Last week, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Peter Lilienthal, one of the restaurant reviewers for Minneapolis-St Paul magazine. I was introduced to him through a friend given my love of writing about food. Next up on his list of restaurants to review was A25, so Peter graciously asked that I grab two hungry souls and come join him.
A25, which opened a few months ago, is the newly reincarnated version of Anemoni, the former sushi outpost of Thom Pham’s Azia Restaurant. A25’s website dares you to imagine yourself stepping off a train and into a back alley of Tokyo, where you are delighted to find a mix of vendors selling delicious street food and wicked infusions. A25 is positioning itself as an edgy, cosmopolitan reprieve within the frenetic city.
And I can’t help but say that there’s something pretty darn cute about this — especially in Minneapolis at 6:30 on a Monday night. After all, how much time do we really spend ON the streets? Among the four of us Minneapolines at the table, we had four cars parked outside and spent about 30 seconds on the pavement safely jaywalking our way inside. Our train travels above ground from the city to the mall, stopping traffic on the way, and everyone knows about the missing street food of Minneapolis.
Come evening, though, I can see where the street starts to kick in, especially if you are enjoying the oasis of nightlife that corner of the city has to offer. Inside A25’s clever subway-inspired door, ambient paper lanterns hang from the ceiling, corrugated metal surrounds the sushi bar, the exposed brick walls are covered with torn broadsheets and graffiti, and the elevated DJ booth evokes the fire escape of an East Village walk-up. I half expected Mimi to swing down from the balcony in torn fishnet stockings howling about going oooo-ut tonight.
Dining with a restaurant critic is an exercise in conviviality. Rather than studying the menu, Peter socratically posed questions to the server to coax out the real scoop on the best stuff to eat. She did a stellar job with everything while Peter alternately asked us what our favorite restaurants are, taking notes when we said something memorable about the food.
“This place serves chef-inspired street food,” I said, and Peter wrote it down.
“This tastes like pork-flavored bubble gum,” B said of the pork belly, and Peter wrote it down.
We had a round of cocktails and two bottles of white wine. The unique calamari tempura fried with cream honey aioli and glazed pecans had a strange hold on me, while the lamb lollipops kept my attention only because of the toasted sweet potatoes they were served on.
The unassuming steamed buns were my favorite part of the evening. I think steamed buns are usually enclosed, but these looked like a little sandwich, with the spicy, rich oxtail meat sticking out of the perfect snow white bun. The oxtail was richer and more enjoyable than the pork.
Kabocha dumplings with ginger soy tasted typically delicious, while the pork belly was all but a failure. I’m a omnivore who winces at certain cuts of meat, but in the spirit of the thing, I wanted to try pork belly, which seems to make quite a few food lovers rhapsodize. Not at A25. We could barely get our knife through it. I stole some of the accompanying fried egg and spinach and we all left the majority of the plate behind.
For sushi, we had BBQ yellow tail, shrimp tempura, and botanebi — that is, B, the daring sushi-eater of the group, had the wide-eyed, whiskered botanebi. Sushi? Delicious. What else can I say.
For dessert, we had fried bananas with ginger ice cream, which is too good to fail, and rice pudding with coconut ice cream, which was too bland to succeed. The ice cream was served on top of a bed of dense rice that tasted totally unsweetened.
Given how much concept is driving A25, the food has a lot to live up to, and for the most part it does a fantastic job. Street food should be a fix. With A25 as your dealer and so many creative items on the menu, you just have to figure out what you need to order to get yours.