Tilia in Linden Hills

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Just two weeks after the doors first opened, the dark wooden benches at Tilia are getting a bit scuffed. There are the beginnings of shiny patches on the seats by each table, and tiny scratches where fashionable handbags and kids sneakers have each had their turn.

And Steven Brown, the chef and co-owner, thinks it looks great. He has been busy working the front of the house, shaking hands, accepting enthusiastic welcomes from Linden Hills neighbors — and even more enthusiastic “welcome backs” from food professionals and food lovers who have missed him since his days at the Loring Café, Levain, and Porter and Frye.

At times, Brown looks a little overwhelmed by the attention. Not only because opening a restaurant takes months of long days and hard physical labor, but because, as he says, about twice as many customers as he originally planned for are coming through the doors every day.

Many are likely planning on coming back. In Tilia, Brown has created an instant hangout, a space that feels homey and welcoming as soon as you walk in the door. Can a menu, too, be “friendly”? If so, then this one is. It is brief but varied, and, like a good host, seems to anticipate just what you might want. A small plate packed with flavors? A light salad? A hearty pot roast? All there. Brown’s words for the menu, when asked to pin it down, are “energetic and varied; brasserie Americana.”

The longest list on the menu is of small plates for sharing — generous servings that really do call for two or more forks to dip into them. These are what really set Brown’s menu apart and seem to define Tilia’s sensibility: flavors taken from around the world and brought home to America. I’m looking forward to many leisurely meals here with the table filled with gravalax, jerk chicken thighs, French-style mussels, and dukka-scented flatbread.

The Faux Gras ($6) is a good place to start a Tilia meal: a small ramekin of soft, spreadable chicken-liver pate with a quenelle of eggplant preserves on the side. A little rich pate on your grilled bread, a little acidic eggplant, a bite of bacon, and repeat until you see the bottom of the dish.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Another good way to kick things off: three fat shrimp sitting on a dollop of sweet pea puree ($11), beginning to blend with garlic-and-hot-pepper-scented oil. I would have liked a little more kick in the oil, but it was still hard to resist running my finger across the plate when I was done.

The French fries ($6) are long and thin and tender inside — proper brasserie fries, but served with a mayonnaise-ketchup sauce for an American fillip. And they are very good, but they are not fantastic, take-you-over-the-moon fries. In fact, as long as they share the menu with Brown’s grilled flatbread and potted meat, I’m not sure they’ll be my indulgent side of choice.

Kate N.G Sommers / Heavy Table

Here’s what it seems likely that Tilia will become known for: the hot dogs ($10 for two). Two house-made beef dogs, as fat as the fattest Wisconsin bratwurst, with just the right snap in the casing and the absolutely indescribable essence of good old American hot dog through and through. These dogs would be very, very good on their own. But fresh tomato slices, a crisp slice of bacon, pickled cauliflower florets, stone ground mustard, and a drizzle of mayo, all stuffed in the bun with them — it’s a totally forgettable picnic bun, but at this point who cares — make them out of this world. To eat two is pure gluttony, but these dogs will make you wonder why gluttony is a sin.

Those dogs and a couple of side dishes to share would make for a very nice meal. The mashed potatoes ($4) are exactly what they should be, whipped smooth with a drizzle of olive oil on top. The Brussels sprouts ($5), which some cook into a kind fatty candy, retain more of their cabbagey flavor and get a hearty kick from generous helpings of toasted walnuts and browned lardons. I couldn’t keep my fork out of the braised leeks ($7), which were nearly liquefied, nicely tangy, and dripping with flavorful oil. From the salad menu, add a plate of multicolored hunks of beet, silky soft and tangy with yuzu dressing ($8). And — hallelujah! — not a speck of bleu or goat cheese to be seen.

It takes a lot of willpower to look past all the treats on the small plates menu and order a “real meal” from among the “Suppers.” These composed plates show off a more formal side of Brown’s experience and skill. Three of the choices are fish, which is a wider range than some longer menus offer, alongside the classics: brisket, duck breast, and pork tenderloin. The cod ($18) is an excellent choice if you’re looking for something fancier: a large, tender cut of fish, caramelized on the outside and cooked perfectly all the way through. Truffle butter sauce with melt-in-your-mouth mushrooms suits the fish perfectly. All that I was really missing was a little tang on the plate.

Kate N.G Sommers / Heavy Table

I do feel for vegetarians trying to put together a meal at Tilia: You’re looking at two pasta dishes and three salads, full stop. Vegans can ask to hold the cheese. But, really, you’re going to be surrounded by the scent of bacon and chicken liver, so this might not be your most enjoyable night out.

The dessert menu is short and smart, created by southwest Minneapolis pastry chef and cookbook author (Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day) Zoë François and priced at $7 for any of four choices. The Butterscotch Pots du Crème are apparently so good that they have sold out on each of my visits, so you’ll have to take my fellow diners’ word for it on those. You might be tempted to overlook the Toffee Date Cake because, well, dates. But don’t. It is steamed like an English pudding and sticky and sweet and a tiny bit tart in all the right ways. The German Chocolate Cupcake is a well-executed bit of moist chocolate cake, with just the right smear of buttery coconut on top.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

My kids, by the way, have already claimed the window seat by the door as their own. They were enchanted by the kids’ menus, printed on origami fortunetellers. When the waitress came by and handed them each a little lunchbox-sized suitcase full of tiny amusements, I thought we’d never get them to leave. Their dinners ($3 for “little kids,” $7 for “big kids”) were a kids’ dream: just-the-right-size bowls of buttery spaghettini, with honey-butter-topped crackers for a “starter.” They also could have had grilled chicken, a kid-size cheeseburger, alphabet soup, or grilled shrimp. Brown, who has a young daughter, clearly knows the frustration of going out to a nice dinner and having the waiter bring your kid a bowl of bright orange boxed mac and cheese.

So far, in the course of several visits, I’ve only found one dish that I wouldn’t bother to order again. The fish itself in the Fish Taco Torta ($8) was lovely. But the bun and accompaniments surrounding it blended into an indifferent and underflavored mass: no kick from the peppadew slaw, no crunch from the tortilla chips tucked inside the bun, already soggy by the time I took a bite. It’s okay, though: I consoled myself with several bites of my companion’s hot dog.

Brown says that his vision for Tilia was to create something timeworn, something that “looked like it had already been here awhile.” The dark wooden benches, white beadboard walls, and handblown glass light fixtures all do have a lived-in feel. The small space seats 40 people, which gives it a pleasant lively buzz when it’s full, but it’s laid out well and you don’t feel like you’re sitting in your neighbor’s lap. Two curved bars, one around the open kitchen and one beneath the train station-inspired beer board (22 on tap and a selection that really requires its own post), provide even more seating.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Brown emphasizes that this is a neighborhood spot — whether you’re from this particular neighborhood or not. He chose to keep long hours because, after the Linden Hills Co-op moved from its 43rd and Upton location a few blocks down the street, neighborhood conversations about what the business node really needed all seemed to come back to, “We need someplace to get a civilized drink.” He chose to stay open between lunch and dinner — even with a limited menu this adds quite a burden to the kitchen staff — because he noticed that the Dunn Bros. a block away tends to fill up with laptoppers. This, he says, is a “community service” to his new neighbors.

Tilia’s neighbors have already shown up in droves and, judging from the lack of Keens and fleece on my visits, people are coming from farther afield as well, eager to see what Steven Brown can do in his own space. When the initial flurry of attention dies down, I predict people will be wearing shiny spots into those lovely dark wood benches for a long, long time to come.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

 

Tilia
Brasserie in Linden Hills
★★★½ (Excellent)

2726 W 43rd St
Minneapolis, MN 55410
612.354.2806

OWNER / CHEF: Jorg Pierach and Steven Brown / Sam Miller
HOURS:
Mon-Fri 11am-1am
Sat-Sun 8am-1am
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Very little / No
ENTREE RANGE:
$13-20

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About the Author

Tricia Cornell

Tricia has been called the mother of “world-class veggie eaters” in the Star Tribune (that is patently untrue) and an “industrious home cook” in the New York Times (true, but was it a compliment?). She loves Brussels sprouts, hates squash, and would choose salty and sour flavors over sweet just about any day. Her first cookbook, Eat More Vegetables, was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2012.

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19 Comments

  1. Went Thursday – it was bomb. We didn’t really stretch the menu. What we did have seemed simple, but tasted spectacular. I actually had the torta, and it appears that we had totally different experiences. I’m not sure if it was the batter or the tortilla chips that had more crunch. I was sitting at the kitchen bar and watched the whole thing get assembled – it probably helped that the buttery grilled bun was filled about 4 seconds before my first bite. Steven and his kitchen are on point.

  2. We really did want to try this out the other weekend, so we called to check on the opening time. They said 6pm, so we got there at 6pm. Surprise! It was full of people who had clearly been there a while. We were told that it had opend at 5pm and that the wait would be 1 hour, 45 minutes. It seems there are still a few kinks in the service — please know when you open! We wanted to go, but now we will not be, and we were happy to send away another couple who were approaching by telling them the wait time.

  3. The most oft-cited complaint I have heard about Tilia thus far is regarding the wait time and the crowds. And yet, they are open every day of the week for like, fourteen to nineteen hours per day. According to my calculations, this offers over one hundred hours per week that your ass could be in a seat at Tilia. Seems like plenty of seats for plenty of asses to me. Do as the professionals do, and skip dinner hour on a weekend. Stop by for a bump and a snack at four. Stay up late on a school night and have midnight dinner. Give yourself an excuse to get tipsy and full at noon. Thinking outside the box is fun.

  4. Author
    Tricia Cornell04/05/2011Reply

    We do love our shiny new restaurants here in the Twin Cities — and that’s great! — but it means a lot of competition for seats in the first couple of weeks or months.

    I forgot to mention one of my (many) favorite things about Tilia: They are open between lunch and dinner, with an abbreviated menu. Sometimes you don’t want lunch, you just want a spinach salad with a lovely soft-boiled egg in the middle of the afternoon. The same menu is available after dinner until close.

    These are some grueling hours for a kitchen, and I am grateful!

  5. NobleDanSavage04/05/2011Reply

    Kate,

    Your photographs on this site are consistently excellent. Although I’m aware that the tools don’t make the artist, can I ask what camera/lens/settings you generally use? Do you use a tripod for these pictures?

    Thanks
    Dan

  6. Jason Walker04/05/2011Reply

    Just ate my second meal at Tilia and left again amazed. Not only at the food and atmosphere, but also the price: $30 for two – I had the spinach salad, potted meat and iced tea, and my wife had the fish torta and brussels sprouts. $30 for that lunch is a steal.
    And the potted meat, at $5, is the best deal in the city. That and a 20-ounce Summit oatmeal stout for $10 is practically unfair. Having that combo for happy hour every day would pretty much complete the perfect life.
    My wife pronounced on our first visit that Tilia was instantly her favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities. I am not far from agreeing.

  7. Kate N.G. Sommers04/05/2011Reply

    Noble Dan

    You flatter me. For Tilia I was using a Nikon 50mm 1.4 on a D700, handheld with no Tripod. Feel free to email me at Kate(at)heavytable.com for more specifics! Thanks!

  8. Uvé & Gerta Fromage04/05/2011Reply

    Coincidence? I wonder if that was Anne who told us the wait would be an hour and a half. It sounded a little absurd so we waited for them to turn the corner and took their seats.

    Delicious! The fish taco torta, jerk chicken thighs, and shrimp could become a serious addiction. The Dark Horse beer is something I will be stalking liquor stores for. No amount of candied walnuts and crushed bleu cheese will ever make me satisfied with my Trader Joe’s tortellini again. I am ruined!

    We must clone Steven Brown.

    I also am impressed with your photos. They make me want to eat the food right now – so often it is the opposite. -And I don’t mind a 15 minute wait, I have a hunch it thins out the pissy people.

  9. Uve and Gerta, it was not. Rather than turn the corner, we went next door — plus we were not two, rather five, so the wait did make sense for that number. My real frustration wasn’t the wait, it was the misinformation from the gentleman who answered the phone and told us they were closed until 6pm that day. And to Mecca, thank you for suggesting all the other possible time options — they do sound wonderful, though I have to discount quite a number of them due to my job.

  10. a fan of small businesses04/10/2011Reply

    Seriously, Anne? You were HAPPY to send another couple away because someone made the simple mistake of telling you 6pm instead of 5pm? Wow – talk about mean spirited. I went last night for the first time and was met with the WARMEST welcome from a HARD working, lovely staff. Sure, we had to wait, but unlike other restaurants, we were able to put our name in and then go away until our table was ready. Couldn’t have been more accommodating. You do realize that the 1h 45 min wait isn’t the restaurants fault, right? Please, Anne. Do everyone a favor. Go get some therapy for your crazy anger issues and don’t go back to Tilia.

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