The burger: After a four-month construction hiatus – one where chef/owner Max Thompson did much of the heavy lifting (“We did pretty good for a bunch of amateurs,” he said), his 128 Cafe is back. Well, sort of.
Along with giving his garden-level (that’s a Realtor euphemism for “semi-basement”) restaurant a sharp-looking facelift, Thompson has also changed the restaurant’s name. It’s now Stewart’s, with a new menu to match.
Along with keeping prices within reach of the neighborhood (nothing tops $19), Thompson takes his cues from around the globe, but doesn't overlook the all-American burger. And what a burger.
The patty weighs in just under a half pound (6 ounces, to be exact), an impressive heftiness that's a function of necessity, since the cooking instrument of choice is the kitchen’s shiny new toy, a char grill.
“And with that grill, you need a certain thickness to get the right char,” said Thompson. "The grill has taken a lot to get used to, I'm still sort of surprised by it. If we're not paying attention, we can really smoke out the kitchen."
Thompson's meat purveyor of choice is Peterson Limousin Beef, and he coaxes a dry-aged blend of chuck and short rib to a spot-on medium rare. The results have a pronounced beefy bite (it's not called the "Steakhouse Burger" for nothing), and a criss-cross of thick-sliced bacon only adds to the richness. I don’t often encounter blue cheese on burgers, but after inhaling this one, I’m beginning to wonder why; the combination really works.
“I don’t even like blue cheese,” said Thompson with a laugh. “I mean, I like it, but it’s probably my least favorite cheese, as a general rule. I was probably 20 years old before I started to eat it. It’s kind of like olives. I hated olives. Now I love them.”
It's all about the funkiness of the cheese. “It plays well with the funkiness of that dry-aged beef,” said Thompson. He’s right. “That funky beef, that bacon,” he said. “What else can you put on it but blue cheese? There’s so much going on. Anything else is going to get leveled.”
The sauce, a tangy Dijonaise, only adds fuel to the fire, and a layer of bread-and-butter pickles – along with raw red onion and a handful of shredded iceberg lettuce – contribute much-needed crunch.
Turns out, the iceberg plays a strategic role. “It helps carry the Dijonaise, and it sort of holds on to the blue cheese, which is so crumbly," said Thompson. "And the liquid from the pickles also sticks to the lettuce, it traps it like a net.”
The bun hails from Saint Agnes Baking Co. "I've been trying out buns," said Thompson. "Our old burger used a New French Bakery bun, but I've been shopping around." Nothing against the New French, but Thompson's well-advised to stick with this one, which is sturdy enough to hold up to the demands of that bruiser of a patty -- and the Dijonaise -- but is also manageably soft. The crown gets a quick toast on the grill, presumably to show off that brand-new charbroiler.
I'll admit, I'll miss the 128. But if the rest of Stewart's is as impressive as this burger, then Thompson's decision to remake the restaurant is a sound one.
Fries: Extra ($5), and worth it. They're made with Kennebec potatoes, an ideal frying spud. Fresh-cut and twice-blanched, they're finished with a Korean-esque seasoning, a mix of chile flake, salt and a touch of sugar. Instead of ketchup, Thompson calls upon a pair of dipping sauces: an aioli jazzed with fermented bean paste, sesame oil and nori powder; and a condiment he calls "Korean ketchup," a feisty mix of chile paste, soy, ginger, sesame and brown sugar. Traditionalists, worry not; the nicely crisp, golden fries are also available straight-up, garnished with sea salt and served with ketchup and mayonnaise.
A second burger: Thompson plans to double his burger offerings. “We’re across the street from a college, and there are two others nearby, so the idea is to do something more affordable,” he said. “So I’m going to do a smash-style diner burger, something really simple, with pickles and lettuce -- and maybe a tomato in the summer, but probably not. We’ll do it to go, and we’ll deliver. I’ll put my valets to work, and run them to the dorms across the street. The fries seem to hold, so we’ll run them in paper bags. I think it will work. Who else delivers burgers? Right across the street we have a captive audience, a bunch of freshman who don’t have a lot options after 8 o’clock. Somewhere around $8, or $10 with fries.” Fine by me, and I'll offer one word of advice: Hurry.
Requiem for baby backs: The out-with-the-old purge wasn’t limited to decor (farewell, knotty pine!). Thompson has eliminated the final vestiges of the 128’s edible legacy. In other words, don’t expect to find baby back ribs or roasted garlic, two dishes that somehow survived several changes in ownership, including the first three years of Thompson’s tenure. They’re gone, for good, a reality that a few folks aren’t accepting all that well.
“Last night we had someone leave, because the garlic appetizer is what they had in mind, and they couldn’t get it,” said Thompson. “They said, ‘We thought we were going to the 128.’"
For those who appreciated the 128 -- present company included -- it's going to be an adjustment, and Thompson recognzies that. "We’re just trying to have a good time, and cook the food that we want to cook," he said. "We want to be hospitable. All the things you want in a neighborhood restaurant.”
Looking ahead: “We’re going to rip off the Band-Aid and get it open,” said Thompson, when asked about lunch and brunch service. Here’s the deal: the dinner-only soft-opening schedule will last through this weekend. But come Tuesday (that’s Oct. 4), lunch will be served. Weekend brunch follows, starting on Oct. 8. “We’re going to try and have five brunch-ey items, and five lunch-ey items, and see how it works,” said Thompson. FYI: The burger will be available on both menus.
The best part of the remake: That's the (handsome) new bar, above, a neighborly gathering spot that's got roughly three times the capacity of the old one. “It feels like my own place, finally, and that’s really cool,” said Thompson. “I love everything about the 128. It has a lot of great history, and a lot of great qualities, but it’s hard to walk in someone else’s shoes. Finally, this doesn’t feel like a place someone else created.”
Address book: 128 N. Cleveland Av., St. Paul, 651-645-4128. Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Lunch service (Tuesday through Friday) begins Oct. 4, and weekend brunch begins Oct. 8.
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