The burger: I’ll admit that I detected the barest, faintest whiff of a sellout when I spied a burger on the lunch menu at the otherwise rigorously disciplined Brasserie Zentral. After all, this all-American staple doesn’t really have a profile among the gathering places of Vienna, Budapest, Munich and other sources of inspiration for this remarkable newcomer.
But Zentral finds itself in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, and chef/co-owner Russell Klein is nothing if not a realist. He has a clientele to serve, and some of them are probably going to want to spend their lunch break cozied up to a burger rather than a schnitzel or corned veal tongue salad. “Part of being a brasserie is being accessible,” said Klein. “Our concept might be challenging for some people, although I don’t think that it is. People see German, they think it’s weird. A burger, however, is straightforward, it’s easy to understand. Besides, who doesn’t like a good burger?”
Ok, sold. And it’s not as if Klein doesn’t incorporate regional gestures into the Zentral burger. The opposite, actually, making it something of a novelty burger, and an excellent one, at that.
Naturally, the ground beef is seasoned with paprika, that mainstay of Hungarian cuisine. Zentral's house-made version is a special point of pride for the restaurant. Klein has hundreds of pounds of organic red bell peppers – harvested at Riverbend Farm in Delano – dehydrating in the restaurant’s vast basement workrooms. They’re ground on an as-needed basis, to create vivaciously fresh paprika. “It’s an every-day process,” said Klein. “They hit the spice grinder, releasing oils and aromas, and the flavor is a night-and-day comparison over all the other paprikas that we looked at. I still haven’t found any that compares, even the stuff that we brought home from Hungary.”
Klein folds just enough of that pungent paprika into the lean, flavorful, grass-fed beef to lend it a hint of a punch. The patties themselves are heavyweights, portion-wise, and the kitchen takes them to the point where their exteriors boast a rustic char but their interiors are pink, velvety and juicy.
The toppings continue the travelogue-on-the-Danube vibe. Cheese is a gooey, gruyere-like raclette. Granted, it’s not the same premium raclette that takes center stage next door at Foreign Legion. That’s the Kleins’ cheese-obsessed wine bar, where raclette – the dish – is one of the menu’s must-order specialties (be sure and get the version with salty, herb-seasoned Italian ham). Opting for a perfectly servicable raclette – the cheese – for the Zentral burger is strictly a cost-cutting move. “Otherwise, we’d have to charge $20 for the burger,” said Klein with a laugh.
There’s also a generous swipe of aioli that’s fortified with horseradish and vinegar-ey gherkins. More much-needed acid comes from a juicy tomato slice, and a pile of soft caramelized onions adds just-right sweet notes.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. “Yeah, it’s a messy burger,” said Klein, in total understatement mode. Even the sturdy pretzel bun (Klein is obsessed with pretzels; if you’re visiting on a weekday, scoot upstairs to the skyway-level Cafe Zentral and pick up one of the kitchen’s marvelously chewy ones for the road) isn’t enough to hold this monster together, so, yes, you’ll be reaching for a knife and fork. Trust me, those utensils won’t leave your hands until you’ve relished every morsel.
Price: $14.50 ($15.50 with cheese, and that’s a must), and worth it.
Fries: Included. The menu hails “Belgian frites,” but I opted for a salad instead. What was I thinking? At the time, leafy greens felt like the health-conscious thing to do. It was a decision fostered by observation: diners at an adjacent table were enjoying burgers, and the sight of their sheer heft sent a shiver through my cholesterol level, enough to take my appetite off deep-fried potatoes. Of course, now I’m consumed with regret, because the fries at the Kleins’ Meritage are one of the primary reasons to visit downtown St. Paul. Next time.
Nighttime note: For those who can't make Zentral for lunch, Klein has recently added the burger to his dinner menu. The move almost – note, almost -- makes up for his decision to remove the not-to-be-believed semolina dumplings, served in an emerald-green tomato water-herb consommé. It was one of the loveliest dishes I’ve tasted this year, and I’m draping my cubicle in black crepe at this very moment as I mourn its demise.
Address book: 505 Marquette Av., Mpls., 612-333-0505. Lunch served Tuesday through Friday, dinner served Tuesday through Sunday.
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More change is coming to the dining operations at the Minneapolis Insitute of Arts, and soon.
The owners of Agra Culture Kitchen & Press announced that they are opening a branch of their counter-service operation -- their third -- at the museum in mid-October.
Agra Culture debuted in May in Uptown and then launched a second location in the 50th-and-France commercial district in southwest Minneapolis in July (find my review here).
The chain is the work of Andrea and Aaron Switz, the founders of fast-growing Yogurt Lab (which has grown to 10 outlets since opening in 2011). The couple tapped former Macy's chef Tim Scott to create Agra Culture's breakfast-lunch-dinner menu, which emphasizes organic and sustainably raised ingredients and includes nods to those following vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets. Scott and the Switzes parted company earlier this month.
No further details are available, but Agra Culture will replace several short-lived ventures from Stock and Badge, the partnership behind Dogwood Coffee Co. and Rustica. S&B operates the lobby-level Dogwood Coffee Bar and Half Pint, which is tailored to children; both opened less than a year ago. The company also briefly operated Grain Stack, a counter-service restaurant located on the museum's mezzanine-level dining space; it closed in June.
"We understand that the museum's preference is to have a single food vendor," said Dogwood owner Greg Hoyt. "We supply Agra Culture with coffee, and we're happy to continue to supply the museum through them."
Stock and Badge is moving out of the restaurant business. The company shuttered its not-quite-two-year-old Parka on Sunday, and is converting the East Lake Street location into a Dogwood Coffee bar.
"We're going to be concentrating on coffee and bakery," said Hoyt. "So it goes."
The burger: For 75 years, Mickey’s Diner has been short-ordering its way into the lives of St. Paul downtowners on a 24/7/365 basis. What a track record! That we-never-close mentality is a priceless urban amenity that’s sorely lacking in downtown Minneapolis, although that deficiency might come to an end, soon.
The Nicollet Diner, a newcomer now lighting up the corner of 15th St. and Nicollet Av. on the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis, is applying for a 24-hour license. There’s a hearing at Minneapolis City Hall on Sept. 23 at 1:30 p.m.; here’s hoping it passes.
In the meantime, there are burgers to be had. Many, many burgers. “They are infinitely customizable,” said my enthusiastic server, pointing out the nearly two-dozen available mix-and-match add-ons to the basic burger structure. Some of those embellishments are gratis (lettuce, onions, dill pickles), others invoke a 75-cent surcharge (fried egg, sour cream, avocado, basil pesto, tomato, and, in what is perhaps a first for me, pineapple).
I asked my server what he prefers. “Avocado, bacon and a fried egg is my personal favorite,” he replied. Sounds delicious, but my cheapskate self stuck with the freebies,which included thin-sliced red onions that had spent some time mellowing on the stove, a crisp lettuce leaf and dill pickles, cut lengthwise along the cucumber, rather than as chips.
There’s a choice of six cheeses, and while the menu isn’t clear on this front, they aren’t free; you’ll be hit with a 75-cent surcharge. Fine. But perhaps the Powers That Be could be up front about that; maybe Muenster, smoked Cheddar, Swiss, American and their ilk belong under the menu's “Not Free Stuff” section (note: the menu on the restaurant’s website does note the 75-cent cheese fee).
Anyway. Here’s what’s great about a diner: My burger arrived in six minutes. The bun (again, there are choices, wheat or white; I opted for the latter, because, apparently, I’m as white bread as they come) was pleasantly soft and lightly toasted, a fine vehicle for delivering the remaining burger basics.
The patty is obviously hand-formed, and big enough so that it hugs the bun's outer edges. It's fairly thick, cooked to a uniform, slightly pink medium and allowed to developed a gentle exterior char, and it’s got enough juice to demonstrate that it did not hail from frozen ground beef. It’s not promising more than exactly what it is: a straightforward diner burger, thoughtfully treated and sold at a commensurate price. I’ll be back.
Price: $5.95 for a basic, a more-than decent deal.
Fries: Extra ($3.95 and $4.95), and a miss; mine arrived noticeably greasy and over-fried. The chocolate malt ($4.95), however, was right on the money, its plentiful leftovers served, just as they should be, in their frost-covered can. More reasons to admire: The kitchen seems blissfully unaware of the existance of Reddi-wip and those verging-on-plastic maraschino cherries that send far too many malts and shakes into ruination. Hurrah. Like the burger, my malt was not trying to be anything it’s not – no frozen custard, no designer ice cream (it’s Kemps), no molecular gastronomy-inspired flavors – just a soda fountain-style favorite, mixed in a flash and wonderfully cold and creamy and easily consumed with a straw. By comparison, why do people put up with those soft-serve so-called “malts” at fast-food joints?
Good morning: The kitchen just lifted its 11 a.m. closing curtain on breakfast, and is now serving its pancakes-omelets-French toast menu all day. And, hopefully, if all goes well on at that hearing on the 23rd, all night, too.
Address book: 1428 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-339-6258 (that's 339-MALT, naturally). Open 6 am. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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Peach season is in full swing (I spied this beauties -- direct from Coloma, Mich. -- on Saturday, at the East Town Market in Milwaukee). Take advantage with this can't-miss cobbler recipe. I've never made a better one.
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: From Williams-Sonoma.
1 1/4 c. flour
1/3 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
7 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch cubes
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. very cold water
3 lb. peaches, peeled, pitted and each cut into 8 slices
1/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. granulated sugar, divided
1/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. firmly packed light brown sugar
2 1/2 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg, lightly beaten
Vanilla ice cream for serving
To prepare dough: In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine flour, sugar and salt and pulse just to combine. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, with butter pieces no larger than small peas.
In a small bowl, whisk together egg yolk, vanilla and cold water. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and pulse just until dough pulls together; do not overmix.
Transfer dough to a work surface, pat into a ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
To prepare cobbler: When ready to bake, preheat an oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, stir together peaches, 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. granulated sugar, the brown sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice and nutmeg. Transfer to a 2-quart rectangular baking dish and scatter butter pieces on top.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out cobbler dough to a ¼-inch thickness. Tear dough into 3-inch pieces and place on top of peach filling. Brush dough with beaten egg and sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.
Bake cobbler for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350ºF and bake until topping is browned, 50 to 60 minutes more.
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