“Two dollars, for a bagel?”
I was standing in line at Meyvn, and the pair of fellow diners behind me were kvetching. And kvetching.
“We could walk over to Cub and get a bag of six in the dairy case for the same price,” the other replied.
You do that. You’ll be shelling out similar amounts of money, but that’s where the parallels end.
At the supermarket, you’ll be buying spongy, pale, vacuous impersonations of a bagel. At Meyvn, what chef/co-owner Adam Eaton and his crew are coaxing from their wood-fueled oven are capital-B Bagels.
It’s instantly apparent that there’s a whole lot of care and feeding that goes into Meyvn’s bagel-making process. Dense, chewy and thick, with centers that are more dimple than peephole, they’re proofed, slowly (as in, 36 hours), giving them a bit of a fermented, sourdough bite. After they’re boiled, the heat of a super-hot (as in, 700-degree) oven burnishes each one with a notably browned and crusty exterior, and that glowing white oak inserts just a hint of smoke.
There’s an unadorned version, plus others crusted in brown sugar, sesame seeds (which take on a slight tahini cast — so delicious — when they’re fresh out of the oven) and a not-shy garlic-onion blend. Truly, such bagel-making expertise is well worth that talked-about price.
Eaton — who has made Lowertown’s Saint Dinette a dining destination for three-plus years — isn’t content to stop there, bless him. The appetizings — the selection of pile-ons — is first-rate.
(And not inexpensive, particularly when the extras start to add up. Still, it’s an investment worth making.)
The format is strictly build-your-own, with more than a dozen building blocks. Naturally, there are the requisite cream cheeses, and Eaton doesn’t skimp when it comes to packing each schmear with flavor-making ingredients, whether it’s green onions, or horseradish, or maple.
The proteins really shine. On the fish side, Eaton has tapped Browne Trading Co. in Portland, Maine, to supply supple lox, hearty salmon pastrami and delicate, expertly smoked Nova Scotia whitefish; all are first-rate and, once again, worth the price. Topping a bagel ($2) with cream cheese ($2.50) and a generous ribbon of plush, coral-tinted lox ($7.50), and the tab hits $12. Again, worth it.
Pastrami is brined for 14 days, then the lean brisket is crusted in a familiar black pepper/coriander blend and smoked for 12 hours. The thin-sliced meat is pink and melt-in-your-mouth tender, with crusty, spiced-up edges and a slight campfire resonance, and it’s highly recommended.
The corned beef — the cut is top round — gets the same brine as the pastrami, only fewer days. It’s also impressive, as is the ruddy, thick-cut breakfast “ham,” a pork sausage and New Jersey import making a rare Minnesota appearance.
Tall stacks of that pastrami and corned beef (and a decent smoked turkey) also find their way into a handful of well-tailored sandwiches, each one calling upon either a punchy mustard or a Russian dressing that should be bottled for retail sales, it’s that good.
Attention to detail
Small but consequential touches abound. The spuds in the potato salad are pickled, giving an ever-so-slight zip to what is too often a dullsville side dish. The tangy cheese in those first-rate sandwiches is a dolled-up remake of Emmenthaler (cava is the secret ingredient) that Eaton makes as magically melty as American.
Three cheers for the lively Middle Eastern flavors that pop up all over the menu, from a za’atar dusting on plump, snappy shrimp (with a zingy, harissa-based cocktail sauce) to the lemony tahina that brightens an already refreshingly minty tabbouleh. There’s a superb hummus, too, scooped up with an oven-fresh pita.
Eaton’s spirited, chickpea-enriched take on shakshuka is a winner, and his fried chicken is aces. He seasons it with a spice mix that’s heavy on cumin, coriander and smoked paprika, is coated in a buttermilk batter and fried, leaving the meat juicy and tender (partly cooking it in chicken fat is a brilliant move) but the skin cracklingly crispy. It’s finished, Tennessee Hot-style, with a brush of oil that’s blended with that same distinctive Middle Eastern spice mix, and served with a heat-balancing tzatziki sauce.
And although the bagels disappear as the day goes on, Eaton manages to sneak one into dinner, using it as a base for a pizza-like snack, topping it with the shakshuka’s fiery, slow-roasted tomato sauce and finishing it with feta. They’re nostalgically reminiscent of that school cafeteria staple, the pizza burger, only way better.
Beyond the bagel
Meyvn is also adept at making itself the neighborhood restaurant that you could find yourself returning to, again and again. There’s a well-executed omelet, filled with velvety smoked salmon and topped with a decadent butter sauce, and a more-than-adequate Cobb salad. The gnocchi-like pierogies manage to walk the tightrope between delicate and gloriously, unabashedly cheesy.
At Saint Dinette, Eaton prepares one of the Twin Cities’ great diner-style, double-patty burgers. He’s at it again in Uptown, with slight tweaks to the formula, including a different (and equally effective) cheese and a whopper of a challah bun from St. Paul’s PJ Murphy’s bakery.
Praising an exercise in ubiquity feels wrong, especially since the burger replaced a nicely rendered Philly cheesesteak sandwich that was, mysteriously, not taking off, sales-wise. But restaurants are in the business of making money, and if a burger — especially a good one — helps keep the cash register ringing, then allowances should be permitted.
While exploring his family’s culinary heritage — part of a trend that’s making for some very exciting, meaningful cooking across the local dining landscape — Eaton seems to be successfully avoiding the “traditional” trap that seems to befall so many Twin Cities Jewish deli practitioners.
“What is ‘traditional,’ or ‘authentic,’ anyway?” he asked. “They’re such bad words. For a lot of people, if the matzo ball soup isn’t like their mother’s, then it’s not right. We’re hoping to kind of break those barriers down.”
Amen. His matzo ball soup, by the way, is sublime, starting with a golden, flavor-concentrated, dill-flecked broth. The bowl is brimming with tender white meat, toothy carrots and celery and a not-too-fluffy, not-too-fatty matzo ball. Taken in concert, this meal in a bowl is emblematic of this kitchen’s disciplined cooking.
Kudos also to the deeply browned, super-crisp latkes, taken slightly upscale with creme fraiche and apple butter.
Dessert is uncomplicated: warm, quietly bittersweet chocolate chip cookies, their tops twinkling with sea salt; a spiced-up, surprisingly light carrot cake; and a luscious, maple-scented creme brûlée. Nice.
Eaton treats daily specials as menu trial balloons, and we all benefit. One morning I lucked into a fantastic Benedict, with pita standing in for English muffins, the hollandaise sauce laced with feisty harissa and firm, sweet roasted carrots a fitting and colorful replacement for ham, one of many examples of how this pastrami-fluent kitchen also relishes its vegetarian side.
Another promising example was a pita flatbread, elegantly topped with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and crunchy red onions. Turns out it was a preview of the pizza-like concoctions that Eaton is tinkering with, part of his strategy to take full advantage of that wood-burning oven that he has at his disposal.
Switching it up
At dinner, Meyvn flips from counter to table service, a strategy that can frequently trigger a case of RSPD (Restaurant Split Personality Disorder). But not here, thanks to the finely tuned sensibilities of co-owner Laurel Elm, one of the Twin Cities’ top hospitality practitioners, and her obviously well-schooled crew (Eaton and Elm, newlyweds, own the restaurant with another remarkable Twin Cities restaurateur, Tim Niver, he of Saint Dinette and Mucci’s Italian).
In particular, the daytime setup — efficient, friendly and ideally suited for the quick-service product coming out of the kitchen — could act as a case study for the seemingly endless number of counter-service operations sprouting up in ever-increasing numbers.
The space, lightened and brightened since its days as a Mexican restaurant, places Eaton’s busy oven front and center, where it belongs. It’s outfitted in a cheery, comfortable decor that could have been lifted from the Millennials section of the Ikea website. Out back, there’s a rare Uptown benefit: a free, smallish (maybe 12-stall) parking lot, a welcome convenience when making bagel runs. Which will be my frequent habit.