|photo by Tom Wallace, Star Tribune|
Tiny Piccolo is the little restaurant that could. And how.
By Rick Nelson, Star Tribune
Don't let its unassuming south Minneapolis location do a number on you. Ditto the name (which means "little" in Italian), or the small-scale setting, just 36 seats. That's because big things are happening inside tiny Piccolo.
Thrilling things, actually. It's not going overboard to invoke the word "visionary" when considering what chef/co-owner Doug Flicker has accomplished since he opened the restaurant in February. Want to experience the future of cooking? Make a beeline to the corner of 43rd Street and Bryant Avenue S. Don't forget to make a reservation.
The menu's 16 or so choices are designed to encourage and facilitate a build-your-own degustation experience, following the theory set forth by star chef Thomas Keller. "The law of diminishing returns," Keller calls it, theorizing that a dish's luster diminishes with each bite.
"What I want is that initial shock, that jolt, that surprise to be the only thing you experience," Keller wrote in his landmark "The French Laundry Cookbook." "I want you to say, 'God, I wish I had just one more bite of that.'"
Nothing more accurately describes the Piccolo experience. Flicker ups the ante by giving locally accepted tastes a much-needed boot in the backside. Smoked eel, tripe and other Minnesota-menu rarities blossom under Flicker's fertile imagination and considerable technical prowess; he is, after all, the chef who turned scrambled eggs and pigs feet into the year's most talked-about dish.
"It was a big risk, wondering if people would really be drawn to veal head or pig's tail, but obviously the answer is 'Yes,'" said Flicker. "I've learned that you give people credit, you make them comfortable, and they'll try it, and they'll like it."
More like love it. On the flip side, Flicker has the enviable gift for repositioning the mundane into artful, even adventurous new identities. Beets? Chicken? Ricotta-filled pasta? They taste as if born anew, and boast museum-quality looks.
The gracious, closely knit service staff (headed by co-owner Jim Andrus, one of Flicker's partners at their former Auriga) seems to revel in their guests' sense of discovery and joy, while the semi-casual setting is the epitome of Midwestern modesty.
There is simply no other restaurant like it in the Twin Cities, but that can't last for long. Innovative Piccolo deserves its place as an industry role model.
As for being his own boss again, after several years of working for others, "It's better than I thought it would be," Flicker said. "It's strange to do exactly what makes me happy every day, and have money in the bank. I'm still pinching myself."
What a coincidence. Twin Cities diners, elated to find a enterprise of this caliber in their midst, are following suit. We certainly are.
Restaurant of the year: Awards of Excellence
Here are five other notable newcomers that made a considerable splash on the 2010 dining scene.
By Rick Nelson, Star Tribune
Travail Kitchen & Amusements
Co-owners Mike Brown and James Winberg snared the foodiscenti's attention during their talked-about tenure at Victory 44, but they secured their adoration -- rightly so -- when they became their own bosses. An unlikely address (sleepy downtown Robbinsdale) and an even more unlikely premise (chef-driven flights of fancy at fast-casual prices) makes this fun-loving, trend-setting gem all the more remarkable and unabashedly enjoyable.
After years of working for others, how great is it to see chef Landon Schoenefeld running his own show? For once, the phrase "rethinking comfort food" isn't boring diners to tears. On the contrary. Schoenefeld's vivid imagination, strong technical know-how and clear vision are forging a long list of ingenious and admirable all-American classics. Steak-and-eggs, tuna casserole, Tater Tot hot dish and other pop-culture favorites are reshaped into exciting and delicious new ways.
Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market
A ridiculously roomy new Lowertown setting -- it's across the street from the St. Paul Farmers Market, the world's most appropriate address -- has given chef/co-owner Lenny Russo his dream platform. Now locavores -- or anyone who cares about good food -- can enjoy multi-course splendors in the serene dining room, refuel in the comfy and casual lounge, celebrate in several private-event rooms, and shop and snack in the butcher shop/bakery/greengrocery. Bravo.
In many ways, 2010 was the Year of the Suburban Diner, and no better example of the burbs' newfound dining riches is this latest from the D'Amico culinary empire. This Italian-inspired pro deftly caters to the demands of its buttoned-up office park environs, but also injects some much-needed energy, style and cooking skill into a corner of the metro where those qualities are sorely lacking.
Walking past the banal City Center complex, knowing that the former Forum Cafeteria, that Art Deco prize, was sitting vacant, was perhaps the most depressing activity in downtown Minneapolis. No longer. Like most mortals, restaurateur Jim Ringo fell in love with the historic space at first sight. In a noble act of civic generosity, Ringo reopened the glitzy Depression-era glamourpuss, enabling another generation of Minneapolitans to revel in its Fred-and-Ginger fabulousness.
2010: The year in review
A rundown of the Twin Cities dining scene over the past year.
By Rick Nelson, Star Tribune
In a year of constant career upheaval, no chef landed in a happier spot than Mike Phillips, who departed the Craftsman to fully embrace his outsized passion -- and prodigious talent -- for producing dry-cured meats and other charcuterie. In a partnership with Irish pub magnate Kieran Folliard (the Local, the Liffey, Cooper, Kieran's Irish Pub), Phillips is set to develop a retail component in 2011, but for now he is supplying the restaurants with a top-tier supply of product, turning a minimum of two pigs per week from Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, Minn., into pure magic. "There's no limit to the things that can be done," said Phillips. Get a taste of his artful work at the Local, where a happy-hour platter (wild mushroom salami, dry cured coppa, and pork terrines, rillettes and head cheese) goes for an astounding $5.99. "It's a steal," said Phillips. "It should probably cost eighteen bucks." At least.
What can diners look forward to in 2011? Plenty. Innovative restaurant-maker Kim Bartmann (Bryant-Lake Bowl, Barbette, Red Stag Supperclub), has a full plate. "I have some projects going," she said with a laugh. "I can't afford to lay around all day."
She's converting Casey's into Pat's Tap ("A gastropub menu with a neighborhood feel," she said); expect a mid-March opening. She has quietly purchased Gigi's Cafe ("We're going to re-brand and remodel, starting in February," she said). But her highest-profile project is taking on the refectory at the Lake Harriet bandshell, which she is christening Bread & Pickle. Barbette chef Kevin Kathman is developing a burger-sandwich-picnic basket (complete with blankets) menu, with egg sandwiches and espresso kicking the day off at 7 a.m. ("For all the ladies who walk around the lake," said Bartmann). If the weather cooperates, opening date is set for April 1.
Chef Steven Brown (Porter & Frye, Levain) is getting back into the game with Tilia, now under construction in the former 40-seat home of Rice Paper in Linden Hills (Tilia is the genus for the linden tree). Even with a slight expansion, the kitchen remains tiny, "But I'm modeling it on my friend Phillip Becht at the Modern Cafe," said Brown. "He proves that you can do good work in a space the size of a postage stamp." This time around (hopefully in January), Brown, a major Twin Cities talent, is also adding "co-owner" to his title, partnering with marketing whiz Jörg Pierach. "I don't want to sound bitter, but I'm tired of suffering under someone else's regime," Brown said. "Better to take on the risk myself."
One of Brown's former employers, Turtle Bread Co. owner Harvey McLain, is in expansion mode. He's converting an old streetcar commercial corner in Minneapolis' Longfellow neighborhood into another Turtle bakery outlet, and has signed on Lucia's Restaurant veteran Annette Colon to supervise several eateries; one might include a dining room that will offer a single but ever-changing entree item each night. McLain is pushing for a January opening.
Another Turtle alum, baker Solveig Tofte, is going out on her own in March, with Sun Street Bakery, a much-expanded bricks-and-mortar version of her nearby Kingfield Farmers Market stand. A few blocks up Nicollet, be sure to check out upcoming Lowbrow, a contemporary neighborhood tavern.
More exciting news: Chef J.P. Samuelson is switching jobs, leaving Solera (his last day is New Year's Eve) and quickly jumping (mid-March) into an Italian restaurant at a location to be announced. Rosa Mexicano, the über-popular New York City-based mini-chain, is going into the former TGI Friday's at 6th Street and Hennepin Avenue S., just a short walk from Target Field.
Also, be on the lookout for several seconds: A second Burger Jones, this time in Burnsville (probably in May); a second Black Sheep Pizza, in the Rossmor Building in downtown St. Paul (hopefully mid-February); a second Little Szechuan, in the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park (coming soon); and a second American Burger Bar, in the LaSalle Plaza complex in downtown Minneapolis (early January).
Beyond city Limits
It was a blue-ribbon year for suburban diners, who found a notable array of independently owned efforts blossoming in their midst, including: Blvd Kitchen & Bar (a Minnetonka comeback for Redstone American Grill and Champps guru Dean Vlahos), Aperitif Restaurant & Bar (good looks, great wines in Woodbury), Porter Creek Hardwood Grill (the Doolittles folks go upscale in Burnsville), Purple Sandpiper Bakehouse & Pub (casual in Bloomington), the Hanger Room (dry-aged steaks in Willernie, from a former W.A. Frost & Co. chef), Mendoberri Cafe & Wine Bar (dine-in/takeout in Mendota Heights), Bistro 11 (a charmer in exurban Loretto), Nectar Wine Bar & Bistro (guava- and lime-glazed shrimp in downtown Osseo!), Roman Anthony's (red sauce Italian in White Bear Lake, from Justin Grecco of Grecco's on the St. Croix in St. Croix Falls, Wis.) and Rojo Mexican Grill (south of the border in St. Louis Park).
Hitting the pavement
Street food finally matriculated from baby steps to a power walk, thanks to a potent combination of revised ordinances, savvy entrepreneurs and a social media-fueled dinership. Our favorites? The portable rib joint operated by the 128 Cafe; Dandelion Kitchen, which morphed from farmers market vendor into Nicollet Mall sandwich/salad outpost; the Smack Shack and its luscious lobster rolls; and the monster pastrami and turkey sandwiches sold at the Brothers Deli and Turkey to Go carts, respectively. And most especially the World Street Kitchen, where brothers Sameh and Saed Wadi put an accessible twist on the vibrant Middle Eastern flavors of their Saffron Restaurant & Lounge.
Too close to call
Following the Hollywood tradition of blitzing December with Oscar-bait films, Twin Cities restaurateurs have chosen the past month to get busy with a flurry of newcomers (look for our reviews in the upcoming weeks), including Mozza Mia, Pizzeria Lola, In Season, the dazzling new raw bar at Meritage, Peoples Organic, Scusi, the Inn, Prairie Ale House, Jack's, Pinstripes and Cocina del Barrio.
Minnesotans love their bakeries, and they rushed to support the bevy of 2010's newbies. Longtime farmers market favorites Cocoa & Fig launched a retail outlet in Gaviidae Common in downtown Minneapolis. Cake Eater Bakery and Cafe and Sweet Retreat both found enticing ways to glorify the cupcake, and, as the name suggests, Bars Bakery made a party out of its namesake sweet. Franklin Street Bakery expanded to Edina, and Arnaud de Rambures introduced his style of French breads and pastries -- including what are easily the metro's best eclairs -- to the hungry residents of Maple Grove with his Chez Arnaud.
But no one, least of all baker/owner John Kraus, predicted the instant, insane and totally justified popularity of Patisserie 46. "Rustica educated this neighborhood," he said, referring to the four-star bakery that started a few blocks up 46th Street before relocating to W. Lake Street last year. "Everyone here already knew what good bread and pastries are, and they're so open to stepping out of their box and saying, 'I'll try that.' That cut our learning curve in half."
Sometimes it feels as if the entire 55409 ZIP code is lining up for Kraus' almond croissants, hot pretzels, beautifully caramelized canelés, addictive ice creams, and several dozen other scrupulously prepared sweets and savories. Seriously, if it hasn't happened already, someone should jump-start a website called www.myfavoritethingtoeatatPatisserie46.com, although it would probably crash from a constant flood of gushy commentary. "The simplest items, they're the hardest to do right, but they're the best things to enjoy," said Kraus. "You know you have something good if you immediately want to have more than one."
It was a roller-coaster year for top restaurateurs Tim McKee and Josh Thoma. Financial shenanigans ended their association with Barrio (and Thoma's connection to diner-magnet Bar La Grassa) and they sold their tapas-focused Solera (now managed by the same team behind Cosmos and Bradstreet Craftshouse). Most significantly, the duo ended their partnership at four-star La Belle Vie (McKee is in, Thoma is out). Not that they weren't busy with other projects. Thoma got into street food with the Smack Shack ("I've always got something up my sleeve," he said), and McKee, building on his winning experience of remaking the Guthrie Theater's Cue into Sea Change in 2009, has developed a high-profile consulting career. Parasole Restaurant Holdings wisely hired him to reinvent its Il Gatto, and his next gig for the company is tweaking its Uptown Cafeteria. McKee is also partnering with Sushi Avenue, the company behind the sushi counters at Cub Foods and other local grocers, to create Masu, a sushi-robata restaurant and bar set to open this spring in northeast Minneapolis.
Two suburban stalwarts -- Colette Bar & Bistro and Tucci Benucch -- got spiffy, much-needed makeovers, perhaps inspiring others (we won't name names) to get a nip and tuck of their own.
Our condolences to the family, friends and diners of Grand Cafe chef Jonathan Radle, who died in April, and Spill the Wine co-owner Karl Greeman, who died in October.
In Blaine, Restaurant Cru became Bricks American Pub, and the former Bella was transformed into Tavern Grill, a sibling to Edina's Tavern on France. Down in Lowertown, David Fhima converted his LoTo into Faces Mears Park. The team at Excelsior's Cafe 318 revitalized an underperforming Aster Cafe, and sidewalk cafe lovers (and downtown skyline gazers) are forever grateful. First Avenue got into the restaurant act, opening the Depot Tavern. Zeno became Fusion. Istanbul Bistro bid farewell, replaced by Bukhara Indian Bistro, and Nepal-flavored Gorkha Palace took over the former Mairin's Table space. In Northeast Minneapolis, Pop! said "goodbye" and Hazel's Northeast said "hello," neighboring Snap! is now Amici Pizza and Bistro and the Pakistani fare at Pak Zam Zam disappeared in favor of Marrakech Moroccan Cafe and Grill. Zahtar (the Eden Prairie edition) bit the dust, and the Herb Box filled in behind it. At Lyn-Lake, Zen Authentic Szechuan and Hunan Cuisine turned out the lights, and Szechuan Spice flipped them back on. And the Green Mill gave up a chunk of its flagship location's real estate to make room for the Twisted Fork Grille; is there a new chain in the making?
Moving on up
Heartland wasn't the only restaurant that rented a U-Haul. Psycho Suzi's left its home, a one-time drive-in restaurant, for roomier riverfront quarters in the former Gabby's. Kieran Folliard transferred his namesake Kieran's Irish Pub into what had been Block E's glamorous Bellanotte, and Twins fans repaid him with wall-to-wall revelers on game days. Thom Pham shuttered his Azia and Anemoni Sushi & Oyster Bar, and sort-of recreated them in another Twins-friendly address (the former Zake), calling it Thom Pham's Wondrous Azian Kitchen.
Then there's Rice Paper, the serene, full-flavored Vietnamese favorite. Owner An Nguyen is now sitting pretty in blessedly larger quarters at 50th and France in Edina, a new restaurant crossroads, thanks to new neighbors Mozza Mia and Cocina del Barrio. Nguyen's legions of fans have surely followed, and her new high-profile address means that the restaurant will also develop a whole new clientele. It deserves nothing less.
A number of notable restaurants left the scene in 2010, including Palomino, Ringo, Subo, Gallery 8 Cafe, St. Martin's Table, Laredo's Tex-West Grill & Cantina, Staccato, Maggiano's Little Italy, Pop!!, Original SoupMan, Thistles, Zake, Bibo Restaurant & Wine Bar, Cooqi, Kabobi, Azia, Il Vesco Vino/Rizzo's, Ciento Tequila Bar and Mexican Kitchen, Harry's Food and Cocktails, L'Ecosse, Picosa, Sauce and Manhattan's.
When Blackbird and Heidi's Minneapolis were destroyed in a fire on Feb. 18, more than 60 of their fellow restaurants -- and countless diners -- quickly came to their aid with "Fork the Fire," an unprecedented citywide benefit that raised $55,000. A fire earlier this month also devastated Casper's & Runyon's Nook, St. Paul's beloved burger-and-beer joint, and the Groveland Tap offered a $7,000 fundraiser of its own. Talk about Minnesota Nice.
A new nest
Blackbird co-owners Chris Stevens and Gail Mollner got busy, fast, reopening their neighborhood cafe in a new, larger location about 2 miles northeast of their prior address. The best news? Blackbird is bigger, and better, than ever.
Stewart Woodman spent his time, post-fire, in his home kitchen, banging out a terrific cookbook: "Shefzilla: Conquering Haute Cuisine at Home" (Borealis Books, $27.95), which hit bookstores in October. Speaking of debuts, Woodman and spouse/business partner Heidi Woodman are debuting the reboot of their restaurant on Jan. 11. It's now named, simply, Heidi's ("We all know it's in Minneapolis," said Stewart Woodman with a laugh) and relocated to slightly larger digs in the former Vera's Cafe in Lyn-Lake. "It's really coming together, and I'm just beside myself I'm so excited about it," he said. "I really want to get cooking." A tip to die-hard Heidi's fans: The restaurant is now accepting reservations at www.opentable.com.
Congratulations to Restaurant Alma chef/owner Alex Roberts, named Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation at its glitzy annual gala -- the Oscars of the food world -- in New York City in May. Wayne Kostroski, co-owner of the Franklin Street Bakery and Bar Abilene, was named the foundation's Humanitarian of the Year for his anti-hunger work as founder of Taste of the NFL.
The Twins' sparkling new playground is a professional sports venue rarity: It tastes as good as it looks. Sure, it wasn't perfect (the lines!), but by emphasizing Minnesota flavors (everything from Murray's steak sandwiches and Schweigert hot dogs to Byerly's wild rice soup, the Gouda-stuffed burger from Vincent and Kramarczuk's unbeatable grilled sausages, all washed down with a bevy of beloved Gopher State-brewed beers), the team batted a concessions home run. Next year's stats are already promising, as Twins ownership is pledging more local foods for the 2011 season.
Kudos to Lucia Watson and Lowell Pickett, for not only surviving but thriving for 25 years with their now-landmark restaurants, Lucia's Restaurant and the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, respectively. Both were founded in 1985, which, in hindsight, was a very good year.
Fast-growing Crave expanded into the Omaha and Orlando markets this year, and the 3-year-old Minnesota-based company is opening its fourth Twin Cities outpost this spring, moving into the former Palomino spot in LaSalle Plaza at 9th Street and Hennepin Avenue S.
Starbucks may be retrenching, but local coffee indies were in an expansionist mode. Dogwood Coffee Co. brought perfectionist coffeemaking to Calhoun Square, one cup at a time. Ditto the Angry Catfish Bike & Coffee Bar, with a handy south Minneapolis location, adjacent to A Baker's Wife's Pastry Shop. Oh, and local roaster Peace Coffee debuted its first retail outlet, the slick Peace Coffee -- Wonderland Park Coffee Shop.
A lightbulb goes off
Three smart ideas: Izzy's Ice Cream started keeping its customers informed on the shop's ever-changing selection of flavors by tying radio frequency identification technology into its website, updating every three minutes (yes! Norwegian Chai is in the house!). Spasso began its own designated- driver service, offering free round-trip car service in a swank Escalade. Then there's the vinopad, a user-friendly interactive wine list for the iPad, created by Minneapolis-based Vinotech Solutions and currently wowing wine lovers at Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, Vincent, Wayzata Eatery and Forepaugh's.
When cookbook author Raghavan Iyer called it quits as consulting chef at Om, he didn't fall back on that shopworn pursuing-other-opportunities/spending-more-time-with-the-family shtick. Nope. "I have terminated my contract ... and severed all ties with Om," Iyer said in a statement. "I feel my beliefs, high standards and professional standing [are] no longer in congruence with those of Om's." Ouch.
Sameh Wadi made history in January. The chef/co-owner of Saffron Restaurant & Lounge was the first Minnesotan to appear on "Iron Chef America" (and, at age 25, the show's youngest competitor). In an all-mackerel showdown, Wadi narrowly lost to "Iron Chef" titan Masaharu Morimoto. Now, if the secret ingredient had been lamb....
In July, acerbic Travel Channel talking head Anthony Bourdain sent a love letter to Piccolo on his "No Reservations" series. Earlier this month, Adam Richman, the title character in "Man v. Food," appeared on the "Today" show and praised the slow-roasted pork at Brasa as one of the five meals not to be missed in the United States, calling it, "the experience of just indulging in the rapture of very well-made local food."
Nothing beats the fresh ginger ales at Big Bowl. Unless they're the pulpy and powerfully flavored Fresh Ginger Ginger Ales, created by Bruce Cost, the chain's founder, and sold in 12-ounce bottles at select supermarkets.
Our top-reviewed restaurants in 2010 included:
4 stars: Piccolo, Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market
3 1/2 stars: D'Amico Kitchen, Modern Cafe, Parma 8200, Travail Kitchen & Amusements
3 stars: HauteDish, Sapor Cafe and Bar, Victory 44
For all the memorable meals I enjoyed in 2010 on my own dime -- and not on my Strib expense account -- at Al's Breakfast, Bar La Grassa, Be'wiched Deli, Brasa, Common Roots Cafe, Moose & Sadie's, Punch Neapolitan Pizza, Nick and Eddie, Spoonriver, 20.21 and Yum! Kitchen and Bakery.