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5 best things our food critic ate in Twin Cities this week

From Lent-inspired fish sandwiches to a once-a-year indulgence, here’s a rundown of my dining diary’s greatest hits from the past seven days. What were your top eats of the week? Share the details in the comments section.

Sweet Thang Fish Sammich at World Street Kitchen

With Lent comes fish fry. I recently compiled a list of 16 Twin Cities restaurant versions, and the Catholic Spirit helpfully chronicles 93 metro area (and beyond) no-meat suggestions at churches and Knights of Columbus locations. For those who prefer to rely upon the ease and affordability of the fried fish sandwich, this is probably my new local go-to ($10.75). At its center is a preposterously generous, spear-like slab of mild, beer-battered tilapia – the contrast between crisp, golden battered coating and tender, white, steaming fish is spot-on – and it’s served in a first-rate bun that gets the buttered-and-toasted treatment. Instead of a sweet tartar sauce, chef/co-owner Sameh Wadi swerves in the opposite direction, inserting some much-needed heat into the proceedings. He breaks down – and then ramps up -- all of the flavors of classic Old Bay seasoning – and uses them as a basis for a house-made mayonnaise that he’s dubbed “New Bay.” A side salad-like amount of shredded iceberg lettuce inserts a cool, crunchy note, and for added texture Wadi tosses in super-thin, super-crisp and super-salty (in a good way) potato chips. “I love fish sandwiches!” said Wadi. “When we opened World Street Kitchen, [chef de cuisine] Matt Eisele and I wanted to make a down-and-dirty version and wanted it to be bold flavored, but not with strong fish flavor. New Bay is a favorite of mine, so it was a starting point, then lettuce and homemade crispy kettle-style chips made sense.” Agreed. Stop by during happy hour (3 to 5 p.m. and 9 to 11 p.m.), when the bar knocks $2 off tap beers and $3 off house wines. 2743 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-424-8855

 

Fish burger at My Burger

My digestive tract still protests the indignity it suffered during the afternoons I devoted to sampling nine fast-food fish sandwiches for a best-to-worst rundown (find the 2019 version here). I’m not repeating that perilous duty in 2020, but for this Lenten season I’ll continue to heartily endorse my No. 1 pick from the previous two years, which remains a fast-food fish sandwich role model ($7.75, and $6.75 on Friday during Lent). The type of fish isn’t specified, but it’s a substantial squared-off portion that sports a notably appealing contrast between interior (snowy-white and flaky) and exterior (a browned, splendidly crunchy coating). The bun teeters toward the generic, but it’s redeemed by a swipe of honest-to-goodness butter before it gets a warm, golden toast. The straightforward garnishes stick to a generous handful of chopped iceberg lettuce and the sandwich’s one true demerit, a snoozer of a tartar sauce. Riddle me this: the house pickles here are delicious; would financial ruination rain down if some were chopped and added to this dull-as-dishwater mayo that’s masquerading as tartar sauce? As for the price ($7.75), it’s higher than average because it includes a heaping handful of (pretty great) French fries. This 16-year-old homegrown chain now operates seven Twin Cities locations, including 1330 Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata, 952-476-2319

King crab stuffed French omelet at Grand Cafe

The James Beard award semifinalists were announced on Wednesday. As always, Minnesota chefs and restaurants were showered with recognition, including Grand Cafe chef/owner Jamie Malone, who is in the running for Best Chef: Midwest honors. As well she should be. I mean, just one look – and one taste – of this extraordinary omelet should be enough to earn Malone a berth on this list of high achievers. Despite its $35 price tag (which sounds outrageous but so isn’t), it’s an impressive display of economy, technical agility, culinary artistry and unabashed decadence. The cool sweetness of the tender crab is a fine foil for the over-the-top richness of the butter sauce, and Mary Cassatt herself couldn’t have better matched the butter’s intense burst-of-sunshine color with the omelet’s rich, golden hue. It’s one of the Twin Cities’ great dishes. 3804 Grand Av. S., Mpls., 612-822-8260

Hummus at Just/Us

Now ensconced in a Lowertown space directly across from the St. Paul Farmers Market, this intriguing restaurant is clearly catering to the residents of its new neighborhood by serving an eclectic menu – sweet tea-brined chicken with collard greens, a half-dozen novelty burgers, grilled pineapple-enriched guacamole – at neighborhood-friendly prices. Of special note is the emphasis on vegetarian (and occasionally vegan) options. I loved the hummus: it’s dense but still spreadable (across thick slices of grilled sourdough bread), and topped with compare-contrast garnishes that include brown butter, tangy/sweet pickled golden raisins and crunchy, well-seasoned fried chickpeas. 275 E. 4th St., St. Paul, 651-424-1080

Thin Mints from the Girl Scouts

For some, it’s Do-Si-Dos, for others, it’s Samoas. My cravings reliably zoom toward the combination of mint and chocolate with the intensity of a heat-seeking missile (I firmly believe that Pearson’s Mint Patties rank as one of the greatest candies ever made), which is why my waistline is grateful that Thin Mints are a brief once-a-year phenomenon. My favorite part of a recent transaction was the conversation I shared with an extremely outgoing Girl Scout/future hedge fund shark. When I told her that I’d be back in a moment – I was headed to a nearby ATM to pick up cash for the purchase – she didn’t skip a beat. “We accept credit cards,” she said, holding out her hand. Sold. Try as I might, my Thin Mints stash has a relatively short shelf life (is there a cookie that freezes better?), which is why I have found myself turning to a bake-at-home replication. Verdict? Not bad. Not the can’t-eat-just-one quality of the real thing, but not bad, and relatively easy to make. A final note: the Girl Scouts website offers all kinds of recipe ideas that incorporate their cookies. I’ll definitely be making Mile-High Peppermint Pie, because it merges three of my obsessions: Thin Mints, ice cream pie and meringue. It does require, however, hanging onto a box of Thin Mints until it can be prepared. Easier said than done.

8 Minnesota chefs and 3 restaurants named 2020 James Beard awards semifinalists

Eight Twin Cities chefs and three restaurants have been named 2020 semifinalists in the James Beard Foundation awards.

The high-profile awards, widely viewed as the industry's highest honors, recognize and celebrate excellence across 23 categories.

In the Beard’s highly competitive national awards, Twin Cities chefs and restaurants made the cut in six out of 11 categories, including:

Outstanding Chef: Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis. The award honors “A chef who sets high culinary standards and who has served as a positive example for other food professionals.” Kaysen, a two-time James Beard award winner, is a first-time semifinalist in this category.

Outstanding Pastry ChefDiane Moua of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis. The award honors “A pastry chef or baker who demonstrates exceptional skill, integrity and character in the preparation of desserts, pastries or breads served in a restaurant.” Moua is a 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 semifinalist in this category, and a 2018 nominee.

Best New Restaurant: Demi in Minneapolis, by chef Gavin Kaysen. The award honors “A restaurant opened in 2019 that already demonstrates excellence in cuisine and hospitality, and that is likely to make a significant impact in years to come.”

 
 

Outstanding Restaurant: Restaurant Alma of Minneapolis. The award honors “A restaurant that demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, service and operations” and has been in business for 10 or more consecutive years. Restaurant Alma, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019, is a 2012 and 2019 semifinalist in this category.

 

Outstanding Bar Program: Colita in Minneapolis (seen here with bar director Marco Zappia). The award honors “A restaurant or bar that demonstrates exceptional care and skill in the selection, preparation and serving of cocktails, spirits and/or beer.” The restaurant is a first-time nominee in this category.


Rising Star Chef of the Year: Rikki Giambruno of Hyacinth in St. Paul. The award honors “A chef age 30 or younger, born on or after January 1 in the year occurring thirty years prior to the award year in which such chef is to be considered for the award (e.g., January 1, 1976 for candidates to be considered in awards year 2006), who displays exceptional talent, character, and leadership ability, and who is likely to make a significant impact in years to come.” Giambruno (pictured, above, in the center) is a 2019 semifinalist in this category.

Best Chef: Midwest is the category that garnered the most local names, although it's the lowest number of semifinalists that the Twin Cities has garnered in many years. This year’s semifinalists include:

Steven Brown of Tilia in Minneapolis. Brown is a 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019 semifinalist, and a 2017 and 2018 nominee.

Jamie Malone of Grand Cafe in Minneapolis. Malone is a 2014 semifinalist for her work at Sea Change, and a 2018 and 2019 semifinalist – and 2019 nominee -- for Grand Cafe.

Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai in Minneapolis. Nguyen is a 2018 and 2019 semifinalist, and a 2019 nominee.

Daniel del Prado of Martina in Minneapolis. Del Prado is a 2019 semifinalist.

Hai Truong of Ngon Bistro in St. Paul. Truong is a first-time semifinalist.

The Best Chef: Midwest award is one of the foundation’s 12 regional chef honors, and it goes to chefs working in any kind of dining establishment “who set high culinary standards and also demonstrate integrity and admirable leadership skills in their respective regions.” The foundation’s Midwest region includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota.
 
Six Twin Cities chefs are previous Best Chef: Midwest winners: Tim McKee (formerly of La Belle Vie, now at Octo Fishbar) in 2009, Alex Roberts (Restaurant Alma) in 2010, Isaac Becker (112 Eatery) in 2011, Paul Berglund (formerly of the Bachelor Farmer) in 2016, Gavin Kaysen (Spoon and Stable) in 2018 and Ann Kim (Young Joni) in 2019. Kaysen is Minnesota’s only national James Beard award-winning chef; he was named Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008 during his tenure at Cafe Boulud in New York City.

For the complete list of 2020 semifinalists, go here.

Wednesday’s semifinalist announcement is the first installment in a months-long, multi-step process.

The semifinalist ballot is distributed among 600-plus voters, including critics, writers, editors and past chef and restaurant award winners. The process is managed by an independent accounting firm, and the top five vote-getters in each category ascend to the nominee level (in Beard-speak, that’s synonymous with “finalist”). Nominees will be announced on March 25.

A second ballot goes out to the same voting pool. The top vote-getter in the nominee round is awarded the coveted Beard medallion at the foundation’s annual awards ceremony. (There are no cash prizes).

The New York City-based foundation, named for the influential culinarian and cookbook author, established its awards program in 1990, five years after Beard’s death. This year’s black-tie gala event is scheduled for May 4 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. 

Nominees in the foundation’s cookbook, media and design awards (there are no semifinalists) will also be announced on March 25. Winners in the cookbook and media categories will be announced at a dinner in New York City on April 24, and design winners will be announced in Chicago on May 4.

Congratulations to all the semifinalists.