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The Hungry Heartland | Minneapolis, Minnesota

When I moved to Minneapolis from New York two years ago, I had a panic attack on my first night in town. I glanced up from a plate of tasteless enchiladas at an overrated Southwestern place and saw that I was surrounded by frighteningly cheerful fair-haired giants. In that anguished moment, not only did I realize how much I would miss my short, despairing, dark-haired friends, I was terrified that I might never eat a decent meal again either. But I'm happy to report that my food fears turned out to be unfounded.

My very favorite dinner here was at the appealingly intimate La Belle Vie (312 S. Main St., Stillwater; 651-430-3545), about 30 minutes away in the town of Stillwater, an Edward Hopper painting come to life. Opened last spring by Tim McKee (a 1997 F&W Best New Chef) and Josh Thoma, both veterans of Minneapolis's world-class D'Amico Cucina (100 N. Sixth St.; 612-338-2401), La Belle Vie turns out marvels of Mediterranean cuisine. The delicate pillows of ravioli stuffed with roasted yellow turnips were sublime, and so was a grilled chicken marinated in honey and cumin.

At Lucia's Restaurant and Wine Bar (1432 W. 31st St.; 612-825-1572), my home away from home, Lucia Watson keeps the rotating menu small and uses only fresh, mainly local ingredients. She even has a way with walleye, the usually bland state fish--not surprising, considering that she trained at the aprons of her Minnesota grandmothers and co-authored Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland (Knopf).

St. Paul's hippest new restaurant, Zander Cafe (525 Selby Ave.; 651-222-5224), is also taking a seasonal approach. Its chef and owner (and designer), Alexander Dixon, does wonders with simple ingredients: recently I had chipotle chicken satay and perfectly grilled ahi tuna.

You wouldn't think an Irish-inspired joint that bills itself as the "Epicurean Home of Fine Food and Drink" would actually deliver fine food and drink, but under chef Steven Brown, The Local (931 Nicollet Mall; 612-904-1000), back in Minneapolis, keeps its word. Though the menu offers few surprises--braised lamb shanks and seared king salmon are typical entrées--everything is superbly prepared. The bar is an ornate neo-Victorian masterpiece, and the wine list is just as cool.

When my New York friends demand authentic Midwestern fare served by waiters who sound like characters in Fargo, I skip the esteemed Goodfellow's (40 S. Seventh St.; 612-332-4800) and make a beeline for Manny's Steakhouse (1300 Nicollet Mall; 612-339-9900), where the standard portion of a melt-in-your-mouth porterhouse is roughly the size of Iowa. Manny's also boasts a top-of-the-line wine list.

By now you may be asking, Where isn't the beef in Minnesota? Alas, there are few decent Chinese or Thai restaurants, but there's a fabulous Japanese one. Origami (30 N. First St.; 612-333-8430), a warehouse district hot spot, draws visiting rock stars with terrifically fresh and creatively prepared sushi that rivals anything in L.A. The impressive wine (and sake) list is one of the best in town.

What about Scandinavian food? Isn't Minneapolis a suburb of Stockholm? Though the answer is yes, I've been advising gravlax-seeking friends to stay in New York and make reservations at Aquavit on West 54th Street. But this month all that changes when Aquavit opens its first branch, in the IDS Tower downtown (80 S. Eight St.; 612-343-3333).

The other good news is that it's possible to whip up the perfect meal here without setting foot in a stadium-size supermarket. (The ones with carpeting and chandeliers are especially scary.) The bounty at the smallish and inviting St. Paul farmers' market (Fourth St. at Broadway) is all grown within 50 miles of the Twin Cities. Whatever eludes you there can be found at first-rate human-scale shops. Surdyk's Liquor and Cheese Shop (303 E. Hennepin Ave.; 612-379-3232), Bill's Imported Foods (721 W. Lake St.; 612-827-2891), the Wedge Community Co-op (2105 Lyndale Ave. S.; 612-871-3993), the Turtle Bread Company (3421 W. 44th St.; 612-924-6013) and Coastal Seafoods (74 Snelling S. Ave., St. Paul; 612-698-4888) would get high marks in any burg.

BARBARA GRAHAM, a frequent magazine contributor and the author of Women Who Run with the Poodles, is at work on a novel.

Published November 1998
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