What makes a good dish a great dish? There are obvious things, like top-notch ingredients and skilled cooking. Attention to detail—how the food is arranged, what it’s served with—also makes a difference.
And then there is the savvy choreography of flavors, which brings us to herbs. Herbs are not an essential foodstuff, but they are transformative nonetheless; a judicious addition of aromatics can turn a perfectly decent but pedestrian dish into something exquisite. The herb world is vast and varied. There is shy chervil, bold thyme, familiar basil, lively cilantro and many more.
Herbs are pretty too, and we’re not talking the obligatory sprig of curly parsley sitting on the edge of your plate (although that can be cute if it’s done with sincerity). Think of the flawless saw-toothed shiso leaf gracing a platter of sushi or the fragrant twig of rosemary snuggling up to a pork chop.
Sometimes a single herb evokes an entire cuisine. Basil is Italian; cilantro is Mexican; tarragon is undisputedly French. Consider them the unsung heroes of fine cuisine. They may not get the lion’s share of credit, but herbs often carry the entire dish. We tracked down the best herb-inflected eats in the area; here are some favorites.
Punch Neapolitan Pizza
Rosemary is one of the few herbs that you can smell while it’s cooking—it’s powerful stuff, with a woody stem and needle-shaped, evergreen leaves. It even has a pine-like aroma and flavor. The aroma is instantly recognizable and insanely seductive, a clarion call of something delicious in the works. A simple rosemary focaccia at Punch Neapolitan, fresh out of the mighty wood-burning pizza oven, has a few top-notch ingredients going for it: olive oil, sea salt, rosemary and the same delicious dough as Punch’s thin-crust pizzas. The focaccia showcases the distinctive herb; it is perfect in itself, but also a fantastic partner for one of the menu’s wonderful salads.
Half $2, whole $4.
1313 Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata
Roasted Vegetable Flatbread
This flatbread is a lovely thing, made of our favorite roasted veggies stacked with melted mozzarella and held together by an intense basil pesto. “Pesto” comes from the words “to pound” or “to crush” in Italian; traditionally it was made with a mortar and pestle. The kind of pesto that we are most familiar with, made of basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese, hails from the town of Genoa in Northern Italy. At Three Eighteen, pesto serves as mortar and flavor, the undisputed keystone of this divine mélange of veggies and cheese. $10.
318 Water St., Excelsior
Spiced Kebab and Brown Rice Bowl
We're accustomed to mint flavoring in desserts—with chocolate, or in ice cream—but it's equally compelling in savory dishes, which is typical of Middle Eastern cuisine. The Marsh offers a deft combination of authenticity and innovation with its spiced kebab and brown rice bowl with bell pepper, carrot, currants, lemon, cinnamon and plenty of chopped mint. Choose between tender grilled chicken or beef skewers, or do as we did and get one of each. $10.
15000 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka
Green Tea Smoked See Bass
Perched on Wayzata bay in the former Northcoast locale, this is the latest ’do from chef JP Samuelson. It’s airy and spacious, rocking killer views and an exciting menu. It’s a meat-centric eatery, but all that lake water made us want to order fish. Green tea smoked sea bass proved irresistible; rest assured that it’s dayboat-caught by responsible fisherman. The smoke from the tea is subtle; the tender-fleshed, smartly cooked fish gets herbal oomph from coriander (also known as cilantro) and fennel, a celeryesque vegetable that tastes like anise, whose feathery fronds do double-duty as a vegetable and herb. The dish comes with quinoa, the ubiquitous Andean superfood, mixing it up in a pretty pilaf. $33.
294 E. Grove Lane, Wayzata
Oregano Chicken Wings
The Greek isles are fertile with oregano, a shrubby little plant that loves ocean-inflected sunshine. Any Greek person will tell you that theirs is the best variety of oregano on the planet. Chicken wings, a beloved American bar snack, take well to oregano, and even better to the holy trinity of Greek cuisine: oregano, olive oil and lemon. These wings are the perfect vehicle for bold flavors; share a plate to start or enjoy an order all for yourself. $7.45.
15600 Highway 7, Minnetonka
Spaghetti Al Fresco
Our patience has been richly rewarded with the arrival of Coalition in the former Biella space, a historic brick building on the main drag in Excelsior. The menu is eclectic American fusion, but once again the simplest preparation steals the show. Spaghetti al fresco is this sort of dish, fresh noodles tossed in an uncooked sauce of chopped tomatoes, garlic and plenty of basil—the heat of the just-cooked noodles warms and slightly softens the vegetables. It tastes like the essence of summer.
227 Water St., Excelsior
Trendy mixology is turning more and more to herbs—basil martini, anyone?—but a mojito has always been about lots of crushed fresh mint leaves. There’s something reassuring about a pile of greens in your booze; it mitigates the guilt factor. Lago is cocktail heaven, full of inspired updates on familiar drinks. This is where we found the love child of a margarita and a mojito, called the mojitorita. It’s made with Sauza tequila, mango rum, orange juice, fresh mint and a splash of sweet and lemony Sprite. It’s yummy and it’s lethal, but at least it’s chock-full of greens. $8.50.
30 Water St. Excelsior
Vietnamese cuisine relies on herbs to brighten its straightforward building blocks of noodles, rice and vegetables. A steaming bowl of pho, an apocryphal hangover cure, makes good use of Thai basil, a sharper, sturdier and slightly mintier version of the stuff we like in our pasta. Springy rice noodles and chicken swim in a clear, slightly sweet broth that’s both soothing and nourishing. The excitement comes from accompanying plate of DIY condiments: lime, sliced fresno pepper, mung bean sprouts and purple-leaved Thai basil. We like ours heavy on the herb and the pepper; the fiery brew is both curative and addictive. $3.99 cup, $6.99 bowl.
12649 Wayzata Blvd., Minnetonka
Gold Nugget Tavern and Grill
This place is a popular burger haven; build one of your own or try one of the menu’s Burger Creations. The chimichurri burger is slathered with, you got it, chimichurri, a South American pesto-like sauce made of parsley, garlic, oregano, olive oil and a splash of vinegar. It’s a potent partner for beef and it’s brilliant on this cooked-to-order burger. This is fusion to the edge of confusion; there is Italian mortadella (basically high-class bologna) with French Gruyere cheese, peppery arugula, sweet tomato jam, and the final, astonishing kicker, bone marrow mayonnaise. Despite all that foofaraw, the chimichurri steals the show. $14.95.
14401 Excelsior Blvd.
Scones are usually sweet—think of the icing-laced pastries from popular coffee shop chains—but savory scones are a special treat worth seeking out. The dense, crumbly texture is like a biscuit, an ideal blank canvas for all walks of flavor infusions. Patisserie Margo’s buttery Asiago-herb scone is liberally flecked with chopped basil, dill and parsley. Asiago, a pungent sheep-milk cheese along the lines of Parmesan, is just the thing to temper the aromatics. $2.20.
284 Water St., Excelsior