The burger: Because the place invariably makes me a little bit nuts, I view visits to the Mall of America as a chore rather than a treat. There, I said it. Still, I found myself there earlier this week, taking a seat at the highly animated counter at Johnny Rockets.
I can’t recall the last time I’d visited the sole Minnesota outlet of this California-based company, but the word “decade” probably applies. The nostalgia-dipped chain dates to 1986 in Los Angeles; its MoA outpost debuted when the mall opened in 1992. Today, the company (its name is a mash-up of two Americana bedrocks: Johnny Appleseed, and the classic Oldsmobile Rocket 88) operates more than 300 locations, which fry up a collective 17 million burgers each year.
I stuck with the basics and ordered “the Original.” As fast-food burgers go (it arrived in six minutes), it’s not bad. Not bad at all. It reminded me of the countless drive-in burgers that I inhaled as a kid, only slightly larger, a move befitting our supersized culture. The third-pound, thicker-than-Burger King’s beef patty was clearly fresh rather than frozen, a good start. Although it left the flattop grill both under-seasoned and well into medium-well, the patty still managed to muster some meaty sizzle, if not a lot of juice.
It's more team player than attention-grabber, and somewhat overshadowed by the burger's remaining elements, all classics. The soft, gently yeasty bun gets a just-right toasting. A spread of tangy, semi-crunchy dill pickle chips acts as a barrier between lower bun and patty (not that the toasted bread had to worry about being soaked by running juices, as there weren't any), and it’s topped with a dash of raw chopped white onions, a generous handful of shredded iceberg lettuce, a standard-issue tomato slice, a squirt of yellow mustard and a thick swipe of mayonnaise.
No surprises, certainly, but It all adds up to an agreeably sloppy mess (I think I went through six paper napkins, which is always an encouraging sign), and the whole shebang is thoughtfully held together by an easy-to-handle wax paper wrapper. I repeat: Not bad.
Price: $5.39. Going the cheeseburger route is an extra $1.29, a somewhat outrageous mark-up for a humdrum slice of American.
Fries: Not included. There’s a $2.79 upcharge (the smiley-face plate of ketchup is presumably folded in the tab), and I can’t say that the thick-cut, pale, limp, under-salted effort is worth the extra dough.
On the soda fountain front: My chocolate malt ($4.49) was the honest-to-goodness real thing, not some tragic food-court soft-serve nightmare. The upside is that it sported the right thick-ish consistency, and the overflow arrived in a frost-covered stainless steel malt can, just as it should be. The downside? There was little more than the barest, faintest trace of chocolate flavor. And while complaining about authenticity is more than a little ridiculous in this highly artificial environment, but would it kill the corporate powers that be to ix-nay the tacky plastic soda fountain glasses?
Blast from the past: Don’t forget a few nickels fpr the juke box, which reminded me that I'd not heard the “American Graffiti” and “The Big Chill” soundtracks in forever. My budget allowed one selection on the tableside Seeburg Wall-O-Matic, a spin through the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” and it was easily my week’s best-spent five cents.
Take a seat: There are two ways to experience Johnny Rockets: Wait in line for takeout then schlep over to a smattering of nearby tables, or take a seat at the counter and place yourself in the capable hands of the serving staff. I highly recommend the latter because a large percentage of the red vinyl swivel chairs provide ringside seats to the action at the stove. It’s quite a show, a frenetic, highly choreographed production that made this diner appreciate, once again, the sweat required to keep even a basic burger joint up and running.
It’s also one of the few places at The Nation’s Largest Shopping Center where people are likely to rub elbows with complete strangers. The young girls seated next to me were clearly reveling in every aspect of their Johnny Rockets experience: reacting to the constant roar echoing across the Nickelodeon Universe amusement park, gazing in amazement at the fleet-footed crew as they went through their paces, ooh-ing and aah-ing over their burgers and malts. Living vicariously through their delight was a happy eye-opener for this not-so-occasionally jaded diner.
Real deal: And now for the True Confessions portion of today’s Burger Friday. My original intention for this megamall excursion was to partake in the (extraordinary) burger-and-beer deal at FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar. Here's the deal: choose from one of four iterations (turkey, bison, walleye or a white Cheddar cheeseburger, all paired with fries) and any one of the bar’s tap beers (including brews from Fulton, Summit, Surly, Schell’s, Big Wood and other locals), and fork over a shocking $10.
Yeah, ten dollars. The offer is available in the bar only, although being relegated to that handsome refuge of a space can hardly be labeled a hardship. There’s just one hitch. This Deal of Deals is a midday-only special, available 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. My convoluted brain had somehow twisted it into a happy hour offer, which is why my 6 p.m. appetite ended up at Johnny Rockets. Next time I’ve got an MoA lunch on the calendar, I’m definitely heading to the Radisson Blu. It's easy: the hotel is accessible from the mall through the second floor of South Avenue; the restaurant is on the same level.
Address book: Johnny Rockets, 370 South Avenue (on the edge of the food court), Mall of America, Bloomington, 952-858-8158. Open 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, second floor, Radisson Blu hotel, 2100 Killebrew Dr., Bloomington, 952-851-4040. Burger and beer special served 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at email@example.com.
That’s what the guys behind Eagle Street Grille in downtown St. Paul are doing. Their effort to diversify brings them to the corner of Western and Selby avenues this fall with a steak-and-seafood spot that will play homage to classic tableside service. The Salt Cellar — a nod to the grand past of the Cathedral Hill neighborhood — is expected to open in late October.
“We decided a while ago that we wanted to step out and open up a different venue, a high-end steak-and-seafood restaurant. We want to stretch our wings and bring out classic service and do something different from we have been doing,” said Kevin Geisen, who with Joe Kasel, owns Eagle Street Grille. Both grew up in St. Paul.
They’ve gathered a team to help them that includes Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, as consultant, and Blake Watson, formerly assistant manager of Interlachen Country Club, as general manager. The restaurant will be located in a building that formerly housed the College of Visual Arts, at 173 Western Av. Interior design will be from Joe Kasel and Elements Design of Davenport, Iowa. Mohagen Hansen of Wayzata is the architectural firm behind the effort.
“Joe and I, when we started this concept, we were looking at bringing back a classical style of service that really isn’t practiced as much anymore. It’s service I performed in the past at restaurants when I was younger," said Geisen. "Joe and I want to bring it back with a twist, a feeling, if you will, that we remember when we were kids when we were out with our families. We may not have nailed down everything we’re going to do yet, but it’s the tableside service that we’re really focusing on."
That means a classic Caesar salad prepared tableside, chateaubriand dished up with flair, bananas foster flambéed, all presented with just enough drama to assure a sense of special occasion.
"It's kind of like bringing the kitchen out onto the floor, making it a little more interactive for the guests," said Geisen.
The dining room will seat 150 to 160, with more in the lounge; a private dining room will be available. Entrees are expected in the low $20s to low $40s. “Big picture is this is St. Paul. We’re a working class city so we’re keeping that in mind and pricing our stuff accordingly,” said Kasel. In other words, no $80 steaks on the menu.
The emphasis will be on updated classics, whether it’s cocktails or entrees (think martinis and veal Oscar). Grass-fed beef will be center-of-the-plate for many diners; seafood will definitely include walleye. Watson will curate the wine list. “There will be a small cellar in the restaurant and great wines by the glass in the bar area," he said. And no big markups — more retail than restaurant markup.
“I think it will be a pretty spectacular looking place, with lots of glass,” said Russo. “You can see into the prep area off the street. There will be lots of visual cues as to what’s going on. You’re going to pretty much see everything.”
That includes the butchering of meat. The space includes sufficient room for a large meat locker. “They will be bringing in whole animals, using the same methods and techniques that we use at Heartland. They will be making their own sausage. And they want to bake their own bread as well,” said Russo, who has a prospective chef and sous chef in mind.
“We’re excited for the opportunity,” said Geisen. “We’re definitely looking forward to moving into the neighborhood and working with the people around there and building that relationship. The team that we’ve assembled, with Blake Watson and Lenny Russo, is something we’re really proud of.”
After a depressing three-year hiatus, the historic Town Talk Diner is going to be back in business.
The East 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.
Emilie has culinary and hotel/restaurant management degrees from her native Marseille. After working in a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower in Paris, she relocated to the Twin Cities for a job at the Hotel Sofitel, where she met chef Patrick Bernet. She helped Bernet and his wife Azita open their Patrick’s Bakery & Cafe, then spent the last decade working in restaurant sales for Reinhard Food Service.
Ben is a D’Amico and Partners veteran and is currently a real estate project developer with the Neighborhood Development Center, a non-profit small-business incubator that revitalizes low-income neighborhoods. The couple has been scouting sites for two years before finally landing the Town Talk.
“It’s the right space for us, it’s such a perfect fit,” said Cellai Johnson. “We have a small budget, and we needed an existing kitchen, we couldn’t afford to build from scratch. We love the neighborhood. It’s full of younger families, and that’s what who we are, and who we want to serve.”
The Town Talk’s status as a diner was another key attraction.
“By being a diner previously, we have the opportunity to keep it casual,” said Cellai Johnson. “We want to redefine French food. 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,” said Cellai Johnson. “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. “My mom is a phenomenal cook, and my grandmother is a phenomenal cook. I was lucky to grow up in that house.”
The menu will include sweet and savory crepes (including a monthly all-you-can-consume crepes-fest), bouillabaisse (“the typical fish stew of my hometown,” said Cellai Johnson), “Marseille” burgers (the patties will be packed with herbs), croque monsieur and croque madame, 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.
“Everything has a little bit of a story behind it,” said Cellai Johnson (pictured, left, with husband Ben). “It feels more personal, so people can learn that we’re being true to ourselves.”
Dessert will include “a to-die-for” 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.
“That was when we had time to have a full-time job and an extra job on the weekend,” Cellai Johnson said with a laugh. “Maybe we’ll sell them again at the market, because people loved it.”
I know I did. In an effort to continue the Town Talk’s tradition of first-rate libations-making, the couple has 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 has a fabled history. The stainless-steel trimmed space dates to 1946, and it fed a generation of workers from the nearby Minneapolis Moline farm implements factory. When the plant was shuttered in the early 1960s, the diner sputtered on, finally closing in 2002.
A trio of restaurateurs – including the current partnership behind the Strip Club in St. Paul – flipped the switch on the Town Talk’s 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) bought the place in 2008 and closed it three years later.
The couple plans 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.
The Minnesota State Fair announced its new foods lineup for the 2014 Great Minnesota Get-Together. Which one (or ones) among the 28 newcomers will capture some of the hype of previous best-sellers, including last year's talker (pictured, above) from the French Meadow Bakery, the Dough-Sant?
Here's the list:
Beer Gelato: Gelato blended with local craft beer and made fresh daily, on-site (Manciniʼs Al Fresco)
Bacon-Wrapped Turkey Leg: A roasted turkey leg (pictured above) wrapped in a layer of bacon (Texas Steak Out)
Bison Dog: Hickory-smoked, gluten-free and made from naturally pasture-raised bison in River Falls Wis., and served Chicago-style or with a choice of fixings on a gluten-free, poppy seed or plain bun (Chicago Dogs)
Blue Cheese & Corn Fritz: Four deep-fried corn fritters stuffed with crumbled blue cheese (pictured above) and served with a fresh herb chimichurri (The Blue Barn, a new vendor)
Breakfast Juicy LuLu: An English muffin with two American cheese-stuffed sausage patties (LuLuʼs Public House, a new vendor)
Caramel Apple Ice Cream: Tractor-churned vanilla ice cream infused with real caramel and diced Granny Smith apples (R&R Ice Cream)
Caribbean-Style Lobster Roll: Chilled lobster salad (pictured above) tossed in a citrus chipotle mayo seasoned with cayenne pepper, allspice and nutmeg and served on a soft buttered and grilled roll (Café Caribe)
Chicken in the Waffle: Crispy chicken nestled in a crunchy waffle cone, then smothered with a creamy sausage gravy (The Blue Barn)
Chilaquiles: Corn tortilla chips covered in chili verde sauce with chicken then topped with eggs and garnished with lettuce, tomato and sour cream (El Sol Mexican Food)
Chocolate Dessert Salami: Chocolate, butter, almonds and walnuts all blended and rolled into a salami shape (pictured above), dusted with powdered sugar, then sliced and served on specialty crackers (Sausage Sister and Me)
Deep-Fried Breakfast On-a-Stick: American and Swiss cheeses, a sausage patty, an egg and Canadian bacon all sandwiched between two pancakes, then dipped in batter and deep-fried (The Sandwich Stop)
Deep-Fried Buckeyes: A creamy peanut butter ball coated in chocolate, dipped in funnel cake batter, deep-fried, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a strawberry sauce (Spaghetti Eddieʼs)
Deep-Fried Lobster On-a-Stick: Canadian lobster pieces poached in butter, dipped in a corn batter, deep-fried and served with a spiced dipping sauce (LuLuʼs Public House)
Gluten-Free Beer-Battered Brat: A locally-made gluten- and nitrate-free brat, dipped in a beer batter and deep-fried on-a-stick (Sonnyʼs Spiral Spuds)
Hot Toasted Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich: Two toasted waffles sandwich a wedge of vanilla ice cream, with a light powdered sugar dusting (West End Creamery, a new vendor)
Iron Range Pierogies: Deep-fried dumplings stuffed with potatoes and cheddar cheese, topped with crispy onion strings and served with a zingy horsey sauce (The Blue Barn)
Jell-O Salad Ice Cream: Inspired by the classic Minnesota potluck dessert (and served in church dining halls everywhere), this Jell-O salad features a sweet cream base flavored with fresh lime juice, swirled with cranberry sauce and blended with marshmallows dipped in marshmallow crème. Made by Izzyʼs Ice Cream, this flavor is only available at the Hamline Church Dining Hall during the 2014 Minnesota State Fair (Hamline Church Dining Hall)
JonnyPops: This all-natural frozen fruit and cream bar is like a smoothie on-a-stick (pictured above). A variety of flavor choices includes the Minnesota State Fair-exclusive: Snelling Strawberry Rhubarb (JonnyPops, a new vendor)
Korean BBQ Collar with Kimchi Pickles: Slow-smoked pork collar finished with a garlic ginger BBQ glaze and served with kimchi pickles (Famous Daveʼs)
North Shore Pasta – Walleye Mac & Cheese: Fresh-smoked walleye with sweet corn kernels and roasted red peppers atop a bed of cavatappi noodles, all smothered in Gigglesʼ secret smoked Gouda sauce and toasted with Parmesan parsley bread crumbs (Gigglesʼ Campfire Grill)
PB&J French Toast: The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is fused with French toast, then sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a choice of ham, bacon or sausage (Robbinsdale OES Dining Hall)
Pizza Tots: Handmade pizza tots that combine sausage, pepperoni, mozzarella, seasonings and hash browns, dusted with Parmesan cheese and served with a side of pizza sauce (Green Mill)
Pretzel Curds: Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds coated in a batter made with crushed pretzels, bread crumbs and American Pilsner beer, then deep-fried and served with a dipping sauce (OʼGaraʼs at the Fair)
Prime Rib Taco: Sliced rotisserie prime rib served in a flour tortilla with sautéed onions and peppers and topped with chili con queso (LuLuʼs Public House)
Rustic Stuffed Scone: A Parmesan-crusted, baked butter scone stuffed with all-natural ham, Swiss, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, and a house-made béchamel sauce (French Meadow Bakery)
Schnitzel Strips: Pork tenderloin coated with a seasoned breading, then fried, cut into strips and served with a lemon, garlic and mayonnaise dipping sauce (Smoothies and Jurassic Dogs)
Shrimp Dog: Baby shrimp and cream cheese are combined, then batter-dipped, deep-fried and served on-a-stick (The Shrimp Shack)
SnoRibbons: A fusion of cotton candy, shaved ice and snow, served with flavor combinations that include coffee and doughnuts, grasshopper pie, banana toffee crunch, frozen hot chocolate, and more (Blue Moon Dine-In Theater)
Many of the fair's new vendors will be featured in the West End Market, the $15 million remake of the area formerly known as Heritage Square. The new vendors include:
The Blue Barn: Following in the footsteps of O’Gara’s, French Meadow Bakery, Famous Dave’s, Mancini’s and other local food-and-drink purveyors, the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. (Highland Grill, Longfellow Grill, 3 Squares, the Lowry, Freehouse) is headed to the fairgrounds, promising a farm-to-table eatery in the new West End Market.
JonnyPops : Ripe for the fair’s on-a-stick food mentality, these locally-produced frozen treats are created by a quartet of entrepreneurial friends. For the fair, they’re making a seasonal concoction they’re calling Snelling Strawberry Rhubarb. Also in the West End Market.
LuLuʼs Public House: Yes, even the fair is getting into the rooftop patio act.
Patʼs Place: An ice cream newbie for the Mighty Midway.
Two Rivers Kettle Korn: Another newcomer to the West End Market.
West End Creamery: Ice cream (nearly three dozen flavors, and a few specialty items), located in the you-know-where.
The 2014 Minnesota State Fair runs Aug. 21 through Sept. 1.
Last Saturday morning, during a ferocious downpour, I ran – OK, it was more like a brisk walk, but still – through the Fulton Farmers Market, where I was stopped short by the sight of a new stand.
New to me, anyway. The market, too; the Rise Bagel Co. was in the middle of its second appearance. Sisters/co-owners Kate and Jen Lloyd (they call themselves “bread heads”) were busy hawking a half-dozen varieties of bagels, and, seriously, wow.
The Lloyds' handiwork is what bagel fanatics so rarely encounter in the Twin Cities. They have the look down cold: beautifully golden rounds indented with navel-like centers. Even more impressive is the texture, a muscular heft and chew (a characteristic that a bagel-loving pal of mine solemnly refers to as “yank”) that the bagel chains can't seem to touch.
All the standards are present and accounted for, starting with a straight-up plain bagel. Some are topped with a coarse salt, others with sesame seeds, Asiago cheese or poppy seeds. Naturally, there's an "everything" version, and a cinnamon-sugar variation is a first step into a planned cinnamon-raisin entry. I'm still kicking myself for not buying the popular rosemary-olive oil bagel, but that gives me a reason to return.
The basic building block is an organic, high-gluten flour, and the recipe was developed over a year in the cramped kitchen of Jen's Loring Park condominium. Now that they're producing in retail-size quantities, the sisters have moved their boiling and baking operations into larger, more efficient quarters in a south Minneapolis commercial kitchen.
At the market, the format is simplicity itself, just bagels, a knife and cream cheese or peanut butter. The tangy, luscious cream cheese hails from Organic Valley, and it's applied with a generous hand.
There's a handful of cream cheese blends, including a lively, dill- and garlic-flecked veggie mix that's heavy on the cucumber. Still, the most popular combination is total bagel Puritanism: Plain bagel, with plain cream cheese.
"We were surprised by that, but then again, maybe not," said Kate. "After all, we’re in the Midwest.”
The sisters cater to peanut butter lovers with a trio of flavors -- Minnesota-sourced honey, cinnamon-raisin and semi-sweet chocolate -- from Buddy's, a partnership born, in part, from serendipity; Buddy's owner Andrew Kincheloe shares commercial kitchen space with the Lloyds, and the three entrepreneurs made a connection as immediate as, well, bagels and peanut butter.
Prices are a fairly competitive $1.50 per bagel, with an additional $1.50 for cream cheese or peanut butter. I highly recommend buying a bag ($8.50/half dozen, $16.50/dozen) and clearing room in your freezer.
Here’s why: The Sisters Lloyd maintain a somewhat irregular schedule. They're wisely taking a cautious approach to their startup, sticking with a single market (Fulton) and introducing themselves with just two appearances in the past six weeks.
Don't go running to Fulton this weekend with bagels on the brain, because the next Rise Bagel Co. outing is set for July 12. That’s a long time to wait for bagels this good, although there's good news around the corner: Starting in July, the plan is to adapt a three-Saturdays-a-month schedule, and maintain that pace through October.
Their Lloyds' recipe developed over the course of bagel-binging research junkets to New York City, Montreal and San Francisco, culminating in a two-day tutorial at Beauty's Bagel Shop in Oakland. "We found them online, and we discovered that they were on the same journey that we're on," said Kate. "We worked the 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, and out of that experience we found out what it would entail to make bagels non-stop."
Is there a permanent bagel shop on the horizon? “Naturally, people are asking us that question,” said Kate. “We’re having a lot of fun, but we both have full-time jobs [Kate works in marketing and public relations for Room & Board, Jen is product development and sourcing for Nordic Ware]. We’re taking it day by day, and seeing what the response is. Maybe we’ll consider it. Who knows?”
Should they go that route, it's hopefully not too much to ask that it land within walking distance of my house or my office. As for the Rise name, it grew out of a brainstorming session over beer at Muddy Waters, and it is imbued with multiple meanings, one of which is the manner in which bagels float to the top during the boiling process.
“And you’ve got to rise out of bed to eat a bagel,” said Kate. Bagel-makers rise even earlier. “Yeah, that’s another story,” she said with a laugh. “We’re not getting a lot of sleep, but that’s OK.”
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