Anyone expecting the Sheridan Room to be a reverential reboot of its precursor, the Modern Cafe, is advised to think again.
Oh sure, there are traces. Owners Jon Oulman, Jarret Oulman and Joshua Mandelman (they’re also the team behind the neighboring 331 Club, as well as Como Dockside and the Amsterdam Bar & Hall in St. Paul) were wise to retain Ella Wesenberg, a six-year Modern vet and its chef de cuisine during its final months.
She’s certainly carrying the spirit, if not the letter, of her beloved Modern into her latest gig.
“It would be impossible to wipe the slate clean in my mind, since it consumed six years of my life,” she said. “But at the same time, it didn’t seem right, or respectful, to try and re-create the Modern. It would have been weird to try, and that’s not what the Oulmans wanted to do, either. Which is why they changed the dining room.”
That renovation has spiffed up the 75-year-old cafe (although the restrooms remain in the wheelchair-inaccessible basement) but it has also startlingly transformed the once wide-open space into a warren of high-backed booths. Great for conversation, lousy for people watching, the great dining-out pastime.
Fortunately, Wesenberg’s cooking relieves the anxieties of the change-averse by accentuating the inherent qualities of everyday ingredients.
“I like simple ideas, slightly elevated,” she said. “People want to eat good food without having to Google search to find out what they’re eating.”
Nothing underscores that philosophy more than the Sheridan Room’s beer-can chicken.
Wesenberg doesn’t literally follow the beer-can method, but her iteration, which carefully poaches chicken in a citrus-infused pilsner from nearby Bauhaus Brew Labs, results in similarly browned, crisped-up skin and juicy, flavorful meat.
It’s available in half- and whole-bird portions, and Wesenberg offers a half-dozen side dishes — plus another six sauces — to make a shareable, mix-and-match meal. What a fun way to dine out.
Those Sunday supper sides are a treat, starting with a mac-and-cheese that’s shamelessly enriched with Cheddar, cream cheese and pilsner; the crunchy finishing flourish is, yes, cornflakes fried in butter. Why?
“Because it just seems like a Midwestern lady would put cornflakes on top of her mac-and-cheese,” Wesenberg said with a laugh. Other standouts include earthy grilled kale (a cousin to the terrific, Caesar-like grilled romaine salad) and ultra-creamy mashed potatoes.
And the sauces? So unassuming, so good. There’s a garden-fresh gremolata, sweetly jammy onions and a palate-cleansing applesauce.
The pick of the litter is a velvety chicken gravy that hums with beer-and-herb notes. The temptation is to pour it over everything. Heed that instinct.
Wesenberg follows that same design-your-own-dinner program with a few other proteins ($20 to $35), but the only one that comes close to besting that chicken is a Berkshire pork chop, which gets juiced up with a brief brine before being expertly grilled.
She also crafts a handful of enormous, well balanced sandwiches ($11 to $13), including a Reuben for the ages, its grass-fed brisket trimmed of most but not all of its fat and cured for seven days; a first-rate burger; and a stack of pulled-pork-shoulder-meets porchetta, graced with all the right fennel and garlic touches; and two vegetarian options.
Dessert is frequently limited to a tangy crème fraîche panna cotta. Service is friendly if occasionally patchy. The full bar includes a handful of $8 tap cocktails.
Weekend brunch ($6 to $12) tends toward hits-the-spot standards along the lines of fluffy buttermilk pancakes (an effervescent ginger ale is the secret ingredient) and dense, crumbly biscuits buried under a barely fried egg, an artery-clogging pork sausage gravy and fried chicken so good that Wesenberg should feature it on its own.
Yes, back to chicken. Well, chicken soup ($11), anyway. The honey-colored broth, shimmering with Parmesan rind-boosted flavor, surely possesses healing powers, and Wesenberg fills what remains of the bowl’s acreage with a flurry of complementary ingredients: chicken, tender spaetzle and whatever seasonal vegetables she has at her disposal.
Who knows? She may have stumbled upon her version of the Modern’s much-missed pot roast. In other words, a classic.
337 13th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-886-1111, thesheridanroom.com. Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 8 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun. No reservations.
Small menu, big taste
Meanwhile, six blocks to the west, the Draft Horse is also turning out a spectacular, mood-elevating chicken.
Although chefs Luke Kyle and Geoff King label it “brick chicken” ($20), that’s not entirely an accurate description.
Instead of literally calling upon masonry as the weight of choice, the bird is pressed into a cast iron pan’s searing heat by using, yes, the heft of another cast iron pan. Then it’s finished in the oven.
But when the results are this mesmerizing, why get caught up in semantics? Brick, pan, Kyle doesn’t seem to care.
“This is the way I’ve always done it at home,” he said. “This brings out the true flavor and texture of what chicken can be.”
That just might be the understatement of the year.
It helps that Kyle and King rely upon chickens from quality-minded Kadejan Inc. in Glenwood, Minn., and then improve upon an already good thing by utilizing an overnight marinade composed of that timeless trinity of lemon, garlic and rosemary.
But it’s the kitchen’s eloquence with heat and heat-seeking cast iron that ultimately yields that crackling skin, mouthwatering meat and golden pan juices.
Similar miracles happen with short ribs, an eye-opening platter of long, oven-darkened bones ($22, from premium Peterson Limousin Beef in Osceola, Wis.) that are half-covered with fork-tender meat enrobed in a protective layer of fat.
The finishing touches — a vivid horseradish and a powerhouse jus, its bold flavors extracted from more roasted bones — are perfection.
As a tenant in the Food Building, this casual restaurant acts as a kind of retail outlet for its neighbors, the Lone Grazer Creamery and the Red Table Meat Co.
Nothing showcases this mutually beneficial partnership more effectively than the Draft Horse’s meat and cheese plates ($12 to $24), each so beautifully composed that they could be proudly featured in an Explore Minnesota advertising campaign. Wait, that’s not a bad idea.
But the low-key culinary synergy doesn’t end there. An on-trend fried mortadella sandwich ($12), shamelessly fatty? Check. A rib-sticking cauliflower gratin, brimming in a decadent cheese sauce? Yep. Several gotta-have grab-and-go sandwiches? Done.
Like the Sheridan Room, the Draft Horse succeeds by narrowing its menu’s focus. Along with a few perfunctory soups and salads, and a handful of well-executed sides, there’s a trio of skillet pot pies (chicken, beef or a rare nod to non-meat-eaters in the form of seasonal vegetables, $12 and $13), each a brazen exercise in caloric overkill. That’s pretty much it.
The full bar covers all necessary bases. Dessert, just two options, isn’t a strength, but service is. No surprise, since Kyle shares ownership duties with his wife (and Anchor Fish & Chips business partner) Katie Kyle, plus their longtime friend Anne Saxton, who has a mile-long restaurant résumé.
Kyle has pledged to add lamb — sausages, garlicky chops — into the summertime mix. Warm weather will also mean Red Table frankfurters, stuffed into buns from Bakers’ Field Flour & Bread, another artisanal Food Building constituency that Rustica founder Steve Horton is launching in June.
Oh, and a patio is well underway. Naturally, Kyle, a genuine jack-of-all-trades, is building it himself.
“It’s going to have great views of the Grain Belt building,” he said. Save me a seat.
117 14th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-208-1476, thedrafthorsempls.com. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri.-Sat., 4-11 p.m. Sun. No reservations.