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: Vacation thoughts

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: October 10, 2014 - 6:44 AM

Burger Friday is on vacation, soaking up some fall color. On that note, here's some burger color, from Burger King in Japan. Behold two variations on the "Kuro" burger, featuring black buns, black sauce and black cheese (kuro is black in Japanese).

The ingredients are tinted with bamboo charcoal and squid ink, and prices start at the equivalent of $4. 

According to Forbes, Burger King is offering the novelty burger to celebrate its five-year anniversary in Japan, and the response has been huge. "As many as half the customers are ordering the trendy new item off the menu at Burger King outlets," notes Forbes.

Naturally, McDonald's is getting in on the action, offering a Halloween-themed "Spooky" burger. "Some customers, however have termed the imitation 'niban senji,' the popular Japanese expression denoting second-best," writes Forbes. 

(Photo: Burger King employee Rumi Sekine with the Kuro Pearl burger on the left, and the Kurl Diamond burger on the right, from the Associated Press). 

Burger Friday returns Oct. 24.

Burger Friday: Cocoa Loco

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: October 3, 2014 - 7:19 AM

The burger: At first glance, newcomer Cocoa Loco (it opened in July) might come off as a coffeehouse, right down to the pastry case. But there’s a kitchen behind that counter (and table service, too), and in the post-breakfast hours, it focuses on burgers, of all stripes. Burgers weighed down with thin-sliced brisket, onion rings and bacon. Burgers seasoned to resemble meat loaf. Burgers made to resemble Reuben sandwiches.

That’s just the designer versions. The menu also has a giant mix-and-match thing going on, with a choice of patty (beef, black bean, turkey or grilled portabella), grilled bread (sesame seed bun, pretzel bun, gluten-free bun, ciabatta), six cheeses (each $1), seven 40-cents-extra toppings (from caramelized onions, chipotle-infused mayonnaise) and five $1 potential add-ons (avocado, grilled pineapple, fried egg).

Me? I went old-school and opted for the single third-pound beef patty, From there, I went with Cheddar, and  a sesame seed bun, sticking with the freebie garnishes: pickle chips, shredded iceberg lettuce, a decently juicy tomato slice and a few raw onions.

My first impression was a favorable one, and it was all about the bun, a light and lightly toasted beauty. It’s from Mainstreet Bakery, a wholesale operation in Edina, and it hit all the right burger requirements.

The other key element, the patty, is an obviously not-frozen mix, pressed relatively thin but wide, hanging over the bun’s edges. While it was crying out for salt, it was cooked precisely to order, with an easygoing char that revealed a slightly pink interior. Nice.

I paid an extra $1 for a thin, bubbled slice of forgettable Cheddar; I should have gone for the American, which would have probably had a more agreeable melt and more salt. Still, for a basic burger? Not bad. Not bad at all. If I lived in the neighborhood, I’d be a regular.

Price: $6.99 for a single patty, $8.99 for a double patty.

Fries: Included. I have to admit that I’m powerless over this style of thin-cut, lightly salted, just-shy-of-golden fries. My one quibble – ok, two – is that the ones I tried were bordering on being over-fried. And under-salted. But otherwise, lovely.

Ice cream treats: The restaurant’s owners – they also operate the Lone Spur Bar & Grill, a few doors down in the same strip mall – are obviously tapping into the huge audience from nearby Hopkins High School, with 14 flavors of shakes and malts in two sizes: big ($3.99) and bigger ($4.99), the latter served with the overflow from the iced-up malt can. I tried a banana-hot fudge malt, which was creamy and occasionally (in a good way) lumpy, with a just-barely malt-ey aura.

Bargains: Every Wednesday, the basic burger -- and a small shake or malt -- is available for $8, a $3 savings. Oh, and the deal includes fries. There’s also a kids-eat-free setup on Monday and Thursday: with every adult entrée, the kitchen will send out a free kid’s entrée.

Address book: 11056 Cedar Lake Rd., Minnetonka, 952-322-7395. Open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends.

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

Goff now cooking at Bryant-Lake Bowl

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Chefs, Recipes, Restaurant news Updated: October 2, 2014 - 5:07 PM

How great is this? What just might be one of the Twin Cities' tiniest commercial kitchens is now the realm of one of the area's most influential chefs. Yep, that's Ken Goff -- the former longtime chef at the Dakota Restaurant & Jazz Club -- leading the cooking at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

“As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate a truly great restaurant experience because I have a better understanding of what went into making something wonderful,” said Goff in a statement (that's Goff, above, in a 2013 Star Tribune file photo).

Since leaving the Dakota in 2005, Goff has been teaching a new generation of culinary professionals at Le Cordon Bleu in Mendota Heights.

Goff, one of Minnesota’s first chefs to emphasize local sourcing, has a resume that reads like a fantastic walk through late 20th-century Twin Cities dining, peppered with storied names such as La Tortue, 510 Groveland, the Loring Cafe, Faegre’s and Nigel’s before his two-decade tenure at the helm at the Dakota.

Here's an indication of the length of Goff's impressive career: His first mention in the Strib’s archives is a 1987 three-star review of Faegre’s, by my former colleague Jeremy Iggers. There are of course several dozen subsequent mentions. One that stands out is from a 1990 Taste feature because it includes a recipe that Goff made famous during his Dakota years, for brie-apple soup. Doesn't that feel like a perfect fit for today's cool and rainy weather?

MINNESOTA BRIE AND APPLE SOUP

Makes 3 to 4 quarts.

3/4 c. chopped onions

1/2 c. finely sliced leeks

1 1/2 lb. tart apples, peeled and cored

1 1/2 quarts chicken stock

2 bay leaves

1 tsp. dried thyme

2 quarts whipping cream

6 small red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-in. dice

1 whole branch fresh rosemary

1 lb. domestic Brie cheese, cut into pieces

Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Apple and rosemary, for garnish

Directions

In a large pot over medium heat, stew onions, leeks and apples until onions are well softened. Add chicken stock, bay leaves and thyme. Bring to a boil and cook until onions are completely tender.
Remove bay leaves.

In a separate heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat, cook cream, potatoes and rosemary until potatoes are completely softened. Remove rosemary. Combine contents of both pots and carefully puree in a blender a batch at a time, adding cheese bit by bit. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve garnished with a very thinly sliced apple and a sprig of fresh rosemary.

Burger Friday: Brasserie Zentral

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: September 26, 2014 - 12:41 PM

The burger: I’ll admit that I detected the barest, faintest whiff of a sellout when I spied a burger on the lunch menu at the otherwise rigorously disciplined Brasserie Zentral. After all, this all-American staple doesn’t really have a profile among the gathering places of Vienna,  Budapest, Munich and other sources of inspiration for this remarkable newcomer.

But Zentral finds itself in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, and chef/co-owner Russell Klein is nothing if not a realist. He has a clientele to serve, and some of them are probably going to want to spend their lunch break cozied up to a burger rather than a schnitzel or corned veal tongue salad. “Part of being a brasserie is being accessible,” said Klein. “Our concept might be challenging for some people, although I don’t think that it is. People see German, they think it’s weird. A burger, however, is straightforward, it’s easy to understand. Besides, who doesn’t like a good burger?”

Ok, sold. And it’s not as if Klein doesn’t incorporate regional gestures into the Zentral burger. The opposite, actually, making it something of a novelty burger, and an excellent one, at that.

Naturally, the ground beef is seasoned with paprika, that mainstay of Hungarian cuisine. Zentral's house-made version is a special point of pride for the restaurant. Klein has hundreds of pounds of organic red bell peppers – harvested at Riverbend Farm in Delano – dehydrating in the restaurant’s vast basement workrooms. They’re ground on an as-needed basis, to create vivaciously fresh paprika. “It’s an every-day process,” said Klein. “They hit the spice grinder, releasing oils and aromas, and the flavor is a night-and-day comparison over all the other paprikas that we looked at. I still haven’t found any that compares, even the stuff that we brought home from Hungary.”

Klein folds just enough of that pungent paprika into the lean, flavorful, grass-fed beef to lend it a hint of a punch. The patties themselves are heavyweights, portion-wise, and the kitchen takes them to the point where their exteriors boast a rustic char but their interiors are pink, velvety and juicy.

The toppings continue the travelogue-on-the-Danube vibe. Cheese is a gooey, gruyere-like raclette. Granted, it’s not the same premium raclette that takes center stage next door at Foreign Legion. That’s the Kleins’ cheese-obsessed wine bar, where raclette – the dish – is one of the menu’s must-order specialties (be sure and get the version with salty, herb-seasoned Italian ham). Opting for a perfectly servicable raclette – the cheese – for the Zentral burger is strictly a cost-cutting move. “Otherwise, we’d have to charge $20 for the burger,” said Klein with a laugh.

There’s also a generous swipe of aioli that’s fortified with horseradish and vinegar-ey gherkins. More much-needed acid comes from a juicy tomato slice, and a pile of soft caramelized onions adds just-right sweet notes.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. “Yeah, it’s a messy burger,” said Klein, in total understatement mode. Even the sturdy pretzel bun (Klein is obsessed with pretzels; if you’re visiting on a weekday, scoot upstairs to the skyway-level Cafe Zentral and pick up one of the kitchen’s marvelously chewy ones for the road) isn’t enough to hold this monster together, so, yes, you’ll be reaching for a knife and fork. Trust me, those utensils won’t leave your hands until you’ve relished every morsel.

Price: $14.50 ($15.50 with cheese, and that’s a must), and worth it.

Fries: Included. The menu hails “Belgian frites,” but I opted for a salad instead. What was I thinking? At the time, leafy greens felt like the health-conscious thing to do. It was a decision fostered by observation: diners at an adjacent table were enjoying burgers, and the sight of their sheer heft sent a shiver through my cholesterol level, enough to take my appetite off deep-fried potatoes. Of course, now I’m consumed with regret, because the fries at the Kleins’ Meritage are one of the primary reasons to visit downtown St. Paul. Next time.

Nighttime note: For those who can't make Zentral for lunch, Klein has recently added the burger to his dinner menu. The move almost – note, almost -- makes up for his decision to remove the not-to-be-believed semolina dumplings, served in an emerald-green tomato water-herb consommé. It was one of the loveliest dishes I’ve tasted this year, and I’m draping my cubicle in black crepe at this very moment as I mourn its demise.

Address book: 505 Marquette Av., Mpls., 612-333-0505. Lunch served Tuesday through Friday, dinner served Tuesday through Sunday.

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

Agra Culture opening at Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: September 23, 2014 - 11:57 AM

More change is coming to the dining operations at the Minneapolis Insitute of Arts, and soon.

The owners of Agra Culture Kitchen & Press announced that they are opening a branch of their counter-service operation -- their third -- at the museum in mid-October.

Agra Culture debuted in May in Uptown and then launched a second location in the 50th-and-France commercial district in southwest Minneapolis in July (find my review here).

The chain is the work of Andrea and Aaron Switz, the founders of fast-growing Yogurt Lab (which has grown to 10 outlets since opening in 2011). The couple tapped former Macy's chef Tim Scott to create Agra Culture's breakfast-lunch-dinner menu, which emphasizes organic and sustainably raised ingredients and includes nods to those following vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets. Scott and the Switzes parted company earlier this month.

No further details are available, but Agra Culture will replace several short-lived ventures from Stock and Badge, the partnership behind Dogwood Coffee Co. and Rustica. S&B operates the lobby-level Dogwood Coffee Bar and Half Pint, which is tailored to children; both opened less than a year ago. The company also briefly operated Grain Stack, a counter-service restaurant located on the museum's mezzanine-level dining space; it closed in June.

"We understand that the museum's preference is to have a single food vendor," said Dogwood owner Greg Hoyt. "We supply Agra Culture with coffee, and we're happy to continue to supply the museum through them."

Stock and Badge is moving out of the restaurant business. The company shuttered its not-quite-two-year-old Parka on Sunday, and is converting the East Lake Street location into a Dogwood Coffee bar.

"We're going to be concentrating on coffee and bakery," said Hoyt. "So it goes."

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