Talented chefs beget talented chefs.
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 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 has a signature dish in what he labels only "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. 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 insinuate themselves into the chicken (raised with tender, loving care at Callister Farm in West Concord, Minn.).
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. At $16, it's one of downtown's great bargains.
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.
Other 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.
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. I preferred the beer-battered cod sandwich -- and its small mountain of golden, pepper-flecked fries -- perhaps the pinnacle entry in Nelson's beer-centric fare.
Not everything thrills. Nelson could weed a few appetizers (brandade, oxtail) off his menu. 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, but this slim selection is not Michelle Gayer's A-game work.
Like its Strip Club sibling, this is a restaurant that definitely gets the service part of the dining-out equation. Maybe co-owner and schmoozer extraordinaire Tim Niver will greet you with a tiny drinkable amuse bouche, or, if you're lucky, Greg Norton -- the former Hüsker Dü bassist and Red Wing restaurateur -- and his handlebar mustache will be your evening's guide. With hospitality this warm and inviting, it's no wonder why they called it the Inn.