Sep. 9—The best food transports us to a time or a place or even just into the mind of a creative cook.
In the case of Owamni, the new restaurant from Sioux Chef, we are going into the wayback machine and imagining a world where Native Americans weren’t stripped of their land and culture.
Food is such a giant part of the story of any people, but when you have experienced trauma the way Native Americans have, holding onto that food culture might be the last thing on your mind. For many that were forced onto reservations, commodity foods provided by the government — powdered milk, sugar, wheat flour and cheese — changed their diets dramatically, and not for the better.
Enter Sean Sherman. The chef behind the Sioux Chef team has made it his mission to de-colonize, and in a way, bring back, Indigenous food. That means removing all the ingredients that Europeans brought to America, including wheat, dairy, cane sugar, beef, chicken and pork.
And with Owamni, in the shiny new Mill Ruins Park along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, Sherman proves that none of those things are necessary to make a delicious, and thought-provoking, meal.
The menu is set up in sections. There are small plate-type dishes, including tacos, vegetable dishes (which are all vegan, because, no dairy), choginyapi (corn sandwiches sort of like arepas), grain bowls and entrees.
We tried something from most of the categories. There’s also a whole section of interesting, non-alcoholic cocktails, of which we sampled two. Wines are all from Indigenous producers around the globe, and there’s also a small beer list.
I’d like to point out that this is a great place to bring a friend with dietary restrictions — the gluten-free and lactose-intolerant crowds can order anything on the menu, and vegans have about half of the menu to choose from.
Perhaps our favorite bite of the day was the corn bread, which is studded with kernels, wrapped in a corn husk and charred, bringing a campfire-like flavor to the bread, which is served with slightly tart, very slightly sweet wojape — a sauce that’s made from wild berries.
We also really loved the elk sausage, which was the game sausage of the day. It was meaty, herbaceous and perfectly balanced by bright watercress puree and a root vegetable slaw. Our only complaint were the little bits of charred wild rice in the dish that were tasty, but a tad on the hard side.
We chose bison as the filling for choginyapi sandwich. The arepa-like bread was tender and tasted thoroughly of corn, and the braised bison meat tender and juicy. The dandelion pesto brought bitterness, and pickled corn was a brilliant way to bring acid to the dish.
I’m always a sucker for real wild rice — the stuff that is not cultivated and wood parched — and Owamni’s version is simple, fluffy and perfect. Little berries bring tart bites here and there, but mostly the nuttiness of the rice is allowed to shine.
Sweet potatoes here are served peel-on and doused in a not-too-spicy, but definitely tasty, chili crisp. And the lake trout entree was perfectly cooked, but the parsnips it was served with were a bit woody and hard to eat.
Overall, we loved sitting in the modern, sleek space on sacred land overlooking the river, and wondering what, exactly, Native American food would taste like if the Europeans never showed up. We think it would be a lot like what Sherman’s team has created here, and that makes it more than worth our drive across that river.
A word of warning — dinner reservations are rightfully hard to come by at the moment. If you’re willing to go during the lunch hour, there are plenty of spots in the next few weeks.
Small Bites are first glances — not intended as definitive reviews — of new or changed restaurants.
— Where: 420 First St. S., Minneapolis
— Contact: 612-444-1846; owamni.com
— Prices: Shareable small plates and sides, $6-17; grain bowls, $17-$19; entrees, $18-$42
— Good to know: Plenty of on-street parking. Vegan and gluten-free friendly.