I spent $24 on two Hewing Old Fashioneds at Tullibee last week, and I don’t regret it.
Part of it is because they were so smooth, so balanced, and so shockingly light that the experience of becoming drunk was less of the usual face-forward fall down a flight of cement stairs than a sublime gliding sensation, like surfing down from a cumulus cloud atop a giant golden lotus.
And part of it is because while Tullibee is expensive, it’s also delivering real value to its diners. That puts this new establishment at the door of an elite club that includes its neighbors Spoon and Stable and Bachelor Farmer as well as Meritage in St. Paul, Alma, and a select few other institutions.
For a hotel restaurant like Tullibee to waltz into that kind of crowd and successfully keep time is no small accomplishment, and it’s due to a few critical factors.
First, the place (and the surrounding Hewing hotel) oozes style. Its “hipster North” vibe — besweatered front-of-house staff, lumberjack tchotchkes, that deer-head thing that keeps getting Instagrammed everywhere — could have become insufferable, but it’s done with a light enough touch that it’s both comforting and enjoyable. You feel as though you’re in a place with personality, but that personality isn’t in your face constantly insisting that you appreciate it.
Second, Tullibee is taking a whole-animal approach to cooking, fabricating (which is to say, disassembling) whole animals and working with the meat in a tail-to-snout fashion. Rabbits hang atop the rather spectacular grill that anchors the open kitchen, and the sight calls you back to a (much) earlier era of dining. All this, of course, would be irritating hand-waving if the meat on the plate didn’t back it up, but it did. Our Pork Chop ($25, above) was one of the best we’ve had — supple, perfectly cooked, rich in flavor, and uncomplicated. The quality of the meat did the talking, not a sauce or a heavy spice rub, and it reminded us most directly of the time Lenny Russo brought out a piece of Mangalitsa pork to demonstrate (successfully) that better meat can make a dramatic impact on the palate.
Third, Tullibee’s founding chef, Grae Nonas, is focused and bringing a clear, singular vision to the menu. The restaurant’s flavors, while Scandinavian-inspired and certainly “Northy,” also strongly suggest a top-flight Japanese restaurant. There’s a thoughtful concision here, a willingness to edit and focus, and a commitment to trusting the simple, strong flavors created by good ingredients. Our Meatball Soup ($12) was little more than broth and meatballs, but the former was so rich and savory, and the latter so tender and pleasant that we found it downright thrilling. And a Curly Roots Salad ($12) had an earthy-meets-bright duality that was effortless and delicious.
And while many of the dishes at Tullibee have strong visual impact, there’s little of the tweezer-and-squeeze-bottle fuckery that mars so many high-end restaurants. (Dessert actually suffered from a little of this syndrome, but that’s a minor issue we’ll deal with in a moment.)
Lunch at Tullibee is less spectacular, but that’s not intended as criticism. It should be less spectacular — it’s less expensive, it’s consumed more quickly, and it’s often a sidelight to a business meeting. And for that purpose, the short, ably executed lunch menu is just lovely, as is the composed but not stuffy or awkward atmosphere of the restaurant by day. We particularly enjoyed our smoked salmon open-faced sandwich, a great dish that a) has legit Scandinavian roots, b) is kind of a thing around here these days, and c) makes an ideal light-but-satisfying lunch dish when you’re on the go.
Other assorted notes: Service was gracious, bordering on overly attentive (but that’s a personal preference thing; many would, we suspect, find the service perfectly dialed in). Pacing was excellent (lunch was quick but not brutally so, and a dinner for two with cocktails and desserts lasted 90 minutes — leisurely, but not glacial). And dessert is good, but weirdly “deconstructed.” The entire experience at Tullibee builds the diner up for a really good slice of traditional spice cake, not an abstract landscape of spice cake blobs and sweet potato parfait and other assorted delicious detritus ($8, above). The Aerated Chocolate ($9) was similarly baffling and not quite as tasty.
Everything about Tullibee right now feels as though it’s trying to impress, and that eagerness to please is largely being channeled correctly into attentive service, carefully made dishes, and food that works its magic honestly, offering up clean, powerful flavors. If the restaurant can relax just a bit but maintain the focus, it will — in a year or so, or perhaps even less — quite comfortably step through the door and become one of the best places to eat for many, many miles in any direction.
Tullibee at the Hewing Hotel
Upscale Scandinavian-Inspired Dining in the Warehouse District
300 Washington Ave N
Minneapolis, MN 55408
CHEF: Grae Nonas
HOURS: 6 a.m.-midnight
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $16-$48
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Small lot, limited street parking