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.
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.
This week in the Tap: Thoughts on the food hall boom, a look ahead at upcoming restaurants, notes about spots that have closed, and about those that have recently opened.
All Hail the Food Hall
With the upcoming openings of Keg and Case, The Market House Collaborative, and Malcolm Yards, the Twin Cities is poised to see a monster boom in food hall spaces — indoor spaces containing some combination of fish, meat, and produce markets, restaurants, quick-service counters and stalls, and drinking establishments. The somewhat chaotic Midtown Global Market has been slinging a wide variety of sometimes excellent food for more than a decade, making the upcoming boom feel a bit delayed. It’s welcome nonetheless. Anyone who has ever been to a top-flight food hall like Chelsea Market in New York or the Ferry Building in San Francisco knows that they have the power to transform and help define a scene. And anyone who has been to any of the ethnic food halls like Mercado Central or the Hmong Village knows that they can contain a wealth of culinary wonders that are almost entirely off the mainstream map.
Whenever we get a lot of something (think: crudo) there’s an immediate and understandable tendency for diners to worry that the hot new thing is a mere fad. Sometimes (think: crudo) it certainly is, but sometimes (think: taprooms and cocktail rooms) it’s not — it’s a meaningful change in the way people eat and drink. The food hall seems like an idea whose time has very much come for a few major reasons:
Scalability — The boom in food and drink businesses in recent years means that there are a lot of new players, and a lot of smaller players trying to grow. Having halfway steps between the home kitchen and a stand-alone, bricks-and-mortar restaurant is a great way to help the scene grow organically. Food trucks have been that halfway step for many of the best new restaurants in the region. Food halls may well serve that role for the next decade or two.
Co-location and Community — Food halls can help their members co-market and collaborate. Chefs and food artisans are naturally prone to share and work together, and being cheek-by-jowl in a market setting boosts those opportunities to cross-pollinate. And for visitors, the close proximity of multiple vendors can make a food hall a one-stop destination for dining, drinking, and shopping.
The Sense of Discovery — Because tenants in food halls often hold short-term leases and smaller shops are often expanding or graduating to new digs, food halls tend to host a shifting roster of vendors, which means that if you visit every month or two, you’re likely to stumble upon new discoveries that reward your patronage. And when you’re showing out-of-town visitors around the area, few things can top a well-curated food hall for making a good impression. — James Norton
The Tap is the metro area’s comprehensive restaurant buzz roundup, so if you see a new or newly shuttered restaurant, or anything that’s “coming soon,” email Tap editor James Norton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When a restaurant becomes a neighborhood mainstay, the challenge is no longer how to bring people in the door but how to keep them coming in — giving them what they love, but still exciting them. At a place like Chino Latino in Uptown, the challenge is even greater because the menu itself is focused on experimentation, which creates high expectations.
Amid the ever-changing cast of Uptown restaurants, the sometimes-incendiary establishment has carved out a firm identity for itself. But that hasn’t stopped executive chef Tyge Nelson, executive consulting chef Tim McKee, and their team from revamping the menu in an attempt to maintain some of that intrigue — and in doing so, making the biggest menu adjustment in the 15 years the restaurant has been open, according to the parent company Parasole’s website.
Twenty new dishes have been added to the menu thus far, and despite the media hype, our waitress could not confirm which dishes were new but only that the menu had been changed recently. Ever-popular tiki drinks were added, and new food items include different kinds of meats and additional toppings for Tio Pepe’s Taco Hole. And while we knew it only for its novelty, Cuy (guinea pig) is no longer on the menu, leaving a hole in the “72 Hour Notice” section.
While there are more new offerings to come, the current results are uneven, largely because the restaurant’s forte, happy hour, was mostly forgotten in the update. Chino’s happy hour has been a perennial late-night destination for suburban high schoolers (who enjoy scarfing cheap eats in a clublike environment) and bachelorettes fueling up on their way to or from Williams Pub and Peanut Bar.
Chino’s after-work happy hour starts earlier and goes later than most (4:30 to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 4:30-midnight, Sunday and Monday). The same deals are available during an additional late-night happy hour (Thursday through Saturday 10 p.m.-midnight). Deals include classic cocktails, local craft beers (now with Sociable Cider Werks for $5), and a smattering of sushi and other “Hot Zone” items at good prices. The happy hour shows the hard-working skill of the bartenders and wait staff, as they hustle to cover the lounge and bar area.
When Karen Swanberg does a tour of her greenhouse space in Hugo, she seems a bit like a breathless kid about to show off a collection of treasures.
Plunked down along a stretch of busy road, the greenhouses look somewhat dilapidated from the outside, and some rusting equipment along the side just reinforces the image. But inside Swanberg’s rented space, the setup looks futuristic. Long tanks of water are fed by pipes and constantly gurgling pumps. The light inside the space is bright, pinging off all the steel and plastic like a 1970s movie about the sterility of space colonies.
“I know I’m biased, but I just think this is the most beautiful place ever,” says Swanberg. With yellow perch darting inside the tanks, and lettuces beginning to grow in March, it’s not hard to see why she thinks so.
Aquaponics brings together traditional aquaculture, where fish or other aquatic animals are farmed, with hydroponics. The system is closed loop and symbiotic, with the nutrient-rich fish waste recirculated into the plants.
Swanberg began her journey toward aquaponics four years ago, after reading an article about the systems. She built five small tanks at her house and planted greens on nights and weekends, while maintaining a computer security job at the University of Minnesota during the day. Pretty soon, she preferred the fish.
“Doing computer security, you’re always under attack, and all your users hate you,” she says. “You’re under pressure from all sides. I was really at my most relaxed around the tanks.” She quit over a year ago to focus on aquaponics full time, and says she may be poorer, but she’s also happier.
Less happy was the challenge it took to get to the point where she’d have greens to sell. Local food demand has been rising quickly, but putting together such an elaborate construction has required patience, funding, research, and more funding.
A few months ago, Swanberg brought on a business partner, Jerry Khan, and changed the name of her effort from Howling Moose Gardens to the more formal-sounding Swanberg and Khan Aquaponics.
“The local food movement is so huge, and aquaponics can have a strong place within it,” Swanberg says. “We haven’t tried growing in the winter yet, but I’m looking forward to trying that, too.”
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 Establishment. Winners of all three categories will be announced at the end of February.
Now that we’ve had some time to digest our eating escapades in 2011, it’s clear it was a banner year for eating in the Twin Cities. We were impressed by all manner of new spots — from the splashy to the lowbrow, from the established players to the newcomers.
Our 2011 Silver Whisk Award nominees for Best New Establishment are the three places we feel best showcased local talent and innovation. It was the four-in-one Japanese funhouse, featuring the sushi we didn’t know we couldn’t live without. It was the table we left work early to get, to savor a panoply of artfully executed bites. It was the biscuits that rocked our world, from the corner space that effortlessly glides from bakery to eatery.
It was a great year. Here are three more bites.
Masu Sushi & Robata
The success of Masu Sushi & Robata isn’t, for the most part, incredibly surprising. It has a great location, a smart design by Shea Architects, well seasoned at talent at every rung, cocktails by Johnny Michaels, and the will to encompass a great breadth of Japanese cuisine.
What’s surprising is how it’s been able to consistently deliver on its initial promise. It’s combined successful aspects of several similar places around town without sacrificing quality in any of them and forging their own unique identity. We’ve found only minor chinks in Masu’s armor. And we’ve tried – repeatedly.
Tim McKee continued to be a familiar presence in 2011. Through the continued success of La Belle Vie, his year began with a highly publicized rescue mission (Uptown Cafeteria) and ended with the demise of a previous one (Il Gatto). When proprietor Sushi Avenue tapped McKee to conceive Masu, we were slightly worried it would be just a high-profile entry into an already crowded sushi market.
But since its heavily-chatted-about opening, Masu has vaulted into the upper echelon of Twin Cities Japanese eating. Its menu is as deep and enveloping as the giant geisha eyes that adorn its dining room. Masu features heaps of terrific sushi, a comprehensive listing of Izakaya, 14 iterations of noodles, about 30 choices of robata, and, best of all, a more-than-respectable batting average in each category.
In a year that Fuji-Ya touted no longer serving Bluefin funa, Masu has been using entirely sustainable seafood since its inception. If you don’t go with a big group, consider a seat near the head of the bar to watch the deft hand of Origami veteran A-san Yamamoto at work.
The rice itself is the X-factor in A-san’s sushi. It’s tender and puffy, just adhesive enough with the right amount of sweetness. His nigiri and sashimi are exquisite and his specialty rolls can stand up to the best in town. Our favorite continues to be the Firecracker -– a wonderfully balanced roll with creamy avocado melded into crunchy tempura. And kudos to Masu for grinding the wasabi paste in house.
The balance of the menu is helmed by La Belle Vie graduate and one-time Japanese exchange student Alex Chase. Perhaps most notable are the noodles, built on wonderfully nuanced, slow-simmered broths. The Tonkatsu Curry Ramen (below) was this author’s most frequently ordered dish of 2011. It’s a harmonious collection of texture, between the fresh greens, tender noodles, gooey poached egg, and crunchy pork. The small dish of Togarashi accompanying the noodles is a thoughtful touch.
We’ll show up to Masu for the robata alone. It’s especially nice to have that lighter menu section around at midday ever since Obento-Ya began downplaying theirs during lunch. The chicken meatballs, the bacon-wrapped quail eggs, and glazed sweet corn comprise our usual trifecta. And as if their snacking resume wasn’t already robust, Masu has added addictive pork belly and shrimp tempura steamed bun sandwiches during happy hour.
Some of the drinks, namely the Gummi sours, can come off as overly sweet. But for a food menu that largely avoids overdoing things (especially in what would seem like an enticing atmosphere to do just that), we can forgive it the cocktails. Instead, opt for the clean and sophisticated Japanese For Beginners, the gin and pickled watermelon Rano Pano, or the spicy Godzillita.
Masu’s second location is slated to open at Mall of America in a few months. This is encouraging news for shoppers faced with a selection of restaurants similarly over-the-top in concept but without the food to back it up. Also encouraging for a city awash in sushi: Masu is not only surviving, but thriving.
What we wrote then: “From its clear concept to its smart-as-a-whip Japanese pop culture interior to its quirky, well-executed food, the place feels legitimately cosmopolitan.” – James Norton, June 8, 2011
Does anyone want to stake us to open a craft cocktail bar near Tilia? First, go there and savor the profound deliciousness of Steven Brown’s offerings. Then notice the crowd of people waiting three deep at the bar and disappointed parties leaving because the wait is over an hour, and tell us that’s not a sustainable business model.
Here’s a dirty secret: It’s not as hard to get a seat at Tilia as you might have heard. Yes, if you show up with six friends at 7pm on a Friday, you might find yourself at the bottom of two or three Belgian brews from their well-selected tap list before sitting down.
The Tap loves restaurant tips from readers, so we’re awarding a Heavy Table pint glass to the best tipster each month. The Tap is the metro area’s comprehensive restaurant buzz roundup, so if you see a new or newly shuttered restaurant, or anything that’s “coming soon,” email Tap editor Jason Walker at email@example.com.
November’s winner: Matthew Ayres of Minneapolis
Year in Review 2011: Notable Openings
Tilia: Steven Brown’s Linden Hills charmer is the ideal neighborhood restaurant. Kids at Tilia each get a little toy kit as well as a thoughtful menu: stir-fried shrimp, buttery noodles, cream of tomato soup. Adults enjoy delectables like potted meat and a melt-in-your-mouth reuben while pondering 21 tap beers. Coupled with Cafe Twenty Eight (see below) it was a one-two punch few neighborhoods anywhere could match.
Sun Street Breads: Solveig Tofte’s biscuit-heavy bakery already feels like an old friend. Her comfortable interior, creative sandwiches and breakfasts, and skillfully made breads create nothing but sheer happiness, and the coffee and beer selection isn’t bad, either. Sun Street recently began dinner service, too.
Harriet Brewing:Owner Jason Sowards opened his brewery on Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Ave in early 2011, and Harriet has already garnered significant attention throughout the metro beer scene. Harriet’s flagship Westside IPA leads the brewery’s Belgian-influenced roster, and Sowards has begun introducing innovative seasonal and specialty beers. A growing list of over 40 bars and restaurants offer Harriet on tap, and growlers are available from Wednesday-Saturday at the brewery.
The Bachelor Farmer: Eric and Andrew Dayton opened the most talked-about restaurant in town in late summer, earning great reviews and packing the house for chef Paul Berglund’s menu of Nordic-inspired contemporary cuisine. With oft-lauded bartender Pip Hanson’s Marvel Bar downstairs, the Daytons have entered the restaurant business with a bang.
Amsterdam Bar & Hall: Downtown St. Paul got a jolt in the form of Amsterdam, a bar, restaurant, and rock club opened by the Oulmans of Minneapolis’ 331 Club. There are Dutch and Belgian beers, Dutch-inspired cocktails, small sandwiches called broodjes, and a bunch of small plates. Open late and with its strong local-music connections, Amsterdam lends a hip vibe to downtown.
The vibe at Masu Sushi & Robata is equal parts authenticity and whimsy. A row of pachinko machines flanks the lounge and giant geisha-eyes stare down diners while Gummi Bears and scratch-off lottery tickets adorn cocktail rims. Sprinkle in tastes from a diverse menu and a certain measure of chaos during Saturday night’s preview event, and we were left with a frantic bite of what could be a much needed shot of adrenaline in the Northeast dining scene.
The Tim McKee-helmed restaurant looks to be an ambitious combination of authentic Japanese elements. The menu is largely divided into Japanese pub grub (izakaya), sushi, robata (smaller bites of meat or veggies, grilled on skewers), and noodles. The Shea-designed space is welcoming and vibrant. A wall of Japanese Munny dolls guards the open kitchen, where diners can watch the flying sparks of charcoal chimneys ready to stoke the robata grill.
Executive Chef Alex Chase drew on his studies in Japan to create a menu he felt the metro was lacking. “A lot of food in Minneapolis, on the Japanese side, is pretty similar everywhere you go around,” says Chase. “There’s so much more Japanese food has to offer. We’re trying to really hit on the robata, which isn’t done in Minnesota really at all. The noodles, one of my personal favorites, just an everyday lunch meal, I really feel like that was lacking in Minnesota too. And the small plates, the izakaya, are just good bar food.” (To be fair to Masu’s competition, Obento-Ya in Como is known for its robata, and St. Paul’s Tanpopo, among others, has cultivated a reputation for its noodles.)
The small bites on display Saturday were all quite satisfying – the standouts were ginger-duck gyoza, crispy pork kara-age, and robatas of zucchini and chicken meatballs. Special mention goes to the bacon-wrapped quail egg robata, with its perfectly creamy yolk and rich, crunchy texture.
Of particular note look to be Masu’s noodles – serious udon, soba, and ramen offerings not seen to that length much in the metro, outside of Tanpopo. A small sampling of the meltingly tender pork belly robata made me ache to try the pork belly ramen – the dish Chase cites as maybe Masu’s best.
He also recommends the braised short rib robata, “And, if you’ve never been a fan of tofu in your life, get the bacon-wrapped tofu,” he says. “It’ll change your mind about tofu.” Though that’s not exactly fair to tofu (I mean, I’d love doing my taxes if my W-2s came wrapped in bacon), it speaks to the earnest hand Masu uses in incorporating Japanese flavors as often as it can.
Masu’s sushi service is front-and-center, with a 10-seat reclaimed-lumber sushi bar presided over by Executive Chef, and long-time Origami veteran, A-san Yamamoto. It is the first sushi restaurant in Minnesota to go entirely sustainable. “It’s an important thing for me,” says Chase. “Everyone’s going to have to go that way, or they should.” Though the packed crowd on Saturday made getting to the specialty rolls a little difficult, the sushi we tasted was solidly in line with the quality you’d expect at Origami or Fuji Ya. Further exploration into their featured rolls will be necessary to gauge where Masu truly stacks up.
The Johnny Michaels-designed cocktail menu is both unabashedly goofy and respectfully artisan. Gummi Bear-inspired sours lead off the menu’s sojourn into the many uses of shochu – the distilled Japanese beverage that gives the drinks a slightly rustic taste and acts as a nice substitute for vodka. “You know, we just tried to make it a lot of fun,” says Michaels. “The gummies, we tried to match them up with the Nigori.” A good introduction to shochu is the aptly named Japanese For Beginners, an ultra-clean, light combination of shochu, lychee, and aloe vera.
Michaels’ favorites? “I really dig the Godzillita,” he says of his spicy ginger-plum margarita. “And the Rano Pano is a pleasant surprise, with the watermelon; I named it after my favorite new Mogwai song, sounds vaguely Japanese, I guess.” Billed as a gin with pickled-watermelon sour, the Rano Pano is flavorful and balanced, equally sweet, sour, and salty – though probably too salty for those in the margarita-sans-salt crowd.
The wine and beer lists are limited, but stocked with requisite favorites. The sake list is a centerpiece – both fairly extensive and helpful to the uninitiated. Each sake is listed with a primer on flavors and food pairings, and five sake flights are organized for further exploration.
As to how the Northeast crowd will adopt Masu remains to be seen. The diversity of the menu isn’t shedding any light on the kind of place Masu will become. It’s part gastro-pub and part sit-down serious. “We have a completely different look than any other place, and we’re in a great part of Minneapolis,” says Chase. “If you’re here for a quick bite, get the noodles. If you’re here with a big social group, try a bunch of the robata and izakaya plates.” For a center of Northeast currently hosting a lot of familiar bar food, it succeeds, at least to begin with, in bringing something different to the table.