Owamni Restaurant: Celebrating Native American Cuisine

The bison pot roast from Owamni Restaurant

I saw an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune yesterday saying that Owamni Restaurant was designated as the newspaper’s top restaurant for 2021. It reminded me I still needed to follow up on my promise to write about Russ’s and my experience at this Native American eatery during our weekend Romancing the Minneapple.

I’ve wanted to eat at one of Chef Sean Sherman’s places (he has a food truck, as well) ever since I saw him speak at a launch for his cookbook in Duluth. Sherman focuses on precolonization food (food that Natives used to eat before all us Europeans immigrated and mucked up their lifeways). This includes ingredients that Natives grew themselves or foraged, like squash, wild rice, venison, chestnuts, fish, berries, and cedar boughs.

He’s trying to reconnect Natives to their pre-European culture, so much of which has been lost. I suppose it’s also a way to show us nonnatives what life used to be like in America historically, plus the food is super healthy – no wheat flour, dairy, or refined sugar.

Several recipes from his cookbook have found their way into my permanent recipe file, notably the squash apple soup with cranberry sauce and cedar-maple tea.

Russ and I were late in planning our trip to Minneapolis and only began making reservations for it a couple of weeks beforehand. Owamni has been featured in the New York Times, Lost Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, among others, so, as you can guess, reservations are booked months in advance. But, they have first-come, first served bar seating, so we decided to take a chance on that. If it didn’t work out, we had a Plan B restaurant in mind.

Wild game salad

We took a snowy ¾ of a mile walk under a full moon over and along the Mississippi River from the Nicollet Island Inn to get to Owmani, which is housed in an historic water works building. We figured if we got there early in the evening (5:30 pm), the wait might not be as long. I think this was a good strategy. We only had to wait about 45 minutes for seats at the bar.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that the menu isn’t typical. There are not separate listings for appetizers, plus the entrees are sharable. When I expressed confusion to our friendly bartender, he explained that the concept is like a Tapas Bar, where you end up ordering lots of small plates and sharing. That way, you can sample a variety of selections.

To begin, we ordered (and shared) the cedar maple baked beans, the wild game salad, and the bison pot roast. They also have a good selection of wines and nonalcoholic drinks available. Everything was wonderful. The beans, because they are flavored with maple syrup instead of brown sugar, aren’t as sweet as usual, but that allows the natural bean flavor to come through, with cedar lurking in the background. The wild game salad featured dried duck and turkey, which could be a bit chewy, on a bed of kale garnished with a duck egg. Russ is normally not a big fan of kale, but he said it was delish and ate it all!

The bison pot roast was the piece de resistance – a slow-cooked and tender hunk of bison surrounded by natural gravy, hazelnut-crusted carrots, a mustard green sauce and a horseradishy sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) puree, topped with an edible purple violet. The meat melted in our mouths. It’s the first time I’ve had bison and it was truly memorable.

For dessert, I had a chocolate chia cake with sorbet and a caramel honey sauce, and Russ had a berry-walnut milk parfait. Both were excellent.

The neat thing about sitting at the bar is you can watch the workers and see the other dishes and drinks they are preparing. I noticed a cranberry nonalcoholic drink that I’d like to try if I eat there again. Diners with reservations got tables near windows that overlooked part of the river (Owamni Yomni) considered a site of peace and wellbeing for the Dakota and Anishinaabe people.

Most of the workers looked to be of Native American descent. Most of the diners looked like well-to-do white people. That felt rather weird to me. Is this just another way for white people to appropriate Native American culture? Have we turned these Natives into slaves serving us food we want to eat just because it’s the latest trend?

Although I was a bit uncomfortable with those feelings, it seemed like it was high time that Native American foods were celebrated. After all, we have Mexican restaurants, Chinese, etc. However, these cultures haven’t been oppressed like the Natives have. Part of me feels like this restaurant should only be for Native Americans at first. I felt like I was taking the chair of someone who might need this food more than I did in order to feel whole.

I am still struggling with these feelings and I’m not sure what to make of them. But I probably wouldn’t let them stop me from eating there again.

Alas, the restaurant is closed for a mid-winter break right now. But it plans to reopen on January 19 (2022) for a winter dinner series. Proof of vaccination will be required to enter.

7 thoughts on “Owamni Restaurant: Celebrating Native American Cuisine

  1. You make a good food writer/critic, Marie. I would guess you would give this restaurant five stars. Good job on the photos too. Your choices looked delicious. Interesting observation that you were rather uncomfortable being whites served by what looked like Native Americans. My first thought was that perhaps owner was deliberately hiring mostly Native Americans. And what about the cooks? Either way I think it is good to have the native food spotlighted. Worth the 3/4 mile in the snow…but you did have that romantic full moon.

  2. Hi Marie, thanks for visiting my blog which sent me over here, to check out yours. Sadly, the photos did not load for me, so I missed out on the visual feast. I can appreciate your sense of discomfort being served by Native American staff at this restaurant while the clientele appeared to be primarily white people with a good amount of spending money. Hopefully, the restaurant owners are using their income to benefit not only themselves and their wait staff but also the food growers and suppliers. A lot can be done to put white people’s money to good use. It also makes me a little sad thinking about the blatant inequities that continue to exist in this country, especially as I just spoke with a Navajo friend about the hardships on the reservation, the 500+ daily new COVID cases, the income lost in the last two years due to the pandemic….

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