Hungry? More dining options are in the works

Speaking French at the Town Talk Diner

After a three-year hiatus, the historic Town Talk Diner is going to be back in business.

The E. 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 (2707 E. Lake St., Mpls).

“We want to redefine French food,” said Cellai Johnson. “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,” she said. “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. “I was lucky to grow up in that house.”

A native of Marseille, she relocated to the United States for a job at the former Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington. Following a stint at Patrick’s Bakery & Cafe in Richfield, she spent the past decade working in restaurant sales for Reinhard Food Service.

Ben Johnson is a D’Amico and Partners veteran and is currently a real estate project developer with the Neighborhood Development Center, a nonprofit small-business incubator that revitalizes low-income neighborhoods.

The menu will include sweet and savory crêpes (including a monthly all-you-can-consume crêpes-fest), bouillabaisse (“the typical fish stew of my hometown,” said Cellai Johnson), 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.

Dessert will include 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.

In an effort to continue the Town Talk’s tradition of first-rate libations-making, the couple have 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’s stainless steel-trimmed space dates to 1946. It closed in 2002 and remained dark until a trio of restaurateurs — including the current partnership behind the Strip Club — flipped the switch on that 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) took over in 2008 and closed it three years later.

The couple plan 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.

RICK NELSON

Steak-and-seafood

Think retro. 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 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.

They’ve gathered a team to help them, which includes Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, as a 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.

“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 the menu will include a classic Caesar salad prepared tableside, châteaubriand dished up with flair, bananas Foster flambéed, all presented with enough drama to assure a sense of special occasion.

The dining room will seat 150 to 160, with more in the lounge; there will be a private dining room, as well. 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.

The emphasis will be on updated classics, whether it’s cocktails or entrees (think martinis and veal Oscar). 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, he said.

“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.”

LEE SVITAK DEAN