It’s called the “groaning” board — for good reason, given the prodigious selection — and each component demonstrates this restaurant’s vital position in the local food chain and its commitment to whole-animal cooking.
Leftover pheasant leg and thigh (the breast and wing were grilled, a popular menu item) were prepared, confit-style, and incorporated into superb rillettes. Fat-enrobed, salt-cured duck breast was sliced into nearly sheer ribbons, a melt-in-your-mouth homage to prosciutto.
Venison scraps were channeled into a bacon-wrapped terrine, with dried fruit inserting a welcome sweet note. Meaty duck hearts impressed, trout’s delicate qualities shone in rillettes. A gloriously fat-marbled country-style pork pâté would have sent Julia Child reaching for a cracker, and the array of fermented, pickled and otherwise preserved vegetables — rapini, hickory turnips, fennel, watermelon — was an edible tour through a lovingly tended kitchen garden by way of a Mason jar.
This cornucopia of wonderment, so meticulously prepared and so quietly impressive, is a gleeful harbinger of the riches that await.
Chef Jonathan Gans recently marked his first year in the kitchen — he was preceded by James Beard award-winning Paul Berglund — and the Seattle native has been moving the restaurant deeper into its “North” frame of mind.
North, indeed. Not only do Gans and chef de cuisine Peter Lutz (a vet of the former Blackbird) collaborate with top-performing regional farms, but they partner with a forager (Alan Bergo, the last chef at the former Lucia’s) who scours nearby prairies, forests, lakesides and riverbanks. Their efforts yield an enviable pride-of-place larder.
“It’s a picture of this time and this place and this moment,” said Gans. “We want to tell the story of this place in the best way that we know how to tell it.”
To say that Gans and his crew are spellbinding storytellers is an understatement. Still, it’s one thing to have premium ingredients at your fingertips, but without creative chops, technical know-how and a drive to move the narrative forward, what’s the point? Fortunately, this kitchen crew is in full command of that rare skill set.
All of those admirable qualities are embodied in a sensational beef entree. It’s from a heritage breed, pasture-raised, at Pork & Plants, the Kreidermacher family’s operation in southeastern Minnesota. Gans buys the equivalent of an entire animal every three weeks, and he and his crew butcher their way through the various cuts.
The cattle are far older than their commodity counterparts — seven to 12 years compared with 18 to 30 months — and with age comes an intrinsically deep flavor. The labor-intensive cooking process, which calls for judiciously placing and removing the beef from the grill over a number of short periods, forges a mouthwatering external char while leaving a ruby-red juicy interior.
Each cut I encountered was a carnal experience, capturing both the nuance of the meat’s mineral qualities and its over-the-top beefiness. By comparison, a standard-issue steakhouse rib-eye comes off as a bland blunt instrument.
Book a table for Monday’s pork chop night. Every week, the kitchen receives two well-cared-for Red Wattle heritage breed hogs from Pork & Plants, then treats them like the treasures they are.
Chops are cut into two sizes — “Littles” (which are anything but at 18 to 20 ounces) and “Bigs” (which hover around but often exceed a stupefying 30 ounces). They’re brined for several days, air-dried for another day and then grilled. The meat is juicy, tender, decidedly pork-ey and edged with ripples of buttery fat.
In the nothing-goes-to-waste department, be on the lookout for when meaty pork ribs, glazed in apple cider vinegar, make their appearance.
Even better? That pork fat, carefully rendered, becomes one of the menu’s definite highlights. It’s whipped with pops of maple syrup, thyme and salt, piped into a jar and served with toast. It’s so luminously white it appears lit from within, and the fat’s decadent unctuousness is the ultimate in carnivorous pleasures.
Duck? So impressive. Pork meatballs? Sigh-inducing. Walleye? It’s sensitively handled, a far cry from the too-frequent overcooked treatment found elsewhere in this land-o-walleye.
The same for whitefish. Gans borrowed a favorite Spanish chilled almond soup in his quest to reposition this Great Lakes staple. After gently inserting smoke, taking care not to overwhelm (and overcook) the pristine, lightly cured fish, the kitchen then uses firm pieces of it as the centerpiece of a plated dish.
The soup’s primary components morph into a garnish: instead of almonds, locally sourced hazelnuts; rather than grapes, it’s fermented wild grape leaves and wild sumac, with crisped-up bits of pain de mie subbing in for the soup’s leftover bread. Like so much of Gans’ seemingly uncomplicated cooking, it’s ingenious, artful and delicious.
Produce reigns supreme
The menu gives as much real estate to vegetables as it does to animal proteins, and treats them with equal reverence.
“Going out to eat as a vegan is not necessarily easy,” said Gans. “There just aren’t that many people thinking about how to make that a great experience.”
Enter the Bachelor Farmer. It’s tough to imagine describing a plate of barley as “compelling.” But then Gans channels risotto, emphasizing creamy and comforting, minus the rice and dairy.
As part of his waste-nothing campaign, Gans ferments and purées the guts and seeds of winter squash. Nutty and sightly pungent, it’s mixed into an earthy purée of roasted butternut squash that’s enriching with garlic and oat milk. It forms the base used for cooking the barley, which is carefully taken to an appealing al dente texture.
Not stopping there, Gans calls upon grilled rapini, which lends a bitter smokiness to the proceedings. A relish of apples and walnuts adds a much-needed textural note, and rosemary and juniper zoom in for a fragrant finish. It’s spectacular, and like nearly every other item on the menu, it effortlessly radiates an unadulterated sense of winter in Minnesota. Bravo.
Most of the vegetable dishes have some kind of animal protein component, but many can be made vegetarian, and often vegan. For example, instead of frying Brussels sprouts in pork fat — so good — they’re available cooked in vegetable oil.
Another favorite: slender, sugary Mokum carrots — just one of many gifts from Twin Organics farm in Northfield — roasted and topped with a punchy pesto. Gans based it off the first dish of his audition process, using the last of the carrots he yanked out of his garden and forming a pesto from the carrot tops; now he’s turning to kale, with winning results.
Oh, and the polenta! Flint corn, raised and milled at Riverbend Farm in Delano, Minn., is nurtured on the stove into slightly sweet creaminess with an assertive corn bite.
My favorite? The sweet potatoes, which merge everything admirable about the kitchen’s well-stocked larder into a single dish. After being roasted, the starchy, locally cultivated potatoes are quickly grilled to insert a hint of char flavor. The harmonious add-ons start with a fluffy, squeaky-fresh Wisconsin feta and include a punchy cilantro-mint pesto, plus hints of foraged wild mint delivered via a chive-infused oil and a fortified salt. It’s a peak-experience dish.
A daytime dynamo
A lot of good looks are packed under this historic North Loop roof. The dining room’s brick-and-timber setting remains the epitome of hygge-beyond-belief chic, although its adjacent bar hasn’t aged nearly as well. The sunny daytime cafe continues to revel in its quasi-Scandinavian cheeriness. The basement’s speakeasy-esque Marvel Bar still makes even the dowdiest among us feel fashionable.
The cafe emerged in 2016 yet it feels as if it’s been a neighborhood staple for forever.
Its menu is a coffeehouse role model, with chef Molly Kascel following the seasonal-local lead set by Gans. The beautiful open-face sandwiches are so good that they’re remaking the possibilities of a quick lunch, and the salads boast a freshness that is (depressingly) rarely encountered in the dead of winter.
On weekends, Kascel outdoes herself with vegan, gluten-free waffles that eradicate the baggage that occasionally follows those dietary categories. Tender, golden and slightly nutty — thanks to buckwheat — they lean either sweet (a tart cranberry-apple compote sweetened with a buttery caramel sauce and maple-infused butter) or savory (shears of the kitchen’s peerless ham, tons of mellow Gruyère and a gently fried egg), and it’s tough to determine which is better.
It’s also a showcase for pastry chef Emily Marks. Her contributions in the restaurant are all about giving slight bumps to otherwise perfectly rendered Americana favorites: perfuming tender mini-doughnuts with cardamom, sprinkling roasted hickory nuts on a pitch-perfect marshmallow sundae, inserting an intriguingly sour bite into a sumptuous butterscotch pudding.
But it’s Marks’ handiwork for the cafe that truly dazzles, a gorgeous array of galettes, croissants, cookies (the crispy palmiers truly approach heaven-on-Earth status), muffins and other temptations. It’s a spread that easily belongs in the upper echelon of Twin Cities baked goods, and in this bread-and-sweets-obsessed region, that’s saying something.
Although it’s been less than a decade since the doors opened, the Bachelor Farmer has quickly evolved into a dining institution. Owners and siblings Eric Dayton and Andrew Dayton were wise to entrust their enterprise to Gans. And if this is what he can accomplish under winter’s restraints, can you imagine what’s going to happen this summer, when Minnesota produce is at its peak?
Two words: Can’t wait.