The burger: If the half-pound burger at Mission American Kitchen & Bar is good enough for downtown's captains of industry, it's good enough for the likes of me.
People-watching is a big draw at this 10-year-old IDS Center hot spot. During any given noon hour, a healthy majority of the Hubert White mailing list appears to be congregating over salmon BLTs, Cobb salads, open-face Reubens, French dip sandwiches and other straight-up renditions of all-American fare. (The kitchen's speed and the service staff's unflappable nature are two other major assets, along with that 100 percent address).
If they're smart -- and let's face it, this crowd didn't get where they are by floundering in the shallower percentiles of their B-school grading curves -- they're also making a habit of the Mission burger, which is almost as noteworthy for what it isn't as for what it is.
What it's not is complicated, just a very what-you-see-is-what-you get monster (so big that it tiptoes into knife-and-fork territory). No runny egg yolk to make a mess of that hundred-dollar Talbott tie, no painstaking prepared sauces that a nervous job candidate can't properly pronounce, no exotic bun that will fall apart when it gets into someone's hands.
Instead, the kitchen delivers a loosely packed, thickly formed patty, gingerly seasoned and brought to a faint char, with a barely pink, nicely but not outrageously juicy (see Ruined Tie Comment, above) interior.
The bun is of the soft white variety, barely toasted. Condiments go the bare-bones route: a rash of sweet, not-quite-crunchy grilled onions. A pair of tomato slices that at least look as if they might have come from the summer sun even if they don't taste that way. A single garden-fresh romaine lettuce leaf. And a melty slab of quietly sharp Cheddar.
In short, no surprises, no showy add-ons, just solid burger goodness. Those who prefer their burgers on the conservative side will be all over it.
Fries: Included. Those who gravitate towards the skinny-and-crispy side of the french-fry spectrum will probably not find satisfaction at Mission. The long, skin-on, hand-cut fries are more limp than firm, with a solid, deeply potato-ey bite.
Bear in mind: Consider yourself a rookie if you lunch at Mission minus a reservation. Walk-ins, don't despair: the restaurant's sunny, four-sided bar is one of downtown's most appealing dine-at-the-bar venues.
Address book: 77 S. 7th St. in the IDS Center, Mpls., 612-339-1000. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday.
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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 email@example.com.
Kozlak’s Royal Oak is saying goodbye. Soon.
Co-owners Mark and Lynn Satt have announced that the doors will close following dinner service on March 15.
The couple owns the 36-year-old business but not the building, which is being demolished and replaced by a senior housing complex.
Two other dates of note: On March 8, Mark Satt’s band the JimTones are going to play a final party (Satt is the group’s drummer), and the restaurant’s last brunch is March 9.
As for a new location, “We’re still looking,” said Lynn Satt. “We thought we had something but it fell through last week. What we'd really like to do is join up with an existing restaurant and run it. We have such a fabulous staff here, and we want to take them with us."
Interested in buying a Kozlak’s memento? A number of the restaurant’s fixtures will be auctioned off here.
How great is this?
Librarian John Wareham pulled this fascinating clip from the Star Tribune's archives -- materials for a project for another colleague, Bill Ward -- and he also shared it with me.
As a kid, I was a dedicated follower of Will Jones' entertaining and sharply observant "After Last Night" column in the Minneapolis Tribune. He was the ultimate man-about-town, and in his column, which ran from 1947 to 1984, he covered an astonishingly wide range of entertainment subjects.
He called this Dec. 20, 1964 edition of his column "A Month of Good Eating."
"Here's a list of 31 good dining-out suggestions in the Twin Cities area," he wrote. "Why 31? Because I've sometimes been caught boasting, in a Chamber-of-Commerce way, that it would be possible to take a visitor to a different place for dinner every night for a month and send him away well-fed and impressed. So this is a put-up-or-shut-up kind of deal: a concrete list of 31 places to go; a long month of good eating."
Of the 31 restaurants on Jones’ "guide to gastronomy," six impressively remain, in one form or another, a half-century later.
In the those-were-the-days department, there’s the Normandy Village (now Normandy Kitchen, pictured above in a Star Tribune file photo). Get this: “They put you in a good frame of mind here by presenting you immediately, not with the usual relish or hors d’oeuvres tray, but with a pot of caviar, some crackers and a cheese board with a wedge of Roquefort,” Jones wrote. “Presently, they pass hot popovers, and if you think to ask the waitress for the sour cream that would normally be delivered later with the baked potato, you can concoct a magnificent delicacy: hot popover, sour cream, caviar.”
For Murray’s, Jones offered a gender-specific observation and some sage advice: “There are women who have been known to eat all the Murray’s garlic bread at their own table and then steal garlic bread from other tables to put in their purses and take home,” he wrote. “Don’t give a waitress any lip here unless you’re prepared to get some back; they’re no-nonsense pros.”
After visiting Lindey’s Prime Steak House, Jones was taken with the “beautiful and uncomplicated eating.” Note the average price for dinner: $2.85 to $4.35.
It’s lovely to see how many Jax Cafe traditions have endured in the half-century since Jones visited the restaurant, which dates to 1933. “Consistently good moderately priced steaks and live Maine lobster (you can pick your own from a saltwater tank if you like) have made Jax a Nordeast institution. Sundays there’s outdoor dining by a trout pond with flamingos strutting about.”
At the time, Fuji-Ya owner Reiko Weston (pictured, above, with her daughter Carol) operated two locations: One on LaSalle Av. near 9th St. in downtown Minneapolis (pictured, above), the other in Alley 29 in downtown St. Paul. “Here you get your choice of two good places run by the same management,” Jones wrote. “Both places have private booths where you sit with your shoes off; there are low Japanese tables, but with foot wells underneath so Westerners don’t have to squat during the meal.”
For sheer midcentury cattiness, my favorite might be his description of the Lowell Inn (pictured above in a 2001 Star Tribune file photo): “Nothing’s usual in this midwestern replica of Mt. Vernon. In the Matterhorn Room, there’s one meal and one meal alone: Dinner begins with snails and sherry, continues through a do-it-yourself salad and a sampling of white wines and then fondue Bourguignonne (chunks of cook-it-yourself tenderloin which you frazzle in hot oil) accompanied by countless choice relishes and sauces and a sampling of red wines and ends with a dessert of chilled grapes in brown-sugared sour cream. All this in an aggressively Swiss setting dominated by intricate woodcarving.
“In the regular dining room, it’s more like eating in an elegant antiques shop; the table service is antique too. Maddeningly inflexible waitresses will recite the menu, or you can read it from a china plate upon which it’s inscribed. There are steaks, trout from the premises and a superb fried chicken. Assorted warm sweet breads are passed with jams and the special house chutney. It’s all presided over by the resident white-haired grande dame, Nelle Palmer, who wouldn’t be caught dead outside a Parisian gown and about three-quarters of a pound of jewelry.
“In the cocktail lounge, cocktails are served in birdbath-sized bowls; martinis are made with an atomizer for vermouth; women get rhinestone-studded highball glasses. Food and booze, amazingly, live up to the show-biz trappings.”
As for the long-gone restaurants that sound most time-travel worthy, I'd say they include:
Harry’s Cafe (11th St. and Nicollet Av., Mpls., pictured above in a 1960 Star Tribune file photo): “Three floors of sustained cheerfulness mark this Minneapolis institution," Jones wrote. "There’s a long and substantial chophouse menu, and I’m afraid I’ve developed far too many favorites for my own good. It’s one of the places I think of almost automatically when I yearn for a good steamed live lobster. The English mutton chop with kidney center, the mixed grill and the prime rib sandwich are always good. So is the extra-thick broiled liver, which you can actually get rare upon demand. I’ve given up on the Harry’s Salad, which is something special, for the coleslaw, which is unique. The giant Harry’s martini is the original Minnesota White Death."
Blue Horse (University Av. near Hamline Av., St. Paul): “A Beverly Hills matron’s notion of what a French cellar should look like. Fingernail-tiny Pacific-coast Olympia oysters a specialty, flown in in fresh, in season. Caesar salad is a big production, Hollywood-style, from a cart.”
Cedars of Lebanon (Hwy. 10, between University Av. and Central Av. NE., Spring Lake Park): “If you’re doubtful about the Arab names on the menu, they’ll stuff you with a full sampling of everything in the house for $5 a person. There’s always Middle Eastern music on the record player, and sometimes relatives and friends drop in with Arab drums and pipes.”
Donaldson’s North Shore Grill (Nicollet Av. and 6th St., Mpls., pictured above in a 1948 photo, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society): “Minnesota walleyed pike and lake trout get simple but loving care here; the place has been noted for fish since the turn of the century. Dessert? Maple frango, what else? This is where it was introduced to Minnesota years ago. Donaldson's also introduced department-store drinking to Minnesota recently, with a nice little-old-ladylike cocktail list for those who aren't sure what they're about.”
Foo Chu (Excelsior Av. and Joppa Av., St. Louis Park), if only for the alarming pre-feminist recommendation: “There are new bamboo-curtained hideaway booths for twosomes, and a special list of far-eastern-sounding drinks to use for plying susceptible ladies therein. All that notwithstanding, it’s a popular family place.”
And, for the name alone, the Poodle (Hennepin Av. and 8th St., Mpls.): “It’s not a restaurant but a bar with a well-catered lunch counter. Since the remarkably thick hot pastrami and corned beef sandwiches are served until 8 p.m., and since you can accompany them with all the herring and hot peppers and other relishes you can eat, it’s possible to feed a visitor extremely well for 50 cents and call it dinner.”
Jones wrote about food with some frequency. Three years prior to this edition of his column, he published a cookbook, "Wild in the Kitchen," and in 1979 he famously described the method for cooking dog, part of a Hong Kong-based series (and yes, "the leftovers went home in 'a literal doggie bag,'" noted his obituary writer, Trudi Hahn).
He retired in 1984, two years after the morning Tribune and afternoon Star merged to form the Star Tribune. He died in 2004 at age 80.
Burger Friday is on a blessedly snow-free vacation, but took a moment to drop in on In-N-Out Burger. It has been a few years, but my memory nailed it: The famous Double-Double (a sort-of Big Mac, only eons better) is everything it's cracked up to be, and more, starting with the crazy low price of $3.30.
It was delicious, and if the line hadn't been so daunting, I would have ordered a follow-up. Unfortunately for Minnesotans, the closest outlet of this quality-obsessed, California-based chain is in Dallas. But In-N-Out's iconic, yellow-arrow swoosh of a sign would certainly fit in at the Mall of America. Can someone make that happen? Soon?
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