Just two weeks after the doors first opened, the dark wooden benches at Tilia are getting a bit scuffed. There are the beginnings of shiny patches on the seats by each table, and tiny scratches where fashionable handbags and kids sneakers have each had their turn.
And Steven Brown, the chef and co-owner, thinks it looks great. He has been busy working the front of the house, shaking hands, accepting enthusiastic welcomes from Linden Hills neighbors — and even more enthusiastic “welcome backs” from food professionals and food lovers who have missed him since his days at the Loring Café, Levain, and Porter and Frye.
At times, Brown looks a little overwhelmed by the attention. Not only because opening a restaurant takes months of long days and hard physical labor, but because, as he says, about twice as many customers as he originally planned for are coming through the doors every day.
Many are likely planning on coming back. In Tilia, Brown has created an instant hangout, a space that feels homey and welcoming as soon as you walk in the door. Can a menu, too, be “friendly”? If so, then this one is. It is brief but varied, and, like a good host, seems to anticipate just what you might want. A small plate packed with flavors? A light salad? A hearty pot roast? All there. Brown’s words for the menu, when asked to pin it down, are “energetic and varied; brasserie Americana.”
The longest list on the menu is of small plates for sharing — generous servings that really do call for two or more forks to dip into them. These are what really set Brown’s menu apart and seem to define Tilia’s sensibility: flavors taken from around the world and brought home to America. I’m looking forward to many leisurely meals here with the table filled with gravalax, jerk chicken thighs, French-style mussels, and dukka-scented flatbread.
The Faux Gras ($6) is a good place to start a Tilia meal: a small ramekin of soft, spreadable chicken-liver pate with a quenelle of eggplant preserves on the side. A little rich pate on your grilled bread, a little acidic eggplant, a bite of bacon, and repeat until you see the bottom of the dish.
Another good way to kick things off: three fat shrimp sitting on a dollop of sweet pea puree ($11), beginning to blend with garlic-and-hot-pepper-scented oil. I would have liked a little more kick in the oil, but it was still hard to resist running my finger across the plate when I was done.
The French fries ($6) are long and thin and tender inside — proper brasserie fries, but served with a mayonnaise-ketchup sauce for an American fillip. And they are very good, but they are not fantastic, take-you-over-the-moon fries. In fact, as long as they share the menu with Brown’s grilled flatbread and potted meat, I’m not sure they’ll be my indulgent side of choice.
Here’s what it seems likely that Tilia will become known for: the hot dogs ($10 for two). Two house-made beef dogs, as fat as the fattest Wisconsin bratwurst, with just the right snap in the casing and the absolutely indescribable essence of good old American hot dog through and through. These dogs would be very, very good on their own. But fresh tomato slices, a crisp slice of bacon, pickled cauliflower florets, stone ground mustard, and a drizzle of mayo, all stuffed in the bun with them — it’s a totally forgettable picnic bun, but at this point who cares — make them out of this world. To eat two is pure gluttony, but these dogs will make you wonder why gluttony is a sin.
Those dogs and a couple of side dishes to share would make for a very nice meal. The mashed potatoes ($4) are exactly what they should be, whipped smooth with a drizzle of olive oil on top. The Brussels sprouts ($5), which some cook into a kind fatty candy, retain more of their cabbagey flavor and get a hearty kick from generous helpings of toasted walnuts and browned lardons. I couldn’t keep my fork out of the braised leeks ($7), which were nearly liquefied, nicely tangy, and dripping with flavorful oil. From the salad menu, add a plate of multicolored hunks of beet, silky soft and tangy with yuzu dressing ($8). And — hallelujah! — not a speck of bleu or goat cheese to be seen.
It takes a lot of willpower to look past all the treats on the small plates menu and order a “real meal” from among the “Suppers.” These composed plates show off a more formal side of Brown’s experience and skill. Three of the choices are fish, which is a wider range than some longer menus offer, alongside the classics: brisket, duck breast, and pork tenderloin. The cod ($18) is an excellent choice if you’re looking for something fancier: a large, tender cut of fish, caramelized on the outside and cooked perfectly all the way through. Truffle butter sauce with melt-in-your-mouth mushrooms suits the fish perfectly. All that I was really missing was a little tang on the plate.
I do feel for vegetarians trying to put together a meal at Tilia: You’re looking at two pasta dishes and three salads, full stop. Vegans can ask to hold the cheese. But, really, you’re going to be surrounded by the scent of bacon and chicken liver, so this might not be your most enjoyable night out.
The dessert menu is short and smart, created by southwest Minneapolis pastry chef and cookbook author (Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day) Zoë François and priced at $7 for any of four choices. The Butterscotch Pots du Crème are apparently so good that they have sold out on each of my visits, so you’ll have to take my fellow diners’ word for it on those. You might be tempted to overlook the Toffee Date Cake because, well, dates. But don’t. It is steamed like an English pudding and sticky and sweet and a tiny bit tart in all the right ways. The German Chocolate Cupcake is a well-executed bit of moist chocolate cake, with just the right smear of buttery coconut on top.
My kids, by the way, have already claimed the window seat by the door as their own. They were enchanted by the kids’ menus, printed on origami fortunetellers. When the waitress came by and handed them each a little lunchbox-sized suitcase full of tiny amusements, I thought we’d never get them to leave. Their dinners ($3 for “little kids,” $7 for “big kids”) were a kids’ dream: just-the-right-size bowls of buttery spaghettini, with honey-butter-topped crackers for a “starter.” They also could have had grilled chicken, a kid-size cheeseburger, alphabet soup, or grilled shrimp. Brown, who has a young daughter, clearly knows the frustration of going out to a nice dinner and having the waiter bring your kid a bowl of bright orange boxed mac and cheese.
So far, in the course of several visits, I’ve only found one dish that I wouldn’t bother to order again. The fish itself in the Fish Taco Torta ($8) was lovely. But the bun and accompaniments surrounding it blended into an indifferent and underflavored mass: no kick from the peppadew slaw, no crunch from the tortilla chips tucked inside the bun, already soggy by the time I took a bite. It’s okay, though: I consoled myself with several bites of my companion’s hot dog.
Brown says that his vision for Tilia was to create something timeworn, something that “looked like it had already been here awhile.” The dark wooden benches, white beadboard walls, and handblown glass light fixtures all do have a lived-in feel. The small space seats 40 people, which gives it a pleasant lively buzz when it’s full, but it’s laid out well and you don’t feel like you’re sitting in your neighbor’s lap. Two curved bars, one around the open kitchen and one beneath the train station-inspired beer board (22 on tap and a selection that really requires its own post), provide even more seating.
Brown emphasizes that this is a neighborhood spot — whether you’re from this particular neighborhood or not. He chose to keep long hours because, after the Linden Hills Co-op moved from its 43rd and Upton location a few blocks down the street, neighborhood conversations about what the business node really needed all seemed to come back to, “We need someplace to get a civilized drink.” He chose to stay open between lunch and dinner — even with a limited menu this adds quite a burden to the kitchen staff — because he noticed that the Dunn Bros. a block away tends to fill up with laptoppers. This, he says, is a “community service” to his new neighbors.
Tilia’s neighbors have already shown up in droves and, judging from the lack of Keens and fleece on my visits, people are coming from farther afield as well, eager to see what Steven Brown can do in his own space. When the initial flurry of attention dies down, I predict people will be wearing shiny spots into those lovely dark wood benches for a long, long time to come.
Brasserie in Linden Hills
2726 W 43rd St
Minneapolis, MN 55410
OWNER / CHEF: Jorg Pierach and Steven Brown / Sam Miller
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Very little / No
ENTREE RANGE: $13-20