Artichoke dip at Gray's
If required to identify an appetizer that symbolized the 1990s, this rich, hearty classic — a signature dish at the Loring Cafe until the day the Minneapolis restaurant ended its 16-year run in 2002 — would surely qualify.
How delightful to discover that it remains on the menu ($8) at this Loring offshoot; the new ownership acquired the recipe when they bought the business. The Gray's version is as appealing as I remember it. Better, even.
I consumed my body weight in artichoke dip over the course of the '90s, primarily because a friend served it, constantly. He claimed, with some pride, that he charmed the recipe out of a server at Loring's see-and-be-seen bar. I later learned that a Loring cook lifted the formula off the back of a Hellmann's mayonnaise jar, "Semi-Homemade Cooking"-style, so it's not like my friend had unearthed a state secret. He once shared the recipe with me, and my hoarder self still has it, scrawled on a legal pad in his barely legible handwriting.
Party snack perfection really is this easy: Drain two (14-ounce) cans of artichoke hearts and chop them "into the size of Cheerios," he wrote. Mix with 1 cup of mayonnaise and 1 cup of shredded Parmesan. (My friend was a purist, but if canned green chiles, fresh jalapeños and/or roasted garlic are on hand, this is where to chop them up and stir them in). Spread the mixture in a shallow pan ("A pretty one," he noted), add freshly ground black pepper, sprinkle on additional grated Parmesan and bake at 350 degrees until the top is nicely browned, about 15 to 20 minutes.
"Serve with chichi crackers," he wrote. "But to tell you the truth, it really should be served with ruffled potato chips. The salt, the crunch, it's perfect." (Rick Nelson)
327 14th Av. SE., Mpls., 612-378-4849, graysdinkytown.com. Coffee shop open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily, food menu available 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 3-9 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Custard from Wise Acre Eatery
The farm-to-table restaurant and market Wise Acre Eatery has been in its Tangletown location for more than a decade, but it's still paying tribute to a previous tenant of the building. The place was once Liberty Custard, which left behind some integral equipment. Wise Acre has continued to use the frozen custard machine to make dreamy egg-yolk-enriched ice cream that showcases some of the bounty from its farm in Plato, Minn.
That means rotating seasonal flavors, like this apple cinnamon custard ($10), with warming spice and a hint of tart fruit. (Bad news: I bought one of the last pints, for now.) And pumpkin, which chef Dan Schmit expects to have available all fall and winter. Aronia berries that were picked and frozen may make an appearance, too, alongside freezer-case standbys butterscotch, chocolate and vanilla. New flavors come in and out every week or two.
The secret to creamy custard, according to Schmit? "Good quality products," naturally. Cream, organic sugar, Bare Honey produced on solar farms, egg yolks, vanilla bean and, of course, their own fresh produce.
If you're thinking ahead to Thanksgiving, you can bet their farm also has pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free turkeys available to order. (Sharyn Jackson)
5401 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-2577, wiseacreeatery.com. Market and deli open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.-Mon., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat. (kitchen closes at 3 p.m.)
The Zoo Siab Meal at Union Hmong Kitchen
After years of food-truck residencies, chef Yia Vang's Union Hmong Kitchen has arrived at its permanent home in the North Loop's Graze Provisions and Libations.
Vang, a newly minted U.S. citizen, has always been steadfast in his approach to bringing traditional Hmong cuisine to Minnesotans, so the fact that his move was accompanied by much fanfare wasn't a surprise. Neither was the fact that the food is fantastic.
A colleague raved about the Breakfast Sando ($12), which pairs Vang's hallmark Hmong sausage patty with an egg, pickled veggies and chili oil mayo and puts it all between a King's Hawaiian bun. But I went straight for the Zoo Siab Meal ($16-$18), which translates to happy meal. Choose a protein — if you've never had the homemade Hmong sausage, there's no other option — and a side; purple sticky rice, Vang's Krunchy Chili Oil, pickled veggies and lettuce leaves for wrapping are all part of the meal deal, too. Sides are a vegetable lover's dream: fried Brussels sprouts, mirin-glazed parsnips, taro chips or chilled noodles. (Note to my dad: I ordered and loved the parsnips.) With so many ways to mix and match, this is one meal for the rotation that will never grow tiresome. But best of all, it lives up to its name — it really did make me happy.
A side note about Graze: Union Hmong Kitchen is one of eight vendors at this sunny, two-story food hall, and all are worth checking out: The Fabled Rooster, Avocadish, B.A.D. Wingz, Viva Taco, Soul Bowl, Last Drop Cafe and Wine Bar (coffee and wine flights!) and Libation Lounge. (Nicole Hvidsten)
520 N. 4th St., Mpls,. 612-259-8965, unionkitchenmn.com. Open 11 a.m.-8 p,m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.
House-baked bread at Augustine's
Augustine's, a four-year-old and yet entirely new restaurant in St. Paul's Union Park neighborhood, reopened earlier this year under the culinary leadership of former Dakota chef Derik Moran, who was recruited by chef/consultant Lenny Russo.
The name and the look (and a whimsical hippopotamus motif) are the same, but what was once an all-day gastropub and bakery counter is now fine French dining four nights a week. Moran's dream is to expand the hours and offerings until Augustine's becomes St. Paul's version of New York City's famed Balthazar. And at the heart of that kind of rollicking French bistro? Bread.
"Breads are everything," Moran said.
He envisions an all-day restaurant, where breakfast bleeds into lunch and into dinner, pastries are available all the time, and a giant basket of bread can serve a whole table.
"It's like 15 varieties of pastries in there," he said. "You know, turning bread into a meal, sharing bread with family, friends, that type of feeling — sit around a table, drink wine, eat bread and cheese and be happy."
The current iteration of the house-baked bread basket ($12) is well on its way to invoking Balthazar-level conviviality. Pastry chef Toni Luschen practically puts everything she has learned in her exceptional career on the plate. (She's worked with Solveig Tofte, Paul Connors and, before Augustine's, with Lucia Watson at Lucia's.)
There's filone, which utilizes Baker's Field flour in a two-day process to make a baguette-like bread for slathering with the included hazelnut and Ames honey butter. There's also Luschen's brioche and a long, skinny lavash-style cracker. But what gobsmacked me was the inclusion of a croissant, a perfect iteration of a Sunday 9 a.m. kind of pastry on a Thursday 8 p.m. dinner table.
"Lucia taught me how to make their croissants, and I have loved creating those layers ever since," Luschen said. She uses high-fat Hope butter, which melts away into near-infinite sheets of flaky dough, and bakes them till they're dark for a translucently thin, crackling shell.
Moran can't give a timeline on daytime hours just yet, but they're in the works. Until then, why not have a croissant at dinnertime?
(A note about the price: Augustine's has rolled service charges/tips into the cost of each menu item, so there are no extra fees at the end of the meal.) (S.J.)
Augustine's, 1668 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-447-3729, augustinesmn.com. Open 5-10 p.m. Wed.-Sat.
Margherita pizza at Pompeii Pizzeria
The standouts at this carb-lovers magnet are the white pizzas, topped with tangy crème fraîche. But don't overlook the pizzas crowned with a bright, ultra-fresh tomato sauce.
Especially the margherita, where tradition dictates squeaky-fresh mozzarella, fragrant basil and splashes of fruity olive oil. A sprinkle of grated, slightly nutty-tasting Parmesan makes this one cheesier than the average margherita. In a good way.
The combination doesn't overpower the appeal of the sturdy crust, which comes out of the gas-fired oven bearing a long list of just-right components, especially their raised and blistered edges and the chewy-crispy bite. Another admirable trait is the $7.65 price, a total bargain. (R.N.)
315 Jackson Av., Elk River, Minn., 763-633-1222, pompeiipizzeria.net. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.