When launching Saint Dinette, Lowertown’s wildly appealing new dining destination, restaurateurs Tim Niver, J.D. Fratzke and Brad Tetzloff made some very smart decisions.
Mid-business plan, they punted on their original location (it’s now the home of Big River Pizza) in favor of a property across the street, a soaring space that was born to be a restaurant.Two savvy hires really got the project moving in high gear: general manager Laurel Elm and chef Adam Eaton. The couple — they’re engaged to be married — are both La Belle Vie vets, and they clearly know what they’re doing.
Elm oversees a service staff that is far more polished than the diminutive “dinette” might otherwise suggest. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Eaton, age 27 and a self-described “St. Paul kid, through and through,” is the very definition of a rising star.
Lowertown is fortunate to have him. He’s fashioned an eclectic menu that’s billed as a celebration of North American culinary cultures; specifically, those found in Montreal, New Orleans and along Mexico’s Gulf Coast.
It’s immaterial whether the framework is an over-brainstormed marketing ploy or a deeply held conviction. What matters is that Eaton dives in, headlong, and crafts a dozen or so diverse dishes that are precisely tailored to suit contemporary tastes.
Who would have thought that a humble bologna sandwich would be such a showstopper? Or that saying “I’ll have the bologna sandwich” would be an automatic day-brightener?
But it is. Taking his cues from Chicago’s ever-influential Au Cheval, Eaton transforms pork shoulder with warm spices — ginger, allspice, cinnamon — into pure nostalgia, yielding flavors that will never be mistaken for Oscar Mayer.
Instead, thick-cut slices are sizzled on the stove until the edges crackle, then stacked into toasted and buttered (and first-rate) buns and blanketed in an ingenious concoction of Gruyère and a sharp Cheddar that’s formed into bricks, cooled and sliced like so much Kraft American, only better. The results are disarmingly simple, and unabashedly delicious.
Double-patty cheeseburgers are all the rage right now, and Eaton’s version is definitely a contender. The beef, formed into rough-hewed patties and grilled to mouthwatering medium-rare, is a meticulous mix of brisket, sirloin and dry-aged chuck that’s emulsified with scandalous amounts of butter. As in, an artery-hardening 5-to-1 beef/butter ratio, a figure flirting with foie gras levels of dietary decadence.
Eaton incorporates that same melty cheese and soft, slightly sweet bun (it’s from St. Paul’s Saint Agnes Baking Co.) that’s used for the bologna sandwich. That’s it. And you know what? Nothing else is required.
Not a diner
Sure, Eaton embraces short-order approachability (or the appearance of it, anyway) with gusto, but remarkable things happen when he turns his attention to more dishes outside the diner orbit.
Poached sturgeon, as supple as bone marrow, becomes the centerpiece of a gorgeous blini-and-caviar platter. I love how he draws out the cool sweetness of raw beef by pairing it with jicama’s crunchy snap.
Rather than going with straight-up fried chicken, Eaton serves his ultra-juicy, crispy-skinned birds as a roulade, stuffed with a dirty rice scented with gizzards and livers, along with a pitcher of silky, savory gravy.
His forays into Mexican territory are impressive, loaded with bold flavors and eye-popping colors. I’ve developed a serious crush on the brandade-inspired enchilada, with its slightly smoky marlin buried under an ugly-sexy black mole, its slow-burn heat fueled by ancho and guajillo chiles.
Grilled sweet corn, charred into near-nuttiness, is imbued with all the correct elote notes (creamy mayonnaise, crumbled cotija, a burst of lime) plus the addition of lobster roe. And at brunch, crispy, starchy potato-masa cakes, topped with bitter watercress and a fried egg, become an ingenious south-of-the-Rio Grande remake of a breakfast hash.
Alice Waters herself could have composed the relish tray, a food porn-esque composition of small-scale vegetables that radiate a just-harvested bite. Even the side dishes impress, particularly the kitschy crinkle fries (pert and salty), the pan-fried smelt (an addicting shout-out to Minnesota’s cabin culture), the pork-infused collard greens, the shimmering seared foie gras and the creative trio of $3 bar snacks.
When it comes to dessert menus, three choices are usually synonymous with “slim pickings,” but Eaton’s low-sugar treats really hit the sweet spot. He could serve churros and only churros and call it a day, plucking an egg-rich dough from the fryer at the precise moment where the exteriors are tantalizingly crispy while the interiors remain wonderfully spongy. The coffee-laced, bittersweet chocolate dipping sauce packs a wallop.
A luminous whole-milk panna cotta, trimmed with honeycomb and bee pollen, is Eaton’s callback to a childhood ritual, a glass of honey-laced warm milk that his mother would prepare to help him sleep.
And while I freely admit to possessing a you-had-me-at-blintz mentality, I was bowled over by Eaton’s golden-brown, blueberry-topped version. Each bite was teased with a barely discernible hint of foie gras — the summit of his savory-for-dessert thought process — and I’m sorry to report that it was recently (and, I’d argue, ill-advisedly) replaced.
Still, not everything works. A fried pork loaf surrounded by a pool of ham hock broth took the calorie-laden thing too far. Wiry capellini, popping with lemon and delicately sweet crab, was one of several zealously oversalted disappointments. Popovers (yes, popovers, hurrah!) are leaden and dry, when they should be airy and eggy.
Weekend brunch offers a rehash of the evening menu, bolstered by a handful of a.m.-friendly dishes. The house-made bagels are superb vehicles for silky smoked salmon, hard-cooked egg, sharp onion and tangy cream cheese, and tender scrambled eggs get the caviar treatment. We could all happily make a habit of a gorgeous skillet pancake that’s dressed with sweet-tart apples and pops of toasted oats.
All good — great, even — but perhaps not enough of a critical mass to compete in the highly competitive brunch environment that Twin Cities diners are currently enjoying.
Driven to succeed
Eaton’s career started when he was 15, grilling hash browns at Key’s Cafe. Even as a teenager, he was thinking big.
“My whole goal in life was to work at La Belle Vie,” he said.
Naturally, that’s where he eventually landed, spending five formative years under chef/owner Tim McKee’s invaluable tutelage, just one of many mentorships of up-and-coming cooks who are now running their own Twin Cities restaurants. No wonder McKee is arguably the region’s most influential chef.
Collectively, Niver and Fratzke — they’re the team behind the Strip Club — and Tetzloff have a sharp eye, seeing the beauty locked within a century-old warehouse that spent the past 15 years languishing as a parking garage.
Smart Associates, the Minneapolis design firm, accentuates the loft setting’s inherently appealing characteristics — tall ceilings, enormous windows, industrial-strength brick and concrete — with seemingly little more than a just-right paint job. (For the curious, the walls are covered in Creamy White and trimmed with Dragon’s Breath, a color combination surely destined to become a Benjamin Moore bestseller.) It’s a semi-blank canvas that places diners in the visual forefront.
The room’s only major decorative touch is a mural. It’s a graphic shout-out to Aqua Net; the hair spray’s manufacturer, Rayette, occupied the building for 35 years. Nice, right?
Two complaints: The seats at the see-and-be-seen bar/kitchen counter emphasize looks over comfort, and acoustics become an issue when it’s a full house. Which is often. Which is as it should be.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib