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Posts about Restaurant reviews

Burger Friday: Oak Grill

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 21, 2014 - 5:02 PM

The burger: I dropped in on the Oak Grill earlier this week for a late lunch, and given what I knew was probably going on four floors below in the store’s eighth-floor auditorium, the dining room seemed to be the very definition of the calm before the storm. It wasn’t exactly busy; I counted maybe a dozen fellow diners, although that was hardly unexpected given that it was 1:45 p.m., late for work-ethic Minneapolis. Still, being led to that premium near-the-fireplace seat felt like a gift, because within a few days the restaurant is going to briefly become one of the toughest tables in town, thanks to the annual event that I will forever call the Dayton’s-Bachman’s Flower Show.

Of course it now goes by a different and rather tongue-twisting name: Macy’s Flower Show Gardens by Bachman’s, and when it opens Sunday (and runs, free, through April 6), many of its visitors are going to find themsleves at the Oak Grill. That's sugar-coating it. More like, they're going to inundate the Oak Grill.

It's not a stretch to imagine that a significant percentage of those azalea- and tulip-seekers will stick to the restaurant’s department store basics: chicken pot pie, meatloaf, an excellent wild rice soup, almond-crusted walleye with mashed potatoes and other comfort-food fare. And big, doughy popovers, the house specialty.

But for those in the mood for something a tad more contemporary, it's a relief to know that the Oak Grill isn’t a museum, preserved in some amber-hazed fog from yesteryear. Case in point: the BLT Jam Burger, which manages to tap into so many burger crazes that it could be taking its cues from the trend-conscious Oval Room during its pre-Macy’s heyday.

Pretzel bun? Check. A criss-cross of crisp, applewood-smoked bacon? Yep. An unexpected cheese? Uh-huh (it's a semi-soft Monterey Jack that’s marbled with tangy blue cheese, and it's terrific).

In place of the standard-issue raw or caramelized onions, there's a generous flourish of crispy fried onions (truth to tell, maybe too many; save your deep-fried appetite for the fries), a welcome textural surprise. A giant lettuce leaf adds color and subtle crunch. Then there's the marvelous thin-sliced refrigerator pickles, so juicy and crunchy. I'm still kicking myself for not asking for extras.

Best of all, garnish-wise, is the T portion of this BLT-hamburger mash-up. No dreary, off-season tomato slices for this one. Instead, the kitchen wisely cooks down tomatoes, concentrating their flavor into a thick, slightly sweet jam then packing it with fresh herbs. It's swiped (not generously enough, at least for my tastes) across the bottom of that buttered and gently toasted pretzel bun, and it's a marvelous solution to the eternal Lousy Winter Tomato issue – honestly, when tomatoes are this cottony and flavorless, why serve them any other way?

It’s intentional that I’m leaving the patty for last, because thinking about it makes my shoulders shrug. Love the deep char flavor, and the way it stretches to the bun’s edges (this is definitely a knife-and-fork burger). But each bite was crying out for salt, and my medium-rare request arrived on the far side of medium-well.

Still, this Oak Grill regular was impressed. Who knows? On my next visit, I just might skip my usual chicken salad and order the burger. For this creature of habit, that's saying something.

Price: $12.95.    

Fries: Included. Super-crisp, wonderfully salty and freckled with chopped parsley.  

Helpful tip: During the flower show, plan ahead and make a reservation, especially during peak hours.

Bonus: As a flower show extra, Oak Grill diners will receive a free German chocolate cupcake with the purchase of any entree. The bar is adding a half-dozen floral-themed cocktails, including a shake of rum, hibiscus syrup and lime juice poured over ice, and an elderflower liqueur blended with sparkling wine and a splash of soda. Nice.

Bonus, part 2: During the flower show, Macy's will be hosting a series of cooking demonstrations in the store's lower level cookware area. On March 24: chefs from Marin Restaurant. March 25: Macy's chef Susan Johnson. March 27: Union Fish Market chefs Lucas Almendinger and Shane Oporto. March 28: Miami star chef Michelle Bernstein. March 31: Macy's chef Marie Hanson. April 1: bakers from Sweet Retreat Bakery. April 2: chef Erik Weed from Rinata. April 3: Macy's chef Joe Studenburgh. All demonstrations begin at noon and are free and open to the public.

Parting shot: Along with the service staff’s friendly familiarity, one of the reasons why I enjoy visiting this downtown classic is the opportunity to bask in its reassuring timelessness. The sedate dining room – paneled in oak, of course, and outfitted with crisp white tablecloths -- hasn’t changed much since the Dayton brothers opened the 12th-floor restaurant in 1947. In this post-Dayton's world, the sales floors aren’t what they used to be, but the store’s food division has succeeded at keeping the Oak Grill in tip-top shape, an effort that this tradition-minded diner appreciates.  

Address book: 700 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612-375-2938. During "The Secret Garden," the Oak Grill is open for lunch and an early-ish (to 7 p.m.) dinner daily.

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

Burger Friday: Merlins Rest

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 14, 2014 - 9:55 PM

The burger: A first-rate bar should have a first-rate burger, amirite? Someone at Merlins Rest obviously got the memo, because the basic burger at this British Isles-obsessed pub is a total keeper.

The headliner in this act is defintely the patty, a prodigiously thick, hand-formed, one third-pound behemoth of lean, grass-fed beef, taken to perfect medium on the inside and the barest trace of char on the outside. The meat is judiciously seasoned, and its flavor really blossoms on the stovetop. For appetites accustomed to the bland nothingness of a McDonald’s or Wendy’s burger, the patty that anchors the Merlins Rest burger will be something of a revelation.

For a dollar surcharge, the kitchen will add one of seven cheeses – including Stilton, naturally – but this is a burger that’s best consumed minus the dairy topping. Why cloak the goodness of that delicious beef?

Garnishes are minimal and not terribly exciting: a slice of a typically flavorless and cottony winter tomato, the requisite lettuce leaf. As for the bun, it’s a bit on the cotton candy-ish side, but its drab blandness dissipates via plenty of butter and a quick toast. Sometimes, skipping the frills really hits the spot, and this is one of those instances. 

Price: $10.50.

Fries: Not included (a chips upgrade is $1.50). The burger is served with house-made potato chips. The verdict? Meh. Not bad, but they could benefit from a thinner cut, a crisper fry and a more generous hand with the salt shaker.

At the bar: A major draw is the bar’s selection of imported ales, porters, stouts, lagers, pilsners and hard ciders.

Bonus round: Heartfelt huzzahs to the decision-maker keeping TV screens out of sight and choosing to nurture an environment where people – yes, even strangers, in Minnesota -- talk to one another. When I dropped in, the outgoing barkeep was hosting his own version of improvised version of “Jeopardy!,” tossing out questions for the late-lunch crowd. You know, “What’s the most populous state capital?” (answer: Phoenix) and “Which country has hosted the Winter Olympics three times?” (it’s France: Chamonix in 1924, Grenoble in 1968 and Albertville in 1992) and generally spreading bonhomie in all directions.

This weekend: Speaking of good times, Merlins Rest will give St. Patrick’s Day its due through a crowded schedule of events, including a full Irish breakfast served Saturday, Sunday and Monday starting at 9 a.m.

Apologies: Technical difficulties presented an earlier post of Burger Friday.

Address book: 3601 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-216-2419.

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

Burger Friday: Mission American Kitchen

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 7, 2014 - 1:24 PM

The burger: If the half-pound burger at Mission American Kitchen & Bar is good enough for downtown's captains of industry, it's good enough for the likes of me.

People-watching is a big draw at this 10-year-old IDS Center hot spot. During any given noon hour, a healthy majority of the Hubert White mailing list appears to be congregating over salmon BLTs, Cobb salads, open-face Reubens, French dip sandwiches and other straight-up renditions of all-American fare. (The kitchen's speed and the service staff's unflappable nature are two other major assets, along with that 100 percent address).

If they're smart -- and let's face it, this crowd didn't get where they are by floundering in the shallower percentiles of their B-school grading curves -- they're also making a habit of the Mission burger, which is almost as noteworthy for what it isn't as for what it is.

What it's not is complicated, just a very what-you-see-is-what-you get monster (so big that it tiptoes into knife-and-fork territory). No runny egg yolk to make a mess of that hundred-dollar Talbott tie, no painstaking prepared sauces that a nervous job candidate can't properly pronounce, no exotic bun that will fall apart when it gets into someone's hands.

Instead, the kitchen delivers a loosely packed, thickly formed patty, gingerly seasoned and brought to a faint char, with a barely pink, nicely but not outrageously juicy (see Ruined Tie Comment, above) interior.

The bun is of the soft white variety, barely toasted. Condiments go the bare-bones route: a rash of sweet, not-quite-crunchy grilled onions. A pair of tomato slices that at least look as if they might have come from the summer sun even if they don't taste that way. A single garden-fresh romaine lettuce leaf. And a melty slab of quietly sharp Cheddar.

In short, no surprises, no showy add-ons, just solid burger goodness. Those who prefer their burgers on the conservative side will be all over it. 

Price: $13.

Fries: Included. Those who gravitate towards the skinny-and-crispy side of the french-fry spectrum will probably not find satisfaction at Mission. The long, skin-on, hand-cut fries are more limp than firm, with a solid, deeply potato-ey bite.

Bear in mind: Consider yourself a rookie if you lunch at Mission minus a reservation. Walk-ins, don't despair: the restaurant's sunny, four-sided bar is one of downtown's most appealing dine-at-the-bar venues.

Address book: 77 S. 7th St. in the IDS Center, Mpls., 612-339-1000. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday.

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

Burger Friday: Slim's

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: January 31, 2014 - 4:37 PM

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.

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

Burger Friday: Pat's Tap

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: January 17, 2014 - 12:19 PM

The burger: If “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Hollywood’s latest paean to excess, had a burger promotional tie-in, a leading candidate could easily be the Bacon Burger at Pat’s Tap.

With its insane 50-50 blend of beef and bacon, the patty pretty much defines “over the top.” Like so many top-flight Twin Cities burgers, the former is sourced from Peterson Limousin Farms in Osceola, Wis. As for the latter, chef Matt Gray purchases ends and scraps from premium pork-meister Tim Fischer of Fischer Family Farms Pork in Waseca, Minn.

This is not one of those burgers where an all-beef patty is topped with a criss-cross of crispy thick-cut bacon. The fatty, teasingly smoky cured pork is mixed, raw, with the beef. The marriage is conducted in the kitchen’s big Hobart mixer.

“That beef is so lean, and then we add a bunch of bacon to it,” says Gray with a laugh. The blend is hand-formed into 6-ounce patties, and no matter how long they languish on the grill, the patties end up tinted to medium-rare on the burger color chart (the results remind me -- visually, anyway -- of the Spam burgers my mom made when I was a kid), thanks to all that pork.

“We could cook them for 14 years and they’ll still be pink,” said Gray, who prefers to take them to medium-rare, “just warm enough so that the bacon melts,” he said. Fine by me. It's a remarkable flavor (only reinforcing the theory that bacon improves everything it touches), with that top-shelf bacon permeating every bite but not completely overshadowing its beefy counterpart. The word gilded comes to mind.

When I mentioned to Gray that I lasted through about three before my appetite cried “uncle” -- that’s how rich this burger is -- he laughed. Turns out, the Bacon Burger is dietary chicken feed compared to the menu’s Big Cheese Burger, which is crowned with 2 ½ Lipitor-defying ounces of fried Cheddar cheese.

“I recommend them for when you’re slightly hung over, or when you have a nap scheduled,” said Gray.

Back to the Bacon Burger. Not content to leave well enough alone, Gray continues on the more-more-more melody by blanketing said patty with a slab of melt-friendly Swiss cheese, then showers the whole shebang with crispy fried onions, thinly shaved and breaded with a Cajun-inspired seasoning. The simple white bun, baked by the New French Bakery, shows remarkable restraint. It arrives with just the barest, faintest trace of a toast. Still, Gray can’t resist brushing the cooktop, pre-toasting, with a conspicuous bit of clarified butter.

My take? This unwieldy burger is a definite reach-for-the-knife-and-fork-er, and I was all over it. I’m not alone; Gray sells upwards of 270 Bacon Burgers per week.

Price: $14. Bacon -- particularly top-shelf bacon -- doesn't come cheap, remember?

Fries: An additional $2. They’re ultra-crisp (Gray fries them in rice oil) and generously salty, and the enormous handful is a fine complement to this unusually – and unusually delicious – burger.

Add-ons: Along with renewing my deep and abiding appreciation for the kitchen’s night-owl hours – work-ethic-centric Minneapolis still goes to bed far too early -- I’d forgotten what a pleasant getaway Pat’s can be at lunch. I’ll be back just for another crack at the robust tomato soup and Gray’s amusing (and addictive) obsession with recreating the iconic Cheez-It cracker. The 2-for-1 Bloody Marys (weekdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) are also a draw.   

Address book: 3510 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-822-8216. Open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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

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