Editor’s Note: First Course is now closed.
You can’t open a menu these days without puzzling over the words “small plates.” Sometimes these are, in fact, appetizers. Sometimes they’re Shrinky-Dinked composed entrees. Sometimes they’re shareable individual dishes good for putting together a family-style meal.
Sometimes you don’t know what you’re getting until a full Thanksgiving-size dinner arrives on your table. Or until you stand up still hungry after a two-hour meal.
(Don’t get us wrong: We’ve got nothing against small plates. When they’re done right, this is a fun way to eat, packing lots of flavors into one meal.)
While the rest of us are scratching our heads over this inscrutable, newfangled trend, one cuisine has got it all figured out. Spanish tapas is the original small plates: little snacks meant to enhance your early evening wine and tide you over until your insanely late dinner.
There aren’t a lot of tapas options in the Twin Cities, aside from Solera, which continues to do it well, even after major changes. But one tiny, homey neighborhood place in South Minneapolis has been doing tapas for more than 10 years, flying almost entirely under the radar.
First Course is next to a tattoo parlor on Chicago Avenue, just south of Minnehaha Creek. Its interior doesn’t show signs of a fancy restaurant designer — just black wooden tables and earth-tone stripes on the walls. On a recent weekend, a handful of tables were occupied and a band was setting up by the fireplace. The couple next to us told the server that they used to live around the corner and now occasionally drive in to First Course from the far side of Lake Minnetonka. Apparently that’s what it takes to be in the know about this place.
Tapas is only half the menu at First Course. There are also a half a dozen classic entrees like steak and duck breast to choose from, along with a few hearty pastas. But tapas is what we came for and what sets this little bistro apart.
Some of the best plates are in the tapas spirit but bring in flavors from other cuisines. Like the honey, soy, and ginger marinade that coats three meaty ribs ($7) or the tamarind and molasses sauce on the tender skewers of grilled beef tips ($8). (Tamarind and molasses are the most prominent flavors in Worcestershire sauce, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the sauce, while warm and good, tastes for all the world like it came straight out of a bottle.) The signature tapas plate, First Course Shrimp ($11), is a splurge, but a tasty one: four fat shrimp in a lake of sweet-smoky-spicy clarified butter.
And then there are the classics: a pile of golden-brown breaded calamari ($4), a selection of sliced salami ($4), a heap of pickled piparra peppers, plates of olives pickled, fried, or straight up. And, of course, four kinds of cheese, from a Spanish sheep’s milk Senorio de Montelarreina ($4), to an American Humboldt Fog ($4) all gussied up with a boozy cherry sauce. These all go nicely on a warm slice of New French baguette from the generous basket.
It’s not a huge menu to choose from but it is well balanced with meats, cheeses, and snacks. And, while you certainly could cobble together a meal of little plates, these are all meant to be enjoyed in the classic tapas style: with a glass or two from the miles-long, well-priced wine list, unsurprisingly heavy on the Spanish choices.
The whole small plates thing is going to play itself out eventually and give way to… what? Huge plates? Maybe. Who knows. But the smart money says that First Course will still be there, quietly serving tapas to neighbors in the know.
First Course Bistro
Tapas and more in the Diamond Lake neighborhood of Minneapolis
5607 Chicago Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55417
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $17-29, $4-11 for tapas