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Nostalgia is on the menu at Twin Cities restaurants

Tyge Nelson estimates he has eaten thousands of ham and cheese croquettes.

Set atop a pastel yellow smear of saffron aioli, the crunchy, fried golf-ball-sized orbs of gooey Mahón cheese and Serrano ham were such an iconic menu item at Solera, where the now-restaurateur held his first executive-chef job, that he wouldn’t have dared to remove them from the menu.

Solera was a pioneering Spanish tapas restaurant in downtown Minneapolis that had a healthy 10-year run. Though it closed in 2015, memories of small plates and wine tastings, rooftop revelry and those savory croquettes persist for Twin Cities diners fortunate enough to have eaten there and for the top chefs who got their start there.

“They’re still one of those things that you never really get sick of,” Nelson said of the croquettes. “There’s always a craving.”

Which explains why he’s brought them back.

Solera hasn’t returned — not exactly. But it is having a comeback of sorts, along with other beloved Twin Cities restaurants that are being resurrected for a comfort-seeking audience in a post-pandemic world. Driven perhaps by a nostalgic appetite for a sunnier past, chefs and restaurateurs are bringing back favorite dishes to Twin Cities menus.

The memorable Khinkali dumpling from chef Isaac Becker’s now-closed Burch Steak and Pizza Bar, a pandemic casualty, recently resurfaced on the menu of sister restaurant 112 Eatery.

At the aptly named Revival Smoked Meats, which opens May 14 in the former Corner Table space, chef Thomas Boemer is re-creating his chive drop biscuits with a molten white cheddar center, a signature dish on Corner Table’s menu until its 2019 closure.

Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale, a downtown Minneapolis institution that closed in 1982, is now being revived in facsimile at the Minneapolis Club, and not just with a Charlie’s-inspired menu. The new spot even features the old restaurant’s handsome curved bar, bordered by its iconic, and spooky, frieze.

And newly at the helm of the Mudd Room, a speakeasy-style music club in Mendota, Nelson (who co-owns two Pajarito restaurants) has been subtly transforming the formerly mundane menu into something out of Hennepin Avenue circa 2006. Those croquettes are there, now in three forms (the traditional ham and cheese, chorizo and crab), along with another Solera staple, goat-cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers in a pool of garlic butter.

“Those were two dishes that were on the menu from the first day and we could never take them off because they were so popular,” Nelson said. “Remembering food is a very personal thing. That smell and that flavor is something people really latched onto.

“With everything that’s gone down, and a lot of restaurants that have closed, I think people kind of hearken back to favorite dishes.”

Transporting flavors

The coronavirus pandemic has been brutal for restaurants. An estimated 110,000 closed in the U.S. during COVID’s first year — more than 90 in the Twin Cities in 2020 alone. But pandemic aside, the restaurant business has always been challenging, with impossibly small margins and high failure rates.

Much is lost when a restaurant closes — jobs, dreams and great dishes, which can leave patrons who once devoured them with insatiable cravings. Tasting them again can be transporting.

“People have very strong memories of tastes and smells,” said Traci Mann, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in health and eating and has studied comfort food.

“Tasting (or smelling) a familiar food can induce a pretty vivid memory of an earlier time when they had that food. This is probably especially powerful when the food isn’t something they have regularly, but is more of a special-occasion food, or something they had in a particular restaurant,” Mann said. “So having those foods now may bring back memories of times pre-COVID when sitting in a restaurant and enjoying a meal didn’t feel so fraught with danger.”

The allure of these resurrected dishes isn’t just for diners. The muscle memory of cooking again with the same ingredients, or stepping back into a kitchen that had been closed, can unleash a flood of feelings for the people who prepare them, too.

“It’s really hard to be in this space without being nostalgic for Corner Table,” said Nick Rancone, who co-owned Corner Table with Boemer. (Their Twist Davis restaurant group is also behind three Revival restaurants, in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Louis Park.)

When Rancone and Boemer closed their acclaimed restaurant shortly before the pandemic, they had every intention to use the south Minneapolis building for something else. But uncertainty in the restaurant business delayed their plans. Then, their first crack at Revival Smoked Meats, in St. Paul’s Keg and Case Market, closed during the pandemic. The new version brings both of those past efforts together.

“The prolonged absence and closure, without knowing what the future was going to be like, was really drawn out,” Boemer said. “Once we got in here and started remodeling and building and getting into the space again, it started bringing back, not just memories, but the story of Nick and I, where we started, where we went and where we’re going back to.”

Nelson is reviving more than the food from his younger restaurant days; he is reuniting with former colleagues, too. Before Solera, he worked his way up to sous chef at another Minneapolis legend, La Belle Vie, which closed in 2015. Nelson has invited Tim McKee, its chef/owner, and other chefs he has crossed paths with, to create short-term specials at the Mudd Room.

“Before COVID, you’d run into these people all the time because you’d work charity events or go to their restaurants. These last two and a half years has shut that down,” Nelson said. “It is an added benefit that we’re able to see these people again and hang out with them and eat their food, and work shoulder-to-shoulder again in a different environment.”

Revisiting favorite dishes, with longtime colleagues, may just be the next hot trend in Twin Cities dining.

“Everything old is new again,” Nelson said.

Tastes of the past

These restaurants have revived popular dishes from local restaurants that have closed.

112 Eatery, 112 N. 3rd St., Mpls.,

Charlie’s Minneapolis Club, 220 S. 8th St., Mpls.,

The Mudd Room, 1352 Hwy. 13, Mendota,

Revival Smoked Meats, 4537 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls.,