Realistically, you could be serving mini-hot-dogs on a stick and they would still be a delight when served in the stunning gardens at the Minnesota Arboretum, which held its Toast and Tastes fundraiser last night under a sunny sky with balmy temperatures.
Nonetheless, those at the gathering had far better dining options -- in fact, the best in many years of the festivities. Here were some of the highlights:
Shrimp chorizo with fennel, from chef Hakan Lundberg of the Minneapolis Club, topped my best-of list. Unexpected (ground up shrimp, shaped), fun (on a stick) and really tasty (I had to grab a second one, just to be sure it was as good as the first!).
A close second: carrot-cured hamachi sashimi with apple and radish from The Rabbit Hole (Midtown Global Market). Served with sparkling lychee kombucha. Wow. Make that two wows.
Duck breast with farro, pickled rhubarb and kohlrabi puree, with a chocolate bouchon on the side filled with passion fruit panna cotta, from chef Scott Graden of the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth.
Housemade roasted andouille sausage with two sauerkrauts on brioche from chef J.D. Fratzke of the Strip Club (St. Paul).
Korean glazed pork belly on-a-stick from chef Scott Pampuch of the University of Minnesota (Arboretum Catering).
And the flowers and greenery, of course.
That’s what the guys behind Eagle Street Grille in downtown St. Paul are doing. Their effort to diversify brings them to the corner of Western and Selby avenues this fall with a steak-and-seafood spot that will play homage to classic tableside service. The Salt Cellar — a nod to the grand past of the Cathedral Hill neighborhood — is expected to open in late October.
“We decided a while ago that we wanted to step out and open up a different venue, a high-end steak-and-seafood restaurant. We want to stretch our wings and bring out classic service and do something different from we have been doing,” said Kevin Geisen, who with Joe Kasel, owns Eagle Street Grille. Both grew up in St. Paul.
They’ve gathered a team to help them that includes Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, as consultant, and Blake Watson, formerly assistant manager of Interlachen Country Club, as general manager. The restaurant will be located in a building that formerly housed the College of Visual Arts, at 173 Western Av. Interior design will be from Joe Kasel and Elements Design of Davenport, Iowa. Mohagen Hansen of Wayzata is the architectural firm behind the effort.
“Joe and I, when we started this concept, we were looking at bringing back a classical style of service that really isn’t practiced as much anymore. It’s service I performed in the past at restaurants when I was younger," said Geisen. "Joe and I want to bring it back with a twist, a feeling, if you will, that we remember when we were kids when we were out with our families. We may not have nailed down everything we’re going to do yet, but it’s the tableside service that we’re really focusing on."
That means a classic Caesar salad prepared tableside, chateaubriand dished up with flair, bananas foster flambéed, all presented with just enough drama to assure a sense of special occasion.
"It's kind of like bringing the kitchen out onto the floor, making it a little more interactive for the guests," said Geisen.
The dining room will seat 150 to 160, with more in the lounge; a private dining room will be available. Entrees are expected in the low $20s to low $40s. “Big picture is this is St. Paul. We’re a working class city so we’re keeping that in mind and pricing our stuff accordingly,” said Kasel. In other words, no $80 steaks on the menu.
The emphasis will be on updated classics, whether it’s cocktails or entrees (think martinis and veal Oscar). Grass-fed beef will be center-of-the-plate for many diners; seafood will definitely include walleye. Watson will curate the wine list. “There will be a small cellar in the restaurant and great wines by the glass in the bar area," he said. And no big markups — more retail than restaurant markup.
“I think it will be a pretty spectacular looking place, with lots of glass,” said Russo. “You can see into the prep area off the street. There will be lots of visual cues as to what’s going on. You’re going to pretty much see everything.”
That includes the butchering of meat. The space includes sufficient room for a large meat locker. “They will be bringing in whole animals, using the same methods and techniques that we use at Heartland. They will be making their own sausage. And they want to bake their own bread as well,” said Russo, who has a prospective chef and sous chef in mind.
“We’re excited for the opportunity,” said Geisen. “We’re definitely looking forward to moving into the neighborhood and working with the people around there and building that relationship. The team that we’ve assembled, with Blake Watson and Lenny Russo, is something we’re really proud of.”
After a depressing three-year hiatus, the historic Town Talk Diner is going to be back in business.
The East Lake Street landmark – dark since January 2011 – is being revived by spouses Emilie Cellai Johnson and Ben Johnson, and being re-christened Le Town Talk French Diner & Drinkery.
Emilie has culinary and hotel/restaurant management degrees from her native Marseille. After working in a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower in Paris, she relocated to the Twin Cities for a job at the Hotel Sofitel, where she met chef Patrick Bernet. She helped Bernet and his wife Azita open their Patrick’s Bakery & Cafe, then spent the last decade working in restaurant sales for Reinhard Food Service.
Ben is a D’Amico and Partners veteran and is currently a real estate project developer with the Neighborhood Development Center, a non-profit small-business incubator that revitalizes low-income neighborhoods. The couple has been scouting sites for two years before finally landing the Town Talk.
“It’s the right space for us, it’s such a perfect fit,” said Cellai Johnson. “We have a small budget, and we needed an existing kitchen, we couldn’t afford to build from scratch. We love the neighborhood. It’s full of younger families, and that’s what who we are, and who we want to serve.”
The Town Talk’s status as a diner was another key attraction.
“By being a diner previously, we have the opportunity to keep it casual,” said Cellai Johnson. “We want to redefine French food. You say ‘French restaurant,’ and people get scared, they think that they won’t be able to afford it, that it will be too fancy.”
Not here. “We’ll be using all of my family recipes, from my French mother and Italian grandmother,” said Cellai Johnson. “I’ll put my spin on them to make it modern, but it will still be the classic comfort food that we made at home. Eating at home is accessible to everyone.”
Fortunately for Twin Cities diners, Cellai Johnson grew up in a household where, “if we weren’t eating, we were cooking, and if we weren’t cooking, we were talking about food,” she said with a laugh. “My mom is a phenomenal cook, and my grandmother is a phenomenal cook. I was lucky to grow up in that house.”
The menu will include sweet and savory crepes (including a monthly all-you-can-consume crepes-fest), bouillabaisse (“the typical fish stew of my hometown,” said Cellai Johnson), “Marseille” burgers (the patties will be packed with herbs), croque monsieur and croque madame, steak frites with a green salad (“it’s what my mom cooked on Saturday after coming back from the farmers market, you know, boom, that was lunch”) and Corsican stew, a slow-cooked beef stew in a tomato sauce with carrots and black olives and served over pasta (“it’s one of my favorite dishes and it’s what we ate for our wedding dinner”), along with a handful of small plates, including grilled bread topped with roasted red peppers, olive tapenade or caponata.
“Everything has a little bit of a story behind it,” said Cellai Johnson (pictured, left, with husband Ben). “It feels more personal, so people can learn that we’re being true to ourselves.”
Dessert will include “a to-die-for” chocolate mousse and, naturally, tarte Tatin. St. Paul Farmers Market shoppers will recall Cellai Johnson’s exceptional version of this classic French upside-down apple tart, which she sold under the name the Original Tarte Tatin. She gave up the popular stand when their daughter Lilou was born two years ago.
“That was when we had time to have a full-time job and an extra job on the weekend,” Cellai Johnson said with a laugh. “Maybe we’ll sell them again at the market, because people loved it.”
I know I did. In an effort to continue the Town Talk’s tradition of first-rate libations-making, the couple has turned to Julien Masson, a culinary school friend of Cellai Johnson’s and now the bar manager at the InterContinental Hotel in Marseille. He is creating a list of champagne cocktails as well as a roster of drinks built using French spirits. Groups of four or more will be able to order cocktails as a “cascade,” served in an absinthe fountain.
The space is undergoing a slight makeover. The historic diner will retain its original fixtures, and the dining room is getting an upgrade with a new floor, different lighting and the addition of banquettes. “We want to make it cozy and comfortable and accessible,” said Cellai Johnson.
As for that eye-grabbing sign, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s getting an addendum: a “Le” on its top left side.
The Town Talk has a fabled history. The stainless-steel trimmed space dates to 1946, and it fed a generation of workers from the nearby Minneapolis Moline farm implements factory. When the plant was shuttered in the early 1960s, the diner sputtered on, finally closing in 2002.
A trio of restaurateurs – including the current partnership behind the Strip Club in St. Paul – flipped the switch on the Town Talk’s iconic marquee in 2006, using the diner as a bar and creating a dining room in an adjacent storefront. The Theros Restaurant Group (St. Clair Broiler, Rudolphs) bought the place in 2008 and closed it three years later.
The couple plans to start by serving dinner and weekend brunch. The scheduled opening date is Emilie’s birthday, Sept. 13. “It will be the most stressful birthday I will ever have,” she said with a laugh.
Laurie Crowell is still smiling.
A day after President Barack Obama stopped by her gourmet food shop, Golden Fig Fine Foods, in St. Paul for a visit, she is still giddy. Bubbling over, in fact. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling,” she said in an interview.
Hard to know if it was the presidential hug that prompted her smiles (more on that in a moment). Or the 30-minute chat she had with the president. Or the knowledge that he dropped by because of a letter she wrote.
About that letter: Through weekly emails she gets from the White House, she realized the president would be in town. “So I replied to the email as though the email was just for me. And I said, ‘I’m glad you’re coming to Minnesota and if you have time you should definitely swing by my store. Everything is made in the U.S. We buy mostly local, and so there’s local grass-fed steaks and chocolate and jams and jellies and milk in glass bottles. It’s all about direct from the producers and the farmers.’
“Of course I got the auto-reply and figured no one would see it. But apparently they did,” she said..
At 4 p.m. on Thursday, the first day of the president’s visit, her store manager called to ask when she would be back in the building. “I said I was just going to go through the car wash and stop at the bank. And she said, ‘Could you not do that? Could you just come here?’ ”
When Laurie got to the store, the Secret Service was there, along with bomb-sniffing dogs. “They were rolling racks in front of the doors so no one could come in behind them. And they asked if the president could come for a visit,” said Laurie. “And I thought, ‘Are you kidding? Of course'.”
And President Obama did. They chatted for a half hour on the importance of buying local, and about sustainability and organics and researching bee issues.
He bought about $80 worth of Minnesota foods and paid with cash. “I don’t know if they jam everything, but we couldn’t make any phone calls; we couldn’t run credit cards. No one’s internet worked,” she said.
At the cash register, the president opened up his wallet and said, “Pretty much all I have is cash and a Chicago driver’s license," she said. “He showed me his license and I looked at his hair in the photo, and we both laughed because it was much more full and not gray. He said, ‘Yeah, it expires in 2016 so I’m good for a few more years’.”
The president left the store with two bags of Minnesota-made products, which Laurie – ever the entrepreneur – has pulled together into the Presidential Gift Box, wrapped in red-white-and-blue ribbon, should any shopper want to bring home the same.
That includes the raspberry jam from HeathGlen Farms (from Forest Lake), Minnesalsa and whole-grain blue tortilla chips, Mademoiselle Miel honey bon bons, sea salt caramels, chocolate-covered caramels from Painted Turtle, Golden Fig balsamic vinegar and apple chips from Eden Apples of Eden Prairie.
Then the president headed out for a stroll down Grand Avenue after noting that he was in the mood for ice cream.
And about that hug.
“I’m a total hugger, but I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to hug him – I didn’t want to be thrown down to the floor by the Secret Service because that would have been embarrassing!” she said with a laugh. “I went to shake his hand and he said “Wait, come here” and he totally gave me a hug.”
Other food spots the president visited:
The Minnesota State Fair announced its new foods lineup for the 2014 Great Minnesota Get-Together. Which one (or ones) among the 28 newcomers will capture some of the hype of previous best-sellers, including last year's talker (pictured, above) from the French Meadow Bakery, the Dough-Sant?
Here's the list:
Beer Gelato: Gelato blended with local craft beer and made fresh daily, on-site (Manciniʼs Al Fresco)
Bacon-Wrapped Turkey Leg: A roasted turkey leg (pictured above) wrapped in a layer of bacon (Texas Steak Out)
Bison Dog: Hickory-smoked, gluten-free and made from naturally pasture-raised bison in River Falls Wis., and served Chicago-style or with a choice of fixings on a gluten-free, poppy seed or plain bun (Chicago Dogs)
Blue Cheese & Corn Fritz: Four deep-fried corn fritters stuffed with crumbled blue cheese (pictured above) and served with a fresh herb chimichurri (The Blue Barn, a new vendor)
Breakfast Juicy LuLu: An English muffin with two American cheese-stuffed sausage patties (LuLuʼs Public House, a new vendor)
Caramel Apple Ice Cream: Tractor-churned vanilla ice cream infused with real caramel and diced Granny Smith apples (R&R Ice Cream)
Caribbean-Style Lobster Roll: Chilled lobster salad (pictured above) tossed in a citrus chipotle mayo seasoned with cayenne pepper, allspice and nutmeg and served on a soft buttered and grilled roll (Café Caribe)
Chicken in the Waffle: Crispy chicken nestled in a crunchy waffle cone, then smothered with a creamy sausage gravy (The Blue Barn)
Chilaquiles: Corn tortilla chips covered in chili verde sauce with chicken then topped with eggs and garnished with lettuce, tomato and sour cream (El Sol Mexican Food)
Chocolate Dessert Salami: Chocolate, butter, almonds and walnuts all blended and rolled into a salami shape (pictured above), dusted with powdered sugar, then sliced and served on specialty crackers (Sausage Sister and Me)
Deep-Fried Breakfast On-a-Stick: American and Swiss cheeses, a sausage patty, an egg and Canadian bacon all sandwiched between two pancakes, then dipped in batter and deep-fried (The Sandwich Stop)
Deep-Fried Buckeyes: A creamy peanut butter ball coated in chocolate, dipped in funnel cake batter, deep-fried, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a strawberry sauce (Spaghetti Eddieʼs)
Deep-Fried Lobster On-a-Stick: Canadian lobster pieces poached in butter, dipped in a corn batter, deep-fried and served with a spiced dipping sauce (LuLuʼs Public House)
Gluten-Free Beer-Battered Brat: A locally-made gluten- and nitrate-free brat, dipped in a beer batter and deep-fried on-a-stick (Sonnyʼs Spiral Spuds)
Hot Toasted Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich: Two toasted waffles sandwich a wedge of vanilla ice cream, with a light powdered sugar dusting (West End Creamery, a new vendor)
Iron Range Pierogies: Deep-fried dumplings stuffed with potatoes and cheddar cheese, topped with crispy onion strings and served with a zingy horsey sauce (The Blue Barn)
Jell-O Salad Ice Cream: Inspired by the classic Minnesota potluck dessert (and served in church dining halls everywhere), this Jell-O salad features a sweet cream base flavored with fresh lime juice, swirled with cranberry sauce and blended with marshmallows dipped in marshmallow crème. Made by Izzyʼs Ice Cream, this flavor is only available at the Hamline Church Dining Hall during the 2014 Minnesota State Fair (Hamline Church Dining Hall)
JonnyPops: This all-natural frozen fruit and cream bar is like a smoothie on-a-stick (pictured above). A variety of flavor choices includes the Minnesota State Fair-exclusive: Snelling Strawberry Rhubarb (JonnyPops, a new vendor)
Korean BBQ Collar with Kimchi Pickles: Slow-smoked pork collar finished with a garlic ginger BBQ glaze and served with kimchi pickles (Famous Daveʼs)
North Shore Pasta – Walleye Mac & Cheese: Fresh-smoked walleye with sweet corn kernels and roasted red peppers atop a bed of cavatappi noodles, all smothered in Gigglesʼ secret smoked Gouda sauce and toasted with Parmesan parsley bread crumbs (Gigglesʼ Campfire Grill)
PB&J French Toast: The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is fused with French toast, then sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a choice of ham, bacon or sausage (Robbinsdale OES Dining Hall)
Pizza Tots: Handmade pizza tots that combine sausage, pepperoni, mozzarella, seasonings and hash browns, dusted with Parmesan cheese and served with a side of pizza sauce (Green Mill)
Pretzel Curds: Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds coated in a batter made with crushed pretzels, bread crumbs and American Pilsner beer, then deep-fried and served with a dipping sauce (OʼGaraʼs at the Fair)
Prime Rib Taco: Sliced rotisserie prime rib served in a flour tortilla with sautéed onions and peppers and topped with chili con queso (LuLuʼs Public House)
Rustic Stuffed Scone: A Parmesan-crusted, baked butter scone stuffed with all-natural ham, Swiss, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, and a house-made béchamel sauce (French Meadow Bakery)
Schnitzel Strips: Pork tenderloin coated with a seasoned breading, then fried, cut into strips and served with a lemon, garlic and mayonnaise dipping sauce (Smoothies and Jurassic Dogs)
Shrimp Dog: Baby shrimp and cream cheese are combined, then batter-dipped, deep-fried and served on-a-stick (The Shrimp Shack)
SnoRibbons: A fusion of cotton candy, shaved ice and snow, served with flavor combinations that include coffee and doughnuts, grasshopper pie, banana toffee crunch, frozen hot chocolate, and more (Blue Moon Dine-In Theater)
Many of the fair's new vendors will be featured in the West End Market, the $15 million remake of the area formerly known as Heritage Square. The new vendors include:
The Blue Barn: Following in the footsteps of O’Gara’s, French Meadow Bakery, Famous Dave’s, Mancini’s and other local food-and-drink purveyors, the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. (Highland Grill, Longfellow Grill, 3 Squares, the Lowry, Freehouse) is headed to the fairgrounds, promising a farm-to-table eatery in the new West End Market.
JonnyPops : Ripe for the fair’s on-a-stick food mentality, these locally-produced frozen treats are created by a quartet of entrepreneurial friends. For the fair, they’re making a seasonal concoction they’re calling Snelling Strawberry Rhubarb. Also in the West End Market.
LuLuʼs Public House: Yes, even the fair is getting into the rooftop patio act.
Patʼs Place: An ice cream newbie for the Mighty Midway.
Two Rivers Kettle Korn: Another newcomer to the West End Market.
West End Creamery: Ice cream (nearly three dozen flavors, and a few specialty items), located in the you-know-where.
The 2014 Minnesota State Fair runs Aug. 21 through Sept. 1.
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