There’s an awful lot to like about Mona, a newly opened restaurant that brings a seasonal / local ethos into downtown Minneapolis, where (sometimes emptily) cosmopolitan steakhouses and fusion joints tend to rule the roost. Chef Lisa Hanson boasts a New York City fine dining pedigree honed most recently at Scott Pampuch’s Corner Table, and she has used that polish and knowledge to give Mona an atmosphere and menu that can rival any in the metro area for its energy.
“Ambition” may be the word that defines Mona, a restaurant that’s bursting at the seams with vivacity and ideas. The menu’s concept (two or three courses of small plates plus a dessert) diffuses the risk to diners, and lets new visitors travel far and wide; such a journey is likely to have both ups and downs, and is guaranteed to provoke conversation.
At its weakest, Mona’s dishes are soft-spoken, respectful, shy, and retiring — dishes such as its white bean salad ($5), fregola (couscous-esque bits of toasted pasta, above, $5), and arugula salad ($5) all cried out for acid, or heat, and / or depth of spice to make them sing out to their true potential. Visits to other in-the-mix restaurants like Heartland and Bar La Grassa regularly demonstrate that vegetables don’t have to be wallflowers — they can and should kick out the flavor jams with the best of the bacons.
While Mona’s meatier dishes tended to provide more passion and a perceptible flavor kick, an undersized elk rib eye ($13) needed to offer a Big Bang of flavor to compensate for its price. Instead, it offered only a moderate squeak, even when aided by the accompanying Hollandaise sauce.
A lunchtime order of lentil stew ($7 or $11 for a larger portion) had more conviction, the funky depth of the lentils and kale supporting tender and meaty impact of braised pork shoulder and the richness of a fried egg.
Scottish salmon was all over the lunch menu (as a special and an optional $5 add-on to salads and the like) and it was downright excellent, boasting clean, rich flavor and a firm texture. Like the optional add-on bacon ($1), it was a welcome utility player.
Echoes of the Corner Table resonated in Mona’s extensive local sourcing and a host of offal and other offbeat meat-focused dishes, including marrow on toast ($7, above), pork belly ($7), head cheese and pickles ($6), and chicken liver pate ($6). Across the board, these dishes clocked in at somewhere between “strong” and “really excellent.” The marrow on raisin toast with apple butter in particular offered a rustic-meets-wordly flavor impact and presentation that was well worth writing home about, wherever home might happen to be.
The menu’s surprising crown jewel is the initially unassuming chicken and waffles ($8). The chicken skin was perfectly crispy, the meat tender and flavorful, the waffle complemented by the fruity kick of roasted pears and warm sweetness of brown butter honey jus. All of these elements — crispy, tender, sweet, savory — hung perfectly in balance, and the result was a gastronomic M-80. Mona’s chicken and waffles rivals the version offered at the Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, CA, which may well be the world’s finest.
Dessert was reliably good, and while most options were satisfying if not alarmingly good, the saffron pot de creme ($5, above) has a silky-smooth texture and sophisticated flavor profile that made it a real barn-burner. (When your waitress feels strongly enough about a dessert to describe it as “life changing,” that really raises expectations, and the pot de creme performed strongly enough not to disappoint.)
Mona’s been dividing critical and popular reception since its opening, and it’s easy to see why: Depending on your taste and appetite, it might be the purveyor of a competent but not particularly economical lunch or a delightful and daring multi-course dinner of your locavore dreams. Much also has been made of the location in the Accenture building at 4th Ave. and 7th St., which seems far more awkward than it actually is. If you dine on a weeknight, nearby street parking is ample (and free after 6 or 8pm) and the space itself feels upscale but comfortable.
But once you navigate the grid system of the streets and the shoals of Mona’s menus, it’s hard not to enjoy it for what it is: the always creative, often inspiring brainchild of a passionate chef making her way through an inspiring career.
Mona Restaurant & Bar
Farm-to-table in downtown Minneapolis
333 S 7th St
Minneapolis, MN 55402
Happy Hour: Mon-Fri 3-7pm
CHEF / OWNER: Lisa Hanson
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / On weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: Roughly $12-$20 for a full meal