By: David Hyland
Let’s face facts. When most people think of the Twin Cities, images of blizzard-like conditions and bitter, breathless cold crystallize in their minds as fast as a Minnesota quick-freeze.
But over the past twenty years, that perception has thawed as Minneapolis and St. Paul have emerged as home for the corporate heroes of the new economy and magnets for young people
from the upper Midwest and beyond.
And that influx of new ideas, divergent backgrounds and disposable income has transformed the Twin Cities from the haven of hot dish and food on a stick to one of the more overlooked multicultural foodie meccas.
Start a whirlwind trip right with an evening at Bar La Grassa, a revelatory Italian eatery that reimagines classic cuisine. It opened three years ago on the outskirts of downtown Minneapolis’s Warehouse District and is co-owned by 2011’s best chef in the Midwest, according to the James Beard Foundation. The vivid eggplant caponata stands out among many other tantalizing bruschetta options. The pappardelle with veal ragu or linguini with clams and asparagus are ideal selections for Bolognese-philes looking for a calculated risk. The menu offers both small and large portions, making Bar La Grassa ideal for solo eating or small-group sharing.
The sharing continues at the Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, found only a few blocks away. Here, folks congregate for late-night Mediterranean and Middle Eastern sampling. The Turk hummus, featuring caramelized paprika butter and the Arabic spice za’tar, and the marinated spring beans and peas paired with lamb pancetta, are ideal entry points to this low-lit dinner party with a chic North African locale vibe. The dishes underline Saffron’s appreciation for kitchen hybrids born in the world’s crossroads. There’s no greater example of this than the sautéed Parisian gnocchi, which is partnered with vegetables and black truffle-taleggio cheese fondue. And what Midwesterner doesn’t love fondue?
If your lunch plans command something more substantial and thrilling, Punch Neapolitan Pizza is made to order. The emergence of Punch as a metro-wide chain is a testament to its unique quickie gourmet concept and the tastiness of what emerges from its wood-burning brick ovens. Born in a rundown strip mall in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood in the late ’90s, Punch thrives thanks to an uncommon dedication to Old World concepts of thin-crust pizza making. The caper-rich and feta-covered Adriatico best exemplifies the simple beauty of Punch’s high-quality ingredients and exquisitely scorched crusts recall pizza’s rustic-meets-urban roots in southern Italy. And while pizza takes center stage, patrons shouldn’t forget Punch’s Caesar salad, an all-star on its own.
Punch’s Cinderella story couldn’t contrast more with that of Café Latte, which has long been an anchor on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue and is reliability personified. Café Latte features an a la carte counter with a variety of soups, sandwiches and salads ideal for the light lunch or dinner. The chicken Caesar pasta salad redefines this dish from deli leftovers into a scrumptious mix of protein, noodles and a pugnacious taste. The chicken salsa chili is rich and spicy and so well executed you can enjoy an array of tomato-ensconced flavors before the heat kicks in. If you’ve saved room for dessert, don’t miss Café Latte’s mouth-watering cakes and tarts, including giant slices of New York cheesecake, topped with a glistening strawberry.
When it’s time to leave, a new perspective of the Twin Cities dining scene should be frozen in your mind. And with hundreds of other delicious choices to explore next time, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
David Hyland is a Madison-based music critic and digital media guru.
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