January 22, 2022

PARIS-EUROPE

Something Inside of Us Sleeps, The Sleeper Must Awaken

Review: Owamni empowers chef Sean Sherman and the Indigenous food he’s famous for

A neon sign claiming “YOU ARE ON NATIVE LAND” gleams like the color of a Sith lightsaber and stares you down as you enter Owamni. It can feel both territorial and triumphant.

That’s likely because you’re on a site considered sacred by the Dakota, a place not far from St. Anthony Falls, the only natural major waterfall on the Mississippi River, known as Owámniyomni, which means “place of swirling waters” in Dakota, and is the inspiration for the restaurant’s name.

And likely it’s because you are dining at what surely has become one of the most important restaurants in America. In both stature and novelty, Owamni is not just a restaurant unlike any other — it’s a culinary first in the undersung Native American foodway.

The Minneapolis restaurant is five years in the making. Or 170, if you count the period during which the Dakota Reservation officially settled in Minnesota. Owamni’s chef/owner Sean Sherman, and his life and business partner, Dana Thompson, signed the lease five years ago, when it was a ruin of mills along the river and an abandoned building that once housed Fuji Ya, the city’s first Japanese restaurant.

Now, it’s a completely new space constructed atop the old: a handsome pavilion decked with limestone walls, lofted masonry ceilings, and a Douglas fir staircase that connects both floors. The lower level has a meeting room inside and a large firepit outside the entrance; the upper level hosts a sprawling outdoor dining patio and a stunning 88-seat indoor dining room — a long, narrow space with a stretch of floor-to-ceiling windows, where unobstructed views of the Mississippi River beckon. Opposite a row of tables is a gleaming open kitchen, with a bar in between.

There’s more: The building is surrounded by the city’s $24 million, 3-acre Water Works Park project, which aims to bring awareness to Owámniyomni’s Indigenous history. Soon, the park’s event spaces will be a site for Dakota language classes. Surrounding plants and shrubs, native to the culture and the area,will be labeled for their various culinary and medicinal uses.

Owamni is the crown jewel of this project, and it gives Sherman a platform to serve the food he’s spent years honing since launching The Sioux Chef in 2014. He gave talks, launched pop-ups, and served hundreds of Indigenous-focused meals. A cookbook devoted to Native American recipes, for which Sherman won a James Beard Award, followed. Then came the Indigenous Food Lab, a training and production kitchen at Midtown Global Market, which produces around 10,000 free meals weekly for tribal communities around Minnesota.

So to call Owamni, which opened in July, the “hot new” restaurant would do much disservice to a cuisine due for reclamation. Through Sherman’s menu, a forthright investigation into a waning culture, he empowers the land on which the produce is harvested, as well as regional cuisines from different North American tribal communities. Tacos are made from native, nixtamalized heirloom corn from Mexico; fish from local lakes; grains and beans native to Minnesota. Game features the usual suspects in bison and duck, but there’s antelope, rabbit and elk, too. Notably missing, though, are ingredients associated with colonization. But what does that mean?

At Owamni, it means omitting anything that isn’t originally from the local land. No dairy, wheat flour or cane sugar. No beef, chicken or pork, either. In their places: an opportunity for Sherman and his team to extract new flavors in ways unheard of.

He has created two kinds of pesto that taste entirely new. One is made with dandelion and has the kind of lancing brightness that binds roasted root vegetables very well. Another has the pungency of mustard greens, and it’s a great match for game sausage.

He makes a dressing that is used in a rillette-like smoked duck salad with kale. It is so rich I could swear they snuck in dairy. No, it’s rosehip vinegar fortified with quail egg yolk.

He also uses chokecherries to create a thick, gelatinous sauce, called Wojape. It buoys many savory dishes with sweetness, as with a jerky-esque smoked lake trout with white bean spread.

Some of the most unexpected delights came from upstage-worthy accompaniments: the sturdy and flavorful blue-corn tostadas that came with that smoked trout; the corn flatbread — freckled with uncooked puffed wild rice— alongside potted duck; and the firm, nutty sunchokes that hide under arctic char.

I would say the same of the masa crackers, as thin as toasted seaweed and remarkably crisp — probably because they’re made from a wild grass called teosinte, a forebear of maize, that produces finer kernels. But the bison tartare it came with was so clean and sweet that I couldn’t tell which I liked more.

What I could tell you, for certain, is that dishes continue to linger in my memory, weeks after my second and third visits.

The roasted sweet potato. Sherman cuts them into thick wedges, roasts them until puffy and stacks them vertically on a dark, oily pool of crisped ancho and poblano chiles. The heat of it will crawl over your tongue, then swell your lips, but it’s worth it.

The chochoyotes. They are gently chewy masa dumplings shaped like fat onion rings, and go well with mushrooms (deeply fragrant) — and that chile oil. They’re also a comfort to eat.

The corn sandwiches. Go for the elk, if it’s available. The meat is ground, like Texan-style chili, and crowned on sweet potato that’s been fried like a corn cake. On top is apple slaw that lends sweetness and acidity. Together, it tasted like an Indigenous shepherd’s pie. Except it’s infinitely more enjoyable to eat than the original.

I only wish all meats were cooked with this level of precision. While bison worked for tartare, it was less successful in a stew. Even a 16-hour braise wasn’t enough to temper its leanness, and while the result yielded portions that were somewhat tender, there were others that were rubbery.

Likewise, the game sausages that I tried on two occasions were similarly flavorful, but also similarly dry. Such is the consequence of cooking challenging proteins.

But there were inconsistencies on the same night I tried grilled arctic char — a fish more common and easier to get right. On the pass sat one version of it — plump and fatty, with skin cooked till golden; on our table was another — thin, several minutes overcooked, with skin burned to an unappealing charcoal. With time, I believe consistency will become more of a focus.

And with time, I will embrace their desserts. In keeping with the decolonization theme of Owamni, I expected a sour marriage of Drs. Atkins and Praeger. The first time, the savoriness of squash tart, one of three desserts, startled me; during my next visit, I began to appreciate the intensity of squash; the mild sweetness of the berries; the appealing chew of the sunflower-seeded crust. I feel the same about chocolate cake, which is less exciting but no less gratifying. That caramel sauce is as slippery and candy-like as one made with cane sugar and butter. That it’s vegan shouldn’t convince me otherwise.

It’s easy, after all, to forget that decolonization in food is consistent with the fervid scratch-off of dietary accommodations that most food companies are so eager to market. Yes, everything’s gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free and refined-sugar-free. Much of it is plant-based, too.

But that’s the beauty of the culture that Sherman has worked so hard to reclaim, celebrate and enrich. It’s centuries old, and it’s pretty damn delicious.

Owamni

⋆⋆⋆ ½ Exceptional

Info: 420 S. 1st St., Mpls., 612-444-1846, owamni.com

Hours: 4-9 p.m. Tue.-Wed., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Thu.-Sun.

Service: Sit-down; bar tables are available for walk-in and offer the full menu.

Price ranges: Small plates $7-$14, entrée-sized salads $11-$16, bowls $17-$19, shareable entrees $20-$30, desserts $9.

Recommended dishes: Roasted Sweet Potato, Bison Tartare, Smoked Trout, Chochoyotes, Open-Faced Corn Sandwiches. The menu evolves frequently and seasonally.

Beverage program: No alcoholic cocktails, but there is a wine list that leans heavily on progressive distributors and sourcing from geographies outside the U.S.; beer comes from a Latinx craft brewery in Minneapolis. There are zero-proof cocktails and Indigenous tea blends, both of which have excellent options to choose from.

Sound level: Comfortable; outdoor patio a plus.

Special menus: Vegetarians and vegans have plenty of options.

Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune’s restaurant critic. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.