"Interesting Vegetables" at Heirloom

How to modernize the relish tray? If you're chef Wyatt Evans, you rely upon roasting, charring, pickling, blanching and other culinary wizardry to heighten the inherent qualities of peak-season veggies, moving them well past familiar crudité territory. Even better? The results ($9) taste as good as they look, and that's saying something.

2186 Marshall Av., St. Paul, 651-493-7267, heirloomstpaul.com

Swedish meatballs at Upton 43

Chef Erick Harcey turned to his grandmother Bonnie Ramberg for schooling in the Swedish meatball arts. A blend of beef and pork (and pork fat), they're fortified with onions simmered in plenty of butter and seasoned with cardamom, allspice, nutmeg and other essential warming spices. The crowning touches include a brown butter béchamel that's enriched with a mushroom-roasted shallot stock (translation: the most umami-charged gravy imaginable), creamy mashed potatoes and perky pickles. "These are the dishes I grew up eating," said Harcey. No surprise, then, that it's comfort food ($22) at its most nurturing and satisfying.

4312 Upton Av. S., Mpls., 612-920-3406, upton43.com

Trout meunière at St. Genevieve

At this south Minneapolis knockout, chef Paul Backer and his boss Steven Brown effortlessly merge American sensibilities with French classics. Starting with this revelation of a dish ($25), a whole fish stuffed with a luscious mousse of scallops and shrimp. It's expertly seared on the flat top grill until the skin crackles with a delectable crispness, yet the pristine, steaming flesh remains wonderfully succulent. Lemon and capers add Gallic brightness, and brown butter works its finishing-touches magic. Pair it with a sparkling wine, the bar's specialty.

5003 Bryant Av. S., Mpls., stgmpls.com

Ramen at Ramen Kazama

Yes, the word of the day seems to be "No," as in No Takeout, No Reservations and No Parties of Five or More. But ignore the negativity, because the meticulously prepared, slurp-worthy noodle soups are spectacular. This traditionalist's go-to is the basic (but so not basic, if you know what I mean) pork-chicken broth, but Bon Appétit was so impressed by the kitchen's spicy miso ramen that the magazine featured it in its May issue. Go. You'll latch onto a favorite in a heartbeat.

3400 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-353-6160, ramenkazama.com

Whitefish tartine at Cafe Alma

Picture this: a thick slice of crusty sourdough, heaped high with a toss of potatoes, radishes, celery leaves, arugula, smoky Lake Superior whitefish and a spiced-up mayonnaise. And a fried egg. It's the breakfast sandwich to end all breakfast sandwiches ($8-$12), a freshwater version of the East Coast's a.m. routines involving sturgeon, sable and salmon. Talk about on-the-job perks: The recipe evolved from a favorite fish taco served at the restaurant's staff meal. Those lucky Alma-ites.

528 University Av. SE., Mpls., 612-379-4909, almampls.com

Black ice cream at Milkjam Creamery

True, it's probably not accurate to refer to dairy-free ice cream as "ice cream." But even semantics sticklers won't mind once they're hooked on this knockout mix of coconut milk, almond milk, four chocolates and earthy, jet-black cocoa. While the sleight-of-hand trickery is more than appreciated by the dairy-averse crowd, what keeps fanatics coming back is the insanely rich chocolate punch. It's such a hit that "it's going to have its own Twitter account pretty soon," is what co-owner Sameh Wadi told me last summer. If that's the case, that social media presence has surely mushroomed into Kardashian-level proportions.

2743 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-424-4668, milkjamcreamery.com

Crispy shrimp at PinKU Japanese Street Food

Sure, chef John Sigumura's pork- and ginger-filled potstickers are a major draw. Ditto the velvety tuna poke. But what keeps me coming back to this stylish and affordable quick-service operation is the pepper- and mayonnaise-coated fried shrimp ($6.50). Each juicy, delicately crunchy bite is alive with heat, without the ponderous breading that characterizes the vast majority of Minnesota fried shrimp. At these prices, get two orders.

20 University Av. NE., 612-584-3167, pinkujapanese.com

Squash soup at Travail Kitchen & Amusements

An early December visit reminded me just how much fun it is to dine at this tasting menu temple. "It's as if the Culinary Institute of America had a fraternity," is how my friend accurately distilled the Travail experience. The sheer volume of courses — 23 in all — meant that some flew by in a blur. But others stood out for their above-and-beyond levels of creative dexterity and technical ingenuity. One audacious example was a silky delicata squash soup and its parade of compare/contrast add-ons: tender shards of smoky house-cured ham, a rich squash custard, crunchy toasted squash seeds, parsley and oregano for color and, as a finishing flourish, a buttery squash-sweet potato pave. If there was ever a dish that epitomized Travail's infectious, let's-throw-a-party-and-impress-the-heck-out-you ethos, this was it. (Tasting menu $74 to $113.)

4124 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131, travailkitchen.com

Scallop crudo at Xavi

Mention chef Michael Agan's gem of a neighborhood restaurant, and my knee-jerk response is invariably "lamb ribs." Because, well, they're that good. But digging a little deeper into my dining journal, and the heavily underlined words "scallop crudo" ($11) pop off the page. And why not? The scallops, so firm and succulent and teasingly sweet, pair elegantly against the tart acidic bite of grapefruit and the salty, bright-green bite of sea beans. Perfect.

5607 Chicago Av. S., Mpls., 612-825-6900, xavirestaurant.com

Cheeseburger at Lowry Hill Meats

I taste-test dozens of burgers each year, then chronicle their merits at Burger Friday, my weekly blog at startribune.com/tabletalk. The sheer numbers make it tough to choose a 2016 favorite. But my color-me-impressed memories of this butcher shop beauty ($9) stand out above all others. It's a wily mix of well-edited simplicity and craft, reflecting discerning tastes in beef (trimmings from a single pasture-raised animal), cheese (house-made American) and bread (a buttery brioche enriched with leaf lard rendered from the shop's Berkshire or Red Waddle hogs, and baked on the premises). The tangy pickles also delight. The only downfall? It's only available on Wednesdays. "We're not shooting to become a burger joint," is what owner Erik Sather told me in June. "Not yet, anyway."

1934 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-999-4200, lowryhillmeats.com

A few more worth noting

The sweet potatoes with bonito flakes and charred scallions ($9) at Young Joni (165 13th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-345-5719, youngjoni.com), the sushi-burrito smashup ($11-$13) at Bibuta food truck (eatbibuta.com), the avocado toast ($10) at Rose Street Patisserie (2811 W. 43rd St., Mpls., 612-354-3257), the lasagna ($15) at Mucci's Italian (786 Randolph Av., St. Paul, 651-330-2245, muccisitalian.com), the spicy salami pizza ($13) at Red Rabbit (201 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-767-8855, redrabbitmn.com), the Valrhona dark chocolate soft-serve ($3.99) at Rustica Cookies & Creamery (Mall of America, Bloomington, rusticabakery.com) and the polenta pancakes with limoncello curd ($9) at Italian Eatery (4724 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., 612-223-8504, italianeatery.com).

Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib