When dining at In Bloom, the groundbreaking anchor of the Keg and Case Market in St. Paul, hope that a fellow diner orders the venison leg. Better yet, order it yourself.
It’s the riveting side show in an already conspicuously theatrical restaurant. A member of chef Thomas Boemer’s kitchen crew carries the roasted limb to a center-stage position in the wide-open kitchen. After wrapping the end of the bone in a towel to create a handle, the cook deftly swings a large knife into the meat, causing thin shears of ruby red succulence, one after the next, to cascade onto a platter.
It’s one of many instances of what feels like the advent of a new style of regional cooking, one that combines hearth cooking, a passion for local, seasonal ingredients and an acute technical proficiency.
For these reasons, and more, In Bloom is the Star Tribune’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year.
Way back in August 2016, when Boemer and co-owner Nick Rancone announced that they’d signed on to anchor the Keg and Case Market, a food hall at the Schmidt Brewery complex, their pledge to revive the seemingly long-lost art of cooking over burning wood was relatively new to the Twin Cities. In the interim, several first-rate restaurants have embraced the practice, yet none are doing it on the scale being practiced at In Bloom.
Although he was raised in the South, Minnesota-born Boemer forged a lifelong attachment to this region through annual pilgrimages to the family cabin near Balsam Lake, Wis., and that affection comes through, loud and clear, at this captivating restaurant.
“I’ve lived in many places in the U.S., and I’ve never felt that connection to the outdoors that comes with those memories of the lake,” he said.
A wide swath of Minnesotans will share Boemer’s nostalgia for frying just-caught panfish over a campfire, or opening a freezer and seeing venison from the previous year’s hunt, neatly wrapped in white paper by the meat processor.
The latter explains the menu’s obsession with venison — there are five preparations, surely a record for a local restaurant — a demand that required Boemer to create (with the help of St. Louis Park’s Market House Meats) a supply chain of year-old whitetail deer, one that starts at a Wisconsin farm.
Acting as a de facto Intro to Venison is the backstrap, a rectangular, loin-like cut that Boemer and chef de cuisine Jeff Lakatos take to a cool medium-rare. It’s mildly mineral in flavor and surprisingly tender, along the lines of a beef filet mignon. While it’s cooked over fire, the dish’s smoke comes from the peppers and dried fruits that enrich the accompanying mole.
Or that venison leg, which is roasted on a meat hook over the hearth’s radiant heat and arrives, family-style, on a platter with roasted vegetables, with tons of fresh, tart lingonberries that provide palate-cleansing pops. It’s the leaner, tougher and gamier venison that’s relished by anyone who has logged hours in a deer stand.
For a less visceral experience, there’s a hearty venison ragu over cavatelli, and an unabashedly decadent summer sausage, the lean venison enriched with pork fat.
Oddly, the most remarkable venison option doesn’t reach the fire. It’s a tartare, and it’s an epiphany for the venison-averse.
Rather than mimicking the usual treatment afforded beef tartare by inserting muscular aromatics (onions, garlic, black pepper), the pristine meat’s mildly sweet, quietly herbaceous characteristics are kept at the forefront and heightened by chives, shaved pistachios, preserved lemon and a tangy splash of crème fraîche. The tender, finely chopped texture is extraordinary; it’s a pinnacle moment for the restaurant’s highly skilled in-house butcher (he’s Tyler Montgomery, a Red Table Meat Co. vet), and that’s saying something.
Front and center
That hearth’s 20-foot stretch of cooking stations allows for varying degrees of intensity (the hottest is nicknamed, naturally, “the Inferno”) and it’s part of a complex structure — fashioned from steel, concrete and stone — so mammoth that it required its own foundation. With its scale and Industrial Age looks, it could easily serve as a backdrop for a midsize production of “Sweeney Todd.”
It’s the focal point for the double-height dining room, which Studio M Architects of Minneapolis organized, auditorium-like, in sightline-sensitive rows: a long counter, a stretch of tables, a string of booths, a bar. There’s a slight 1970s vibe to the decor (love the purple velour-like banquettes, and the Peter Max-esque murals, by artist Eric Inkala, a Minnesotan now living in Brooklyn). It’s one of those spaces where a full house doesn’t squelch the ability to converse. The one glitch? The straight-on views into a brightly lit storeroom.
Sitting at the counter is a treat, if only to watch the cook at the oven preparing the young hen. The whole bird is dipped in butter, laid out on pieces of potato-rosemary bread and then roasted in a 1,000-degree oven, until the skin crackles, but the meat stays super-juicy and the bread takes on a stuffing-like quality. A splash of vinegar, a slice of truffle and it’s a remarkable dinner for two.
I never thought I’d be extolling the wisdom of an $80 porterhouse (it easily serves four), but here that’s a no-brainer. The dry-aged Black Angus beef, raised in Olivia, Minn., and nurtured over the hearth’s hottest coals, sings with pastured flavor and cuts like a dream.
The trout? Divine, with brown butter accents. Pheasant sausage? Superb. Duck hearts? Delicious. Roasted vegetables? Fabulous. Right now, it’s all about heirloom carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and grilled lettuce hearts fashioned into a sort-of Caesar, only way better.
The cooking can be dazzlingly contemporary, a callback to Boemer’s days in the kitchen of French chef Alain Ducasse.
Kabocha squash, buried overnight in glowing embers, is the base for a gossamer, teasingly smoky gelee that’s paired with custard-like sea urchin roe. Borrowing from lobster dipped in butter, Boemer crafts a compound butter from langoustine shells, giving it color and character. Heated to a high temperature, the butter simultaneously paints and cooks the langoustine, the sweet meat remaining improbably silken.
Desserts are generally fine, if overpriced, with one exception, a honey-scented cross between s’mores and baked Alaska that’s a marvel of engineering and ingenuity. It’s a must.
A key reason why In Bloom is the restaurant equivalent of the smartest person in the room is co-owner Nick Rancone, a generous host-with-the-most who knows exactly how to keep a dining room humming.
Rancone and Boemer’s six-year partnership has yielded Corner Table and two iterations of Revival, plus Revival Smoked Meats, their top-notch (oh, that brisket!) Keg and Case counter-service operation. Can you picture the local dining scene without them? I can’t.
They’re already thinking ahead. In Bloom’s gigantic “fireplace” makes it an ideal winter destination.
“But it’s also the perfect summer restaurant, because summer is all about outdoor cooking over fire, and grilling,” said Boemer. “Our food will change in personality with the weather. Think about grilled stone-fruit, and squash blossoms, and ramps, and early morels, all the things that we can’t wait to get on the fire.”
Fortunately for diners, Boemer believes that he and his crew have only just scratched the surface of the hearth’s potential.
“We’ve had that conversation so many times,” he said. “We keep learning as we go, and this team has the appetite to go much further. We’re just starting to have fun.”
I suspect that diners are, too.
In Bloom ⋆⋆⋆⋆
Info: 928 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-237-9630, inbloomstp.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. (limited food 2-5 p.m.), 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sun. Reservations accepted.
Price ranges: Most dishes fall in the $10-$22 range. Shared dishes $24-$95.
Recommended dishes: Uni, langoustine, trout, lettuce hearts, carrots, poussin for two, backstrap, summer sausage, venison tartare, porterhouse, burnt marshmallow.
Beverage program: Discerning wine list offers all selections by the glass (average price: $12.50) and bottle (average price: $51), with a majority hailing from France and Spain and served with expertise. Nine offbeat (in a great way) beers and ciders ($4-$10), and a half-dozen thoughtfully crafted specialty cocktails ($12-$13).