Why I First Visited Tilia, and Why I’ll Keep Going Back

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It’s one thing to have your name brought up on a best-of restaurants list or dominate somebody’s Instagram story, but what really got got my compass pointed toward Tilia were a hot sauce-maker and a podcast episode about dishwashers.

“If you want to get into the industry,” Craig Kaiser of Crybaby Craig’s told me. “you need to go where industry people hang out.” He says Tilia was an important save point on the journey of Crybaby Craig’s. It was also the last stop for Christopher Winter, a longtime Twin Cities dishwasher who was interviewed by T.D. Mischke during the “Dishwashers” episode of The Mischke Roadshow.

Tilia has been open since 2011 and was the first ownership venture for Twin Cities chef Steven Brown. You may remember Brown for his work at Porter and Frye, and the murderer’s row of chefs who worked for him there – and a murderer’s row it is. More recently, you probably heard his name when practically everyone dubbed him Chef of the Year in 2016 after opening Saint Genevieve in December 2015 (I wrote about St.G last year). In between them is Tilia, for which Brown was named a James Beard Award semifinalist this year. It’s his sixth time in the last eight years.

Yet, it was the hot-sauce guy’s praise and the mere mention of its name by a former dishwasher that grabbed me by the imagination and yanked me toward Tilia. I fantasized about a dimly-lit bar counter, a pint of beer, a comfortable room and a good meal. I went on a Monday night.

But first, on a Sunday morning, we had brunch.

SUNUP

If you hit Tilia just after the doors are unlocked on the weekend, the sunlight will already be creeping in and you’ll watch the 40-seat-or-so space slowly fill up as your meal carries on. Human noise crescendos; servers step around tables and between backrests like Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde on a Pac-Man board. We sat against the wall on the far right side of the entrance.

If you’re like me and visited St. Genevieve first, you might see Tilia’s interior and say something like “This looks French” to yourself. 

An almond milk latte and a cup of black coffee are first to our table, and then comes a pair of cloudlike slices of French toast. They come with a cute little swirl of maple butter on top, and you’ll probably be smearing the last drop of it off the place with your last bites of the toast. I went the first 37 years of my life despising French toast. I ate these, asked myself why, and couldn’t come up with an answer. Excellent French toast.

Then come buttermilk waffles dotted by big, fat blueberries and tiny cubes of brandy-dried pineapple. It was on this plate I first fell in love with maple sabayon, then Googled sabayon to learn more about it. I’m told that’s how romance works in this day and age. For my wife came a poached egg nested in a spinach salad, coated in parmesan cheese and a warm bacon dressing. Bits of mushrooms and almonds hid inside of it like Easter eggs in a movie trailer, the kind you get giddy about when you see them and nobody else does.

We didn’t simply ask that we try each other’s meals. We insisted one another “get in on this,” as if our meals were stock shares and Wall Street was about to go bonkers over them.

We were not the best customers during brunch. We were clumsy, awkward, and any diners paying attention to us probably would have labeled us “those people.” Service edges were nonetheless razor-sharp. That spinach salad had just come off the menu, but was recreated at our request and did I mention it was delightful? We spilled a beverage but it was cleaned up with the speed and precision of a mafia crime scene fix. When my consumption slowed, our waitress showed genuine concern that I wasn’t enjoying my meal. I was, I said, eyes just bigger than my stomach and all that.

I finished my waffles at home six hours later. Had our waitress seen that, she’d have thought “Wow. He really enjoyed those waffles.”

Other brunch options include an omelette with rotating ingredients; slow-poached eggs in parmesan cream with caramelized tomatoes and tarragon; avocado toast with pickled carrots, red onions, duka, and an egg on top per Brunch ISO 9001 Requirements; and donuts.

I suggest making a reservation for brunch of dinner. There aren’t many seats – I read 40, which looked about right – and there’s no space for milling around on your phone while you wait for an open table (and even if you do, the people who just walked in behind you probably have that table reserved).

Alternatively, you can belly up to the bar. Here’s what happened when I did that.

SUNDOWN

My seat at the bar counter was almost exactly on the opposite side of the room from our Sunday brunch table. At night, the music is poppy and upbeat (but not in the movie gunfight sort of way) and the whole room basks in a sepia glow. I didn’t bring a friend, but I didn’t need to. Within 20 minutes of sitting down, a server from a different restaurant had sat nearby and was offering me a slice of his grilled flatbread. This was around 9 p.m.

The flatbread had capicola ham and mozzarella cheese. I took a big bite, cursed with delight, took another big bite, and it was gone. 

My bowl of Brussels sprouts was packed with ham bits and walnuts. The sprouts were smoky and juicy, like a nice cut of meat almost. I followed that with a fish taco torta, at the server’s suggestion. It was a crunchy, peppery, messy little number and I just loved it. Crumbs on the counter, slaw juice on my hands, flavor for days, and three slices of lime I never quite get around to using. Hot sauce probably would have gone great with it, but I ate it before I thought to ask.

Other items presently available at dinner include wagyu beef. You can have wagyu beef braised with red wine demi, fermented turnips, and potato puree … or as a cheeseburger. There’s a reuben called “Oh, That Reuben” that looked awfully tempting when I saw one brought out for somebody else. There’s also a few pastas, seared sea scallops, and smoked pork shank. You can see the whole menu on the Tilia website.

Ask to see the dessert menu. Allow yourself to be tempted by a chocolate tart with pretzel brittle, caramel and smoked sea salt. I did, and was glad. The barkeep boxed up my last couple bites, but forgot to bring it back to me at first when he brought the bill over. He joked that he was going to keep it, and I wouldn’t have blamed him.

Chocolate Tart

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