Review: Why we've fallen for the marvelous Martina, the Twin Cities' Best New Restaurant

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Chilled Crab GRF

There was a time when you could dump some garden-variety ice in a glass, swirl it around with the right ingredients, and I’d knock it back with grateful satisfaction.

That was before Martina, where each drink is made with its own particular type of ice: crushed, cubed, stamped, and slivered. No number of slapdash drinks can unring that bell.

But why gush over ice when we’ve just freed ourselves of winter’s frosty chains? Because details like these define Martina.

The cocktails, most around $9 and many with house-made vermouths and tinctures, come with a garnish or straw (glass, bamboo, colored paper) that feels distinctive and special. And oh, that ice: A giant cube in the Old Fashioned is branded with a copper stamp, perhaps the mark of some cloak-and-dagger society we’re dying to join. The Coffee Sport, a high-proof house-made version of a coffee liqueur, is served with two miniature, perfectly hewn cubes, and in the Promiscuous, a wafer-thin raft of ice floats on the surface. The Naked Ballerina #2 brims with pebble ice, the kind that makes a satisfying crunch when you stab your straw into the glass.

At brunch, the Essentials is a trio of mini carafes nestled in a carton of pebble ice: a sampler of Martina’s takes on the bloody Mary, mimosa, and coffee cocktail. The Sous Les Mers fills the bottom of the glass with purple seaweed, conjuring the ocean floor; the Viceroy, their take on a caipirinha, is topped with quarters of lime, the skins carved like etchings on some ancient relic. An impressive list of mocktails, including the sweet and spicy Edo Fizz with togarashi, loops in non-boozers.

Conceptually, Martina (City Pages’ 2018 Best New Restaurant) is a fusion restaurant, with none of the gimmicky trappings that genre has accumulated over time. If meticulous attention to detail is one half of Martina’s secret, the other half is balance—the seamless execution of multiple concepts and flavors at once. The pairing of Argentinian and Italian flavors is as natural to chef Daniel del Prado as his own bloodline, which, of course, it is. Del Prado claims Italian, Spanish, and Argentinian roots, so Martina, his first solo foray after a celebrated career at La Belle Vie, Bar La Grassa, and Burch, sings with authenticity and ease.

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Naked Ballerina #2 GRF

Take the grilled beef tongue bruschetta, an homage to the grilled meats of Argentina and the classic Italian hors d’oeuvre, which stacks blackened toast with tender slices of beef, savory sardine mayo, and a spritely celery and parsley salad. For pescatarians, the charred avocado bruschetta hits many of the same flavor notes, beautifully joining the fat of rich avocado with the acid of pickled shrimp and a parsley and shallot garnish. It arrives just barely below room temperature to unmask every layer of flavor.

The broader menu is a medley of rich braises and pasta dishes from southern Italy and the bright, herbaceous treatment of grilled meats and seafood from Argentina. The cacio e pepe, typically a simple spaghetti with cheese and black pepper, is transformed into a decadent ravioli, filled with liquid parmesan; it is as juicy as a soup dumpling and as rich as your cheesiest fantasies. The braised lamb fusilli invites tangy tomatoes to cut the richness of the lamb, before a hint of mint shakes up the whole affair.

A filet of halibut topped with herbed breadcrumbs heralds spring in a shocking-green watercress, potato, and clam puree, fine enough to eat all on its own, by the spoonful. Even something called Burnt Squash, which sounds like a kitchen flub, is treated with an elegant hand, mixing acidity from fresh lime juice with the textural appeal of crunchy, finely chopped nuts.

Presentation varies from the rustic, crowd-pleasing leek and gorgonzola empanadas with chimichurri to the tricksy chilled crab, which stands cylinders of crab and hearts of palm next to each other as if to disguise which is which. Take both pieces in one swipe with a dab of tangy carrot mayo and savor one of the best bites in town. (Del Prado’s inventive use of carrots sprouts up again in the sumptuous gnocchi with simple tomato sauce, buoyed by a sweet carrot reduction.) For a show-stopper, the stuffed trout arrives from the wood-fired oven whole, head-on, filled with a crab mixture and wrapped in prosciutto; a seafood platter ($60 for half, $95 for full) lays out an impressive spread of crisp octopus ceviche, oysters, shrimp, the chilled crab from heaven and the sentence above, a fabulous smoked scallop salad with a tart herbed mayo, and whatever other crudo the kitchen is dreaming up.

At brunch, dishes hew closer to the American classics. The cheeseburger, a brunch exclusive, comes from Joe Rolle’s workshop of outrageous burgers (he invented the fan-favorite at Parlour) and plies us with unholy amounts of velvety cheese and griddled beef. Except unlike other au courant flat-top burgers, this one actually includes lettuce and tomato for—you guessed it—that balance of fat and freshness.

Order the potato churros if you’re having the burger. (Order the churros even if you’re not.) This clever twist on French fries is a stunning combination of crispy, golden exterior and creamy potato interior, served with spicy mayo and ketchup. “There’s something magical going on there,” said someone at our table.

After that introduction, we expected savory items to reign, but brunch sweets stole the crown. The steak and eggs was straightforward, with only a (delightful) chimichurri sauce to set it apart. Crab Benedict, which slathered crab cakes in buttery Hollandaise, was as well-executed and predictable as the steak and eggs.

Meanwhile, almond flour pancakes—only $8—were utterly dreamy. Fresh blueberries, strawberries, and pepitas doll up the gluten-free short stack, each cake with crisp edges and an almost silky middle. Side portions of butter, almond butter, and maple syrup let you manifest the perfect bite. The yogurt parfait, an almost certain throwaway on any other menu, is treated as royally as a crème brûlée, served in a wide shallow dish with grapefruit supremes, mint, and granola, and dusted with hibiscus powder. Every time this dish hits a table, Go-Gurt tubes the world round wilt in shame.

For after-dinner sweets, sharing is advised; dulce de leche in the flourless chocolate cake and the panqueque (a crepe with bananas) will vault your blood sugar into the stratosphere, but you’ll melt into your chair with every forkful. A lighter but no less considered option, the flan is more creamy than gelatinous and flecked with cypress salt and tangy dried grapefruit. Or if you’ve overindulged already, wait for the complimentary truffles to hit the table. Just as you’ll start each meal with an amuse bouche of Argentinian cheese bread (almost like a squishy Cheez-It), you’ll be treated at the end to a little sweet farewell. It’s all in the details.

When you visit Martina, you’ll feel equally certain you’ve walked into a hidden late-night bar off a Buenos Aires side street and into a Michelin-starred restaurant on the Mediterranean coast. Formerly the spare Scandi dining room of Upton 43, this new Linden Hills restaurant is warmer, a light-filled space by day and a low-lit bustling bar by night. Greenery lines the walls, pink light glows off the kitchen, and bleached wood rafters tower overhead; terrariums of fresh cocktail accoutrements—including those etched limes—draw eyes to the bar in the center of the room. The full menu is served there, so if you haven’t made a reservation, you can idle with a drink until a stool opens up. Just take a minute to look down and notice what’s clinking in your glass.

Click here to see a photo slideshow of Martina

Martina
4312 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-922-9913, martinarestaurant.com
drinks, $7-11; entrees, $20-$30


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