Owamni by the Sioux Chef isn’t the country’s first indigenous restaurant. But it’s probably the most influential, and without having served a single meal.
“We hope to be a role model,” said Chef / Co-Owner Sean Sherman. “We hope that a lot of people will adopt some of our ideas and that there can be indigenous restaurants in every city.”
The restaurant, which is about to open, is a centerpiece of the new $ 24 million Water Works riverside park in downtown Minneapolis. In 2014, Sherman and partner Dana Thompson founded the Sioux Chef, a catering and food education company. Two years later, the couple submitted their restaurant proposal to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
“When we started Sioux Chef with almost nothing, I couldn’t imagine our first full-service restaurant would be such a large, huge project,” said Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. “And on such a beautiful, holy site in Dakota.”
It refers to the nearby Owámniyomni (roughly “the place of falling, swirling water”), the Dakota name for today’s St. Anthony Falls, the only major cataract on the Mississippi.
During the busy warm weather season, Owamni serves lunch and dinner and follows a hybrid service format with table service in the dining room, online ordering on the terraces and take-out for picnics nearby.
“Because we have this great location, we know there will be a lot of curious people coming,” said Sherman. “We just want to make it easy for everyone. It will be a place that is unpretentious and open to everyone. “
On the menu, local cuisine celebrates the area’s native plants, animals, birds and freshwater fish – it’s the local food movement in its most basic form – ignoring dairy products, wheat flour, sugar, beef, pork, chicken and other ingredients introduced by European Settlers.
The story goes on
“When you eat this food it’s very clear how good you are feeling,” Thompson said. “It’s easy, it doesn’t weigh you down. And it’s delicious.”
Sherman is still in the process of finalizing the menu, but expect arepa-style sandwiches made with a mix of corn and wild rice, as well as game dishes to share and a wide variety of plant-based options.
“There are many options for pizza out there,” he said. “We just want to do our best and offer something unique, and we feel so humble that we have this really nice place to do it. This summer when people ask, ‘Where can I eat Native American food?’ they will know exactly where to go. “
In the quiet winter months, the restaurant takes on a different personality. From February through April, Sherman is planning a series of dinners with a tasting menu (“We’re going to explore a more modern edge of indigenous cuisine,” he said) and private events will take center stage over the Christmas season.
The bar’s non-alcoholic selection starts with a selection of local teas.
“We’re going to have a really amazing local botanical mocktail list too,” said Sherman. “Our bartenders are very excited to be part of this creative process and our kitchen will help them capitalize on some of the natural flavors that surround us.”
The beer and wine lists come almost exclusively from BIPOC producers.
“It took an extraordinary amount of effort and we don’t know anyone who has tried, but we were able to find an almost entirely indigenous wine list, and it comes from an extremely non-diverse industry.” said Sherman. “We’re really trying to change the story about who we buy from and why we buy from them. We wanted to raise the voices of BIPOC and women companies.”
In the kitchen, too, Sherman focuses his purchasing power on tribal sellers. Using the analogy of rising tides, lifting all boats, he hopes to stimulate economic growth for indigenous farmers, fisheries, gatherers and other groups. The Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market, the Sioux Chef’s nonprofit site, will also process ingredients for Owamni.
“This for-profit restaurant will always support our nonprofit,” said Sherman. “We want to open up opportunities for more producers and make them better known. Hopefully then they can sell to other restaurants and open up lucrative business opportunities.”
The complex history of the place dates back to its role as the gathering place of Dakota, which is steeped in deep spiritual meaning. Its past as a wood and grain mill is reflected in the ruins of several mills – the first dating back to the 1850s – and then there’s the more recent memory of Fuji Ya, the pioneering Japanese restaurant that dined on the post-industrial from 1967-1990 Riverside beckons.
“We see parallels between the Fuji Ya story and the Owamni story,” said Michael Hara, design architect at HGA, the Minneapolis-based architectural firm that led the project. “That helped drive the design forward.”
Owamni was originally planned for the parkway level of the building. The restaurant was eventually moved one floor higher and reflected the Fuji Ya format with a new building that was carefully integrated over the existing mill ruins.
Renovating Fuji Ya was not possible; the structure had deteriorated to the point of no going back. But the gorgeous Owamni dining room, nicely decorated with white oak and hand-blown glass lights, preserves the postcard-worthy views of its predecessor’s river through the floor-to-ceiling windows. (“You can see the river everywhere,” Thompson said.) A more obvious recall is a dramatic staircase made of heavy Douglas fir beams that were salvaged when the wooden structure of Fuji Ya was demolished.
The 88-seat dining room, which is oriented towards an open kitchen, opens onto a spacious terrace; a second, larger patio runs in front of the river-side parking level of the building. The first floor of the pavilion – which contains a meeting room and certainly some of the most spacious public toilets in town – has massive limestone walls and barrel-vaulted masonry ceilings that give an insightful glimpse into 19th-century industrial architecture.
“Building the restaurant on top of the ruins made practical sense,” said Hara. “Not only were we able to preserve and present a long-neglected piece of history, but reusing the foundations of the old mills reduced the costs and the carbon footprint of the project.”
The surrounding park is planted with 50 different native species, including wild ginger, sumac, aronia, white cedar, lady fern, white pine and purple prairie clover. To create a “botanical tour” that Thompson calls, 15 of the plant species are labeled with descriptive signs in English and Dakota.
“It’s also a website for learning languages in Dakota,” said Jean Garbarini, a director at Damon Farber Landscape Architects of Minneapolis. “Sean and Dana helped us research the cultural, medicinal, and ceremonial uses of the plants. It makes so much more sense to integrate the Dakota culture into the room. “
Just before the opening, the restaurant is now in countdown mode. Valet parking details are formalized (look for kayak parking spaces in the future), online reservation and ordering systems are tested, furniture arrives, staff is trained, and Sherman and his crew are optimizing the menu.
Manufacturing issues mean some critical kitchen gadgets won’t arrive for a few weeks, and those hiccups – which are occurring across the country – are postponing the restaurant’s opening date.
“See you in early July,” said Sherman. “As long as there are no more delays. But you know how restaurant openings work. It can be unpredictable.”
One thing is certain: The anticipation is huge.
“Owamni is an important new restaurant, and not just for Minneapolis or the Twin Cities or Minnesota or the Midwest,” said Lenny Russo, chef / co-owner of the former Heartland, a long-time epicenter of the local food movement. “It is a significant achievement for the United States and even beyond US borders.”
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib