There was a streak of whininess in my friend’s voice.
“Another farm-to-table restaurant, really?” he said. As if the genre is some kind of zero-sum game. As if farm-to-table occupied the downhill slope of the passing-fad bell curve. As if it weren’t an ideal culinary methodology for capitalizing on the rich agricultural region that we find ourselves fortunate to be living in. As if it weren’t an inspiring way to cook, and — better yet — to eat.
This time, the prairie-to-plate operation in question was the Town Talk Diner & Gastropub. Yes, that Town Talk, the funky, historic landmark with the va-va-va-voom sign. And yes, it’s changed hands, once again.
This incarnation — which is at least the fifth or sixth in my memory, and here’s hoping that it stays — is the work of husband-and-wife team of Charles Stotts and Kacey White. They know what they’re up against.
“We’re definitely battling ghosts, every day,” said White.
Stotts agrees. “Thousands of people who drive by daily probably think that it’s the same restaurant that it’s been for the last 25 years,” he said. “Our goal is to overcome that.”
Five nights a week, plus Sunday brunch, the couple — joined by Sam Gilman, a Meritage and Bachelor Farmer vet — are doing just that, wiping the Town Talk slate clean and making the place their own. On their own, literally. The three of them constitute the entire kitchen staff, doing all the preparation, cooking and cleanup.
“Every night we tear down, pour a beer and do the dishes,” said Stotts.
Their brief menu — maybe a half-dozen starters, an equal number of entrees, a few desserts — changes frequently, a dish or two at a time, reflecting the ingredients pipeline, a handful of small-scale meat, seafood and poultry suppliers supplemented by two primary produce sources: Shared Ground Farmers’ Co-op, a collective of five Minnesota and western Wisconsin farms, and Twin Organics, a River Falls, Wis., farm operated by twin brothers Jacob and Andrew Helling.
“It’s really nice, cutting a check to them vs. cutting a check to a big-box purveyor,” said Stotts. “There’s this sense of joy from paying our invoices, because I know the money is going to people who are here in the area, doing great work.”
The kitchen purchases proteins in roughly 20-pound increments, so when it’s gone, it’s time to move on.
If there’s plush, dill-cured salmon, order it. I lucked into pork osso buco, the succulent, slow-braised meat falling off the bone, and the braising liquid reduced into a consume-every-drop sauce.
A simple pan-roasted chicken was all abundantly juicy meat and crackled, mouthwatering skin, with a golden chicken jus the ideal complement for sweetly glazed carrots.
Scallops, their tops coaxed in the pan to a dark caramel but still shimmeringly firm and juicy on the inside, were paired with late-season broccoli and tender spaetzle popping with smoky bacon. Fork-tender, ruby red bison was treated with the tender loving care it requires.
Leftover duck legs and thighs, braised to maximum flavor, became the base for a get-ready-for-winter pasta dish, enriched with Parmesan, cream and no small amount of butter.
You know you’re not in diner territory when foie gras (oddly, from New York and not from Minnesota’s own Au Bon Canard) makes an appearance, a gorgeous seared slab brightened with sweet-sour cherries. I’m sorry that I missed earlier forays into sweetbreads and grilled octopus, both quick sellouts.
“We weren’t expecting that on 27th and Lake,” said Stotts with a laugh. “But people have been taking to it.”
Here’s what I hadn’t anticipated encountering at that address: shaved truffles, a generous supplement to any dish, priced at just $7 a pop.
“People think they can’t afford them,” said Stotts. “We want to give people the experience, so we’re just trying to recoup our purchase price.” Nice, right?
Issues? Sure. Sodium-sensitive diners may find the cooking’s seasoning on the aggressive side. Pit bull levels of aggressive.
That I found myself uninterested in most of the menu’s options on my first visit — odd, since it fell during the height of Minnesota produce season, when the password is “abundance” — was discouraging. Perhaps they were having a challenging week? Because when I returned a month later, I encountered the opposite: I wanted to order everything.
Oh, and for as pretty as some of the dishes can be (that stunning gravlax, for example), the kitchen is also capable of turning out items that only a mother could love. Looks-wise, anyway. A grains bowl — all gorgeous black rice and fluffy, nutty-tasting quinoa — boasted just-picked (is there any other kind here?) late-season vegetables, each given a different, complementary treatment, but was not what we call a looker.
After a weak start, desserts have improved. Amusingly deconstructed s’mores featured gently blistered marshmallows, a trail of graham cracker crumbs and a rich, pourable chocolate ganache. Also notable: a dreamy bread pudding, crowned with firm, cinnamon-scented apples simmered in an apple liqueur produced a few blocks from the restaurant at Du Nord Craft Spirits.
Sunday brunch is a treat. Don’t expect much on the baked-goods side of the equation, but the kitchen makes up for the lapse with an indulgence that the menu labels “bacon” but in reality is really cured and confit’ed Berkshire pork belly.
It’s fatty and thick as a chop, with edges crisped in a bacon-like manner, the sheer porkiness of it all brightened by a maple-vinegar gastrique. At five bucks for three “slices,” it’s a steal. And a must.
Three cheers for the creamy scrambled eggs, with that beautiful cured salmon folded in at the last moment. Boldly garlicky shrimp play well against slightly sweetened grits. French toast flirts with a bread pudding-like treatment (and candied bananas) and White’s affection for Southern cooking pops up with terrific fried green tomatoes, a cherished family recipe.
The space hasn’t changed much since the last owners handed over the keys. The original diner, long and skinny, continues to serve as the bar and doubles as a marvelous dining counter (one request: could someone please 86 that annoying TV screen?). The adjacent storefront, all exposed brick and rustic pine plank flooring, serves as a comfortable, nothing-fancy dining room.
Despite the name above the door, this Town Talk is no trendy diner revival. It’s the kind of lively neighborhood restaurant that homeowners everywhere wished was nearby.
“Sam says it best when he says that we’re a diner as much as the French Laundry [the world-famous restaurant in California’s Napa Valley] is a laundromat,” said Stotts. “We occupy the space that the old Town Talk Diner used to occupy, but we’re slowly getting the wheel to turn.”