When people ask me how I got interested in food, I always have to mention my friend Lynn.
We lived together in our early 20s, and we discovered cooking and eating great food together.
She went to culinary school and became a chef. I was always a little jealous of that move.
But now, later in life, we are both in the food world – me as a writer, she as the chef and owner of a really great restaurant in eastern Wisconsin.
That also means we are both really, really busy. And since we do not live in the same city, when we get together, we cram in lots of laughs and lots and lots of dining out.
We recently took a trip to see another treasured pal in San Diego, but managed to cram in a few extra days together here in the cities.
I thought it would be fun to give our outings a theme this time, and since Lynn came up in kitchens, where being a woman is not always easy, that theme was restaurants and bakeries owned or helmed by women.
We hit just a few spots, but it was great for her to see and be inspired by the great food that women in the Twin Cities are creating.
Here’s a rundown of our itinerary:
We flew in from San Diego in the late afternoon, so there was just enough time to shower and dress for dinner. I wanted to take Lynn to Hai Hai because on a previous visit, we had eaten at chef Christina Nguyen’s other Minneapolis restaurant, Hola Arepa, and Lynn loved it.
Hai Hai is a much more personal project for Nguyen, who is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. She used her intimate knowledge of the cuisine, along with some more recent travels to southeast Asia, to create fresh, fantastic dishes. Our favorite restaurants are the ones where you can feel the love on your plate, and Hai Hai definitely fits that bill.
We started with some tropical cocktails, which were, as always, stellar. (Nguyen’s husband, Birk Grudem, is one of the best bartenders in the cities.) I loved Postcards from Palawan, a slightly smoky, spicy mezcal-based drink that draws tartness from tamarind and pineapple and kick from Thai chiles. We also enjoyed the infinitely photographable, balanced and tropical Private Island slushie.
As for the food, we were blown away by the flavor explosion of every dish, from the fishy (in a good way) water fern cakes, to the beguiling crispy rice salad, a plate full of spicy, crisp, herbaceous and deep umami flavors .
The beef rendang was Asian comfort food at its finest. Spicy, creamy, slightly tart and served with a coconut rice that I could eat a vat of. And I had to order the Vietnamese crepe, because Lynn hadn’t had one. The crispy rice-flour crepe is wrapped around pork belly and shrimp, but to properly eat it, you put a slice into a lettuce leaf and drizzle it with nuoc cham and garlic chili sauce. It’s essentially a party in your mouth.
Tired and full, we decided to call it an early night.
I thought it would be nice to have a more casual brunch, and Stella Belle on St. Paul’s West Seventh Street, with its bright, airy atmosphere, came to mind.
Chef Leah Raymundo is not afraid of flavor, and although a few of the dishes we ordered were not as good as my first few visits to the cafe, there was still plenty to love.
Lynn ordered the cacio e pepe scrambled eggs, which were just too peppery. I love cacio e pepe pasta, and have had plenty of it in Italy and here, so I know that it’s a fine line between enough and too much pepper. Still, it was a fun twist on a dish we knew well, and when combined with the thick toast beneath the eggs, it was more than edible. I was craving vegetables, so went with a za’atar flavored potato and cauliflower dish, which was filling and tasty, though also possibly pushed the spice limit.
Our favorite bite was definitely a crepe filled with peppery arugula, nutty prosciutto and creamy brie. It was the lightness we were craving and the flavor balance that was missing in the other dishes.
A new from-the-table online ordering system was pretty slick, though, and gave us more time to chat versus standing in line.
Bellecour Bakery at Cooks of Crocus Hill
Lynn is a huge pastry person – and she also bakes my favorite bread on Earth – so I knew we had to make a stop at Bellecour.
Chef Diane Moua is the queen of laminated dough in particular, so we ordered the cardamom twist and a St. Patrick’s Day special – a green-striped croissant filled with Bailey’s Irish Cream mousse. The croissant was airy and perfect, and the boozy mousse a nice surprise. But the cardamom roll, with its Nordic sugar and spice, was definitely the favorite, especially the crispy, caramelized bits at the bottom of the pastry.
I sent Lynn home with some of the bakery’s fantastic, buttery Kouign-amann sticks, which are best when dipped in black coffee.
The plan had been to make a quick stop for some cocktails and a few snacks here, because chefs Gina Mangiameli and Tara Coleman have not only created one of my favorite hangouts, but also because their goofy friendship reminds me of the one Lynn and I share .
That pit stop turned into a light meal, though, as we sampled our way through some fun new menu items and ended up splitting one of the restaurant’s fabulous burgers between four of us.
Mangiameli insisted that we try the uber-crisp new honey-butter wings, which were deep-fried, a little sweet and a little savory. Served with the restaurant’s house-made, herb-packed ranch, they’re a wing-lover’s dream.
We also tested out the new beef empanadas, pillowy little pastries that are stuffed with spiced beef and served with a killer crema sauce, and some ground pork kebabs with a tart yogurt sauce, ground cherries and an herb-packed chermoula. I’ll be back for both.
And Lynn totally fell for bartender Tim Leary’s lighter take on a negroni, which is honestly one of my favorite drinks in St. Louis. Paul right now.
We were definitely bordering on full when we rolled into Myriel, but I knew Lynn would love chef Karyn Tomlinson’s sparse, Nordic sensibilities.
Since Tomlinson focuses on whole-animal butchery – and that means using every part of the animal – we had to start with the charcuterie plate. A rich, creamy duck-liver pate and some duck rillettes were paired with some local, cave-aged blue cheese and little yellow bean pickles for some perfect first bites.
Tomlinson’s pureed soups are always showstoppers, and the celery root version we had was no exception.
“You’re tasting restraint,” Lynn said, swooning. “It’s allowing the celery root to be what it is – sweet and delicious.”
That restraint continued with the luscious black lentils, which are perfectly cooked, earthy and topped simply with a frisee salad.
Lynn’s pillowy, crisped gnocchi, which she has perfected with many years of practice, have really ruined me for all other gnocchi, with the possible exception of Tomlinson’s little rye dumplings, so of course we ordered them. And they were light, slightly crisped, and tasted of that sharp, peppery grain.
My favorite Myriel dish, uber-tender duck breast in a sweet / umami caramel sauce, was as wonderful as always, and a lamb sausage perfectly spiced if a bit dry.
We were the last to leave the restaurant as we lingered over some fudgy Swedish brownies and an after-dinner drink.
It was sad to see Lynn go, but I felt like we crammed in as much as we could in the day and a half we had.