Open your eyes! Shrug off the slug! Smell the breeze! Spring is here—the calendar says so—even if the weather won’t cooperate. It’s time to shake our plates and palates out of their winter stupor. That means we should lighten the load on our dinner tables, ditch the comfort food, try something new and revel in spring flavors. Our area is rich with opportunities for culinary adventure, flavor, lightness and love. So long, hibernation coma—hello spring! Here are some of our snappiest, springiest finds.
CHICKEN TACOS WITH A RAINBOW OF SALSAS
Porta del Sol
This is a fun place to grab takeout and bring back to the office for an impromptu fiesta. It’s authentic, all right—owner Mike Regan collected recipes from locals during a 2007 trip to Cancun. Authentic means fresh produce, no fry-o-lator and classic Mexican dishes like simple tacos on soft corn tortillas (also available “American-style,” i.e., with lettuce, tomato and shredded yellow cheese). The Mexican tacos are served as they are back home, with grilled or slow-cooked meats and merely a sprinkle of cilantro, a scattering of tomato and onion, and a spritz of lime. We chose the tender chicken as a sort of tabula rasa for salsa-tasting: a perfect platform to showcase the lively rainbow of salsas. There is the old favorite, a bright and chunky pico de gallo, and an addictive, medium-heat, smoky roasted tomato. Maggie’s mild serves the wimps in the party, and familiar salsa rojo and verde are also available. We especially loved the garlicky, tongue-lashing scorch of the habanero salsa, although the pineapple was a close contender for favorite, a not-too-sweet delight of bright fruit, onion and cilantro. The sides are awesome, especially the black beans, which happen to be super-healthy fiber messengers. Definitely get some guac, chock-full of heart-healthy avocado oil. And get this: They have a gluten-free menu too! $2.69 per taco; salsas, 99 cents for 2 oz. 5309 Shoreline Drive; 952.472.3301.
Antiquity Rose Antiques and Dining Room
One of springtime’s iconic flavors is rhubarb. Rhubarb is weird stuff, hard to categorize as fruit or vegetable, terribly astringent-tasting when raw, and with poisonous leaves. Somehow mankind overcame all that and figured out how to eat the stuff: We now hold rhubarb dear as a harbinger of warmer weather and a lovely ingredient for pie. Its limited appearance makes it all the more special. Stop by charming, peaceful Antiquity Rose café for an exemplary rhubarb torte ($4.95 a slice).This is a mid-morning/afternoon place, and the torte is available only on Wednesdays, so plan your visit well. Include tea; let yourself be charmed. The café generously shares the recipe on the website if you want to brave it at home. 429 Second St.; Excelsior; 952.474.2661.
SHADES OF GREEN: SALAD BAR
“It’s not easy being green,” Kermit the Frog laments, then goes on to sing, “It’s the color of spring.” Say no more: Spring is here, so it’s time to eat greens. You’ll hit the green jackpot at the Lakewinds Market salad bar, where there are at least three choices of vegetation on any given day. There is always an impressively fresh spring mix (also referred to as lawnmower clippings), a tangled mix of baby lettuce leaves and a few peppery varieties like mizuna, radicchio and arugula. You’ll likely find spinach and romaine lettuces as well. The raw kale salad is wonderful to behold and to eat. The dark greens are tossed with cherry tomatoes, dried cranberries and pine nuts. The dressing is ultra-simple: olive oil and lemon juice. The dressing marinates and softens the kale, allowing the ingredients to harmonize with sweet, citrusy and nutty notes. $7.99/pound. 17501 Minnetonka Blvd.; Minnetonka; 952.473.0292.
CHARLIE’S CAFÉ KITCHEN SANDWICH
Ike’s Food and Cocktails
Small plates are the way to go for dynamic dishes in sensible portions. Ike’s small plate menu is full of good ideas, like, say, lobster corn dogs or a lump blue crab cake. Charlie’s café kitchen sandwiches make a dandy little repast: two mini beef tenderloins, seared as you like, and dolled up with a pile of silky grilled onions and a dollop of dashing horseradish sauce. You get two different buns: one pumpernickel, one sourdough. Totally adorable and totally delicious. $12. 17805 Highway 7; Minnetonka; 952.681.7099.
They’re called summer rolls, but truly, this appetizer screams primavera: herby, green, crunchy, tangy and fun. They are delicate things, freshly wrapped in translucent rice paper. Stuffings are seasonal and up to the chef’s whim. They may include shredded lemon grass, bean sprouts, mint, basil, roasted peanuts and your protein of choice (tofu, shrimp, chicken). Big Bowl offers a variety of these packages of fun: three kinds on the regular menu and frequent specials. Sample them all as you’ll never get saturated or stuffed with these little sweeties. $5.95–$6.95. 12649 Wayzata Blvd.; Minnetonka; 952.797.9888.
Yumi Sushi Bar
Every evening, Yumi offers a special roll or seasonal fish preparation, which she writes above the sushi bar. Whatever it is, no matter what, get it. Be brave! The sushi specials are ambitious, delicious and often challenging (Raw egg yolk? Eel?). The food’s beauty will remind you of the seasonal delights of the outdoors: breezy, bright and likely to make you smile. Everything is thoughtfully cut and exquisitely placed. The colors alone are a fantastic sight with orange-pink salmon, electric-green wasabi, flaming-red flying fish roe and snowy-white rice against ebony nori (seaweed). The Mexican roll is a primo adventure for your mouth. It bundles cilantro, avocado, spicy mayonnaise and jalapenos together with fresh slices of tuna, salmon and yellowtail. It’s doused in salty-tart ponzu sauce and sprinkled in hot chili oil. Drink something different and ask your server to recommend a cold sake to match your order. The presentation and pouring ritual is just as aesthetically compelling as the food on your plate. Specialty roll, 10 pieces, $22.95. 217 Water St., Excelsior; 952.474.1720.
ROASTED VEGETABLE FLATBREAD
It’s definitely not pizza, that notoriously greasy cheese and carb bomb that is such a comfort on cold nights. Flatbread is a distant cousin of the ’za, with its own sophisticated pedigree. This café has a lovely array of flatbreads on the menu, each 7-inch beauty garnished with a tasty combination of top-notch ingredients. The crust is light and crispy, and the topping is admirably restrained. We dug the roasted vegetable flatbread, sweetly caramelized zucchinis, red peppers and onions accented with a big swipe of bright green and garlicky pesto, and melted fresh mozzarella cheese. Keep an open mind at this place: There are great happy hour and daily specials that may seize your fancy—be springily spontaneous! Stick around for nightly music. $10. 318 Water St.; Excelsior; 952.401.7902.
The food at the Marsh wins the prize for virtuousness and yumminess in equal measure. You’d do well to hang out here anyway; with all the exercise programs on site, the place is thrumming with healthy energy. There are many daily specials to dive into, like the enticing seared scallops with butternut squash purée and brown butter (check the website for daily listings). The regular menu is full of favorites, including the wild-caught salmon. Salmon is the freshest fish come springtime, and you can tell by the clean, lightly briny flavor of the flesh, the very essence of ocean. The Marsh broils the plump filet till just cooked (or according to specification) and serves it with seasonal sides. The spring plate features cilantro cous cous along with pomegranate and orange salsa and crispy plantains (side selection varies). The sides aside, the fish is the real star. Major bonus: You can get a half (4 ounces, $16) or whole (8 ounces, $24) portion, depending on your appetite. 15000 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka; 952.930.8560.