Restaurant news: Le Town Talk Diner and Salt Cellar

  • Updated: July 9, 2014 - 2:10 PM
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The former Town Talk Diner will now have a French accent.

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Speaking French at the Town Talk Diner

After a three-year hiatus, the historic Town Talk Diner is going to be back in business.

The E. Lake Street landmark — dark since January 2011 — is being revived by spouses Emilie Cellai Johnson and Ben Johnson, and being re-christened Le Town Talk French Diner & Drinkery (2707 E. Lake St., Mpls).

“We want to redefine French food,” said Cellai Johnson. “You say ‘French restaurant,’ and people get scared, they think that they won’t be able to afford it, that it will be too fancy.”

Not here. “We’ll be using all of my family recipes, from my French mother and Italian grandmother,” she said. “I’ll put my spin on them to make it modern, but it will still be the classic comfort food that we made at home. Eating at home is accessible to everyone.”

Fortunately for Twin Cities diners, Cellai Johnson grew up in a household where, “if we weren’t eating, we were cooking, and if we weren’t cooking, we were talking about food,” she said with a laugh. “I was lucky to grow up in that house.”

A native of Marseille, she relocated to the United States for a job at the former Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington. Following a stint at Patrick’s Bakery & Cafe in Richfield, she spent the past decade working in restaurant sales for Reinhard Food Service.

Ben Johnson is a D’Amico and Partners veteran and is currently a real estate project developer with the Neighborhood Development Center, a nonprofit small-business incubator that revitalizes low-income neighborhoods.

The menu will include sweet and savory crêpes (including a monthly all-you-can-consume crêpes-fest), bouillabaisse (“the typical fish stew of my hometown,” said Cellai Johnson), steak frites with a green salad (“it’s what my mom cooked on Saturday after coming back from the farmers market, you know, boom, that was lunch”) and Corsican stew, a slow-cooked beef stew in a tomato sauce with carrots and black olives and served over pasta (“it’s one of my favorite dishes and it’s what we ate for our wedding dinner”), along with a handful of small plates, including grilled bread topped with roasted red peppers, olive tapenade or caponata.

Dessert will include chocolate mousse and, naturally, tarte Tatin. St. Paul Farmers Market shoppers will recall Cellai Johnson’s exceptional version of this classic French upside-down apple tart, which she sold under the name the Original tarte Tatin. She gave up the popular stand when their daughter, Lilou, was born two years ago.

In an effort to continue the Town Talk’s tradition of first-rate libations-making, the couple have turned to Julien Masson, a culinary school friend of Cellai Johnson’s and now the bar manager at the InterContinental Hotel in Marseille. He is creating a list of champagne cocktails as well as a roster of drinks built using French spirits. Groups of four or more will be able to order cocktails as a “cascade,” served in an absinthe fountain.

The space is undergoing a slight makeover. The historic diner will retain its original fixtures, and the dining room is getting an upgrade with a new floor, different lighting and the addition of banquettes. “We want to make it cozy and comfortable and accessible,” said Cellai Johnson.

As for that eye-grabbing sign, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s getting an addendum: a “Le” on its top left side.

The Town Talk’s stainless steel-trimmed space dates to 1946. It closed in 2002 and remained dark until a trio of restaurateurs — including the current partnership behind the Strip Club — flipped the switch on that iconic marquee in 2006, using the diner as a bar and creating a dining room in an adjacent storefront. The Theros Restaurant Group (St. Clair Broiler, Rudolphs) took over in 2008 and closed it three years later.

The couple plan to start by serving dinner and weekend brunch. The scheduled opening date is Emilie’s birthday, Sept. 13. “It will be the most stressful birthday I will ever have,” she said with a laugh.

RICK NELSON

Steak-and-seafood

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