”
Sounds like a plan to me. Here’s my unsolicited suggestion: Start with the whole bass. Malone and chef Ryan Cook (formerly of Sea Change, one of several wise hires that Malone and Monroe have made) keep it simple, with impressive results.
It’s as dramatic as it is delicious. The whole fish is placed on parchment on the hot flat-top grill, the heat giving the skin a paper-like crackle but leaving the flesh tender and snowy white.
The fish is deboned from the collar on down, and the belly is filled with pork cheeks that have been braised in apple cider vinegar and finished with brown butter, shallots and tons of herbs. The contrast between the succulent bass and the shredded, vinegar-laced pork is intense, and intensely appealing, and the finishing touches — pungent capers and earthy, slightly nutted sunchokes — only add to the attraction.
Another recommendation: the whole duck. Those who have swooned over the chicken at Malone’s Grand Cafe in south Minneapolis know that this chef has a knack for poultry.
This time, she gives it the Chinese restaurant treatment. Roasted over the kitchen’s wood-burning stove, the bird is carved and then served with scallion-packed pancakes and a pungent mustard, an ideal group-meal centerpiece.
For more roadhouse tastes, the kitchen prepares pork schnitzel — appropriately crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside — and pairs it with smoke-infused ribs and a bevy of likable side dishes.
Although they’re not devised in family-style portions, many of the appetizers are highly shareable.
Sure, burrata has become a prime contender for the winner of the Twin Cities’ Most Overexposed Menu Item competition. But the Eastside crew sweeps aside that ubiquitousness two ways: first, by drizzling the ultra-creamy cheese in a lemon-laced chive oil, and by including thin, super-crisp crackers that hum with a fermented sourdough flavor.
I love the wintry plate of roasted cauliflower. It’s another too-familiar ingredient that Malone sets apart by dressing it with thin, juicy slices of Honeycrisp apples, their sweetness a tailor-made foil to the richness of melted Taleggio.
And instead of presenting a same-old, same-old steakhouse wedge salad, Malone lightens it up and puts her sculptor’s touch to its presentation. It’s so pretty that it’s almost a shame to cut into, let alone eat.
Downtown’s residential population recently topped the 50,000 mark, and Eastside’s remake doesn’t ignore all the neighbors — solos, couples — who might want to descend on the place for a casual meal.
There’s a first-rate cheeseburger, notable for its bacon-infused mayonnaise and a superb house-baked bun; Cook’s baking handiwork also extends to the tangy sourdough loaves that initiate every meal, served with a creamy butter flecked with twinkling pieces of sea salt.
Even better is the crab toast. Anyone who loves crab will adore this pretty open-faced sandwich — another fine use of that fine sourdough — that’s piled with a colorful salad that’s primarily delicate, clean-tasting, gently poached crab.
Chicken, brined overnight, is breaded and fried to requisite crispiness. And there are several ways to enjoy oysters pulled from chilly Atlantic waters off the Massachusetts coast, from raw to grilled and served Rockefeller-style.
The egg-shaped, gnocchi-like dumplings are a must. The addition of an unbilled ingredient — plenty of hard-cooked egg yolks — imbues a level of luxuriousness, and a discerning pop of umami comes in the form of a mellow roasted garlic purée.
As much as I admired how pistachios and hazelnuts were manipulated to lend heft to a bowl of pappardelle, the menu’s other pasta — spaghetti tossed with cognac-splashed cream — cried out for more lobster, and for a vegetable component with more personality than dull roasted butternut squash.
Other wrinkles? Sure. Consistency proved to be a bit of a thorn (my first stab at the fried chicken was a greasy, oversalted disappointment), and despite Malone’s let’s-drop-the-formalities mentality, a few dishes (quail, a nod to lobster Thermidor) have an out-of-place fussiness.
I also wish there were more than four family-style options, because Malone, Cook & Co. are clearly headed in the right direction; in for a penny, in for a pound, right?
Here’s hoping that consumers will give Eastside the time necessary for the place to evolve into its best self. Given Malone’s well-earned stature in the upper echelon of the region’s culinary universe, that’s going to be a process worth watching.
Oddly, there’s no dessert platter or easily-shared sweets sampler. Still, Cook is crafting appealing single-serving temptations, often in the form of straight-up classics, slightly twisted. For example, a long, rectangular slab of Opera cake — thin layers of chocolate, almond and coffee buttercream — is topped with an incongruous pop of strawberry ice cream, an oddball combination that works.
Kudos for the Bundt cake — why aren’t more local restaurant kitchens equipped with made-in-Minnesota Bundt pans? — a springy, olive-oil-rich formula that’s brushed, warm from the oven, with a Michigan-made tart cherry liqueur, a brilliant finishing touch. And while the lemon tart could have packed more of a citrusy wallop, it’s scrupulously prepared.
I like what they’ve done to the place, which really isn’t all that much. Since its debut in 2015, Eastside has always been a dynamic, great-looking, big-city restaurant (it’s originally the work of Shea Design of Minneapolis), and the new regime has left well enough alone, inserting just a few tweaks — well placed furnishings, artwork and lighting — to visually signal a changing of the guard.
“I like the idea of not constantly tearing down and starting over,” said Malone. “I feel like we’ve cleaned it up, and dirtied it up.”
Next up: brunch. “Springtime,” said Malone. “When the patio opens, that’ll be our cue.” I’ll definitely be there, with a bunch of friends in tow.