The Silver Whisk Awards celebrate the best of local food in the Upper Midwest; only three are given out, for Best Chef, Best Purveyor, and Best New Establishment. Winners of all three categories will be announced at the end of February.
Now that we’ve had some time to digest our eating escapades in 2011, it’s clear it was a banner year for eating in the Twin Cities. We were impressed by all manner of new spots — from the splashy to the lowbrow, from the established players to the newcomers.
Our 2011 Silver Whisk Award nominees for Best New Establishment are the three places we feel best showcased local talent and innovation. It was the four-in-one Japanese funhouse, featuring the sushi we didn’t know we couldn’t live without. It was the table we left work early to get, to savor a panoply of artfully executed bites. It was the biscuits that rocked our world, from the corner space that effortlessly glides from bakery to eatery.
It was a great year. Here are three more bites.
Masu Sushi & Robata
The success of Masu Sushi & Robata isn’t, for the most part, incredibly surprising. It has a great location, a smart design by Shea Architects, well seasoned at talent at every rung, cocktails by Johnny Michaels, and the will to encompass a great breadth of Japanese cuisine.
What’s surprising is how it’s been able to consistently deliver on its initial promise. It’s combined successful aspects of several similar places around town without sacrificing quality in any of them and forging their own unique identity. We’ve found only minor chinks in Masu’s armor. And we’ve tried – repeatedly.
Tim McKee continued to be a familiar presence in 2011. Through the continued success of La Belle Vie, his year began with a highly publicized rescue mission (Uptown Cafeteria) and ended with the demise of a previous one (Il Gatto). When proprietor Sushi Avenue tapped McKee to conceive Masu, we were slightly worried it would be just a high-profile entry into an already crowded sushi market.
But since its heavily-chatted-about opening, Masu has vaulted into the upper echelon of Twin Cities Japanese eating. Its menu is as deep and enveloping as the giant geisha eyes that adorn its dining room. Masu features heaps of terrific sushi, a comprehensive listing of Izakaya, 14 iterations of noodles, about 30 choices of robata, and, best of all, a more-than-respectable batting average in each category.
In a year that Fuji-Ya touted no longer serving Bluefin funa, Masu has been using entirely sustainable seafood since its inception. If you don’t go with a big group, consider a seat near the head of the bar to watch the deft hand of Origami veteran A-san Yamamoto at work.
The rice itself is the X-factor in A-san’s sushi. It’s tender and puffy, just adhesive enough with the right amount of sweetness. His nigiri and sashimi are exquisite and his specialty rolls can stand up to the best in town. Our favorite continues to be the Firecracker -– a wonderfully balanced roll with creamy avocado melded into crunchy tempura. And kudos to Masu for grinding the wasabi paste in house.
The balance of the menu is helmed by La Belle Vie graduate and one-time Japanese exchange student Alex Chase. Perhaps most notable are the noodles, built on wonderfully nuanced, slow-simmered broths. The Tonkatsu Curry Ramen (below) was this author’s most frequently ordered dish of 2011. It’s a harmonious collection of texture, between the fresh greens, tender noodles, gooey poached egg, and crunchy pork. The small dish of Togarashi accompanying the noodles is a thoughtful touch.
We’ll show up to Masu for the robata alone. It’s especially nice to have that lighter menu section around at midday ever since Obento-Ya began downplaying theirs during lunch. The chicken meatballs, the bacon-wrapped quail eggs, and glazed sweet corn comprise our usual trifecta. And as if their snacking resume wasn’t already robust, Masu has added addictive pork belly and shrimp tempura steamed bun sandwiches during happy hour.
Some of the drinks, namely the Gummi sours, can come off as overly sweet. But for a food menu that largely avoids overdoing things (especially in what would seem like an enticing atmosphere to do just that), we can forgive it the cocktails. Instead, opt for the clean and sophisticated Japanese For Beginners, the gin and pickled watermelon Rano Pano, or the spicy Godzillita.
Masu’s second location is slated to open at Mall of America in a few months. This is encouraging news for shoppers faced with a selection of restaurants similarly over-the-top in concept but without the food to back it up. Also encouraging for a city awash in sushi: Masu is not only surviving, but thriving.
What we wrote then: “From its clear concept to its smart-as-a-whip Japanese pop culture interior to its quirky, well-executed food, the place feels legitimately cosmopolitan.” – James Norton, June 8, 2011
Does anyone want to stake us to open a craft cocktail bar near Tilia? First, go there and savor the profound deliciousness of Steven Brown’s offerings. Then notice the crowd of people waiting three deep at the bar and disappointed parties leaving because the wait is over an hour, and tell us that’s not a sustainable business model.
Here’s a dirty secret: It’s not as hard to get a seat at Tilia as you might have heard. Yes, if you show up with six friends at 7pm on a Friday, you might find yourself at the bottom of two or three Belgian brews from their well-selected tap list before sitting down.
But having trouble seating large groups is a very minor consequence of the elements that make Tilia such a compelling eatery. It’s welcoming and intimate, the menu screams date-night-plate-swapping, and the sightlines in the single dining room make it seem like a big dinner party with the city’s in-the-know.
Tilia is Steven Brown unleashed. It’s his technical mastery we’ve come to know and love through Cafes Brenda and Levain, Porter & Frye, et al., distilled down into a neighborhood joint. He’s a true “chef’s chef” cooking for his brethren (see: indulgent Kobe beef hot dogs served late night) as effectively as he does for the kids on the block.
We saw rillettes pop up on a few menus around town this year, and Tilia’s Potted Meat is at the head of the class. Perfectly complemented by sweet caramelized shallots and mustard, it’s a difficult new entry to the old don’t-fill-up-on-bread dictum. For veggie sides, skip the tasty Brussels sprouts in favor of the achingly tender leeks with truffle vinaigrette. That could be case in point for Tilia’s genius – the place has us giddy over leeks.
We love the scallops just like everyone else, but can’t help marvel at the Szechuan-inspired shrimp. Even with its base of a fiery, funky black bean sauce, the dish is surprisingly simpatico with the other starters. Brown seems to effortlessly flirt with a lot of different cuisines without stumbling the whole of the menu into fusion confusion.
And if you’ve somehow managed to bypass the small plates in favor of a proper entrée (a feat which we rarely accomplish), you’ve been rewarded with one of the better duck breast preparations around. Even though prices have ever so slightly ticked upward since its opening, still nothing is over $21. After meals comprising multiple selections, we still do double-takes at our happily puny checks.
The value doesn’t extend entirely to drinks — $7.50 for a 10-oz pour of Harriet West Side? One might quibble if everything else on the menu weren’t so incredibly reasonable. And what the tap list may lack in value is made up for in thoughtful selection – a dynamic mix of lesser-seen Belgians, a few locals, and well-loved crafts.
Your best bet to avoid the huddled masses may be brunch, a meal that only bolsters Tilia’s resume. The Cornbread Waffle Lobster Benedict is somehow both indulgent and refined. The elegant, lemony hollandaise is top-notch, and one only wishes the waffles were a bit bigger to soak it all up.
“Good food tastes good,” their slogan reads. It’s simple, but the success of Tilia is just that: familiar food that shines through exceptional preparation. We find ourselves thinking, “these are just leeks” or “these are just scallops,” but then, inevitably, “these are just… so good.”
What we wrote then: “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.” – Tricia Cornell, April 5, 2011
Sun Street Breads
Allow us to get the worst of the gushing out of the way. Oh my goodness, those biscuits. Those lightly crisped outsides that turn dense yet springy in the middle, smothered with thick, intensely peppery gravy. They leave one as content and ready to face the day as the smirking, androgynous hill people depicted in the rear wall’s mural.
There was a point during late 2011 that sunstreetbreads.com was this author’s de facto browser homepage – a necessity to capturing loaves of Figgy Rye before everyone else figures out they’re on sale. If they’re already out, we’ve been more than content to “settle” for the exceptional baguettes and sourdoughs.
The quality of Solveig Tofte’s baking really needs no further exposition here — we’ve gathered as much praise to that end from her tenure at Turtle Bread. The true success of Sun Street is that it could have simply been content to be a great bakery that serves a better than average breakfast. The biscuit sandwiches are the best this side of Colossal Cafe, and the pastries are exactly as good as you would expect.
It’s beginning at 11am that Sun Street becomes a game-changer. Its slate of sandwiches is just as successful for the flavors packed inside Tofte’s breads as the breads themselves.
We love the meatloaf sandwich (and still would even if it wasn’t named for one of our writers). The Susan is a heartwarming slab of dense meatloaf glued to perfectly crispy potato-flax toast by a spread of shallot cream cheese. A close runner-up is The Range – delectable pulled porketta on an ethereal hoagie. We love the fennel slaw on The Range so much, we’ve even asked for a heap of it instead of their regular salad.
Again, Sun Street could have rested there, and did for a few months. Until Annette Colon, formerly chef de cuisine at Lucia’s, began boldly taking dinner service at Sun Street where few bakeries have gone before. We can’t get enough of her wonderfully salty tostones or the “Challabacitas.” And while deep fried pumpkin challah bites are a little ridiculous in theory, we’ve yet to hear any complaints when they hit the table.
On the strength of Tofte’s breads, it’s tough to resist the sandwiches on the dinner menu. This is especially true of the Shorewich, a delightful elevation of the classic cod-and-coleslaw. But if you can find the strength, you’ll find a deceptively simple winner in the Red Hen. It’s beautifully crisped roasted chicken with a knockout bread pudding. Also terrific on cold days (if they still exist around here) is the hearty short rib pot roast.
The window-lined space on the corner of 46th and Nicollet is positively zen — stark and minimal, with an aspect directing one to watch Tofte and her handiwork. The place is a testament to a proprietor who knows her product and her neighborhood. Sun Street built a foundation for success on otherworldly breads, and branched out where it made sense. What more could one ask from their corner bakery?
What we wrote then: “Thank you, Solveig Tofte for making a biscuit and gravy combo that’s so delicious, it makes me rethink my travel plans.” - Elizabeth Millard, March 28, 2011
Honorable Mention: -Spot
Before a torrent of “You didn’t even consider [X Restaurant] and this chicken wing joint gets an honorable mention?” comments get posted, let us qualify this. We don’t believe -Spot to offer a dining experience on par with the other three nominees or the many of the other fine restaurants to open last year. Not even close.
What we admire about -Spot is how unabashedly ambitious it is and that it took serious amount of guts for it to exist in the first place. Chef / owner Darin Koch took a concept that was semi-floundering at The Butcher Block and doubled down. And choosing to stage this resurgence in a strip mall in Maplewood is a curious choice to say the least.
But it’s working. During our last visit, in the midst of a packed house, we overheard laments about the “secret being out.” When it’s on, -Spot has elevated our notion of what can be achieved with the lowly chicken wing. Our favorite flavor continues to be the Black Widow, a wonderfully balanced salty-sweet soy sauce glaze with fennel and jerk rub. A great non-sauced option is the Twist, which features a tangy, dusty coating of citrus zest, cumin, and coriander.
Ultimately, though, it failed to garner a nomination through a few shortcomings. First, during our last visit, there was not a wet-nap to be seen. Seriously, -Spot, get on this immediately. But more to the point, if you’re going to serve essentially one type of food, the execution needs to be at or near 100 percent. The chicken itself is routinely cooked exceptionally but the flavors don’t have the same track record. While we appreciate the gusto needed to offer 60+ gourmet flavors of wings, some flavor combinations just fall flat. There’s also lots of overlap of ingredients and styles, making the menu unnecessarily difficult to navigate. We’d love to see a more tightly composed list of around 30 proven favorites in the future.
Though that’s clearly not the direction Koch is heading. He’s already expanded to a second location offering a menu of 40 different flavors of wings, plus his take on pizza rolls. But really, with its initial success firmly rooted in quirk and ambition, how could we possibly have expected -Spot to become more conventional as time went by?
What we wrote then: “We like that -Spot is located off the beaten path… unpretentiously ambitious, combining earnest scratch cookery with comfort food.” – James Norton, June 30, 2011.