The past 12 months of my dining-out diary — well, the legible parts, anyway — are packed with soaring highs and a fair share of disappointing lows.
Let’s bury the latter and concentrate on the former. Ten of them, in fact.
This is a year when, without so much as glancing at my notes, I could have easily rattled off 20 top dishes. Such is the dynamism and creative energy of the Twin Cities dining scene. Seriously, has there ever been a better time to eat and drink in the metro area?
Even the Minnesota State Fair, that reliable barometer of populist tastes, demonstrated glimmers of true quality and ingenuity. Witness a spectacular, painstakingly fashioned BLT — from the Birchwood Cafe for the Minnesota Farmers Union — and the perfection of grilled peaches at the Produce Exchange.
In the way-too-many meals I enjoyed in restaurants since January, the most memorable dishes were the ones that reshaped the familiar or forged daring new paths.
My favorite pasta of the year was also the least complicated. Chef/owner Rikki Giambruno and chef de cuisine Paul Baker choose a bucatini (imported from a top-performing Italian farmstead operation) as the instrument for gathering olive oil, butter, pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano and an over-the-top amount of black pepper. Some of the peppercorns are mellowed after being cracked into the pan’s hot oil, others are ground, unadulterated, and added seconds before the plate leaves the kitchen. The layered effect is irresistible and unforgettable. $16 and $24.
790 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-478-1822, hyacinthstpaul.com
Chocolate soufflé at Edwards Dessert Kitchen
When chef Christina Kaelberer was executive pastry chef at New York City’s fabled Rainbow Room, she would routinely make 300 soufflés a day, so she has the format down. And how. Impeccably prepared, this miracle of egg whites and bitter Venezuelan chocolate — its intense flavors boosted by coffee — is the ultimate in indulgences. Kaelberer adds a poured-tableside anglaise infused with hints of vanilla and orange, plus a supple Mandarin orange sorbet she perfumes with pops of allspice. The portion can serve two, but perfection isn’t easy to share. $15.
200 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-800-0335, edwardsdessertkitchen.com
Venison tartare at In Bloom
A wildly dramatic 20-foot hearth is this restaurant’s visual and spiritual anchor, and chef Thomas Boemer and chef de cuisine Jeff Lakatos exploit its considerable powers with a dazzling array of dishes. Which is why it may seem odd to single out this raw but inspiring foray into what can be a powerfully gamy meat. Not here. In-house butcher Tyler Montgomery accentuates the meat’s velvety texture with a deft display of knife skills, and the venison’s pristine, herbaceous characteristics are enhanced but not overwhelmed with preserved lemon, pistachios and chives. Truly sublime. $13.
928 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-237-9630, inbloomstp.com
Cold scallop at Bardo
It’s tough to choose a favorite when chef Remy Pettus is doing the cooking. Is it the white anchovy tartine? Or the ethereal gnocchi, with chanterelles and smoked tomato? I’ll settle for the scallop crudo, the velvety, translucent flesh teased with yuzu’s acidic bite and delicately infused with a flurry of complementary flavors from the garden, including cilantro, radish and Thai chiles. Like so much of what comes out of this kitchen, it’s beautiful to look at, and we all eat with our eyes, right? $16.
222 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-886-8404, bardompls.com
Seafood pozole at Octo Fishbar
The most glorious soup I encountered in 2018 will forever remain connected to the words of my server. We were talking about the near inevitable disappointment encountered when chefs go overboard while remaking humble classics. “Usually, when the words ‘pozole,’ ‘James Beard award winner’ and ‘white guy’ are all mentioned in the same sentence, I run in the other direction,” he said. “But not here.” Agreed. Then again, the chef in question is Tim McKee — in partnership with Shane Oporto — and the broth (perfumed with cilantro and tomatillos) brims with top-flight scraps from the kitchen’s crudo station. Wow. $22.
289 E. 5th St., St. Paul, 651-202-3409, octostp.com
Balinese chicken thighs at Hai Hai
Yes, the Tuesday night what’s-for-dinner? question is often answered with “chicken,” so what’s so special about grilled chicken thighs? If you’re chef Christina Nguyen, the answer is everything. On a trip to Bali with husband and business partner Birk Grudem — the couple’s travels inspire dishes up and down the menu — they encountered a suckling pig preparation that Nguyen translated to chicken thighs, marinating them in coconut, lemon grass, chiles, turmeric and lime leaves, then grilling so the exterior crackles but the meat remains juicy and tender. $14.
2121 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-223-8640, haihaimpls.com
Potato churros at Martina
That a side dish could lodge itself in my food memory speaks to chef Daniel del Prado’s prodigious culinary gifts. Taking a cue from, of all things, the hash browns at McDonald’s, del Prado carefully pipes steamed potatoes — the secret binding agent is rice flour — into the shape of churros, then fries them until they’re gingerly crisp on the outside and fluffy and steaming hot on the inside. It’s impossible to imagine brunch — or dinner, for that matter — without them. $8.
4312 Upton Av. S., Mpls., 612-922-9913, martinarestaurant.com
Gem lettuce salad at the Bungalow Club
Right about the time I was going to mentally label the dinner salad as an almost-always-phoned-in menu item, along came chef Andrew Craft to the rescue. He layers crunchy, teasingly sweet gem lettuce leaves into an agreeable stack, like so many flapjacks. The greens’ many folds, wrinkles and bends become vessels for capturing a tangy buttermilk dressing that Craft enriches with charred green onions. The finishing touches are hard-cooked eggs and a pile-on of crispy crushed croutons made from olive oil-boosted focaccia. See? With imagination and scrupulous attention to detail, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. $10.
4300 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-866-3334, thebungalowclubmpls.com
Sweet potatoes at Popol Vuh
In a year when so many vegetarian dishes stepped to the forefront, this one really impressed. José Alarcon is one of several Twin Cities chefs exploiting the merits and possibilities of wood-fired cooking, and his prowess at the forge-like hearth is exemplified in this compelling spin on a Mexican street-food favorite. The fire’s intense heat elevates the sweet potatoes out of familiarity, a trick Alarcon fully exploits with well-placed pops of honey, woodsy Cascabel chiles and an epazote-infused crema. $11.
1414 NE. Quincy St., Mpls., 612-345-5527, popolvuhmpls.com
Pizza at Boludo
At this first-rate counter-service spot (a late-in-the-year arrival that’s the work of Facundo De Fraia and Teddy Kordonowy), it’s the empanadas that get top billing. And while they’re terrific (don’t miss the spinach-Fresno peppers and chorizo-mushroom versions), it’s the pizzas that keep me in daydream mode. The crusts — golden, and puffed-up along the edges — are vehicles for all kinds of goodness, particularly the oblong-shaped beauty that’s covered with pear slices, Gorgonzola, pine nuts, tons of dill and a liberal amount of flaky sea salt. $11 to $15.
3749 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-965-2858, boludoempanadas.com