Green Line Checklist: Silhouette to Little Szechuan
Editor’s note: Join the whole Checklist crew tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 26) at 5:30pm at the Campus Club in the Coffman Memorial Union for bites, cocktails, and a talk about the Green Line Checklist.
This is not an orderly process. We tried to go right down the Green Line, one establishment at a time, plate by plate. But the best-laid plans often go astray. If you’ve followed along with us, you’ve probably already noticed.
Places would be closed unexpectedly or they’d keep hours based on a gut feeling rather an actual clock, or they’d open only for breakfast, or they’d be open only a single day of the week. But when you’re dealing with small family businesses, you anticipate a fair amount of quirk. We’d seen this before on Central Avenue, but University Avenue seemed to be a bit more unpredictable.
In this installment, we played Chutes and Ladders. We moved forward down the Green Line for two restaurants, and backward to visit three we’d skipped along the way for various reasons. One because they closed early the first time we tried. Another because it didn’t exist when we passed by the first time. And a third because … well, we’re not quite sure how we missed it. Hey, nobody’s perfect. Besides, perfection is often boring. — M.C. Cronin
ALL 15 GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS: 88 Oriental Foods to Thai Cafe, Ha Tien Deli to Hook Fish and Chicken, Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng, iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo, SugaRush to PaJai, Pinoy Fusion to The Best Steakhouse, Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro, Flamingo to Trend Bar, Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s, On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill, Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge, Mesa Pizza to Stub and Herb’s, The Dubliner to Ippindo Ramen, Silhouette to Little Szechuan, and T-Rex to Campus Club (the end of the line).
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Green Line Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
Silhouette Bakery and Bistro
383 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station
It’s a new space. Brand new. There was still a little piece of blue painter’s tape stuck to the back of a bench, where two wood pieces joined together, with a note to the contractors written on it that read “Fill seam.”
Outside and in, metal is the theme. The facade is dominated by large steel screens. The logo incorporates metal cogs and gears. Faux-metal-stamped squares cover interior walls and beams.
The design is clean and simple bordering on industrial and cold. But there are also interesting touches of Asian design and culture. Bold sci-fi prints on the walls. Totoro figures on pastry pedestals. soot sprite designs on macaroons.
All in all, Silhouette feels like a unique and welcome addition to this part of University. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
With a few exceptions, everything we sampled at Silhouette was flawed, but with hints of potential excellence. There were, here and there, personal touches that meant a lot — first-rate kimchi in the rice bowl, for example, or house-made macarons decorated with charming, anime-inspired art. But there were also missteps and imperfections that we hope will be ironed out as this new restaurant grows and evolves.
Our tacos al pastor ($7.25 for two) were dominated by the aggressively sweet, acidic taste of pineapple rather than carefully prepared and richly flavored meat. The ground-beef-like meat, in fact, got almost completely lost in the shuffle. And rather than serving the tacos on traditional corn tortillas, the restaurant presents them on tortillas that have been lightly fried, which gives them a kind of uncanny semi-crunchiness that is an unnecessary compromise between hard and soft shells.
We liked our beef rice bowl ($9) overall. The beef tasted mostly of onions, but it was reasonably tender, and the accompanying kimchi was first rate. We tend to like our rice bowls with a full-court-press of flavors and textures (see the stuff served at World Street Kitchen and Dark Horse), so this felt a little minimalist — but it ultimately satisfied.
The made-to-order Bacon Cheddar Donut ($3.50) completely lacked cheddar flavor — and that’s OK, because it tasted pretty great without it. The overall effect of the doughnut was that of a bacon-studded sweet cornbread that you can (and should) dip into the simple but compelling melted honey butter side sauce. While among the weirdest things we’ve tasted on the Green Line (from a long list of options), this was also a standout, in a good way.
We were charmed by the exterior appearance of our macarons, but they didn’t quite work from a texture perspective, and texture is fairly central to the macaron, which should present a crispy, crunchy exterior giving way to a tender, chewy interior. Silhouette’s macarons were soft through and through, but did (to their credit) end with subtle and natural-seeming aftertastes of either green tea or cappuccino. — James Norton
2356 University Ave W, St. Paul
Raymond Avenue Station
Our guess: The waiters at Caffe Biaggio have been working in Italian restaurants almost exactly like this for 40 years. We were beholden to their idea of how a fine Italian meal should be enjoyed, and that wasn’t going to be dictated by our timetable. We weren’t going to be able to sit down to try a quick couple of dishes and leave. When one of our group ordered a salad the waiter said, “As an entree?” It was phrased as a question but it was clearly meant as a statement.
The dining room was full of people who were clearly regulars. The waiters passed their tables and nodded and hardly needed to ask what they were ordering because they’ve ordered the same thing every time for as many years as anyone can remember.
Underneath the fine, mid-’90s art nouveau atmosphere — white tablecloths, brick walls, amber glass chandeliers — this is an old-school Italian restaurant at heart. You can almost see the red-checked tablecloths, the Tuscan murals, and the fake grapevines. In a way, it’s comforting. We need places like this. Places where you can always borrow a pair of readers or grab a scoop of butter mints from the host stand.
Just keep in mind that when you come to Caffe Biaggio, you’re in for the night. Which isn’t a bad thing at all. Sometimes we need to slow down and enjoy each other’s company, even if we’re forced into it. Especially when you get to partake of a comforting Italian meal with a nice bottle of vino. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Caffe Biaggio is an aging eccentric, a beloved and seemingly unkillable relic of the ’90s with its own now-inimitable sense of style. And rarely has a restaurant wandered so flamboyantly across the map in terms of flavor and sophistication.
Let’s start at the bottom of the value spectrum. The restaurant’s Veal Medallions “scallopini style” ($24) were directly evocative of a homemade chicken piccata, with the richness of the butter, the tang of the capers, and the brightness of the lemon doing all the work, and the meat serving as little more than a bland vehicle. The overall effect was pleasant, but could have been obtained with a more affordable protein. It would have also profited from a little more aggressive pan searing and browning.
Our Grilled Romaine Heart Salad ($15 for an entree portion) boasted a satisfactory level of charring, and a well-balanced, bacon-forward dressing. While it didn’t reinvent the culinary wheel, it didn’t have to. It was good-natured and well-behaved, a pleasant dining companion.
Our spaghetti and meatballs ($16) wasn’t at the top of the local game (see Italian Eatery or Mucci’s for that) but it was soothing and pleasant and utterly classic. The noodles were a bit overdone, the meatballs more redolent of bread than rich complexity, but the overall package was a plainspoken blast from the past that ultimately succeeded. Whether these meatballs plus Biaggio’s atmosphere equals a $16 value is a question best left to each individual diner.
Our Cioppino ($26) seemed extravagantly priced until it hit the table and our palates. Then it became clear that the customer gets a large variety of high-quality, properly cooked seafood for the money, swimming in a bright, tomato- and herbs-boosted sauce. The crab, the scallops, and the shrimp were all tender and first rate. We haven’t had its like anywhere in town.
And our Cannoli was a terrific example of the form, crunchy as the dickens, topped (traditionally and correctly!) with crushed pistachios, and piped with a filling that was arguably a bit too sweet but ultimately delicious. Getting a bad cannoli is a snap around here, but finding one this good is both a challenge and a joy. — J.N.
Green Spoon Cafe
2600 University Ave SE, Minneapolis
Prospect Park Station
What do you expect from a restaurant located near prime student housing that offers “Hangover Ramen?” Yep. That’s pretty much what you get. Inexpensive food and drink. And lots of it.
Though to its credit, the space is actually much nicer than you might assume for a place that advertises itself as an “All U Can Eat” joint on the front window. This is a Korean Bistro after all. And a bistro at least sounds a bit more upscale. And so it is. Dark wood floors, lush grass planters, and a stone wall with traditional Korean masks were surprisingly nice interior touches.
There’s even a wine list, though it’s limited to three whites and three reds. But again, expectations should be appropriately managed at a place that also offers a “Bucket of Beers.” — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We skipped the build-your-own bibimbop bar at Green Spoon, and we regret it a bit. It’s a fun concept, and one we haven’t seen elsewhere. But we were hurrying pell-mell to get to all five of our spots before one or more closed on us, and we wanted to judge Green Spoon on the merits of its menu items as it prepared them — not as they were butchered by our unskillful hands.
We started with something called “Hangover Ramen.” It’s a mere $8. And it feeds two people. So with that in mind, plus the college campus setting, we should forgive Green Spoon for serving what is transparently low-end, kinked up, packaged ramen plus hot sauce, kimchi, and a single fried egg. We should particularly forgive them because the dish isn’t half bad — despite its humility, it was compelling and pleasurable.
We weren’t quite as well-disposed toward the half fried chicken ($13) in garlic sauce, which was sweet as a Popsicle but considerable harder to handle. Much of the crispy crunch was drowned in the gloppy sauce, but the interior meat was (to the credit of the restaurant) truly tender and nicely cooked. — J.N.
Bona Vietnamese Restaurant
Stadium Village Station
It’s a large, clean space that’s been recently updated. The color scheme is multiple shades of gray and the decor is IKEA-chic. Nothing wrong with that. It seems to be a new tradition, and it’s certainly an inexpensive way for a restaurant to offer a simple, clean atmosphere. Which in theory means they can keep overhead low and concentrate on serving decent food.
This is the wide open, almost-cafeteria-style setting you might expect around the U, where students and staff are looking for a quick bite between classes. It’s easy to imagine that lunch is Bona’s busiest time, and that for the three hours surrounding noon, all that matters is getting people in, seated, served, and back out the door as quickly as possible. The only trouble is at night: With many fewer people, the space feels a little cold and empty.
Bona is, in fact, Vietnamese cuisine, so don’t be confused when you find each table setting adorned with a Chinese zodiac paper placemat. It’s a bit out of place, but we expect it’s purely functional. Anyway, just imagine all the fun you can have analyzing your most important relationships before your pho arrives. “You’re a horse! No wonder we fight all the time!” — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
You’d think we’d be jaded by pho at this point, now that we’re 70 restaurants deep into this tour. But no — it still has the capacity to soothe, please, and surprise. Bona’s Pho with Brisket and Lightly Cooked Beef ($8) was simple but killer, with a light, star-anise-and-cinnamon backbone and superbly tender, carefully sliced and cooked meat. This was a dish as refreshing as they come, equally well suited to the fires of August and the hibernal chill of February.
Our Pork Broken Rice Plate ($8) was one of the most flavorful and legit we’ve seen in these parts — the pork was pounded paper thin and covered in a nicely spiced char, and the rice was topped with a funky saute of tripe. This is a dish that can feel phoned in or tame — but not here, where it roars with earthy flavor. — J.N.
Stadium Village Station
We hit the Little Szechuan outpost on the other end of University Avenue earlier in the Checklist. While that location is mostly a hotpot concept, this one concentrates on serving all the other menu items you might expect at a traditional Szechuan restaurant. (Also, some you’d never expect. Corn Pizza with Diced Pear, anyone?)
Almost every exterior window was decorated with a “CNN 50 Best Chinese Restaurants in USA” logo. So our hopes were high. Though we noted that the signs don’t explicitly say they’re on the list, and we had a little fun letting our imaginations run with that notion …
“So you’re on CNN’s list of 50 best, huh?” went our musing.
“Oh no, we’re not actually on it. We’re just advertising the list because we love it! There are some great Chinese places on it!”
(OK, so we were a little punch drunk by this point in the night.)
As for the atmosphere, it was nice enough. Terra cotta walls; rich reds and browns through the tables, chairs, and floors; and a high white ceiling featuring approximately 48,601 track lights radiating with the intensity of 1,000 suns. Note to architects, interior designers, and restaurateurs: It’s a scientifically-proven fact-like-declaration that food tastes better in low light. Start with a nice votive on every table and punch it up from there. Please stop burning out our retinas. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We’ve eaten a number of unique food items on this journey, including (but not limited to) pork uteri, a chili-on-top-of-the-bun hamburger, sour pork ribs, cheesy “Crazy Curry Noodles,” river monster (whole red snapper swimming in soup), pig face, and a good deal more. But Corn Pizza with Diced Pear ($11) takes the cake. This semi-flattened disc of fresh corn kernels is laced with grated pear, battered, and fried, and then sprinkled with sugar and — wait for it — dashed lightly with rainbow jimmies. The snap and sweetness of the kernels was tasty and paired well with the sugary toppings, but an under-temperature frying mishap in the kitchen meant that the whole assemblage was disconcertingly oily and ultimately unpalatable. For sheer shock value, however, this thing was a big hit.
We were looking forward to the Szechuan Spicy Beef ($15), which seemed to play to the restaurant’s strengths — spice (both numbing and hot) plus a huge quantity of strips of meat, dished up on a welcoming bed of rice. And while the flavors of the dish were everything we hoped for (vivid and bold), the meat itself was tough and chewy. As exciting as it is to receive a sombrero’s worth of appetizing food, it doesn’t quite work when said food is chewing-gum-like in texture.
Our Mala Fish Filet with Tofu ($16) had many of the appealing elements of the Szechuan Spicy Beef (multifaceted heat plus a huge hat’s worth of quantity) but none of the drawbacks. The fish was tender, and while bland in and of itself, was a fine vehicle for the rich, flavorful sauce it swam in. — J.N.