Category Archives: Minneapolis Restaurant Reviews

Jasmine Deli

The only banh mi I’ve ever eaten were the ones I made with my own two hands. It’s a little backward to first try this amazing Vietnamese sandwich by making one for myself (and for a few others, too), but it was a darn good approximation. After julienning the daikon and carrot, gently pickling it in a glass jar, sweetening the mayo, marinating the pork and tofu in lemongrass, and picking up the bread from Jasmine Deli, the ingredients and I were close pals and I was able to create more or less the pinnacle of banh mi deliciousness.

Ever since then, I’ve been daydreaming about banh mi, about grabbing one from Jasmine Deli after work or finding a good reason to head over to University, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it. When B asked me out on a third date, I got excited when I realized I could suggest Jasmine Deli, a small restaurant on Eat Street known for having one of the best banh mi in town. His new apartment is across the street from the MIA and walking distance to the deli. At last, the banh mi would be mine!

B and I, both well-versed in the menu and reviews before we arrived, walked inside the small storefront relieved to see there were plenty of places to sit. It was late and we were hungry. The owner, a friendly guy named Luke who I knew only through their adorably empty facebook page, came by and offered us a seat. Talking a little under his breath, he said, “We’re out of veggie eggrolls and bread” and simply ducked away.

Wait. “Did I hear him right?” I said to B, aghast. No bread? I called out after Luke.

“Not so fast! Did you say that you’re out of bread?”

“Yes, I’m sorry. It’s late in the day and I order for freshness.”

And with that, my little dream was unceremoniously dashed. No banh mi. I recovered by consoling myself with the fact that there was always pho, so I decided to pick one. The menu listed about 32 kinds of soup, and within the forest of heavily accented Vietnamese, I didn’t see the word “pho” anywhere.

Luke came back to take our order. “Everyone raves about your pho,” I said, “but I don’t see it listed on the menu. Are all of these soups pho?”

He corrected me in broken English. “I don’t serve pho. Ask everyone in this restaurant what they think my soup is, and they’ll say pho. But pho is made with beef broth. All my broth is made with vegetables or chicken. I suggest the chicken. It’s mild. Everyone loves chicken.”

Now that was too much information for my hungry head to handle. I asked Luke for a few more minutes and turned to B. “Let’s go over that again,” I said. “Everyone is wrong about the pho?”

“Yes,” he said, eloquently recapping what Luke just told us. Knowing my hopes were dashed again, B kicked in and conquered the menu.

“You don’t like mild, so let’s not get the one he recommended. Let’s get this one,” he said, pointing to the rice noodle soup with BBQ pork, chicken, shrimp, fish cake, and calamari.”

“What else?” B said. “I don’t want to disappoint you by ordering something that you aren’t into.” I said I wanted to get the classic Vietnamese combination of beef, cucumber, cilantro, and rice noodle. We found it on the menu: vermicelli noodle salad with charbroiled beef.

We also decided to get two appetizers, tamarind tofu and crispy pork egg rolls.

Dear Luke came back yet again to take our order. I rattled off our choices and asked for bubble tea, which B was excited to see on the menu.

“Sorry, I don’t have bubble tea either. . . but you can go to my new cafe,” he said with a charming smile, pointing to the north, knowing at this point he sounded like a salesman.

Simultaneously amused and defeated, B and I placed our order and settled in over two glasses of water, satisfied that we divided up the menu the best we could.

We loved the sweet tamarind tofu, especially when contrasted with a bite of something spicy. The pork eggrolls were good, but we didn’t see anything special about them. The soup was fulfilling and fresh, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t order it again. Too many proteins for one bowl (or for one girl). The vermicelli noodle salad was the clear winner, with the charbroiled bits of beef playing nicely off the cool noodles and fresh herbs. As B kept grabbing the best bits of charred meat and giving them to me with his chopsticks, I noticed something was wrong.

Luke came by to ask how everything was. “Good, I said. But why are there no cucumbers in the vermicelli? That’s the best part.”

“Must be out of those, too!” he said, at this point probably as amused by the evening as we were.

B and I had a laugh together and finished off our meal.  “You know what I like about you?” he said, leaning in. “You understand how food is related to everything else in life. You don’t look at it as a separate thing.” And I didn’t realize until later what I great reply that really was.

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Christos

I finally got to enjoy what is often voted the best Greek food in town. I went to Christos on a Saturday afternoon with J, with whom I was going on a second date.

A few weeks back at The Muddy Pig, he got my attention by declaring his love of utilitarian furniture. With a tone that sounded like the lovable Julia Child met the refined Martha Stewart, he said, “If I could have my way, my house would be full of credenzas. There’s just so much you can DO with them!”

Last weekend, he proposed we get lunch and check out Josef Sudek’s photography at the MIA. I chose Christos right away given the museum’s brilliant proximity to Eat Street (and because a certain food critic at MSP magazine suggested as much). It was a great choice.

Christos at noon on a Saturday looks like a Mediterranean getaway. It has a large, comfortable dining room with an open kitchen, and the tall ceilings, white walls, ample plants, and big windows bring in lots of sunshine, like you’re hanging out in the courtyard of your seaside hotel (wearing a sweater and snowboots to ward off the Minnesota winter, of course). The place was busy, and at that hour, you get to eat alongside lunching ladies and families young and old. There’s something very “of the city” about it, and it couldn’t be any more different from their location in St. Paul’s neoclassical train station, Union Depot, which makes you feel like you have but a few minutes to feed your lifelong love falafel and grape leaves before dashing off to meet your train.

In any case, my date and I shared spanakopita, mousaka, dolmathes (grape leaves), melintzanosalata (roasted eggplant dip), avgolemono (soup described as “traditional egg-lemon delight”), and milopita (glazed apple slices baked in phyllo with ricotta and cream cheese).

All of the food was fresh, served at the perfect temperature, attractive, and satisfying. It looked and tasted like the Platonic version of Greek food. The only thing I questioned was the phyllo dessert served sitting in a pool of syrup, which is not my favorite place to keep a flaky pastry. Is this how it’s supposed to be?

We also had Retsina with our meal, the allegedly harsh tavern wine that gets its pine flavor from the resin traditionally used to seal whatever vessel wine was stored in. I’d never tried it before and was clearly curious, so the server offered a taste of the two types served by the glass: Tsantali and Achaia Clauss. (They have three more kinds served by the bottle.) I was impressed with how easy it is to drink. We settled on Achaia Clauss and drank it right down.

At one point,  I casually said something to J about the music I play while I cook. For a long time, I cooked while listening to records — Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King. Stuff like that.

Thinking nothing of it, J said, “Ella Fitzgerald is my cooking music” as he dug into another portion of our meal.

And I think it was at that point I knew he was someone to pay attention to.

Christos on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Alma

There’s an abstract quality about living in the Upper Midwest, and Minneapolis specifically, that makes me feel innately at home.

I grew up in Milwaukee. I’ve lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Chicago. I’ve visited Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I’m an urbanist, a lover of cities, and an adaptable person, so I would probably bloom wherever I was planted. Yet despite my semi-regular fantasies of living elsewhere (say, Europe), the Midwest is permanently in my blood and my bones. Minneapolis has become my Mini Apple. It’s my not-quite Chicago and my bigger-than Milwaukee. To borrow from the French, Minneapolis is my terroir — and I like it that way.

The most elegant way to live is to consider yourself an essential part of where you’re from. It’s the same for cooking. Food is life, after all. It comes from the ground beneath our feet and responds to the seasons just as we do. Last week, I had a fantastic experience at Restaurant Alma, a much-loved restaurant in Minneapolis serving hand-crafted food made with fresh, seasonal, organic, and local ingredients. Alma nails local elegance on the head.

My food-going friend Angela and I enjoyed two hours of conversation and three courses on a cold Friday night. At first, the name struck me as arbitrary, even a little incongruous. Alma means “soul” in Spanish — and the restaurant isn’t Spanish in any way. It’s elemental and sophisticated, and although influenced by food from around the world, I would call it farm-inspired American — and thoroughly Minnesota chic. (Hey, that’s my term, so don’t steal it. I first used it last year, which you can read about here if you’d like.)

The crowd was culturally interesting — lots of ages and races and pairings of dates, families, and friends. I especially loved the older folks there in suits on special occasion dinners with their spouses and kids. (I’m the daughter of a truck driver. What can I say?) The staff was pleasant and professional and our server mentioned she had been working there for nearly 10 years.

The menu, thoughtfully curated and presented, is organized into three courses. For 45 dollars, you can choose one plate from each course, though if you have any sense about you, it will be torture to choose just three. I started with a mixed lettuce salad with roasted beets, buttermilk dressing, salsa verde, and pine nuts. Beet lovers like me, rejoice. Red and golden beets, and plenty of them.

Secondi, I had the ricotta gnocchi with fricassee of vegetables, black truffle butter, and parmigiana cheese. If pillows of ricotta pasta weren’t enough, the black truffle butter made the plate sing.

And finally, I had seared scallops with spiced chickpeas, roasted squash, wilted spinach, and lemon preserve — a generous and honest plate of food with three perfectly browned scallops.

By the end of the night, I started to see the brilliance behind the name Alma. Restaurant Alma serves the soul of the Midwest. The food is elegant without a hint of fussiness. It’s generous, yet well-conceived. It’s affordable fine food — and also the perfect spot for a date, by the way, but save it for the third or fourth. This kind of culinary intimacy would be a shame to waste on anything less than romantic. Or, if dating just ain’t coming your way, grab a great friend like I did and have yourself a memorable (and soulful) meal.

Restaurant Alma on Urbanspoon

Pizza the Way Nature Intended

The last time I wrote, I was busy recovering from my apartment farewell party. While doing dishes, scrubbing the grill pan, drying stemware, and generally putting my place back to its original position, I also had to drink the remaining Chardonnay and do something about all those leftover Banh Mi. I had so many of them! Over the past three years of cooking for big groups of people, I’ve learned that the hardest part isn’t cooking, cleaning, or hostessing. It’s knowing how much food to buy.

I bought 25 baguettes from Jasmine Deli. They were relatively short, so cut in half, I had 50 small sandwiches for 20 people. I thought that everyone would have two with a few people having a few more — but somehow this math didn’t work. Even after eating them myself all weekend, there were so many leftover I had to bring a bunch to work. Most people put bagels, donuts, and cookies in the spare cube. I put roasted beet and tomato salad, minted watermelon with pineapple, and lemongrass pork and tofu Banh Mi. I suppose every office has someone like me, right? (Don’t answer that.)

Thankfully, I had an opportunity the following week to share the leftover beer and baked chickpeas with my friends at the Pizza Farm in Stockholm, Wisconsin. Yes, it’s true. If you don’t know it already, there is a fantastic gem of a farm an hour and a half out of the Cities that serves hands-down the best pizza around.

The couple Ted Fisher and Robbi Bannen along with their kids open up their own farm to pizza lovers every Tuesday night throughout the year. They grow all the ingredients to put on the whole wheat crust, which is made from their own home-grown, hand-ground wheat. The crust is thin, the ingredients fresh, and the pizza kissed by the flames of their wood-burning oven.

There are no signs leading to the farm. In fact, there is only a series of dirt roads that make you wonder why you are driving a hour and a half to what feels like the middle of nowhere just to order a pizza.

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Once you get there, it becomes exceedingly clear. The farm is beautiful and so are the people. Everyone brings what they need to create a night of fine-dining under the stars. It’s not uncommon to see a full setting with a tablecloth, chairs, wine, and a candleabra.

I had a bit of a geek out moment when I was standing in line to order. Brenda Langton, the chef behind Cafe Brenda and Spoonriver, walked by, which of course I had to declare to anyone within earshot of where I was standing. The girl taking our order said she heard the rumor earlier and asked me to point out Brenda. For better or worse, she disappeared into the crowd as Aaron and I made up things we could have said to start a conversation.

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The chalkboard menu has quite a few pizzas and unique ingredients.

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Orders are taken and you’re given a number. My car arrived at 5:30 and we had to wait an hour for our order. The last car in our party arrived around 6:30 or so and had to wait an hour and a half. You’re given a number as they are ticked off one by one.

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In the meantime, you can drink wine and order a loaf of the farm’s own bread. You can wander around and pet the goats, cats, and cows, strum a guitar, lay around in the grass with someone you fancy, and catch up with your friends.

Angela and Courtney

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Stefanie and Sarah’s daughter Elizabeth

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Lisa

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Aaron and his paddle. If you bring your own pizza conveyance device, I think you save a buck. Aaron brings his paddle and asks people who are done eating if he can re-use their box.

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I wonder how many pizzas can fit in the infero at a time.

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When your number is up, the beautiful lady in the flowered apron cuts it up and takes your cash.

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And you’re left to sit in the grass and enjoy the food.

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I’d love to hear more people’s opinions about the Pizza Farm. If you haven’t gone, check out this article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for more details, or send me an email if you want tips on the best way to enjoy the farm.

My Weekend (In Which I Discover Lillet)

Weekend, where did you go? I had three days off, which is just enough to set my world almost right again. On Saturday, I headed to the country to meet my childhood friend Carrie at her house in Somerset. We packed up her daughters Zoe and Jamie a took a trip to Fawn Doe Rosa. Look at this beautiful girl (and my new best friend). It’s eerie and sweet to see her face, given that I have known Carrie since I was two years old and Zoe looks so much like her, both then and now.

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I spent the drive home daydreaming about the party I’m throwing on Friday. In my first draft of the party (the one that doesn’t take cost into consideration), I make about eighteen different “Le Cakes” as seen in Gourmet with ample aperitifs to go with them. Alas, a bottle of Lillet is 23 dollars, so my petit aperitif obsession will have to be a semi private affair. But it’s so good, especially with a Nicoise salad, and especially imagining a French man serving it to me.

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Sunday, Angela and I went bumming around the new Uptown Market. For better or worse, we didn’t get a hot dog from the Magic Bus, as good as that might have been. We went to Bryant Lake Bowl instead. I had a colorful mess of huevos rancheros.

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I’ve never been let down by the food at BLB — but I have been let down by the service a few times, hanging out for forever while all the tables around you get their food. A restaurant/bowling alley is not a good place to complain about practical matters, though, even though I might try. The organic maple syrup offered to the table cost an extra buck fifty, and the server never says you’ll be charged. I don’t mind spending the money, but come on. It’s the principle of the thing. The crowd is a bunch of progressive urbanites eating granola pancakes — of course we want the organic maple syrup. Factor it into your operating expenses and serve everyone the good stuff. We’re discerning customers, and totally worth it, given what an institution BLB is.

Bryant-Lake Bowl on Urbanspoon

Namaste Cafe and ŌM

Since moving to the Twin Cities 3-plus years ago, I’ve been a one-salon kind of girl, getting my hair cut, colored, and styled at Evolution on Lyndale, a salon owned by Matt Swinney, who I wholeheartedly vote the best stylist in MSP. Right, I know this is one of the two salons I’ve been to, but I still know he is worthy of the vote. He has impeccable taste, graceful styling skills, and a salon that absolutely comes from his heart.

Today Matt told me about the restaurant ŌM opening at 401 First Avenue North in Minneapolis in the spring. I’ve been following ŌM’s Tweets, so I perked up when he told me about the plans for the food and suggested I sign up to be an “ŌM enthusiast,” which promises to make me among the first to receive news, announcements, and “exclusive” invitations.

ŌM’s concept and presentation look exceptional. The James Beard-recognized cookbook author Raghavan Iyer is the “culineer,” which Jeremy Iggers reports is short for “culinary engineer.” How snappy, which is what the interior and fresh Indian food will likely prove to be. I hope ŌM will fill a gap in the Twin Cities dining scene. Creative, contemporary Indian food with no buffet.

Whether by suggestion or fate, after Evolution I went in search of lunch and ended up at the Indian restaurant Namaste Cafe. With a door so welcoming, how could I not go inside?


The cafe/restaurant is in a sunny old duplex with a bright exterior, including a gorgeous mural.


Namaste has a huge menu of appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, curries, bean specialties, breads, and the Namaste lunch box. I had a tofu roti wrap, a “delicious mix of spicy beans, crunchy cabbage, fresh tomatoes, green peppers, red onions, and cilantro wrapped in a whole wheat roti.”


I loved every bite. As I ate, the front door was open, letting in the spring breeze, and next to me a table of mixed-race, mixed-age people were discussing the challenges of creating a civil society. “What did Margaret Mead say?” said the white-haired Indian woman, as they listened carefully to one another and jumped in and out of the conversation.

Namaste Cafe is just like yoga class, only you get to eat. A meal here leaves you feeling grounded, connected, and a little more open in your heart.

Namaste.

Namaste Café on Urbanspoon

Town Talk Diner

My favorite restaurants in the Twin Cities (or anywhere, for that matter) all have a certain something that isn’t so easy to define, like how Barbette oozes with atmosphere or Meritage makes you feel like you stumbled into a corner of France. Town Talk Diner is on the top of that list. Let’s call it my je na sais quoi list, because, you know, everything is more intriguing when you say it in French.

My je na sais quoi list, now that I decided I have one, is all about synergy, I suppose, the way in which the elements of a restaurant come together to create something greater than their individual parts. I love how this ineffable quality can be just as nourishing as the food. In the words of author Ray Oldenburg, I would call these restaurants “the third place.” What Oldenburg means is that most everyone has two places: home and work. But on top of it, to finish the triangle and make us complete, we all need a third place, defined by wordspy.com as “a place other than home or work where a person can go to relax and feel part of the community.”

Town Talk is not only a place to get a meal. It is also a perfect third place. Town Talk is classic, authentic, and well-designed. It is a comfortable modern space that brings a vintage diner carefully back to life. I think this has to be one of the reasons why it has such great karma. The positive atmosphere buzzes with life. Part of me doesn’t even want to call it a restaurant. Town Talk is more like a party or an ongoing conversation, a place where you can always go to have a great meal, a perfectly shaken cocktail, a malt, and a conversation with your server or a stranger at the bar. The only thing you need is good timing, of course, because it can be awfully hard to get a seat.

I’ve been to Town Talk many times, but last week I went to have a few drinks on the bar stools bar with Nathan (aka, the Bohemian woodworker). He’s busy completely remaking a darling Victorian he rescued from foreclosure, so we met at his house-in-process in Powderhorn. After the grand tour, we went to Luce for pizza and a few beers, then we headed to the main course, the cocktails at Town Talk.

One of life’s great disappointments is wasting 10 bucks on a mediocre cocktail, so I like to spend my drinkin’ money at a bar that will never let you down. Town Talk is one of those places. Their cocktail list is carefully crafted and delightful in its attention to detail. I’m a fan of absinthe, so I asked for The Green Fairy: Zen Green Tea liquer, St. George’s absinthe, vodka, lemon, sugar, and egg white.

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I know. You’re probably rolling your eyes at me because you know how hip absinthe is. It doesn’t matter. It’s great stuff, and this has to be one of the best cocktails I ever had. Seriously, it was that good. The bartender shook it up for what seemed like 10 minutes, sifted it into a glass in front of me, then added a generous dose of St. George absinthe with an eyedropper all around the face of the cocktail. He even gave me the bottle to admire. St. George is the good stuff, with excellent design.

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Nathan got the Jackson Pollock: Bombay Sapphire, grapefruit-lime sour, sparkling wine, and basil oil. The bartender drops the basil oil into the bottom of your cocktail glass. As he pours in the contents of the cocktail shaker, the oil bubbles to the top and looks a bit like something Pollock might haphazardly drip off of his paint brush.

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My only complaint about Town Talk is that the wine used to be cheaper, a lot cheaper. I liked how 3 and 4-dollar glasses set the wine list apart and encouraged a healthy glass or two to go with your meal. Nathan’s only complaint is that the cocktails are too small. The gimlet he ordered was served in a dainty glass.

On one of the many occasions I’ve been to Town Talk Diner, this song was playing as I walked in the door. Even though I didn’t know the song at the time, it got lodged in my head because I thought it summed up the spirit of Town Talk in a way I couldn’t explain: the ice cream drinks and cocktails, the friendly bar, the buoyant atmosphere, and the happy din of the place all seemed to come together in this jangley Jim Noir tune. Both of them seem to exuberantly go on and on . . .

Town Talk Diner on Urbanspoon