First Course (Minneapolis, MN)

There must be a patron saint of new restaurants. To whom do we light our candle? What gods are listening to our plea? This little restaurant deserves to set its feet squarely into South Minneapolis and settle in for the long haul.

First Course is one of those cozy neighborhood restaurants: good food at affordable prices, not a whole lot of pretension, a friendly waitstaff, and an friendly wine list. There’s a new dining tradition we’re seeing in cities around the country—the American bistro—and this is a fine example of it. The fact that it’s within walking distance from our home is a bonus.

The restaurant is hidden in plain sight, one of a small strip of nondescript stores on Chicago Avenue. There’s a sign, but after dark you’ll have trouble seeing it. (The owner assures us it’ll be lit soon.) Inside is a small 14-table dining room with an open kitchen in back. One wall has brightly colored stripes of paint; the other is a bunch of plywood sheets. Curtains cover the bottoms of the windows. It’s like eating in someone’s religious vision.

The menu is as spare as the restaurant: two soups, a handful of salads, half a dozen appetizers, and six main courses (plus a few specials). Still, there’s likely to be something for everyone. We’ve eaten here several times, and have found the food to be mostly good.

Most of the better items are on the appetizer menu. The barbequed chicken quesadilla is served with a delicious salsa made from black beans and corn, with tomatillos and cilantro. We liked the flavors, and the caramelized onions and pepper jack cheese in the quesadilla. The mussels and clams, steamed in a white wine sauce—with garlic and shallots, as the seafood textbooks dictate—are a meal in themselves. And so is the antipasto plate, piled with Italian meats, cheeses, and olives. And we loved the vegetable minestrone soup: it’s tomato-based with cheese tortellini: hearty and heavily spiced.

The other appetizers are good. We enjoyed all the salads. The liver pate is very tasty, served with a delicious whole-grain mustard and French bread. (You’ll get the bread on the table when you order; it’s surprisingly tasty.) And we also liked the warm goat cheese and tomatoes with crostini.

The entrees are more of a mixed bag. We liked the chicken rotini—pounded chicken breasts layered with prosciutto, spinach, and provolone cheese and rolled in a spiral—served with gorgonzola risotto. More specifically, we liked the chicken and loved the gorgonzola risotto.

The penne Alfredo was thin and boring. The salmon is served Asian style, cooked with soy sauce and sesame oil, and served with bok choy, snow peas, and noodles. This is a great dish for someone else at the table to order. A single bite is delicious, but the entire plate of it is too sweet and cloying. Much better is the meatless lasagna stew. It’s called “open-faced lasagna” on the menu, which basically means that it doesn’t hold together like a real lasagna does. Don’t worry about how rectangular it’s supposed to be; the version at First Course is delicious.

Service can be erratic. Sometimes this can be blamed on the waitstaff—we had a godawful waiter one time—and sometimes on the restaurant’s size. When you’ve only got 14 tables, little things can affect you more. We once had to stand around despite a reservation, simply because the one table that could fit our party was lingering over their desserts. We’ve arrived for dinner at 7:30, and found that they’ve run out of two of their specials. And word is getting out about this place; it’s starting to get more crowded. But we’re happy to overlook these faults.

First Course serves both lunch and dinner. The lunch menu is soups, salads, sandwiches, and pastas. It’s all priced like you’d expect at any random lunch counter downtown (around $7 for lunch), but much higher quality. Dinner entrees run $8–$16, with salads around $6 and appetizers around $7. And there’s a children’s menu that’s almost larger than the adult menu. Six items, ranging from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a corn dog.

And, wonder of wonders, there’s no corkage fee (although ethics dictate that you should tip based on the cost of the bottle). So you can bring your kids and a nice bottle of wine, and enjoy First Course’s appetizers in their funky little bistro. And it’s in our neighborhood, too! So light a candle, dance a dance, and, most importantly, patronize First Course. This restaurant has got to succeed; it’s important.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.