The Heavy Table crew — large in number, adventurous in appetite, generously endowed in the palate department — travels quite a bit and eats quite a great deal, collectively. What follows are some of our favorite bites from 2013. Guten appetit!
(And if you enjoy these bites, you may want to flip back to our gems of 2012.)
Dena Alspach | Publisher
Jasmine Deli: Banh Canh (Tapioca Noodle Soup)
With its thick, silky noodles twisting in an unbelievably clean, clear broth, the tapioca noodle soup (banh canh) at Jasmine Deli is one the best lunches in town. Order a huge bowl with chicken or tofu and then just try to sit patiently once Lee sets that plate of crisp bean sprout, basil, and jalapeño slices in front of you. The soup is balanced and delicious and yes, you will eat it all. Don’t forget the Sriracha. Oh, and definitely grab a banh mi to take with you for later. Sandwiches are made fresh each day on perfect, crusty baguette and stuffed with mock duck, chicken, or pork; then carrot, cilantro, and jalapeno.
Adam Vickerman’s pop-up dinner: Ribeye / Brussels / Kale / Rogue Smokey Blue
One of my favorite trends is the wealth of super-chef pop-up dinners happening all over the Twin Cities. This October, I was lucky enough to get a spot at the Colossal Cafe for Adam Vickerman’s dinner (who usually runs the show at Cafe Levain). If you haven’t yet hit a pop-up, stay alert and jump on tickets immediately. The unique intimacy of these experiences and the level of service you enjoy is worth triple the cost. The bite I’m still dreaming about is Vickerman’s perfectly seared ribeye with smokey blue cheese from Rogue Creamery in Oregon, served with brussels and kale. I almost hugged him.
Tilia: Pot de Creme
You know how sometimes when you’re in a restaurant and what’s set before you makes you clap your hands and stomp your feet with happiness? No? Then get to Tilia and order Zoe Francois’ pot de creme. Amy Thielen (her new book is featured in our 2013 holiday gift guide) gives an epic assist with her birch syrup; there’s a good chance you’ll write poetry about it later. Maybe on Twitter. (Who me?) This absolutely luscious dessert is served in a delicate laser-cut eggshell, so you may (may) sit like a lady, holding it gently, just momentarily ignoring your fellow diners.
Ryan Burk | Writer
Kings Wine Bar: Bloody Mary Ribs
It would be easy to over-analyze the task of choosing just three items from a year spent eating well. So I went about it like word association. Without much thought at all, the Bloody Mary ribs from Kings Wine Bar in Kingfield came almost instantly to mind. The braised-then-fried rib is so tender it takes about zero convincing to separate from the bone. And the Bloody Mary portion of the equation doesn’t disappoint either, with the celery seed and soy seasoning nicely evoking a generously salted rim. I didn’t miss the vodka at all.
Parka: Banana Cream Pie
I’m a sucker for banana cream pie. Order it any chance I get. And the banana cream pie at Parka in Longfellow is one of my favorites. It’s an enormous, deconstructed mess of a dessert, the sight of which made my eyes bulge noticeably from their sockets when it was set down in front of us. It’s loosely built on a sturdy pastry foundation, decked in banana slices, some sort of custard-y banana filling, a generous drizzle of salted caramel, topped with whipped cream and finished with a dusting of chocolate shavings. There’s also a bright citrusy pop of flavor that asserts itself in a pleasant way, which saves the whole thing from being just another one-note, cloyingly sweet banana cream pie. It wasn’t the prettiest dessert I had all year, nor was it the most inventive or sophisticated. But what it did is present familiar, beloved flavors in a way I hadn’t expected. And that’s something that gets me every time.
Joe Beef (Montreal): Horse filet
I ate horse this year, at the celebrated gastropub Joe Beef, in Montréal. Taboo and controversy aside, the filet de cheval was the finest, most enjoyable, most affecting thing I ate this year. It was a truly gorgeous cut of meat, lean and practically buttery in texture, served medium rare with a rich, decadent bone marrow sauce. Oh, and it was wrapped in bacon and topped with a fried egg. There were some greens on the plate, too, but I don’t remember much about those. All told, it was that rare meal that manages to transcend the rote acts of chewing and swallowing, and imbues the night with some untellable, rosy magic. Walking out into the crisp fall Montreal night, our bellies full, high on the gluttonous joy of excess, my wife and I just walked and walked through Little Burgundy until the spell subsided, and then we hailed a cab.
Becca Dilley | Photographer
Home: Poached egg on a toasted English muffin / marmalade on other side of English muffin
After I had a baby in April, my husband made me the same breakfast every day for about a month. It was nourishing and flavorful sustenance during a very chaotic time. It turns out that poached egg on an English muffin with a little bit of salt just can’t be beat for breakfast. As much as I like fancy hashes and grits that have been sourced just so, there’s just something really comforting about a well-prepared egg on toast.
Gray Duck and Verdant Tea: Locally-made chais
As a huge coffee drinker it’s fun to find a beverage that fills that warm, creamy niche without being as acidic. Both Gray Duck chais and Verdant Tea chais have a balance of spices that keeps my interest and they’re a great alternative to hot cocoa or a latte.
The Strip Club (St. Paul): The Libertine cocktail
This bright, well-balanced blend of something sippable and something manly (I’m very conscious of trying not to drink overly feminine cocktails) includes Laird’s Applejack, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, house-made sour, and Easy & Oskey Black Walnut Bitters. The Libertine is a triumph of modern mixology — it feels both classic and contemporary.
John Garland | Writer
Maid Rite (Newton, IA): Maid Rite sandwich
During a research road trip for the Secret Atlas of North Coast Food, I compiled notes for what turned out to be my favorite article I wrote this year — an exploration of the loose meat sandwich in Iowa. I was mystified by this bare-bones sandwich and, in truth, returned with more questions than answers. But the Maid Rite in Newton was my favorite, for reasons I don’t exactly know, and really, don’t care to either. Maybe it was because what I found there was basically the state of Iowa on a bun: something humble, straightforward, honest, and simply endearing.
Parley Lake Winery (Waconia, MN): Parley Vu Rose
I’ve been lucky to be a judge at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition for the last three years. I look forward to it, not just because it’s an excuse to taste a ton of wine before noon and call it “work,” but because it gives me a chance to gauge the state of the local wine industry, which I truly believe in and wish to see flourish. When I tasted this rose this year, I couldn’t believe it was local — soft and yielding, with incredible integrity of flavor, structure, and balance. Later, in September, two friends and I went out to Waconia and lazily strolled through their orchard with a bottle on a warm, sunny Saturday. It was a perfect afternoon I won’t soon forget.
Lincoln Cafe (Mt. Vernon, IA): Buttermilk Fried Quail with Polenta and Jalapeño Succotash
I’d never been to Mt. Vernon before. Now that I know about the Lincoln Cafe, I’ll be driving out of my way next time I have the chance. (Editor’s Note: Perhaps not; they’ve closed the cafe, although the winebar lives on.) I wrote in the Secret Atlas: “This homey diner has all the elegance and polish of a spendy trattoria.” They’ll have three dinner specials, based on whatever they brought in fresh that day. I can still vividly recall each component of this dish I ate back in August: the crunch of the quail, the creamy perfection of the polenta, the texture and snap of the slaw. And in a small town I would have otherwise dismissed without a second thought? What a revelation.
Maja Ingeman | Writer
“Eric’s day off in the kitchen”: Rabbit / kimchi / fried egg sandwich
After countless weeks (and meals) on the road for work, staying home for dinner has become a bit of an occasional luxury — even if it means cobbling together the disparate remnants of my fridge. On one such evening, my friend Eric asked if I wanted a sandwich — and I’m so glad I accepted! Cola and ginger ale-braised rabbit melded beautifully with caramelized onions and bacon; finely diced, ultra-crisp bits of potato added crunch; a fried egg, homemade peanut sauce, and chipotle mayo brought salt, mild heat, and creamy texture to bind the flavors seamlessly into a cohesive, balanced bite. Fresh Rabbit Hole kimchi — layered liberally throughout — punctuated the otherwise subtly spiced, salty-sweet sandwich with the acid and heat needed to make it a standout. When Eric described the ingredients, it sounded like he had thrown in everything but the kitchen sink — but somehow, it just… worked.
Lucky’s European Deli (West Allis, WI): Cevapcici
There’s nothing like freshly grilled meat on a hot summer’s day, and cevapcici are no exception. Similar in size to breakfast links and often made with garlic, white pepper, and a trifecta of beef, pork, and lamb (Lucky’s sticks to just beef), they seem to swell slightly on the grill as they char. If you decide to grill cevaps, make sure to throw some wax peppers on the grill, too — once they’re blackened, you can remove the skins and dress with slices of raw garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. The spice and heat of the salad cuts the grease of the cevaps and complements them well, letting the simple, meaty, wholesome flavor and brightness of the white pepper shine through. I’ve learned to bring a cooler and ice packs on each trip east — fresh cevapcici are always a treat to which I look forward on the long drive home.
Restaurant Relæ (Copenhagen, DK): Sunchoke Tempura
Growing up, I always thought sunchokes were the misshapen rejects of a Midwestern garden — sweet, crisp, and destined for an ambiguously blasé root vegetable soup. Not so. This dish, served as an amuse bouche alongside a glass of 2012 Casebianche “La Matta” Spumante, proved the hero among a number of standout sunchoke dishes I consumed in Copenhagen (such appreciation for the lowly root… who knew?). Baked, then fried in tempura batter, then lightly dusted in seaweed, the finished product was a dead-ringer for battered soft-shell crab, fresh from the sea.
Jill Lewis | Writer
Butter Bakery Cafe: Chocolate chip scone
I wake up every weekend morning (and most weekdays, too) dreaming about this scone. Light, tender-crumbed, and — obviously — buttery, the chocolate chip scone is a treat worth a drive from anywhere in the metro and puts the hockey puck-type versions to shame. It’s also the size of a salad plate, so it’s made for sharing, though you’ll be tempted to wolf it down yourself.
Uplands Cheese Company: 2013 Rush Creek Reserve
We’ve written about cheesemaker Andy Hatch (above) and his farmstead cheeses many times, but Rush Creek Reserve, his seasonal, bark-wrapped beauty, is worth mentioning again. This year’s edition is transcendent — you can lose yourself in its creamy depths as you breathe in the heady, beefy aroma. Though many enjoy it with crackers or fruit, I just grab a spoon and dig in, with a glass of bubbly on the side. The perfect cheese to ring in the new year.
Tornado Steak House (Madison, WI): Old Fashioned
After five days of non-stop cheese at this year’s American Cheese Society Annual Conference, I was ready for a dairy detox and a salad. But it seemed wrong to dine in an old-school, dimly lit, leather-banquetted Wisconsin steak house without an Old Fashioned, and the Tornado creates a masterful one. Bracing from the brandy but still sweet from the citrus and sugar, it went down smoothly but didn’t feel like a lightweight. Maybe my body needed a light white wine to go with that salad, but the Wisconsinite in me craved that Old Fashioned, and the Tornado’s version did the trick.
Aaron Landry | Producer
Waikīkī Spam Jam, Honolulu, HI
Having spent the first 30 years of my life in Minnesota, I would have never imagined that any place outside of Austin, MN would have a celebration dedicated to SPAM. In Hawai‘i, where SPAM consumption is higher than anywhere in the world (and where it’s not uncommon to find SPAM Musubi at convenience stores and gas stations), the Waikīkī Spam Jam is a yearly day-long event where they close off Kalākaua Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the most crowded area of the state, and throw a huge party. I attended this year and had an opportunity to try a wide variety of SPAM-related dishes from prominent area restaurants. SPAM lo mein, Mongolian SPAM radicchio cups, SPAM street tacos, Sicilian SPAM basil pizza, and SPAM okonomiyaki are just a few of the options to try while listening to music and performances on the multiple stages set up in the street. My verdict? Best SPAM experience I’ve ever had, with more delectable options than the SPAM-related stuffs at the Minnesota State Fair. If you want a SPAM-related excuse to visit Hawai‘i in the coming year, the next Spam Jam is Saturday, May 3rd, 2014.
Mānoa Chocolate (Kailua, HI): Ghost Pepper and Pineapple Bar
Mānoa Chocolate, a small bean-to-bar chocolate factory in Kailua, Hawai‘i, has become by far my favorite purveyor of premium chocolate. The chocolate alone is fantastic but imagine if the sweetness of fresh pineapple and the bite of ghost pepper somehow were magically balanced with it. As all the ingredients are very premium and each bar is hand made, the price tag clocks in around ten bucks, but I can’t say I’ve had a better chocolate treat in my life. Unfortunately the bars are very rare and mostly unavailable outside of the factory itself. This said, the other bars from Mānoa Chocolate are still world-class are available in very limited quantities at Sugar Sugar in Minneapolis, which is currently the only place in the Midwest out of the 14 places it’s available outside of Hawai‘i. If you are on O‘ahu, inquire in advance about their tours and wine pairing events — very strongly recommended.
Blue Door Longfellow: Longfellow Blucy
I’ve only been able to visit the Blue Door Longfellow in Minneapolis twice since it opened on Jan 29, 2013 as they started serving well after I moved away from Minnesota, specifically from a house only a few blocks away. On a visit back, I ordered the neighborhood namesake “Longfellow Blucy,” their take on the Jucy Lucy. Their Blucys have has received some criticism from Jucy Lucy purists as the cheese in the center isn’t in the form of a piping hot glob but is more blended in with the burger. I believe the Blue Door Pub has made a better burger as a result of straying away from tradition. In the Longfellow, there’s also roasted garlic inside and the cheese is an herbed goat, and it’s topped with blackberry sauce that has the sweetness of honey. Strong tastes on all ends, yet balances out. “This feels like home,” is a strange thing to think about a burger you’ve never until after you’ve left. On my second trip back I ordered the same thing.
James Norton | Editor
Verdant Tea: Sweet Potato Soba Noodles
Sometimes you eat exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. A cold, drizzly autumn day was the setting for my first encounter (of many) with the impeccable sweet potato soba noodles at Verdant Tea. To quote my own hymn of praise to these wonderful things: “These buckwheat noodles are both tender and toothsome, flavorful without being coarse or aggressive. Both the broth and dish’s spice profile are rich and pack real heat without overwhelming the cheerful, delicate taste of the sweet potatoes, which is completely suffused throughout the dish. And an herbal brightness provides a critical counterpoint to the tuber’s natural sweetness and the curry’s soul-warming depth of spice.”
The Kenwood: Seared Scallops with Salsify, Romaine, and Fresh Black Truffle
Don Saunders of the Kenwood is one of our favorite chefs not merely because he cooks classic high-end food with skill. The thing we have loved about him from the get-go is his sense of restraint and editing — many talented but unbalanced chefs don’t know when to stop, but Saunders has an unimpeachable ability to know PRECISELY when to stop, and it makes his dishes taste clear, balanced, full, and rich, without being confused or heavy. Case in point: seared scallops served with fresh black truffle as one of the courses at our Secret Atlas of North Coast Food dinner. Truffles — particularly when applied by truffle oil — can come off as dirty, aggressive, almost burning, flavor bullies that shout down whatever they’re applied to. But in the case of this delicious dish, the sweet, buttery, mellow seared scallop and the gently earthy, slightly funky truffle married perfectly, amplifying eachother’s strengths. The truffle lent depth and interest to the scallop without swamping its natural sweet flavor.
Heritage Tavern (Madison, WI): Whitefish and Caviar Appetizer
When a restaurant serves a $30 appetizer, I view that as a challenge, if not an outright dare. I’m a value diner, always conscious (sometimes painfully so) of the exchange of money for the fleeting taste of food. On these terms, Heritage Tavern’s whitefish and caviar appetizer seemed like a born loser: a bunch of fancy ingredients thrown together and priced like an expensive entree. But no. This mix of lobster, whitefish, caviar, and fingerling potatoes with Sauce Américaine was like something out of a Nero Wolfe novel: unapologetically rich, luxurious, old-fashioned, and impeccably made, the seafood fresh and vibrant, the sauce rich but not overpowering or cloying. Each bite was an individualized moment of pleasure.
Susan Pagani | Writer
112 Eatery: Bread Pudding
In my experience, bread pudding has always been a rustic sort of dessert, baked in such a way that the chunks of bread are soft and custardy in places and more toasty and caramelized in others. It’s something you throw together with leftovers — not an especially pretty dessert, but a delicious and deeply comforting one. The bread pudding at 112 Eatery, on the other hand, was served in a tidy stack with thinly sliced, warm pineapple, a scoop of chai ice cream, and a scattering of candied pecans. It sat in a shallow pool of cream, redolent with cardamom. When it came, I had an Eeyore-ish reaction, “How sophisticated. Oh no.” One bite dispelled all my worries. It was as if someone had taken a soil sample of a bread pudding and retrieved a plug of just the warm, custardy center. It was every bit as comforting as its messy counterpart, and then some.
Amy Sutter: Mushroom pate
Last spring, a friend dropped by my house with a blue ramekin filled with mushroom pate. She had made too much of it, she said, would I mind taking some off her hands? It was still warm, and I’d have eaten it right then, but she thought it would benefit from a night in the fridge, so I tucked it away. The next day, I pulled it out again for our first meal outside. What a masterpiece! Made with nuts and wild mushrooms and plenty of garlic, it was earthy and rich, but also light and fresh, the kind of thing you can eat and eat and never grow tired of eating. At lunch, we gleefully spread it on our bread and steaks; the following morning, the leftovers went into our baked eggs. Of course I called her for the recipe, but she didn’t have one. The pate was just one of those happy accidents, half recipe, half what she happened to have in the kitchen. I’ve tried to reproduce it a dozen times and it never quite tastes the same. Maybe it was the unexpected gift, maybe it was the first day of real spring, maybe it was the effect of fresh air and sunshine, but I still pine for the stuff.
The Kenwood: Beet salad
Joshua Page | Writer
Cecil’s Deli: Chicken Soup with Matzo Ball
In an effort to survive winter and fend off viruses, I’ve been slurping up gallons of chicken soup with matzo balls from Cecil’s Deli. With rich, flavorful broth, tender pieces of chicken, and dense (but not too dense) matzo balls, the soup warms the belly and soothes the soul — and it’s known for the curative powers of schmaltz!
Manny’s Steakhouse: Bludgeon of Beef
I used to think of the Bludgeon of Beef at Manny’s Steakhouse as a decadent gimmick. After all, the tomahawk rib eye weighs more than three pounds and costs a small fortune (well, $86). Since trying the beast for our Halloween feature (The Terrifically Terrifying Three), I’ve become a Bludgeon booster. Although pricey, the juicy, perfectly marbled, aged cut easily feeds 3-4 people. It’s easily the best piece of meat I’ve eaten all year.
El Burrito Mercado (State Fair): Mango with Chili and Lime on a Stick
I fell in love with this dish at the state fair, of all places. The impeccably ripe mango was the perfect antidote to the endless parade of fried, fattening food. A few dashes of ground habañero and several squeezes of lime complemented and intensified the mango’s natural sweetness. It was the ultimate treat for a sweltering summer’s day.
Elizabeth Scheibel | Copy Editor
43 North (Madison, WI): Roasted Dates
I’ve enjoyed seeing Madison’s dining scene explode in the last 10 years. Between old friends and in-laws, I visit several times a year and get to try a couple of new places in addition to revising old favorites. This Thanksgiving, I had dinner at 43 North. Everything was lovely, but I thought the Roasted Dates were a stand out. They weren’t too heavy, unlike many items in the stuffed-with-goat-cheese family, and the hazelnut pesto gave the dish a fresh, spring-like taste that was unexpected during the week that starts the winter holiday season. Whole hazelnuts atop the pesto provided a crunch that was a satisfying contrast in the midst of goat cheese smoothness. The dish was both fresh and decadent — words to live by, when it comes to eating.
The Rabbit Hole: Duck… Duck… Dduk….
Others are raving about this dish too, but I can’t help jumping on the duckwagon. I didn’t even order it — I went to check out the newly opened The Rabbit Hole and someone else at my table did, and I tried it, and then spent the whole meal wishing I had my own, hoping she wouldn’t finish and would offer another round of bites. Reading the description on the menu, I couldn’t picture what this would be, partly because I didn’t know what gochujang was, and I wasn’t excited about it, since I’m not someone who would ever pick up a rice cake on purpose and I wouldn’t put duck in my top meat choices. That it was a surprise to find it delicious made it all the more enjoyable. Between the dim lighting and the sauce covering the dish, I couldn’t even tell which components I was putting on my fork, but every hot and sweet (but not too hot, or too sweet) bite fueled a (still unfulfilled) desire for more.
Northern Pike in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
After years of saying we were going to, my husband and I finally went to the Boundary Waters together. We’d been getting interested in fishing, so we went up with a full tackle box, supplies for making a fresh fish dinner, and high hopes. There had been bears in the area in the weeks leading up to the trip, which gave it a heightened sense of danger and adventure. On the last night of our 3 night trip, we were bummed. We’d caught plenty of fish, but they’d all been a little too small for eating, or they’d been caught in the morning before a long day of paddling and portaging (as amateurs, we weren’t willing to deal with schlepping fish all day). We were on a still, silent Caribou Lake in the late afternoon, and having the least fishing success of the whole trip. My husband decided we’d head to another spot, and told me to pull up my line as he started steering us toward a shady piece of shore. I said I would just leave it in while we moved. A few paddle strokes later, there was a strong tug on my line, and within a couple minutes we had an appetizer-for-two sized Northern Pike bouncing on a hook above the water. My husband told me to get in the canoe before it jumped off the hook, and just in time — a moment later it was still on the hook, but had broken the line. We killed and cleaned it as the sun started to drop and enjoyed one of our most satisfying meals of the year, which was followed by a perfect star-gazing sky. Which was followed by a night during which I was sure every rustling leaf was a hungry bear following its nose to my fish.
Peter Sieve | Writer
Bayport BBQ (Bayport, MN)
On a whim one day in September, my wife and I took a road trip to the St. Croix river valley. On the way up to Stillwater from Afton, we stumbled into the Bayport BBQ. The entire experience was charming — the teenage daughter of the owners was working the counter, and all cheerfully greeted and guided us through the chalkboard menu. We ended up with an aluminum tray stacked high with smoked brisket, chicken, pulled pork, and excellent sides: slaw, beans, creamed corn, and their profoundly good fresh-baked bread. This was some seriously authentic Austin, TX-style oak-smoked barbecue, and we destroyed the tray — and our dignity — accordingly. Though they don’t sell their sauce (smoky, meaty, sweet / tangy perfection) retail, they kindly filled a glass mason jar for us and sent us on our happy way.
Victory 44: Brunch
It seems so easy for restaurants to take advantage when it comes to breakfast — we, the dining public, in our complicity too often shrug and shovel in the poorly cooked eggs and floppy bacon without complaint. Thus it is always a welcome surprise when brunch goes beyond our expectations, which is exactly what happened at Victory 44 one Saturday morning when I was stopping in without much fanfare. Nothing flashy, just expertly-made food that respected humble, quality ingredients and made me incredibly happy: beautifully poached eggs on dense ciabatta under a rustic, wonderfully balanced coarse mustard hollandaise. Artful (but not pretentious) plating and flavor on the malted waffle. Coffee as good, or better, than anything on the coasts, prepared tableside. When I want an amazing breakfast on the weekend but don’t want to fight the insane waits elsewhere, Victory 44 is where I’ll be headed from now on.
Joe Beef (Montreal): Lobster Spaghetti
This place has been hailed by the cool kids of the food media, which made me want to check it out, but also made me roll my eyes a bit. My cynicism disappeared the minute we walked through the door — no Guy Fieri-throwing-the-devil-horns photos on the walls in this joint. Just a cozy, unstuffy neighborhood spot with incredible service, low light, and horse meat on the menu. Yes, we did try their Foie Gras Double Down: deep-fried lobes of foie gras sandwiching cheese, mayo, and bacon, drizzled in maple syrup. It was a fun novelty, but the Lobster Spaghetti entrée totally wrecked us: a massive platter of pasta tossed in a creamy bisque, studded with a truly decadent amount of fresh lobster meat, tail, and claw. It was true comfort food after a blustery, cold day of walking the streets of Montreal. We moaned our way through every bite until it was gone. I’m waiting for this to show up on a menu in the Twin Cities soon.