Some guys—and gals—get all the ink. If you are a devoted Twin Cities foodie, you know all about Tim (and Josh), Vincent, Alex, Stewart and Heidi, Lucia, Doug, J.P., Lenny, and Brenda—and you can pair them with their restaurants. Odds are pretty good that you have also heard of Tanya Siebenaler, Don Saunders, Scott Pampuch, Mike Phillips, and J.D. Fratzke.*
Google any of these names and you’ll get hundreds of hits. And by the time this issue is on the streets, your chances of getting a Valentine’s Day reservation at any of their establishments are slim or none.
But plenty of other very fine restaurants don’t generate the same buzz and don’t make it into the Zagat Guide. Some of them are too new, others too old, some are a bit off the beaten path, and some are just a notch less ambitious than the places everyone’s talking about. Following are a few of these under-the-radar places that seem especially appropriate for Valentine’s Day, or any romantic occasion.
At First Course: A chicken roulade with gorgonzola risotto, with a tres leches cake for dessert.
Unless you happen to be his mother or one of his loyal customers, odds are pretty good that you have never heard of Travis Metzger, chef-owner of First Course. The décor at this little neighborhood bistro might be rather minimal for some tastes (varnished plywood takes the place of teak and mahogany veneers), but I find the place quite charming, fake fireplace and all.
The first time we visited, Metzger was doubling as waiter, and listening to him describe the nightly specials made it clear that this is a guy who really knows and cares a lot about food. We started with a couple of his nightly specials: field greens and roasted beets with chopped walnuts, dressed in walnut oil with a pumpkin-infused goat cheese, and a tapas plate of polenta topped with a savory duck confit.
I was a little skeptical about ordering the seafood stew in lobster broth, fearing a commercial soup base loaded with salt and MSG (there are no other lobster dishes on the menu); this version, however, was delicious: shrimp, mussels, clams, and calamari in a light but intensely flavorful broth, spiked with just enough chipotle pepper to command your attention. Other best bets from subsequent visits include the pappardelle with lamb ragu; braised leg of lamb with rosemary, white wine, and tomato; butternut squash ravioli with a brandy-Gorgonzola cream sauce; and the chicken roulade filled with prosciutto, spinach, and provolone, served over a Gorgonzola risotto.