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.

The Taste of Hope


Chef Sean Sherman

Native American chef, Sean Sherman, visited my fair town several weeks ago to promote his book, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.” Given my interest in cooking and gathering wild edibles, I had to go. He spoke to a packed house along with his co-author, Beth Dooley, who is the food editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The event was sponsored by Zenith Bookstore.

One of the first things Sherman did was to disabuse the audience of the notion that Native American cuisine involves any type of fry bread. He works with pre-colonization food made with ingredients the natives grew themselves or foraged. These are things like squash, wild rice, chestnuts, fish, berries, and cedar boughs.

Sherman talked about how natives used all parts of edible plants and animals and how every one of those things had a purpose, “Except for wood ticks. They don’t have a purpose,” he joked.

A member of the Sioux tribe, Sherman grew up in a hardscrabble life on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  He became interested in learning about the foods of his ancestors when he was twenty-nine and was burned out from working as an executive chef in Minneapolis.

He took a year off in Mexico and ended up consulting for a restaurant there that focused on local foods. In his book, Sherman writes, “In an epiphany, I tasted how food weaves people together, connects families through generations, is a life force of identity and social structure. After seeing how the Huicholes held on to so much of their pre-European culture through artwork and food, I recognized that I wanted to know my own food heritage. What did my ancestors eat before Europeans arrived on our lands?”

Re-energized, Sherman returned to the U.S. with a plan in mind. After a lot of research and consulting, he formed The Sioux Chef in 2014 in Minneapolis.  He worked with other indigenous team members to cater events, operate a food truck, host pop-up dinners, and soon they will open a restaurant.

Sherman’s vision for revitalizing indigenous foods reaches beyond the Midwest. He hopes to spread an indigenous food system model across the country, which involves providing education and tools to native communities to reclaim their ancestral cuisines and an important part of their cultures.

And why not? It’s a diet that is hyperlocal and uberhealthy in more ways than just the physical. At the end of his talk at Beaner’s Coffee House (thank you Beaner’s!), samples of cedar tea sweetened with maple syrup were passed around. Man, was that good!

As I drove home with his book on the car seat beside me, I was excited to learn more about Native American cuisine. I could still taste the tangy cedar and sweet syrup on my tongue. To me, it tasted like hope – hope that this movement will undo some of the damage to native cultures, and hope that it will interest more people in taking care of the natural world. You don’t pollute places where you gather your food. If we look on our whole landscape as a big grocery store, perhaps we will take better care of it.