Owamni opened last July in Minneapolis and quickly became one of 2021’s most acclaimed restaurants, both locally and nationally. It has featured on a number of lists of the best/most exciting/most important restaurants in the country and so forth. And more recently the restaurant made the James Beard Awards long list for “Best New Restaurant” and the chef, Sean Sherman was likewise on the long list of nominees for “Best Chef, Midwest”. It is a restaurant helmed by a Native American chef, which aims to foreground/promote indigenous ingredients and to present what it calls a “decolonized dining experience”. All of this is urgent, important and exciting. And so it gives me no pleasure to say that we enjoyed very little of the food at our recent dinner there.
Located on a sacred site for the Dakota and Anishinaabe people, the restaurant, overlooking the Mississippi, is among the most attractive dining spaces in the Twin Cities and must be even more so in the summer. Floor to ceiling windows along the sides of the dining room let in natural light and when there isn’t snow on the ground there is also an attractive outdoor seating area to consider. The sign by the entrance reminding diners, “You Are On Native land” notwithstanding, the restaurant very much looks the part of a contemporary American fine dining restaurant and we were curious to see how the restaurant would deconstruct and, in their terms, decolonize the dining experience.
Well, one of the things you might note is that while at the level of ingredients the restaurant may not feature very much that usually emerges from American fine dining kitchens, the format of the meal as presented during the winter—a prix fixe four course menu—is in fact very familiar. The dining experience in that sense did not seem decolonized at all: it was constructed and progressed very much like meals at other fine dining restaurants in the Cities. Fine, but how about the food?
One of the things to remember here is that the restaurant is not recuperating/recovering Native American dishes. Rather Sherman is taking indigenous, pre-Columbian exchange ingredients and using them to construct dishes that are otherwise formally all but identical to those served at most contemporary French-derived New American restaurants (you can get a sense of this by looking at the slideshow below). But does the use of indigenous ingredients transform these dishes in interesting, even critical ways? On the basis of our meal, I wouldn’t say so, though as to whether this was because of the ingredients themselves or the execution is hard to tease apart.
There were six of us at our table and so we were able to eat everything on the menu, with multiple orders of a few dishes. Everything looked utterly beautiful but only some of it succeeded for us on the plate. The first course, for example, featured an overly dense duck paté (magaksica), which seems to have previously been on the menu as “duck sausage” (and indeed that’s how it’s billed on our check); a mushroom and vegetable terrine (owoza) that could best be described as rubbery; and cured snapper (hogansa) that seemed to have been cured too long. The only dish on this round that we all liked a lot was the venison tartare (wachonicha), which despite the use of only indigenous ingredients didn’t really seem particularly different from other tartares.
The second course had a higher hit rate. This included stewed bison tripe and tail (thaniga) cooked with white corn, sweet potato etc. The tripe didn’t really register for me but the tail was done very well and the dish had good depth of flavour; I also liked the pheasant (siyosa) done as a croquette resting on a frame of sweet potato dumplings; and those who got the crab and corn dumplings (mniwanca matuska) were pleased as well (I thought the bites I took were pleasant but not more). These were served with squash, cranberry beans etc. with shellfish broth poured over at the table as is the style of the times. Alas, I had the stuffed squash pasta (wagmu) and while the mushrooms etc. on the plate were fine, the pasta itself was a stodgy disaster.
The third course again featured stewed meat, in this case mutton (thacincala) in a green chili with teppary beans and blue corn tortillas on the side. This was my favourite dish at the meal even though my piece of mutton had a thick seam of gristle running through it. Everything in this worked. The wild rice stuffed quail (siyo) was likewise well executed if not particularly interesting. I wouldn’t say the same though of the empanada-like wild rice dumpling (wanaslogyapi) which was again overly dense. The final dish in this round, the walleye done three ways, was okay but seemed a little out of place alongside the others (I would suggest moving it to the second course and moving the bison tail/tripe to the third).
The wheels fell off completely with dessert. We’ve certainly had enjoyable desserts that did not feature gluten or dairy but the black bean cake (aguyabskuyela), the duck and maple cake (chanhanpi) and the ice cream sandwich (chahsniyan) at Owamni would not make that list. Again, they looked good but the textures ran the gamut from dense and stodgy (the black bean cake and duck and maple cake) to just plain odd (the ice cream sandwich). We had difficulty finishing these. The seaweed sorbet (mniwanca waptaye) was the best of the lot but I don’t know that I’m in a hurry to eat it again either.
Drinks? They do not serve distilled spirits but do serve wine and beer/cider (more on this below), alcohol-free cocktails and switchels. We got some from each category.
For a look at the restaurant and the food, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for more thoughts on this meal and also on the restaurant’s larger approach to the question of decolonized dining.
If you were counting you’d see that’s 6/16 dishes that our group liked (+/- 1 or 2 dishes depending on who you asked). It’s certainly possible that some of the things we didn’t like we just didn’t “get” or have the context for. Is the cure on the snapper so heavy for a reason, for example? Were so many other dishes overly dense in texture by design? If so, our server did not enlighten us and nor does the restaurant—or any of the many laudatory reviews—make any such indication. Personally, I suspect that what’s happening is a combination of two things: problems with execution in some cases and in others also a bit of a mismatch between ingredients and the forms they’re being made to take (it’s also my impression that not many of the laudatory reviews of the restaurant say very much about the food).
And I have to say I wonder about the restaurant’s strict insistence on only using pre-Columbian exchange ingredients in the food. For one thing, this is not followed on the drinks menu which features wine, beer and cider. Grapes, barley and apples all came to the Americas with European colonists as well. The restaurant’s workaround here is to only feature wine, beer and cider from BIPOC-owned producers and I’m not sure why this approach can’t also be utilized at least somewhat on the food end of things. I will note here that the identification of native ingredients with only those present before Europeans arrived in the Americas also elides the fact that some European crops were adopted centuries ago by Native Americans and arguably indigenized. See, for example, the heirloom wheat strains that have been preserved by the Akimel O’odham of Arizona and who now sell them from Native American-owned farms and stores. Why can’t crops and products like these also be part of the indigenous foods history that a restaurant like Owamni seeks to foreground? For one thing including them may actually offer a glimpse of a more complicated history; for another, including them—even to a limited extent—may allow the restaurant to more successfully showcase the indigenous ingredients it most wants to highlight.
I also think that there may be some value in not elaborating these indigenous ingredients through as much of a Euro-American fine dining filter as the restaurant is currently doing. I’m sure the restaurant doesn’t mean to imply that the worth of these ingredients can only be proven by showing that they can be used to make recognizable dishes in the Eurocentric fine dining mode; but there is a whiff of that anyway in a meal like the one we ate. Some of the most successful dishes at our meal were the stewed meats whose immediate points of reference seemed more Mexican than European. More in that vein might not only allow some of these ingredients to shine more fully it might also more fully engage with that business of decolonizing fine dining.
Well, those are my thoughts about the meal we had. You should know that my thoughts on the food itself were by and large shared by most of the table (one person lucked into ordering three of the six successful courses and so had a much better individual experience, though he didn’t disagree with our views on the other dishes). We are nonetheless, of course, major outliers. All the professional coverage has been far more celebratory and that may be more meaningful to you as you make your decision to dine here. For now I will say that I support Owamni wholeheartedly as a business and hope that as their menu evolves I will be able to find more on it to like. Here I should add that this four course setup is apparently not going to continue past the winter: they are supposedly going back to an a la carte model in the spring/summer—which is what they’d opened with last year. Will there be completely different dishes in conception/execution? I’ll be interested to see.
It should also be noted it’s not a cheap meal. We paid $85 plus tax and service charge/head while making the reservation—the check seems to imply that we were comped all the food but that’s just how they mark the pre-paid thing. All of that came to $105/head. Drinks and additional gratuity (service was very pleasant) added another $20/head. So, $125/head. That’s pretty expensive in the Twin Cities and not right now a price I want to pay again for a meal like this even though I want to support the restaurant. If you’ve been and have a very different sense of the food and value, please do write in below.
Alright, this is probably my last Twin Cities restaurant report for March. I am currently in Delhi (where I wrote this whole thing in one go having woken up very early with jet lag). My next few restaurant reports will be of meals eaten here. There’s a chance I might have another Twin Cities report on the 29th (I get back to Minnesota on the 25th). If so, it’ll probably involve Thai food in St. Paul.