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: Merlins Rest

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews 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.

Walz wins hotdish competition

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Recipes Updated: March 12, 2014 - 6:40 PM

For the second consecutive year, Rep. Tim Walz has won the fourth-annual Minnesota Congressional Delegation Hotdish Off, which was held today in Washington, D.C.

The good-natured bipartisan competition, hosted by Sen. Al Franken, always yields some clippable recipes (find all 10 of them here).

It's no suprise that members of the delegation take the opportunity to offer somewhat shameless shout-outs to Minnesota-based food companies, including Hormel, Jennie-O (Walz), Crystal Sugar, Kemps, Land O'Lakes (Sen. Amy Klobuchar), MOM Brands (Rep. John Kline) and Green Giant (Rep. Michele Bachmann). But hey, wouldn't you?

Just two recipes required (the cyncial may say pandered to) what is perhaps the Gopher State's most famous ingredient, wild rice: "Ranger's Hunting Camp Hotdish" from Rep. Rick Nolan, and Rep. Betty McCollum's "Minnesota Wild Rice and Chicken Hotdish." Franken's recipe calls for U of M-developed Honeycrisp apples.

Three required that church-basement hotdish staple, cream of mushroom soup: Rep. Collin Peterson's "Hunter Hotdish" (which earns kudos for its use of ground venison, underscoring the politician-hunting connection), Nolan's "Ranger's Hunting Camp Hotdish" (see previous elected-official-in-the-gun-blind observation) and Rep. John Kline's "Morning Hot Chow Hotdish."

Walz's recipe requires a do-it-yourself cream of mushroom soup, which probably goes a long way in explaining its appeal.

I'd like to offer a few additional honors. This year's They Were Robbed award goes to Sen. Al Franken's delicious-sounding roasted pork sausage-apple-sauerkraut conconction, although that layer of mashed potatoes might explain its also-ran status.

Rep. Erik Paulsen wins the Phoning-It-In medal for his "Grandma's Minnesota Nice Mock Lasagna," for two reasons: Ragu spaghetti sauce. And the words "mock lasagna."

The Most Responsive to Conditions Back Home medallion belongs to the "It's So Cold My Hotdish Froze" dessert hotdish from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a freezer dessert involving a peanut butter-cream cheese-Cool Whip custard in a Golden Grahams (a General Mills product, naturally) crust, although just reading it makes my teeth hurt.

As for the Best Name award, it's no contest: Rep. Michele Bachmann's "Polar Vortex-Mex Hotdish."

Here's Walz's winning recipe, re-written in a more follow-able format:

TURKEY TROT TATER TOT HOTDISH 

Serves 4 to 6.

Note: From Rep. Tim Walz.

1 lb. ground turkey

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1/2 tsp. dried sage

1 egg

1/2 c. chopped green onions

1 tsp. freshly ground pepper, plus more as needed

2 tsp. salt, divided

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 lb. of fresh green beans, stems removed and chopped into bite-sized pieces

4 slices bacon

6 tbsp. butter, divided

1 1/2  c. chopped baby bella mushrooms 

5 to 6 tbsp. flour

2 1/2 c  whole milk

1/2 c. half and half

1/4 c. chopped onions

3 c. shredded sharp Cheddar cheese, divided

1 32-oz. package Tater Tots

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine turkey, garlic, sage, green onions, egg, pepper and 1 teaspoon salt. In a skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil and then brown the turkey mixture. Remove from stove and transfer mixture to a large bowl. 

In a pot of boiling water, blanch green beans for 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove beans and plunge them into ice water. Once cool, drain completely and add to turkey mix.

In a skillet over medium heat, fry bacon until crisp. Remove from pan, and cool bacon on paper towels. Chop bacon into 1/4-inch pieces and add to turkey mix. Gently combine turkey mix, beans and bacon and spread in an even layer in a 9x13-inch baking pan.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter. As soon foam begins to subside, add mushrooms and cook, stirring continuously, until mushrooms are browned, about 4 to 6 minutes.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Slowly and evenly sprinkle flour into the butter. Cook for 2 minutes, then slowly whisk in the milk and half and half. Cook for 2 more minutes, then add diced onions, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste. After 1 minute, stir in 2 1/2 cups cheese and cook, stirring, until melted. Pour cheese mixture evenly over casserole. Scatter Tater Tots over the top, then scatter remaining shredded cheese. Bake until golden brown, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven and serve.

It's official: Hard Rock Cafe returning to Minnesota

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: March 11, 2014 - 12:14 PM

After a three-year hiatus, the Hard Rock Cafe is returning to Minnesota.

This time, instead of Block E in downtown Minneapolis (pictured, above, in a 2002 Star Tribune file photo), where it had a home from 2002 to 2011, the rock n' roll memorabilia-soaked chain is opening a 400-seat outlet in the Mall of America in Bloomington.

The Hard Rock, which operates 140 restaurants, 19 hotels and nine casinos in 56 countries, is promising two bars, a retail outlet and a music stage with capacity for 1,200 guests, located on the south side of Nickelodeon Universe, adjacent to the Peeps & Co. store on the mall's first level. Opening is planned for this summer.

This isn't the mall's first brush with celebrity eatertaineries. Planet Hollywood had a 10-year Mall of America run that ended in 2003, and the Gatlin Bros. operated a music club from 1992 to 1996. Last month, 400 Bar owners announced plans for a new fourth-floor live-music venue, restaurant and music museum, opening in June.

Hopefully this news also heralds the return of Prince's guitar and Christina Aguilera's bustier. Both were included in the memorabilia collection in the downtown Minneapolis Hard Rock.

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