We made a last-minute decision to go to Martina (4312 Upton Ave S, Minneapolis) on a Saturday night one month after it opened its doors. Bringing up the tail end of a line of hopeful patrons on the sidewalk as the doors were unlocked didn’t bode well for our chances. We patiently waited our turn, expecting to eat at Tilia (not a bad backup plan), and despite some mixed signals from the hosting crew, we were thrilled to be graciously escorted to a table in the side room.
In the still-recognizable former Upton 43 space, Martina would fit right into the North Loop with its high ceiling, weathered timber, angled leather booths, full bar, and one of the most open kitchens in town. The space is something of an anomaly for South Minneapolis, but the Linden Hills crowd, comprised of young couples, old couples, and families with children, is already wearing the space like an old hat. Which is to say that anyone who eats will feel comfortable at Martina.
We adored the food, which felt familiar yet intriguing enough to leave us excited to return and further explore Chef Daniel del Prado’s Argentine/Italian hybrid creations. We started with Charred Avocado Wheatgrass Bruschetta ($13), in which one of the most hackneyed dishes of the hipster foodie era (avocado toast) gets its groove back. In Martina’s version, toothsome chunks of savory pickled shrimp steal the show, with an assist from bunches of fresh parsley and a black, smoky char on both the bread and avocado, neither of which were burnt, by some miracle.
The Seared Scallops ($16) were equally lovely. Four thin, half-dollar-sized mollusks with a crisp brown sear were stacked in a pyramid resting in a pool of sweet saffron cream alongside charred cherry tomatoes. The dish was flecked with tiny flying-fish roe that gave the dish an otherworldly texture, popping with each bite, leaving behind a hint of marine aroma and nothing else.
Always a sucker for chimichurri (and chermoula, and schug, if you can find them), the Half Grilled Chicken Chimichurri ($18) was among the finest birds we’ve eaten in town recently (Saint Dinette’s was the last finest example we can recall). The chicken, boneless except for a handle of a wing bone exiting the breast, had a crisp, brown exterior that concealed an interior as tender as any sous vide bird. The vivid green chimichurri brightened up the dish with herbs and garlic.
Spaghetti Fra Diavolo With ½ Lobster ($19) was the weak link, if there was one. The house-made pasta was cooked al dente and was perfectly chewy, holding its own with the sweet, mildly spicy sauce that was as Middle Eastern as it was Italian. Sadly, the half-lobster was too chewy overall, a common pitfall for lobster pasta dishes. On another night, this dish could be a home run.
For our vegetable, we ordered the Charred Cucumber ($7). Seedless green crescents, charred on one side are tossed, with feta, in a generous amount of chili oil, colatura (Italian fish sauce, made with anchovy), and rice wine (almost a brine more than a dressing). It made for a smoky, salty, crunchy, sweet combination that like everything else we ate was exploding with bold flavor and texture. The char was a major part of the appeal of Chef del Prado’s food. Having worked at Burch, where steak and pizza are cooked with open flame, his fire worshiping continues here, applied to vegetables and meats alike.
From the space, which at capacity evokes festive late nights in a big city (bigger than Minneapolis, with our 5 p.m. suppers and 2 a.m. bar time), to the food, which was remarkable without exception, to the hustle of the staff, Martina makes a bold and impressive statement. It’s been open for just about a month, and the staff — which seemed to number in the thousands for all our water refills, tableside check-ins, and the sheer number of arms carrying plates — were on their best behavior. We’ll certainly be back, but next time, we’ll make a reservation.
Argentine and Italian food in Linden Hills
4312 Upton Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55410
CHEF: Daniel del Prado
Sun-Thu 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-midnight
Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Ask
ENTREE RANGE: $13-$25
NOISE LEVEL: Partytime
PARKING: Street and area lots