The burger: There’s really no reason why a person would expect to encounter a burger – several, actually – amid the pastas, risottos and bruschettas at Zelo, the popular Italian-esque restaurant in downtown Minneapolis.
Better to set the skepticism aside, and enjoy. Because, what a burger. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated. No retro balancing acts, no fancy-schmancy molecular gastronomy at play. Instead, a bruiser of a half-pound patty (the premium beef hails from Revier Cattle Co. in Olivia, Minn.), one that’s nearly as tall as it is wide.
Keep it simple is clearly chef Jason Gibbons’ mantra. That rich, robust beef is seasoned with just salt and pepper – it requires nothing more – and is grilled on the flattop. When my server asked how I wanted it prepared, I gave my standard response: “The way the kitchen prefers.” To my everlasting delight, lunch arrived a smidge below medium rare, and the contrast between the patty’s robustly charred exterior and that deeply pink, almost velvety center was, in a word, delectable. Yes, this is why burgers – when they’re done properly – enjoy near-universal acclaim.
The picture-perfect house-baked bun – one of those tastes-even-better-than-it-looks numbers – gets a healthy swab of butter before it’s toasted on the grill. The bottom half is judiciously shielded from that juiced-up patty with a crunchy lettuce leaf.
A buttery slab of fontina is draped over soft, teasingly sweet caramelized onions. As for the requisite “special sauce,” it’s a basic mix of mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup and Worcestershire, and it performs exactly as expected.
Yes, fifteen bucks (see Price, below) is not exactly cheap. But consider this: it’s a half-pound of burger. Split it with a friend. Even at a quarter pound, this burger scores major brownie points for flavor, and value.
Fries: Included, and well-executed. They’re russets, cut with the skins on and soaked to remove some of the starch. Then they’re twice-fried; for the first go-round, they’re blanched in a lower-temperature oil, and when they’re ordered they get the higher-temperature treatment. Each enormous – as in, enough for two – serving is seasoned with fine sea salt and served with a side of ketchup.
Talking turkey: I’m continually disappointed by turkey burgers, which frequently radiate indifference if not out-and-out incompetence. Not here. Poultry prince Pat Ebnet at Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn., supplies a light- and dark-meat blend that Gibbons and sous chef Nate Hanssen dress up with a lively mix of green onions, jalapenos, soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. The half-pound patties are grilled until the exterior is bronzed and crisped but the lean meat retains more than a modicum of juiciness, a rarity in turkey burger territory. Another strategy: the toasted bun (it’s the same house-made knockout that elevates the beef burger to "standout" status) gets a generous swipe of fragrant, basil-boosted aioli. It’s also $14.95, and worth it.
Looking good: When Zelo opened in 1999, it occupied what had been the longtime home of Albrecht’s, a specialty fashion store; hey, remember when Nicollet Mall was lined with retailers? At the time, the restaurant's moody, artful decor was as fashionable as anything hanging on the mannequins at Dayton’s Oval Room. But fast-forward 18 years, and Zelo was looking and feeling dated (and the Oval Room is history). Owner Rick Webb recently revealed a much-needed renovation, and it’s a knockout, all elegant putty colors (which more than do justice to the original Albrecht's details), sleek walnut furnishings and dramatic, place-making lighting fixtures, crafted for the restaurant by Hennepin Made. The transformation is remarkable, and welcome.
History-maker: After a nine-year absence, owner Rick Webb, an influential Twin Cities restaurateur for what feels like forever, is back at Zelo. In the 1970s and 1980s, he and brother David Webb owned a scene-making portfolio of properties that included CocoLezzone, Rupert’s, the American Cafe and My Pie Pizza in Golden Valley, Winfield Potter’s in Minneapolis and the Original Pancake House in Edina. By 1990, the brothers’ partnership had fizzled (David went on to open the instantly popular Good Day Cafe in Golden Valley in 2007; he died in 2011), and Rick purchased St. Paul’s food-and-drink landmark, the Lexington. He divested himself of the Lex eight years later, just after converting Bloomington’s Cantina del Rio into the runaway success that he christened Ciao Bella (that's Webb, above, at Ciao Bella, in a 1998 Star Tribune file photo). The people-magnet that is Zelo (the name is the Italian word for zeal) followed in 1999, and Bacio – a beauty in a former Leeann Chin outlet in Minnetonka – came along in 2002. Webb sold Bacio and Zelo in 2008, then re-purchased Zelo last year.
Address book: 831 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-333-7000. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
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