The burger: Turns out, my GPS wasn’t on the fritz. As directed, I’d pulled into the parking lot of the strip mall just off I-35E, but by all accounts it appeared as if I was not in the right place.
Lesson learned: Don’t be thrown by the lack of signage bearing the Volstead House name; owner Tony Donatell is going for the speakeasy vibe, which means that access to this restaurant and bar is available only by walking through another Donatell property: Burgers and Bottles, a casual neighborhood hangout that is exactly what its name suggests.
(Don’t make the mistake that I did, which was calling Volstead and stupidly asking, “Am I in the right place?” because, Yes, you are. Chances are, you’re probably standing in front of Burgers and Bottles while you’re on the phone. I was. The very kind and patient staffer on the other end of the line did not treat me like an idiot. This scenario must happen with some frequency, and she’s obviously created a well-rehearsed and wonderfully polite response.)
With the dipped-in-sepia word “speakeasy” being bandied about (the official name is the Volstead House Whiskey Bar & Speakeasy), I was hoping for maybe some kind of theatrical portal – a secret door, maybe, or a bookshelf with a hidden latch, or a phone booth with a false wall (I obviously read way too many Hardy Boys mysteries as a kid). Nope. Just a flimsy, Pier One-like black curtain. So much for dramatics.
Still, the difference in environments is startling. Cheery Burgers and Bottles is bright enough to spur thoughts of sun block. Not Volstead House. It’s a former auto repair shop that Donatell has imaginatively transformed into a great-looking playhouse for grown-ups.
Half of Volstead House’s charm is its small-ish scale – a shocker when the average suburban restaurant could double as an airplane hangar – and the other half is in its moody lighting, clubby details and enormous Wall-o-Booze (there’s a near-encyclopedic whiskey inventory, a foundation for an impressive array of painstakingly produced classic cocktails). A tucked-away patio, also cloaked from prying eyes, was probably quite the warm-weather magnet.
Against this atmospheric backdrop, chef Jason Clubb is cranking out a fine burger, notable for its uncomplicated approach and sharp execution.
Its centerpiece is a mammoth 8-ounce patty, relatively thick but far more notable for the way it tends to hang beyond the bun’s confines (the architectural term cantilever applies). It’s an all-Angus mix of shoulder and chuck (“We wanted more fat, and more flavor,” said Clubb), and the cooking method of choice is grilling over a gas-fueled flame rather than frying on a flattop stove.
“In my experience, it’s about the flame, whether it’s from gas, or wood,” said Clubb. “That flame transforms meat. Flattops sauté and sear, but flames give meat more flavor, more char. Shawn Smalley [of Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque in Stillwater] is the best grill cook I’ve ever met, and he always says, ‘Flame is better.’ Nothing beats cooking meat on a grill.”
The patty of the Volstead House burger boasts a pronounced exterior char (a texture that's equal on both sides of the patty) that flirts with crispiness and cloaks a noticeably pink, juicy center. Just before the patty comes off the grill, Clubb gives it a brush of a molasses-Dijon mustard glaze, one that’s fortified “with tons of bourbon,” he said. The sauce's flavor sneaks and complements rather than overpowers the beef, and the sugars in the molasses serve another purpose: “It’s that final bit of caramelization,” said Clubb.
Two other finishing touches come in the form of a nicely aged Cheddar, and a hefty portion of crisped-up bacon. Really, does a burger require any other embellishment?
Ok, there’s more. A so-so tomato slice (can we all agree that it’s time to say goodbye to unadulterated tomatoes until they return next summer?), a notably fresh lettuce leaf and tangy pickle-cut chips. Perfect.
As for the bun, it’s a brioche, style, lightly toasted. Nice.
Residents of Eagan and surrounding municipalities, you should be lining up -- sorry, pulling back the black curtain -- for this burger.
Fries: Included. They’re made on the premises, a simple skin-on cut that’s blanched, fried to order and generously salted. I generally prefer my fries landing firmly in the “golden” color spectrum, and the generous handful that was piled high on my plate was taken several gradations beyond golden. It’s not a complaint, it’s more of an observation; they were delightfully crispy, while the insides maintained a reliably baked potato-esque feel, which more than covers all French fry bases.
About the chef: The restaurant opened last December, and Clubb took over the kitchen three months ago. I’d say that Donatell made a smart hire, because Eagan and the rest of the suburban dining scene could use more cooks of his caliber.
Clubb has an impressive resume, including long stints in kitchens run by top chefs Russell Klein and Tim McKee.
“I spent five years at La Belle Vie, working with people like Jim Christiansen, Mike DeCamp, Tyge Nelson and Diane Yang,” he said, rattling off a number of highly skilled, card-carrying members of the Tim McKee Mentorship Club. “They’re amazing, and it was an amazing experience.”
It was Clubb’s wife who convinced him to take his career in another direction. “She said, ‘Look at what’s happening, with all these fine-dining restaurants closing,’” he recalled. “She thought I could transfer my fine-dining skills to a neighborhood restaurant setting, and that the market would support that.”
Smart. Clubb spent 18 months in the kitchen at the (terrific) Blackbird in south Minneapolis, working with chef/co-owner Chris Stevens. “Chris is a great guy, and working there I realized that I could do it,” he said. “Lots of people working in fine dining don’t want to step down. But I got burned out. I’ve cooked enough truffles and foie gras to choke a horse. This is a nice change, and a challenge to be working in bar food, and making it better.”
Not only is Clubb running the show at Volstead House and Burgers and Bottles, but he’s also in charge of Farmer’s Grandson Eatery, a deli case/milk shakes/burgers operation attached to Donatell’s adjacent gas station.
“It’s an unorthodox kitchen,” Clubb said with a laugh. “But that’s what’s great about it. It’s a multifaceted challenge.”
Address book: 1278 Lone Oak Rd., Eagan, 651-340-7175. Open 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
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