Big news: Tim McKee has another restaurant on the horizon. The very near horizon. Minnesota’s first James Beard award-winning chef is converting the former Uptown Cafeteria into Libertine.
Four-year-old Cafeteria – officially titled Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group -- served its last meal on Monday. Well, the street-level portion of the Calhoun Square property, anyway; its crazy-popular rooftop Sky Bar is remaining open during the transition.
And it’s a fast one: McKee has set July 16 as the re-opening date. McKee is directing the project in his capacity as a partner and vice president of culinary direction for Parasole Restaurant Holdings, Cafeteria’s parent company.
“It’s 100 percent my idea, as if I’m opening a restaurant, but with someone else’s money,” he said.
The concept? “I wanted a place that could function similar to a steakhouse,” said McKee. “Where people in their twenties and thirties can get a modern steakhouse experience for a reasonable price. This is not going to be Manny’s,” a reference to Parasole’s upscale beef palace in downtown Minneapolis.
The menu’s nucleus is a return to classic butcher cuts. “We’ll be serving cuts you can’t find anywhere else,” said McKee. “They have great flavor, you’re just going to have to chew a little more. I went to a restaurant in Dublin a year and a half ago, and they were treating off cuts like prime cuts, and I thought it was genius.”
In other words, forget about the filet. “I have no interest in the filet,” he said. “There’s no fat, there’s no flavor.”
Instead, the beef roster will feature such little-known cuts as the feather blade (from the cow’s shoulder blade), the onglet (a center-cut strip, resembling a filet), the point (a triangular cut from the rump) and the kitchen’s signature, a short rib that’s grilled at a super-high heat. McKee encountered it during a recent scouting trip to Argentina, where he discovered that it’s that beef-crazed country’s favorite cut.
“It has more chew, but it delivers on flavor,” he said. “It’s primal, it’s less refined. Let’s face it, you’re not going to go to a steakhouse and get a $17-to-$19 cut. This is easy on the budget.”
On the pork side of the equation, there will be ham steaks and a lightly smoked Berkshire pork chop, its generous fat cap still intact (“You forget that pork chops can taste that good,” he said), and on the lamb side there will be sausages, ribs and a deeply flavorful saddle chop (two side-by-side porterhouses, with the belly in between), which at $24 will be the menu’s most expensive item.
McKee said he had to turn to three separate sources to supply the menu’s various cuts. “Where do you find a great pork chop?” he said. “I’d say that you go to a butcher shop, but they’re aren’t any, and that’s the problem.”
Naturally, there’s going to be a house steak sauce, formulated with hints of plum, allspice, Worcestershire and garlic. “It’s our version of A.1., which is what any good steak sauce should be,” said McKee. There’s also a house-made Sriracha sauce.
There will be burgers, too (in beef, lamb or pork), along with a small seafood roster (grilled prawns, cedar-planked salmon) and fried chicken, along with oysters, imported from both coasts and served four ways: raw, in shots (the watermelon margarita and the cucumber-gin fizz both sound particularly intriguing), charbroiled and fried.
The rest of the menu will include a half-dozen salads and a handful of starters, including crispy pig’s ears with a fried egg, steak tartare with a quail egg and tuna poke tacos.
The street-level portion of the restaurant is undergoing a quick cosmetic renovation. “Nothing structural,” said McKee. “We’re going to give it much more of a bar feel. There’s a lot of shiny and bright in here right now, and it won’t be that. And yeah, it’s probably going to be loud.”
The existing dining room is going to shrink. A portion is being converted into overflow space – behind large iron doors -- that can double as a private dining area.
The restaurant’s wall of glass garage doors, which front Lake Street, aren’t going anywhere, but the homage-to-Howard-Johnson’s color scheme is history. Chrome will be replaced with steel, wood and a more timeless color palette.
In that out-with-the-old mode, there will be new furniture, too, primarily bench seating at picnic-style tables. “It’s going to be modern and comfortable,” he said.
Fans of the hallway lined in brightly colored plastic cafeteria trays are going to be disappointed to learn that they’re going away. “Do you want one?” McKee said with a laugh.
The kitchen counter is disappearing, but the current bar configuration will continue. Its 20 taps are staying; four will feature ciders, and the remaining will be devoted to national craft beers (“the best we can find,” he said) and six to eight local labels.
(A little-known fact about Tim McKee: He likes his beer local, and iconic. “Everyone who knows me knows my favorite beer is Grain Belt Premium,” he said. “We want to sell great craft beers as well as a can of PBR for $3.”)
Cocktails are being devised by longtime McKee collaborator Johnny Michaels. The bar will also feature a variety of whiskeys, purchased by the barrel and sold in $3 shots.
The kitchen will be supervised on a daily basis by chef Steve Hesse, a veteran at Masu (another McKee project) and its parent company, Sushi Avenue. His resume also includes stints at the St. Paul Grill and at Macy’s, where he opened restaurant concepts for the department store all over the country.
By his tally, Libertine marks the 10th restaurant concept that McKee has created in his career. “That’s if you count La Belle Vie twice,” he said, meaning the original from the late 1990s in Stillwater, and the current iteration in the 510 Groveland building in Minneapolis. “Which is fair, because they’re two very different restaurants.”
The last was Masu, and before that it was Sea Change. At Parasole, he’s constantly tweaking menus at the company’s properties, including the Good Earth, Chino Latino, Pittsburgh Blue, Salut Bar Americain, Mozza Mia, Muffuletta and Burger Jones. And of course he oversees his own properties: Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque in Stillwater, and La Belle Vie.
As for pulling the plug on Cafeteria, McKee takes a glass-half full approach.
“I wouldn’t say that the restaurant didn’t work,” he said. “Cafeteria did $3.5 million in sales last year, and that’s winning by all kinds of measures. But this is an expensive location, and maybe $3.5 million isn’t enough. We’re viewing this as an opportunity, to do something meaningful and special.”
Why Libertine? “I like the idea, and not in the Marquis de Sade kind of way,” he said with a laugh. “But in the do-as-you-like sense of the word.”