Add an underused corner of a famous pizzeria, a local foods-minded chef and an affordable breakfast-lunch-dinner menu. The result: St. Paul's Twisted Fork Grille. Is it a chain in the making?
When I was a kid, my family's suburban, 1970s dining-out options were limited to two choices (OK, three, if you count McDonald's): Mr. Steak for special occasions, and Perkins for more spontaneous get-togethers. Not that we dined out all that often. No one did. Although we might have, had the Twisted Fork Grille been around.
This latest entry in the fresh-and-affordable niche has an impressive pedigree. Several Green Mill folks act as landlord and owner -- they of the successful, 35-year track record, having launched their first deep-dish pizzeria on the same site way back in 1975. Stephen Trojahn, formerly of high-minded Cosmos, worked as a consultant to fine-tune the program. They had the good sense to hire Keven Kvlasten to oversee the kitchen on a day-to-day basis. Kvalsten, a vet of Corner Table and the former Green Room, is using this venue to demonstrate how eating local isn't synonymous with shelling out lots of dough.
This isn't one of those chatty menus that brands the contributions of every last farm, right down to the source of the parsley garnish (not that there's anything wrong with giving credit where credit is due), so it's tough to discern for certain the percentage of the menu culled from family farms vs. how much fell off the back of a wholesaler's truck.
But the food's local roots jump out in so many obvious ways that it's clear that Kvalsten isn't paying lip service to locavores. One example: the cool, satisfying flavor of golden and red beets, sliced and layered between herbed chèvre and drizzled with a garden-fresh vinaigrette. It's an entree-sized foray into Minnesota farm country for just $9.
The "twist" of the title refers to Kvalsten's quarter-turn detours through familiar territory. Thin-cut, crunchy chips are made with sweet potatoes, not Idaho Russets. Instead of chicken wings -- sold by the zillions next door in the Green Mill -- he dolls up plump, meaty legs, glazing them with a maple-kissed barbecue sauce or a teasingly spicy honey-chile glaze.
Rather than the ubiquitous crab, he turns to walleye, tossing in a little red pepper, celery and bread crumbs and frying them into terrific little cakes. A fried egg, a slice of provolone and a few creamy wedges of avocado certainly ramp up the delicious factor on a BLT sandwich.
Decent-sized shrimp are folded into wide-cut tubes of penne, drenched in a lively cheese sauce and sprinkled with crisp, buttery bread crumbs, a semi-luxe take on mac-and-cheese. He puts some sizzle into a lower-priced cut of steak, marinading it with garlic and rosemary to accentuate the beef's timid flavor and pairing it with perfectly braised Swiss chard. As for the boring old Cobb salad, Kvalsten reinterprets it, tossing gently smoked walleye with wild rice and field greens. Kvalsten's most inspired idea is a poblano-laced bison meatloaf, its slow-burn kick a welcome surprise to anyone who has yawned their way through a bland church-supper counterpart.
Are any of these dishes culinary revelations? No, but Kvalsten is managing to offer creatively presented, solidly prepared twists -- there's that word again -- on workaday fare. Portions are more than generous, and prices rarely peek above $11.99.
That figure is impressive. Most neighborhood joints wouldn't attempt a dish like Kvalsten's juicy, pan-seared scallops, resting on polenta and tangy wilted greens and finished with a zesty tomato broth, let alone charge just $12 for it. Or a terrific roast chicken with a rich mushroom risotto for the same bargain price. Or a meal-sized bowl of creamy carrot soup, every vividly orange spoonful popping with feisty ginger accents, for just $4.99.
Although he's working off a relatively static menu, Kvalsten enlivens things by inserting a daily seasonal special into the mix -- he routinely shops three farmers markets, picking up what looks best and working it into a recipe -- and throwing the occasional multi-course wine and beer dinners. Desserts do the job, but aren't a high point. A too-runny crème brûlée had a lovely lavender bite, and I'd skip over the dull flourless chocolate cake in favor of the far livelier strawberry bread pudding.
Breakfast -- which is served until 3 p.m. daily, a swell touch for late-risers -- puts a similarly appealing tweak on old favorites. Buttermilk pancakes, thick, wide and golden brown, are best when dressed with bright lemon zest and fresh blueberries. A hearty hash, finished with peppers, poached eggs, savory slow-roasted pork and a creamy cheese sauce, would be the star attraction at an upscale truck stop.
Huevos rancheros boast a clean, light taste. Elvis Presley would have been all over the French toast filled with peanut butter and topped with sweetly caramelized bananas, and a build-your-own omelet offers more than two dozen nicely sourced options. In other words, it's all good, and relatively affordable. One complaint? No a.m. baked goods.
The settting is perfectly pleasant if vaguely anonymous, a cozy rectangle of a previously underutilized space within the Green Mill, with windows overlooking the busy corner of Hamline and Grand Avenues, a comfortable mix of tables and booths and a pull-up-a-seat bar. The restaurant and the Green Mill share a front door, and that's about it; turn to the right, and you're in Pepperoniville, and open the door to the left, and you've stepped inside the kind of casual, affordable, customer service-focused operation that I suspect many Twin Citians would be pleased to find inside their friendly neighborhood Green Mill outlet.
"I would certainly like to see more of them," said Kvalsten. While that might happen, he said that any future Twisted Forks will probably not be connected with any of the 25-plus Green Mill locations. No chain-within-a-chain, then, but perhaps a new kind of chef-driven chain?
If I were Perkins, I'd be worried.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757