Here are a half-dozen Capital City restaurants — some brand-new, others not so — all of which belong on your dining-out radar.
Lucas Almendinger has always been a chef worth watching. His impressive work at Co-op Creamery, Third Bird and Union Fish Market — as well as his tenures at Steven Brown’s Tilia — have always caught my eye. Which is why I’m thrilled to know that he’s back in his own kitchen, this time in Lowertown, in the handsome warehouse space most recently occupied by Hygga.
“It’s a beautiful room, and it kind of fell into my lap,” he said.
Almendinger and partners Jeff Heegaard and Nabeel Ahmad have split the space in half; in front, it’s a counter-service daytime spot, and in back it’s the more formal dining room and bar.
As always with Almendinger, the cooking is exciting — a minimalist approach to contemporary American, infused with South Asian flourishes. “It’s a lot more spice-forward, but I’m trying to do that with some restraint and subtlety,” he said.
That mind-set is readily apparent in a stunner of a dish highlighting a long list of spring vegetables, each one shining on their own yet working in harmony with the ensemble, and presented in a color-saturated coconut-saffron broth.
Another example of Almendinger’s skill is the way he takes a 30-day dry-aged rib-eye — so tender it sliced like a hot knife through butter — and tops it with strawberries that have been charred in a hot pan with a bit of rendered beef fat, then splashed with red wine vinegar. It sounds odd, but it’s anything but.
He’s also hopping on the tasting menu bandwagon with a six-seat kitchen counter that serves an ever-changing six-course dinner for $60, with $25 wine/beverage pairings. A recent menu included foie gras with a cornmeal mille feuille and the last of last season’s pickled chokecherries, a spring pea custard garnished with bitter greens and a grilled prawn in a strawberry broth.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to adhere with what’s going on with the a la carte menu,” said Almendinger. “It’s whatever I’m feeling in the moment.”
The fixed-priced option is available on Friday and Saturday evenings. I can’t wait to check it out.
213 E. 4th St., St. Paul, 651-300-5476, elephant.bar. Cafe open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday (lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays). Dining room open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Northern Fires Pizza at Bang Brewing
The unhappy news is that this mobile pizza operation isn’t going brick-and-mortar after all.
Chef/owner Arie Peisert announced last fall that he was launching a wood-fired pizzeria on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, but the plans fell through. A disappointment, yes, but one that created a different business opportunity, this time in St. Paul.
Peisert and his crew are now making their first-rate pizzas at an outdoor setup on a four-days-a-week schedule outside this sustainably minded brewery, playfully forged from a two-story grain bin (well done, Alchemy Architects) and specializing in meticulously made organic lagers and ales.
Anyone who has enjoyed one of Peisert’s creations at a farmers market (find the stand at the Mill City Farmers Market on Saturday morning, and the Nokomis Farmers Market on Wednesday evening) will vouch for his pizza-making skills, which are considerable.
“My goal is to make the best dough possible,” he said. He relies upon heritage grains cultivated and milled in Minnesota (via Sunrise Flour Mill in North Branch) and a sourdough starter, an inspired combination that yields a flavorful crust that turns nicely crisp, browned and bubbled.
It comes to life in an oven that’s stoked with red oak, and then fueled with faster-burning maple.
“I like the big flames and the heat from maple,” said Peisert.
The toppings? Discerningly selected from local sources, thoughtfully matched, sparingly applied and deeply flavorful.
A lively tomato sauce, milky mozzarella and garden-fresh basil make for a spectacular Margherita, and the pancetta-arugula combination, brightened by those peppery greens, is a complete pleasure.
Drop in on Sunday, when the crew pulls together a breakfast pizza — the “Spectator,” topped with mozzarella, purple potatoes, blue cheese, crisped-up speck (from Red Table Meats), a punchy parsley-garlic herb sauce and an egg.
There’s also a spectacular frittata, prepared with ingredients culled from Peisert’s Mill City Farmers Market neighbors: Sunshine Harvest Farm eggs, herbs and greens from Loon Organics.
Seating is a convivial group of picnic tables — some sheltered from the sun — in the brewery’s well-landscaped beer garden. Beer, pizza and fresh air, an ideal summer-in-Minnesota combination.
2320 Capp Road, St. Paul, 612-280-1208, northernfirespizza.com. Open 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 to 9 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
For months, a friend had been telling me that I needed to check out the Salvadoran restaurant in his neighborhood. When we finally made it for dinner, I was kicking myself for the delay.
Mañana has been around for ages, but the Dayton’s Bluff hole-in-the-wall matriculated into much more prominent digs last year, a roomier space that matches the lengthy, crowd-pleasing menu.
Pupusas (masa cakes stuffed with all kinds of ingredients) are a house specialty. Crisp on the outside, airy on the inside, they’re done up with various preparations of pork and chicken, as well as cheese, beans, jalapeños and zucchini, and served with a crunchy, lightly fermented cabbage-carrot slaw and a lively housemade hot sauce. Sitting on the patio and knocking back a few with a cold beer will definitely land on my summertime schedule.
Other treasures on the menu include a half-dozen egg-centric dishes (get the chilaquiles with grilled steak and salsa verde), the plump shrimp cured in lime juice, the hearty chicken stew served over rice and beans, the well-stuffed (beef tongue, chipotle-stewed chicken) burritos, the two-fisted tortas and a long list of tacos.
Portions are generous, it’s tough to find a price over $14 (the pupusas average $3), the people couldn’t be nicer and the setting is sunny and comfortable. Go with a group, order a tableful of dishes, and share.
798 E. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-793-8482. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
When chef Justin Sutherland took over management of the Madison Restaurant Group, one of his first projects was a remake of the company’s property at Selby and Western in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood.
Fitzgerald’s became the Fitz, and its emphasis on pizza was embodied by the installation of a wood-burning oven.
Sutherland, chef Graham Messenger and sous chef Jeremy Bechtold are turning out exactingly rendered pies, the dough proofed overnight, stretched by hand, baked in that red- and white-oak-fueled oven until those delectable bubbles develop on the edges.
Toppings are culled from an around-the-world roster of flavors: shrimp with Andouille sausage and sweet corn; chipotle-enriched chicken with cotija cheese and cilantro; and artichokes with harissa, oil-cured black olives and feta.
“I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into an Italian concept,” said Sutherland. “I love globally inspired food, and the format gives chefs an opportunity to have fun.”
But the real star of the show? A trio of truly standard-setting deep-dish pizzas.
“I’m a big fan of deep-dish pizza,” said Sutherland. “And to be quite honest, I haven’t found a good slice outside of Chicago.”
He and Bechtold took that as a challenge, and got to work. They eventually settled on a foccacia-style dough, one that gets good and crispy on the bottom yet lifts off the pan, stays moist — but not annoyingly spongy — in the middle, and develops a sturdy crust on the edges. Certainly strong enough to support the heft of the cheese, sauce and toppings, which includes a classic fennel-garlic sausage.
The results are spectacular, and more than worth the 45-minute wait, and the $25-$29 price range. Sellouts are frequent.
“We haven’t been able to buy enough pans to keep up,” said Sutherland with a laugh. They started with 40 and continued to sell out even though they now have 70. “We’ll cap it at a hundred,” said Sutherland. “That’s enough for one day.”
The modern-day sports bar-esque setting (expect a barrage of TV screens) also includes sandwiches (a Parmesan-crusted crispy chicken version, a Philly-style cheesesteak, a gigantic meatball sammie), salads and a half-dozen starters.
The bar taps nearly three dozen beers and pours more than a dozen $10-and-under wines by the glass, hurrah. Other good news? The kitchen cooks until midnight. Except those deep-dish pizzas: Their curfew is 10 p.m.
Open 3 p.m. to midnight daily; kitchen opens at 4 p.m. 173 Western Av. N., St. Paul, 651-219-4013, thefitzstpaul.com
The Iron Ranger
Closings up and down the street have led to a certain amount of hand-wringing on Grand Avenue. But Tom Forti is bullish on Grand. About 3 ½ years ago, he opened Sunrise Market and Cafe, where he was selling products from his family’s famous century-old Hibbing, Minn., company, along with a small selection of sandwiches.
Last May, he chose to go full-on restaurant, and it was a smart decision. Sticking to an Iron Range theme was also wise; it’s not often that Twin Cities diners can indulge in just-like-Grandma’s cabbage rolls, stuffed with three meats and rice. Or tender, golden, flaky pasties filled with beef, pork and root vegetables. Or porketta, cooked low and slow and piled high — with provolone and a not-timid giardiniera — on a chewy baguette. Or cheesed-up stromboli filled with thin-sliced ham and salami and served with a decent marinara.
The long, narrow storefront has a definite “Up North” vibe — my favorite seats are at the handsome oak bar. And while the more traditional bar fare — flatbreads, salads, sandwiches — is fine, it’s nothing that can’t be experienced elsewhere. The affordable prices will definitely forge a large audience of regulars. Ditto the fleet, friendly service.
1085 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-487-1913, ironrangermn.com. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Bark and the Bite
A tough break for Minneapolis turned into a boon for St. Paul when fire displaced this counter-service spot from its University Avenue NE. address into the former home of Heirloom. The casual setup, moderate prices and generally sharp cooking make for the kind of place that every neighborhood longs to have in its midst.
So it’s not a surprise to see that business is booming. Chef Noah Miller has already doubled the kitchen’s capacity, and the bar is up and running, serving cocktails, wine and beer from St. Paul’s BlackStack Brewing.
Count me as a fan of the smoked pulled pork shoulder — the meat is moist and succulent, with just the right amount of campfire heft — served in a pile on a platter or in a toasted (and excellent) brioche-style bun and doused with one of four well-composed sauces, including a mustard-based house standard that’s sweetened with brown sugar and a semi-fiery version fueled with serrano chiles and cider vinegar.
Another winner: the meaty pork ribs, brushed with vinegar, rubbed with spices and smoked in apple wood until they develop a nicely crispy crust on the outside, yet the meat is easily nudged off the bone. Miller has obvious side dish know-how. Don’t skip the hush puppies, potato salad or collard greens.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Miller adds beef brisket to the menu, serving it in the usual sandwich and platter formats. It’s so popular that I’ve not been able to get there before those two utterly depressing words — “Sold out” — appear. Next time.
2186 Marshall Av., St. Paul, 651-528-7928, barkandthebite.com. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Mon Petit Chéri
OK, there’s a seventh. But let’s keep it out of the official tally, because while the new home of this bakery/cafe is within the 651 area code, it’s not inside St. Paul’s city limits.
Stillwater is no longer clogged with crossing-the-bridge traffic, thanks to the dramatic new span that opened downriver. As a result, a people-centric metamorphosis is sweeping downtown. Owner Emily Rheingans is taking full advantage of that, relocating her four-year-old business from Minneapolis, gaining elbow room and plenty of Main Street charm.
The kitchen’s breakfast-and-lunch emphasis remains (ditto the $10-and-under prices), and the baked goods are as good as ever, including Rheingans’ gift with rolls, specifically the yeasty, coiled beauties studded with blueberries and finished with an orange glaze.
310 S. Main St., Stillwater, 651-342-1528, mpcstillwater.com. Open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.