When he began formulating what eventually became Upton 43, chef Erick Harcey was aiming for a seasonal, vegetable-centric format.
“I want to focus on the simplicity of ingredients,” he said at the time. “You can make hearty, thought-provoking things with vegetables, and I want to focus on that.”
But months later, Harcey — the guiding force behind Victory 44 in north Minneapolis — experienced a heartfelt change of heart.
“In the end, those ideas didn’t feel authentic to me,” he said.
Not that his original impulse wasn’t without merit. But its marvelous replacement — so indelibly personal and idiosyncratic, and yet one that tugs at the hearts of the near-bottomless pool of Minnesotans with Scandinavian heritage — determined that Upton 43 was a shoo-in as the Star Tribune’s Restaurant of the Year.
The restaurant’s genesis sparked from a place of affection and respect. It was Harcey’s grandfather, Willard Ramberg (a chef and “a hard-core Swede,” is how Harcey described him), who gently steered his talented grandson in another direction: Why not cook what you know?
He was referring to their Swedish heritage, celebrated in the countless meals the family enjoyed at the Rambergs’ table. Why not, indeed? “This is about my roots, and about being an extension of who I am,” said Harcey. “I want to cook what I love to eat.”
(Sadly, Ramberg died shortly before the restaurant opened. That’s his photograph in the bar, no doubt giving his grandson his seal of approval.)
In this kitchen, smoking, charring, fermenting, pickling and other time-honored Nordic cooking techniques seamlessly merge with the latest advances in molecular gastronomy, yet nothing feels strained, or out of place. Harcey hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned at grandmother Bonnie Ramberg’s stove, starting with her formula for what just might be the state’s tastiest pork-beef meatballs, each bite tickled with warming spices. She’s Harcey’s biggest fan. And critic.
“Last week I told her that I was going to make Ärtsoppa again,” he said, referring to the traditional dried yellow pea soup. “She told me, ‘This time, you’d better make it right.’ ”
Yes, ma’am. Has herring ever tasted so clean, so vital? Or has pork, so juicy, had such a subtle campfire aura? Or has cured salmon sported a silkier texture? And the vegetables! Harcey hasn’t forgotten his first impulse, lavishing as much attention on carrots and cauliflower and broccolini that many chefs reserve for foie gras.
Harcey also took care with the restaurant’s design, stripping a century-old hardware store down to its timbered framework. By day it has the ascetic stylishness of a contemporary art gallery in a fashionable Stockholm neighborhood. By night, the room glows from within, its silvery light a poetic shoutout to Lapland’s midnight summer sunshine, with the kitchen’s wood-burning grill sending out reassuring traces of its smoky perfume.
Two bonuses lie in the back of the building. The first is Harcey’s, a counter dubbed the Dirty Bird, where Linden Hills residents skip the whole let’s-make-dinner routine and pop in for beautiful roast chicken and side dishes that don’t have the hangdog feel usually associated with meal replacement fare.
The second is the Rose Street Patisserie, baker John Kraus’ chic sibling to his top-performing Patisserie 46 and easily the best neighbor that Harcey & Co. could hope to find next door.
Those are Kraus’ crusty breads that Harcey relies upon for the smörgås — open-faced sandwiches — that make lunch at Upton 43 such an event. Then again, every meal at this revelation of a restaurant is special. Minnesota chefs, follow Harcey’s example. Tell your story. We’re listening.