I recently took a trip to Minnesota to visit my wonderful dietitian friend, Doha and her husband, Mo and to check out the food scene. If I'm being honest, I didn't expect to find much beyond a seven layer casserole out there in the midwest, but after a quick Google search on the top restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul my stomach was already growling. Four days spent in the Land of 10,000 Lakes I ate my fair share of hash browns, but I left with my belly full and tastebuds satisfied by far more sophisticated foods than expected. I also got a few lessons in food history and spotted some food themed art while I was there. All and all Minnesota surpassed my expectations and I won't hesitate to go back.
In order to catch my 7am flight I was up at 3am and out the door at 4am. When I landed in St.Paul around 9:00 all I had had was a terrible, cup of airplane coffee. Needless to say I was HUNGRY. First stop, Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown for...eggs and hash browns.
No, I didn't make up the name 'Dinkytown'. It's an area of Minneapolis that's home to the University of Minnesota, and by far the most populous place I walked through while visiting. For a city, Minneapolis seems to be short on people. Or perhaps my perspective is a little skewed by the more than 2.5 million people who I call neighbors in Brooklyn, compared to the roughly 400,000 residing in Minneapolis. Dinky indeed.
Al's Breakfast has been serving up greasy-spoon, American breakfasts since 1950. It's quite literally an alleyway, stuffed between two larger establishments in the most inconspicuous of ways. Despite its modest appearance Minnesotans flock here on the weekends and wait in line for the perfect comfort food. It's not unusual for the line to snake out the door and down the sidewalk. Al's only has 14 seats at a counter and there's just enough space for patrons waiting to stand behind you against the wall and watch jealously over your shoulder while you drink your bottomless cup of coffee and chat with the tattooed, bearded men behind the counter. (Wait, am I in Brooklyn or the Midwest?) It's not unusual for you sit in more than one seat during the same meal, shifting down for the next in line every time someone pays their bill. Lucky for me there's no line today.
For my first meal in Minnesota it only seemed appropriate to go for 'the Jose', two of the most beautifully poached eggs I've ever seen sat on top of crispy hash browns, smothered in cheddar cheese and served with a side of fresh salsa. I've personally named this the unofficial dish of Minnesota. Over the next four days, I would see (and eat!) a lot of eggs, cheese, and hash browns. I wasn't mad about it, and all but licked my plate clean at Al's.
Al's gives the kind of experience that makes you feel both special and at home. Intimate, and yet shared by the many who have sat in the same seat before you and the many more who will come after you. In 2004, Al's Breakfast won a James Beard Foundation award in the "America's Classics Restaurants" category and made an appearance on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, in 2007. It's stayed in the original Al's family, passed down through generations to maintain its famous, yet humble place between two alley walls in Dinkytown.
Next up, waterfalls and sushi burritos. Everything about that sentence sounds so right, right? Doha and I took a drive to Minnehaha Park to see the waterfalls and walk the trails. (I won't go into how great/scary it is to be in a car with a born and raised New Yorker who has only had her license for about two years. But you could imagine.) I quickly came to recognize one of the greatest perks of living in the Twin Cities--everywhere there are lakes, Minnesota has so many lakes that one of the most well known butter manufacturers hailing from there rightly named themselves Land O'Lakes Butter. Most of the lakes are man made to act as reservoirs for the seemingly endless amount of snow. Minneapolis has on average 100 days out of the year with at least one inch of snow fall. The lakes give it all some place to go when it starts to melt. The juxtaposition of city and nature is truly something special. Fortunately, Spring graciously arrived in Minnesota just as I did. Actually the snow had melted a few weeks ahead of my arrival creating somewhat underwhelming waterfalls.
We worked up an appetite walking the trails and hopped back into the car to test out sushi burritos at Sota Rol, a Minnesota (Sota) founded establishment which claims not to use any MSG, dyes, peanuts, GMOs, or gluten. Skipping these less than desireable ingredients and boasting sustainable seafood and house made kimchi, my hopes were set pretty high.
There were so many delicious sounding options on the menu it was difficult to make a decision. Sota Rol also offers sushi bowls and traditional rolls, but ultimately we each ordered a 'Sotorito'. I landed on 'the Monkey'--salmon, mango, purple cabbage, tempura flakes, coconut mango sauce--and Doha chose a classic combination of flavors with 'the Spicy Tuna'--spicy tuna, jalapeno, tempura flakes, cucumber, spicy mayo. Between the two, the Spicy Tuna was definitely the winner, but I have to say overall I was as underwhelmed by the sushi burritos as I was the flow of the waterfalls. My biggest qualm was the use of soy paper over seaweed to wrap the burritos. Without the seaweed flavor component they seemed incomplete. But at least I snapped this beautiful picture of Doha in natural light while we were there.
After Sushi Burritos we were headed for some entertainment at the Guthrie Theater to see Harvey, a show about a man whose best friend is a six foot tall invisible rabbit. (For what it's worth we gave it 5 stars.) Before the show began we decided to take a walk through a little food history at Mill City Ruins. Once the epicenter of flour production in the U.S. now just a really beautiful place for prom and engagement photos. Albeit really beautiful prom and engagement photos.
Flour used to be a major part of the local economy in Minneapolis, utilizing waterpower from the Mississippi River to run the processing plants. But as technology developed the plants in Mill City seemed to lag behind, ultimately accepting defeat in the early 1900s. Today North Dakota holds the crown for the highest wheat production in the U.S. Minnesota sits at number eight on a list of ten.
After laughing our way through Harvey we were on our way to check another restaurant off of the list. This time we found something a little more upscale at Spoon and Stable. This beautiful restaurant opened in downtown Minneapolis by Minnesota native, yet New York transplant chef Gavin Kaysen. Chef Kaysen worked as the Chef de Cuisine at Cafe’ Boulud in New York City and was the 2008 recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Award as well as a star earner by the coveted Michelin Guide all before returning to his home state to open Spoon and Stable in 2014, with incredible success I should add.
A sucker for words myself, I could not be happier to see a page on Chef Kaysen's website dedicated to what inspires him in the kitchen, including a few quotes like the one above. Chef Kaysen has some great ideas about food. He's currently working on a project for charity he's dubbed Synergy Series. Synergy Series is bringing together four top chefs with a total of nine Michelin stars to benefit four charities by selling tickets to four premium dinners. Each chef will host one evening of culinary greatness at Spoon and Stable and 25% of the proceeds will go to a charity of each chef's choosing. Tickets are being sold for $295 for a multi-course meal, beverage pairings, tax and tip. To sit at the chef’s counter and interact with the chefs patrons will pay $395. Tickets to the first dinner hosted on April 28, 2016 are reported to have sold out within five minutes. The dinner featured Chef Michael White of New York's Altamarea Group, which includes Ai Fiori, Marea, Osteria Morini, Nicoletta, Vaucluse, and Costata. Other chefs slated for Synergy Series are Michael Anthony, executive chef at Gramercy Tavern and the cafes at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig in New York City, and Daniel Boulud of Cafe’ Boulud in New York.
We were too late for dinner, but got a few snacks off of the bar menu. The menu changes pretty often and even as I write this a few weeks later two of the three items we chose have already been swapped out for more seasonably appropriate foods. A staple to a place like Spoon and Stable is its fantastic cheese selection. We chose two and took the recommendation of our server for the third. I wish I could go into a deep description about the sheep's milk gouda or the double cream brie, but sadly I over-estimated my memory keeping abilities for any details. I do know that we were very pleased. We also got an order of the octopus tacos which didn't exactly blow me away. The heaviness of the refried beans seemed to compete too much with the lightness of the octopus. Doha and her husband ordered something else that they seemed to really love, suffice it to say I paid little attention due to it's gluten contents (paid little attention only so I wouldn't feel too sad about not being able to eat it).
It's fair to say that ordering only three bites from the bar menu isn't enough to take a strong stance on Spoon and Stable, however I love everything that's going on here and truly hope to sit for a full dinner experience the next time I'm in town.
Between meals we also checked out some of the art in Minnesota, including The Walker Art Center. Sadly, the sculpture park is being renovated leaving the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry by artists
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen standing alone. Having originally gotten a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts prior to studying nutrition I get really happy when food and art collide. The larger than life spoon and cherry along with potato patterned wall paper made me forget that we had hoped to walk through the outdoor sculpture park.
The grand finale of my hunt for good food in Minnesota happened in St. Paul. Although not the last place we ate, probably the most noteworthy. In downtown St Paul we stumbled upon a gorgeous french bistro called Meritage on St. Peters street. We were full of coffee and rice crispy treats, but stopped to sit outside and have something small before we ventured on to visit friends. The second the menu hit the table I knew we made the right choice. Written across the front were the words "Cooking is like love; It's all about timing and chemistry."
With a heartwarming love story as the framework, this place is truly wonderful. Executive Chef Russell Klein first married his wife Desta Maree in the same space they now call their restaurant. Chef Klein is also a New York City transplant, and trained in French cuisine. Noted as a point of contentment for some--his lack of Frenchness--I myself would have never guessed he was born in Queens.
Meritage boasts an extensive oyster bar with a long list of East and West coast oysters and highlights seasonal and local items. The menu has almost completely turned over since I was there. Chef Klein was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award in 2015 and has become a fixture of the Twin City food scene, opening his second restaurant Brasserie Zentral in downtown Minneapolis in 2014.
Mo ordered a small dish of gnocchi that seemed to send him into his own little paradise. Admittedly even I was tempted to order it, but resisted the little gluten-filled devils. Instead I ordered one of the best salads I've had in my life. Again, I over-estimated my memory keeping skills and completely lack an adequate description, but on the bright side I've learned my lesson for the next time I intend to eat and write about it--take notes and take pictures. Looking back at the menu now and other people's pictures of the beautiful food I'm mortified that we didn't order dessert. Yet another reason to return.
The service at Meritage is also noteworthy. We were offered blankets to stay warm outside, but declined to enjoy the 60 degree evening. A man-bunned server took care of us, and again had me wondering if I was back in Brooklyn. Overall the atmosphere kept us lingering for far longer than necessary, yet we never once felt like we were being rushed out. Salut Meritage. You are great.
Minnesota, you're not so bad either. I'll definitely be back to see these two great people and explore more of your delicious provisions. And next time I'll document every bite.
More About the Author
Becky Facteau is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in autoimmune conditions and positive eating. Becky studied food and nutrition at 'the Harvard of CUNY schools,' Brooklyn College and has been working in the field since 2012. Becky has extensive experience working within the intersecting relationships of food, economics, and health disparities. She has also worked alongside culinary nutritionists and executive chefs at Michelin rated restaurants in New York City. Becky is well known for her skills in the kitchen and is currently offering her home cooked meals through the delivery service Umi Kitchen. Her meals are high in nutrients, vegetarian, gluten-free, and delicious!
eat yer veggies
We’re two Registered Dietitian Nutritionists of kindred spirit, living and working in New York City. We believe that healthy eating and sustainability go hand-in-hand — every bite you take has the power to improve both the world and your health!