The burger: Coincidence? You tell me. A few days after I’d finishing reading an advance copy of “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune, and the Woman Who Gave it Away” (this is what happens when your next-door neighbor in the newsroom’s cubicle farm is books editor Laurie Hertzel), I found myself staring down a magnificent remake/homage of a Golden Arches staple. Not to get too literal, readers of Burger Friday, but it wasn’t the Big Mac, or the Quarter Pounder. It was the Filet-O-Fish.
I’m a F-O-F guy from way back (it was my mother’s go-to McDonald’s meal), so I’m always happy to encounter variations of it elsewhere. I asked Eastside chef Dennis Leaf-Smith why he’s got it on his menu. “Because people love it,” he said. “I know, that sounds phony, but it’s true.” Sold.
Leaf-Smith even gives the burger chain its due, invoking the “Filet-O-Fish” name on the restaurant’s lunch menu. (Sorry, McDonald’s, but you’re not explicitly mentioned). Thankfully, this idealized version is nothing like the sodden, drably dressed one I’d encountered earlier this year, the last time I’d ordered one at Mickey D’s.
Halibut is the fish of choice, and Leaf-Smith piles on the ingenuity, assembling pieces of the snowy white fish (held together with gossamer egg white) into pans and cooking it gently in a sous vide process, a technique that preserves the fish’s appealing texture. Thick 5-ounce slabs are cut, battered in a light beer batter and fried until achieving a maximum contrast of deeply browned, delicate crunch on the outside that yields to steaming, pristine, fall-apart fish on the inside.
“Our goal is to keep it light and airy, rather than dense,” said Leaf-Smith. Mission accomplished.
The rest remains basic, in the McDonald’s mode, just a slice of slightly melted American cheese, a handful of shredded iceberg lettuce that’s lightly dressed in a house-made tartar sauce. As for the bun, it resides on the same spectacular level as that halibut, a potato-enriched beauty that gets the full buttered-and-toasted treatment. It’s baked in-house, daily, by baker Rosa Cruz Linares, and it’s a prime example of bun greatness. Not in a halibut mood? Order the kitchen’s burger, and you’ll encounter the same gotta-have bun.
Leaf-Smith has been on the job for a month (the 112 Eatery vet has just returned from a three-year stint in Philadelphia), and he’s still getting a gauge on his clientele’s habits. “Lunch itself can be pretty hit or miss,” he said. “Some days it’s the hamburgers that are flying out, other days it’s the grilled cheese and tomato soup. There are days when we’ll sell a dozen fish sandwiches, and others when we’ll sell 30.”
Price: $14. So worth it.
Fries: A $2 upcharge, a highly recommended expenditure. Otherwise, the F-O-F is served with house-made potato chips, a perfectly acceptable substitute.
His return to Minneapolis: “We left almost three years ago, when my wife received a tremendous job offer, so we up and moved,” said Leaf-Smith. “It’s very exciting, being back, and being part of this continued restaurant growth in Minneapolis. It seems like there’s this emphasis on downtown construction, there’s this great downtown city vibe. The timing for us to come back is working out very well.”
Cooking in Philly: “I loved it,” said Leaf-Smith. “The East Coast is a much faster pace than the Midwest. But the restaurants are on the smaller side, 30 to 40 seats [his last gig was at tiny, well-regarded Pumpkin, a 12-year-old farm-to-table operation]. So I went from going from doing 60 dinners a night to doing 300 at Eastside. It’s a bit of a head turn. But cooking in Philadelphia was great. All of southern New Jersey is farmland, so there’s access to tremendous, locally-grown product. And the center of Pennsylvania has the Amish community, so we had all this great produce from Amish farmers. It was a nice change of pace from the 112, where it’s busy every single night. Don’t get me wrong, I love 112. But in that slower pace, you have a chance to step back and work on dishes more. You can tinker with a dish until you get it right.”
The book: As for “Ray & Joan,” I liked, but didn’t love. My reluctance is not author Lisa Napoli’s doing. Her research is exhaustive, and viewing the rise of America’s fixation with fast food through the prism of this on-again/off-again couple is an intriguing idea. But the creepy Mr. Kroc isn’t exactly the most sympathetic character, and the generous Mrs. Kroc (she donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the Salvation Army, National Public Radio and other pet charities) remains something of a cypher.
What grabbed me was the local angle. (Because, of course, there’s a Minnesota angle). Turns out, the two met at the Criterion in St. Paul. Chicago-based Ray was in town on business, and they immediately bonded over their mutual love of music; he was the driven, rough-around-the-edges older businessman, she was the poised, beautiful blonde at the keyboard in the restaurant’s lounge. Both were married to other people at the time. It took years, but they eventually tied the knot.
The Criterion’s co-owner, Sim Heller, became one of the many Friends of Ray who benefitted, enormously, from a connection with the McDonald’s mastermind. Heller teamed up with brother-in-law Jim Zien and opened the Twin Cities’ first McDonald’s franchise in 1957. For those who don’t remember the Criterion, it was located at 739 University Av. (now the site of Trung Nam French Bakery), and it was destroyed by a fire in 1978, years after Heller had sold his interest in the place.
Meanwhile, back at Eastside: On his lunch menu, Leaf-Smith is feeding into my BLT obsession with a doozy. It’s piled high with sweet, succulent poached lobster, a deliciously decadent way to part with $17. For roughly half the price ($9), Leaf-Smith also cranks out another favorite of mine, lox and bagels, with supple smoked salmon and a sturdy, studded-with-everything house-made bagel. My next visit will be during happy hour, when Leaf-Smith offers up bison sliders, served California cheeseburger style, for $7. For those unable to make it for lunch, Leaf-Smith said he’s planning on adding the F-O-F and lobster BLT to the weekend brunch menu; look for them in a week or two. “We want to make brunch more approachable,” he said. “So you can stop by, have a couple of sandwiches and a bloody Mary and be on your way. It doesn’t have to be this big brunch ordeal.”
Address book: 305 Washington Av. S., Mpls., 612-208-1638. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Happy hour 2 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.