It only makes sense that the Twin Cities' craft-beer epicenter would spawn a bar that delves deep into small-batch brews.

But the Mill Northeast is more than its liquor license, thanks to chef Matt Kempf. Fans of the former Cafe Maude at Loring, A Rebours and Red will recall Kempf's name and talent. The neighborhood should consider itself fortunate to find him in its midst.

His best work showcases his gift for color, intelligence and nuance. Delicate crêpes were filled with a smoky, juicy shredded pork, its flavor accentuated by the meat's crisp caramelized edges and its natural sweetness balanced against garlickly braised Swiss chard and a lively tomatillo salsa.

Seared steelhead trout, so velvety and pink, gets the Minnesota treatment with a pilaf of wild rice, sweet cherries and crunchy pistachios. A modernist spin on chicken and dumplings nurtured my winter-battered psyche through several subzero nights. A long list of egg dishes on the daily brunch menu also merit a loyal following.

Kempf wisely targets his beer-drinking audience with a first-rate burger, an appealing Scotch egg, strangely addictive cheese curds, similarly can't-eat-just-one shrimp toasts garnished with coral-tinted salmon roe, battered and deep-fried cod speared on a stick and a split, grilled and fabulously spicy pork sausage supplied by the Butcher & the Boar. Great desserts, too.

Not everything works, but the kitchen's output has continued to improve and impress since the restaurant opened in November. One particularly welcome attribute is the menu's affordability, with entrees routinely landing in the teens — a depressing rarity for this level of cooking — and a bargain-minded daily happy hour that runs from 3 to 6 p.m.

There's a reason why the setting has its idiosyncrasies. It originally housed a short-lived drive-in, and to describe the atmosphere as bare-boned is being kind. Still, the room doesn't upstage Kempf's handiwork, and whether it's by coincidence or by design, its lack of pretense suits the service staff's amiable attitude.

1851 Central Av. NE., Mpls., 612-315-2340, Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Mon., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 10 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. No reservations.

Basic Mexican, done well

When a colleague enthusiastically extolled the virtues of Maya Cuisine, I paid attention.

"It's not the diluted Tex-Mex stuff that I find everywhere else," she said.

She was so right. The flavors are clear, powerful and clean, right down to the tender corn tortillas that are pressed and grilled to order.

The menu is fairly limited. It's basically lots of carbs — in the forms of tacos, tamales, burritos, tortas and quesadillas — finished with vibrantly prepared treatments of pork, beef and chicken.

The cafeteria-like ordering process isn't as smooth as it could be, but a little patience upfront yields a significant payoff. I continue to daydream about the tamale laced with chicken simmered in a fiery salsa verde, the two-fisted grilled sandwich stuffed with pineapple-marinated pork or the deeply flavorful beef tongue tacos. There are a few add-ons, from wonderfully creamy guacamole and a punchy salsa (both served with strips of freshly fried tortillas), to a pair of dreary soups and a so-so tres leches cake.

Sure, you'll walk away with the scent of the grill permeating every molecule of your being. But the quirky setting could have been pulled off a telenovela sound stage, and what's not to love about the spectacular man cave-inspired party room? Other pluses include the way-moderate prices (nothing over $8.75) and the late-night weekend schedule. Oh, and the super-nice people.

1840 Central Av. NE., Mpls., 612-789-0775, Open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Fri.-Sat. No reservations.

A classic continues

Taking a seat at one of the Ideal Diner's 14 stools is an instant reminder of the hardworking, tough-talking side of Minneapolis that seems to be evaporating before our very eyes. The surrounding neighborhood's industrial past may be leaping into its creative-class future at breakneck speed, but time seems to move a little slower at this 65-year-old Central Avenue institution.

Thank goodness. The restaurant's long life is embodied in its pink laminate countertop, faded through eons of elbow and forearm wear. The food is similarly timeless. The place oozes history, reminding the post-McDonald's generation that fast food used to be defined by short-order patty melts, BLTs and pork tenderloin sandwiches. The daily lunch special could be a rib-sticking plate of goulash, or church basement-esque tuna-noodle casserole.

Nothing against the burgers — they're exactly what a greasy spoon's should be, and that's a compliment — but breakfast is my Ideal meal of choice. The pancakes — thin, tender and golden — are terrific, and the ultra-eggy French toast is finished with a dash of cinnamon.

The bacon is smoky and chewy, hash browns are taken to a pleasant crispiness, there's an omelet for every appetite and the hearty corned beef hash will jump-start the weariest of mornings.

Another reason for admiration: Not a single price ventures north of $9, and most land significantly lower. A person can fill themselves on cooked-to-order eggs and toast for $3.25, and Friday's crowd-pleasing fried cod-fries-slaw dinner, served from 4 to 8 p.m., chimes in at $7.95.

Whenever I'm overcome by the misguided urge to throw a large dinner party, I return to my senses by observing Ideal cook Dave Cegla as he unflappably goes through his paces, a breathless blur of activity that, by comparison, never fails to underline my inherently lazy nature.

Then there's newish owner Kim Robinson. She bought the place a year ago, and her daily routine of topping off coffee cups, taking orders and tallying tabs is generously peppered with grace and good humor. Spend a quick breakfast or a noon hour in her company, and she'll make Minneapolis — its northeast quadrant, anyway — feel like the small town that I suspect it once was.

1314 Central Av. NE., Mpls., 612-789-7630, Open 6 a.m.- 4 p.m. Sat.-Thu., 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri. No reservations.

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