Let's talk food, from restaurants and recipes to farmers markets, food issues and wine. Lee Svitak Dean, Rick Nelson, Kim Ode and Bill Ward will start the conversation.

Burger Friday: Johnny Rockets

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: July 18, 2014 - 4:39 PM

The burger: Because the place invariably makes me a little bit nuts, I view visits to the Mall of America as a chore rather than a treat. There, I said it. Still, I found myself there earlier this week, taking a seat at the highly animated counter at Johnny Rockets.

I can’t recall the last time I’d visited the sole Minnesota outlet of this California-based company, but the word “decade” probably applies. The nostalgia-dipped chain dates to 1986 in Los Angeles; its MoA outpost debuted when the mall opened in 1992. Today, the company (its name is a mash-up of two Americana bedrocks: Johnny Appleseed, and the classic Oldsmobile Rocket 88) operates more than 300 locations, which fry up a collective 17 million burgers each year.

I stuck with the basics and ordered “the Original.” As fast-food burgers go (it arrived in six minutes), it’s not bad. Not bad at all. It reminded me of the countless drive-in burgers that I inhaled as a kid, only slightly larger, a move befitting our supersized culture. The third-pound, thicker-than-Burger King’s beef patty was clearly fresh rather than frozen, a good start. Although it left the flattop grill both under-seasoned and well into medium-well, the patty still managed to muster some meaty sizzle, if not a lot of juice.

It's more team player than attention-grabber, and somewhat overshadowed by the burger's remaining elements, all classics. The soft, gently yeasty bun gets a just-right toasting. A spread of tangy, semi-crunchy dill pickle chips acts as a barrier between lower bun and patty (not that the toasted bread had to worry about being soaked by running juices, as there weren't any), and it’s topped with a dash of raw chopped white onions, a generous handful of shredded iceberg lettuce, a standard-issue tomato slice, a squirt of yellow mustard and a thick swipe of mayonnaise.

No surprises, certainly, but It all adds up to an agreeably sloppy mess (I think I went through six paper napkins, which is always an encouraging sign), and the whole shebang is thoughtfully held together by an easy-to-handle wax paper wrapper. I repeat: Not bad.

Price: $5.39. Going the cheeseburger route is an extra $1.29, a somewhat outrageous mark-up for a humdrum slice of American.

Fries: Not included. There’s a $2.79 upcharge (the smiley-face plate of ketchup is presumably folded in the tab), and I can’t say that the thick-cut, pale, limp, under-salted effort is worth the extra dough.

On the soda fountain front: My chocolate malt ($4.49) was the honest-to-goodness real thing, not some tragic food-court soft-serve nightmare. The upside is that it sported the right thick-ish consistency, and the overflow arrived in a frost-covered stainless steel malt can, just as it should be. The downside? There was little more than the barest, faintest trace of chocolate flavor. And while complaining about authenticity is more than a little ridiculous in this highly artificial environment, but would it kill the corporate powers that be to ix-nay the tacky plastic soda fountain glasses?

Blast from the past: Don’t forget a few nickels fpr the juke box, which reminded me that I'd not heard the “American Graffiti” and “The Big Chill” soundtracks in forever. My budget allowed one selection on the tableside Seeburg Wall-O-Matic, a spin through the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” and it was easily my week’s best-spent five cents.  

Take a seat: There are two ways to experience Johnny Rockets: Wait in line for takeout then schlep over to a smattering of nearby tables, or take a seat at the counter and place yourself in the capable hands of the serving staff. I highly recommend the latter because a large percentage of the red vinyl swivel chairs provide ringside seats to the action at the stove. It’s quite a show, a frenetic, highly choreographed production that made this diner appreciate, once again, the sweat required to keep even a basic burger joint up and running.

It’s also one of the few places at The Nation’s Largest Shopping Center where people are likely to rub elbows with complete strangers. The young girls seated next to me were clearly reveling in every aspect of their Johnny Rockets experience: reacting to the constant roar echoing across the Nickelodeon Universe amusement park, gazing in amazement at the fleet-footed crew as they went through their paces, ooh-ing and aah-ing over their burgers and malts. Living vicariously through their delight was a happy eye-opener for this not-so-occasionally jaded diner.

Real deal: And now for the True Confessions portion of today’s Burger Friday. My original intention for this megamall excursion was to partake in the (extraordinary) burger-and-beer deal at FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar. Here's the deal: choose from one of four iterations (turkey, bison, walleye or a white Cheddar cheeseburger, all paired with fries) and any one of the bar’s tap beers (including brews from Fulton, Summit, Surly, Schell’s, Big Wood and other locals), and fork over a shocking $10.

Yeah, ten dollars. The offer is available in the bar only, although being relegated to that handsome refuge of a space can hardly be labeled a hardship. There’s just one hitch. This Deal of Deals is a midday-only special, available 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. My convoluted brain had somehow twisted it into a happy hour offer, which is why my 6 p.m. appetite ended up at Johnny Rockets. Next time I’ve got an MoA lunch on the calendar, I’m definitely heading to the Radisson Blu. It's easy: the hotel is accessible from the mall through the second floor of South Avenue; the restaurant is on the same level.

Address book: Johnny Rockets, 370 South Avenue (on the edge of the food court), Mall of America, Bloomington, 952-858-8158. Open 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, second floor, Radisson Blu hotel, 2100 Killebrew Dr., Bloomington, 952-851-4040. Burger and beer special served 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

Arboretum's Toast and Tastes fundraiser offers summer's best

Posted by: Lee Svitak Dean under Chefs, Food, beer, wine events, Locally-produced food, Minnesota newsmakers Updated: July 17, 2014 - 2:54 PM
Glass flower sculptures are displayed in a variety of spots among the gardens.

Glass flower sculptures are displayed in a variety of spots among the gardens.

Realistically, you could be serving mini-hot-dogs on a stick and they would still be a delight when served in the stunning gardens at the Minnesota Arboretum, which held its Toast and Tastes fundraiser last night under a sunny sky with balmy temperatures.

Nonetheless, those at the gathering had far better dining options -- in fact, the best in many years of the festivities. Here were some of the highlights:

Shrimp chorizo with fennel, from chef Hakan Lundberg of the Minneapolis Club, topped my best-of list. Unexpected (ground up shrimp, shaped), fun (on a stick) and really tasty (I had to grab a second one, just to be sure it was as good as the first!). 

A close second: carrot-cured hamachi sashimi with apple and radish from The Rabbit Hole (Midtown Global Market). Served with sparkling lychee kombucha. Wow. Make that two wows.

Duck breast with farro, pickled rhubarb and kohlrabi puree, with a chocolate bouchon on the side filled with passion fruit panna cotta, from chef Scott Graden of the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth.

Housemade roasted andouille sausage with two sauerkrauts on brioche from chef J.D. Fratzke of the Strip Club (St. Paul).

Korean glazed pork belly on-a-stick from chef Scott Pampuch of the University of Minnesota (Arboretum Catering). 

And the flowers and greenery, of course.

New St. Paul restaurant to offer retro steakhouse approach

Posted by: Lee Svitak Dean under Chefs, Locally-produced food, Minnesota newsmakers, Restaurant news Updated: July 9, 2014 - 8:50 AM
The Salt Cellar, at 173 Western Av. in St. Paul, will open in late October.

The Salt Cellar, at 173 Western Av. in St. Paul, will open in late October.

Think retro.

That’s what the guys behind Eagle Street Grille in downtown St. Paul are doing. Their effort to diversify brings them to the corner of Western and Selby avenues this fall with a steak-and-seafood spot that will play homage to classic tableside service. The Salt Cellar — a nod to the grand past of the Cathedral Hill neighborhood — is expected to open in late October. 

“We decided a while ago that we wanted to step out and open up a different venue, a high-end steak-and-seafood restaurant. We want to stretch our wings and bring out classic service and do something different from we have been doing,” said Kevin Geisen, who with Joe Kasel, owns Eagle Street Grille. Both grew up in St. Paul.

They’ve gathered a team to help them that includes Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, as consultant, and Blake Watson, formerly assistant manager of Interlachen Country Club, as general manager. The restaurant will be located in a building that formerly housed the College of Visual Arts, at 173 Western Av. Interior design will be from Joe Kasel and Elements Design of Davenport, Iowa. Mohagen Hansen of Wayzata is the architectural firm behind the effort.

“Joe and I, when we started this concept, we were looking at bringing back a classical style of service that really isn’t practiced as much anymore. It’s service I performed in the past at restaurants when I was younger," said Geisen. "Joe and I want to bring it back with a twist, a feeling, if you will, that we remember when we were kids when we were out with our families. We may not have nailed down everything we’re going to do yet, but it’s the tableside service that we’re really focusing on."

That means a classic Caesar salad prepared tableside, chateaubriand dished up with flair, bananas foster flambéed, all presented with just enough drama to assure a sense of special occasion. 

"It's kind of like bringing the kitchen out onto the floor, making it a little more interactive for the guests," said Geisen.

The dining room will seat 150 to 160, with more in the lounge; a private dining room will be available. Entrees are expected in the low $20s to low $40s. “Big picture is this is St. Paul. We’re a working class city so we’re keeping that in mind and pricing our stuff accordingly,” said Kasel. In other words, no $80 steaks on the menu.

The emphasis will be on updated classics, whether it’s cocktails or entrees (think martinis and veal Oscar). Grass-fed beef will be center-of-the-plate for many diners; seafood will definitely include walleye. Watson will curate the wine list. “There will be a small cellar in the restaurant and great wines by the glass in the bar area," he said. And no big markups — more retail than restaurant markup. 

“I think it will be a pretty spectacular looking place, with lots of glass,” said Russo. “You can see into the prep area off the street. There will be lots of visual cues as to what’s going on. You’re going to pretty much see everything.” 

That includes the butchering of meat. The space includes sufficient room for a large meat locker. “They will be bringing in whole animals, using the same methods and techniques that we use at Heartland. They will be making their own sausage. And they want to bake their own bread as well,” said Russo, who has a prospective chef and sous chef in mind.

“We’re excited for the opportunity,” said Geisen. “We’re definitely looking forward to moving into the neighborhood and working with the people around there and building that relationship. The team that we’ve assembled, with Blake Watson and Lenny Russo, is something we’re really proud of.”
 

Town Talk Diner coming back to life

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: July 8, 2014 - 12:05 PM

After a depressing three-year hiatus, the historic Town Talk Diner is going to be back in business.

The East Lake Street landmark – dark since January 2011 – is being revived by spouses Emilie Cellai Johnson and Ben Johnson, and being re-christened Le Town Talk French Diner & Drinkery.

Emilie has culinary and hotel/restaurant management degrees from her native Marseille. After working in a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower in Paris, she relocated to the Twin Cities for a job at the Hotel Sofitel, where she met chef Patrick Bernet. She helped Bernet and his wife Azita open their Patrick’s Bakery & Cafe, then spent the last decade working in restaurant sales for Reinhard Food Service.

Ben is a D’Amico and Partners veteran and is currently a real estate project developer with the Neighborhood Development Center, a non-profit small-business incubator that revitalizes low-income neighborhoods. The couple has been scouting sites for two years before finally landing the Town Talk.

“It’s the right space for us, it’s such a perfect fit,” said Cellai Johnson. “We have a small budget, and we needed an existing kitchen, we couldn’t afford to build from scratch. We love the neighborhood. It’s full of younger families, and that’s what who we are, and who we want to serve.”

The Town Talk’s status as a diner was another key attraction.

“By being a diner previously, we have the opportunity to keep it casual,” said Cellai Johnson. “We want to redefine French food. You say ‘French restaurant,’ and people get scared, they think that they won’t be able to afford it, that it will be too fancy.”

Not here. “We’ll be using all of my family recipes, from my French mother and Italian grandmother,” said Cellai Johnson. “I’ll put my spin on them to make it modern, but it will still be the classic comfort food that we made at home. Eating at home is accessible to everyone.”

Fortunately for Twin Cities diners, Cellai Johnson grew up in a household where, “if we weren’t eating, we were cooking, and if we weren’t cooking, we were talking about food,” she said with a laugh. “My mom is a phenomenal cook, and my grandmother is a phenomenal cook. I was lucky to grow up in that house.”

The menu will include sweet and savory crepes (including a monthly all-you-can-consume crepes-fest), bouillabaisse (“the typical fish stew of my hometown,” said Cellai Johnson), “Marseille” burgers (the patties will be packed with herbs), croque monsieur and croque madame, steak frites with a green salad (“it’s what my mom cooked on Saturday after coming back from the farmers market, you know, boom, that was lunch”) and Corsican stew, a slow-cooked beef stew in a tomato sauce with carrots and black olives and served over pasta (“it’s one of my favorite dishes and it’s what we ate for our wedding dinner”), along with a handful of small plates, including grilled bread topped with roasted red peppers, olive tapenade or caponata.

“Everything has a little bit of a story behind it,” said Cellai Johnson (pictured, left, with husband Ben). “It feels more personal, so people can learn that we’re being true to ourselves.”

Dessert will include “a to-die-for” chocolate mousse and, naturally, tarte Tatin. St. Paul Farmers Market shoppers will recall Cellai Johnson’s exceptional version of this classic French upside-down apple tart, which she sold under the name the Original Tarte Tatin. She gave up the popular stand when their daughter Lilou was born two years ago.

“That was when we had time to have a full-time job and an extra job on the weekend,” Cellai Johnson said with a laugh. “Maybe we’ll sell them again at the market, because people loved it.”

I know I did. In an effort to continue the Town Talk’s tradition of first-rate libations-making, the couple has turned to Julien Masson, a culinary school friend of Cellai Johnson’s and now the bar manager at the InterContinental Hotel in Marseille. He is creating a list of champagne cocktails as well as a roster of drinks built using French spirits. Groups of four or more will be able to order cocktails as a “cascade,” served in an absinthe fountain.

The space is undergoing a slight makeover. The historic diner will retain its original fixtures, and the dining room is getting an upgrade with a new floor, different lighting and the addition of banquettes. “We want to make it cozy and comfortable and accessible,” said Cellai Johnson.

As for that eye-grabbing sign, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s getting an addendum: a “Le” on its top left side.

The Town Talk has a fabled history. The stainless-steel trimmed space dates to 1946, and it fed a generation of workers from the nearby Minneapolis Moline farm implements factory. When the plant was shuttered in the early 1960s, the diner sputtered on, finally closing in 2002.

A trio of restaurateurs – including the current partnership behind the Strip Club in St. Paul – flipped the switch on the Town Talk’s iconic marquee in 2006, using the diner as a bar and creating a dining room in an adjacent storefront. The Theros Restaurant Group (St. Clair Broiler, Rudolphs) bought the place in 2008 and closed it three years later.

The couple plans to start by serving dinner and weekend brunch. The scheduled opening date is Emilie’s birthday, Sept. 13. “It will be the most stressful birthday I will ever have,” she said with a laugh.

A presidential visit to Golden Fig

Posted by: Lee Svitak Dean under Locally-produced food, Minnesota newsmakers, On the national scene Updated: June 27, 2014 - 5:32 PM
President Obama with Laurie Crowell at right, and her sister Lisa McCann, at left

President Obama with Laurie Crowell at right, and her sister Lisa McCann, at left

Laurie Crowell is still smiling.

A day after President Barack Obama stopped by her gourmet food shop, Golden Fig Fine Foods, in St. Paul for a visit, she is still giddy. Bubbling over, in fact. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling,” she said in an interview.

Hard to know if it was the presidential hug that prompted her smiles (more on that in a moment). Or the 30-minute chat she had with the president. Or the knowledge that he dropped by because of a letter she wrote.

About that letter: Through weekly emails she gets from the White House, she realized the president would be in town. “So I replied to the email as though the email was just for me. And I said, ‘I’m glad you’re coming to Minnesota and if you have time you should definitely swing by my store. Everything is made in the U.S. We buy mostly local, and so there’s local grass-fed steaks and chocolate and jams and jellies and milk in glass bottles. It’s all about direct from the producers and the farmers.’

“Of course I got the auto-reply and figured no one would see it. But apparently they did,” she said..

At 4 p.m. on Thursday, the first day of the president’s visit, her store manager called to ask when she would be back in the building. “I said I was just going to go through the car wash and stop at the bank. And she said, ‘Could you not do that? Could you just come here?’ ”

When Laurie got to the store, the Secret Service was there, along with bomb-sniffing dogs. “They were rolling racks in front of the doors so no one could come in behind them. And they asked if the president could come for a visit,” said Laurie. “And I thought, ‘Are you kidding? Of course'.”

And President Obama did. They chatted for a half hour on the importance of buying local, and about sustainability and organics and researching bee issues. 

President Obama signed his merchandise receipt for the owner of Golden Fig.

President Obama signed his merchandise receipt for the owner of Golden Fig.

He bought about $80 worth of Minnesota foods and paid with cash. “I don’t know if they jam everything, but we couldn’t make any phone calls; we couldn’t run credit cards. No one’s internet worked,” she said.

At the cash register, the president opened up his wallet and said, “Pretty much all I have is cash and a Chicago driver’s license," she said. “He showed me his license and I looked at his hair in the photo, and we both laughed because it was much more full and not gray. He said, ‘Yeah, it expires in 2016 so I’m good for a few more years’.”

The president left the store with two bags of Minnesota-made products, which Laurie – ever the entrepreneur – has pulled together into the Presidential Gift Box, wrapped in red-white-and-blue ribbon, should any shopper want to bring home the same.

That includes the raspberry jam from HeathGlen Farms (from Forest Lake), Minnesalsa and whole-grain blue tortilla chips, Mademoiselle Miel honey bon bons, sea salt caramels, chocolate-covered caramels from Painted Turtle, Golden Fig balsamic vinegar and apple chips from Eden Apples of Eden Prairie.

Then the president headed out for a stroll down Grand Avenue after noting that he was in the mood for ice cream.

And about that hug.

“I’m a total hugger, but I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to hug him – I didn’t want to be thrown down to the floor by the Secret Service because that would have been embarrassing!” she said with a laugh. “I went to shake his hand and he said “Wait, come here” and he totally gave me a hug.”

Other food spots the president visited:

Matt's Bar for a Jucy Lucy and iced tea.
Grand Ole Creamery for a waffle cone of Black Hills Gold ice cream
Wild Onion Bar and Restaurant for a chat with those in outdoor seats

President Obama with Rebekah Erler, who had also written a letter to the White House. Photo by Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

President Obama with Rebekah Erler, who had also written a letter to the White House. Photo by Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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