Are we lucky, or what? They take the risks; we gobble the results.
The past year has proved exceptionally fortunate for diners who value good eats above glitz, and chef-driven kitchens over corporate diktat, backed by local provender, not the lobster-pineapple special. To succeed in this crazy biz requires not only table stakes of top kitchen skills but expertise in crisis management and funding that might drop jaws at the State Capitol. Yet, restaurants continue to open. Here are the top six of 2014.
It could be 100 degrees below zero and the lines would still block the sidewalk of the newest kid on the Warehouse block — and for good reason. The long-awaited Spoon and Stable comes close to serving as the textbook-perfect dining destination, where chef/patron Gavin Kayson subscribes to Minnesota Nice with a simple (-sounding) menu (pot roast, chicken) backed by stellar kitchen talent, a staff that pin their hopes on your enjoyment, and a quietly classy, welcoming space.
Workshop at Union is quite the opposite, and also quite the tour de force. And the Force who’ll be with you is Stewart Woodman, of Heidi’s, and now culinary guru of the Kaskaid group. The downtown weekend-dinner-only spot is less frenzied than that under Union’s glass-topped roof above it, and the food’s far better, though no more costly. Stewart’s menu reads like experiments from the brain of a culinary Stephen Hawking — lots of “What???” pairings — arguably the most avant-garde in town — segueing into a satisfied “Aah!”: exciting but non-intimidating at the same time.
Lyn-Lake’s Heyday is likewise a culinary floorshow, but on a more down-home, c’mon in basis, built upon a salvaged barnwood setting, skilled, homegrown staff, and menu of small plates that make deciding tough but eating easy.
Small plates are the forte, too, at Uptown’s uber-the-top Coup d’Etat, born of the boys behind Borough (last years’ top pick). Oh, there’s glitz, and the noise that goes with it, in the assertively glam, two-story digs, backed by a food list capturing the talking points of luxe (foie gras, bone marrow — plus donuts with a side of candied bacon) plus plenty of pasta and pizza for us proles.
Well, Kim Bartmann’s done it again. Hard to think of a loser in her loosely-joined cast of eateries, and The Third Bird — her recent re-do of that prime kitchen real estate aside Loring Park — insures her top standing in eco and locovore orbits. Make a meal — an affordable, enticing one — by mix-and-matching the small plates, conceived with originality, yet not beamed in from outer space. Trust your server-in-the-know for tips.
So what’s a fine(er) dining restaurant doing off downtown’s beaten path? Doing fine, thank you. Brasserie Zentral occupies the off-center site chosen by St. Paul’s top chef, Russell Klein of Meritage, for a foray into the beating heart of old Vienna and her mittel-European kin. While the room’s a bit, um, stodgy, the food is anything but. Face it: How long since you’ve had a good schnitzel — or to-die-for strudel, for that matter?
Honorable mention to Hola Arepa for vaulting from food truck to bricks-and-mortar (and plenty of signature teal) status, now serving a sweet list of rustic, corn-forward eats.