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Stillwater's new boutique hotel will feature three distinct dining and drinking destinations

When developer Corey Burstad opens Lora on June 18, the 40-room hotel promises to be a transformative project for downtown Stillwater.

Located on the southern edge of downtown, the ambitious undertaking features three stylish (thanks to ESG, the Minneapolis architectural firm) food-and-drink operations.

Feller, the hotel’s 100-seat restaurant, will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily. The adjacent bar, the Long Goodbye will focus on craft cocktails, wines and local beers (the name is a droll reference to bundled-up Minnesotans, clutching their CorningWare casseroles and unable to end conversation and walk out the door). Made is the hotel’s coffee and organic juice bar.

All three are under the tutelage of chef Sam Collins. A native of the Ham Lake area, Collins was bit by the restaurant bug at age 14 when he landed a line cook job at a local pizzeria. His studies at Le Cordon Bleu concluded with an internship at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla., and a brief stint in the kitchens at the top-ranked Wheatleigh hotel in Lenox, Mass.

Eight instructive years at Murray’s (“They were wonderful to me, and I never would have left but I wanted to do my own thing,” said Collins) led to Burstad’s Elevage Management Group, which operates T-Box Bar & Grill in Ham Lake, the Village Pub in St. Anthony Village and Blaine’s Bricks Kitchen & Pub and the Roadside.

Feller — a feller is a person who cuts trees, a nod to Stillwater’s illustrious lumber milling past — will start with a fairly small menu, said Collins.

“We want to grow into our pants,” he said. “Besides, I’m a fan of smaller menus. I like focus.”

Collins is a lifelong hunter, and he plans to incorporate that interest and skill set into his cooking.

“I haven’t purchased any meat for my household for a decade,” he said, rattling off venison, wild boar, duck, rabbit, quail, mourning dove, grouse and other favorites. There won’t be wild game on the Feller menu.

“But we’ll feature anything that’s in season and grows here,” said Collins. That means quail brined with Surly Furious ale and lacquered with a honey reduction, a bison carpaccio, pork-venison knockwurst (“My family has been making venison knockwurst for generations,” he said), smoked chicken liver mousse on rustic bread, grilled sturgeon (“Because that’s what’s in the river,” he said), a smoked trout BLT, grass-fed beef cheeseburgers, a spread of local cheeses, and more, including an emphasis on foraged ingredients.

“I’m looking forward to getting into the kitchen and turning on that first pilot light,” he said.

The site, still enveloped in a flurry of last-minute construction details, is the former Joseph Wolf Brewery, a four-building collection of brick and stone buildings — the earliest dating to the late 1880s — that’s tucked into the side of one of Stillwater's many steep hills.

How steep? One of the city’s most popular (and recently remade) public stairways is adjacent to Made (and its Main Street patio), a 115-foot vertical climb that draws hundreds of climbers and runners on a daily basis.

“We hope to cater to those thirsty people,” said Burstad.

Deferred maintenance was the theme of the historic complex, which required a substantial renovation.

“All the floors are level now,” said Burstad. “Every time I walked through the place, all I could think was that it could be so much more than what it was.”

The brewery’s caves, accessible through doors on the hotel’s first floor, will be incorporated into the project in a later phase.

The new St. Croix River bridge proved to be a catalyst for Lora, since it routes bothersome heavy traffic off downtown’s Main Street.

“I don’t believe we could have pulled off the project without it,” said Burstad. “No one wanted to sit in line with a bunch of semi-trucks at the top of the hill for 45 minutes, waiting to come into town.”

NE. Mpls. getting 2 new Mexican restaurants — one casual, the other refined

Although the construction clutter might suggest otherwise, one of the year’s most exciting new restaurant projects is nearing completion at the corner of 15th and Quincy in northeast Minneapolis.

Two restaurants, actually: Centro, and Popol Vuh. Both are the work of owner Jami Olson and chef Jose Alarcon, a pair of Lyn 65 vets.

Centro first, where the menu emphasizes tacos and other Mexican street-food fare. Think cured cactus-mushroom-kale tacos with a peanut sauce, chorizo-potato tacos with a roasted salsa verde, braised beef- cheeks tacos with salsa roja, braised lamb tacos with a fresh tomato salsa and guajillo-marinated chicken tacos with radishes and pickled onions, all in the $3-to-$4 range. Centro will also feature a raw bar (oysters, ceviches and aguachiles) and Alarcon will also serve borrachos (beans simmered in beer), guacamole, chips and salsa and other snacks, all in the $10-and-under range. Fresh paletas, too, those refreshing frozen fruits pops, in both kid-friendly and grown-up (translation: alcohol) versions.

The bar will focus on agave-based spirits (“It’s so easy to get lost in that world,” said Olson), including a tequila-mezcal-avila-bacanora flight ($18). Cocktails on tap ($10) include a guava-mezcal-guava kombucha slushy, a classic margarita and a gin-rosé sangria. By-the-glass wines (from Spain, France and Argentina) land in the $7-to-$9 range.The plan is for Centro to operate from 11 am. to midnight, Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

The light-filled space (90 seats inside, another 34 on the patio) features a showy open kitchen, a four-sided bar, a dining area, a takeout counter and a delivery service to neighboring Indeed Brewing Co.

“In this new minimum wage era, we can’t do two full-service restaurants,” said Olson. “Centro will enable us to do Popol Vuh.”

A corridor connects the two restaurants, a physical connection between Centro’s neighborhood-hangout energy and the more intimate Popol Vuh.

“The experience at Popol Vuh is going to be more refined, but it’s not going to be fine-dining,” she said. “We want to give people a different experience with Mexican cuisine.”

Popol Vuh’s centerpiece, a nine-foot hearth, doubles as Alarcon’s primary cooking tool. Wood-fired cooking is a major Twin Cities dining trend (see Young Joni, and the upcoming In Bloom in St. Paul), but to Alarcon, a native of southern Mexico, it’s second nature.

“I grew up in a bakery family,” he said. “My grandpa and my father, they just used wood. They never used a thermometer, you just get a feeling of the heat, and you adapt to the circumstances. Plus, I love the smell, and the crackling sound. It reminds me of the places where I grew up. I’m very excited about this.”

(That's Alarcon, above, in the Popol Vuh dining room, pre-renovation, in a Star Tribune file photo)

His dinner-only menu will draw from a wide range of Mayan traditions (and will likely instigate, in a good way, countless tableside Google searches for information on little-known ingredients), showcasing rack of lamb with a goat mole, red snapper with a pineapple pico de gallo, roast chicken with a guajillo chile sauce, a version of the sweet corn salad that’s an off-the-cob version of elotes, creamy rice with mushrooms and a poached egg and a cactus-avocado-radish salad.

Cozy Popol Vuh will have 66-seats, including a nine-seat chef’s counter that’s a few steps away from that oak- and cherry-burning stove. A private dining room will seat 15.

The structure, a century-old adhesives factory, in no way resembled a restaurant when Olson bought the place. Shea Design of Minneapolis has left the interior as raw as possible, contrasting exposed brick, concrete, timbers and steel with imported vintage finishing touches. The most memorable? Salvaged interior doors of the they-don’t-make-them-like-this-any-more variety, complete with transom windows.

(That's a before/after compare/contrast set of images, above; the before was taken 16 months ago, and the after is from mid-June).

Olson has commissioned several northeast Minneapolis artists to create site-specific works for the two restaurants. Cross-stitchers Wone Vang and Youa Vang have crafted a colorful 10-foot (“Their work is usually really small, but this is the biggest that they’ve ever done in their lives,” she said with a laugh) yarn artwork. Terra cotta pots by Mike Smieja will hang from the ceiling of the corridor connecting the two restaurants. And Charlene Weeks is currently creating an exterior, rabbit-themed mural on the restaurant’s patio.

The property also contains an Airbnb overnight rental.

“We’ll run the food and beverage for that,” said Olson.

As for the restaurants’ names, “Centro is the center of town, where people gather,” said Alarcon. And Popol Vuh is a nod to a seminal book on the Mayan creation legend.

“I was 10 years old when I read it,” said Alarcon. “It always stuck in my head, and I thought, ‘Maybe when I open my restaurant, that’s going to be the name.’”

Centro should open by the end of June, and Popol Vuh will follow in a month. If the opening seems as if it has taken forever — imagine how Olson and Alarcon feel — it has; the slow-moving project, announced more than a year ago, was delayed by financing and construction issues.

“After this, the next one is going to be a piece of cake,” said Olson.

Yes, a “next one.”

“This project is going to lead to so much more,” she said. “But the lessons that we’ve learned, and the team that we’ve created, are priceless.”

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