The last thing Minneapolis needed was another steakhouse.
But then along comes Burch Steak and Pizza Bar, dramatically shifting the paradigm. This multi-platform Lowry Hill venture — by spouses Isaac Becker and Nancy St. Pierre, business partner Ryan Burnet and chef Daniel del Prado — studiously avoids so many tired steakhouse trappings. So much so that referring to Burch by that limiting steakhouse moniker seems inaccurate. Goofy, even.
That said, let’s tackle the steaks first. The menu offers a remarkable range of options, with five or six cuts (New York, sirloin and more) sold at three grade levels (grass-fed, choice and prime), usually in small (6 to 7 oz.) or large (12 to 14 oz.) sizes. There are nearly 30 selections.
“It’s a meat matrix,” noted my friend, and he was absolutely right; the only missing element is a steak flight. The continuum has economic overtones, too; diners can shell out $13 for a sanely sized hanger steak or invest $95 in a massive porterhouse for two.
Differences between the three grades are nuanced but apparent. Lean and mineral-ey, the grass-fed cuts have an intensely beefy bite and a firm, dense texture. In contrast, the prime cuts — and, to a lesser extent, their choice counterparts — sport the plummy, mouth-melting characteristics that traditional steak lovers seek. They’re so tender that the restaurant’s
sleek, French-made knives slide through the supple meat with barely any pressure.
Not surprisingly, the kitchen treats this prized inventory with finesse. Embellishment-wise, the well-sourced beef requires nothing more than salt and pepper. It’s fired under the broiler, then finished on a grill over white-hot white oak, that intense heat enrobing each cut in a crusty, slightly smoky and teasingly salty char. Garnishes — pickled mushrooms, a Sriracha-kissed steak sauce and a small pitcher of silky béarnaise — arrive at the table, but they’re almost unnecessary distractions. Yeah, the steak is that good.
A twist on the side
Working collaboratively, Becker and Del Prado defy the genre’s expectations at every turn. For starches, the two reject potatoes — there isn’t a hash brown or sour cream-topped Russet in sight — and concentrate on a delectable series of dumplings. They’re a joy, and an ingenious celebration of the possibilities that happen when flour and water come in contact with skill and creativity.
Divine gnocchi-like corks, lightened with ricotta, are finished with a savory lamb stroganoff. Rolled noodles, thick as a pinkie and browned on the stove, are dressed with traces of walnuts and a rich Gorgonzola cream sauce. Brown butter and fragrant sage are pitch-perfect finishing touches for the firm, scallop-shaped semolina dumplings. Oh, and there’s a pierogi of the gods, filled with a decadent spin on mashed potatoes, crowned with the requisite sour cream and sweetened with golden raisins.
Sure, there’s a hearts of palm salad. But, Becker being Becker, expectations are happily subverted by delicate smoked trout touches. Pickling makes off-season tomatoes sparkle, and soft, sweet mascarpone is a welcome switch from mozzarella in a remade caprese. Endive becomes a smart substitute for iceberg lettuce in the wedge salad category. And nothing beats the pairing of super-skinny green beans twisted around pieces of cool, succulent crab.
Side dishes also nudge diners in exciting new directions: A runny egg mellows the marvelous tartness of cold sauerkraut, and glazed carrots rival Jeni’s salted caramel ice cream on the addictive-substance charts.
Like so much of Becker and Del Prado’s work, the raw dishes manage to be both crowd-pleasing and food-forward, most notably the pristine, meticulously garnished seafood items. And a half-dozen or so entrees really pull the kitchen into top-flight anti-steakhouse territory; among the don’t-miss dishes are a cuts-like-a-dream pork shoulder, which radiated a porky barnyard essence, and absurdly juicy scallops coaxed into a sweet caramelized finish.
Is everything perfect? No. But klinkers have been proven to enjoy a brief life span — and near-klinkers are improved in short order — both marks of a highly self-aware operation.
Pizza, pizza, pizza
Downstairs, the main event is pizza. Truly excellent pizza. Once again, Becker and Del Prado set themselves apart by fashioning a singular crust, marrying an underlying crispness with the soft pull and blistered finish (courtesy of more red-hot white oak) found in the best Neapolitan-style pies.
Toppings, harmoniously utilized, are worlds away from the nearest Domino’s: truffled cow’s/sheep’s milk cheese, Mornay sauce, creamed leeks, gorgeous marinated octopus, hazelnuts, smoked pork shoulder and lobster. But even the most basic Margherita sings with uncompromised promise.
A dozen or so small plates (grilled asparagus dressed with a soft-cooked egg and a punchy anchovy vinaigrette, savory lamb meatballs, a wickedly fatty marrow spread on toast) complete the impression that the basement half of Burch is a next-generation neighborhood hangout.
Design counts, too
Julie Snow Architects of Minneapolis — which should do us all a favor and sign up a few more restaurant clients, pronto — gutted the former Burch Pharmacy building, a 100-year-old landmark, down to its skeleton.
On the street level, what had been a dreary, meandering warren has been repurposed into a pair of effortlessly stylish and dynamic dining-out spaces. One is anchored by a watch-them-work kitchen (where Del Prado conducts the evening’s cooking with a grace not seen since Osmo Vänskä last took the podium at Orchestra Hall), the other by a large bar.
Enormous stretches of sidewalk-fronting windows open the restaurant to the city around it, with all that activity echoed by banks of mirrors. A deft use of understated materials — honed gray slate, pale oak, battered red brick, a constellation of pale white lollipop lights — places the visual emphasis on diners, and on the hip, well-schooled service staff.
Downstairs, it’s all about walls of gorgeous, rough-hewn gray limestone, a vivid contrast against acres of gleaming white subway tiles. The overall effect is cozy yet contemporary, reinventing a dreary basement into the rathskeller this city has always lacked.
Two complaints. Rare is the human being whose looks are flattered by the basement’s overhead white-neon light, and, despite some post-opening acoustical improvements, both levels can suffer from conversation-stopping noise levels.
Still-life in dessert
One of the great pleasures of being seated in the “kitchen” dining room is the proximity to a long table covered in rows of layer cakes and tarts, a hunger-inducing tableau straight out of a Wayne Thiebaud painting. In a world where fussily deconstructed desserts are all the rage, the notion of a straightforward, expertly prepared classic is ripe with appeal, whether it’s a mouth-puckering lemon custard in a dense and crumbly crust, or five layers of fudgy cake layered in cocoa buttercream and studded with chopped hazelnuts.
Alongside plates of dainty madeleines and fluted, oven-burnishedcanelés, pastry chef Shawn McKenzie — a Portland, Ore., transplant — offers tiny, 25-cent treats in the form of a chewy chocolate-dipped coconut macaroon or a momentarily fiery chile-infused chocolate truffle. It’s an inspired idea for those craving a quick-and-dirty dessert.
Still, her pride and joy has to be the glorious baba rhum. It’s simplicity itself, a tall, slightly yeasty and barely sweet slice of disarming goodness, its spongelike qualities intensified as a nose-tickling rum sauce insinuates itself into every molecule of that pale yellow, beautifully structured dough.
It’s one of those where-have-you-been-all-my-life experiences. Come to think of it, that sentiment pretty much sums up the restaurant, too.
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