On a recent weekend morning, I walked past a sidewalk full of people waiting for tables at Tilia. They had drinks in their hands, smiles on their faces, and chef Steven Brown’s Slow-Poached Eggs in Parmesan Cream in their futures. They were lucky people, indeed.
But, I kept walking, right into The Harriet Brasserie, where I got a table right away and enjoyed a lovely plate of ropa vieja. Some of those folks were still waiting in the sunshine when I came back out.
Now, I have happily waited an hour for brunch at Tilia, and I plan to do it again — often — so I’m not going to say that those on the sidewalk got the short end of the stick. Far from it. But the day will come, soon, when a handful of those patient souls will wander over to the Harriet and be glad they did.
The Harriet took over the old Café 28 space in the firehouse in Linden Hills. It seems to have more or less moved right in, with very little renovation in the dining area, where a long, attractive bar looks out over about a dozen tables. If things get a little too loud or too cozy in the dining room, the shady front patio, well-removed from the busy sidewalk, is an excellent option.
The Harriet’s Latin roots don’t hit you over the head. They kind of sneak up behind you, and then at some point you catch the hint of Poblano peppers in the Hollandaise at the same time you recognize the samba playing overhead. Aha. In fact one of the most pleasing things about the brief, brasserie-style menu is the way the Latin dishes feel right at home. Brazilians’ beloved hot sandwich, the Bauru — made here with steak instead of roast beef — is a natural fit. And you may not see it often, but heart of palm is a great Latin-inspired ingredient for a vegetarian sandwich.
At brunch, the star of the show is the Crab Benedict, a fat, moist crab cake sitting on a little corn pancake. The Hollandaise sauce (ours was on the thin side) gets an energy boost from those bits of roasted Poblano pepper. It’s indulgent, but not oversized or overly rich.
I was glad to see ropa vieja on the brunch menu and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s no mean feat to cook the hell out of a cheap cut of meat, shred it along the grain, and still end up with something tender and flavorful. (Some people’s ropa vieja does, in fact, end up as chewy as old clothes, which is what the name means.) The Harriet serves sticks of fried yucca — welcome and tasty and comforting, but still so firm they skirted undercooked — alongside and slides a perfectly poached egg on top. My fork was poking around, looking for some bite with a little heat or zip to it, but otherwise, it was very pleasing.
We couldn’t quite figure out the Nicoise-esque Salad ($11, above), however. It was an odd size, to start with, too small to be a meal in itself, really, and a bit too big (and pricey) to be a brunch side. It’s also the sort of dish that’s just too clever for its own good. The tuna in this case was raw, cubed poke-style. Edamame played the part of the traditional green beans. And, after our waitress explained that flying fish roe (tobiko) would be standing in for the hard-boiled egg, there was none in evidence. The roasted grape tomatoes and well-balanced orange vinaigrette, however, pulled this dish back from the brink.
At dinner, we started with another unexpected Latin find, coxinha ($8). These Brazilian fritters are about as cute and personable as fried food could possibly be: a little bigger than a good-sized doughnut hole and shaped liked drops of water. Exploring the geology inward, you find a crunchy fried coating, a soft layer of mashed potatoes, and an inner core of incredibly finely shredded chicken and peppers. With a smear of the truly zingy-zangy spicy tomato sauce, it’s a fun way to start a meal.
The charcuterie ($14, above) and cheese ($9) plates were both attractive and well-selected. The meat had light, clean flavors, and came with a really good orange marmalade.
And what’s a brasserie without fries? The Harriet’s ($6) are hand-cut, skin-on, and just a little plumper than shoestring-thin. Ours were fried to a deep, dark brown (that’s a good thing), crunchy, and well salted. The Hollandaise sauce, while it had a bright, lemony flavor, was again just a tiny bit too thin.
Two of our entrees were very good, but they all played it pretty safe. The best of the bunch was the Copper River Salmon ($15). (And it’s a good thing, too, because I watched a table of six women all order the salmon. All of them. And nothing else.) It doesn’t get safer than roast asparagus and baked salmon in the spring, but well-executed classics are classic for a reason, and a spoonful of complex tapenade kept me interested in this one.
For the Steak au Poivre ($19), rather than a cracked pepper crust and a pan-sauce spiked with cream, the Harriet serves up a sliced steak, medium-rare, with a sauce of whole peppercorns spiked with chimichurri. Thank goodness the kitchen decided to forgo the traditional creamy sauce, because this meat sat atop a bed of polenta that was easily half butter and cheese. A well-dressed salad of peppery arugula provided a little relief.
And this is where things fell apart. The Leg of Duck Confit ($18) fell far from the dish’s ideal. Not particularly rich or tasty, and marred by a bunch of extraneous bits, like a bitter orange gastrique and some random puree. It just didn’t add up to a complete whole.
On the dessert menu, Latin influences once again shine through. Skip the strangely deconstructed key lime pie, with shattery bits of phyllo dough, and instead have the… well, have everything else. It was all very good. The Brigadeiro chocolate cake, inspired by Brazil’s national dessert, Brigadeiro balls (they’re like the original cake pops, without the stick), is intensely moist in a way that American cakes never are. The crème brûlée, while ours was not quite set, hid a layer of tart fruit compote on the bottom that was just the right accompaniment.
And the Tres Leches Cake (image at top of story). The Tres Leches Cake. On one visit, the servers, who were in a bit of a giddy, opening-week mood, sang its praises. Truth be told, I do not like tres leches cake. It is usually sweet, flat, dense, and oddly textured. “I know!” said one of the servers. “I don’t like it either. But this. This you will like.” And how right he was. One of the three milks in the Harriet’s version is coconut milk, which adds just what all other tres leches cakes are missing: a floral note behind the sweetness (which was not overwhelming). And the toasted coconut on top adds warmth and nuttiness. Another diner on our staff pronounced “one of the best desserts I’ve had this year. Almost ethereal.”
With boosters like its own well-trained, enthusiastic, and friendly staff, and with a ready-made crowd already waiting outside its door, Harriet probably won’t be the kind of place where you can just wander in and have your pick of tables for very long. It didn’t knock our socks off like our first visits to its Linden Hills neighbor, Tilia, but there’s enough good stuff going on here to earn some crowds of its own.
BEST BET: Copper River Salmon followed by a slice of Tres Leches cake.
The Harriet Brasserie
Latin-inspired brasserie in Linden Hills
2724 W 43rd St
Minneapolis, MN 55410
CHEF / OWNER: Dustin Thompson / Fernando Silva
Brunch daily 8am – 3pm
Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5–10pm
Friday to Saturday 5–11pm
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / some
ENTREE RANGE: $14–19