SIGNIFICANT OPENINGS, MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL
Black Sheep, Blue Door Pub,Cafe Agri, Citizen Cafe, Flame, La Chaya Bistro, Mushashi Japanese Restaurant, restaurant Max, Rinata, Sauced, Señor Wong, Seven the Steakhouse (formerly r. Norman's) and Seven Sushi Ultra Lounge, and Tosca Trattoria.
SIGNIFICANT OPENINGS, SUBURBAN
Betty's Pies, Cantina # 1, Kobe Japanese Restaurant, Lola's Lakehouse, Mort's Delicatessen, Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque & Pirate Bar, Spasso and T-Asia Bar & Restaurant.
ON THE GROW
Food-service giant Taher Inc. got into the restaurant biz in 2007 with its Wayzata Eatery & Wine Bar. Eighteen months later its stable expanded to the Alaska Eatery & Glacier Bar and the Nordeast Eatery before picking up Irvine Park's venerable Forepaugh's and giving it a much-needed, top-to-bottom makeover. That's not all: The company recently nabbed the Timber Lodge Steakhouse chain.
NEW NAMES, OLD ADDRESSES
Laredo's Tex-West Grill & Cantina replaced Brix Bistro & Wine Bar. Ravello became Birch's. Clark Knutson brought his Pop! to the former Fhima's, doubling up on the exclamation points and calling it Pop!! Martini Blu became Zahtar by Fhima. Restaurant Miami left town in favor of the Favor Cafe. Giorgio turned out the lights and was quickly reborn as Rinata. Rossi's Steakhouse closed its doors, but its basement location was snapped up by Hell's Kitchen (the breakfast-lunch spot also took on dinner service). Hell's Kitchen's 10th Street spot didn't stay empty for long; it's now the Calhoun Grill. Santorini moved from its longtime St. Louis Park address to the former Eden Prairie home of both the Pickled Parrot and the Canyon Grille.
Baking whiz Michelle Gayer, who made such a favorable impression when she opened the Franklin Street Bakery, returned to the bakery business in 2008. This time around she's her own boss. When she opened the Salty Tart in the Midtown Global Market in May, she immediately transformed Chicago-Lake into a major pastry destination.
KID- AND ADULT-FRIENDLY
The Mall of America's Nickelodeon Universe one-ups its predecessor, Camp Snoopy, in at least one area: food. The park's new Eats Rotisserie & Grill caters nicely to children and grown-ups alike, without cleaning out mom's and/or dad's wallet. That almost never happens.
Restaurant critics Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl left City Pages for Minnesota Monthly, and Rachel Hutton left Minnesota Monthly for City Pages.
LOCAL GUY MADE GOOD
Bloomington native Gavin Kaysen, executive chef at Cafe Boulud in New York City, was named Rising Star of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, an honor bestowed to a chef under 30 who displays impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.
Acadia Cafe left its Franklin-and-Nicollet address for the West Bank (the former home of the beloved New Riverside Cafe) and was quietly replaced by Cafe Oliver, which quietly closed. La Fougasse dropped everything except its popular Sunday brunch. After several years out of town, Greg and Sarah Norton returned to downtown Red Wing, christening their new restaurant/wine shop Norton's Downtown & Lucky Cat Lounge. Chef Joan Ida, formerly of Goodfellow's and Tria, launched the Lake House. The Town Talk Diner ownership changed hands, twice: Partners Aaron Johnson and Tim Niver sold their stake to partner Tor Westgard, who then sold the whole shebang to the Theros Restaurant Group, which runs Rudolphs and the St. Clair Broiler. Mix New American Diner in Chaska and Indio in Minneapolis opened and closed in 2008.
Meritage and Barrio photos by Steve Rice, other photos, Star Tribune file.
CHEF COMINGS AND GOINGS
At 20.21, chef Scott Irestone was out, Asher Miller is in. Doug Flicker left Mission American Kitchen to cook with Steven Brown at Porter & Frye. Bill Baskin departed the Red Stag Supperclub and was replaced by his sous chef, Brian Hauke. Rino Baglio said goodbye to Pazzaluna. After closing his eponymous Lyn-Lake restaurant, J.P. Samuelson started cooking with Steve Vranian at Nick and Eddie. Adam Vickerman took over for Eric Sturtz at Cafe Levain.
A REASON TO DAYTRIP
A gaggle of notable new restaurants made get-out-of-town road trips far more palatable, including Rabbit's Bakery in Lake City, Minn., the Old Ways and Vinifera in Wabasha, Minn. and Grecco's on the St. Croix in St. Croix Falls, Wis.
WOULDN'T IT BE NICE IF ...
Restaurateurs stopped feeling the need to install those annoying flat-panel plasma screen TVs in their bars and dining rooms?
Free validated parking was more widely available at downtown restaurants?
The James Beard Foundation bestowed its Best Chef: Midwest award on at least one deserving Minnesota practitioner? Lucia Watson of Lucia's Restaurant, Tim McKee of La Belle Vie, Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma and Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery have all been deserving nominees.
REST IN PEACE
The year had a blizzard of openings, but it also accumulated a number of losses, including jP American Bistro, confluence, Zander Cafe, My-T-Fine Bakery/Cafe, Betty Jean's Chicken n Waffles, Passage to India, Lotus Restaurant, Otho Restaurant & Street Lounge, Native Bay, Bennigan's (except the one in Coon Rapids), Steak and Ale, Rossi's Steakhouse, Rotisseria, Babalu, Bellaria, Three Fish, Temple and Machu Picchu.
When Sonic parachuted into the Twin Cities, the popular drive-in chain caused traffic jams, but it wasn't the only national name to materialize in Minnesota in 2008. Other local debuts included the Original SoupMan, Cici's Pizza, Bloomington ChopHouse and Pho Hoa.
The year's hottest trend wasn't Pisco Sours or lamb bacon. It's composting, with more and more local restaurant kitchens skipping the landfill and heading for greener pastures.
ON TAP AT LYN-LAKE
Blake Richardson, owner of the popular Herkimer Pub & Brewery, transformed his obsession with Japanese pop culture into moti-i, a sake brewpub.
Newcomers made around-the-world eating a little easier, including Pak Zam Zam (Pakistani), Bali (Indonesian), Himalayan Restaurant (Nepalese), Las Mojarras (Mexican), La Vina (Ecuadorean) and Dancing Ganesha and CurryUp Foods (Indian). Thai's enormous surge in popularity over the past 12 months was underscored by Roat Osha, Sen Yai Sen Lek, Mango Thai Cuisine, Kindee Thai and the Red Pepper Cafe. And Woodbury might consider changing its name to Sushibury after Akita Sushi, Sushi Tango and Giapponese Sushi opened in the east-metro 'burb this year.
IT'S PRONOUNCED NICK-O-LAY
Nicollet Mall got French-ified this fall when Alain Lenne, a familiar face to many Twin Cities diners following his service stints in several top local restaurants, opened La Belle Crêpe, his stand-up crêperie (meaning no tables, just a counter), where he charmingly turns out downtown's tastiest sweet-and-savory fast food.
If only all coffeehouses could be as stylish/comfy as the new Spyhouse Coffee Shop. Runner up: the Urban Bean's slick new look.
SECOND, THIRD AND FOURTH ACTS
McCormick & Schmick's expanded from 9th and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis to the Galleria in Edina. The Mall of America's Tiger Sushi opened a stylish sibling in Lyn-Lake. The Bulldog, already a hit two times over in Minneapolis, took its act to roomy digs in Lowertown. Ditto the Chatterbox Pub, which added a 44th-and-France outpost to its Minneapolis and St. Paul locations. The Blue Plate Restaurant Co. added 3 Squares to its Highland Grill, Edina Grill and Longfellow Grill family.
Lydia Lunney, the gracious and elegant smile at the door at the River Room, died in November after a remarkable 75-year restaurant career at the downtown St. Paul department store known over the years as Schuneman's, Dayton's, Marshall Field's and now Macy's. Tom Broder, co-owner of the popular Broders' Cucina Italiana and Broders' Southside Pasta Bar and a quintessential nice guy, passed away in July.
Tiny desserts, braising, bargain multi-course meals, local beers, sliders, red tea lattes.
Bottled water, website-free restaurants, endless dissertations that follow "Let me explain our menu," and that "Not" hall-of-famer, "Are you still working on that?"
Jax Cafe had 75 candles burning on its birthday cake, a milestone to be celebrated with a Grasshopper and a trip to the trout stream.
The Graves 601 Hotel is preparing to launch Bradstreet, a more casual alternative to its high-end Cosmos. The folks behind Manny's Steakhouse are going into the burger business with Burger Jones. A pair of high-profile chefs are heading into expansionist mode, but since they haven't signed leases, I'm not naming names, at least not yet. Look for a restaurant and bar (and requisite rooftop patio) in the former Shinder's at 8th Street and Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Since the venture is backed in part by the Zelickson family, whose matriarch is WCCO Radio's Sue Zelickson, I vote they call the joint "Susie's." My palm reader tells me that a longtime Mall of America restaurant will disappear, and will be replaced by a familiar local face. The University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium opens this fall; let's hope the food will taste as good as the 50,000-seat behemoth looks.
TEN UNFORGETTABLE DISHES
Beef tongue taco at Chef Shack: Chefs Lisa Carlson (Spoonriver) and Carrie Summer (Forepaugh's, Wayzata Eatery) turned Saturday mornings at the Mill City Farmers Market into a weekly don't-miss event, cranking out a dizzying variety of street foods made from local, sustainably raised ingredients. Tops on that list were phenomenal crisp-shelled tacos filled with tongue from grass-fed cattle. No wonder there was always a line.
Chicken salad sandwich at Rustica: Grab-and-go rose to a whole new level when Corner Table chef Scott Pampuch teamed up with the bread bakers at Rustica. The shaved pork and the naturally cured ham versions are definitely swoon-worthy, but nothing tops the disarmingly simple chicken salad.
Hot chocolate at Kopplin's Coffee: Owner Andrew Kopplin treats coffee the way top chefs regard foie gras, and his intensely rich and flavorful hot chocolate reflects that same exacting mind-set, blending milk from a Wisconsin farmstead dairy with single-source chocolate from Rogue Chocolatier, the quality-obsessed Minneapolis chocolate-maker.
Pork dumplings at Obento-Ya Japanese Bistro: It turns out that a person can buy instant happiness. The price is $5.75, which covers a small plate of piping-hot dumplings filled with pork and shiitake mushrooms, each mouthful dancing with a sharp ginger bite. Runner-up: the pair of shrimp-barbecue pork spring rolls ($5.25) at ChinDian Cafe, stuffed with the refreshing taste of peppermint and spearmint.
Chicken soup at Meritage: Pristine chicken broth. Tiny, meticulously diced bits of carrot. Small snips of fresh dill. A pair of tender dumplings. Taken on their own, perfectly fine; put together by chef Russell Klein and the whole becomes priceless comfort food.
Lamb shank at Sanctuary: Chef Patrick Atanalian took the chill out of winter with a gargantuan lamb shank, braised overnight (until the succulent meat fell at the slightest pressure of a fork) and then glazed in a slow-burn ancho chile mole.
Pho at Ngon Vietnamese Bistro: Chef Hai Truong crafts the Twin Cities' best version of this traditional beef noodle soup, no contest.
Charred ahi tuna at Porter & Frye: Leave it to chef Steven Brown to find harmonious unity in the disparate flavors and textures of gently seared yellowfin tuna, spicy grilled shishito peppers, tart preserved lemon and lime-scented salt. Wow.
Coconut macaroons at Salty Tart: No distracting embellishment, no unnecessary ornamentation. That's the mantra of pastry chef Michelle Gayer, and it's fully embodied in her exquisite, golden-brown orbs of powerful coconut-ey goodness.
Sea bass at Cosmos: The definition of sublime: The beyond-moist fish was prepared confit-style, served over what appeared to be risotto but was actually shaved cauliflower and finished with a refined tomato broth.
For the exceptional 2008 meals that I paid for out of my own pocket -- and not my Strib expense account, truly a ringing endorsement -- at Be'wiched, Heartland, Heidi's Minneapolis, Modern Cafe, Punch Neapolitan Pizza, Restaurant Alma, Rice Paper, Saffron REstaurant & Lounge, Spoonriver, Wagner's and Vincent.
Previous Star Tribune Restaurant(s) of the Year winners include:
2007: Brasa Rotisserie, Heidi's Minneapolis, Saffron Restaurant & Lounge
2006 (Year of Thinking Differently): Chambers Kitchen, Town Talk Diner, Masa, Midtown Global Market, Mill City Farmers Market and Copper Bleu (now closed)
2005: 112 Eatery
2004 (Year of the Neighborhood Bistro): A Rebours (now closed), al Vento and Corner Table
Addresses and information for all the restaurants listed appear on page T7.