Libertine brings neo-chophouse to Uptown in Minneapolis

  • Article by: MICHAEL RIETMULDER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2014 - 3:20 PM

Tim McKee and Johnny Michaels launch neo-chophouse Libertine in former Cafeteria spot.

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Uptown has been an entertainment destination for decades. But the vibrant pocket around Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue in south Minneapolis — laden with bars in restaurants’ clothing — has lost its “foodie” luster in recent years (with all due respect to such beloved institutions as Lucia’s).

“I think that’s been changing pretty dramatically lately,” said hotshot chef Tim McKee, whose portfolio includes La Belle Vie, Sea Change and Masu. “There are a lot of new places coming in and a lot more to come. I think the opening of Coup d’état started to change that direction in a big way.”

The Borough and Parlour team opened Coup d’état in the Walkway building in January, and McKee’s new venture is the neighborhood’s next potential splash-maker. After four years in Calhoun Square, the Parasole restaurant group, for which McKee is VP of culinary development, pulled the plug on its ho-hum Uptown Cafeteria. This week they opened Libertine — a new-school chophouse focused on unusual cuts — in its place.

McKee hatched the concept after visiting a similar Dublin restaurant a year and a half ago. The James Beard Award-winning chef was intrigued by the idea of giving ignored and inexpensive pieces of meat the four-star treatment. “Steaks are ridiculously expensive right now, and a lot of people pass on these unknown cuts because they don’t understand them, because maybe they’re a little tougher or have a little more fat,” he said. “They don’t know how to deal with them. Well, we do.”

Entrees range from $10 to $24 and are broken out by animal (or “not animal”) and feature a handful of beef slabs not found in traditional steakhouses, including the point cut from the thin end of the rump and the feather blade, which comes from the shoulder.

With less than two months since Cafeteria closed its street-level dining room (its popular rooftop patio remained open until this month), the space underwent a quickie makeover. The retro diner-meets-“Miami Vice” vibe is out. The entrance has moved to the east end near Girard Avenue. Wooden communal tables have replaced the awkward two-seat high-tops that lined the glass garage doors facing Lake Street.

The once-open kitchen is now closed. The bright color scheme is gone, there’s new room for special events and overflow dining, and a new funky, lounge-y area has irreverent decorative plates on the walls (is that Benjamin Franklin in a Yoda hat?).

Cafeteria drew a decent happy-hour crowd, but while the rooftop was bumping on summer nights, the main level lacked the after-dinner buzz other surrounding restaurant/bar hybrids had. The new look is designed to feel “as much bar as it is restaurant,” McKee said.

“The social aspects, the drinking aspects, of the restaurant, that’s really what drives Uptown in a lot of ways,” he said. “People come here as a destination, a lot of people live in this area and they just want to go out to the bar.”

Enter Johnny Michaels.

The longtime McKee accomplice, who spearheaded the Twin Cities cocktail renaissance at La Belle Vie, designed Libertine’s expansive drinks menu. It’s a mixed bag of “fan favorites” and new creations, including the namesake Libertine, which blends rye whiskey and gin in a stirred drink that could satisfy summer Manhattan cravings or prep the belly for a midwinter comfort meal.

At a glance, it’s classic Johnny: the functional flair of a sweet-and-sour lemon foam brightens a carbonated Negroni. Cabin in the Sky has a gummy bear garnish, just for the heck of it. A heated margarita (hello, habanero!) is named after indie-rockers Yo La Tengo. And who else could get away with a vodka Collins spiked with an energy drink?

“Initially they told me eight to 10 drinks,” Michaels said. “I showed ’em twenty-something — have fun picking your eight to 10!”

Instead, McKee & Co. wanted them all. Like the food menus, the cocktail lists feature slight differences between the patio and dining room and range from “sophisticated” to “good-time drinks,” Michaels said. Many are pre-batched for speed and consistency, as he’s done with other bar programs he’s launched, including at Icehouse, and many are under $10. “Our goal is to have the best drink program in Uptown,” Michaels said.

When asked, Michaels was quiet about ending his nine-year run at La Belle Vie earlier this year, saying only that it was the right time, and mentioning the retail bottled cocktail line he’s trying to launch. But together, McKee and Michaels — arguably the Twin Cities’ biggest-name chef and bartender, respectively — are still a formidable duo. So if anyone can keep Libertine from winding up like the last Calhoun Square restaurant Parasole tried to reinvent, it’s them, right?

“I think we talk about that every day,” said McKee, referring to Parasole closing Figlio for the short-lived Il Gatto, which shuttered in 2011. “Phil [Roberts, Parasole CEO] will always say that that’s one of his biggest regrets.”

For the first few months, McKee will spend most of his time at Libertine. Chef Steve Hesse (Masu, St. Paul Grill) will helm the day-to-day operations, as McKee oversees the menus at all of Parasole’s restaurants, including Manny’s, Chino Latino, Pittsburgh Blue and more — not to mention his own projects La Belle Vie and Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque in Stillwater.

“It’s a lot of juggling. It wasn’t ever my plan,” McKee said with a confident grin. “But it seems I’m kind of good at it.”

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