What makes a good dish a great dish? High quality ingredients and savvy cooking techniques are the basic building blocks. The chef acts as choreographer, creating a compelling interplay of flavors and textures using from bold gestures to tiny details, where it is said that God resides. This is also where herbs reside. Herbs may seem like bit players, but they have distinctive characteristics that can carry an entire dish. Every smart chef knows that herbs are transformative, able to elevate a perfectly serviceable recipe into something intriguingly delicious. The herb world is vast and varied: from shy chervil to bold thyme, from familiar basil to lively cilantro, herbs are the unsung heroes of fine cuisine. We sampled an assortment of herb-inflected eats in the area; here are a few favorite examples of their culinary magic.
ROSEMARY OLIVE OIL BAGEL
Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery
Rosemary is one of the few herbs that you can smell while it’s cooking. It has a gnarled, woody stem, needle-shaped leaves and a pine-like flavor. The aroma is instantly recognizable and insanely seductive, the clarion call of something scrumptious in the works. A simple bagel at Brueggers has just a few top-notch ingredients to enhance it: olive oil, sea salt, rosemary and the same delicious dough that makes their popular bagels chewy and tender in just the right measure. This herb-shot bagel is perfect in itself, perhaps lightly toasted with a bit of butter, and also a fantastic base for one of the menu’s creative sandwiches. One bagel, $1.19; one dozen, $9.29.
4000 Annapolis Lane N.; 763.553.9893
TOM YUM SOUP
The name “lemon grass” is deceptive because it’s not pliant like a blade of grass. It has a fibrous stalk more akin to bamboo, and it’s best not to chew it. Rest assured that the intractable herb easily lends a delicate citrusy essence that announces itself with the very first bite. Lemongrass is one of the staple herbs in Thai cuisine; you can find it in many dishes at Thai Table, maybe most notably in the Tom Yum soup. According to the menu, Tom Yum is Thailand’s national soup, a hot and sour beauty of a brew spiked with lemongrass, straw mushrooms, lime juice, coriander (cilantro) leaf, Thai chili paste and Thai ginger. Coriander shares a perfume-like quality with lemongrass making a delightful frolic on plate and palate. Served with rice and your choice of protein. Chicken, $10.99.
10100 6th Ave. N.; 763.591.6085
Sunshine Factory Bar and Grill
“Pesto” comes from the words “to pound” or “to crush” in Italian; traditionally it was made in a mortar and pestle. The kind of pesto that we are most familiar with, made out of basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese, hails from the town of Genoa in Northern Italy. Here, pesto serves as the keystone of this glorious mélange of veggies and cheese. Flatbread, which is basically an upscale pizza, is an apt vehicle for high-quality sophisticated ingredients, as this one demonstrates with a generous layer of pesto, lots of mozzarella and home-made tomato sauce. This classic recipe is further enhanced by sweet, teardrop-shaped Roma tomatoes, pungent provolone cheese and torn fresh basil leaves. $10.25. With Grilled Garlic Chicken, $11.75.
4100 Vinewood Lane N.; 763.535.7000
“13” CHOPPED SALAD
This crazy-tasty pile of chopped goodies gathers grilled chicken, tomatoes, black beans, kidney beans, corn, red and green onion, avocado, and corn tortilla strips into a marvelous mess of Southwestern/Tex-Mex flavor. A confident, let’s-all-get-along dressing is a must here and the pub’s own cilantro ranch nails it. It’s lusciously creamy and a tad sweet, seamlessly joining the disparate ingredients without clumping up the nooks and crannies. The cilantro cream is delicious on its own but it performs astoundingly well under pressure. $12.49.
3000 Harbor Lane N.
TUSCAN CHICKEN PIZZA
Jake's City Grill
Chicken is the centerpiece of this unassuming-sounding appetizer: it’s marinated with Greek flavors—primarily oregano and lemon—and baked, yielding tender, flavor-injected breast meat. The meat is cubed and scattered onto a flatbread slick with olive oil, then joined by whole roasted garlic cloves, a four cheese combo (parmesan, mozzarella, Provolone and Asiago), spinach and chopped basil. The spinach wilts nicely from the pie’s heat while the basil steps forward to show off its floral, heady essence. The crust, wavering between cracker-thin and densely chewy, is comparable to pita bread, and garnished with the most lovely basil flower. Details, details. $12.50.
3005 Harbor Lane N.; 763.559.1595
GAENG PED PLA (FISH CURRY)
Of all the Asian cuisines we are lucky to sample here in the nifty fifty, Thai might be the most herb-reliant: the fragrant, aromatic quality of the herb kingdom is the ideal snappy answer to the insistently fiery chilies, rich coconut, and chewy bits of meat. The fish curry at Ketsana’s has two essential herbal components: basil leaves and kaffir lime leaves. Basil is familiar to us, and it adds a sense of sweetness and warm sunshine. Kaffir leaves, on the other hand, is foreign to American palates, and here it reveals its bright tang and hint of lime to its best advantage with orange roughy fish simmered in creamy coconut milk and zesty homemade curry paste. $12.50.
16605 Country Road 24; 763.559.0695