Tilia slings tasty eats for $12 or less
To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.
Photo by Nicholas Waldman, Courtesy of Tilia Tilia's Steven Joel Brown
Steven Joel Brown thought maybe it was time to move on. "I was kind of thinking I was done working in restaurants," he confesses," and that part of my life was over."
If he'd decided to call it quits, it would've been a good run. He'd been the executive chef at Levain and Porter & Frye, and cooked everywhere from the Local to the Loring to Lucia's.
But when something is such a fiber of your being, it's hard to let it go. So when the right opportunity came along, "I couldn't say no, it was too tempting," he says.
Plus, for the first time, he wouldn't be working for someone else. He'd be calling the shots--as part owner and executive culinary director at his very own spot: Tilia.
Tilia is the eatery everyone wants on their block. The menu's intriguing, it's open long hours, and the food's so well done it gets stuck in your head. You can come as you are with whomever you want (your spouse, your kid, your pals), and the prices are manageable--which is particularly good news as we seek out another plate for less than $12.
There are choices for lunch and dinner and everything in between--literally, from the "In Between" menu which is served in the late afternoon and evening. What will make our list?
When Brown and his partner, Jörg Pierach, opened Tilia in March of last year, they weren't looking for fanfare--much the opposite in fact. "I was thinking we'd go into a sleepy neighborhood and fly under the radar," he says. They didn't even do any marketing to speak of: "We just put up a Facebook page."
But staying out of the limelight was not to be. Tilia's been humming from morning til night, and trying to get a table has become sport.
Among a slew of accolades, it's been named to Metro's Restaurants of the Year list, nabbed #1 in Minnesota Monthly's Best New Restaurants 2011 lineup, and been dubbed "Best New Eats in Town" by Andrew Zimmern.
Tilia's bar features 21 beers on tap
So much for keeping a low profile.
Brown credits much of Tilia's success to its staff. The restaurant radiates the down-to-earth, familiar, community vibe that thrives in neighborhood joints. "The staff are the ones who embody it every day," he says. "We have a saying: make special people feel regular, and regular people feel special."
And what better way to make average Joes feel like kings than to serve great fare for a great price? Like maybe the Shrimp with Spicy Scampi Sauce and Peas for $12, or some $8 duck (more on that in a moment).
Brown doesn't have a long and drawn out manifesto for his cuisine. It's short, simple, and splashed everywhere from the coasters to the website: "good food tastes good."
For Brown, good food is built on excellent ingredients and changes with the seasons--which means two of Tilia's $12-and-under beauties may disappear when the weather shifts. So get them while they're hot and the temps are cold: the "Beets" Salad for $9.50 and the Crispy Smoked Pork Belly for $8.
In the salad, vivid orange and red beets rest on a bed of Gorgonzola and farro (a grain similar to barley or brown rice) which have melded together into a pseudo-risotto. The beet-grain-cheese trio is earthiness upon earthiness, and it's brightened up with a mix of walnut oil and walnut vinegar--a very rare find Brown sources from California.
The Pork Belly is served in a sea of lentils with a mirepoix (celery, onion, carrot), bacon, smoked ham jus, and Banyuls vinegar. "But what really makes it fly is the apple chutney," Brown says. With yet another splash of vinegar (the sherry kind), the chutney is mildly sweet and just acidic enough to balance this loose play on pork and beans.
Crispy Smoked Pork Belly
The most popular item on the menu borrows from Brown's past: The Fish Taco Torta for $10. A torta is a type of Mexican sandwich, and Brown worked in the Yucatan Peninsula years ago. But while that may have influenced the flavors, the idea itself came directly from his childhood. "When I was a kid, my uncle used to put potato chips inside his sandwich," Brown tells us with a smile. So he decided to do the same thing with a taco: "Basically, we put everything you'd get in a fish taco in a bun."
He begins by deep frying mahi-mahi and tortilla chips. Then they're shocked with loads of pico de gallo, lime juice, habanero mayo, and a slaw that's been marinated in jalapeno, Peppadew, cilantro, lime, salt, and even more habanero. It's bold and perky and a gloriously messy crunchy punch to the face.
Fish Taco Torta
But for our $12-and-under pick, we're going with a small plate that has a little something different. Something you can't always get for a bargain. Something you can't even find on most local menus, if any. The $8 Potted Meat to share--or eat all by yourself, which you may want to do.
We know this isn't a presentation you see very often. But rest assured, it's some downright delectable eating. For starters, it's duck. (Occasionally Brown uses pork, but duck's typically the centerpiece.) And yes, it's in a glass jar. But so are jams, jellies, and other canned goodies, so that's just fine by us.
Besides, it's not the container that matters as much as what's inside. And what's inside is duck that's been mascerated with quatre épices (white pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves), shredded, and then combined with rendered duck fat, shallots, butter, salt and pepper.
Translation: It's shredded duck soaked in butter and fat with yummy spices. What's not to love?
Brown serves it alongside grilled bread that's been swiped with garlic, a spicy Danish mustard, and caramelized shallots. And finally, he finishes the top of the pot with a layer of butter and rendered duck fat. Fat gets a bad rap, but it makes food fantastic. And fat + fat = sinfully amazing.
With dishes like this, it's no wonder Tilia's already been a huge hit, and you can bet we're adopting it as our new local hangout. Good food tastes even better when you're a regular.
Top 12 dishes under $12
112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs
Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange
Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy
Heartland: Cheese Course
La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese
Lucia's: Farmers' Salad
Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs
Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet
Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé
Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans
Sea Change: Arctic Char
Tilia: Potted Meat