Let's talk food, from restaurants and recipes to farmers markets, food issues and wine. Lee Svitak Dean, Rick Nelson, Kim Ode and Bill Ward will start the conversation.

Agra Culture opening at Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: September 23, 2014 - 11:57 AM

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."

Burger Friday: Nicollet Diner

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: September 19, 2014 - 3:35 PM

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.

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

Dinner for 2,000 in St. Paul

Posted by: Lee Svitak Dean under Farmers and foraging, Healthy eating, Locally-produced food, Minnesota newsmakers Updated: September 15, 2014 - 1:18 PM
Locally grown produce was featured at a meal for 2,000 in St. Paul. Photos by Richard Tsong-Taatarii/ Star Tribune

Locally grown produce was featured at a meal for 2,000 in St. Paul. Photos by Richard Tsong-Taatarii/ Star Tribune

The dinner table was the gathering place Sunday on Victoria Street in St. Paul. A half-mile dinner table, at that, which ran down the middle of the street between University and Minnehaha avenues as part of a project called "Create: The Community Meal."

The meal was intended to be both a piece of art -- "a big piece of social sculpture," as artist and organizer Seitu Jones described it -- and a reminder that mealtime should be about healthy food, with an emphasis on local fare.

"Everyone has a story written in proteins and carbohydrates and culture and family traditions," said Jones, who was inspired to create this "artwork" after watching people walk by his St. Paul studio in Frogtown with bags of groceries from the local convenience store. "At the heart of the project, it's really about food access, food justice and healthy eating," Jones told staff writer Rick Nelson in an interview.

A majority of the food came from within 50 miles of the Twin Cities, and the event itself brought farmers to the table to meet with those who ate their food.


Eric Avery and Martha Kaemmer await the bell to signal the start of the event.

Eric Avery and Martha Kaemmer await the bell to signal the start of the event.

A parade of hosts brought out the food to the guests.

A parade of hosts brought out the food to the guests.




Rick Nelson interviewed Seitu Jones in advance about the event. Jones spoke with photographer Richard Tsong-Taatarii in this video.




Recipe: Peach cobbler

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Baking, Farmers markets, Recipes Updated: September 15, 2014 - 11:05 AM



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.

For dough:

1 1/4 c. flour

1/3 c. sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

7 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch

1 egg yolk

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 tbsp. very cold water

For cobbler:

3 lb. peaches, peeled, pitted and each cut into 8

1/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. granulated sugar, divided

1/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. firmly packed light brown

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. 

Burger Friday: Crema Cafe

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: September 12, 2014 - 7:57 AM

The burger: There’s no question that Crema Cafe, the home of Sonny's Ice Cream, serves a fine burger. But in a step-away-from-the-script moment here at Burger Friday, let’s pay homage to the menu’s Sloppy Ron.

The name is a nod to chef/co-owner Ron Siron. His version of the Sloppy Joe is a joy to behold, a 50/50 mix of premium ground beef (hailing, as so many top-notch burgers do, from Peterson Limousin Farms in Osceola, Wis.) and pork (from that shining star of all things pork, Fischer Family Farms Pork in Waseca, Minn.), a rich composition held together by a thickly simmered tomato sauce that Siron seasons with a secret spice combination.

Unlike the Sloppy Joe of your high school cafeteria, the Sloppy Ron boasts a nuanced bit of heat at the back of each bite, and that robust tomato-based sauce hits just the right consistency: not so thick that it isn’t sloppy, but not so runny that it doesn’t keep all that delicious ground beef and pork together.

Siron liberally spoons that meaty goodness over a toasted brioche bun that's so expertly made that it could have only come from Rustica. “It’s the same bun we use with our burgers,” said Siron. “It’s kind of weird, because if you get a regular white bun – which I like – they tend to fall apart. But the brioche bun holds the Sloppy Ron and the burgers better. It’s nice and buttery, and they toast really well.”

Yes, they do. As for garnishes, there’s a garden-fresh lettuce leaf and a few nicely vinegar-ey pickles, and that’s it. Not that this meal-in-a-bun needs anything else.

Price: $7.95, a bargain.

Fries: None. Splurge and order the side salad, a thoughtful pile of just-picked organic greens, expertly dressed in a basic and utterly satisfying vinaigrette. It’s well worth the $2.95 investment.

More than ice cream: Siren started serving food at his ice cream shop nearly a decade ago. “We want to make it like a European cafe, with wine and beer and good local food,” he said. “That’s a big buzz word, local, but that’s the way we eat. And when you come in, that’s the way you’ll eat. It’s just good, honest, wholesome food. I’m not Thomas Keller. I’m all about comfort food. Carrie [Gustafson, Siron’s business and life partner] calls me an Italian grandma, because I want to feed everybody and get them fat.”

Coming soon: Siron is going to introduce a vegetarian version of the Sloppy Ron. “We’ll probably start it this fall,” he said.

Meanwhile, at the scoop case: Siron recently began producing gelato: chocolate-hazelnut, brown butter-cashew, vanilla bean and other, gotta-try excursions into frozen creaminess. “The techniques are very different from making ice cream,” he said. “Our old ice cream machines are like bulldozers, really heavy duty. Our gelato machine is like a Ferrari. It doesn’t even sound like a machine. It hums and whistles. It’s fun, and the freshness of the milk and the cream reminds me of the old days, when Sonny [Siron’s late father, and the Sonny of Sonny’s Ice Cream] and I used to make our own bases. I’m turning 60 on Sunday – I thought I’d die before I got old – but I have literally been making ice cream for 50 years.”

One last thought: The cafe's alley-like patio is the epitome of romantic. Take advantage while the weather still cooperates.

Address book: 3403 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls. The Sloppy Ron is available 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 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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