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Burger Friday: Zelo in downtown Mpls. reopens with new look, equally stunning cheeseburger

The burger: There’s really no reason why a person would expect to encounter a burger – several, actually – amid the pastas, risottos and bruschettas at Zelo, the popular Italian-esque restaurant in downtown Minneapolis.

Better to set the skepticism aside, and enjoy. Because, what a burger. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated. No retro balancing acts, no fancy-schmancy molecular gastronomy at play. Instead, a bruiser of a half-pound patty (the premium beef hails from Revier Cattle Co. in Olivia, Minn.), one that’s nearly as tall as it is wide.

Keep it simple is clearly chef Jason Gibbons’ mantra. That rich, robust beef is seasoned with just salt and pepper – it requires nothing more – and is grilled on the flattop. When my server asked how I wanted it prepared, I gave my standard response: “The way the kitchen prefers.” To my everlasting delight, lunch arrived a smidge below medium rare, and the contrast between the patty’s robustly charred exterior and that deeply pink, almost velvety center was, in a word, delectable. Yes, this is why burgers – when they’re done properly – enjoy near-universal acclaim.

The picture-perfect house-baked bun – one of those tastes-even-better-than-it-looks numbers – gets a healthy swab of butter before it’s toasted on the grill. The bottom half is judiciously shielded from that juiced-up patty with a crunchy lettuce leaf.

A buttery slab of fontina is draped over soft, teasingly sweet caramelized onions. As for the requisite “special sauce,” it’s a basic mix of mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup and Worcestershire, and it performs exactly as expected.  

Yes, fifteen bucks (see Price, below) is not exactly cheap. But consider this: it’s a half-pound of burger. Split it with a friend. Even at a quarter pound, this burger scores major brownie points for flavor, and value.

Price: $14.95.

Fries: Included, and well-executed. They’re russets, cut with the skins on and soaked to remove some of the starch. Then they’re twice-fried; for the first go-round, they’re blanched in a lower-temperature oil, and when they’re ordered they get the higher-temperature treatment. Each enormous – as in, enough for two – serving is seasoned with fine sea salt and served with a side of ketchup.

Talking turkey: I’m continually disappointed by turkey burgers, which frequently radiate indifference if not out-and-out incompetence. Not here. Poultry prince Pat Ebnet at Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn., supplies a light- and dark-meat blend that Gibbons and sous chef Nate Hanssen dress up with a lively mix of green onions, jalapenos, soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. The half-pound patties are grilled until the exterior is bronzed and crisped but the lean meat retains more than a modicum of juiciness, a rarity in turkey burger territory. Another strategy: the toasted bun (it’s the same house-made knockout that elevates the beef burger to "standout" status) gets a generous swipe of fragrant, basil-boosted aioli.  It’s also $14.95, and worth it.  

Looking good: When Zelo opened in 1999, it occupied what had been the longtime home of Albrecht’s, a specialty fashion store; hey, remember when Nicollet Mall was lined with retailers? At the time, the restaurant's moody, artful decor was as fashionable as anything hanging on the mannequins at Dayton’s Oval Room. But fast-forward 18 years, and Zelo was looking and feeling dated (and the Oval Room is history). Owner Rick Webb recently revealed a much-needed renovation, and it’s a knockout, all elegant putty colors (which more than do justice to the original Albrecht's details), sleek walnut furnishings and dramatic, place-making lighting fixtures, crafted for the restaurant by Hennepin Made. The transformation is remarkable, and welcome.

History-maker: After a nine-year absence, owner Rick Webb, an influential Twin Cities restaurateur for what feels like forever, is back at Zelo. In the 1970s and 1980s, he and brother David Webb owned a scene-making portfolio of properties that included CocoLezzone, Rupert’s, the American Cafe and My Pie Pizza in Golden Valley, Winfield Potter’s in Minneapolis and the Original Pancake House in Edina. By 1990, the brothers’ partnership had fizzled (David went on to open the instantly popular Good Day Cafe in Golden Valley in 2007; he died in 2011), and Rick purchased St. Paul’s food-and-drink landmark, the Lexington. He divested himself of the Lex eight years later, just after converting Bloomington’s Cantina del Rio into the runaway success that he christened Ciao Bella (that's Webb, above, at Ciao Bella, in a 1998 Star Tribune file photo). The people-magnet that is Zelo (the name is the Italian word for zeal) followed in 1999, and Bacio – a beauty in a former Leeann Chin outlet in Plymouth – came along in 2002. Webb sold Bacio and Zelo in 2008 , then re-purchased Zelo last year.

Address book: 831 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-333-7000. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

4-star restaurant owners buying one of Minneapolis' last 3.2 dive bars

In December, when Piccolo co-owners Doug Flicker and Amy Greeley announced that they were closing their four-star Minneapolis restaurant – the last day is March 11 --  Flicker added that he was already looking ahead.

“I want to do something else,” he said. “I’d still like to do one more project. It’s just a little too early to confirm any details.”

Now’s the time. The couple is in the process of purchasing the Sunrise Inn, one of the city’s last 3.2 beer joints. They plan to convert the bar -- which has anchored the corner of 46th St. and 34th Av. S. for 70 years -- to Bull’s Horn Food and Drink.

“It’s going to remain in the spirit of the classic, old-time dive bar,” said Greeley. “We want it to be a neighborhood place, and family-friendly.”

Flicker and Greeley are purchasing the building, which also includes a few commercial storefronts, and a parking lot. The plan is to convert the empty square footage that’s adjacent to the Sunrise into a commercial kitchen.

“Right now there’s just a little griddle and a fryer,” said Flicker. “I’m not 100 percent sure that we’ll be able to keep them, but we’d like to.”

Fans of the Sunrise, don’t worry: the room’s well-worn fixtures aren’t going anywhere.

“There’s a gorgeous wooden bar, with wooden-front coolers,” said Flicker. “It’s absolutely classic.”

Construction will commence in mid-April, with the hope of opening by July.

The project is in its early stages, but Flicker is promising “a killer burger, and we’ll dabble in some smoked meats,” he said.

“We’re trying to avoid the word ‘barbeque,’” added Greeley. “But I can see offering some kind of meat-and-three options.”

The Sunrise's 3.2 heritage will be history. (Most mainstream beer brands have a 5 percent alcohol level, and craft beers go higher). The couple plans to upgrade the liquor license to include strong beer and wine.

The Bull's Horn has been a long time in the making.

“We’ve been looking at the space for five years,” said Flicker. “Then Sandcastle [their seasonal beachside pavilion at nearby Lake Nokomis] came up, and we couldn’t do both. With Piccolo closing, I can shift my attention to this.”

The demise of the Sunrise represents the end of an era. Low-alcohol beer joints – an anachronism that sprouted out of strict post-Prohibition municipal ordinances – thrived for decades on corners all over Minneapolis. Changes, in both tastes and governance, have been swift.

Twenty years ago, the city’s 3.2 joints numbered 56. By 2007, the figure had dwindled to 15, and in 2013 it was down to the Sunrise and the T-Shoppe Bar, located in the Camden neighborhood on the city’s north side.

The friendly neighborhood dive bar is firmly entrenched in the couple’s DNA. Greeley grew up in St. Paul, a block from what was then Mickey’s Nook. And Flicker’s aunts and uncles owned (the brilliantly named) Flicker’s Liquors in Pierz, Minn.

“It was so impactful to me, as a kid,” he said. “In every sense, I’m going back to my roots. I’m super-excited. It’s that change thing, you know? It’s so fun to think of doing something completely different.”

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