From the pages of critic Rick Nelson’s dining-out diary, a peek into three noteworthy newcomers: a food truck’s bricks-and-mortar home, a bakery/cafe in an unlikely industrial park address and a swank champagne bar in equally swank surroundings.
Twin Citians were fortunate that the Chef Shack was a pioneering force in the local food truck movement, because standard-setting proprietors Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer instantly fostered a high set of expectations.
Now that they’ve settled into a bricks-and-mortar iteration of their flourishing mobile business — they’re calling it Chef Shack Ranch, a nod to the menu’s truck stop-esque roots — the couple continue to demonstrate how to present accessible and reasonably priced fare without compromising on quality or originality.
Fans of their truck will recognize the magazine-cover-worthy bison burger, the fabulous black bean-sweet potato tacos, the super-indulgent French toast and what are easily the pinnacle of the mini-doughnut universe, each tender and pudgy little orb of fried dough twinkling in sugar and punched with cinnamon and cardamom.
Carlson is taking advantage of her new kitchen’s additional breathing room by expanding her short menu.
At the top of the list is an audaciously delicious play on the Southern meat-and-three tradition, with a heaping helping of mouth-melting pulled pork, a slab of smoky, fall-apart beef brisket and a zesty, snappy-skinned sausage, served on a platter with a handful of like-minded side dishes. It’s served in $15 (hefty) and $25 (ginormous) portions, and the results scream “hitmaker.”
Carlson slips that pulled pork and brisket into a number of other winning dishes, including a nachos platter and a smartly appointed brunch hash. She also doesn’t neglect vegetarians, particularly with a lovingly rendered jumble of rice and roasted vegetables dressed in a nuanced curry sauce.
Order a salad and it’s immediately obvious that you’re in good hands. Carlson reinvents the Caesar with a formula-bending flurry of flavors and textures (the secret ingredients are kale and quinoa), and the results are astonishingly tasty and lovely to look at.
And for those in the mood for chicken wings, Carlson does not disappoint, with a version that’s meaty on the inside, outrageously crispy and sneakily spicy on the outside. It helps that she’s using — as is her practice — first-rate product; in this instance, well-raised birds from Kadejan in Glenwood, Minn.
Summer’s desserts are similarly simple and scrupulously prepared — a dreamy chocolate pot de crème, a luscious, lavender-kissed vanilla custard — and they land in the $5 range. Perfect.
Here’s what’s so easy to appreciate about this place: Carlson and Summer effortlessly erase any doubt that words like organic, sustainable, seasonal and local can be uttered in the same breath with affordable. That they are warm, hospitable presences in their dining room is another plus.
Like their truck, the Ranch is a counter-service setup, one that’s squeezed inside a near-caricature of 1980s design. The funky little building has been home to so many restaurants that I’ve lost count, and Summer has valiantly tried to camouflage its shortcomings with a liberal amount of elbow grease and what feels like a lifetime of flea market finds.
Look for a short list of (mostly) locally brewed beers. A slim selection of wines are priced at a no-nonsense $5 per glass, $18 per bottle. Coffee is handled with care.
In a word: Go.
3025 E. Franklin Av., Mpls., 612-354-2575, www.chefshackranch.com. Open for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Thu.-Sat., open for brunch noon-4 p.m. Sun.
A baker returns home
Here’s another reason to give thanks: After working in Chicago restaurants and bakeries, pastry chef Amy Kelsch has moved back to her hometown, teamed up with her sister Chrissy, outfitted a former Skelly service station and launched Empire Coffee + Pastry.
At first glance, the cheery, cutely retro setup appears to have all the typical trappings of a coffeehouse, with Chrissy, a veteran of B & W, the local specialty roaster, more than capably handling the java duties.
Then take a peek — better yet, a taste — at Amy’s handiwork. This woman can bake, and she’s filling the shop’s case and counter with a modest but tantalizing array of All-American sweet and savory items.
At breakfast, there are dense, heavy muffins. They’re enriched, popover-style, with a high egg ratio, tenderized with buttermilk and filled with a can’t-miss mix of savory a.m. ingredients: bacon, green onions and white Cheddar. Turns out she’s also a biscuit savant, turning out delicate, flaky versions that she splits and layers with a punchy Cheddar and a thick slice of succulent, salty ham.
Empire is home to one of the city’s great quiches, with super-creamy custards pooled inside delicate pie crusts and filled with an ever-evolving array of complementary fillings. For the gluten-intolerant, there’s a similarly boffo frittata.
Moist, dense blondies are dressed with a dark caramel flecked with Maldon sea salt. Crackle-topped, wonderfully chewy chocolate-chip cookies have that can’t-miss salty-sweet bite. Golden scones are appropriately heavy with cream and butter.
And saving best for last, don’t pass up the opportunity to revel in a square of Amy’s improvement on the St. Louis baking tradition known as gooey butter cake. It doesn’t look like much, but boy, appearances are deceiving. The bottom is light and yeasty, the top is a spongy, butter-and-vanilla overload and in the center is a scandalous amount of pastry cream. It’s one of life’s rare forget-about-chocolate moments, and it should be savored by all.
451 NE. Stinson Blvd., Mpls., 612-331-3877, www.empireminneapolis.com. Open 6:30 a.m.- 4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.
Pop! goes the cork
Although nearly 11 years old, the chic, otherworldly surroundings at Cosmos, one of the glories of Twin Cities dining, haven’t aged a minute. With one exception (OK, two). First: saddling the restaurant’s promising new champagne bar with the ever-so-1980s name of Relevé is a rare disconnect for the finger-on-the-pulse crew at the Graves 601 Hotel. (Second? Scarring this high-end dining environment with an intrusive flat-screen TV, the interior design equivalent of aiming for Tiffany & Co. but hitting Jared the Galleria of Jewelry.)
Technically, Relevé is really more of a counter set up next to the lounge’s existing marble-topped bar. It’s stocked with a representative selection of bubblies, tapping 11 by the glass ($9 to $22) choices that are best enjoyed in a design-your-own three-pour flight ($17). A greater range of options falls in the by-the-bottle inventory, which starts with nine approachable 187-milliliter choices and matriculates into a rare-for-Minneapolis excursion into names like Cristal, Dom Pérignon and Armand de Brignac, with similarly rarefied prices. That making-merry sound of popping corks? Free. There’s also a short and thoughtful list of champagne cocktails.
Perhaps because sparkling wine sort-of goes with everything, chef John Occhiato doesn’t adhere to hidebound champagne-bar edicts. Yes, there are raw oysters, beautifully presented hamachi, creamy stuffed eggs, a beyond-silky chicken liver pâté spread on toasted brioche and lovely cheeses.
But those hungering for say, caviar, forget about it. Instead, there are glossy editions of happy-hour standards: superb ground sirloin sliders, a brittle cracker-crust flatbread topped with sneakily spicy chorizo or rich duck confit and sweet caramelized onions and, for snacking, truffle-scented popcorn. Prices hover in the low teens, and service is as smoothly professional as always.
601 1st Av. N., Mpls., 612-312-1168, food served 5 to 10 p.m. Sun.-Wed. and 5 to 11 p.m. Thu.-Sat., bar open to 2 a.m. daily.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib