The rise of East Town
Back in the day, color it gray: no reason to patrol its dingy sidewalks. Today, thanks to classy condos too numerous to count, a destination theater and a grand new stadium, the area—newly christened East Town—is humming with some of the trendiest dining destination in the city. They’re backed by a renewed interest in a couple of longtime dining oases still blooming in a former culinary desert.
South Washington Avenue has always been the area’s corridor, delivering folks from points north in the city to points south. Today it hosts tasty new reasons to pull over and enjoy the evening.
Let’s start, as many a good time does, with beer. Day Block Brewing Company, at 11th & Washington, debuted in 2005 in the former HQ of a lumber and milling magnate, after which they named their primo IPA, Leonard Day. And, what’s a pint without pub snacks? The kitchen agrees, readily supplying pretzels, charcuterie and cheese plates, beer mussels, and flights—get this!—of bacon and of pickles. What’s not to like? Check out the global pizzas, too.
Moving north, Wasabi Fusion, 903 Washington Ave. S., is your one-stop for Japanese eats, from tempura and teriyaki to hibachi dinners. But the main reason to find a seat is the kitchen’s sushi; choose from a list longer than Nelsons in the phone book.
Sanctuary, also at 903 Washington Ave. S., is one of the city’s surprises, an Alice in Wonderland experience set in grotto-like chambers, where Chef Patrick Atanalian creates complicated dishes that, I promise you, no one has ever envisioned, like halibut with watermelon ratatouille, ancho pepper syrup and China Cola foam. Or New Mexican pepper-painted pork tenderloin, served with a white chocolate cheesecake mousse and cherry emulsion. (I’m not making this up.) Bargain tasting menus weekdays.
Next in line, Old Spaghetti Factory, 233 Park Ave., scene—since forever—of Italian eats chosen to soothe the palates of office gatherings and visiting Scout troops in a warehouse saved from the wrecker’s ball. The fare’s more original at neighboring Sawatdee, longtime leader of Thai cuisine backed by décor to dazzle—both imported from her homeland by Supenn Harrison, doyenne of spring rolls and curries.
Cross the street, and the map, to Zen Box Izakaya, 602 Washington Ave. S., possibly the most homey Japanese joint in town, offering authentic comfort dishes (good sign: no California roll) in tapas-like portions. Mix yourself a feast from the list of irresistible gyoza, slippery udon noodles, bowls of donburi, rice balls and more, orchestrated by John and Lina, as passionate about hospitality as they are about their hometown eats. Bet you crave a beer after that. Just steps away, the Crooked Pint, 501 Washington Ave. S., obliges, and gladly furnishes a side of pub fare like pot pies, Lucys and tater tots. Live music and trivia, too.
Eastside, 305 Washington Ave. S., is the new kid on the stretch, all dressed up to serve the folks in adjoining condos who’re scared of their own stoves. And why turn on the oven when you can dine instead on New American interpretations like roast chicken piled with pliant polenta, arctic char aside morels and spring onions, or a new spin on surf ’n’ turf: swordfish cum pork belly? Belly up to the bar lining the open kitchen or choose a windowside table.
Veer west, off Washington, for a pair of worthy kitchens, one a classic, one pulsing with new blood. Ask grandpa about The Normandy Kitchen, 405 S. 8th St., and he’ll start with a story about the famed Henry VIII burger, on the menu since 1941 (and for a good reason). But today you can order it with a side of fries Bearnaise. It occupies pride of place on a revised, hipster-friendly list that salutes kale with quinoa, and caramelized Brussels sprouts fattened with lardons. Pot roast? Sure—but today with truffled mashed potatoes. Star of the kitchen may be the roast chicken for two with all—and I do mean all—the trimmings, from gingerbread-cherry stuffing to parsnips, carrots, fingerlings and pearl onions.
Harder to find, but worth the effort, is Mona—a wood-clad haven in the Accenture Tower on South 7th. Here Chef/patron Lisa (thus the name: Get it?) Sarazin creates a series of inventive small plates, from BLT devilled eggs to eggplant/spinach lasagna; from pink, plump shrimp in dill mayo on brioche to an easygoing veggie Madame sandwich.
Where to eat when holding Guthrie tickets? Three choices that don’t require a hike, starting with Kindee Thai, 719 S. 2nd St., home of lettuce wraps, curries and stir fries in a modern setting. Sharing a sidewalk with the Guthrie, Spoonriver, 750 S. 2nd St., celebrating 10 years of delivering what’s fresh and fine in local, sustainable cuisine, is the urbane offspring of Brenda Langton’s original Café Brenda, pioneer of haute-veggie cooking. Today she includes meat and seafood (daily specials) in her market basket, along with her idea of tasty burgers: veggie/nut/rice or Moroccan lamb.
Anchoring the Guthrie itself, the James Beard awarded chefs of Sea Change, 806 S. 2nd St., showcase seafood as carefully curated as what’s onstage. The riverview see-and-be-seen room provides a cosmo backdrop for ultra-fresh crudi and offbeat starters (sweetbreads, octopus, pea soup sparked with mint and lobster) as prelude to pristine cuts of fish. As they say in the building, enjoy the show!