As a former social studies teacher, I would like to think that the entertaining floor show at Giulia was created to symbolize Minnesota’s dairy farmers’ significant contributions to the state’s economy.
But even for my overactive imagination, that’s a stretch. In reality, the idea to prepare mozzarella tableside — theatrically warming and stretching the curds in scalding water until the milky, snow-white cheese achieves a smooth, delectable elasticity — has an entirely different genesis.
“Everyone has been eating mozzarella wrong, for their whole life,” said chef Josh Hedquist. “Let’s face it, mozzarella is best on a pizza, when it’s hot. So let’s eat it hot.”
He’s right. Consuming it fresh, with a boost in temperature, reveals a world of subtle attributes — a teasing saltiness, and a buttery finish — not present when a rubbery blob of mozzarella, immersed in a water-filled plastic container, is plucked from a supermarket refrigerator case.
It’s paired with a quartet of options, from fiery Calabrian chile peppers (“the Italian version of Sriracha,” said Hedquist) to the familiar (and, it must be said, boring by comparison) caprese formula, and served with slices of toasted bread. Showiness aside, it makes for a marvelous shareable starter, and it’s one of many clever components of this promising new downtown Minneapolis restaurant.
Rather than stamp a corporate cookie-cutter operation on the premises, the newish Emery hotel wisely tapped a pair of chefs — Hedquist, plus local dining legend Steven Brown (Tilia, St. Genevieve) to collaborate on a northern Italian theme. The two share ideas, with Hedquist taking on the day-to-day responsibilities and Brown acting as a consultant.
“I grew up hearing stories about Steven Brown, and how he had a hand in changing the course of the culinary culture,” said Hedquist. “I get to cook the food that I’ve always wanted to cook, and I get to cook with Steven Brown all the time. This is the best opportunity that I’ve ever had in my life.”
Hedquist, a Minneapolis native, has been cooking for 25 years, working all over the country. When a Florida gig placed him in a kitchen with a bunch of Italians, he gained a valuable hands-on education.
Here’s how much Hedquist is into his new job: The experience has far and away eclipsed his appearances on a few Food Network shows, even the one that yielded a $20,000 prize.
“I thought that was going to be the pinnacle of my career,” he said. “And now that I’m here, I barely remember it.”
A hardworking oven
Another star of the Giulia show is pizza.
What a crust! The dough receives an all-important 72-hour fermentation, which leads to a thin, crisp, chewy foundation — it’s the kind of pizza where each slice holds its shape — that rises around the edges but barely blisters. The results are spectacular, and they don’t fade into the background, since the kitchen’s approach to toppings is one of admirable restraint.
“You use good ingredients, and you don’t do a lot to them,” said Hedquist.
A favorite merges the compelling flavors of pistachio, lemon and mint with hunky cubes of creamy mortadella, the fatty pork caramelizing nicely in the oven’s extreme heat.
The classic combination of crushed tomatoes, decadent burrata and fragrant basil has rarely seemed so spot-on. But the surprise hit is all about tender, juicy clams. An improbable alchemy of ice cubes, the clams’ pickled herring-like brine, salty Pecorino and olive oil becomes a subtle kind of white sauce. Add tons of chile flakes and a robust rapini pesto, and it’s a pizza experience like no other in the Twin Cities.
That same thousand-degree oven works miracles with trout.
The fish, so pristine and fresh, comes from a southeastern Minnesota source, and is treated with care when it lands in the Giulia kitchen. Lemons roasted in olive oil are stuffed in the fish’s belly, and the skin is wrapped in smoky, salty speck, saltimbocca-style. Brushed with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, the whole fish is roasted for just five minutes in that blazing oven, a method that sears the outside but leaves the flesh tantalizingly moist and succulent.
Simple pleasures, right? The plate’s ingenious counterpoint is a salsa verde, where the color comes from olives and parsley rather than tomatillos. Wisconsin-raised veal is handled with similar finesse.
Pasta, and more
Two of the four pastas really stand out.
Sage and venison — they go together like peanut butter and jelly — are the predominant flavors in lovely little agnolotti, finished with a flurry of Parmesan; so uncomplicated, so delicious.
Even better? Gnudi, those delicate ricotta-boosted semolina dumplings. It’s a pasta that rarely appears on Twin Cities menus — it’s often upstaged by its cousin, gnocchi.
The Giulia kitchen answers that age-old question, “How do you make a pasta that screams ‘summer’?” By incorporating watercress and pickled ramps with the gnudi, then relying upon balsamic vinegar and brown butter to deliver a packs-a-punch component, enhanced by the inclusion of bitter radicchio. Even more crunch comes in the form of hazelnuts.
It’s a dish that this pasta hound could consume on a daily basis. At least until summer turns to fall.
There are three desserts (even the sweets follow the truncated-menu format), each a winner.
Black cocoa gives a decadent budino a bitter bite and a jet-black color. A panna cotta, with hints of an herbaceous, mountain berry liqueur, is a voluptuous textural foil to delicately crispy, rosemary-laced meringue. And the kitchen turns out a lovely fruit tart, with flaky, buttery crust surrounding a flavor-packed seasonal fruit; on my most recent visit, the filling du jour was strawberries, their sweet-tart essence playing beautifully against a basil gelato.
Side dishes aren’t relegated to a neglected back burner. Toothy roasted asparagus is buried under hard-cooked egg and a flurry of crunchy breadcrumbs. Ultra-creamy polenta brims with butter and Parmesan. And a garlicky vinaigrette removes all traces of the take-your-medicine aspect of grilled rapini.
Lunch is an abbreviated version of dinner (no mozzarella service, alas), with the addition of a handful of panini options (don’t miss the one packed with dense olive oil-cured tuna, or the clever fried speck-avocado twist on the BLT) and an earthy, crimini-packed frittata.
Breakfast leads with a handful of arrives-in-a-flash frittatas, a well-composed a.m. panini, an Italian sausage-packed hash, and a slab of a bread pudding-like French toast topped with a dollop of ricotta and a bright blueberry compote.
Those expecting baked goods will have to stroll across the hotel’s alluring lobby and get in line at downtown’s most sumptuous coffeehouse, a branch of Spyhouse Coffee Roasters. The counter stocks a wide range of goodies (hello, drop-dead-gorgeous kouign-amann) from Black Walnut Bakery, the top-performing operation run by baker Sarah Botcher.
Modernizing a historic beauty
Kudos for being a hotel restaurant that avoids the club sandwich-New York strip-Caesar salad trap. Not that there weren’t missteps.
Golden-skinned chicken was woefully undercooked, and cacio e pepe lacked the appropriately peppery oomph. Let’s face it, there’s no room for error when a menu restrains itself to four or fewer selections in entrees, pastas, pizzas and other categories.
This error-prone writer is hardly in a position to talk, but the typo-laced menu could benefit from the services of a copy editor.
Also, Giulia doesn’t come cheap; prepare for more than occasional sticker shock. For starters, a majority of the by-the-glass wines fall in the $16 to $27 range. That interactive mozzarella extravaganza starts at $16, and those frittatas, served a la carte, run $16 to $18. Yikes.
Those Gold Card prices could be a reflection of the singular surroundings.
The restaurant is housed in a stately 1906 banking lobby, one that possesses all the requisite outward symbols of early-20th-century financial stability: massive fluted marble pillars, intricately coffered plaster ceilings and enormous windows.
The previous tenant, the forgettable Restaurant Max, inexplicably turned its back on this built-in beauty. Not Giulia.
Studio Mai — the Los Angeles design firm responsible for Young Joni’s distinctive good looks — has used this framework to craft one of the city’s most striking dining environments, softening but not diminishing the room’s imposing qualities through the judicious application of warm woods, sleek lines and a restrained color palette.
The four-sided bar is a comfortable hangout for both drinkers and diners, although the latter might prefer the kitchen counter, a front-row perch for observing Hedquist and his crew (Brown is there, too, working the line a few nights a week, and it’s a treat to watch one of the region’s most gifted chefs in his element.) The good looks are clearly a fruitful investment.
“It holds us to a standard,” said Hedquist. “I look around and I’m inspired to cook good food.”