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Queen of Cuisine





Minnesota masterpiece

Lunch is crazy-busy at Mona, the year-old café sited at ground level of the Accenture office tower in downtown Minneapolis, right across the street from the Government Center: talk about built-in business. But it’s below the radar of nighttime destination-diners, who rarely invade this block of real estate. And that’s a pity, for, less busy, Mona herself (well, her real name is Lisa, which explains the café’s monicker, at least to art fans) is more likely to wander among the tables, bestowing cheery greetings. And the food is almost as stellar as Da Vinci’s masterpiece. It’s a terrific addition to the food scene of downtown—or, make that North America.

Proprietor/chef Lisa—the young lady who caused foodies to moan with pleasure when she helmed the kitchen at Corner Table—has cornered the small-plates market with her spot-on list ($4-17) from which to compose your own tasting menu. As a bonus, they’re all fueled by the local purveyors whom she thanks in print. The only problem lies in deciding which ones not to order (Answer: none).

The smoked oysters—tiny ones, my only quibble—are like none other, wafting equal hits of vinegar, salt and wondrous woodsmoke as they quiver, amid raisins and dates on a bed of spinach kissed by a paprika-shallot vinaigrette. On my first visit, pork belly, which I can never resist, proved rich and unctuous yet sans overdose of fat, hunkered over a deft potato pancake whose duty in life was to soak up the tasty shallot jus. Too rich, Lisa decided, for summer’s list.

Then there’s the marrow bone—the darling of trendy New York diners, but seen rarely in cautious Minnesota. Here’s the deal: Dig out its ultra-creamy (okay: fatty) innards, spread then on the crispy thyme ciabatta slice, along with a slather of its onion jam. Granny would, indeed, love this dish; however, your cardiologist may have other ideas.

Speaking of the State Fair, the next dish we tried in winter mirrored the church tent’s fare: chicken and waffles. Lisa’s waffle gains a tasty little crunch from a pinch of cornmeal, and her fried chicken, soaked in buttermilk the way the Lord intended, is juicy as you please beneath its crispy coat. Add a slice of roast pear and skim of honey-sweet brown butter, as Lisa thought to do, and you’re eating chicken as it’s meant to be. However, it’s off the summer menu, so lobby for a reprise in fall.

So are the final hits of my initial visit, which sent us into further eye-rolls. Bone-picking-tender braised rabbit centered a pool of jus scented with the unmistakable, come-hither essence of foie gras, with spoon at the ready (otherwise, I’d be calling for a straw). The meat rests on a light little square of bread pudding that incorporates the tart-sweet zing of rhubarb as foil for the foie. Don’t miss the polenta, either—textured but still creamy, it came topped with a braise of wild mushrooms, all showered with their jus.

Instead, while you wait for their return, go for the rich duck confit salad, set upon greens and sided with potatoes and onions in a smoked cherry vinaigrette, or the swoonworthy halibut, its sweet, ivory flesh served in a pick-me-up wrap of pancetta, along with diced potatoes, pea tendrils and a ramp (think garlic)-parsley broth. And the eggplant, of course—grilled, partnered with roasted sweet peppers, dates, peanuts and garlic crème fraiche.

Six sweets ($6 range) are on offer but didn’t ignite the same excitement. The fave from the list were the blue cheese beignets, made extra-yummy with roasted pear sauce and a honey drizzle. Or go for the pistachio cake composed of olive oil financier, blood orange cream and a Port reduction. And the affagato—espresso poured over vanilla ice cream, perfect for this torrid summer—came in a clunky coffee cup. And the wine list is a marvel of lesser-known wonders.

The room itself took me by surprise. Far from the designer bistros we’ve become accustomed to, this space is masculine and clubby, dressed in dark wood and tufted, leatherlike-upholstery around the central bar. A cluster of tables at the entrance offers views of the kitchen, which is lit, unfortunately, with the fluorescent brightness of a surgery.

Two visits already, and I can’t wait to come back.