Prairie Home Gourmet

A new generation of chefs is making Minneapolis a first-rate destination for foodies.
In summer 2012, the cover of Food & Wine trumpeted that the magazine had a new "favorite food city," and it wasn't the first one you'd guess — unless you've had the privilege of eating in Minneapolis.

Abundant farms, a diverse population and comparatively low prices make Minneapolis and its environs a destination for adventurous chefs and eaters. Food & Wine restaurant editor Kate Krader wrote that she "lost her heart to Minneapolis and its awesome restaurants, bars and bakeries," adding that "it's not hard to adore a city where such good restaurants are so inexpensive."

There have been waves of outside interest in the region over the past two decades, as celebrity chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit set up fine-dining outposts in the Twin Cities. Building on the success of such James Beard Award-winning Minnesota chefs as Tim McKee (La Belle Vie, Solera) and Alexander Roberts (Restaurant Alma, Brasa Premium Rotisserie), a rising crew of locals is serving exceptional cuisine, flavored with fun and served in unpretentious surroundings.A new generation of chefs is making Minneapolis a first-rate destination for foodies.

"We had the Aquavits and then we had Jean-Georges for a while, and I think these guys that have that food touch could tell there was something there," says chef Erick Harcey, owner of Victory 44 in the Northeast neighborhood. "I actually think they saw it before the locals did. There was a weird lull and now there have been some people who broke the mold and were like, 'I'm not going to do what everyone else does. I'm adamantly going to go against it.' Now all of a sudden we've got a really cool scene."

Victory 44 chefs prepare imaginative dishes from locally sourced ingredients and then serve the customers themselves — there's no other waitstaff. Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale, just to the north, combines haute cuisine with boys' club charm — for instance, when taking delivery of meat from a woolly Mangalitsa pig to make sausage and cured meats for the winter, they also scheduled an all-you-can-eat-and-drink upscale bar food party during a Minnesota Vikings game. At HauteDish — a play on "hot dish," the local term for casserole — the seasonal dishes include, on the one hand, a macaroni and cheese with king crab and truffle oil, and on the other, Meat Load in a Can.A new generation of chefs is making Minneapolis a first-rate destination for foodies.

Harcey also praises Piccolo in South Minneapolis, led by chef Doug Flicker: "He's doing cool food, great price points, but he's just able to deliver it at a more refined level." At Piccolo, a five-course tasting dinner — one that could start with golden beet and sea urchin terrine with grapefruit and olive oils, and end with a brownie with pistachio ice cream, espresso and dried apple granola and chocolate goat's milk — is just $48.

How has this land of potlucks and good manners blossomed into a gourmet oasis? Ready access to agriculture and a strong sense of community might be the answer. The Twin Cities are filled with an inquisitive and dedicated audience for all sorts of art and culture — it's no accident that the same area produced both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Prince. Minnesotans root for locals to succeed, as opposed to merely showing up somewhere to be seen.

"You go to these restaurants that are thriving right now, they're also the same people who are supporting the music scene, who are supporting the theater scene," Harcey says. "They just appreciate their arts and they appreciate their outdoor lifestyle. They generally love the state they live in. It's not to go to a place to be the newest, hippest, hottest thing because some celebrity chef's there.
"You've got so many people who are so cross-cultured and appreciate each other so much," he continues. "I love the music crowd and the brewery crowd as much as they love the restaurant. Now we've started to create these killer events because we can support whatever cause there is. And we get killer bands and killer food and killer drinks, and it's just because everyone believes in each other."

The name of one of Harcey's new restaurants, a collaboration with celebrated local bakery Rustica and Dogwood Coffee Co., celebrates that hominess. It's called Parka. "We just didn't want to have a food-themed name, just something a little more hip," Harcey explains. "Native and warm and comforting. In Minnesota, that parka, you know — everyone has one. "

Of his colleagues, Harcey says, "We're not trying to be anything we're not. We're just here to cook good food. We're not saving lives." That may be so, but when the wind chill factor is minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's been dark since late afternoon, the right plate can make life feel worth living.