It happens to everyone. The old, if-it’s-Saturday-we’re-reserving- a-table-at-fill in the blank.
Dining habits die hard, particularly when they’re ingrained over this seemingly endless winter. But now’s the time to break the routine of your dining-out routine, and I’ve got some suggestions. They may not be brand-spanking-new names, but they may be new to you. And isn’t that all that matters?
Bid the winter blahs goodbye with a plate of pappardelle tossed with a hearty ragu alla Bolognese, or a bowl of mussels steamed in white wine and garlic, or a creamy risotto dotted with winter vegetables, or a luscious butterscotch budino (check out the three-course, $40 dinner option). After launching this dinner-only lakeside charmer nearly 10 years ago, co-owners Nicole Whetzel, Daron Close and Chris Whalen have gone on to boost the dining-out fortunes of the northeast metro, adding a second Acqua (8241 N. Shore Trail, Forest Lake, 651-464-6130), and launching Mizu (4475 Lake Av. S., White Bear Lake, 651-653-4888, mizuwbl.com), their foray into ramen, sushi, nigiri and other Japanese standards.
4453 Lake Av. S., White Bear Lake, 651-407-7317, acqua-restaurants.com
2. Breaking Bread Cafe
Chef Lachelle Cunningham turns out satisfying, creative and value-priced comfort food of all stripes (meat-eating, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free) at this friendly neighborhood destination. Morning highlights include herb-flecked buttermilk biscuits smothered in turkey chorizo gravy, Cheddar-infused grits topped with jerk-spiced shrimp and a hearty grain porridge (buckwheat groats, red rice, flaxseed and other goodies) simmered in almond milk. At lunch, go for the meat-and-three option — I vote for the beef brisket with black-eyed peas and rice, (vegan) collard greens and a corn muffin — or the towering Reuben stuffed with tangy kimchi. Dessert? Better-than-Mom’s versions of sweet potato pie and peach cobbler.
1210 W. Broadway, Mpls., 612-529-9346, breakingbreadfoods.com
3. Honey and Rye Bakehouse
Baker/owner Anne Andrus’ output really shines in the a.m. For a low-key start to the day, there are tender, buttery, not-too-sugary madeleines, but heartier appetites can revel in knobbly chive-Cheddar scones, split and filled with shaved ham and herb-filled eggs. Or rich, expertly prepared quiches. The croissants — plain, almond, ham-Gruyère — are first-rate, the monkey bread is appropriately gooey and sweet without going overboard, the dense brownies are shamelessly fudge-like, the cookies are standard-setters. You get the idea. At lunch there are superb sandwiches, crafted with a minimalist’s eye, and Friday’s are extra-special because Andrus not only turns out a dreamy challah but also tiptoes into the bagel business. There are also classes. Anyone who has reveled in one of Andrus’ pies — and wondered if they could ever replicate that flaky crust at home — should sign up for “Pie Dough 101” on April 10.
4501 Excelsior Blvd., St. Louis Park, 612-844-2555, honey-and-rye.com
4. Patrick’s Bakery & Cafe
Maple Grove-ites (or is that Grove-ians? Grovers?), do you know how fortunate you are to have Patrick and Azita Bernet working in your midst? Sure, there are other independently owned-and-operated restaurants in the vast, chain-dominated Arbor Lakes dining universe, but few approach the quality and craftsmanship of their work. The food-porn-like pastries and baked goods are reason enough to visit, and the menus cover all kinds of ground, from quick-serve sandwiches and salads to pleasant renditions of steak frites, coq au vin, beef bourguignon, salad Niçoise and other classic dishes. Handsome setting, a full bar, and kids eat free (with an adult entree purchase) Sunday and Wednesday evenings. The Bernets also operate locations in Richfield (2928 W. 66th St., 612-861-7570) and Minneapolis (6010 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-861-9277).
12489 Elm Creek Blvd., Maple Grove, 763-420-7770, patricksbakerycafe.com
5. PinKU Japanese Street Food
“Where do you eat when you’re not working?” is a question that’s frequently lobbed in my direction. This counter-service spot is a frequent response. In their small, spotless storefront, owners Xiaoteng Huang and John Sugimura focus on a dozen or so appealing dishes, all noteworthy for their freshness, simplicity, speed, shareability and affordability (prices rarely exceed $8). The pristine, velvety tuna poke is a must, as is the pepper- and mayonnaise-coated fried shrimp and the seared salmon with rice and avocado. Do not miss the pan-fried, pork-filled dumplings. If there are scallops — sweet, juicy, irresistible — by all means, order them, and the “PinKU Elixir,” a refreshing sake-Champagne cocktail, is a treat.
20 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-584-3167, pinkujapanese.com
6. Pizza Nea
For more than 15 years, Mike Sherwood has been baking Neapolitan-style pizzas in his cozy pizzeria just across the Mississippi from downtown Minneapolis. Pizzas are served either “rossa” (calling upon a base of crushed tomatoes, sea salt and extra-virgin olive oil) or “bianca” (minus the tomatoes), and toppings stick to a fairly classic framework; a thoughtful touch is the vegan substitutes from nearby Herbivorous Butcher. Start by sharing the spiced-up meatballs, or the roasted artichoke dip with focaccia. A good night for neophytes is Wednesday, when $40 buys two pizzas, two glasses of wine or beer and a shared dessert.
306 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-331-9298, pizzanea.com
7. On’s Kitchen
Those with a hankering for Thai need to know about this unassuming spot that’ll definitely pick up speed when the nearby Allianz Field soccer stadium opens next year. On Khumchaya’s energy and heartfelt hospitality permeate every corner of her restaurant, and her constant place at the stove yields all kinds of riches, whether it’s a magnificent whole tilapia steamed in an amber hot-sour broth, or fatty catfish stir-fried with prodigious amounts of garlic and chiles. It’s been ages since I dived into a platter of her addictive salt-crusted shrimp, a situation that clearly needs to be rectified, and soon. In a word, go.
1613 W. University Av., St. Paul, 651-644-1444, onskitchen.com
8. Sassy Spoon
Three years ago, holistic registered dietitian Tamara Brown channeled the vivid pink of her food truck into a brick-and-mortar location, and this cheery spot continues to stand out for its honest, wholesome cooking and commitment to gluten-free ingredients. The dish to beat is the miso-braised, Minnesota-raised pork, cooked low and slow until it’s easy to pull, then served on a platter with pickled onions and a lively ginger-garlic slaw, or as the main event in corn tortillas. Other delights include a Bolognese (made with grass-fed beef) over spaghetti squash, lively chicken shawarma over cauliflower rice and samosa-style grilled potato-pea patties.
5011 34th Av. S., Mpls., 612-886-1793, sassyspoonmpls.com
9. Urban Growler Brewing Co.
Founders Jill Pavlak and Deb Loch are rarities in the craft beer movement, opening the state’s first women-owned microbrewery. Loch, the brewery’s master brewer, is known for her ultra-drinkable Cowbell Cream Ale, billed as a “lawn mower beer,” and her hefty Big Boot Rye IPA, but don’t overlook her inventive small-batch collaborations with Minnesota farmers. Right now it’s a brown ale brewed with hand-harvested wild rice from the Red Lake Nation in Red Lake, Minn. Another trend? There’s a restaurant with this taproom, where chef Chuck Sauer turns out a beer-friendly menu that ranges from porter-braised pork báhn mì sandwiches and fried chicken sandwiches with beer-honey mustard to Wednesday night’s beer-can chicken dinner and a $16, all-day Friday fish fry.
2325 Endicott St., St. Paul, 651-340-5793, urbangrowlerbrewing.com
It’s the restaurant you’d hope would land in your neighborhood. Small in scale but much greater in ambition, this casual gathering place is the domain of chef/co-owner Michael Agan (the guy keeping the dining room humming is business partner James Elm), who specializes in crave-worthy cooking that’s a few steps off the well beaten path (lamb ribs, anyone?), with prices rarely exceeding the mid-$20s. There’s a nicely managed wine list, and a fun, up-close-and-personal kitchen counter. New to the mix is Sunday brunch: a fried egg sandwich with crisped-up pork belly and harissa, cheese pierogi with brown butter and a preserved lemon crème fraîche, challah French toast with miso-caramel apples, a gravlax Benedict and a burger finished with a house-made beer-infused cheese. “Just like you’d get from a tavern in Wisconsin,” said Agan. “Except better.”
5607 Chicago Av. S., Mpls., 612-825-6900, xavirestaurant.com