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Burger Friday: Spoonriver

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: February 28, 2014 - 4:05 PM

The burger: Spoonriver owner Brenda Langton was not accustomed to serving lamb at Cafe Brenda, her long-running, vegetarian-focused Warehouse District restaurant. That’s an understatement: It never appeared on the menu. But when she launched Spoonriver in 2006, Langton broadened her protein horizons and created what quickly became an anchor item: a lamb burger, seasoned with Moroccan spices and served with a vivid harissa. And it’s a knockout.

It starts, as it should, with first-rate meat, nurtured in pastures near Hutchinson, Minn., from farmers Doug Rathke and Connie Karstens (if you’ve ever enjoyed the couple's stand at the Minnesota State Fair  -- the Lamb Shoppe, in the Food Building – then you know first-hand that they raise a premium product). Langton rather ingeniously lightens the meat’s intense lamb-ness by folding quinoa into the ground lamb. Then she leads taste buds on a guided tour to North Africa with a carefully balanced blend of fennel, garlic, coriander, mint, parsley, paprika and cumin. The results are lively and juicy, and still allow the meat’s rich bite to shine through.

The thick patties are browned in a skillet on the stove and then finished in the oven. As for the bun, it's of the soft multigrain variety (from the New French Bakery), one that proves to be a complementary match for that subtly seasoned ground lamb; no sweet brioche or sturdy Kaiser roll for this one. Lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado and that ultra-fragrant harissa round out the garnish brigade.

It’s delicious, and clearly a candidate for membership in the local non-beef burger pantheon. Here’s one way to gauge the Spoon Burger’s enduring popularity: “It’s in our cookbook,” said Langton, referring to her “Spoonriver Cookbook,” which was published in 2012. “A lot of people buy the book just for that recipe.”

Price: $13.50 at lunch and weekend brunch, $14.50 at dinner.

Fries: None. Instead, opt for the side salad, which turns out to be one of the city’s most remarkable payoffs on a $2 investment. This is a restaurant that actually cares about lettuce greens, and the concern and effort shows.

“I had a salad the other day at a restaurant that shall remain nameless,” said Langton. “It was the limpest, dumbest and most horrible spring mix. There was no life left in it.”

Not so at Spoonriver. “We like crispy, crunchy, fresh lettuce,” she said. “We buy and make and wash our own mix, and that variety of lettuces is so much better.” Yes, it certainly is.

Bonus round: Don’t you love the show-and-tell aspect of a dessert tray? Pastry chef Stacy Sowinski (you may recall the name from her former days as a first-rate éclair-making machine at Sweetski’s) has a well-practiced knack for turning out appealing desserts that minimize sugar content and maximize flavor, often while working within challenging vegan and gluten-free frameworks. Case in point: A cool coconut-milk tapioca brimming with almond, black currant and mango accents. Delicious.

Ok, one more thing: With this punishing winter transforming the Twin Cities into a real-life version of the “Star Wars” ice planet Hoth, there’s something incredibly soothing about stepping inside the built-in warmth of sun-soaked Spoonriver. “We’re like Mazatlan in here,” said Langton with a laugh, and she’s not too far off the mark. With its blood-orange walls and floor-to-ceiling windows, Langton’s long, skinny dining room (still effortlessly stylish as it approaches its eighth birthday) makes lunch feel as if you’re temporarily ensconced in a more forgiving climate. Priceless, right?

Address book: 750 S. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-436-2236. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, for dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and for brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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