Off the Eaten Path – My Favorite Year


I traditionally focus on one restaurant in my column.  However, my editor and I agreed that it might be appropriate for both the season and the times if I were to instead take a look back at the restaurants I’ve featured this year, and select five that offered something beyond the reach of knife and fork.  Food that speaks to the soul, food that can renew the spirit, and food that reminds us all that life is truly beautiful, just as it is.

Masu Sushi & Robata
330 East Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis
Executive Sushi Chef:  Katsuyuki (Asan) Yamamoto, Executive Chef:  Alex Chase, Bar: Dan Spa
What to Eat: sushi, japanese eggplant
What to Drink:  Any of Dan’s gummi sours

The hippest sushi spot in the Twin Cities opened this past year in an unlikely spot at 330 East Hennepin.  But with some guidance from Tim McKee, Masu Sushi & Robata was an instant success with both diners and critics alike, bringing a taste of vibrant, youthful Tokyo to the traditionally conservative Northeast.   The innovative and sustainable sushi at Masu can easily enchant a sushi fanatic, and it can be tempting to stop there.  But be sure to also peruse the grill and noodle menus, where fantastic surprises lie in wait for the adventurous eater.

Cafe Levain
4762 Chicago Ave S, Minneapolis
Executive Chef Adam Vickerman
What to Eat: menu changes too frequently for a specific recommendation
What to Drink: santa margharita prosecco

Adam Vickerman finally returned to his former stomping grounds at Levain in March of 2011, to delight crowds with inventive, seasonal bistro fare.  Where many chefs prefer sticking to the basics, Vickerman’s kitchen delights in playing with ingredients, sometimes changing the menu daily in order to incorporate some new inspiration.  The results are accessible to most palates, but quirky enough to tantalize foodies throughout the Twin Cities.

Nonna Rosa’s
4168 W Broadway Ave., Robbinsdale
Chef Francesco Suglia
What to Eat: fritto misto, maialino mediterraneo
What to Drink: lemoncello creme

Nonna Rosa’s is the brainchild of husband and wife team Francesco and Tina Suglia.  Francesco found a passion for cooking after spending his childhood in southern Italy; Tina grew up in the bustling restaurant business here.  Their marriage has produced a Robbinsdale hot spot that exudes a quirky charm.  The menu doesn’t change much, but it doesn’t need to–there is an entree to please anyone at the table.  And with Francesco at the helm, the kitchen is brilliant, reasonably traditional, and most importantly, reliable.   It is easily a place you could feel comfortable bringing your grandmother, yet strangely enough, it is also on my short-list for a no-fuss, yet romantic night out.

791 Raymond Ave., St. Paul
Chef/Co-Owner Tony Panelli
What to Eat: rundown with poached eggs
What to Drink: white wine sangria

If standard weekend brunch fare has you faking hangovers, I don’t blame you. I feel that “brunch” should be a four-letter word that you shout at bad drivers.  However, Caribe’s weekend brunch menu manages to be lively and exotic while remaining comfortable.  For example, you can still get your benedict, but here you can get conch fritters on a bed of fresh spinach, perfectly poached eggs, and creole-inspired hollandaise sauce.   And, you can still have your French toast, but why not have it drizzled with coconut cream?  I think you see my point.  An infectiously cheerful waitstaff makes it impossible not to thoroughly enjoy the experience, “brunch” and all.

Pizzeria Lola
5557 Xerxes Ave. S., Minneapolis
Chef/Owner Ann Kim
What to Eat: Lady Za Za
What to Drink: Vajra Barolo

Ann Kim and I have crossed paths from time to time in our “other” lives, as local actors.  She is a phenomenal talent, so when she decided to devote herself to creating the perfect pizza, I had no doubt that her kitchen would be a good place to feature.  However, even I wasn’t prepared for the knock-your-socks-off pies that have since made this restaurant a neighborhood fixture and a pizza-lover’s destination.  Her crust is perfection, thanks to a gigantic copper, wood-fired oven that could easily have been birthed from the writings of L. Frank Baum.  Her toppings range from the traditional tomato, basil and cheese to the radical kimchi sausage, shishito peppers, scallions and sesame oil.  Just plan to either wait for a table, or make peace with dining during off-peak hours:  you are not the only one with a sudden, undeniable craving for a wood-fired pizza.

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