A two-block stretch of N. 2nd Street in Minneapolis' North Loop is quickly transforming into the city's buzziest Restaurant Row, with offerings from chefs Gavin Kaysen, Daniel del Prado, Shigeyuki Furukawa and David Fhima.
Tim McKee, the first Minnesota chef to garner a James Beard Award for his legendary La Belle Vie, was slated to join the hall-of-famers this year, but the high-profile West Hotel project where McKee is set to open a Spanish restaurant is facing delays.
That's not keeping McKee off the block, however. While he waits for the West to finish construction (sometime next year), he has signed on to a limited residency at Sanjusan, the vibrant Japanese-Italian restaurant that inhabits the ground floor of a blond-brick building at the corner of 2nd Street and 1st Avenue N.
McKee is starring in a one-man show for his Itameshi Omakase — a chef-driven, seven-course tasting menu that explores the intersections of Japanese and Italian cuisine.
Location: 33 1st Av. N., Mpls., 612-354-7763, sanjusanrestaurant.com. Sanjusan is open daily from 5 to 10 p.m. The Itameshi Omakase is offered Thu.-Sat. at 5:15 and 7:30 p.m. until mid-December. Prepaid reservations for $135 are available at exploretock.com/sanjusan.
The vibe: On a twinkle-lit urban corner that could have been plucked out of New York's East Village, Sanjusan is lively and snug, with just one row of tables backing up against a seated kitchen counter in its main dining room. McKee's omakase takes place at that counter, where you'll be seated elbow to elbow with new friends and get a front-row view of hardworking chefs doing their thing.
The food: Itameshi is the Japanese word for Italian food, and Sanjusan has been exploring that intersection since it opened in 2021, with crudo and yakitori, pasta and wood-fired pizza. In a way, McKee has been exploring that intersection even longer, thanks to his travels and deep knowledge of both cuisines from his early restaurant years: a formative kitchen job at Figlio, rising through the ranks at D'Amico's Azur and Cucina in the mid-'90s, consulting on the opening of Masu Sushi & Robata in 2011.
On this night, a dumpling-like Ligurian pasta, pansotti, is stuffed with tofu instead of the traditional ricotta. For spicy pork ramen, or ja ja men, McKee uses square-cut spaghetti alla chitarra as the base for pork and eggplant. A Japanese side dish of rice with barbecued eel employs Arborio rice for a risotto-like base.
Facing McKee at the counter, watching him meticulously prep and plate his dishes, hearing him explain his inspiration for each ingredient and how it demonstrates where Japanese and Italian food meet, diners get a glimpse of what McKee's other profession might have been had he not become one of the country's best chefs: He once pursued a career in anthropology.
The drinks: A $70 wine and sake pairing is on offer, but Sanjusan's regular drink menu is available to make your own pairing of cocktails, zero-proof drinks, wine and sake. My dining companion and I found the Scaia rose ($15 glass, $60 bottle) to go especially well with nearly every course of the omakase.
Also at Sanjusan: If the omakase's price tag (or limited reservations) keeps it out of reach, consider a regular dinner at Sanjusan. McKee and Sanjusan executive chef Peter Thillen have collaborated on several new additions, including the ja ja men from the omakase menu, which can be ordered a la carte for $27.
Two pizzas join the menu: the vongole ($25) has a base of kombu cream, and is topped with clams that have been soaked in sake; and the okonomiyaki ($24) honors the indulgent Japanese street food by topping the supple crust with shrimp, charred cabbage and Kewpie mayo.
Most memorable was a plate of rainbow crudité and Japanese pickles served with a bowl of black bagna cauda, an Italian anchovy dip, its funkiness enhanced by squid ink ($17). When I ordered it, a guest at a neighboring table who had already finished that course watched me as I prepared to take my first bite. "I just wanted to see your reaction when you tasted it," she said with a grin. If that dip was bottled and sold, there's at least two of us who would buy it in bulk.