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.

Charlie Awards winners announced

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Chefs, Minnesota newsmakers, Restaurant news Updated: November 18, 2014 - 1:56 PM

Winners of the fourth-annual Charlie Awards were announced Sunday afternoon at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. The awards celebrate excellence in the Twin Cities' food and drink scene. 

Newcomer Brasserie Zentral – from Meritage owners Russell and Desta Klein – was named Outstanding Restaurant.

Outstanding Chef honors went to Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma and Brasa.

Thomas Boemer, chef/co-owner of Corner Table, was handed the award for Emerging Food Professional, which salutes chefs with less than five years experience. The restaurant, which moved to a new home earlier this year, was also handed the Outstanding Service award.

Restaurateur Kim Bartmann was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award. The award caps a busy year for Bartmann. Since January, the owner of Bryant-Lake Bowl, Barbette, Red Stag Supperclub, Gigi’s Cafe, Pat’s Tap and Bread & Pickle, launched two restaurants – Tiny Diner and the Third Bird – and had a hand in the birth of a third, Kyatchi.

The award for Outstanding Pastry Chef went to John Kraus of Patisserie 46.

Vincent Francoual, chef/owner of Vincent, was named the year’s Community Hero.

Jesse Held of Borough, Parlour and Coup d’etat was named Outstanding Bartender. Coup d’etat also came up a winner in the Outstanding Restaurant Design category. The Uptown restaurant, which opened in January, was designed by ESG Architects of Minneapolis. 

Butcher & the Boar won Outstanding Beverage Program Honors, the West Side IPA from Harriet Brewing was awarded Outstanding Local Craft Brew.

Two awards were determined by an open-to-the-public online poll (one that garnered 10,000 votes). The Moral Omnivore was named Outstanding Food Truck. The online poll also selected nominees for Outstanding Food Item, and a panel of expert judges chose the winner from six finalists. That award went to the St. Paul Grill and its the "Grill Charlie’s,” a beef tenderloin sandwich with caramelized onions and horseradish mayonnaise.

Winners are selected from a voting pool of 175 independently owned Twin Cities food-and-drink establishments.

The awards are organized by Ivey Awards founder Scott Mayer and longtime Twin Cities food advocate Sue Zelickson, and are named for Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale (pictured, above, in a 1960 Star Tribune file photo), the fabled downtown Minneapolis restaurant that closed on July 21, 1982, after a 49-year run.

In downtown Minneapolis, Republic owner is going Irish

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: November 17, 2014 - 5:57 PM

Dan Kelly’s Bar & Grill in downtown Minneapolis is about to become Dan Kelly’s Pub.

The changes goes beyond a few words above the door.

Owner Marc Maslow is retiring, and has sold his vaguely Irish establishment — the kind of welcoming, low-wattage refuge that has evolved from downtown staple to anachronism — to Matty O’Reilly (owner of Republic and 318 Cafe), who plans to go deep with the whole Irish thing.

"I've been wanting to do this for forever," said O'Reilly. "I've just been looking for the right space to come along."

Enter Dan Kelly's. O’Reilly was drawn to the property's ornate, 44-foot wood bar, the long row of booths, the working kitchen, the square footage that will allow the addition of a small stage for live Irish music.

“When we walked into the space, I was immediately reminded of Sgt. Preston’s on Seven Corners,” said O’Reilly, recalling the former (and nostalgia-dipped) tenant of the space now occupied by Republic. “All the woodwork, all the stained glass. It already looks and feels like an Irish pub."

O’Reilly takes ownership on Dec. 1 (“the check just cleared,” he said), and he has plans for a light renovation, mostly paring the space of its beer signs and TV screens.

“They don’t resonate with the natural beauty of the place,” he said. “It’s more or less a turnkey space, we’re going to put on a coat of paint and put a new menu out front. Why not make use of a perfectly good facility? I keep coming back to Sgt. Preston’s, but it’s really the same thing: Once you get everything down and really look at the room, you think, ‘Wow, this place is super-cool.’ We need a term for people like us. We wait around for a perfectly good space that needs a refresh on the concept.”

(Something tells me that this is the restaurant equivalent of HGTV's "Rehab Addict," but I digress. Besides, O’Reilly’s announcement is happy news for this diner. The pub, which is located in the historic WCCO Radio building, is going to be around the corner from the Star Tribune’s new home when the newspaper moves next April.)

Menu-wise, it’s back to the basics. This will not be an Irish pub that serves ceviche, Caesar salads, tacos and other off-topic distractions.

Instead, Republic chef Keven Kvalsten is putting his spin on Irish comfort-food favorites: A stout-Cheddar fondue with apples and house-baked brown bread, battered house-made sausage and chips, lamb stew with Irish stout and root vegetables, minced beef shepherd’s pie, boxty (potato pancakes with creme fraiche and house-smoked salmon), split pea with ham soup, corned beef and cabbage sandwich with white Cheddar, house-cut potato chips with curry ketchup, and more.

As for the bar, O’Reilly has done his homework: Forty-plus Irish whiskeys, and plenty of craft beers. The latter is not a surprise for a guy who is about to increase the number of taps at his Seven Corners outlet of Republic to an astounding 104 (“We have a 5,000-square foot basement over there, so we can do anything we want,” said O'Reilly). What is a surprise is that he won’t be featuring a lot of Irish brews.

“The ones that are available to us here in Minnesota are not a super-good reflection of the best beers from Ireland,” he said. “We’ll probably have Guinness and Harp, but we’ll leave the rest of the lines to craft beers from Minnesota and from around the United States.”

One emphasis will be hard ciders. O’Reilly has partnered with Sweetland Orchard owners Mike and Gretchen Perbix to create an exclusive line of hard ciders aged with whiskey-soaked oak.

“We wanted to go all-in with the authenticity,” he said. “What better way than to do that than with small batches, made here in Minnesota?”

Regarding the property’s slight name change, here’s the story: O’Reilly was not about to christen his latest project after himself, despite possessing his own perfectly marketable Irish name.

He cited an iron-clad rule of Anthony Bourdain’s: Never name a bar after yourself. "Or maybe it's my humble upbringing," he said with a laugh. “Whatever it is, I just can’t do it.”

A January opening is in the works.

Burger Friday: New burger makes the grade at 128 Cafe

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: November 7, 2014 - 8:20 AM

The burger: In all the years that I’ve been dining at the 128 Cafe – and that goes back to (gulp)  the late 1990s -- I don’t recall ever encountering a burger. Until now. To chef/owner Max Thompson -- he bought the place about a year ago -- its appearance on the menu is something of a no-brainer.

“We’re sitting here surrounded by a bunch of college students,” he said.

He's referring to the University of St. Thomas, which spreads out across the street from the restaurant's dimly lit, knotty pine-paneled coziness (conditions I'll use as my explanation for that poorly illuminated photo, above; a more plausible interpretation is my skill-free use of the photo function on my iPhone. In any event, apologies). 

Count me a fan of the 128’s Thompson era (see my review here), and this burger is no exception. One bite into it, and I was consumed with nostalgia-tinted envy, something along the lines of, “If only the burgers were this good when I was an undergraduate.” 

Thompson builds the goodness from the ground up, starting with a blue-ribbon grind. As with so many gotta-have burgers across the Twin Cities, Thompson turns to Peterson Limousin Beef, and his formula is primarily chuck, supplemented by premium scraps from the menu's New York strip, as well as the brisket that Thompson channels into his category-killing Reuben.

Seasoning is kept to a minimum, just salt and pepper, allowing the meat’s quality to speak for itself. “I’m not big on messing around too much with that beef,” he said. “I feel very strongly about that.”

The kitchen forms that flavorful beef into thick, loosely packed, hug-the-edge-of-the-bun patties, and grills them to a tantalizing medium-rare on a charbroiler (“I sure wish it was a wood-burning stove,” said Thompson) until the outer edges take on a slight crispness; inside, it's all about pink, juicy tenderness. It's the kind of well-reasoned patty that separates the professionals from the Five Guys.

As far as toppings go, it’s a few basics – a decent tomato slice, lively lettuce, nicely vinegar-ey cucumber pickle chips – and a Wisconsin white Cheddar with a slightly nutty bite. Oh, and a generous swipe of what Thompson calls his “fry sauce,” a blend of aioli, those zingy pickles and hot sauce – all prepared on the premises – whisked with onions, Dijon and ketchup (“It’s Heinz, because I can’t best Heinz,” he said), a condiment he has been making “since I was a young man,” he said. It’s a keeper – Thompson should consider bottling the stuff – and it adds all kinds of subtle flavor dimensions to an already delicious burger.

The final compoment, a brioche-style bun (from Main Street Bakery), with its buttered-and-toasted treatment, fulfills all requirements. Yes, this a habit-forming burger that you'd hope to encounter in your neighborhood restaurant. Fortunately for me, the 128 is my neighborhood restaurant, and forging that habit over the coming winter months is exactly my plan.

There's more. Thompson has recently expanded into lunch, serving Tuesday through Friday. Naturally, the burger – along with a changes-frequently burger special – is a menu mainstay.

Price: $12 dinner, $10 lunch.

Fries: None. Instead, potato chips.

Bargain hunters: For his happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday), Thompson offers a burger-related doozy. Two of them, actually. Diners can pick up a burger and any bottled beer for $10, or choose to knock 50 percent off the price of a burger.

Address book: 128 Cleveland Av. N., St. Paul, 651-645-4218. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

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

Name change: From Merchant to Spoon and Stable

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Chefs, Restaurant news Updated: October 24, 2014 - 1:25 PM

It’s a memorable day at Gavin Kaysen’s opening-in-mid-November North Loop restaurant.

“All of our plates, and glasses, and silverware just arrived, and we’re unpacking,” he said. “It’s a little hectic around here.”

Oh, and then there’s the slight matter of an announcement Kaysen dropped on social media this morning. He’s changed the name of his enterprise, from Merchant to Spoon and Stable (check out his video here).

The new name reflects the century-old building’s original use as a stable — remnants of the horse stalls remain in the dining room’s brick walls — and Kaysen’s well-known penchant for stealing restaurant spoons. As souvenirs. To date, he estimates that his collection, numbers-wise, hovers around 500.

Q: So, spoons?
A: Yeah [laughs]. I started doing it when I was probably like 20. It didn’t start out as much. You know, when you travel, you save a postcard, or you save currency — and I did, all these countries before they went to the euro, I have them framed — and I didn’t think much of it, I just starting taking spoons, thinking it would be a fun way to remember where I’d been. You know, I would be inspired by the meal, or the company. What’s funny is that people started sending them to me. I’ve had cooks who staged in places around the world, and they’d send me spoons. I’ll be honest, I have a number of spoons that I don’t know where they came from — no clue — and some of them have got a note taped to them to remind me. But I do know where the majority came from.

Q: Is your collection going to be displayed in the restaurant?
A: My brother is going to create a piece of art work with them. We're going to get out a couple bottles of wine, he’s bringing over driftwood from California, and we'll get some glue or nails so they don’t get stolen like I stole them [laughs].

Q: Are you holding any spoons back?
A: Yes, I want to be sure they’re not included because they mean so much to me. I have a spoon from my first meal at Cafe Boulud. I’ve got a spoon from Paul Bocuse, I remember that very well. I’ve got one from the French Laundry, it was given to me, I didn’t take it. There’s one from David Myers from Sona in L.A. At the end of the meal, I was presented with a cigar box, and I opened it, and inside, there was a spoon.

Q: Have you ever been caught?
A: No. I used to sometimes take them and slip them into my wife’s purse, and she’d say, "Don’t make me be that person." But there’s a spoon that I’ve never been able to get, from Alain Ducasse's restaurant in Monoco. The silverware is gold. I’d give my left leg to get one of those spoons. A friend was there, and he sent a picture of it, and said it was "the spoon that got away." He didn’t take it for me. He said, "Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to steal a gold spoon for you." [laughs]

Q: How much do 500 spoons weigh?
A: A [expletive deleted]-ton, you have no idea. When I moved them from New York, I vacuum-sealed them, separately, because they were so loud. From there, I divided them among three separate boxes, that’s how heavy they are.

Q: Are you setting yourself up for souvenir seekers like yourself?
A: Probably [laughs]. I’m going to put a souvenir charge on our POS [point of sale] system. That’s the only way to control it. I got the idea at Tru in Chicago. I was having dinner there, by myself, and there was a lady who had ordered that beautiful caviar staircase, do you remember that? When she finishes the caviar, she discreetly grabs the caviar staircase and puts it in her purse. No one says anything, not the waiter, no one. I was shocked. She proceeds through the meal, and asks for the check. When she sees the final invoice, she opens her purse, puts the caviar staircase back on the table, and the waiter takes the bill away and readjusts it. Later I asked him, "What did you do?" And he told me they have a souvenir fee, because people take the staircases all the time. It was $250. And I said, "You legitimately have that as a line item on your POS system?" [laughs].

Q: I can’t tell if you’re being straight with me. You’re really going to have a souvenir charge? How much?
A: I don’t even know. Good question. But I’m totally going to have to have a souvenir fee. We have to do something [laughs]. Or we can just let it chill out for six months, and then get the word out that we’ll have a Sunday where everyone can come in and return the spoons, no questions asked [laughs].


Q: When did you decide to change the name?
A: About two weeks ago, when I began to realize all the other restaurants named Merchant. I didn’t know about them. There’s one close to us, in Madison, Wis. More than anything else, I was putting on my small business owner hat, and asking myself, ‘How will this help or hurt the guys in Madison, or in New Jersey, or in L.A.? I don’t want to the cause of any hurt. I want our name to be genuine to this space.

Q: And you went to your mentors for advice?
A: Yes, I went to Daniel [Boulud], and I asked Thomas Keller. I said, "Chef, do think this is bad, changing the name?" My biggest concern is that people would think it was weird; you know, the prime rib special that’s now $9 when everyone else is charging $18. Chef said, "Naming the restaurant is the hardest part of the build-out, and I’m always glad that I didn’t have to name the French Laundry, because it was already called that. Whatever is on the front door, you have to believe that. You make it that name."

Q: How many names did you brainstorm?
A: It’s funny, Spoon and Stable was the first name that I came up with, way back, but I set it aside. Actually, when I originally wrote the business plan, I was calling it Dorothy’s [for Kaysen’s late grandmother, Dorothy Ann Kaysen]. Then I walked through the space and saw the stable and thought, yeah, this makes sense. Why didn’t I just listen to myself the first time? It could have been a lot easier. But that’s part of the process, and I learned a very valuable lesson. That’s being a business owner. You learn these things. I want to learn from my mistakes, it makes you better.

Burger Friday: Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Chefs, Cookbooks, Restaurant reviews Updated: October 31, 2014 - 1:06 PM

The burger: Welcome to the Duluth Road Trip version of Burger Friday. I recently spent a few hours in the Minnesota half of the Twin Ports – a noon-hour layover on an Apostle Islands-St. Paul trek – and once we crossed the Blatnik Bridge (the Bong Bridge, my favorite infrastructure name, ever, was out of commission) we made a beeline for the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace for a quick sandwich stop at my Canal Park culinary go-to, Northern Waters Smokehaus.

Wouldn't you know it? The line was out the door – as always. Fidgety with hunger, we turned to the right and opted for a table inside the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar.

Although momentarily disappointed -- goodbye bison pastrami! – but we were not disappointed.

That’s because chef Tony Beran – who counts J.D. Fratzke of the Strip Club and Jack Riebel (during his Dakota Restaurant & Jazz Club days) as mentors – turns out a top-notch burger.

It’s anchored by a patty with a sterling grass-fed beef pedigree, hailing from Thousand Hills Cattle Co. The kitchen takes it to a deep, almost crispy exterior char, grilling it until there are just trace elements of pink in the patty’s center.

Beran’s formula blends brisket, chuck and tri-tip sirloin, and the combination tastes as good as that sounds. For added richness, he freezes butter, runs it through an electric shredder and folds it into that richly beefy mix. “I remember reading that Erick Harcey [chef/co-owner of Victory 44, home to one of the Twin Cities’ blue ribbon-worthiest burgers] was throwing butter into his burgers,” said Beran.

Smart call. Each patty starts as a hand-formed ball, and it’s fried in a hot cast-iron pan. “We shmush them to order – it’s like the Smashburger idea, only better – using a large spatula and giving it a single press,” said Beran. Seasonings? Just salt and pepper.  

From there, Beran sticks to the tried-and-true: wonderfully crunchy (and welcomingly acidic) cucumber pickle chips, crisp chopped lettuce and red onion, a juicy tomato slice and a swipe of mayo fortified with fish sauce, sweet onions and ketchup.

As for the cheese, it’s a doozy, a teasingly salty and appealingly melty slab of white Cheddar with a fascinating background story.

“We go through one of those molecular processes,” said Beran. Here’s how it works: After nudging a mix of beer, vinegar and sodium citrate – an emulsifier – to a boil, Beran whisks in white Cheddar. The fondue-style results are cooled into a sliceable (and flavor-boosted) format that melts with reliable grace, not unlike a good-old piece of individually-wrapped Kraft American.  

The bun hails from the Red Mug Bake Shop in Superior, Wis., a favorite stop of mine in the Twin Ports. It was billed as a challah bun, and while I wasn’t feeling the traditional egginess, it was a fine bun all the same: soft, golden, lightly toasted, lovely.

In short, a burger anyone would hope to encounter on a road trip. A quick glance around the dining room confirmed my hypothesis; a hefty percentage of my fellow diners were also in relishing burgers.

“Duluth is a burger-loving town,” said Beran with a laugh, which probably explains some of the high sales figures. But I have to think that Beran’s prowess is a primary reason behind those big numbers.

Price: $15.

Fries: Included. They’re great: Thick-ish, deeply golden, admirably crisp and generously seasoned.

Address book: 394 S. Lake Av., Duluth, 218-722-2355. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 am. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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

Recipe bonus round: The restaurant’s new-ish cookbook (those thinking of grabbing one for a souvenir might reasonably be taken aback by the stratospheric $34.95 price tag) contains nearly four dozen appealing recipes, including what to me reads as this quintessential Duluth formula.  

LAKE SUPERIOR FISH CAKES

Serves 4.

Note: Adapted from “Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar Cookbook” (Heirloom Industry, 2013). “Substitute whitefish with herring, walleye, perch, sunfish or our favorite, Victus Farm tilapia from Silver Bay, Minn.,” writes Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar chef Tony Beran. “Most white flaky fish will work well.” For julienned carrot and radish, cut vegetables then place them into an ice bath for at least 2 hours prior to serving (“to achieve a curl,” writes Beran). When ready to serve, remove vegetables from water by hand and place them on a paper towel to remove excess water.

1 lb. whitefish, skinned and deboned

½ yellow onion, minced

½ jalapeno, minced

1 stalk celery, minced

Zest from 1 lemon

1 tbsp. fish sauce

1 1/2 c. panko bread crumbs

2 eggs, beaten

1 tsp. black pepper

2 tsp. salt

Directions

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and carefully add whitefish. Cook for about 5 minutes. Remove pot from heat, strain fish from water using a fine colander and allow fish to cool.

In a large bowl, toss cooled fish with onion, jalapeno, celery, lemon zest, fish sauce, bread crumbs, eggs, pepper and salt.

Using your hands, form mixture into 8 2-ounce patties (roughly 1/4 cup portions).

Fill a heavy skillet or fryer with enough vegetable or canola oil to cover the cakes (only up to half the height of the pan) and bring the oil to 375 degrees. Fry cakes until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spatula, remove cakes from oil and transfer to a paper towel-covered plate.  

To serve, 1/4 cup Tomatillo Yogurt (see Recipe, below) across each of four plates. Place 2 cakes on top of each plate. In a medium bowl, toss pickled beets (see Recipe, below), julienned carrot and julienned Daikon radish (see Note) and sprinkle over cakes.  

TOMATILLO YOGURT

Makes 1 cup.

2 1/2 tomatillos, thinly sliced

3/4 tsp. salt

 1 c. plain yogurt

1 1/2 tsp. soy sauce

1 1/2 tsp. honey

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, toss tomatillos with salt then arrange in a single layer on prepared baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer tomatillos to a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse until well-blended. Line a medium bowl with a paper towel, transfer pureed tomatillos to bowl, then squeeze out excess liquid. Place tomatillos back in food processor, add yogurt, soy sauce and honey and pulse until well-combined.

PICKLED BEETS

Makes about 1 cup.

1/2 c. balsamic vinegar

1/4 c. red wine vinegar

1/4 c. water

1 star anise pod

1/4 cinnamon stick

1 tbsp. plus 1 1/2 tsp. sugar

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 large red beet, peeled and julienned

Directions

In a medium pot over medium-high heat, combine balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, water, star anise, cinnamon stick, sugar and salt and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar and salt. Remove from heat and bring to room temperature. Place beets in a glass jar and strain mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into the jar. Allow beets to sit, uncovered, for 24 hours, and use as desired. Store in a tightly sealed jar for 3 to 4 weeks.

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