Which meat to eat? It's a tough choice at Butcher & the Boar, chef Jack Riebel's palace of plenty.
The long rib -- correction, the magnificent long rib -- at Butcher & the Boar is so tantalizingly impressive that it's enough to make a hard-core vegetarian flip the switch.
Picture this: a beef rib as long as your forearm, cured in salt and sugar and smoked for eight hours before it hits the kitchen's wood-burning grill, where it's glazed with Tabasco and molasses. The final charred, sticky-and-sweet product boasts more than a pound of ridiculously succulent, falling-off-the-bone meat (it's portioned for two but I had a difficult time sharing), and like so much of chef Jack Riebel's adventurous, confident cooking, it isn't afraid to radiate some serious spice-induced heat.
After competing with me to see who could finish it first, my friend, his law-school vocabulary reduced to that of a caveman's, could manage only two words: "Want. Again."
Same here. That has to be a common reaction at this pathbreaking new downtown Minneapolis restaurant, where Riebel and colleague Peter Botcher are deftly galvanizing a flurry of culinary forces -- Southern regional cooking, Minnesota's generations-deep German-American heritage, barbecue, the snout-to-tail phenomenon, the gastropub movement -- into a previously unimaginable but instantly coherent whole. There is nowhere else like it.
First things first: The charcuterie! Yes, it's true, a diner can't swing a duck liver in this town without hitting some kind of organ-meat-obsessed practitioner, but Riebel and Botcher elevate the craft to new heights. Forget everything known about braunschweiger, because the skilled artisans at Butcher & the Boar demonstrate that the way to go is by skipping pork in favor of Minnesota-raised turkey livers, their silky luxuriousness topped with a layer of chicken fat and bits of black truffles. Who needs foie gras when there is this ultimate tickled-by-a-campfire comfort food?
But that's not all. A zesty summer sausage fattens lean venison with beef suet. Deeply flavorful Texas-raised wild boar is the foundation for both a superb rum-cured, country-style ham and a multi-textured head cheese that's jazzed with pickled jalapeño. Oh, and the pickled beef heart? It's based on Riebel's grandmother's family recipe, and its dense richness is a joy to behold.
At the risk of sounding like a 51-year-old white guy attempting an ill-advised "You go, girl" moment, I've got to say that the extraordinary grilled sausages are Shutting. It. Down. They're hefty things, served beer-hall-style, on platters, and all that seems to be missing are stout German women to deliver them to the table. Fortunately, we get Riebel instead, natty in his white paper butcher's cap and working the heck out of his see-and-be-seen dining room. He appears to be having the time of his life. What's that adage about finding what you love, and then doing it?
On the traditional side of the sausage spectrum, coarsely ground premium Berkshire pork gets blended with diced Cheddar to create the tastiest Cheddarwurst imaginable. But Botcher and Riebel aren't afraid to venture beyond preconceived butcher-shop boundaries, crafting inspired and utterly awesome beef, walleye and pinto bean variations, as well as an unabashedly spicy wild boar version that just might earn top points in my own private ratings game.
The one sausage that isn't made on the premises (although it's smoked in-house) is the footlong hot dog, an utterly delightful über-garnished monster that has forever ruined me for those boring Target Field Twins Dogs.
Other glories await inside this precociousness-free zone. First up: a brined and smoked pork chop as thick as a pre-Internet Yellow Pages. In a characteristic Riebel manner, its uncomplicated pepper, maple and fruit accents enhance rather than overwhelm the juicy meat's intense pork profile. Dense, snappy pickled shrimp, perfumed with bay leaf, become Riebel's irresistible twist on the standard-issue shrimp cocktail.
More than meat
No sane mortal could get enough of the grilled oysters, each creamy bite teased with that woodsy smoke, and the three prime cuts of steak are tops in their class, each boasting a well-seasoned char exterior that yields to a ruby red and brashly beefy interior. Salads -- the kitchen's interests are not 100 percent animal-oriented -- are pretty and unusually well balanced.
Riebel could probably fund his retirement by stocking a boutique with all the scrupulously produced house-made foodstuffs that garnish his plates: robust, grainy mustards. Crisp rye-barley crackers, studded with caraway seeds and twinkling with salt. Defiantly addictive beer nuts. A medley of deliriously delicious smoked olives. An extraordinary array of pickled vegetables, each showcasing nuanced degrees of vinegary bite and spicy heat. The topper might be a luscious version of Cheez Whiz, fashioned from an emulsified four-year-old Cheddar.
The vast majority of side dishes are lavished with a level of tender loving care usually associated with showier main courses. There isn't a more impressive plate of grits in the state; goat cheese adds a subtle sour tang, and an artisanal pepper jack cheese gives them their spirited bite. It veers toward slumming to pin the lowly "slaw" label on the complex, crunchy combination of jicama, tortillas, pickled red onion, mint and cilantro, each bite jazzed with pops of allspice and cinnamon. Skillet-browned corn bread, buttermilk-laced mashed potatoes, colorful heirloom carrots drenched in butter, vinegar-kissed roasted cauliflower, smoked beans simmered with the savory burnt ends of those long ribs, the list goes on. And on.
A few missteps
Truth to tell, a few dishes were less than impressive. Glazed chicken and bacon-wrapped turkey both did the trick, but neither equaled the menu's other splendors. A decent cured salmon seemed to have dropped in from an entirely different restaurant, and the beer-battered fries have a trying-too-hard vibe. But what's more significant is what isn't there: Not a burger in sight, and other well-worn requisites of the gastropub wheelhouse -- the locally sourced cheese plate, some kind of Buffalo-ed protein -- are also blessedly absent.
Pastry chef Sarah Botcher's sweets playfully subvert classic expectations. Chocolate-filled marshmallows, toasted on a cedar plank, turn s'mores inside out. A modern-day semifreddo version of grasshopper pie should spark a revival in frozen desserts, if it hasn't already. Best of all, an eat-every-forkful banana cream pie gets a makeover via a tangy ginger-cookie crust and a flurry of gently browned meringue.
The setting, designed by Shea Inc. of Minneapolis, has that rare built-in sense of rollicking good fun. As layouts go, it's hardly revolutionary, yet there's something about the alchemy of this particular setup that exceeds the sum of its familiar components. Most of the room's surfaces are burnished in the deep bronzes and gleaming coppers (including a floor composed of 300,000-plus meticulously arranged pennies) that are native to Kentucky's Bourbon Trail, a color palette that evokes the visual equivalent of dining inside a bottle of single-barreled Knob Creek.
Oh, and if there's one environment where standoffish Minnesotans will embrace the dreaded communal dining table, this is it. As for the sprawling patio and beer garden, it's still a work in progress, but it promises to be this summer's most happening open-air dining and drinking venue.
The whole shebang is a well-earned triumph for Riebel; after years of working for others, having an ownership stake clearly suits him and his prodigious talents. His success can only inspire other chefs who are laboring to convert their dreams into reality.
If their results achieve anything approaching the Butcher & the Boar, then all this diner can ask is, "What are you waiting for?"
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib