If the Belmore/New Skyway Lounge were a part in a movie, it would be played by Steve Buscemi.
As restaurants go, it’s an oddball, and that’s a trait we should all welcome. Our homogenized, Minnesota Nice dining scene is habitually short on local color. And characters.
Like Doug Anderson. You may remember him from his server days at Pane Vino Dolce. Or when he and spouse Jessica Anderson launched Bakery on Grand. Or when he was at the helm of À Rebours. Or during his most recent stint at Nick and Eddie. Alas, all those restaurants have gone to that big Zagat survey in the sky, but gravel-voiced Anderson keeps plugging along. This time around, he’s in the kitchen — relatively foreign territory for a longtime front-of-house guy — and his sister Paulette Anderson holds the ownership reins.
The downscale Belmore bills itself as a diner, and that’s not off the mark given its passing resemblance to the late, great Black’s, although it’s more in spirit than in a literal translation. No surprise, really; Anderson worked at the beloved 1980s Warehouse District diner when he was a teenager.
Anderson says that he’s keeping things simple because he’s incapable of doing more, and there may be some truth in that. After all, he hasn’t labored in a commercial kitchen in more than 20 years. But he’s obviously picked up a few pointers along the way — if only through osmosis — having worked for Jonathan Waxman, Jeremiah Tower and other boldface-name chefs.
He’s certainly absorbed a skill set from his wife, a gifted baker; witness his focaccia-esque bread. The deeply golden, low-arching loaves are enriched with eggs, dusted with cornmeal and brushed with olive oil, and they serve as the foundation for a handful of winning sandwiches.
Don’t miss the stack of succulent, fork-tender pork slathered in a beer-and-Coca-Cola-based barbecue sauce brimming with hot pepper accents. A winning BLT employs wide slices of fat-enriched back bacon and notably juicy tomatoes, and tuna salad returns to its lunchbox roots, although my mother never thought to include appealing traces of lemon and cayenne along with celery, red onion and Hellmann’s.
The plate-sized pizzas are first-rate, with crusts that radiate a golden glow (from generous doses of cornmeal and olive oil) and bubble up around the edges into puffy chewiness. It pairs beautifully with a teasingly spicy tomato sauce, one that pops with garlic and oregano. Even better is the sparing use of basic, high-quality ingredients: a feisty andouille sausage, milky fresh mozzarella, whole basil leaves.
Breakfast is clearly Anderson’s favorite meal. There are muffins that are more berries than cake, along with gooey, believably grandmotherly cinnamon buns. Fluffy, enormous pancakes are pulled off the heat just as they start to brown and then garnished with a rich lemon cream, dainty raspberries and the unadulterated goodness of pure maple syrup. Among the half-dozen or so larger plates, the triumph might be a hash of finely chopped fried potatoes, peppers and chunks of smoky beef brisket, all smothered in meticulously poached eggs and a supple Hollandaise.
Yes, Anderson has a knack for under-promising and over-delivering, demonstrating how short-order cooking can fully embrace both integrity and affordability. Adding to the challenge is the Belmore’s under-equipped kitchen, little more than an oven and a pair of induction burners.
Such traffic jam-prone limitations could explain the frequently glacial pace. Still, as the Belmore approaches its first birthday, it feels as if Anderson, after much trial and error, is finding his bearings. Mostly. Earlier this year I’d lucked into a spot-on iteration of one of my favorite childhood lunches, a bright tomato soup paired with gooey, buttery grilled cheese sandwiches. Uncomplicated bliss, right? But last week I felt I’d lost the lottery with a one-note and visually unappealing cream of mushroom soup.
Kudos to the marvelously robust hummus, served with charred eggplant and a mellow roasted cauliflower-pomegranate salad but marred by stale pita wedges. Mushrooms overpower an otherwise impressive turkey club sandwich. Potato pancakes range from textbook tender to overfried brittleness. Menu items are described one way, then arrive in a different format, and many of my visits opened with a recitation of what wasn’t available, never a good start.
Let the praise-heaping begin for the knockout of a brownie, a dense, ultra-moist colossus that delivers a visceral jolt of bittersweet chocolate intensity; it’s the unfiltered cigarette of brownies. Like those potato pancakes, the butterscotch pudding, capped by a splash of thick cream, embodies the kitchen’s occasionally inconsistent delivery, wavering from its position as a pinnacle of comfort-food nirvana to a grainy, pale imitation of said perfection.
But there’s no quibbling with the glory that is the blintz. Actually, glorious doesn’t begin to cover it. Covering the better part of a dinner plate, it’s a crimped-edged circle of golden, eggy, crêpe-like goodness, and its disarmingly basic appeal requires nothing more than a dollop of lemon-kissed ricotta, although Anderson tosses in brandy-simmered banana slices for good measure.
Like so many other menu items, Anderson uses food to revive a cherished sense memory; in this case, it’s the blintzes at B&H, a kind of Al’s Breakfast-meets-kosher-dairy that he haunted during his New York City years. Other pluses include Shellac drummer Todd Trainer, the gracious, no-nonsense daytime presence out front. The iPod’s earworm-inducing playlist is curated more carefully than the Oldenburg exhibition at the Walker Art Center, and the bare-bones bar runs screaming from the faintest whiff of hipsterdom.
Clearly, this is no diner in the Edward Hopper tradition (Cindy Sherman would be more like it). If the Belmore resembles a pool hall, that’s because that’s what it was, and very little has been done to transform what looks like the visual equivalent of a hangover into a more traditional restaurant setting.
It doesn’t help that the space doubles as a music club, which might account for the more-than-occasional eau de stale beer scent. Another strike is the less-than-zero street presence, so anonymous that it almost dares you to walk past without taking notice.
But don’t. Unconventional it may be — can you imagine Bow Wow Wow playing Peter’s Grill? — but underneath the punk rock trappings are traces of the quality-minded diner that downtown Minneapolis lacks.
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