To Midwesterners of a certain age, walking into the local supper club offered a quickie substitution for a weekend in Vegas, at least during that city's Charo-Lola Falana-Liberace epoch. You know, classy with a capital K, but tinged with a familiar, you-betcha comfort. (My suburban hometown's example, the long-gone Embassy, obviously made quite a ring-a-ding impression.)
So when I first envisioned Kim Bartmann's tribute to the supper clubs -- or, as she prefers, supperclubs -- of her northern Wisconsin youth, I happily envisioned rows of tufted vinyl booths, overstuffed relish trays, prime rib so rare it had a discernible pulse, a world-weary chanteuse parked in the piano bar. What I was expecting, I guess, was Nye's Polonaise Room.
Wrong. Just as the savvy Bartmann invigorated the bowling alley (Bryant-Lake Bowl) and the neighborhood bistro (Cafe Barbette), her Red Stag Supperclub subtly suggests many of the genre's traditions, but makes them relevant for contemporary urban diners. Chef Bill Baskin does most of the heavy lifting, flirting with supper club expectations but steering clear of mimicry. It's a fine line, but Baskin struts it with confidence. Of course, no supper club I'm familiar with ever took advantage of the superior locally sourced ingredients that Baskin so beautifully manipulates.
First-timers are well-advised to test-drive the restaurant during its popular Friday night fish fry. All that high-temperature grease doesn't eradicate the sweet, delicate nature of the freshwater fish, and the accompaniments are perfect: a spicy red cabbage coleslaw and a tangy onion-kissed tartar sauce. (One complaint: Is a giant, parchment-thin potato chip a reasonable substitute for fish-fry fries? Uh, no.) Another plus: Your nose is constantly catching the slightly acrid whiff of vinegar; turns out that fish-fryers spritz the stuff onto their dinner, and some of it atomizes into the air.
Seriously, this guy can fry. Fries, thick as Lincoln Logs, are tough-guy crisp outside but sport mashed- potato-like interiors. Whole trout, oysters, tempura-battered veggies: They all get the star treatment, but nothing tops the divine fried smelt, their oily flesh beautifully contrasted against a gossamer-light batter, a big pile of them carefully filling a paper cone and finished with a sultry ketchup.
More than a supper club
Baskin also excels at placing a premium on the unexpected, whether it's roasted beef bones filled with mellow marrow, creamy lamb tartare with teasing hot pepper undertones, a savory casserole of slow-cooked lentils and three variety cuts of veal or fantastic sardines, grilled straight up and served with a sweet-salty combo of roasted grapes and black olives. Decidedly un-gamey venison, medium rare and sliced thin, is paired with egg noodles and mushrooms, but no supper club stroganoff was ever this good. Pepper-crusted mahi-mahi was steamed in parchment with artichokes and thinly sheared fingerling potatoes.
Even when he's staying simple, Baskin stays focused: Expertly grilled steaks exude a big, beefy bite. But sometimes the exuberance fizzles. An inharmonious bacon-shrimp succotash undoes a cracklingly good thick-cut pork chop; duck was gristly and flavorless. I yawned off several variations on a daily grilled flatbread. Gloriously juicy chicken popped with intense, bred-to-the-bone flavor on one night but was a dry, salty disaster a few days later.
Weekend brunch really shines. Baskin has unearthed an impressive selection of Minnesota-milled grains and then does delicious things with them: a tender flax seed waffle, superb oatmeal, super-creamy grits. The kitchen's coy sense of humor is evident in poached eggs drizzled in a hollandaise tinted with puréed herbs, accurately billed Green Eggs and Ham. The crowning achievement is a simple smoked trout paired with a few teasingly nutty whole-wheat pancakes. Pastry chef Sarah Williams also contemporizes Hot Dish Country standards, upgrading an apple pie to a lovely free-form tart or spinning the plain-Jane brownie into a pinup. Glorious ice creams, too.
Lunch is another strong suit. While I never ran across a memorable soup, Baskin, a native Texan, bowled me over with a rich, robust and surprisingly elegant bison chili. A pretty chop salad is noteworthy for its bright colors and flavors, and Baskin puts a lighter, cleaner cast on the traditional Waldorf formula. I love the sandwiches, particularly a meatloaf-inspired burger and a phenomenal fried oyster po' boy.
Green is beautiful
The restaurant's LEED certification has garnered so much press that I wouldn't be surprised if the PTA at my neighborhood elementary school ran a piece on it in their monthly newsletter. Still, the coverage is warranted. Leadership in Environmental Design is a rigorous set of standards for sustainably minded construction practices. As Minnesota's first LEED-certified restaurant, the Red Stag is a role model for an industry weighed down by a ponderous carbon footprint.
For Bartmann, a lifelong scavenger, going green is a natural, and she channeled her forager's zeal into incorporating a staggering amount of salvaged materials into the restaurant's already environmentally conscious design. My favorite element, plucked from a Wisconsin flea market, is an aluminum deer mounted on the building's exterior, a clever 3-D calling card that catches the attention of every passing motorist better than any neon-wrapped marquee.
Inside, the bar's green marble once adorned a downtown hotel. Tabletops started out as rejected doors from a nearby condo project. The wonderfully retro wrought-iron bar stools racked up 40 years of service at Bartmann's uncle's bar in Sugar Camp, Wis. Gorgeous Douglas fir paneling -- leftovers from a custom project for a Harvard University building -- was a real find, a perfect match to the rustic timbered ceiling of the same wood.
What diners experience is a wide-open rectangle, with Baskin's sleek black-and-stainless kitchen buzzing away on one end, the bar lazily stretching down another and the rest of the uninterrupted space packed with a sea of mix-and-match furniture and a sprinkling of quirky decorative touches. It's a visual jumble, and it almost works.
Kudos to Bartmann (and Studio 2030, her Minneapolis architecture firm) for not swallowing the eatertainery bait and attempting some kind of Mall of America-esque homage -- or, worse, parody -- of the supper club genre. In the end, the setting isn't as memorable as its beloved source material, or Baskin's singular cooking. Still, when the place is packed, it's a gas, a rollicking, roll-up-your-sleeves experience. Who knew that going green could be so much fun?
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757