The burger: Pity the turkey burger, which has a reputation — not entirely unfounded — as being the killjoy of the burger set. Not for nothing, it’s often viewed as the dietary equivalent of a cling peach and cottage cheese on a lettuce leaf. You know, virtuous, but not exactly brimming with personality. The many hockey puck-like turkey patties I’ve encountered — thirst-inducingly dry, absent any traces of flavor — only reinforce this notion.
But that’s so not the case at Public Kitchen + Bar. The restaurant, which opened in mid-2014 and overlooks Mears Park in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood, has recently gone through a kitchen switcheroo. Owners Madison Equities have tapped Lenny Russo — arguably the region’s leading locavore and the driving force behind the nearby Heartland Restaurant & Wine Bar — to wipe the slate clean.
His response? Simple. “Try not to serve anything that sucks,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the bar that I’ve set for myself.” OK, that’s Lenny-speak. “We’ll offer familiar dishes that are made out of good ingredients,” is what he meant to say. “The goal here is to create a better guest experience, and a better value. When we do that, it’s a victory.”
Russo has drastically trimmed the menu’s sprawl-all-over-the-place precursor, which tried to please everyone but left little room for the kitchen crew to focus on consistency and quality. His replacement is rooted in the British ale house/gastropub model: uncomplicated, recognizable, well-prepared fare.
There’s room for a beef burger — two, actually — and they’re fine. More than fine, really. But I was intrigued by the turkey iteration. Turns out, it’s a total winner.
Why turkey? Simple. “Because Minnesota is the country’s No. 1 turkey producer,” said Russo. “It’s a quintessentially Minnesota ingredient, although people here probably don’t think of it that way.”
Works for me. Russo’s inspiration comes from a straightforward Italian pork sausage recipe that he’s had in his repertoire forever. Turkey thighs and pork fat are ground together in an 80/20 ratio, then seasoned with fennel, chile pepper, dried oregano and other like-minded herbs. Why pork fat? “Otherwise, it would be really dry, and horrible,” said Russo. “It’s turkey, remember? It’s an incredibly lean protein.”
It's true: pork fat improves everything it touches, especially ground turkey (there goes that whole Diet Food rep). The tightly-packed patty is enormous (“It’s just shy of a half-pound,” said Russo) and it’s grilled on a flattop until the surfaces achieve a gently crisped caramel brown, yet the interior retains a modicum of sizzling juiciness.
The Italian sausage framework really comes through, and it’s not just a texture thing. Those chiles generate a marvelous slow-burn heat, a sensation countered by a generous swipe of a refreshingly cool and teasingly sweet tomato jam. If Russo had any time on his hands, he should bottle it and sell it at the front door. It's that good.
The other toppings — carefully chosen — include crispy fried onions (for texture and another hint at sweetness), a blanket of Swiss cheese (which inserts some much-needed salt) and crunchy house-made pickles (for a bracing, vinegar-fueled palate cleanser). The bun does the job; it’s strong enough to stand up to the patty’s considerable heft, but softened through a big, buttery toast. Russo and his crew are clearly on to something.
“We’re just looking to offer the tried-and-true, the things that people respond well to,” he said. “The foundation for a good restaurant has been laid.”
Agreed. This is one reboot worth watching.
Price: $14, highly reasonable.
Fries: Included, and fine. They could have sounded a chord slightly higher on the crispiness scale — and a heavier hand with the salt shaker couldn’t hurt — but that didn’t stop me from absent-mindedly inhaling them.
A return to basics: Russo’s summer menu plays it pretty straight. I’ll definitely go back for a crack at the watercress and spinach tossed in a tomato vinaigrette and topped with steak, the caprese salad, coconut milk-steamed mussels, fried walleye with fries and slaw, orecchiette with a basil pesto and a pork chop with peach chutney and a red eye gravy. Prices? Reasonable.
The kitchen — run by chef Cole Ductan (who most recently logged hours working for Todd Macdonald at the short-lived Parella) and mentor Christian De Matteo (a vet of Harry Cipriani in New York City) — certainly has a flair for soup.
I was impressed by the vibrant, ruby-red gazpacho, an air conditioner in a bowl notable for its acidic bite and cool pops of cilantro. Sweet corn isn’t exactly in season here in Minnesota, but it’s being harvested in Georgia and shipped north, where it lands in a chowder notable more for its creamy decadence (and pitch-perfect green onion leitmotif) than for an overwhelmingly sunny sweet corn bite; hopefully that’ll materialize when local corn becomes available. One other hopeful note: De Matteo is baking up a lovely little bread basket.
Mears merry-making: Walking to Public Kitchen + Bar on Thursday evening, I found myself becoming one of many people streaming toward Mears Park. I was going for dinner — the restaurant overlooks the park, through magnificent arched windows — but everyone else appeared to be headed to the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, which runs through Sunday (for those who want to remain indoors, Heartland is getting into the act, hosting Gypsy Mania Hot Club on Friday night, and a New Orleans-style brass band on Saturday evening; both evenings feature two sets, at 6 and 8 p.m.). For the rest of the summer, the park plays host to Music in Mears every Thursday evening, through Aug. 25. I spied plenty of food trucks (including Fro-Yo Soul, a favorite of mine), but honestly? I’d stick to that turkey burger — preceded by that gazpacho — at one of the restaurant’s many Mears-facing sidewalk tables.
Address book: 229 E. 6th St., St. Paul, 651-348-6456. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday (closed Monday), 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
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