The meal started with pancakes, although they were no ordinary flapjacks. Martina chef/co-owner Daniel del Prado fashioned them from almond flour, a gluten-free alternative that sounds ponderous but turns out to be the exact opposite. Airy, golden and gleaming with almond butter, fresh berries and a drizzle of maple syrup, they made me rethink my lifelong allegiance to buttermilks and buckwheats.
“It’s not me doing something intentionally gluten-free, although they are,” he said. “It’s just that I happen to like them better than regular pancakes.”
They’re one of the many reasons why dining at Martina is a frequently joyous experience; it’s del Prado’s knack for successfully nudging familiar dishes into exciting — and wholly satisfying — new directions.
Turns out we were just getting started. Egg dishes were all on deck but, like the pancakes, they landed slightly, marvelously off-center, and were frequently paired with seafood.
Once cracked, every molecule of a soft-cook egg dissipated into a decadent spaghetti carbonara, each forkful dotted with quietly sweet crab. Crab was also the headliner in a Benedict, but it turns out that supple béarnaise laced with uni (sea urchin roe) was the real star of the show.
Tender poached lobster headlined a beautiful open-faced sandwich — tarragon and celery leaves added the herbaceous kick that flows in and out of much of del Prado’s handiwork — but a fried egg was the crowning glory. Another open-faced stunner notched avocado toast up a few notches with the introduction of tangy, snappy pickled shrimp.
Shell-shaped empanadas — the crusts buttery and flaky — were filled with creamed leeks punched up with Gorgonzola, and I’ve rarely encountered better; if there was justice in this world, del Prado and staffer Facundo de Fraia would launch an empanaderia somewhere, preferably within walking distance of my house.
Then there’s the menu’s bona fide Instagram star, a double-patty burger blanketed in duvet-level amounts of American cheese.
The well-informed members of the Twin Cities chapter of the Cheeseburger Appreciation Society will recognize that it’s the meticulous handiwork of chef Joe Rolle. Now a member of the Martina kitchen crew, Rolle is the brains behind the standard-setting diner-style burgers at Parlour and the former Il Foro, and the over-the-top version that he’s crafted here is every bit their equal.
Del Prado has made a few minor adjustments, placing crunchy lettuce, a tomato slice and a bit of lemon-fueled vinaigrette on the side, part of his tireless campaign to brighten with acid.
“I’m an acid freak,” he said. “I like food with a lot of acid.”
And invention leads the day with churros, fashioned from potatoes. Inspired, oddly enough, by the hash browns at McDonald’s, del Prado uses rice flour to bind the flesh of steamed potatoes, piping the mixture to resemble churros and then frying them until they’re crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside and quite possibly the Twin Cities’ most irresistible, gone-in-60-seconds side dish.
Truly, Martina is leading the way into a golden brunch era. Good luck obtaining a reservation.
Pasta like Mom’s
Martina reinforces the doctrine that great restaurants become the launchpads for more great restaurants.
Think about it. Del Prado, a Buenos Aires native, was a longtime acolyte of one of Minnesota’s great chefs, Isaac Becker, playing a pivotal role in the creation (and continued excellence) of two of Becker’s four-star properties, Bar La Grassa, and Burch Steak and Pizza Bar, both in Minneapolis.
That success prompts the question: Whom is del Prado mentoring in the Martina kitchen who will someday strike out on his or her own, continuing to elevate the Twin Cities dining scene?
Much of Martina’s considerable appeal lies in del Prado’s decision to anchor the menu in the cooking rituals of his family back in Argentina.
“The food at the restaurant is the food I get when I go to visit,” he said. “They’re all better cooks than I am.”
His southern Italian mother is embodied in the menu’s half-dozen pastas, each more entrancing than the last.
What’s fascinating about the restaurant is how del Prado relies on a shorthand to get across a familial gustatory dialect. Without resorting to tiresome repetition, dishes up and down the menu are redolent in some combination of six key ingredients: mint, a funky fish sauce, serrano chiles, garlic and lime (lots of lime; the kitchen consumes several thousand of them each week) and del Prado’s favorite spice, turmeric.
“Maybe because I love wine so much,” he said. “It’s the tannins that make turmeric so bitter. You need to balance it with something sweet.” In the case of a standout pasta, that sweetness arrives in the form of tomatoes, which enriches slow-braised lamb and a sheep’s milk cheese (and that pungent turmeric) as they cling to freshly prepared fusilli.
A rustic tomato sauce, brightened with a carrot reduction, is a rapturous complement to pillowy gnocchi. Rather than using traditional spinach for malfatti, del Prado packs the dumpling-like pasta with garden-fresh herbs, a total delight. Spaghetti with tender lobster sports a naughty wait-for-it burn, thanks to roasted fresno chiles.
Another draw is the way del Prado and executive chef Sam Miller introduce rarely seen (for the Twin Cities, anyway) ingredients into diners’ vocabularies.
Beef tongue, for example. Riffing on the classic vitello tonnato formula, they deftly substitute grilled, thinly sliced and deeply flavorful tongue for veal, using a sardine aioli in place of the usual tuna sauce, laying the surf-and-turf components out on a hearty charred bread. It’s terrific.
Then there’s his approach to Brussels sprouts, lightening the vegetable’s cabbage-like qualities by using the leaves as the foundation for a salad, one that’s alive with feathery frisée, tangy goat cheese, salty pancetta and a tangy sherry vinaigrette.
Or the almost sculptural outcome from merging a pair of tried-and-true dishes, one from Britain, the other from Argentina, marrying crab and hearts of palm and switching up an anchor — ketchup — with carrot juice that’s reduced, and concentrated, resulting in an unexpected (and, not coincidentally, utterly delightful) color and flavor finishes.
“I love surprising people,” del Prado said. “Especially if it’s using ingredients that are usually prepared one way, but I change it and prepare it a different way.”
Or giant tiger prawns, imported from Africa’s Gulf of Guinea.
“Something simple, but with a hook,” said del Prado, the “hook” being the prawns’ gigantic, conversation-inducing scale. The “simple” side of the equation comes in its preparation: a brush of olive oil, a quick turn on the grill and a pairing with a spirited, colorful chimichurri, the vinegar-fueled staple of every Argentine table.
Yes, Martina is definitely a fish-forward restaurant, starting with juicy scallops, seared to a mouthwatering caramel, and tender, teasingly smoky grilled octopus.
Mackerel, such a dense, oily creature, is a del Prado favorite. It’s grilled, then the fish’s qualities are accented with a Green Goddess-inspired finish, with avocado and, yes, plenty of lime.
Another stunner is whole trout — sometimes from Idaho, a landscape that del Prado loves, and sometimes from Wisconsin’s beautiful Driftless Area — chosen because the fish holds its structure, post-fillet. It’s a must, the fish stuffed with a bread-free crabcake mixture, the sweetness of the crab playing against the freshwater purity of the trout.
Mishaps? A few, including the kitchen’s unpredictable pace, an occasional sodium overindulgence and a dish or two that didn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the menu’s mind-set; all were issues encountered on an early visit, and resolved as the staff gained its footing.
And does Minneapolis really need another mini-homage to the steakhouse? At least the expertly selected and prepared rib-eyes and flatirons fall firmly in the “impressive” category.
The former Upton 43 space remains its recognizably stylish self, but del Prado and his backers instituted a few design changes to make the place their own. Booths — remote, semiprivate — have been replaced with snug half-shell banquettes, and tables are shoehorned into an almost elbow-to-elbow closeness. The result, while crowded and boisterous, is an animated sociability that contradicts Minnesota’s frequently standoffish dining-out nature.
In a move reminiscent of the Guthrie’s thrust stage, the bar has been pushed into the thick of the dining room, dialing up the people-watching possibilities and giving bartender Marco Zappia the showy platform that he and his work merit.
Greenery, and plenty of it, injects color into the otherwise subdued, gallery-like palette, and if there’s a Martina music playlist on Spotify, sign me up.
The watch-them-cook kitchen remains the same, right down to the oak and cherry crackling in the stove, an asset that immediately drew del Prado to the property (“in Argentina, we cook on fire,” he said); it’s similar to the one he mastered at Burch.
But he doesn’t overuse it, not by a long shot. There’s balance, for example, in the immaculate, fastidiously garnished crudo.
Pastry chef Jessica Vostinar’s work is as clean-cut — and as technically proficient — as del Prado’s, from a firm, creamy flan garnished with chestnuts to a dense and intensely chocolaty flourless cake.
Her delicate take on an apple galette is as pretty as it is tasty. Best is a dream of a crêpe, so tender and eggy and lavished with the unbeatable combination of caramel and bananas. It’s the kind of not-too-sugary sweet that begs a repeat order.
Vostinar isn’t baking at brunch, a frequent deal-breaker for me; after all, how hard is it to pull together a muffin, or a coffee cake? But this is a case of absolution by proximity, because when über-baker John Kraus’ Rose Street Patisserie is just a few feet away, it’s (more than) perfectly acceptable to feature his perfectly rendered pastries.
When Martina is operating at full throttle, which is almost always, its palpable energy is a positive testament to the future of dining in this city. In an era notable for restaurant closings, it’s reassuring to see that restaurants — particularly those on Martina’s level — continue to open.
That’s due to the passions and drive of an irreplaceable community of chefs and entrepreneurs, of which del Prado is a key member.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757
Info: 4312 Upton Av. S., Mpls., 612-922-9913, martinarestaurant.com
Hours: Dinner 5-11 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 5 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. Brunch 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Service: General manager Morgan Lent leads a polished and hospitable crew.
Price ranges: Most mid-$20s and under.
Recommended dishes: At dinner, avocado bruschetta, beef tongue bruschetta, king crab, empanadas, kale cavatelli, lamb fusilli, mackerel, tiger prawn, panqueque, apple galette. At brunch, crab carbonara, lobster toast, crab Benedict, cheeseburger, almond flour pancakes.
Beverage program: Marco Zappia, a rising-star barkeep, crafts some of the city’s most quaffable cocktails, with prices hovering around $9, a minor miracle in today’s marked-up market. Wine list surveys France, Italy and California (but drops into Argentina, Chile and Spain), at accessible prices; half of the 19 by-the-glass options are $10 and under.
Special menus: More than cursory options for those following vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets.
Sound level: Conversation can be challenging when the dining room is full.