When the Wall Street Journal asked Hugh Acheson (James Beard award-winner, 'Top Chef' judge, New South chef) where he had eaten a recent memorable meal, Acheson singled out Piccolo in Minneapolis where he had dined about six months ago.
"I had dinner at Piccolo, which serves modern American farm-to-table food. The chef, Doug Flicker, is cooking with a seasonal sensibility that is profound, professional and inspiring. The food was just so fresh and smart, even on a cold, fall day. I had speck-wrapped capon with chanterelles, parsnip chow-chow, cockscomb pain perdu and parsnip milk. Nothing like a castrated chicken to make a meal sublime. And it makes you feel good when you find food of that caliber in a place where you didn't expect it."
I’m not sure how long the doors had been open, but when I arrived at Bogart’s Doughnut Co. at 7:02 this morning, there were five people in line ahead of me, and six drool-worthy varieties of doughnuts were filling the cases stretching under an elegant white marble counter.
Owner Anne Rucker appeared from around the corner, a tray lined with vanilla bean cream-filled doughnuts in her arms. The woman in front of me recognized her and said what we were all thinking.
“I’ve been driving by every day this week, hoping to see that you were open,” she said with a laugh. She had her Walker residence employee name badge hanging around her neck – it’s located a few blocks to the south – and she told Rucker, “Welcome to the neighborhood. We’ll all be coming over. A lot.”
Shoppers at the Kingfield Farmers Market will recognize Rucker, an attorney who has followed her passion for baking, first with a popular market stand she calls Bogart Loves (from her middle name, and her grandmother’s maiden name) and now this tiny, gleaming white doughnuts-and-coffee shop at 36th and Bryant in south Minneapolis.
Like all great doughnut shops, I smelled the goodness long before I walked in the door. Rucker’s trademark brioche doughnuts, glistening with sugar and the very definition of fried-dough perfection, were filled with Nutella or a vanilla bean cream, or smeared in glazes, either brown butter or vanilla bean. Cake doughnuts were either lavender-scented or done up in rich chocolate. Prices run $2 (for the cake doughnuts and the glazed brioche doughnuts) and $3 (for the filled brioche doughnuts).
Rucker is trying to open quietly – a near-impossibility in today’s social media world – with a grand opening scheduled for Friday. Doors stay open, “until we run out,” she said. That was around noon on Wednesday, her first unofficial day of business.
Big news: Tim McKee has another restaurant on the horizon. The very near horizon. Minnesota’s first James Beard award-winning chef is converting the former Uptown Cafeteria into Libertine.
Four-year-old Cafeteria – officially titled Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group -- served its last meal on Monday. Well, the street-level portion of the Calhoun Square property, anyway; its crazy-popular rooftop Sky Bar is remaining open during the transition.
And it’s a fast one: McKee has set July 16 as the re-opening date. McKee is directing the project in his capacity as a partner and vice president of culinary direction for Parasole Restaurant Holdings, Cafeteria’s parent company.
“It’s 100 percent my idea, as if I’m opening a restaurant, but with someone else’s money,” he said.
The concept? “I wanted a place that could function similar to a steakhouse,” said McKee. “Where people in their twenties and thirties can get a modern steakhouse experience for a reasonable price. This is not going to be Manny’s,” a reference to Parasole’s upscale beef palace in downtown Minneapolis.
The menu’s nucleus is a return to classic butcher cuts. “We’ll be serving cuts you can’t find anywhere else,” said McKee. “They have great flavor, you’re just going to have to chew a little more. I went to a restaurant in Dublin a year and a half ago, and they were treating off cuts like prime cuts, and I thought it was genius.”
In other words, forget about the filet. “I have no interest in the filet,” he said. “There’s no fat, there’s no flavor.”
Instead, the beef roster will feature such little-known cuts as the feather blade (from the cow’s shoulder blade), the onglet (a center-cut strip, resembling a filet), the point (a triangular cut from the rump) and the kitchen’s signature, a short rib that’s grilled at a super-high heat. McKee encountered it during a recent scouting trip to Argentina, where he discovered that it’s that beef-crazed country’s favorite cut.
“It has more chew, but it delivers on flavor,” he said. “It’s primal, it’s less refined. Let’s face it, you’re not going to go to a steakhouse and get a $17-to-$19 cut. This is easy on the budget.”
On the pork side of the equation, there will be ham steaks and a lightly smoked Berkshire pork chop, its generous fat cap still intact (“You forget that pork chops can taste that good,” he said), and on the lamb side there will be sausages, ribs and a deeply flavorful saddle chop (two side-by-side porterhouses, with the belly in between), which at $24 will be the menu’s most expensive item.
McKee said he had to turn to three separate sources to supply the menu’s various cuts. “Where do you find a great pork chop?” he said. “I’d say that you go to a butcher shop, but they’re aren’t any, and that’s the problem.”
Naturally, there’s going to be a house steak sauce, formulated with hints of plum, allspice, Worcestershire and garlic. “It’s our version of A.1., which is what any good steak sauce should be,” said McKee. There’s also a house-made Sriracha sauce.
There will be burgers, too (in beef, lamb or pork), along with a small seafood roster (grilled prawns, cedar-planked salmon) and fried chicken, along with oysters, imported from both coasts and served four ways: raw, in shots (the watermelon margarita and the cucumber-gin fizz both sound particularly intriguing), charbroiled and fried.
The rest of the menu will include a half-dozen salads and a handful of starters, including crispy pig’s ears with a fried egg, steak tartare with a quail egg and tuna poke tacos.
The street-level portion of the restaurant is undergoing a quick cosmetic renovation. “Nothing structural,” said McKee. “We’re going to give it much more of a bar feel. There’s a lot of shiny and bright in here right now, and it won’t be that. And yeah, it’s probably going to be loud.”
The existing dining room is going to shrink. A portion is being converted into overflow space – behind large iron doors -- that can double as a private dining area.
The restaurant’s wall of glass garage doors, which front Lake Street, aren’t going anywhere, but the homage-to-Howard-Johnson’s color scheme is history. Chrome will be replaced with steel, wood and a more timeless color palette.
In that out-with-the-old mode, there will be new furniture, too, primarily bench seating at picnic-style tables. “It’s going to be modern and comfortable,” he said.
Fans of the hallway lined in brightly colored plastic cafeteria trays are going to be disappointed to learn that they’re going away. “Do you want one?” McKee said with a laugh.
The kitchen counter is disappearing, but the current bar configuration will continue. Its 20 taps are staying; four will feature ciders, and the remaining will be devoted to national craft beers (“the best we can find,” he said) and six to eight local labels.
(A little-known fact about Tim McKee: He likes his beer local, and iconic. “Everyone who knows me knows my favorite beer is Grain Belt Premium,” he said. “We want to sell great craft beers as well as a can of PBR for $3.”)
Cocktails are being devised by longtime McKee collaborator Johnny Michaels. The bar will also feature a variety of whiskeys, purchased by the barrel and sold in $3 shots.
The kitchen will be supervised on a daily basis by chef Steve Hesse, a veteran at Masu (another McKee project) and its parent company, Sushi Avenue. His resume also includes stints at the St. Paul Grill and at Macy’s, where he opened restaurant concepts for the department store all over the country.
By his tally, Libertine marks the 10th restaurant concept that McKee has created in his career. “That’s if you count La Belle Vie twice,” he said, meaning the original from the late 1990s in Stillwater, and the current iteration in the 510 Groveland building in Minneapolis. “Which is fair, because they’re two very different restaurants.”
The last was Masu, and before that it was Sea Change. At Parasole, he’s constantly tweaking menus at the company’s properties, including the Good Earth, Chino Latino, Pittsburgh Blue, Salut Bar Americain, Mozza Mia, Muffuletta and Burger Jones. And of course he oversees his own properties: Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque in Stillwater, and La Belle Vie.
As for pulling the plug on Cafeteria, McKee takes a glass-half full approach.
“I wouldn’t say that the restaurant didn’t work,” he said. “Cafeteria did $3.5 million in sales last year, and that’s winning by all kinds of measures. But this is an expensive location, and maybe $3.5 million isn’t enough. We’re viewing this as an opportunity, to do something meaningful and special.”
Why Libertine? “I like the idea, and not in the Marquis de Sade kind of way,” he said with a laugh. “But in the do-as-you-like sense of the word.”
Oh, happy day: The Birchwood Cafe is back in business.
The Seward neighborhood restaurant, a magnet for diners across the Twin Cities, has been closed since Feb. 22 while undergoing a facelift and much-needed expansion.
I arrived this morning shortly after the doors opened at 7 a.m.. After I ordered and took a seat, a customer – turns out, he’s been a Birchwood-er almost since the day the place debuted in 1995 – strolled in and took a look around.
General manager Rick Oknick greeted him like a long-lost friend with a gregarious “How are you?” “I’m a whole lot better,” said the customer, “now that I can have breakfast here again.”
My feelings, exactly. I’ve been an obsessive social media gazer for the past several days, trying to discern when owner Tracy Singleton and her business partner Steve Davidson were going to finally open the doors. As each day passed, my hunger for a savory waffle (more on that in a moment) was beginning to know no bounds.
Other diners began to slowly trickle in, all obvious regulars who seemed relieved to recognize their old friend. “We didn’t want it to be too shiny,” said chef Marshall Paulsen. “We still wanted it to feel like the Birchwood. I think we’ve been successful.”
Indeed. It's lovely to see how the black-and-white photos of Cy and Del Bursch and the Birchwood Dairy delivery truck continue to enjoy their pride of place (the Bursch family was the 88-year-old building’s original tenants, a neighborhood grocery and dairy). And diners are greeted by the same Zen meal prayer, which articulates the restaurant’s locavore mindset: “Enumerable measures bring us this food, we should know how it comes to us.”
A few local outfits were tapped for eye-catching and environmentally friendly materials. Walls and counters are faced with reclaimed wood from Wood from the Hood, and Rust Brothers used recycled glass to fashion the bright green countertops. Tables, built by a Twin Cities craftsman, boast honey-colored Douglas fir that was salvaged from a California lemon warehouse.
Despite a similar front-of-house footprint between the B’wood’s two iterations, Locus Architecture has somehow managed to make the new dining room feel roomier. It helps that the kitchen – the showiest part of it, anyway – is now open for all to see, and it’s fronted by a communal chef’s table.
Yes, a communal table – one of three, as it turns out -- in the personal space-conscious Gopher State. “If it will work anywhere, it will work in Seward,” said Davidson with a laugh.
A not-insignificant chunk of the building’s addition is dedicated to a much-needed overflow dining space/community room, separated from the main dining area by a sliding barn-style door.
One wall (lined in – what else? -- birch bark), will soon display the names of the nearly 1,000 contributors to the restaurant’s $112,126 Kickstarter campaign. The room also features a projection television and a large screen, "for the Tour de France,” said Singleton, reminding me that the restaurant is a magnet for bicyclists. On a beautiful summer's day, It’s not uncommon to see the sidewalk lined with enough racing bikes to stock a bicycle store's going-out-of-business sale.
The counter-service setup remains the same, although it feels easier to navigate. One restroom has blossomed into two. But the most significant changes won’t be seen by most customers, although they’ll probably sense them, because the Birchwood kitchen just got a whole lot more efficient. Think about trading up from a dorm-room toaster oven to two or three eight-burner, two-oven Viking ranges, and you’ll have a sense of the transformation's scale.
While I waited for my waffle, Singleton snuck me backstage. First stop: the dishwashing room. “It’s probably the same size as the old kitchen,” she said, and she’s not exaggerating. After producing breads and sweets offsite for several years, the bakers are back in the building, and the scent was killing me, in a very good way. A new walk-in cooler appears to be about as large as my living room (its much more diminuitive predecessor is now dedicated to beer storage) and a walk-in freezer will efficiently preserve the harvest from the nearly three-dozen farms that supply the kitchen with much of its inventory.
The renovation has also boosted the restaurant’s sustainability credentials. Outside, a muddy mess behind the restaurant will soon bloom into a rain garden, with space for cultivating herbs and vegetables. Solar panels are headed to the roof, and a grant from Hennepin County will finance the construction of an on-site recycling facility.
As for my breakfast, it was astonishingly delicious. One of Paulsen’s specialties is his savory waffle, and he’s flexing the reborn restaurant's muscles with a real doozy. Quinoa and garden-fresh spring peas are folded into the batter, and when the beyond-tender results are released from the iron, out come the toppings:crunchy petipas, a tangy lemon compound butter, thick snips of smoky bacon and a finger-on-the-seasonal-pulse dollop of rhubarb marmalade.
A pepper-freckled fried egg, its runny yolk anxiously waiting to break out of its gently cooked white, was the crowning glory, and a small pitcher of fragrant maple syrup added the just-right finishing touch. Price? Twelve dollars. So worth it.
Would that all mornings could start this way. Imagine my happiness when I learned that, for the first time, it's being served all the live-long day, and not just at breakfast.
Hello, savory waffle. It has been far too long.
As press releases go, the one that just landed in my email box has a lot to take in.
The big news is that Stewart Woodman (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo) has resurfaced. The chef/co-owner of the former Heidi’s is now on the Kaskaid Hospitality payroll.
That’s the second bit of news: After just eight months of operation, Kaskaid has pulled the plug on Union Fish Market. What a shame. The issue certainly wasn’t chef Lucas Almendinger’s cooking; I gave it a 3½ star review in December. The ground-floor space -- located at 8th St. and Hennepin Av. -- has never grabbed the same kind of attention that its dramatic rooftop counterpart enjoys.
As the fast-growing company's new culinary director, Woodman's first duty is tackling that troubled real estate. Kaskaid isn’t saying much more, only that the room is currently undergoing a renovation, and that more news will follow in the coming weeks.
The fish market was Kaskaid’s first effort at a turnaround at the same address. The initial concept opened in November 2012 under chef Jim Christiansen (now chef/co-owner of Heyday) and had a similarly brief shelf life. The building’s popular rooftop restaurant is remaining, as is the lower-level nightclub.
Bill King, Kaskaid's corporate executive chef, remains. King “is focused more on the operational side,” said the spokesman. “Stewart will be on the creative side.”
Woodman moved to Minneapolis in 2003 after cooking at restaurants in New York and Paris. His first local gig at Levain, which earned four stars from this critic. His next project was the ambitious but short-lived Five, followed by two iterations of Heidi’s; the second Heidi’s (which earned a second four stars from the Star Tribune) closed in October, a few months shy of its third anniversary.
With the exception of Levain, Woodman worked closely with his spouse -- and gifted pastry chef -- Heidi Woodman. Last year, amid the legal and financial acrimony surrounding the closure of Heidi’s (as well as another short-lived project, Birdhouse) the couple announced their intention to divorce.
Woodman was a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef in 2006, and a two-time semi-finalist for the Best Chef: Midwest award from the James Beard Foundation.
|Restaurant Bargains (4)||Holidays (45)|
|Deals (2)||Farmers markets (66)|
|Baking (61)||Chefs (105)|
|Cookbooks (41)||Cooking at the cabin (5)|
|Farmers and foraging (31)||Healthy eating (33)|
|Locally-produced food (70)||Minnesota newsmakers (134)|
|On the national scene (108)||Openings + closings (33)|
|Recipes (109)||Restaurant news (246)|
|Restaurant reviews (58)||Beer (2)|
|Food, beer, wine events (30)||TV food shows (26)|