Talented chefs beget talented chefs.
This is hardly an Earth-shattering proposition, I know. But lately I've been daydreaming about all the future restaurants that lurk within the ranks of the Twin Cities' top kitchens, waiting to be born.
Tyge Nelson is a sterling case in point. After cooking for more than a decade at La Belle Vie, Solera and Barrio under the skilled tutelage of Tim McKee (who in turn was mentored by another great Minnesota chef, Jay Sparks), Nelson is now doing his own thing, beautifully, at The Inn.
The restaurant, the work of the team behind the Strip Club in St. Paul, is the gastropub that downtown Minneapolis has been sorely lacking. Nelson cooks with flair and imagination, but keeps the results very approachable. Nothing ever ventures too far from being well-suited to the bar's extensive and impressive beer list (a half-dozen cocktails, shaken with a shopping list of obscure ingredients, also shine). Even better is how Nelson manages to charge neighborhood-restaurant prices amid the state's most expensive real estate.
The setup goes like this: A long list of small plates, a few sandwiches, a handful of entrees and a half-dozen side dishes. We've seen this before, but Nelson manages to make some sparks fly. He's clearly got a signature dish in what he plainly labels "chicken," but the results are far from ordinary.
What arrives is a pale, monochromatic beauty, a shallow bowl of bacon- and juniper-scented broth surrounding the juiciest, most flavorful chicken I've eaten in ages. Turns out that Nelson isn't engaging in any fancy sous vide tricks, just an old-fashioned, low-and-slow poach in that fragrant broth, until the flavors gently insinuate themselves into the chicken (raised with tender, loving care at Callister Farm in West Concord, Minn., as if we needed proof that quality ingredients make all the difference), and Nelson's customers inhale every forkful. I know I did.
A close second in the signature dish department is a flavorful hunk of pork shoulder (another premium Minnesota-raised ingredient, this time from Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin), slow-braised in tomatoes and wine until it falls apart at the slightest pressure from a fork. Pungent olives add a sharp accent, and polenta provides just the right calming backdrop. When I saw the $16 price on the menu, I thought it was a typo, but it's not. Instead, it's one of downtown's great bargains.
More, more and more
OK, maybe there's a third contender: thick slices of pickled Lake Superior herring. Nelson prepares it in the spirit of a refrigerator pickle, and it's perfect, with a bright, unadulterated taste. Even the side of potato salad is exceptionally good. It's one of many memorable entries in what Nelson labels hors d'oeuvres.
Other small-plate standouts? Crisp, bite-sized triangle-shaped dumplings filled with creamy mashed potatoes and paired with teasingly sweet caramelized onions. A colorful roasted red and yellow pepper salad, the cool (temperature) yielding to hot (spicy) in a single bite. Meaty chicken wings with a maple glaze, the sweetness subtly cut with bitters. A rustic pork sausage (from the fabulous Hagberg's Country Market in Lake Elmo), nicely grilled, with celery root cleverly standing in for potatoes.
Nelson dares to go head-to-head with the neighborhood's steakhouses with a $32 ribeye, and it's fantastic, with a salty char that gives way to a velvety, gloriously flavorful interior. But for right around half that price, I'd recommend the lighter pork version, the meat cured in brown sugar and a dash of curry before it hits the grill. Order it with a side of the crunchy roasted Brussels sprouts. You'll be happy.
Yes, there's a burger, and it's a monster, with a bold, beefy flavor, although adding a smear of foie gras mousse and a fried egg pretty much defines overkill, even for an unabashed carnivore like me. I preferred the skillfully done beer-battered cod sandwich -- and its small mountain of golden, pepper-flecked fries -- perhaps the pinnacle entry in Nelson's beer-centric fare.
Then again ...
Not everything thrills. Nelson could weed a few appetizers (brandade, oxtail) off his menu and I'd never miss them. Mussels tasted as if they were seeing their sell-by date in the rearview mirror. With the exception of that sublime foie gras mousse, the charcuterie is made elsewhere, and it's fine, if a tad overpriced. Desserts are sourced from the Salty Tart, and although Michelle Gayer's Minneapolis bakery resides near the top of my list of places where I would happily eat myself into a larger pants size, this slim selection -- a dull apple pie decorated with a squeeze-bottled caramel sauce, a dry chocolate-Guinness cake -- is not her A-game work.
My favorite dessert isn't billed as one. It's the kitchen's warm-from-the-oven dinner roll, a golden three-leaf-clover that's rendered in dense, yeasty white bread, brushed with a naughty swipe of clarified butter and served with a sweet-tart orange marmalade.
I'm not sure if it's because they remind me of my Grandmother Hedvig's breads -- one of my happiest childhood food memories -- or perhaps it's because these kinds of yesteryear touches seem like a dying restaurant art, but I love them without reservation. Some might take issue with their $3 price tag ("Isn't bread supposed to be free with dinner?" sniped a friend of mine), but I think they're worth it.
Looks-wise, the rugged setting is more bar-with-food than restaurant-with-drinks. It's located inside the historic and slightly battered Handicraft Guild building, an address wasted on its previous daytime-only tenants (Hell's Kitchen and, before that, Le Peep) because this long, skinny stretch of a room, with its exposed brick, reclaimed wood and handsome chandeliers, was destined for after-dark get-togethers, particularly the tables in the windows up front, where the city's lights serve as a romantic backdrop. Teardown-crazy downtown retains so few buildings of this modest scale -- a shame -- which is why it's so great to see this one utilized for all of its worth. (One tip: If the host or hostess tries to seat you in the bland rear dining room, just say no).
Like its Strip Club sibling, this is a restaurant that definitely gets the service part of the dining-out equation. Staff members obviously enjoy their work, but they don't stand on ceremony. Maybe co-owner and schmoozer extraordinaire Tim Niver will greet you with a tiny drinkable amuse bouche (one night it was a tequila-laced apple cider, another it was a beefy pho-style broth), or, if you're lucky, the cool, collected Greg Norton -- the former Hüsker Dü bassist and Red Wing restaurateur -- and his jaunty handlebar mustache will be your evening's guide. With hospitality this warm and inviting, it's no wonder why they called it The Inn.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757