Pop quiz: Identify the Accenture Tower on the Minneapolis skyline. You can't, right?
That's a bummer for chef Lisa Hanson. Her Mona Restaurant & Bar is located just off the swank, marble-swathed lobby of the edifice at 333 S. 7th St., and while it isn't particularly easy to find, the payoff for doing so can be considerable.
If I didn't know better, I'd wager that Hanson's menu, roughly two dozen eclectic and well constructed small plates, is catered to appeal to my own personal dining habits. You know, a little of this, a little of that, with affordable, user-friendly forays into unfamiliar territory.
For those curious about elk, here's your opportunity: Hanson selects a lean, deeply flavorful grass-fed ribeye (like most proteins on Hanson's menu, it's a sane 3-ounce portion), grills it to coax out a gorgeous crimson color and dresses it with a mellow rosemary-scented Hollandaise and golden, thin-cut fries. It's an unintimidating $13 foray into game meats, repackaged in the more familiar guise of steak frites, and it's not to be missed.
Rabbit and foie gras get a brilliant double-header, the former braised to supreme juiciness and served over a bread pudding laced with the latter, its richness cut with tart rhubarb. More rhubarb plays against more liver in the form of a chicken liver pâté, swiped on toast and dressed with a tangy rhubarb compote. Another open sandwich treat: creamy, decadent beef bone marrow, spooned from carefully brined and roasted bones, with sweet apple butter and raisins.
I can't imagine visiting Mona and not partaking in the shrimp salad. The cool, refreshing poached shrimp has just the right juicy texture, and it's finished with a sprightly chive oil, tons of garden-fresh dill and delicate, Lake Superior-sourced herring roe; it's the kind of snack you hope to encounter at cocktail parties and never do.
Hanson is slightly obsessed with pork, specifically bacon, which she produces in-house and offers to her customers at a dollar a pop on any dish. The pork is sourced from Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, Minn., and it transforms many of the menu's vegetarian-friendly high points. A succulent roasted artichoke, topped with a poached egg? Even better with bacon. A tantalizingly creamy polenta, studded with a medley of earthy mushrooms? Bring on that bacon. The world's creamiest hummus, jazzed with crisp pickled radishes and mellow roasted garlic, or an artfully composed white bean-watercress salad? Lovely on their own, but irresistible with -- all together, now -- bacon.
Hanson likes to smoke things, and she keeps the process simple with just a wood chip-filled pan. The technique reaches its pinnacle with knobbly-shelled, briny and bracingly clean-tasting oysters, which Hanson nudges toward medium-well doneness and garnishes with a splash of sherry vinegar. They are almost indecently delicious.
Other seafood options impress, too, most notably a snowy white halibut -- fall-apart tender, wrapped in parchment-thin pancetta and resting in a delicate parsley-ramp broth. Hanson's sole foray into pasta is rooted in the Mediterranean, specifically Sardinia: small balls of Israeli couscous-sized fregola, toasted to a nutty brown and tossed with bright pops of basil and preserved lemon. I could happily eat it every day.
Mona has its issues. Grilled salmon with that marvelous fregola was disappointingly overcooked; ditto a dried-out pan-roasted snapper. Kudos to a fried chicken-cornmeal waffle combo, but both were overwhelmed by the toothache-sweet honey-brown butter sauce that was standing in for maple syrup. The kitchen's pace can be noticeably lethargic. Pastry chef Crystal Wenaas' work is mixed, but a dressed-up apple pie and a clever chocolate sundae hit all the right marks.
Will Hanson be able to get downtowners to step outside their ingrained noon-hour comfort zones and embrace her small-plates philosophy? It's a risky gamble to take with her only captive audience, namely the white-collar tenants laboring away in the floors above. Here's hoping, anyway.