The Silver Whisk Awards celebrate the best of local food in the Upper Midwest; only three are given out, for Best Chef, Best Purveyor, and Best New Restaurant.
Narrowing down our best restaurant picks to three was no easy task — the local scene has been booming, and there’s no shortage of talent. In the end, we settled for three very different restaurants: a bakery with perfectionist leanings, a marriage of classical skills and seasonal produce, and an asskicking new-wave Midwestern hangout.
It’s hard to know what distinguishes truly great baked goods until you’ve tried to make them at home. Take a serious stab at genuine eclairs, real croissants, or serious scratch baguettes, and you’ll get a whole new respect for the real deal, and for dedicated operators like Rustica Bakery, Patrick’s, and — now — the newly opened Patisserie 46.
The brainchild of Chicago baker John Kraus (who was drawn to Minneapolis, at least in part, by the school system), Patisserie 46 puts out a dizzying array of baked goods daily ranging from delicate eclairs to truly flaky and rich croissants to boules of bread that can stand up with the world’s best. Interspersed among the regular treats are exotic little gems — eggy, beautifully caramelized canales, spice-kissed and orange-inflected gibassiers, and a variety of chocolate treats that stand amongst the best in the region.
The secret of Patisserie 46 is an old one — just take a page from Europe’s books, and put your effort into the dough. Pastry isn’t about massive amounts of sugar, it’s about restraint, it’s about balance, it’s about sublime textures and natural flavors that soar when paired with coffee or savored by themselves.
This, of course, takes tremendous skill. The talent of Kraus and his team is evident in every one of the dozens of pastries and bread products they put on the racks each day, and the neighborhood’s respect for that talent is evident in the lines and full tables that make Patisserie 46 cheerfully crowded on most days of the week.
Patisserie 46 is more than just a neighborhood anchor and a guaranteed joyful start to any given morning — it’s a bar-raiser, a spirited challenge to anyone else who would start a bakery.
It seemed likely that Chef Don Saunders was going to return to the local food scene in a blaze of glory; his former restaurant, Fugaise, had rabid fans who would passionately testify to the chef’s talent, and he’d have his pick of angle when he popped back up. It didn’t seem, however, likely that he’d return at the helm of a restaurant that is arguably faultless right out of the gate.
But, yet — that’s what happened. Everything at In Season seems to be clicking. The decor’s tasteful; the music’s good; the servers know what they’re talking about; and the overall concept of an explicitly seasonally inspired menu (inspirational ingredients are bolded to help diners connect the dots) is clear but not overly cute.
Oh, and yes — the food is killer. It’s not overwrought or overthought, but dishes like cured salmon blinis or elk goulash are executed with such precision and gusto that you can’t help but wolf down each precious bite, your id screaming “More! C’mon!” even as your superego reminds you that you’re supposed to chew and savor any food, let alone anything this good.
The overall effect is so polished that you don’t even notice how polished it is, recalling nationally known restaurants like Chez Panisse, where world-class food gets dished up with such easy grace that the very formality of the restaurant feels comfortable and informal.
With In Season, Saunders has created a place — like Corner Table, or HauteDish — where locals can bring coastal snobs and say “Aha! See, civilization here in the Upper Midwest… it’s alive, well, and kicking ass here, without needing to reflexively reference the cooking of New York, LA, or Paris.”
They probably won’t, of course, buy it, because that’s the whole deal with coastal types. They will, however, grudgingly admit that they ate a damned fine meal. That fact alone makes In Season worthy of a serious “Best of 2010” hat tip.
Fishing for supporting details from the Heavy Table staff about why HauteDish merits a nomination as Best New Restaurant, I was stunned to receive an eloquent flood of positive commentary about the restaurant. That flood does a fine job of explaining why this new Warehouse District powerhouse is one of the most exciting places to eat within several zip codes.
“A key strength: the sheer impossibility of a restaurant that does ‘creative twists on classic staples’ (how many times have you cringed when hearing that phrase?) actually doing just that, in a confident, non-campy way.”
“I like that Landon’s Midwest born and bred and is trying to make the church basement underbelly of traditional Midwestern food likable (at which he succeeded, in my book — I’ve never, ever, ever liked anything vaguely resembling tater tot hotdish).”
“I have been really impressed with the kitchen’s versatility (with regard to the veg menu, especially). It’s sort of like Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” album (stay with me), which, rather than having 3 or 4 singles and 7 filler tracks, is extraordinary all-around. ”
“The whole menu is very now, I think. It’s honed in on simple cuts of meat and vegetables (sustainably sourced, yada yada) and familiar preparations, done in explosively creative ways.”
“I got the duck in a can, and man, was that cool. Not just a gimmick, but a fun way to enjoy the richest, most succulent duck of all time. And the celery root puree/thick toast it was dumped on, with the gravy, pretty much sent me over the moon. The combination of sheer quality with the ‘where else you gonna get this?’ factor made it incredibly memorable.”
“Bottom line: Best meal experience I’ve had in Minneapolis, if not my life.”
Honorable Mention: Travail
You couldn’t pick up a newspaper or read a blog in 2010 without seeing praise for Travail, the Robbinsdale-based molecular-chic eatery that was a rebellious spin-off from the already rebellious Victory 44 in North Minneapolis. Dara said “the food is soul-satisfyingly splendid”; Rick said “dining here is a blast”; a number of Heavy Table staffers ate at Travail and very much enjoyed it. There’s no question that Travail was the most-commented upon opening of the year amongst the fooderati, and that it was among the most interesting restaurants to appear locally in quite some time.
Unfortunately, during a recent evaluation visit, we encountered enough serious turbulence that we bumped Travail out of the running for the Silver Whisk. Low prices, fantastic charcuterie, flawless blue cheese tots, and a couple strong desserts couldn’t compensate for ill-informed and generally lousy service (by the lone, overworked server, not the amiable chefs), three excessively salted dishes, the heavy-handed use of truffle oil, overcooked scallops, and rampant, generally pointless foam. The restaurant’s in need of an executive editor to focus and spot-check the talented crew in the kitchen…and in even more dire need of a few good servers and a host. (See Jason DeRusha’s well-targeted essay from December 2010 for another perspective on this same point.)
If Travail gets focused, it’ll have a long and glorious run. If not, it still will have been a lot of fun while it lasted.