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.
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.
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:
The Minnesota State Fair announced its new foods lineup for the 2014 Great Minnesota Get-Together. Which one (or ones) among the 28 newcomers will capture some of the hype of previous best-sellers, including last year's talker (pictured, above) from the French Meadow Bakery, the Dough-Sant?
Here's the list:
Beer Gelato: Gelato blended with local craft beer and made fresh daily, on-site (Manciniʼs Al Fresco)
Bacon-Wrapped Turkey Leg: A roasted turkey leg (pictured above) wrapped in a layer of bacon (Texas Steak Out)
Bison Dog: Hickory-smoked, gluten-free and made from naturally pasture-raised bison in River Falls Wis., and served Chicago-style or with a choice of fixings on a gluten-free, poppy seed or plain bun (Chicago Dogs)
Blue Cheese & Corn Fritz: Four deep-fried corn fritters stuffed with crumbled blue cheese (pictured above) and served with a fresh herb chimichurri (The Blue Barn, a new vendor)
Breakfast Juicy LuLu: An English muffin with two American cheese-stuffed sausage patties (LuLuʼs Public House, a new vendor)
Caramel Apple Ice Cream: Tractor-churned vanilla ice cream infused with real caramel and diced Granny Smith apples (R&R Ice Cream)
Caribbean-Style Lobster Roll: Chilled lobster salad (pictured above) tossed in a citrus chipotle mayo seasoned with cayenne pepper, allspice and nutmeg and served on a soft buttered and grilled roll (Café Caribe)
Chicken in the Waffle: Crispy chicken nestled in a crunchy waffle cone, then smothered with a creamy sausage gravy (The Blue Barn)
Chilaquiles: Corn tortilla chips covered in chili verde sauce with chicken then topped with eggs and garnished with lettuce, tomato and sour cream (El Sol Mexican Food)
Chocolate Dessert Salami: Chocolate, butter, almonds and walnuts all blended and rolled into a salami shape (pictured above), dusted with powdered sugar, then sliced and served on specialty crackers (Sausage Sister and Me)
Deep-Fried Breakfast On-a-Stick: American and Swiss cheeses, a sausage patty, an egg and Canadian bacon all sandwiched between two pancakes, then dipped in batter and deep-fried (The Sandwich Stop)
Deep-Fried Buckeyes: A creamy peanut butter ball coated in chocolate, dipped in funnel cake batter, deep-fried, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a strawberry sauce (Spaghetti Eddieʼs)
Deep-Fried Lobster On-a-Stick: Canadian lobster pieces poached in butter, dipped in a corn batter, deep-fried and served with a spiced dipping sauce (LuLuʼs Public House)
Gluten-Free Beer-Battered Brat: A locally-made gluten- and nitrate-free brat, dipped in a beer batter and deep-fried on-a-stick (Sonnyʼs Spiral Spuds)
Hot Toasted Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich: Two toasted waffles sandwich a wedge of vanilla ice cream, with a light powdered sugar dusting (West End Creamery, a new vendor)
Iron Range Pierogies: Deep-fried dumplings stuffed with potatoes and cheddar cheese, topped with crispy onion strings and served with a zingy horsey sauce (The Blue Barn)
Jell-O Salad Ice Cream: Inspired by the classic Minnesota potluck dessert (and served in church dining halls everywhere), this Jell-O salad features a sweet cream base flavored with fresh lime juice, swirled with cranberry sauce and blended with marshmallows dipped in marshmallow crème. Made by Izzyʼs Ice Cream, this flavor is only available at the Hamline Church Dining Hall during the 2014 Minnesota State Fair (Hamline Church Dining Hall)
JonnyPops: This all-natural frozen fruit and cream bar is like a smoothie on-a-stick (pictured above). A variety of flavor choices includes the Minnesota State Fair-exclusive: Snelling Strawberry Rhubarb (JonnyPops, a new vendor)
Korean BBQ Collar with Kimchi Pickles: Slow-smoked pork collar finished with a garlic ginger BBQ glaze and served with kimchi pickles (Famous Daveʼs)
North Shore Pasta – Walleye Mac & Cheese: Fresh-smoked walleye with sweet corn kernels and roasted red peppers atop a bed of cavatappi noodles, all smothered in Gigglesʼ secret smoked Gouda sauce and toasted with Parmesan parsley bread crumbs (Gigglesʼ Campfire Grill)
PB&J French Toast: The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is fused with French toast, then sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a choice of ham, bacon or sausage (Robbinsdale OES Dining Hall)
Pizza Tots: Handmade pizza tots that combine sausage, pepperoni, mozzarella, seasonings and hash browns, dusted with Parmesan cheese and served with a side of pizza sauce (Green Mill)
Pretzel Curds: Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds coated in a batter made with crushed pretzels, bread crumbs and American Pilsner beer, then deep-fried and served with a dipping sauce (OʼGaraʼs at the Fair)
Prime Rib Taco: Sliced rotisserie prime rib served in a flour tortilla with sautéed onions and peppers and topped with chili con queso (LuLuʼs Public House)
Rustic Stuffed Scone: A Parmesan-crusted, baked butter scone stuffed with all-natural ham, Swiss, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, and a house-made béchamel sauce (French Meadow Bakery)
Schnitzel Strips: Pork tenderloin coated with a seasoned breading, then fried, cut into strips and served with a lemon, garlic and mayonnaise dipping sauce (Smoothies and Jurassic Dogs)
Shrimp Dog: Baby shrimp and cream cheese are combined, then batter-dipped, deep-fried and served on-a-stick (The Shrimp Shack)
SnoRibbons: A fusion of cotton candy, shaved ice and snow, served with flavor combinations that include coffee and doughnuts, grasshopper pie, banana toffee crunch, frozen hot chocolate, and more (Blue Moon Dine-In Theater)
Many of the fair's new vendors will be featured in the West End Market, the $15 million remake of the area formerly known as Heritage Square. The new vendors include:
The Blue Barn: Following in the footsteps of O’Gara’s, French Meadow Bakery, Famous Dave’s, Mancini’s and other local food-and-drink purveyors, the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. (Highland Grill, Longfellow Grill, 3 Squares, the Lowry, Freehouse) is headed to the fairgrounds, promising a farm-to-table eatery in the new West End Market.
JonnyPops : Ripe for the fair’s on-a-stick food mentality, these locally-produced frozen treats are created by a quartet of entrepreneurial friends. For the fair, they’re making a seasonal concoction they’re calling Snelling Strawberry Rhubarb. Also in the West End Market.
LuLuʼs Public House: Yes, even the fair is getting into the rooftop patio act.
Patʼs Place: An ice cream newbie for the Mighty Midway.
Two Rivers Kettle Korn: Another newcomer to the West End Market.
West End Creamery: Ice cream (nearly three dozen flavors, and a few specialty items), located in the you-know-where.
The 2014 Minnesota State Fair runs Aug. 21 through Sept. 1.
The burger: After taking a brief, spring-is-finally-here hiatus, Burger Friday is back, and taking your calls.
Variations on “What’s your favorite burger?” have been peppering my inbox for several weeks, and despite my reputation as The Thing That Won’t Shut Up, I’m challenged to come up with a response for that one. Only because limiting my answer to a single example is darned near impossible.
So I’ll cheat it and offer, in no particular order, five burger-makers that immediately come to mind: Rabbit Hole, Borough, HauteDish, Victory 44 and the crazy-good (and crazy-inexpensive) sliders served at the Rookery.
Wait, let me add another to the list: Lake & Irving.
One reason why is that, at their new-ish Uptown restaurant, brothers Chris and Andrew Ikeda took no chances on their path to burger nirvana.
“The burger is what so many people screw up,” said Andrew. “We want to make it as perfect as possible, every time.”
And they do. At least the more-than-a-handful of times that I’ve devoured it. That admirable consistency is a result of an exhaustive research-and-development process, one that led the Ikedas to their alert-the-Patent-Office formula.
It starts with a steakhouse-style short rib-chuck blend, imported from New Jersey’s Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors and a grind so flavorful that it barely needs salt and pepper. Although the end result very nearly comes off as a single patty, each burger doubles up a pair of three-ounce-ers. Picture it this way: rather than a clearly delineated double patty, a la the Big Mac, imagine a thick-ish single patty, albeit one with a slightly off-kilter shape.
Here’s the fascinating part: Each patty is cooked on a 500-degree flattop grill for a precise (as in, down to the second) amount of time, a figure determined by a ton of trial and error. Forgive me for not being able to clear the opening credits of 60 Minutes from my train of thought.
While immersed in their R&D period, the brothers stumbled into an ah-ha moment: During that quick cooking period, each patty benefits from a hard press with a spatula, a la Smashburger.
“It’s counter-intuitive, I know,” said Andrew. “At the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], we were taught that if you ever take the back of a spatula to a patty, the patty will lose moisture. But on a hard flattop, it doesn’t. It’s the fattiness in the short rib, which locks all that flavor and moisture into the patty.”
Another integral element is a Wisconsin cheddar, and no, it’s not an artisanal, meticulously aged product. And that’s OK.
"We're purists," said Andrew with a laugh. "A foie burger is one of the most sublime things I've ever had. But we're about doing the basic things really well. We don't want to over-complicate and detract from what makes a good burger a good burger."
Well said. It helps that this very basic cheddar has all the flavor and melty texture that anyone requires in a hamburger-bound cheese (true to form, that long-lasting melt is achieved through a careful baste that’s also measured in seconds). The sense of restraint continues with the burger's other garnishes, a few marvelously made pickle chips, a modest sliver of red onions and a lettuce leaf, all served on the side.
The two-patty formula is genius, in part because the thin shape requires next to no cooking time before each center reaches a picture-perfect pink. These burgers very nearly fly out of the kitchen, making L&I a smart lunch destination for the time-pressed.
(Another benefit of the two-patty system: Flavor. A pair of patties has twice the amount of surface that has been seared on the grill, and when that beef comes in contact with that heat, transformative deliciousness ensues. Now multiply that, times two.)
There’s a nostalgia-dipped backstory, too. The brothers (that's Chris, left, and Andrew, right, from a Star Tribune file photo) wanted to pay homage to the burgers that fueled them from grade school through college.
“We’re trying to get back to our roots,” said Andrew. “We grew up on Lions Tap – that’s what I ate after soccer games when I was 14 -- and other old-school burgers, with their smaller, thinner patties. But we also looked around, and we see a lot of these big, thick, medium-rare patties, and we don’t see anyone else doing two patties. So we thought we’d try it out.”
I nearly forgot about the crowning touch, a brioche bun from Patisserie 46, a golden, flaky, buttery thing of beauty that has quickly become the bun by which all others are measured. At L&I, it’s lovingly split and grilled in butter, caramelizing until it reaches the color of dark butterscotch.
“A lot of the credit goes to Patisserie 46, because that bun is dynamite,” said Andrew. Agreed.
Not convinced? Consider the numbers. The L&I cheeseburger (it’s served on every menu: lunch, dinner, late-night and brunch) is outsold only by the kitchen's category-killing fried chicken sandwich. The latter has developed a (well-deserved) cult following. In my opinion, the burger merits similar standing.
Price: $11. For a criss-cross of expertly fried bacon (highly recommended), add $2.
Fries: Included, and on par, quality-wise, with the burger.
At the bar: The Ikedas are clearly beer aficionados, and their eclectic, always-on-the-lookout list is bound to have a few choices that pair beautifully with burgers. Andrew is partial to Expat, the rye saison from Fulton Brewery, “although you can’t go wrong with Bell’s Two Hearted, that’s always money,” he said. “Or if you’re really going heavy, have the North Coast Old Rasputin Nitro, that’s going to stand up to the burger really well.” See what I mean?
Address book: 1513 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-354-2453. Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. weekends. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at email@example.com.
Last Saturday morning, during a ferocious downpour, I ran – OK, it was more like a brisk walk, but still – through the Fulton Farmers Market, where I was stopped short by the sight of a new stand.
New to me, anyway. The market, too; the Rise Bagel Co. was in the middle of its second appearance. Sisters/co-owners Kate and Jen Lloyd (they call themselves “bread heads”) were busy hawking a half-dozen varieties of bagels, and, seriously, wow.
The Lloyds' handiwork is what bagel fanatics so rarely encounter in the Twin Cities. They have the look down cold: beautifully golden rounds indented with navel-like centers. Even more impressive is the texture, a muscular heft and chew (a characteristic that a bagel-loving pal of mine solemnly refers to as “yank”) that the bagel chains can't seem to touch.
All the standards are present and accounted for, starting with a straight-up plain bagel. Some are topped with a coarse salt, others with sesame seeds, Asiago cheese or poppy seeds. Naturally, there's an "everything" version, and a cinnamon-sugar variation is a first step into a planned cinnamon-raisin entry. I'm still kicking myself for not buying the popular rosemary-olive oil bagel, but that gives me a reason to return.
The basic building block is an organic, high-gluten flour, and the recipe was developed over a year in the cramped kitchen of Jen's Loring Park condominium. Now that they're producing in retail-size quantities, the sisters have moved their boiling and baking operations into larger, more efficient quarters in a south Minneapolis commercial kitchen.
At the market, the format is simplicity itself, just bagels, a knife and cream cheese or peanut butter. The tangy, luscious cream cheese hails from Organic Valley, and it's applied with a generous hand.
There's a handful of cream cheese blends, including a lively, dill- and garlic-flecked veggie mix that's heavy on the cucumber. Still, the most popular combination is total bagel Puritanism: Plain bagel, with plain cream cheese.
"We were surprised by that, but then again, maybe not," said Kate. "After all, we’re in the Midwest.”
The sisters cater to peanut butter lovers with a trio of flavors -- Minnesota-sourced honey, cinnamon-raisin and semi-sweet chocolate -- from Buddy's, a partnership born, in part, from serendipity; Buddy's owner Andrew Kincheloe shares commercial kitchen space with the Lloyds, and the three entrepreneurs made a connection as immediate as, well, bagels and peanut butter.
Prices are a fairly competitive $1.50 per bagel, with an additional $1.50 for cream cheese or peanut butter. I highly recommend buying a bag ($8.50/half dozen, $16.50/dozen) and clearing room in your freezer.
Here’s why: The Sisters Lloyd maintain a somewhat irregular schedule. They're wisely taking a cautious approach to their startup, sticking with a single market (Fulton) and introducing themselves with just two appearances in the past six weeks.
Don't go running to Fulton this weekend with bagels on the brain, because the next Rise Bagel Co. outing is set for July 12. That’s a long time to wait for bagels this good, although there's good news around the corner: Starting in July, the plan is to adapt a three-Saturdays-a-month schedule, and maintain that pace through October.
Their Lloyds' recipe developed over the course of bagel-binging research junkets to New York City, Montreal and San Francisco, culminating in a two-day tutorial at Beauty's Bagel Shop in Oakland. "We found them online, and we discovered that they were on the same journey that we're on," said Kate. "We worked the 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, and out of that experience we found out what it would entail to make bagels non-stop."
Is there a permanent bagel shop on the horizon? “Naturally, people are asking us that question,” said Kate. “We’re having a lot of fun, but we both have full-time jobs [Kate works in marketing and public relations for Room & Board, Jen is product development and sourcing for Nordic Ware]. We’re taking it day by day, and seeing what the response is. Maybe we’ll consider it. Who knows?”
Should they go that route, it's hopefully not too much to ask that it land within walking distance of my house or my office. As for the Rise name, it grew out of a brainstorming session over beer at Muddy Waters, and it is imbued with multiple meanings, one of which is the manner in which bagels float to the top during the boiling process.
“And you’ve got to rise out of bed to eat a bagel,” said Kate. Bagel-makers rise even earlier. “Yeah, that’s another story,” she said with a laugh. “We’re not getting a lot of sleep, but that’s OK.”
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