“Welcome to the most inauthentic southeast Asian restaurant in the Twin Cities,” Chef Sameh Wadi says, cracking a mischievous smile.
He’s reading my mind, in a way. We’re awash with excellent Vietnamese, Thai, sushi, and now authentic ramen. As I enter the revolving door into the relaunched Seven Steakhouse Sushi & Rooftop on Hennepin Avenue and climb the stairs to his newest concept, Nam Nam, I find myself wondering—in spite of Wadi’s magic touch—what new territory he can possibly forge here, at a swanky steakhouse.
Is your head already spinning with the incongruous details? I’ll put it plainly: One of our local food luminaries, the grown-up wunderkind of Saffron and World Street Kitchen fame, is running the show at the recently beleaguered, relaunched Seven, which now houses a Southeast Asian and sushi spot on the second floor.
As I survey the the big-eyed Manga pop art peeking out through blooming tropical plants, and gaze at nail-polish-pink ceilings decked out in swinging gold chains––an homage to the lurid 1980s nightclubs that once lined this stretch of Hennepin?––another note of doubt creeps in. How exactly do you pull off a funky Asian fusion restaurant that’s hidden on the second floor of a big, flashy steakhouse?
In its previous form, the flagship steakhouse was a fairly reliable two-for-one downtown Minneapolis dining destination. You know: an upscale, expensive meal and an upscale, expensive night out. The kind of restaurant where you could actually wear that black cocktail dress and dangerous heels while sipping something fruity from a martini glass on a rooftop chaise lounge, and not feel wildly out of place. One of the Timberwolves, or at least one of their entourage, would be doing the same.
You can still do all that––the glossy steakhouse remains on the first floor, with the multiple happy hours and the lazy rooftop drinks on top (though no promises on pro athlete sightings). But now, the second floor offers a totally different little world. The floor-to-ceiling windows present a view of Block E, and the whole place feels not unlike a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan that provides both an relaxed oasis and a people-watching perch over the streetside chaos.
If Nam Nam exudes a decidedly urban energy, that’s no mistake. Wadi, the culinary director of both Nam Nam and its flagship, found inspiration for the menu as he wandered the buzzing streets of Bangkok, looking for new flavors––the wilder the better.
“Someone offered to cook me Pad Thai, and I said, ‘Nah, man, I want to eat what you eat!’” he says, relishing the memory of a recent 13-city tour of Southeast Asia.
His most memorable meal, including the Michelin-starred restaurants where he dined? Eating dinner in a modest Chiang Rai home “with a family who grew everything they ate––every single herb. The chicken was from their backyard.”
The earthy authenticity conjured by his stories comes through in a standout green papaya salad, possibly one of the best salads I’ve eaten in my life––and as a lapsed longtime vegetarian, I’ve eaten a lot of salads. Flecked with tender pulled chicken to make it substantial enough for a meal, it was simultaneously crunchy, delicate, and bold, with a refreshing sweet-sour tamarind sauce coating the coarsely chopped peanuts, yellow cherry tomatoes, and green beans blanched just long enough to reach a tender-crisp state.
Dishes are pretty, but not fussy: The Thai tempura shrimp that came next were lightly fried specimens of flaky loveliness, and my San Sakana inside out roll, made creamy by a generous hand with the avocado, allowed the tuna, hamachi, and salmon to shine. When the fish is this fresh, you can skip the soy sauce.
The sushi menu will please both traditionalists––with straightforward hand rolls and sashimi––and those who are bored by classic flavors. Things get interesting among the inside-out rolls: Paradise Awaits is Wadi’s sushi homage to the flavors of Laos, while rolls like the East Coast (essentially a sushi version of a lox bagel) and the Minnesota State Fair-inspired No Coast (tempura walleye, garnished with mini tater tots and corn dogs) showcase Wadi’s irreverence.
Shaken with ingredients like tamarind paste, yuzu juice, shiso leaves, and chili oil, cocktails echo Wadi’s adventures. A few large plates, like a banana leaf-wrapped whole fish and Thai grilled chicken, round out the menu.
To get the recipe for the Thai grilled chicken, Wadi wandered deep into Bangkok’s Muay Thai boxing district. “I paid a guy off to tell me what ingredients were in his marinade,” he grins.
“Did you do some Muay Thai training, too?” I ask. It’s not uncommon for travelers to sign up for a week or two of intensive training in the notorious combat sport.
Wadi looks at me like I’m insane.
“Fuck no, I was there to eat,” he laughs, and pops a shrimp in his mouth, tail and all.
700 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
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