After Lucia’s Restaurant founder Lucia Watson sold her restaurant in December 2014 and retired, the inevitable happened: It changed.
How could it not? With a run just shy of 30 years, Watson’s eponymous farm-to-table operation was a complete personification of her tastes, interests, skills, mind-set and eagle-eye standards. Not having her presence on the premises was bound to alter the dining experience, no matter who signed the checks.
Fortunately, this scenario is not a parallel to, say, Macy’s taking over the Store Formerly Known as Dayton’s, only to methodically extinguish the qualities that hooked generations of Twin Cities shoppers.
No, owner Jason Jenny and his group of investors clearly maintain a healthy respect for Lucia’s illustrious prairie-to-plate past, and seem dedicated to preserving as much of the status quo as possible, despite the loss of key staffers since the restaurant changed hands.
The most potentially catastrophic departure was chef Ryan Lund; the 10-year Lucia’s vet is now at the helm of the soon-to-open Ninetwentyfive in Wayzata. Fortunately, Jenny made a business-saving hire in Alan Bergo.
He grew up on a fifth-generation central Minnesota farm, and spent 4 ½ influential years working under the region’s master locavore, Lenny Russo of the former Heartland Restaurant & Wine Bar in St. Paul.
Bergo is the kind of guy whose voice lights up when the subject turns to, say, foraged serviceberries, making him a natural for Watson’s less-is-more cooking philosophy, one that’s built on Midwestern ingredients seasoned with tried-and-true French cooking principles.
“This is my dream job, and not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate that this was someone’s dream,” he said. “Being the champion of very small, local producers, that’s at the heart of everything.”
As for the “C” words — change, and continuity — they’re on his mind. Constantly. “Sometimes I struggle with what’s OK to change,” he said. “But places need to evolve just to survive, let alone thrive. How do you keep the regular clientele happy while simultaneously attracting new diners? It’s difficult.”
Fortunately, he keeps in contact with Watson, seeking her counsel on sourcing, recipes and processes. (“Last week we talked about the dessert tray,” he said.) And he puts his not-inconsiderable kitchen skills to very effective use.
“I’m cooking the way I would cook on my day off for loved ones,” he said. “I tell the staff, ‘The plates should look like Grandma is a great cook.’ ”
Because the restaurant’s menus change weekly, as they have for the past 32 years, diners could encounter egg yolk-enriched gnocchi, dressed in the brightest early spring greens. A starter could be a fava bean hummus, served with crunchy radishes, dainty young spinach and other members of the glorious fraternity of just harvested, early May produce. Delicate butter lettuces, splashed with a tangy buttermilk-and-mint dressing, reflect why we look forward to winter’s end.
Another possibility is a thick, sizzling pork chop, its barnyard background coming through in each bite. Or a complex soup, its heft slowly but surely built via half a dozen varieties of onions. Or a beautifully arranged selection of locally made cheeses so irresistible they make you proud to be a Minnesotan.
I can clearly recall every flavorful detail of a lunch I had in March. Bergo was serving dry-brined, pan-roasted chicken, the bird’s skin crispy and salty and peppered with herbs, the meat juicy and tender.
Flavorful, lick-the-plate pan juices were the result of obvious prowess, and the oven’s heat caramelized the sugars locked inside the parsnips and carrots. It was one spectacular dish.
His frugality is also evident. The kitchen goes through 90 chickens a week, which means he has to find use for 90 chicken livers a week. The result? An earthy dirty rice. Fat from Minnesota-raised ducks or Mangalitsa pigs (and plenty of French sea salt) turns shredded potatoes into museum-worthy hash browns, my new favorite snack.Yes, some dishes can land with a thud. The menus (particularly those at the lovely brunch and pleasant lunch) can be a bit limited. But the bread basket and the desserts are as homey and satisfying as ever.
“There’s something to be said for a nice piece of pie, right?” Bergo said.
And how, especially when it’s a lattice-topped beauty that’s packed with tart, toothy rhubarb and garnished with stalks of candied angelica (a cousin to parsley) and a luscious vanilla bean ice cream. Pastry chef Taylor Kollitz, a Coup d’Etat vet, is a real find, and her forthright, technically proficient work is doing her predecessors’ legacy proud.
Layer cakes and scrambled eggs
Meanwhile, the Lucia’s to Go side of the business appears, at least to me, to be humming along in an admirably approachable manner that’s really no different from the 10 years that Watson presided over it.
In the morning, it’s still the place for rich, fluffy scrambled eggs (the eggs hail from a small St. Croix River Valley farmer), or the city’s dreamiest buttermilk biscuits (crusty and browned on top, tender and notably buttery inside), split and filled with a thick, tender slab of ham, a fried egg and a slice of sharp Cheddar, or expertly prepared crêpes, smeared with Nutella, or knobbly, fruit-filled scones, or flaky croissants.
As the day progresses, the chicken salad of the week never disappoints; the rustic vegetable salads celebrate whatever is in season, and the dozen or so sandwiches, all served on well-rendered house-baked breads, are miles beyond the orbits of Subway and Jimmy John’s. The kitchen’s rotisserie chickens beat their supermarket counterparts; ditto the always changing home meal replacement options.
The bakery counter remains Uptown’s most flagrant diet wrecker. The layer cakes that hark back to the disciplined simplicity of farmhouse bakers, the butter-laden sweet breads, the brownies with their cocoa-overload heft, the standard-setting chocolate chip cookies, all remain unchanged, right down to their still reasonable prices.
“Staples are staples for a reason,” Bergo said. “There will be no monkeying around with those recipes.”
Back to the subject of change. Many longtime service staffers — the unofficial faces of the restaurant, after Watson herself — have moved on, although it’s also reassuring to note that a number have stayed.
The dessert tray — a smile-inducing Lucia’s tradition for as long as I can remember — has been sidelined for a drab paper menu; where’s the fun in that? And I can’t be the only Lucia’s fan who laments the loss of the convenient parking lot for a swank condo project.
There’s one alteration that Jenny could — and should — make, pronto, and that’s to freshen up the premises, parts of which are feeling tattered and tired. Just nothing too radical, OK? Whatever you do, please follow the example of Bergo’s cooking, and make sure it remains recognizably and respectfully Lucia’s-like.