Martina opened just under a year ago in the tony Linden Hills neighbourhood of Minneapolis. The restaurant occupies the (redone) space of the erstwhile Upton 43. We were never particularly moved to visit Upton 43 and so I cannot speak to how the interior has changed, but what is there now is a pretty standard issue contemporary “fine dining” space. That is to say, open ceilings, open kitchens, no tablecloths and a lot of sound. Unlike at a place like Spoon and Stable, the cocktail bar is right in the middle of the restaurant and seems to serve as its focal point. More than any expensive restaurant we’ve been to in the Twin Cities in a while, Martina seems like a spot for the young and well-heeled of the Twin Cities; it was still hopping when we left close to midnight on the Saturday of our visit—with the bar as crowded as when we’d got there at 9—and that’s not always the norm here. And the food? It was pretty good too.
The chef, Daniel del Prado, is a veteran of the Twin Cities scene. His previous stops include Burch Steak and Bar La Grassa (I have to say I didn’t care for our last stop there). The menu, if you don’t know, pulls together dishes, ingredients and flavours from del Prado’s cultural/family background: a mix of Argentinean and Italian. There’s a lot of seafood and a lot of grilling; and thanks to the nod to the Italian half of his family there’s a fair bit of pasta—always a safe hedge against the resistance that some/many diners may have to some relatively unfamiliar dishes and ingredients. Indeed, Martina can be used entirely as an Italian restaurant. That would be a shame though as there is a lot of interesting stuff happening elsewhere on the menu.
You shouldn’t go in expecting anything very subtle or any modernist flourishes in the food (though you should expect that from the bar—see below). The flavours are bold, the textures generally hearty, and the food mostly falls on the comfort end of the continuum. I note these aspects of the meal as observations not criticisms. Most of what we ate was very good indeed—though there were a couple of dishes that did less for us than others, one of which suffered from poor execution.
What did we eat? There were six of us and we sampled a reasonable cross-section of the menu. We followed our server’s advice and got everything to share. In practice, however, not everything was easily shareable among six people, especially a couple of the larger plates.
- Beet salad w. avocado puree, jalapeño, citrus, blackberry, acai: This was a very good blend of textures and sweet, acidic and spicy flavours. ($13)
- Spicy tuna tiradito w. hibiscus, lime, onion, cilantro: Ceviche’ish and the dressing was very tasty; however the tuna all but entirely disappeared into it. ($15)
- Salmon crudo w. seaweed, coconut water, serrano, lime: I thought this was much better. And at the price a much better value. ($9)
- Grilled beef tongue bruschetta w. celery, sardine mayo, caper berries: Rather good, but not really one to share between more than 2-4 people. ($16)
- Seared scallops w. saffron cream, burnt tomato, flying fish roe, basil: This was dynamite and I think everyone had it as one of their top dishes. The scallops were pristine and perfectly cooked and everything on the plate was complementary. ($18)
- One pound steamed mussels w. country bread, sea urchin, white wine: I can’t say I got much of an impression of the sea urchin in the steaming broth but these were excellent mussels, excellently steamed. ($16)
- Braised lamb fusili w. turmeric, mint, pecorino: This was one of the duds. Well, the sauce was very good but the problem was that the pasta was completely overcooked. ($19)
- Olive oil poached salmon w. burrata, burnt squash, salsa verde: This, however, was excellent. Perfectly cooked fish and a perfectly composed plate. ($23)
- Grilled octopus w. clams, fregola, turmeric, parsley: This was also excellent. Perfect execution again on the octopus and nothing on the plate was out of place. Frankly, as good as the octopus was I’d have been happy eating a large plate of the fregola (a couscous’y pasta) with the clams and the sauce. This dish has changed a bit since our visit. ($32; it was listed at $29 on the website when we visited—and is now too—but was $32 on the menu at the restaurant.)
- Parillada for two w. sweetbreads, blood sausage, chorizo, bone marrow and flat iron: We were really looking forward to this classic Argentinean plate of grilled meats but this was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment. The bone marrow was barely there: just about a smear for one person, leave alone two or six; the sweet breads were overdone and the chorizo was nothing to write home about. Only the flat iron and the blood sausage really did it for us. ($75)
- Charred cucumber w. chilli oil, colatura, feta, rice vinegar: Very good. ($10)
- Burnt squash w. mayo, sweet basil, serrano, pepitas, breadcrumbs: Also very good. ($8)
Flan, Argentinean-style w. cyprus salt, grapefruit; This was very tasty but the texture was a bit denser than I prefer. That may be the Argentinean style, I suppose. ($10)
Pictures of the restaurant and the food follow. Take a look and then scroll down for details on the cocktails, the service, the atmosphere and my estimation of value.
Their cocktails looked very interesting and had been talked up in the press and so we each started with one. Three got the Moon Mama, a concoction of pear and chamomile brandy, white vermouth and cardamom bitters. I got a sip and thought it was excellent. One got the Box Cutter, an involved mix of rye, brandy, amari, red vermouth, truffle and cocoa nib that was very good despite reading like a bit much (I got a sip of it as well). And two of us got the Viceroy made of cachaca, togarashi, mango, pineapple and lime. It was very refreshing but wasn’t really something I’d want to have again before a late dinner. In addition, we got a bottle of a Chilean malbec and one of us got an amari.
All of this food and drink came to about $500 with tax and tip or roughly $83/head. This is less than we paid at Spoon and Stable in February but I have to say I liked that meal more. On the other hand, I liked this meal more than our meal at Alma last fall, which cost quite a bit more per head. And it should be noted that you can eat a good meal here without paying quite as much: my favourite small plate was the salmon crudo at $9 and most of the pastas are sub-$20. Adding on dessert, this means you could conceivably get out of here for $40 plus drinks, tax and tip, which would be a pretty good deal.
The service was capable: friendly but not over-familiar and the servers were all knowledgable about the menu. I do have to say I’m not a fan of the over-crowded large dining room. I would not be happy if I were to pay this much money to be seated in the ring of tables around the bar where diners literally had people standing right on their shoulders, or in the first ring of tables near the entrance (and I wouldn’t want to be waiting in that small entrance area in the dead of winter either). A little less of a crush and a little less noise would be a good thing in my view but I realize I am old and out-of-touch. On the whole, I’d recommend Martina for a meal out in a group; I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much as a couple.
Coming next from the Twin Cities: an ode to University Avenue in St. Paul.