The burger: I’ll admit that it was a tad disconcerting to step through the door at 337 13th Av. NE. and not find myself inside the Modern Cafe.
I suppose my change-resistant self was half-hoping for a preserved-in-amber situation, where nothing so much as a linoleum tile would have been altered during the 10 or so months since Jim and Patty Grell turned out the lights on their northeast Minneapolis landmark.
But the only constant in life is change, right? So, to the Sheridan Room, I say, welcome to the (Sheridan) neighborhood, and best wishes for a long and happy existence.
And I won't begrudge the alterations that have been made to the dining room. After all, during the Modern's remarkable 20-year run, the Grells certainly tweaked the 1940s cafe formerly known as Rabatin's, and I’m sure that Rabatin’s fans forgave the couple for their seemingly sacreligious ways. And it’s not as if new owners Jon and Jarrett Oulman don’t have an admirable track record when it comes to the stewardship of beloved properties; the father-and-son team buffed a high shine on the historic pavilion in St. Paul’s Como Park last summer when they took over the former Black Bear Crossings and re-christened it Como Dockside.
With all that in mind, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a moment and let go.
The Oulmans have, pardon the expression, modernized the place. The floor is now outfitted in handsome white-with-black-accents hexagonal tile, several walls have been sheathed in enough classic white subway tile to outfit the kitchen backsplashes of an entire suburban subdivision, and the all-black ceiling is styled to resemble a classic tin pattern. Amid all that black-and-white crispness, the Modern’s chalkboard menus remain, as does the bar’s placement, and the dining room has been cordoned off into a series of conversation-friendly booths that bear a distinctly Modern-esque (and Rabatin's-like) vibe.
The tiny kitchen didn’t go anywhere, and it’s the dominion of a familiar face. She’s Ella Wesenberg, and if that names rings a bell, it should: she was the Modern’s final chef, and it’s a treat to discover her back in familiar territory.
Wesenberg has an intrinsic understanding of the underpinnings of classic American fare, and that knowledge base is certainly evident in her spectacular mushroom-topped cheeseburger.
She really nails each element, and they all add up to a more-than-cohesive (and hefty) whole. Here’s the skinny on the patty: It’s two-thirds chuck and one-third brisket, a blend that’s ground on the premises and formed into third-pound patties. When that beef came off the grill — a sharply-calibrated medium-rare — it exuded juices that triggered all kinds of mouth-watering activity. The secret? “We leave quite a bit of fat on the meat,” said sous chef Steve Lo. “We don’t trim it too much.”
The menu’s description of the bun includes the word “pretzel,” but that’s not what I encountered. My burger arrived wrapped in an onion bun — and a good and hearty one — from the New French Bakery, a welcome change from the brioche that has become the unspoken standard.
Thoughtfully, the bottom of that ultra-juicy patty is cradled by a fresh lettuce leaf, which acts as something of a moisture barrier.
“No one wants a soggy bun,” said Lo.
The pile-ons aren't complicated, but they impress from the get-go. Cremini mushrooms get a classic saute in canola oil and a little white wine, “so that they’re almost braised,” said Lo. More decadence comes in the form of Gruyere, so rich and creamy and oozy and brazenly appealing.
A sweet onion jam counters the mushrooms' earthiness, a task that’s aided by a few crunchy pickles, their bite popping with a punchy vinegar finish. They’re served on the side, but they definitely belong directly in the condiment mix, and that’s exactly where I put them.
Because an onion jam, mushrooms and runny Gruyere aren’t enough, Wesenberg treats the inside of the top bun with a lavish swipe of dijonnaise, building it from the ground up with a voluptuous house-made mayonnaise.
It’s no secret why this lays-it-on-thick burger -- so zealously overstuffed that it pretty much demands the use of a knife and fork -- is a top-selling item.
“The reason that it’s so good is because that, with the exception of the bun, it’s all house-made,” said Lo. “There’s a lot of love in that burger.” Yeah, no kidding.
Price: $13, and right on the money.
Fries: Included, and spectacular. “They’re pretty standard,” said Lo, understating it by a long shot. They’re hand-cut, skin-on and relatively thin, and when they get the blanched-and-fried treatment, they’re taken to a noticeably crispy place. Forget about fancy truffle oils or spice blends; seasoning is strictly pepper and plenty of kosher salt.
“That’s all fries really need,” said Lo. “We’re pushing towards more of a classic Minnesota feel here. We don’t want to go overboard.”
Don't look back: Just as the setting is carving out a new identity for the restaurant, so is the kitchen, so those expecting to encounter the Modern on the menu will have to look elsewhere; Wesenberg doesn't revisit the restaurant's pot roast, meatloaf or other much-missed signature dishes. One element that hasn't changed is that she and Lo are cooking for the neighborhood (don't miss the Reuben, and I can't wait to return and check out the beer can chicken) and charging equally accessible prices.
Address book: 337 13th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-886-1111. Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
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