Willie's Wine Bar & Cuisine (Minneapolis, MN)

By Bruce Schneier and Karen Cooper
The Mix
March/April 2007

We don't like the name "Willie's Wine Bar" because we worry that you'll think it's just a bar and not go there. First and foremost, Willie's is a restaurant, one with a great wine list. It's a pretty space, great for dates or convivial meals with friends. You should go for the food.

Willie's menu is divided into smaller and larger plates, and both are filled with gems.

Willie's excels at combining interesting flavors. Standards like lamb chops and pot roast are prepared with interesting twists. You'll be charmed, even as you wonder what the chef could have been thinking.

We suggest ordering everything for the table and passing dishes around. You'll want to taste everything, even dishes you thought might not work. Chances are you'll be pleasantly surprised.

From among the smaller plates, we loved the seared sea scallop with fennel-chive slaw, watercress, black olive oil and a taste of citrus. Also delicious was the anchovy served with apple, watercress and pecorino cheese. Even the herbed goat cheese served with olive oil on toast -- the most basic dish on the menu -- was perfectly good.

We found one dud, in the sweet potato served with cinnamon, espresso cream, tarragon syrup and pomegranate. Unlike everything else we tried, the flavors never came together and the dish just fell flat.

But don't avoid pomegranate. The blue cheese and pomegranate pizza came with caramelized onions, thyme and apple. It was so good, a little crisp, so fruity and rich, that the more pedestrian sausage, mushroom, onion and mozzarella pizza couldn't compete.

We couldn't get enough of the larger plate of pot roast: braised beef, green lentils and an amazing sauce made by reducing the braising liquid. The lentils set off the beef nicely, and the sauce made the whole thing pop.

Almost as good was the seared lemon sole, served with pineapple fried rice, cilantro and a coconut-almond molé sauce that we would have eaten plain if we could have.

We found no clunkers among the larger plates. Pasta with sausage tasted fine in a red wine and cream sauce, nicely jazzed up by its sprinkling of toasted parmesan bread crumbs. Even the beef tenderloin shone when paired with braised red cabbage, herbed spaetzle and apple cider demi-glace sauce.

With such good food, it's easy to forget that Willie's is also a wine bar. Fifty different wines are available by the full glass, or a three-ounce tasting pour, and the list is full of interesting choices. They make wine accessible by offering pairings to go with each of the larger plates. We think Willie's might be the best place in the Twin Cities to learn about pairing food and wine.

We'd like to see desserts as delectable as the rest of the menu. Leaving aside dishes of Sonny's ice cream and plates of chocolate truffles, there are only three dessert choices -- a letdown after the bountiful food and wine offerings. We liked them all -- poached pear, pumpkin cheesecake or dark chocolate torte -- but wished the end of the meal could have been as exciting as the rest.

earlier review: Mekong River Thai Cuisine (Burnsville, MN)
later review: El Patio Cantina and Grill (Lakeville, MN)
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