In an economy this rough, you wouldn’t think it possible to have a glut of great new restaurants to argue about… but argue we did, with a great deal of passion. Our “boiled down” list for discussion was seven or eight places long, each with its own advocates.
The three we eventually selected were picked for radically different reasons — each tells a distinct story about something wonderful going on in the Minneapolis-St. Paul dining scene. Guten appetit.
We’ll announce the winner of all three Silver Whisk awards on Dec. 16.
Black Sheep Pizza
Forget the high-quality cheeses and other toppings used by Black Sheep Pizza; forget the farmers market salads, which are some of the most creative and downright delicious in the city; forget the consistent hospitality, and the strong local beer list. The crust of a Black Sheep Pizza — a perfect coal-fired chewy / crispy East Coast serious crust if we’ve ever had one, and we’ve had a few… well, the crust alone would put this place into contention as a nominee.
It’s hard not to love a place that opens with a clear, clean vision and then sticks to it, and there’s a liberating quality to dining somewhere that understands its own identity. You come to Black Sheep, and there’s not really any question about what you’ll get. All you need to decide is whether you’re getting it topped with superb house-made meatballs or hot salami; or maybe a kicker cheese or two, like ricotta or chevre.
It’s swell to have restaurants like Manny’s and La Belle Vie holding down the finer end of the casual-to-fine-food spectrum, but sometimes it’s affordable places like Black Sheep that have the most impact on city’s dining culture: In one fell swoop, Black Sheep has raised the standard for pizza and redefined what $10 a person and under dining can be. That the restaurant’s graphic and interior design is absolutely impeccable is a further tribute to founder Jordan Smith’s laser-focused vision.
Boston has Santarpio’s, with its sausage and pepper appetizers and ornery staff; New York has Grimaldi’s, tucked under the Brooklyn Bridge; thanks to Smith and his anthracite-coal burning oven, Minneapolis now has Black Sheep Pizza. Hallelujah.
We were deluged by reader suggestions to nominate the Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson-led food cart assault team known as Chef Shack — so much so that it felt quite tangibly like an orchestrated campaign. (Not that we mind a good campaign now and again.) But it wasn’t the sheer number of reader nominations that swayed us, it was the sincerity of those nominations — and the fact that they just kept making good points about why Chef Shack deserved the win.
“They have drawn me to the Kingfield Farmers Market for Sunday after Sunday with their adventurous cuisine and the personal charm of the owners/workers,” wrote one reader. “The Chef Shack truly represents the coming together of two great food cultures: the local food/farmer’s market movement and the street food culture,” wrote another. The same reader went on to note: “It uses fresh, local ingredients and delivers high quality meals with a friendly, no-nonsense attitude. FINALLY, we have street food to rival what you can get in southeast Asia!”
Yet another reader wrote: “Chef Shack in Minnesota! They are the best.” Less helpful, but adorable.
Overall, Chef Shack supporters were irritatingly persistent, but — let’s face it: They made some really good points. If you’ve ever eaten at Chef Shack, you’ve noticed two things: One, they’re always trying new stuff, from cardamom spiced doughnuts, to soft-shell crab sandwiches, to the vast sea of pickled and otherwise hand-crafted condiments. Two, that stuff is more often than not well-balanced, well-prepared, and often downright irresistibly tasty.
We took some liberties in nominating Chef Shack, which is, in an absolute sense, more than a year old. 2009, however, was the year when the Shack made major expansions and blew up — Chef Shacks 2 & 3 debuted, Serious Eats gave them serious ink, and Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl hailed them as “the most talked about restaurant of the summer,” adding “if you don’t believe that food that good can come out of a trailer, believe it.”
The food, good as it is, is only half the story. Chef Shack represents the vanguard of street food in a sadly un-street fooded metro area. If Chef Shack prospers and triumphs, we may all see an explosion of wannabes and — perhaps with the intervention of an avenging God, fiery sword in hand — a loosening of the legal restrictions that conspire with a 6-month winter to make it difficult to nurture a vibrant food cart gastro-culture around here.
Chef Adam Vickerman of Trattoria Tosca is irritatingly young — just 24 — to be presiding over a place that oozes such deft sophistication. And on that note, unnatural maturity is why Tosca merits a nomination for a Silver Whisk: To have assembled a restaurant this focused and confident in such short order is a feat worthy of recognition.
The wisdom and harmony of the place starts with the menu, which offers elegantly conceived, often locally sourced, and well-balanced dishes (including a fair bit of excellent pasta), and proceeds outward from there. The ambiance is calm but joyous. The decor is warm and tasteful. The staff are merry, pleasant, poised, focused, and energetic while seeming relaxed — Vickerman may be playing 1st chair violin, but the rest of the orchestra is pulling its weight. Owner Harvey McLain must surely deserve some of the credit as well — the team at Tosca exudes a general sanity that is greatly comforting to the diner (whatever the situation might actually be behind closed doors… Lord knows, there is occasionally drama in professional kitchens).
During a recent visit, I ordered full portion of a rich, egg-yolk bedecked fettuccine with Fischer Farms bacon, grana padano cheese, and a little green galaxy of herbs among the noodles. It kicked my ass. It is a wonderful experience, having such flavor and richness punch you lovingly in the tongue and palate so much that you surrender, stuffed and satisfied, and turn immediately to the dessert menu. The panna cotta with warm cherry compote, clove, and almonds didn’t sound like much in theory, but the balance of the dish — sweet, but not cloying, warmly cherry-flavored with a touch of natural astringency, the softness of the pudding and the crunch of the almonds — hoo boy. Home run. Like at the end of The Natural, lights exploding, and so forth.
From a hospitality, ambiance, and service perspective, it’s difficult to find anything about Tosca to criticize — from hostessing to decor to table waiting, the smoothly oiled Tosca machine purrs like a kitten while running full-bore. Good restaurants have a tendency to try a little too hard and put guests off with their insecure touting of their own superiority; great restaurants shine with a quiet confidence. That Tosca has picked up such a warm critical reception so quickly speaks to some luck, some brilliance, and a fair bit of hard work.