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.

Thoma, Riebel to buy the Lexington in St. Paul

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: April 14, 2014 - 3:33 PM

The plan was to make the announcement at a press conference on Thursday, but the news slipped out: Smack Shack business partners Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald are buying the venerable Lexington restaurant in St. Paul.

“I’m super-excited about it,” said Thoma. “When it came up we knew that we had to do it. Any time that you’re given the opportunity to update and revitalize a historic landmark, well, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The restaurant’s current owners, John Hickey and Ed Ryan, shuttered the Grand Avenue institution on May 31, 2013. A previous sale fell through in July.

Thoma and Fitzgerald opened the Smack Shack in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood last year, an ambitious and instantly packed bricks-and-mortar iteration of their equally popular food truck of the same name.

Thoma and Fitzgerald are partnering with former Butcher & the Boar chef Jack Riebel. Thoma and Riebel worked together when Riebel was running the Stillwater incarnation of La Belle Vie (Thoma was a previous co-owner). Riebel, also known for his long stint at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, opened B&TB in 2012 to great acclaim; it was the Star Tribune's 2012 Restaurant of the Year, and Riebel earned a 2013 Best Chef: Midwest nomination from the James Beard Foundation. He departed the downtown Minneapolis restaurant a few months ago.

“We’re very excited to have Jack as our business partner,” said Thoma. “I think he’s one of the most talented chefs in town. I very much enjoyed working with him in the past, and look forward to a long-lasting partnership.”

Thoma, Fitzgerald and Riebel all have connections to the Lex, if only tangentially. Fitzgerald currently resides about three blocks from the 76-year-old restaurant. When Thoma was a kid in St. Paul, his family spent 13 years in a house two blocks from the Lex. And Riebel grew up on Lexington Avenue. “His mother still lives there,” said Thoma.

Specifics will have to wait until Thursday. “But we plan on doing updates, revitalizing the existing dining rooms and bar programs,” said Thoma. “But that’s all we’re talking about for now.”

Burger Friday: Mona Restaurant

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: April 11, 2014 - 8:53 AM

The burger: “I hate the term ‘slider,’” said Lisa Hanson, chef/owner of Mona Restaurant. That nomenclature-driven aversion may play a role in the demise of the pair of diminutive burgers that once graced the small plates-focused lunch menu at her downtown Minneapolis restaurant. I don’t have a memory of those burgers, but having had a crack at their replacement, I’m not missing them.

What a burger. Its vast appeal is rooted in Hanson’s daily bread-making ritual. “It’s just a basic brioche dough, very simple, with lots of butter,” she said. Butter, the miracle worker, right? It's a hamburger bun for the ages. Not that they need it, but after they're split, Hanson hits them with a little extra butter before giving them a faint flavor-enhancing toast.

The patty is similarly impressive. The grass-fed beef hails from Thousand Hills Cattle Co., and Hanson enriches it with egg and several judiciously applied goodness-boosters, including onion, garlic “and a couple of other mysterious things,” said Hanson with a laugh but not revealing her secrets. From there, the meat is loosely pressed into thick patties that are wide enough to meet the bun’s edges, and grilled to a just-above medium rare.

Toppings are restrained, just a fragrant pile of caramelized onions, their natural sugars coaxed out into the open after a low-and-slow stint on the stove, and a silky, barely melted slice of smoked Gouda. Hanson also includes a side of chile mayonnaise that tiptoes around spiciness, although the beef’s rich bite doesn’t need the extra heft. Instead, save it for the fries.  

As burgers go, it may not sound like a lot, but it all adds up. “I wish that there was something more exciting to tell you about,” said Hanson. “But if you do all of the components correctly, that’s what will really make a burger stand out.” How right she is.

Price: $12, and served only at lunch.

Fries: Included, a huge portion of generously garnished skin-on spuds.

Ticking clock: Hanson changes her menu every few months, and this iteration isn’t long for this world; a few weeks, tops. Next up? “I’m thinking about a turkey burger,” she said. “A lighter meat, for spring. With basil. I’m not sure about the cheese, but maybe a slab of Canadian bacon, and a fried egg on top. We haven’t done a turkey burger yet, so I’m excited about it.”

Hurry, summer: The 2-year-old restaurant doesn't have much of a street presence (Ok, it has zilch street presence), which ushers it into a semi-permanent berth in the out-of-sight-out-of-mind file. That's a shame, because Hanson's place is both an excellent (and skyway-connected) business lunch venue and a serene, conversation-friendly dinner destination. While burgers aren't a part of the dinner menu -- a shame for anyone with a post-work burger-and-beer hankering -- Hanson does kick in free parking after 4 p.m. in the building's underground ramp (which is accessed from 8th Street). Another perk: When it opens for the season, the restaurant's patio has the advantage of being located away from busy downtown streets.

Address book: 333 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-259-8636. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 5 to 10 pm. Saturday.

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

Take a honey of a challenge

Posted by: Lee Svitak Dean under Baking, Chefs, Food, beer, wine events, Locally-produced food, Minnesota newsmakers Updated: April 10, 2014 - 11:27 AM

 

Photo by the Star Tribune

Photo by the Star Tribune

 

It's a honey of a tasting tonight as local professional chefs present their best pastries featuring dandelion honey. Come for a sample -- many samples -- from Spoonriver, Lucia’s, Restaurant Alma, Andoyne, Gigi’s Café Uptown, Mason Restaurant Barre, Open Arms, Seward Co-Op Bakery, Treat, Mademoiselle Miel and Jenny Breen. Proceeds go to support Healthy Bees, Healthy Lives initiative.

When: Thursday, April 10
Time:6:30-9:30 p.m.
Where: Nicollet Island Pavillion, 40 Power Street, Minneapolis
Cost: $35

 

Hits and misses: Rating the new food at Target Field

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: April 8, 2014 - 3:57 PM

A new baseball season means a handful of food debuts at Target Field. Here’s a rundown.

Although Andrew Zimmern has dropped the sensational goat burger out of the rotation at his ballpark AZ Canteen stand (section 119), he makes up for the loss with a trio of gotta-try newcomers. Why fool around with a mere hot dog when a ridiculously outsized slab of pork belly ($10) awaits? (Seriously, on the portions front, it probably exceeds the Surgeon General’s monthly bacon-consumption guideline).

As it hits the grill, the celery juice-cured meat (from Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minn.) bastes in its own shimmering fat until it reaches a optimum crispy-chewy stature. The bun gets a swipe of boisterous jalapeño jelly, and the crowning touch is a vinegar-ey cabbage-carrot slaw, its bright acidity elbowing a dent in the pork’s richness. It is, in a word, phenomenal.

Another winner is the Canteen’s smoked beef sandwich ($12). Think tender, slightly pink brisket and shoulder (twin cuts, get it?) that’s cured for 10 days, smoked and then shaved thin and generously piled on a buttered, toasted bun. There’s more of that excellent coleslaw, and a sauce of garlic and mellow dried Hatch chiles sweetened with maple syrup. Really nice, as are the crispy, super-seasoned cottage fries.

The stand — overseen with a watchful eye by chef Asher Miller — is also serving up what’s easily Target Field’s most refreshing nonalcoholic beverage, a not-too-sweet lemonade ($5) splashed with cool juice from muddled cucumbers and brimming with freshly chopped mint (vodka is available for an additional $3), a concoction that will no doubt prove its thirst-quenching bonafides when temperatures start to soar.

The smoked barbecued beef sandwich ($12.50) at the Carvery (section 126) is no match for the AZ Canteen version. Still, the super-juicy (and super-fatty) meat has a pleasantly smoky aura. It’s sliced to order and stacked to near-absurd heights on what turns out to be an unfortunately forgettable bun.

Meanwhile, the State Fair Classics stand (section 133) continues its novelty noshes theme with a pair of Iron Range delicacies inspired by Valentini’s Supper Club in Chisholm, Minn. The first stuffs peppery shredded porketta into a pair of crispy and, yes, oversized egg rolls ($8), serving them with a decent marinara sauce. The second flattens a generously seasoned meatball, sears it to a deep char, slips it into a drab potato bun and tops it, pizza burger-style ($10), with pepperoni, provolone and that same marinara.

It’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for either (or for the $9 basket of so-so meatballs at the various Frankie V's stands), particularly when your nose gets a tickle of the tantalizing smoke that heralds the proximity of the Butcher & the Boar stand (section 140).

On Monday’s home opener, chef Peter Botcher — enveloped by that fragrant nimbus and the sounds of juices spattering against the grill’s hot coals — was painting hefty slabs of beef ribs ($12.50) with broad strokes from a wide, sauce-clogged brush. Talk about showmanship: Botcher totally upstaged the action down on the field, although the Twins’ 8-3 takedown by the Oakland A’s wasn’t much competition.

The meat, glazed in a sticky-sweet-spicy barbecue sauce and chopped into manageable pieces, barely hangs on the bone, and nearly each bite offers a bit of blackened crispiness chased by next-to mouth-melting tenderness. A few sweet pickle chips are tossed in to act as a kind of palate cleanser. A fork is provided, but this is definitely an eat-with-your-fingers delicacy. And a Target Field don’t-miss experience.

After several seasons of enduring dreadful ice cream, Target Field ticket holders will be thrilled to encounter a modest Izzy’s Ice Cream scoop stand (section 114), stocked with eight made-in-the-Twin Cities flavors of lusciously chilly goodness.

The good news is that co-owners Jeff Sommers and Lara Hammel are featuring their sublime salted caramel and divine (literally) “Church Elder Berry,” a rose-colored, five-berry (strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry and elderberry) treat, originally formulated for Methodist dining hall at the Minnesota State Fair.

The not-so-great news is the price. A single scoop — capped with the shop’s signature “Izzy scoop,” a second, more diminutive dollop — goes for $7, served in a cone or a cup. Then again, sticker shock has been an integral part of the beer-buying economics at the House of Joe Mauer from the get-go, so paying a premium for premium ice cream is a relatively easy justification.

Memo to the Twins executive suite: More vendors along the lines of AZ Canteen, Butcher & the Boar and Izzy’s, please.

Weekend baking: Blueberry buckle

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Baking, Recipes Updated: April 7, 2014 - 11:09 AM

Monday is National Coffee Cake Day. Go figure.

When I hear coffee cake, my automatic word-association reflexes fly to one of my late grandmother’s recipes, one that is forever linked to my grandparents’ lake cabin.

Sugar Lake was a magical place in my childhood. It’s practically a far-ring suburb today – it’s about 10 miles south of Annandale, Minn. -- but in the pre-I-94 era the journey felt like a never-ending drive from my family's suburban Minneapolis home.

Grandma Gay had a Sugar Lake ritual, at least during blueberry season. She would alleviate her guests’ car weariness by greeting them with a slice or two of what I later discovered was an easy-to-prepare buckle, still warm from the oven.

Although it came off as an extra-special treat, her blueberry buckle was cloaked in practicality, using ingredients that were always on hand at the lake; no running into town for the sour cream or other coffee-cake staples that, inevitably, end up as a shopping list afterthought.

My guess is that, after countless summers, Grandma pulled her blueberry buckle together from memory. Fortunately, in the late 1970s, my sister Cheri thought to ask Grandma for the recipe. Treasure, right? I still have the card, written using a thick Flair pen, in Cheri’s tidy high-school cursive.

In honor of this momentous national holiday, I baked Grandma’s buckle this morning (using frozen berries discovered in the back of my freezer, picked last summer at Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, Wis., pictured above), and our kitchen is perfumed with the loveliest scent.

If only I could open the windows and catch the breeze off the lake.

SUGAR LAKE BLUEBERRY BUCKLE

Serves 9.

Note: I suggest adding a teaspoon vanilla extract to the batter when incorporating the milk, and maybe include a 3/4 cup toasted chopped pecans to the topping, two ingredients that probably weren't regulars in the Olsens' 1960s cabin pantry. 

For cake:

2 c. flour, plus extra for pan

1/2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pan

3/4 c. sugar

1 egg

1/2 c. whole milk, at room temperature

2 c. blueberries

For topping:

1/2 c. sugar

1/3 c. flour

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 c. (1 stick) cold butter, cut into small pieces

Directions

To prepare cake: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour a 9x9-inch baking pan.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.

In a large bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low and alternately add flour mixture and milk in thirds, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until just combined. Carefully fold blueberries into batter and pour batter into prepared baking pan.

To prepare topping: In a medium bowl, combine sugar, flour, cinnamon and butter and, using your fingers, press together until combined (dough will be lumpy). Spoon mixture evenly on top of batter. Bake 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from oven and cool pan on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes. Serve warm.

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