There’s a lot to like at 4 Bells.
For starters, it’s a great-looking place. Owners Tim Rooney and Doug Van Winkle — they’re the guys behind raucous Butcher & the Boar — clearly know what they’re doing on the real estate front.
Teaming up with Joe Kaplan, they transformed his former Joe’s Garage into a seemingly endless series of welcoming spaces, aided by the know-how of Shea, the Minneapolis design firm, not to mention a construction budget that surely rivaled that of the State Capitol’s multi-bazillion-dollar overhaul.
There’s a role model of a kitchen counter, a whopper of a four-season rooftop, a have-a-seat bar and a handful of comfort-minded dining rooms. It’s got a vaguely industrial aura, one that’s warmed by acres of dark woods and metals, creamy white subway tiles and an envy-inducing variety of Instagram-worthy light fixtures.
The bar is another draw, a worthy perch for bartender Geoffrey Trelstad’s vivacious, imaginative cocktails.
My enthusiasm gets slightly tripped at the menu. Well, part of it, anyway. The restaurant’s dedication to Lowcountry cooking — a cuisine that grew out of the melting pot that is South Carolina’s coastal plains — is fairly skin-deep. It comes off more as a marketing gimmick than cooking rooted in heartfelt passion, or scholarship, or some combination thereof.
Just one example: Rice and corn, treasured Lowcountry cultural bedrocks, are relegated to token appearances. Huh? Other regional staples — boiled peanuts, figs, okra — curiously play similar walk-on roles. And when standards do appear, they’re often maligned, whether it’s mushy collard greens or leaden, over-fried hush puppies.
But remove the restaurant’s self-imposed Lowcountry prism, and chef Brendan McDonald hits his groove, and how. McDonald, mentored by chef Jack Riebel in the Butcher & the Boar kitchen, certainly has a flair for seafood.
The peel-and-eat shrimp would entice a lifelong vegan, that’s how flat-out delicious they are, colossals that are poached to snappiness in court bouillon, then tossed in a lemony vinaigrette, their shells encrusted with plenty of lively Creole-style seasoning. They’re spicy, and messy, and altogether irresistible.
Another gotta-have dish starts with the trimmings from McDonald’s pan-roasted grouper entree. They’re cured overnight in brown sugar and gently smoked, then tossed together with tangy creme fraiche, lemon and herbs, and dressed with colorful roe. Scoop up the results with thin, crisp potato chips liberally seasoned with Old Bay, and then order a follow-up.
Then there’s the snapper ceviche, a clever beauty that stands out for its alluring coconut milk-red pepper marinade and sweetened yogurt and toasted pine nut accents. As for the theatrical whole fried snapper, order it, and revel in its tantalizing garlic- and chile-fueled glaze.
You want crab legs? They’re here, treated with care. Oysters are fresh and pearly and briny, and three cheers for McDonald’s willingness to luxuriate in full-on caviar service, a Twin Cities rarity.
A hallmark of Lowcountry cooking is its less-is-more philosophy, but sometimes McDonald’s tendency is to go in the opposite direction. One example: He accentuates the built-in sweetness of juicy scallops with a sweet corn-pocked pancake and maple, and it’s too much. Way too much.
Sometimes the kitchen would benefit from a bit more of a watchful eye, whether it’s an impressively thick pork chop that radiated sodium, or a chicken breast that lingered too long in the pan.
On the subject of chicken, two triumphs. First is an ode to that age-old pairing of liver and onions, done up as a creamy terrine accentuated with mild, gently sweet cipollini onions. It’s perfect.
And McDonald definitely has a handle on one Southern standard, fried chicken. Technically, he’s sort of broasting it, and he gets every step of the process just right, calling up conscientiously raised birds and giving them a quick pickle brine — which explains the faint hints of dill — and a dredge through a light breading before it gets a pressure fry that yields abundantly juicy meat and crispy skin.
McDonald includes a few side sauces, but my preference is to ignore them, allowing the chicken’s quality to shine through.
Full marks for effort on the baking front. The cracker output — marvelously crisp-yet-tender saltines, a witty and spiced-up play on Cheez-Its — is impressive. As for the biscuits, they’re that wondrous alchemy of soft Southern flour, lard and buttermilk, rising in the oven with an athletic grace to achieve beautifully browned flakiness.
“Pass me that honey-lavender frosting,” said my friend, referring to the soft, fragrant butter that’s served on the side. He lavishly spread it with the abandon of someone icing a cupcake, and as it melted into the biscuit’s warm, fluffy folds, he sighed. I sighed, just watching him.
When it comes to pastry chef Rachel Slivicki’s desserts, my wish for her is the same as McDonald’s: Slow down, take a deep breath and trust your instincts. Slivicki, another Butcher & the Boar veteran (and an alum of Chicago’s top-rated HotChocolate) is obviously gifted, but as is the case with some of McDonald’s entrees, the pies and cakes she’s turning out are overly, unnecessarily complicated.
Her best work is easily the array of supple, flavor-saturated ice creams and sorbets. Her triumph? It’s a superb chocolate soda, and it’s simplicity itself, a tall parfait glass filled with icy, granita-like spoonfuls of a bittersweet chocolate sorbet, charged with soda water and crowned with a swirl of richly decadent whipped cream. I want one, right now.
A recent evening in the handsome but drafty rooftop bar proved to be a microcosm of the issues that had nibbled at me during other visits.
That second-floor setup features a menu of starters from the first floor that’s bolstered by an array of beer-friendly sandwiches, from a bodacious fried chicken version, to the requisite condiment-blanketed foot-long hot dog.
But the experience was dinged by careless oversights. A first-rate burger boasted every attribute a burger lover could ask for, with one exception: a chile relish so preposterously spicy that it overpowered everything it touched.
Clove-scented pickles elicited a smile, but then French fries were plagued by a lingering fishy aftertaste; a deep-fried hangover from the (terrific) haddock sandwich, perhaps? A toss of tender lettuces, teased with a lemony vinaigrette and shavings of salty Pecorino Romano, was loveliness itself, until close inspection revealed an abundance of brown, wilted leaves.
Oh, and charging $11 for what is little more than a tarted-up side salad is emblematic of the menu’s more-than-occasional “overpriced” vibe.
Would I return? Yes, for the room, and the drinks, and the dishes I’ve listed above. And because I believe in McDonald and his promise. How many 26-year-olds get a crack at running an ambitious downtown restaurant? The St. Paul native is clearly someone with a big career ahead of him, and I’m looking forward to watching him grow into it.
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