Aguachile at Octo Fishbar

Joshua Page / Heavy Table

We fell in love with aguachile at Mexico City’s Contramar (above). Layers of thinly sliced fresh fish, red onion, cucumber, chile, cilantro, and lime juice: What’s not to love? Yes, it’s similar to ceviche, but it isn’t marinated as long and typically packs a more serious chile-hot punch.

So it was love (and appetite) that made us book a table at Octo Fishbar, Chef Tim McKee’s newish restaurant in Saint Paul’s Lowertown: Its menu promised of Marlin Aguachile ($12, below). And McKee delivered, hitting all the right notes. The marlin was exquisitely fresh and flavorful, and with just a dip in the bright citrus vinaigrette, it was in no danger of being “overcooked.” Charred habanero provided sultry heat, while bits of cucumber and avocado slices kept things cool. It was a delicious summer dish made all the more welcome in the dead of a landlocked winter.

Joshua Page / Heavy Table

Though we thoroughly enjoyed Octo’s aguachile, we wanted more — literally. It was basically an amuse-bouche for two. And it’s not just that there wasn’t enough of the good stuff; we understand (at least assume) that sashimi-grade marlin is expensive. A couple of extra pieces of marlin, and a few more slices of cucumber, onion, and avocado would have brought it closer to our ideal: the totally satisfying layers of ingredients and flavors that we’d first fallen for in Mexico. We’d happily pay a few more bucks for a plate of our beloved aquachile.

Octo Fishbar, 289 5th St E, St. Paul; 651.202.3409

Tapas at Rincón 38 in South Minneapolis

Octopus at Rincon 38
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

When I lived in Spain during college, my friends and I walked to our neighborhood bar as often as we went to class. It helped that the little watering hole was just a short cobbled incline away from our beds and our windows, which we always left flung open to the sizzling air.

Back then I thought tapas were precious and expensive. But in fact, enjoying true, walk-like-a-native tapas isn’t that hard for a cash-strapped kid. All I had to do was order a beer, and on its heels came a complimentary pile of fries or breaded pork, and always a healthy pot of mayo. Tapas permeate bar culture in Spain. And they’re not really that special. The Spanish just know that snacks should never be far from a good drink.

Rincon 38
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Rincón 38 — South Minneapolis’ tiny new tapas joint — seems to understand this most basic purpose of Spanish small plates. Sure, Chef Hector Ruiz’s (of Cafe Ena) menu sports seafood, cured meats, and celebrity vegetables like kale. But the tone and flavors of Rincón equal that simple brand of satisfying that goes best with a glass of cava.

Ruiz’s tapas are inspired by French, Italian, and Spanish themes. He keeps the flavor palette tight, featuring peppers, paprika, chorizo, and fennel all over the place, a sign of clear intention as well as the wisdom of an experienced restaurateur. Our favorite combination was the Pulpo ($9, top photo), a pile of tender braised octopus, soft cubes of chorizo, and crisp fried potatoes. Bite after bite, this high-end hash wrapped in smoky paprika was full of textural surprises and the delightful interchange of delicate sea meats and salty pork.

Serrano and Canolli at Rincon 38
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

A plate of Cannoli ($9, above left) was much gentler. Fat rolls of pasta filled with creamy mascarpone, ricotta, and a fine chop of lobster and crab made for a sweet and surprisingly light snack. Similarly, the Serrano ($8, above right) was far from gut-busting. Thin slices of cured ham packaged spears of asparagus with just enough crunch. A nutty truffle-almond sauce brought out the vegetal voice, keeping meat in the supporting role where it sometimes belongs. Rincón’s Mejillones ($9) were some of the best mussels we’ve had in a while — not a bit fishy, and swimming in a deeply savory broth steeped with rosemary. But as is almost always the case with mussels, we needed more crusty bread!

My memories of Spain blazed brightest when we bit into the Bacalao ($8) croquette. Though a little dry, the crispy golden orb of salt cod was the more virtuous apparition of those greasy, meat-filled snacks we found at our neighborhood bar in Spain. Some tangy mayo would have completed the picture.

One of the best things about Rincón is that the menu includes tapas that are truly small, and others that act more as entrees, so you can choose your own adventure. The staff offers easy smiles and warm service, and the place is open until midnight every night. I can already see young people stumbling inside after a long afternoon at the beach, a little sandy and a lot exhausted, reaching for a glass of sangria. Perhaps Rincón 38 is not exactly extraordinary, but its warm embrace and satisfying bites are exactly what is so great about going out in the world.

Rincon 38 Exterior
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Rincón 38
Spanish-inspired tapas in South Minneapolis

3801 Grand Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55409
OWNER / CHEF: Hector Ruiz and Erin Ungerman / Hector Ruiz
HOURS: Mon-Sun 3pm-midnight
BAR: Beer & Wine

Pescara in Rochester, MN

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Here’s a question for you: What the devil is a great oyster doing hanging around in Rochester, Minnesota? There’s not a clear and easy answer to that question. The query itself is posed by the relatively new Pescara, a fine-dining seafood restaurant operating in a Doubletree hotel within ironic spitting distance of a Red Lobster.

As a point of context: I was an East Coast oysterhound for six-plus years, eating oysters of all shapes, sizes, and varieties from Maine to D.C. and all points in between. The specimens served at Pescara (the specific variety now escapes me, but they hailed from the West Coast) were tangy, briny, sweet, and, overall, thoroughly lovely — soundly thumping the adequate but uninspired oysters I’ve eaten at Stella’s, Barbette, and Oceanaire, and standing up to the oysters served at respectable joints like the Old Ebbitt Grill in D.C. and B&G Oysters in Boston’s Back Bay. That this feat was accomplished in Rochester, MN is both a dark tribute to the petro-guzzling modern industrial food complex, and a miracle worth celebrating. Perhaps they’re flown in along with the transplant organs used over at the Mayo Clinic? No matter. At $2.50 a pop, they were cheap for the taste.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Dinner at Pescara isn’t for the faint of wallet, but if a seafood meal of this quality were available at a steal, something would, in fact, be seriously amiss. From the night’s first taste — an austere-looking and seductive-tasting Obovoid Empirical Russian Stout served in a chilled glass — to the last, Pescara had a button-down sense of quality that was downright cosmopolitan.

Sea Salt Eatery Reopens For Spring

Aaron Landry / Heavy Table

Today for lunch, Sea Salt Eatery — the casual seafood stand located in Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Park — reopened after a winter hiatus.

Aaron Landry / Heavy Table

Rick Kimmes of the Oceanaire in Minneapolis

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

We’re familiar with what local chefs serve in their restaurants. What about the food choices they make at home? This series offers a glimpse into what chefs are eating when they step outside their own establishment.

Chef Rick Kimmes has been with the Oceanaire for 11 years. Prior to his time there he worked as a sous chef for Pronto (formerly occupying the space that is now Oceanaire), as well as several country clubs in Minnesota, New York, and Connecticut. He studied Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management at University of Wisconsin-Stout, and attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York.  He was born and raised in Red Wing, MN. Kimmes is married and has two boys, ages five and seven.

On seafood at home:

I don’t have many fond memories of seafood as a kid growing up. When I was young, I’d go fishing with my grandpa at his cabin in Wisconsin. We’d get pan fish, perch, crappies, and sunfish. He would keep everything and cook it all. I remember there being lots of bones. As a kid, the ratio of tartar sauce to fish was two to one. I’d drown it all in sauce. I grew up Catholic and dreaded Fridays, because it meant fish.

My wife’s been on me about cooking more seafood at home. We walked Nokomis the other day, and she turned to me and said, “You work at a seafood restaurant, and we don’t eat it!” I believe if I ate more seafood growing up, I would be cooking it more at home. I grew up during the late ’70s / early ‘80s and both my parents worked.  Our dinners were always meat and potatoes. Sometimes we had a salad, but that meant iceberg lettuce with cheddar cheese and maybe some bacon bits. Vegetables were out of the can or frozen.

Now when I’m at home we’re cooking a variety of dishes. But I usually stick to comfort foods. I’ll work off a craving or I’ll get inspired by a recipe. Sometimes I’m inspired by a staff meal (we feed lunch to our restaurant and corporate staff, usually comfort foods). I was just craving pozole – pork stew in a rich broth with onions, bay leaf, and hominy. Oh man, it’s so good. We almost finished a whole pot. The recipe comes from Norma, a prep cook who has been with me for a long time. It’s all about the accompaniments: sliced radishes, jalapenos, cilantro, oregano, and chili powder. We also make a great seafood stew at the restaurant with our leftovers, big chunks of seafood and potato in a tomato broth. It’s kind of spicy. I love it.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

On the evolution of his perspective on dining:

I’m not on the line as much as I used to be. At night during service I’m either on the floor or the front side of the line. During the day I’m working numbers or working on menus. Once a week I might get on the line for an hour to make a sauce or work with the team on something. When I was on the line, I experimented with a lot more flavors at home. But now, since I’m seeing a different side of things at the restaurant, I see a different side when I’m outside of the restaurant too.

Ten years ago I was solely focused on the food. I used to drive my wife nuts, because when we’d come home from a restaurant I’d say, “I can’t believe they did this or that.” I would turn my dining experiences into a negative situation. During a conversation with Terry Ryan, our CEO, I received some words of advice. He told me what I should be focusing on is what I like, what things they’re doing well. So now I look for positives, not negatives. I can say, “Hey, they walked us to the bathroom instead of pointing to it. They met us with hot towels when we sat down. That was really cool.” I try to incorporate those positives into our restaurant. Maybe as a chef, as you grow in your career, you begin to look at different things. Now I pay a lot of attention to hospitality. Of course I still look at the food. I can’t help it.

Wakame Sushi & Asian Bistro in Minneapolis

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

With the closure of Three Fish in December, Calhoun Commons’ sunny corner spot has stood empty — that is, until last week. Newly introduced is Wakame, a sushi bar and Asian bistro that, according to the website, “feature[s] both traditional and modern Asian cuisine, especially Japanese.”

As the website states, the menu plays up many Asian favorites and flavors. Curries are listed alongside noodle dishes and stir-fries, most served with your choice of protein, ranging from $10 to $14. Other sea and land entrees, like sea bass with miso, apple teriyaki salmon, whole red snapper, and several steaks, are features on the menu and range from $15 to $27. Of course, there is sushi, the extensive menu listing sashimi, sushi, and signature rolls with creative names like the Minnesota Roll, Excelsior Boulevard Roll, Las Vegas Roll, and Hot & Spicy Girl Roll, to name a few.

Wakame features early and late happy hours on appetizers and sushi, but the best meal deals are to be had at lunch when Wakame runs specials on bento boxes ($9 to $11), sushi ($11 for 1 California roll and 5 pieces), sashimi ($14 for 12 pieces), and rolls (2 for $10 or 3 for $13).

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

For our first taste of Wakame, we visited at lunch and sampled several options. First was the seaweed salad, a light and well-seasoned starter dressed with a toasted sesame vinaigrette. Amongst the many signature rolls, we decided on the Sweetheart Roll — salmon, tuna, and tempura flakes on the inside, fresh tuna on the outside, and drizzled with wasabi mayo. While the roll was a fun blend of flavors and textures, it did not stand out overall as fresh.

A lunch special, a bento box with shrimp tempura, was served with a side salad and miso soup. While the tempura was well-cooked and perfectly crispy, overall the bento box was bland, especially with the apparent lack of any seasoning on the shrimp and in the soup. And while the Ginger Mushroom stir-fry with tofu could have been a favorite dish with its fresh ginger and crisp vegetables, the heavy sauce weighed it down.

Not even a week into service, Wakame still has time to work out some of its new-restaurant kinks. If executed well, the well-rounded and interesting menu could be a promising addition to the Calhoun Commons neighborhood, the main focus of which centers around the usual fast-service suspects of pizza, burgers, and burritos.

Wakame Sushi & Asian Bistro

Asian in Uptown
3070 Excelsior Blvd
Minneapolis, MN 55416
Mon-Thurs 11am-midnight
Fri 11:30am-1am
Sat 12pm-1am
Sun 12pm-10pm
BAR: full bar

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

June 22 Morning Roundup Part II

News tidbits from Midtown, Kingfield, and Uptown farmers markets, how to buy seafood and ensure a fresh meal (from a former oceangoing crab and salmon fisherman), some wonderful-looking homemade summer drinks from Food Snobbery, a 7 Up / blueberry cake, and kind words for Heavy Table’s serial novel from a chef.

Seafood: Keep on Truckin’

Mecca reports that the Fabian seafood truck is at the In-N-Out station in Minnetonka (15114 Hwy 7) today from noon-6pm, and at Pahl’s Market in Apple Valley (6885 W. 160th) from 10am-noon tomorrow. Gulf shrimp, blue crab meat, crawfish tails… sounds like good BBQ fodder.

Feb. 24 Morning Roundup

Metro Magazine presents thirteen of the best bakeries in the Twin Cities, a rundown of Friday fish fries by Stephanie March over at Mpls.St.Paul, Stewart “Shefzilla” Woodman Dee Wayne tears into the Mpls.St.Paul readers’ picks for best restaurants with righteous and well-founded anger (Best Seafood… #4 Red Lobster… Christ!), and Dear Dara wimps out by granting sweet anonymity to a local “expensive Italian restaurant” that’s serving “sour and hospital-like” coffee.

Oceanaire and The Grand Selfish Platter

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Forty-five dollars spent at the Oceanaire Seafood Room can buy you the “small” sized Grand Shellfish Platter, a soccer-ball sized mound of shaved ice studded with mussels, oysters, crab legs, big-ass shrimp and one half of a very unfortunate lobster, sliced lengthwise. If you’ve ever thought: “There is no amount of shellfish too large for me to handle,” you would be well advised to confront the Grand Shellfish Platter on your own, with no help, in order to learn something about yourself and the way the world actually works. Sixty percent of it is really what you ought to eat, 80 percent of it is what you want to eat, and 100 percent of it is what you’ll wind up eating, for fear of leaving any piece of shellfish behind and thereby disrespecting it.

Because of its high price and perishable nature, seafood is one of the few foods that you can still disrespect in an American restaurant. Didn’t finish your steak, your spaghetti carbonara, your broken rice platter, your chicken tikka masala? No problem. Bag it or box it. Boom. Didn’t finish your Grand Shellfish Platter? Your waiter will give you a certain knowing look, you will rightfully bow your head in shame, and you’ll cram one last crab knuckle down your gullet, shaking with silent sobs as you pack the meat down.

Sushi works in much the same way, but rarely are you confronted with eight and a half pounds of it at one time, leering at you from atop a giant, strategically imposing mound.

Most of life’s most valuable lessons are learned the hard way, and the Grand Shellfish Platter is no exception. Yes, seafood is delicious. Yes, it’s possible to surprise yourself with how much you can pack down, when push comes to shove. But no, too much isn’t actually “never enough,” it’s actually too much.

By two mussels, one big-ass shrimp, a lobster claw and a two-knuckle section of crab leg, to be absolutely precise.

Alaska Eatery and Glacier Bar in St. Louis Park

Editor’s note: Alaska Eatery is now closed.

Similar to the Oceanaire Seafood Room in terms of offering fresh, hearty seafood options to an upscale clientele, but less concerned with offering an East Coast oyster house / lobster shack vibe, and more dedicated to wild game and fire-grilled seafood. Alaska Eatery is expensive (most entrees hover around $25-$30), well thought through and a thoroughly professional operation that puts a premium on making its customers feel comfortable.

Like Manny’s Steakhouse, although the check is big, the servers take care to offer friendly, unpretentious help to diners, who can relax in a lodge-like setting complete with mounted animal heads and a real fireplace. A Hemingway-esque man’s man vibe permeates the room, making it a solid choice for gruff uncles and small-town relatives seeking something classy and celebratory yet familiar.

BEST BET: The Fire Grilled Alaska King Crab Legs must surely rank among the best seafood entrees sold in the state of Minnesota. Absolutely worth a try, for seafood lovers and unconverted skeptics alike.

Alaska Eatery and Glacier Bar
6501 Wayzata Blvd
Minneapolis, MN 55426
Seafood in St. Louis Park
OWNER/CHEF: Taher / Josh Hedquist
Mon-Fri 11am-10pm
Sat-Sun 5pm-10pm
BAR: Full
ENTREE RANGE: ($17-40)

Oceanaire Seafood Room of Downtown Minneapolis

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Oceanaire is one of the flagship, big ticket, special occasion eateries in the Twin Cities. Diners can expect to pay a lot of money for rich, consistently well-prepared, traditional Continental-style seafood, flown in on a daily basis direct from the coast. A classy deco atmosphere and veteran waitstaff who patiently explain everything from the difference between various types of oyster to what defines beurre blanc sauce makes for a comfortable high-end dining experience. In terms of price, server professionalism, and dedication to simple, high-quality ingredients, Oceanaire is, in many ways, the direct seafood equivalent of Manny’s.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Look out for desserts, which are good but come in sickeningly large portions; a general rule of thumb is that one $10 Hot Tin Roof sundae will probably feed four hungry diners.

BEST BET: Oceanaire is one of the only truly reliable locations in the Upper Midwest for fresh shellfish, including lobster.

Oceanaire Seafood Room
Seafood in Downtown Minneapolis
1300 Nicollet Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55403
OWNER/CHEF: Parasole / Rick Kimmes
Sun-Thu 5-10pm
Fri-Sat 5-11pm
BAR: Full
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for weekends