That was the year that was: Gastronomic highlights of 2008

Looking back over 2008, there were a couple of high-profile openings – Porter & Frye and Barrio, and a few high-profile departures: jP American Bistro, Babalu, Temple. But it’s hard to spot any big trends on the local dining scene, except for maybe More Sushi: openings in the past 12 months include Musashi and Seven downtown, Tiger Sushi in Uptown, and Giapponese in Woodbury. More Vietnamese noodle joints opened on Eat Street, including Pho Hoa, the Noodle Bowl and Hoanh Thien Y, but that’s not exactly news. Eat Street also got a new Indonesian restaurant, Bali, at 14th and Nicollet, and a Mexican Deli, Marissa’s, at 28th and Nicollet. My most memorable meals of the past year were mostly driven by the joy of discovery – terrific Thai cuisine in the back room of a deli on University Ave; wood-fired pizza on a farm in Stockholm, Wi., world-class sushi in Woodbury. Herewith, in no particular order, a few of the highlights of the past 12 months:

1. Rinata

The new Rinata, which replaced Giorgio’s at 2451 Hennepin Ave. S. revives a lot of what I liked about the old Giorgio’s – the romantic setting, the affordable prices, and above all the style of cooking – simple, authentic, with bold and lively flavors. The resemblance to Al Vento is even stronger – the new owners are Jonathan Hunt, chef-owner of Al Vento, and Amor Hantous, formerly a waiter at the Longfellow neighborhood trattoria. One difference: Al Vento specializes in southern Italian cuisine, while Rinata features dishes from all over Italy.I’ve been back several times and the quality is consistently good and prices very reasonable.

We only sampled a few dishes from Rinata’s, but enjoyed all of them. The bruschetta with calamari, shrimp and tomato is pungent with raw garlic, rubbed into the toasted bread before the toppings are added. The Caesar salad (not really Italian, but universal in Italian restaurants these days) seemed more subtle and understated than the usual versions. But the real highlights of the evening were the pastas – all house-made. The tagliatelle with duck ragu was hearty and intensely flavorful, while the fettucine with clams and garlic was so tasty that, lacking spoons, we used the empty shells to scoop up the last drops of the clam liquor. Prices are very reasonable – all of the pizzas are under $10; all of the pastas are under $15, and you can get a glass of the house red or white for $5. (Full bar.)
Rinata Restaurant, 2451 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612-374-8998

2. Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza

The timing for Jordan Smith’s Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza couldn’t be better.

Lots of people are feeling poorer these days, and less certain about the future – myself included. With entrée prices at even the casual neighborhood bistros straddling $20, and the cost of a glass of wine edging up to $10, it’s pretty easy to run up a triple digit tab for dinner for two – and that feels different than it did before the run of bad news from Wall Street.

So assuming that you don’t want to just stay at home and cook every night, and you don’t want to eat at Applebee’s (currently advertising two entrees and an appetizer for $20), what you need now is cheap chic – places with a modicum of style and some gastronomic ambition that don’t break the budget.

The Black Sheep fills that bill pretty well. At the Black Sheep, prices for 12″ pizzas start at $6, and you can split a 16″ pizza – big enough to share – for as little as $12.(That’s for a basic tomato and oregano pie. You’ll probably want to dress it up a little, with ingredients like smoked mozzarella, fennel sausage or cracked green olives, for $2/$3 a topping.) Split a house salad ($6), split half a liter of the house red ($12), or a couple of pints of a local microbrew ($4.50) and your tab still comes out on the friendly side of $40.

We ordered two small pizzas – one topped with fennel sausage, hot salami onion and cracked green olives ($11/$20) and the other a half-and-half combo, with Manila clams and garlic on one half ($14/$24), and oyster mushrooms, smoked mozzarella and rosemary on the other ($13/$22).

Jordan Smith is the chef who opened Mission American Kitchen, and before that, he worked for D’Amico & Partners for a dozen years or so. He’s got a passion for pizza, and his inspiration for the Black Sheep came from the neighborhood pizzerias of New York City that still use coal-fired ovens. The huge new pizza oven in his open kitchen that burns anthracite coal on one side, and natural gas on the other.

Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza, 600 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis 612-342-COAL (2625).

3. Moto-i:

Wanna know what I like best about Moto-i, the new Japanese brewpub at Lake and Lyndale?

No sushi! That’s right – no rainbow rolls, no tiger rolls, no maguro, no hamachi. Also no soggy tempura, no sticky steak teriyaki, no fake Japanese chefs cooking up fake Japanese teppanyaki.

The menu offers the kind of food that you would expect to find at a Japanese tavern – snacks like dried squid, roasted peanuts, steamed buns ($3) and dumplings; plus some noodle and rice dishes – mostly Japanese, but also a Thai fried rice and red curry, Korean bulgogi and kim chee, and a Chinese egg noodle dish with barbecued pork ($9).

My favorites of the dishes I sampled included the steamed bun filled with chicken, ginger and scallion ($3), and the baby octopus with seaweed ($6); I was less impressed with the bland mussels with Thai chili ($6) and the Thai beef jerky ($4), which lacked the sweet and salty chewyness of more traditional versions.

I liked the home-brewed sake a lot. Owner-brewmaster Blake Richardson makes three different kinds of unpasteurized sake, including a cloudy, unfiltered junmai nama nigori, all off-dry and delicate. The pricing – $8 to $9 for what looks like a four-ounce pour – seems a little steep for something brewed up in steel tanks on the premises, but the rice is imported all the way from Japan, and the sake does pack a wallop, ranging from 14 to 18 percent alcohol. They plan to start selling their sake to go, by the bottle, starting soon.

Moto-i, 2940 Lyndale Ave. South, 612-821-NAMA

4. Senyai-Senlek

My invitation to readers to join me for dinner at Senyai-Senlek, the new Thai restaurant at 2422 Central Ave. N. E. resulted in a very intimate soiree – just me and a couple of friends, but a good time was had by all. We were delighted by nearly everything we tried, starting with the miang ka ($5.95), little do-it-yourself lettuce wraps that you stuff with roasted peanuts, dried shrimp, chopped ginger, chopped limes, fiery hot peppers, toasted coconut and a sweet and sticky pungent shrimp sauce; and the som tum (papaya salad, $7.95) – not as spicy or as stinky as the versions you can find at local Lao markets, but still very lively.

To my surprise, the khao pad kapi (royal fried rice, $11.95) also turned out to be a do-it-yourself dish: a mound of molded fried rice surrounded by glazed morsels of roast pork, slices of omelet, dried shrimp, shallots, green beans and hot peppers, which we tossed together ourselves. The pad see iew gai (broad noodles with chicken and Chinese broccoli in a sweet soy sauce, $9.95) had just the right balance of sweet, salty and savory. The only dish I wouldn’t order again is the pad pak taohoo, a vegetable stir-fry with tofu that didn’t seem very Thai – the nightly special of mock duck curry might have been a better bet.

On our way out, we chatted a bit with Joe Hatch-Surisook, who owns the café with his wife Holly. Joe was previously sous-chef at Chet’s Taverna, where he worked for Jim Grell of the Modern Café, and Mike Phillips, now at The Craftsman, but his work in the kitchen at Senyai-Senlek is pretty much limited to quality control. Remodeling the former Palm Court restaurant into a stylish ethnic bistro was a community effort – he organized several work days, and some 40 friends and folks from the neighborhood showed up at the first one – eventually they were thanked at a special dinner when the restaurant opened, about five weeks ago.

Senyai-Senlek, 2422 Central Ave. N.E., 612-781-3046.

5. Pop!!

Pop!! is a sister restaurant to the original Pop! The double exclamation marks set the tone for the place, as does the decibel level, the comic book graphics and the color scheme of screaming red, blue and yellow. The flavors are just as forceful: there’s a definite Spanish / Latin accernt to the menu, with dishes ranging from a Spanish antipasto plate (Serrano ham, chorizo, Manchego cheese, etc., $8.50) to a Cuban sandwich ($8.75) and picadillo empanadas with a Venezuelan aji sauce ($5.50).

We were just grabbing a quick bite before heading off a play, so we ordered a few small plates to share. We split an order of Pop!! fritters ($6.25), crispy fried balls of chopped shrimp, black beans and corn meal breading, served with a spicy chipotle sour cream sauce and a Venezuelan avocado sauce – a little heavy on the breading, but quite tasty. I ordered the mahi mahi soft tacos (3 for $7.50) which were billed as a small plate, but were stuffed with enough grilled fish, black beans, avocado and queso fresco to make an ample meal. Carol’s Caesar salad ($7.25) was whole leaves of romaine, grilled and served with a cheesy garlic flatbread, with a creamy Caesar, heavy on the anchovy – a lively variation on the theme.

There is a lot more on the menu that I would like to explore. Nearly everything offered seems to have a high-stimulation twist, from the Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche ($6.75), “cooked” in citrus juice with roasted tomatoes, corn nuts and popcorn — to the Pop!!as bravas, ($4.50) a popular Spanish tapas dish of fried potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce and aioli (a garlicky mayonnaise).

The short list of entrees includes a couple of pizzas – one topped with mozzarella, grilled shrimp, chorizo and green sauce ($11.25); a couple of pastas, pork tenderloin currasco with soft chorizo polenta and a roasted pineapple serrano chili salsa ($15.50); shrimp cous cous with chorizo in a saffron tomato broth ($13.50); and one low-stimulus option: Swedish meatballs wth potato puree and lingonberry jam.

Pop!!, 6 WE. 6th St., Saint Paul, 651-228-1002.

6. Hoang Thien Y Deli

The best news from my recent tours of Eat Street is the opening of another terrific little Vietnamese eatery – Hoang Thien Y Deli, hidden away in the little strip mall at 2738 Nicollet – across the parking lot from El Mariachi and Marissa’s Bakery. The counter-top looked very familiar – the same rainbow display of snacks and sweets that Saigon express used to offer: steamed rice and pork wrapped in banana leaf, bright purple and neon green desserts of sticky rice, slender egg rolls and packets of coconut rice, and all the ingredients for making sandwiches, smoothies and che desserts. The face behind the counter looked familiar, too – it was Chee, one of the women who had worked behind the counter at the Saigon Express.

But Hoang Thien Y has some added features that Saigon Express lacked, including a much bigger menu, with a big variety of rice plates, noodle soups, salads and more. Chee recommended a durian smoothie – made from the notoriously stinky/ pungent/ sexy tropical fruit ($3.50), and the Hanoi style pork, a plate piled high with rice noodles, topped with succulent rolls of grilled marinated pork stuffed with onion, accompanied by fresh herbs and marinated carrots, cucumber and radish, and a pungent nuoc mam (fermented fish) dipping sauce – very light, and yet filling – perfect summer fare. I can also recommend the bun rieu, a savory soup of rice noodles, minced crab, tofu and tomatoes ($6.50).

Hoang Thien Y Deli, 2738 Nicollet Av., 612-

7. The Pizza Farm, Stockholm, WI.

So just to be clear on this – the pizzas at the Pizza Farm, (real name: A to Z Produce & Bakery) just outside Stockholm, Wisconsin, don’t grow on trees. But once a week on Tuesdays, the owners crank up the two big wood-burning ovens, and make delicious pizzas to order ($23-$25), generously topped with a variety of fresh vegetables from the farm – everything from an Italian Garden pizza with roasted fennel, Swiss chard, bottle onions, sweet peppers, fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella– to a pie topped with Italian sausage (from “happy pigs”) tomato sauce, onion and mozzarella.

To get to the Pizza Farm, you drive through Stockholm, and then turn on one country road, and then another, go past about three cemeteries and a little country church, and then there you are, in the middle of nowhere. (For a map, click here.) But it’s not exactly a well-kept secret. We arrived early to beat the crowds, and by the time we showed up – 5:15 or so – there were more than a dozen guests with tables and blankets spread out across the farm yard. By the time we left, the place was packed, and there was a long line of cars along the road leading to the farm.

It’s a fun place for kids – out back behind the farm, there are a few cows, a couple of goats, and a few sheep, plus a coop with a mother hen and a brood of chicks, and a few cats that wander among the picnickers scrounging for scraps.

The pizza farm folks only sell pizza, and loaves of bread, so if you want anything else, like wine, beer, cups or glasses, you bring it yourself.

A to Z Produce & Bakery, N2956 Anker Lane, Stockholm, WI , 715-448-4802. Pizzas on Tuesdays only.

8. Bangkok Thai Deli.

I followed up on a reader’s tip and discovered what might be the best Thai food in the Twin Cities, in a dining room hidden away in the back room of an Asian market. The décor is minimal, unless you count the color photos of menu items, on the wall behind the counter. A handful of diners were watching Thai music videos on a small television.

I was on my bike, and ordered takeout, so I had to avoid the really sloshy dishes, like tom yum, but overall I was pretty impressed. My green curry with beef was lively and complex, made with baby Asian eggplant, kaffir lime leaves and fresh basil. My other entrée order was apparently misunderstood – I had asked for stir-fried Thai banana with shrimp ($8), but got a dish of stir-fried beef with red and green peppers – lively and very tasty.

Bangkok Thai Deli, 315 University Ave. W., St. Paul, 651-224-4300.

9. Curry Up!

My latest discovery on the Indian restaurant and grocery front is Curry Up! in Maple Grove, a big new grocery store offering fresh produce, lots of packaged goods, a little sweets and chaat (snack) counter, and a counter-service café in the back. The menu offers staple North Indian and South Indian dishes, vegetarian and with meat, plus some regional dishes that you don’t usually find in the US, like peppery Chettinad chicken from Tamil Nadu, or a famous Gujarati specialty called Undhiyu.

I have only sampled a few dishes so far, but I have enjoyed everything I tried, including the massive masala dosas, crisp lentil flour pancakes stuffed with a spiced mixture of potatoes and peas; the spicy sambar soup, and the spicy Hyderabadi eggplant. The selection of dishes offered on the $6.95 lunch buffet is limited in variety, but above-average in quality. I am eager to go back sometime soon and try some of the other items on the menu, including the chaat, a bunch of different kinds of street food snacks made with crunchy lentil flour wafers and noodles, yogurt, chick peas, onions, cilantro and spices. When I was there, the owner mentioned that they can also cater chaat for parties – a couple of their employees bring all the ingredients, and make the snacks to order.

Curry Up! 13601 Grove Dr., Maple Grove, 763-416-0473.

10. Kabobs

This little strip- mall storefront at 7814 Portland Ave. S. in Bloomington is tiny, and usually crowded. I have had the kabobs before (beef, lamb and chicken, $7.99-$10.99), and they are terrific, but this time I decided to concentrate on the vegetarian side of the menu. The aloo baigan, a potato and eggplant curry, was extremely hot and spicy, but the bhindi masala, baby okra in a tomatoey sauce was pungently flavorful without being overwhelming. At $4.99 for a big serving, these dishes are an incredible bargain – and much tastier than the versions that come in retort pouches.

Apparently, Chinese cuisine is in vogue in India – many of the grocery stores carry Indian versions of Chinese noodle dishes, packaged ramen-style, and Kabobs has a whole section of its menu devoted to Indo-Chinese dishes, including Szechuan beef and chicken ($6.99) , but I opted for the chili gobi, ($5.99) a dish of breaded deep-fried cauliflower florets in a spicy tomato sauce – delicious.

Kabobs, 7814 Portland Ave. S., 952-888-2779.

11. Sauced

This little neighborhood bistro at 2203 44th Ave. N. (at Penn Ave.) isn’t just the best restaurant in north Minneapolis; it’s the only restaurant in north Minneapolis with a menu of contemporary cuisine and a real wine list. Chef John Conklin’s menu ranges from spaghetti squash cakes over a red pepper coulis ($9) and seared scallops with a chamomile glaze ($11) to seared salmon with saffron risotto ($18) and grass-fed beef tenderloin over roasted red potatoes with currant demi-glace.

12. Giapponese

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I drove out to Giapponese, the new sushi bar / restaurant in Woodbury. Sushi is everywhere these days, including the refrigerator cases of local supermarkets, and since the sushi restaurants all tend to get the same ingredients from the same suppliers, it has become a pretty generic product. But the name – Italian for “Japanese” — was intriguing, and the online menu sounded pretty interesting: smoked salmon bruschetta and poki (the Hawaiian version of tuna tartare); and some varieties of fish and shellfish that seldom show up on local sushi menus, such as kawahagi (file fish, a member of the blowfish family) kinmeidai (golden eye snapper), kohada (gizzard shad) and walu (the Hawaiian name for a variety of escolar, sometimes sold as white tuna.

When I asked for omakase (chef’s choice), chef-owner Henry Chan immediately knew what I wanted, and proceeded to serve up a delightful series of courses: raw scallop, Tasmanian salmon, halibut rolled in a thin ribbon of cucumber, a whole small mackerel presented as sashimi, and a roll of tempura shrimp and avocado topped with tuna. Chan, who grew up in Wisconsin, recently moved here from Eau Claire, where he owns the town’s only sushi bar, the Shanghai Bistro.

Chan clearly has a passion for sushi, and listening to him, he sounds really committed to bringing in the best quality and most interesting varieties he can find. The selection is still pretty limited, but he says that as his sales volume grows, he will be adding more varieties. If you want to be notified when new and interesting varieties of sushi and seafood are available, send him an email at I just got an email yesterday, announcing the arrival of his live tanks (for holding lobster and shrimp), and a shipment of Hamma Hamma oysters from Washington state.

I’d like to go back sometime to try the Kobe beef steaks – a 16 ounce bone-in New York Strip and a 14 ounce ribeye, both $55. This isn’t the original Kobe beef from Japan, where the cattle are massaged daily and fed rations of beer, but it’s the same breed, Wagyu. Chan gets his beef from a friend who has a herd of Wagyu near Augusta, Wisconsin. $55 for a steak sounds pretty steep, compared to what other restaurants charge, it’s a bargain. Locally, Cosmos has imported Japanese Kobe beef on its menu for $17 an ounce (which would work out to $272 for a 16-ounce steak), and even that is a bargain compared to Craftsteak in Las Vegas. Craftsteak charges $105 for a 14-ounce American Wagyu ribeye, $184 for an eight-ounce Australian Wagyu ribeye, and $240 for an eight-ounce Japanese Wagyu steak – which works out to $480 a pound.

Giapponese Sushi
10060 Citywalk Drive
Woodbury, MN 55129
Phone: 651-578-7777

Jeremy Iggers
Author: Jeremy Iggers

Jeremy Iggers is a journalist, university instructor and social entrepreneur with interests that include food, philosophy and global-local connections. Previously, he was a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and publisher of the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He lives in south Minneapolis with his wife Carol and two cats.

About Jeremy Iggers

Jeremy Iggers is a journalist, university instructor and social entrepreneur with interests that include food, philosophy and global-local connections. Previously, he was a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and publisher of the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He lives in south Minneapolis with his wife Carol and two cats.

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