The burger: Fans of the double-patty cheeseburger at the former Il Foro, listen up. There’s a new double-patty cheeseburger in downtown Minneapolis, and while it’s not a carbon copy of Il Foro chef Joe Rolle’s exceptional and much-missed cheese-slathered monster, it’s got a lot going for it. And then some.
It’s the Mercury Burger at the just-opened Mercury Dining Room and Rail, and it’s definitely worth a test-drive. As is the restaurant.
At this great-looking new hangout, chef Jeff Woodyard piles on the beef in a major way: 7 1/2 ounces of what’s primarily chuck, stretched out, literally, through two very thin, well-seasoned patties that cover the width of the bun. The double patty strategy offers two advantages: speed (a pancake-like patty cooks quickly), and plenty of charred-up flavor. “With two patties, you get twice as much surface to develop all that tasty crust,” he said. “We griddle our burgers, and that’s twice as many square inches of surface as a single thick patty.”
This is an exceptionally cheesy cheeseburger. Woodyard taps two varieties, and both are fairly unlikely: Velveeta, and provolone. Yes, Velveeta, that Creamsicle-orange, melts-on-contact, brick-like American cheese-esque staple of the supermarket dairy case. Oddly, they work well as a team.
“Everyone thinks of processed cheese with such disdain, but Velveeta has such a nice, creamy melt,” he said. “And it’s one of those flavors that people grew up eating. It’s a good throwback to what our Moms fed us as kids.” As for the provolone, “It’s inert, it doesn’t compete,” he said. “And by using it, we’re not overdoing the Velveeta.” Makes sense. The oozy Velveeta goes in between the two patties, and the provolone crowns the top one.
Condiments are kept to a minimum, a decision that firmly accentuates this burger’s buttery, cheesy aura. Crunchy pickles add a much-needed acidic punch, and the finishing flourish is a swipe of a mayonnaise-Gulden’s Mustard blend. That’s it.
As for the poppyseed-topped bun, it’s what Woodyard calls “a simple milk bun” that’s made for the restaurant by Saint Agnes Baking Co. It’s got all the right attributes: tender, airy but sturdy enough to take on the scads of butter that go into the toasting process. Both sides of both halves of the bun get the buttered-and-toasted treatment. “We butter it, and butter it some more, we slather it on,” said Woodyard. “We grill it on both sides in a lot of butter. It’s an almost borderline greasy bun. It gets nice and crispy and singed, and it takes on a little of that brown butter flavor. It’s meant to be a throwback to that greasy diner burger. It’s not meant to appease anyone looking to lower their cholesterol, or worry about calories.” Trust me, I'm not.
Price: $11.95, a relative bargain, particularly for the neighborhood.
Fries: Included, as one of several side dish options (including kale coleslaw) and a must. They’re a slightly unusual shape, one that Woodyard calls a “thin plank,” and he’s right. “We sampled quite a few,” he said. Shoestrings were considered first, then rejected. “Because that’s what everyone is doing,” said Woodyard. Next up: A thicker, heavier cut, closer to the half-inch square. The staff feedback was more positive. “But on a lark, we had a blade in the kitchen that had the same width, but half the thickness,” said Woodyard. “It was more of a thin plank, and everyone liked them.” Me too. They’ve got a noticeably crisp exterior but without sacrificing a fluffy interior, and they’re substantial enough to retain heat. They twinkle with plenty of kosher salt. “It’s fun to do a fresh-cut fry,” said Woodyard. “They’re a lot of work, and that scares a lot of people away. But they taste so much better than a frozen fry.”
Yes, popovers: I didn’t ask Woodyard if he’s taking his cues from the nearby Oak Grill, but he’s featuring popovers on his menu (they’re not offered gratis; expect to pay $4.95 for a pair of Cheddar-infused beauties, a worthy investment). “We’re trying to put some more classic old-school items on the menu, to mix-and-match with more contemporary things,” he said. “These popovers are similar to the Yorkshire pudding you would have had with prime rib back in the 50s and 60s, although we’re not baking ours in beef fat.” They’re big and browned, with that unbeatable rise-in-the-oven trick of airiness and dense egginess, and they’re served with a pair of compound butters, one blended with lots of garlic, the other enriched with bone marrow. “They’re fun to have on the menu,” said Woodyard. “It’s the last thing that people expect to see.”
Resume: Woodyard signed on to helm the restaurant after a long career with McCormick & Schmick’s, first at several of the chain’s Pacific Northwest outlets in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then here in Minnesota for the past seven years, at both the Galleria and downtown Minneapolis locations.
The Mercury, which replaced the former Brasserie Zentral (which explains the handsome setting, which has received a few minor tweaks, including a lightened-up paint job), is the eighth marquee for the Blue Plate Restaurant Co., which also operates the Highland Grill, Edina Grill, Longfellow Grill, 3 Squares, the Groveland Tap the Lowry and Freehouse. Blue Plate's ninth, the soon-to-open Bottle Rocket, is replacing the company’s former Scusi. Mercury quietly opened on Tuesday evening. I asked Woodyard how it’s going.
“Really well,” he said. “It’s a new beast for Blue Plate, which has done smaller, neighborhood-type locations, and it’s really good at that. This is their first venture in the heart of downtown. The kitchen is massive, and beautiful, and we’re trying to make the most of it. We’re settling into a groove, and waiting for people to realize that we’re here.”
Where he burgers: “When I go out, I like to try anything, but I really like a good burger,” said Woodyard. “I think Five Guys has great burgers [Woodyard is in luck: downtown’s first Five Guys outlet just opened a block from Mercury, in RBC Plaza, 555 Nicollet Mall]. I keep hearing rumors that In-N-Out is going to show up here, and that would be great. My kids and I like to go to Burger Jones, I like their variety. But I don’t get out as much as I’d like to, because most of my nights are spent at the restaurant.”
Address book: 505 Marquette Av. S. (in the Soo Line Building), Mpls., 612-728-1111. Open 6:30 a.m. to midnight Mon.-Thu., 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fri., 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sat., 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sun.
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