The James Beard Foundation launched its 2014 awards on Wednesday by announcing semifinalists in chef and restaurant categories.
Six Twin Citians are included in the Best Chef: Midwest category, which honors chefs who “set new or consistent standards of excellence” in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. (The Beards divide the country into 10 regions and bestow a Best Chef award in each of them).
Local semifinalists are Paul Berglund of the Bachelor Farmer, Steven Brown of Tilia, Doug Flicker of Piccolo, Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart and Jamie Malone of Sea Change, all in Minneapolis, and Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul.
Last year’s Best Chef: Midwest award went to Colby Garrelts of Bluestem in Kansas City, Mo., and 2012’s award-winner was Tory Miller of L’Etoile in Madison, Wis. Minneapolis chefs won the award for three straight years: Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery in 2011, preceded by Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma in 2010 and Tim McKee of La Belle Vie in 2009.
Minneapolis made a strong showing in the Beards' national categories, including:
Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery in Outstanding Chef, which honors “a working chef in America whose career has set national industry standards and who has served as an inspiration to other food professionals.”
Steve Horton of Rustica in Outstanding Pastry Chef, which honors “a chef or baker who prepares desserts, pastries or breads and who serves as a national standard-bearer for excellence.”
Restaurant Alma in Outstanding Service, which honors restaurants demonstrating “high standards of hospitality and service.”
Marvel Bar in Outstanding Bar Program, which honors a restaurant or bar that demonstrates “excellence in cocktail, spirits and/or beer service.”
Finally, Eric Seed, owner of Haus Alpenz in Edina, is a semifinalist in the Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional category, which honors “a winemaker, brewer, or spirits professional who has had a significant impact on the wine and spirits industry nationwide.”
Find the complete list of semifinalists here.
The Beards began in 1990 and are frequently shorthanded to the “Oscars of the food world,” although while the Academy Awards adhere to a two-step nominee/winner process, the Beards' restaurant and chef categories follow a three-step system, recognizing semifinalists, nominees and winners.
Restaurant and chef nominees — the top five vote-getters among semifinalists in each category — will be announced on March 18 from Chicago, along with nominees in the Beards' cookbook, design and journalism categories (voters include past chef winners, along with critics and editors). Winners will take to the stage of the David H. Koch Theater in New York City’s Lincoln Center on May 5.
The burger: Fika, the exceptional cafe inside the American Swedish Institute (see my three-star review here), has ventured into Juicy Lucy territory, and the winning results will no doubt change hearts and minds up and down Stuffed Burger Nation.
The Juicy Lucia -- great name, right? -- began as a birthday wish. A few weeks ago, ASI curator Curt Pedersen shared his natal day hankering for a Juicy Lucy -- the iconic cheese-stuffed burger -- with chef Dustin Thompson, who had overseen, to that point anyway, a burger- and fries-free operation. "We had a little time in the kitchen, so we sort of threw it together, and everyone really liked it," said Thompson.
It's easy to see why. Thompson cleverly avails himself of every opportunity to translate basic Juicy Lucy components into Fika-speak. Naturally, the Juicy Lucia is served smorgas-style, an open-face sandwich that calls upon a sturdy slice of caraway rye bread. Those hoping for a crack at the kitchen's hearty Danish rye, look elsewhere, since that signature loaf "can mask flavors if you pair it with the wrong thing," explained Thompson.
The rough-hewn patty is composed of fatty brisket, and stuffed with Vasterbotten, the firm, teasingly salty cow's milk cheese that is the Swedish equivalent of Parmesan. It pairs beautifully with the rich, medium-rare beef.
From there, Thompson unfurls the Swedish culinary flags and lets them fly, including a creamy whole-grain mustard sauce and vinegar-ey pickles culled from the menu's meatballs. Along with sweetly caramelized onions, the finishing touch is a plucky flag of zesty red watercress, its deep green hues a tonic to winter-addled eyes. "I love that stuff," said Thompson. "When I can get it I tend to throw it on everything."
It's definitely a knife-and-fork burger -- a plus in Juicy Lucyland, since there's little danger of molten cheese dribbles wreaking havoc on diners' laps -- done up in Fika's modernist sensibilities. It's also ridiculously delicious.
Fries: Included, and a decent effort for a first-time French fry. To no one's surprise, they are served with a tangy lingonberry ketchup.
One night only: The one downside to the Juicy Lucia (pronouned Lou-see-ah, "She's a saint that the Swedes regard highly," said Thompson) is its limited availability. Thompson and his crew prepare it on Wednesday from 3 to 8 p.m., the one evening of the week when the museum is open. Another reason to visit: Papercut!, the fascinating psaligraphy exhibition by Danish-American artist Karen Bit Vejle, running through May 25th.
Sixty second profile: At age 25, Thompson is surely one of the Twin Cities' youngest chefs working in a leadership role. With his Norwegian and Swedish ancestry, Thompson's DNA fits his job description, although his family didn't steer too far from the meatballs-lutefisk side of their cultural heritage. He started cooking out of high school, working in the kitchen of a country club, "and it turned out that I loved it," he said.
The Apple Valley native joined the Fika team shortly after opening chef Michael Fitzgerald launched the restaurant in the summer of 2012, and succeeded his boss last August. The two became friends while cooking at Tilia, and when Fitzgerald played host to the king and queen of Sweden, he asked Thompson to pitch in. "I ended up staying after what was going to be a long weekend," said Thompson. Lucky us.
Address book: 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls., 612-871-4907.
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Have to say it was the first time I've seen burping and farting take center stage at any theater.
And hopefully the last.
The sounds, as presented by sock puppets on a large monitor, opened Alton Brown's "Edible Inedible Tour" at the State Theatre last Friday, an event that played to a multi-age full house who was clearly enthusiastic about his long-running "Good Eats" TV show, now in reruns on the Cooking Channel. (The sound effects, repeated during the intermission and at the close of the show, depicted the action of yeast molecules releasing gas.)
Alton Brown was his madcap self, a grand storyteller with a sly sense of humor, during the 2 hour, 45 minute culinary variety show, which celebrated what he said were "things you're not allowed to do on TV -- you can't rant, rave or pontificate or you'll piss off advertisers." (The excess "sound effects" reflected him thumbing his nose at the Food Network, which he said enforced a burp-to-fart ratio on "Good Eats.")
No sponsors, no advertisers means all fun, right? Well, as we say in the news biz, everyone needs an editor. And this show could have used a scalpel at times, starting with the interminable burping and farting. You know the little kid in kindergarten who would do that and get a laugh, and then wouldn't stop doing it? Well....
The show ran 45 minutes longer than expected, in part because Alton got chatty (often commenting snarkily, in good fun, on the cold weather and other Minnesota-related tangents) and, at the end, because he chose a volunteer in the audience who liked being center stage (she talked almost as much as he did).
But the unwieldy length was more than someone not watching the clock: His musical trio (with Alton on both electric and acoustic guitar, then saxophone) really didn't add much to the evening with food songs that were, well, half-baked, worth a smile but not much more. And some of his TV antics didn't hold up on a theater stage (breezing through a science lesson, for example, had to cross more eyes than just mine).
Two cooking "demos" were delightfully quirky, though took far too long to complete. In one he makes carbonated ice cream using a fire extinguisher (the only single-use piece of kitchen equipment that has his approval).
The other was what turned out to be a long-winded demonstration of his Mega-Bake Oven, a variation on the girls-only Easy Bake Oven of his youth. Though the store version uses a single 100-watt bulb, his monstrous variation, presumably built in his garage or so he implied, gathers power from 54,000 watts of stage lights. "You can see this from space," he chortled as the blinding lights were turned on.
From this powerhouse of light, he and a volunteer (the Chatty Kathy aforementioned), cooked a pizza topped with (what else?) lutefisk and pepperoni.
The best part of the show was his rant on "10 Things I'm Pretty Sure That I'm Sure About Food," an eclectic list that apparently changes from time to time, Here's the Minnesota version:
1. Chickens don't have fingers (where he tells the tale of shocking his daughter's friends with chicken feet).
2. The most critical cooking skill is to use salt (from here he goes on to talk about the bakery dough he discarded in an outdoor dumpster on a very hot day, resulting in an oozing Son-of-Blob scenario that needed commercial trucks to remedy).
3. Trout doesn't belong in ice cream (he tells the story of chef Sakai who did just that on "Iron Chef America").
4. The best cook on Earth is your wife, and the sooner you accept it, the happier you'll be (as he relates a story on making the mistake of "correcting" the seasoning in his wife's dish).3. Trout doesn't belong in ice cream (he relates an episode of "Iron Chef America" in which chef Sakai does just that).
5. The best ingredient to learn to cook is eggs. ("It's liquid meat, premeasured, cheap, and even if you mess them up you can eat them. Conquer eggs and the rest of the culinary world follows.")
6. The most important tool in the kitchen is the dinner table. This follows his comments in an earlier interview that, "The most magical thing about food is its ability to connect human beings to one another. That's the real miracle of food." As for the food? "In 12 hours, it's poo."
7. Wash mushrooms.( "That's not dirt they're grown in; it's horse poop.")
8. Buy American. ("We have the best farmers, the best fish, the best laws overseeing food. Odds are you can't do worse than that.")
9. Raisins are always optional. (Who can disagree with that, says this writer?)
10. Never eat a shrimp cocktail in an airport. (Enough said. Though that led to a very long song about what happens when food poisoning hits.)
For more on Alton, see my earlier interview with him in the Star Tribune.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste
The burger: The thousand-dollar bill bears the image of Grover Cleveland. But if you’re going to link a POTUS to an over-the-top burger – as the Freehouse sort-of does, with its “1,000 Dollar Burger” -- the brain’s knee-jerk response (well, mine, anyway) might naturally kick up our nation’s most corpulent leader, William Howard Taft.
Scratch that. My inner history major has just slid way off the rails in a majorly convoluted way. It doesn’t matter that Cleveland was the only White House occupant to serve non-consecutive terms, or that Taft, the only president to also be seated as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, stood 5-foot 11-inches and tipped the scales at 340 pounds. What’s important to note is that the Freehouse, which opened in December in the North Loop neighborhood and is the work of the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. (purveyor of such establishments as the Highland Grill, the Lowry, Scusi and 3 Squares), is grilling up a burger that, if not quite worth a thousand bucks, at least lives up to its $15 asking price. And then some.
Like Taft, this burger is a big boy, probably landing in the third- to half-pound range. It's a thick, rough-hewn and supremely juicy patty that’s seared to a modest char on the outside and a near-velvety medium-rare on the inside.
Flavor-wise, it really packs a wallop, thanks to a grind of chuck, brisket and sirloin (sourced from the go-to place for premium burger beef: Peterson Limousin Farms in Osceola, Wis). Beef this delicious needs little or no embellishment, although chef Elgin Harris, following a trend, goes one step further by boosting the patty’s already luxurious mouth-feel by adding creamy duck fat into the mix.
Forget about lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, whatever. This burger is arrives nearly naked, just a barely noticeable slice of white Cheddar that’s slipped in under the patty. Then, taking a clue from the steakhouse universe, where sizzling porterhouses and filets often receive a last-second finishing touch in the form of a pat of butter, Harris crafts a compound butter using a splash of the restaurant’s dark, malty, house-brewed stout. When the burger is delivered to the table, that flavorful dollop has already started to melt, spreading its goodness in tiny rivulets before disappearing entirely into the seared meat.
A patty this hefty needs a suitably sturdy wrapper, and the kitchen doesn’t disappoint, opting for a house-baked English muffin, notably thick, nicely chewy and beautifully crusted with golden corn meal. Truly, superb.
Fries: Included, and pleasant enough, with a barely crisp skin-on shell that covers a soft, semi-fluffy interior.
Add-on: The menu’s “handhelds” section features four other burgers beyond the “$1,000,” including a well-crafted and imaginatively seasoned turkey burger ($12), with warm but not super-spicy curry and pepper accents.
Added bonus: The great-looking restaurant is that rare downtown eat-and-drink establishment with its own (free) parking lot.
Address book: 701 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-339-7011. Open 6:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
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The burger: “This is a four-napkin burger,” said my friend, as he tried – without much success – to keep control of all the components spilling out of the two-fisted bacon cheeseburger he had in his grip. I nodded in agreement. We were deeply immersed in a tremendous quick-service burger experience at Slim’s, and soon enough I was running neck-and-neck in the paper napkin tally.
What a smart entry in the fast-food burger wars. The Slim’s version sports a hand-formed patty , its hefty 6 ounces pressed into a relatively thin shape (one that hugs the edges of the plus-size bun) and seared on the flattop until the rough-hewn outer edges take on a crisp, flavorful char.
It’s piping hot, and that heat makes quick work of the melty blanket of American cheese. Aside from the chewy beef bacon – a thoughtful add-on for the pork-averse – toppings include tangy red onions, a heavy dose of vinegar-ey pickle chips, a crispy Bibb lettuce leaf and a few forgettable tomato slices, all working in concert to create a quintessentially all-American fast-food experience, Grade-A division. The malts and shakes, hand-scooped and mixed to order, are an added bonus.
The highly agreeable soft white-bread buns, swiped with butter and given a light toasting, hail from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery.
How good is the Slim's burger? “I had every intention of eating half and then walking away from the rest,” said my friend. “And look: I ate the whole thing.” Same here.
Price: Hamburger $4.50, cheeseburger $5, bacon-cheeseburger $6, all a first-rate value.
Fries: An additional $2, and worth it. They’re skin-ons, cut fresh daily. Their rich potato flavor is enhanced by a light sprinkle of a house-made seasoning blend.
The back story: Brothers Omar (“Slim” is his childhood nickname) and Yunes Abuisnaineh renovated and expanded a former Starbucks into their cheery year-old restaurant (pictured, above), which also cranks out chicken wings, pizza, gyros and cheese steak sandwiches.
The brothers are locals. "I grew up here, this is right in my neighborhood," said Omar, and he's not exaggerating; he graduated from Park Center Senior High School, which is just down the street. Their business started in 2011 as a tiny chicken wings-and-pizza takeout joint before traded up to their big 69th-and-Brooklyn Blvd. location last winter. A convenient drive-through opened in earlier this month.
Another deep-fried specialty is the basket ($4) of crisp, liberally seasoned potato chips, cut long and skinny and paired with two sauces. “Take me straight to North Memorial,” said my friend, as he began to tackle that pile of chips in earnest. Don't miss them.
Address book: 6901 Brooklyn Blvd., Brooklyn Center, 763-512-2000. Open 10:30 am. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 am. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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