"I like to come here for the toasts," said my friend, as we walked to our table at the Bachelor Farmer, the wittily named and highly ambitious new Scandinavian-inspired restaurant and bar in Minneapolis' North Loop neighborhood.
Toasts, as in, skol, cheers, l'chaim? My clueless self was quickly set straight: The menu is anchored by a toast course. It sounded a bit precious, and when a silver-plated, slightly Deco-looking toast rack arrived at the table, seemingly plucked from a Myrna Loy movie, it started to feel that way. But it only takes a few nibbles to realize what a brilliant dining-out idea it is.
Because bread plays such a central role in Nordic eating -- the smörgåsbord, the Danes and their open-faced sandwiches -- chef Paul Berglund makes it his centerpiece, too, brushing a house-baked sourdough with grapeseed oil and grilling it into sturdy crispiness. The results become a delivery system for all kinds of deliciousness.
There are a half-dozen selections, and the temptations escalate, fast -- starting with a veritable rainbow of roasted beets, paired with a puddle of house-made cow's cheese that's so ultra-creamy and fresh-tasting you'll wonder if it was made that day (it probably was). Or slivers of mouth-melting cured salmon, its delicate sweetness countered by pickled cucumbers.
Or a remarkably lean beef, seared and sliced carpaccio-thin, with crunchy and brightly acidic yellow wax beans. Or a wickedly intense rabbit liver pâté, its richness balanced by a pop of coarse mustard and the vivid accent of dried cherries. Or a fondue-like crock of melted Camembert and bits of colorful vegetables, begging to be smeared across that rustic bread and devoured.
Shades of meatballs
Beyond those toasts there are meatballs, naturally, and Berglund, a native of St. Louis, Mo., working in the Land of the Lutherans for the first time, takes a sensible approach to this Nordic icon. "We're not trying to make Swedish meatballs, because we don't want to compete with anyone's preconceived notion of what a meatball should be," he said. "We're just trying to make the best meatball that we can."
Mission accomplished. He starts by fortifying pork and beef with unsmoked, house-cured pork belly, which gives the tender, carefully browned meatballs their rich flavor profile. They're served with mashed potatoes that more closely resemble a dairy product held together by potato molecules, that's how creamy they are, along with wonderfully tart lingonberries and more of those addicting thin-sliced pickled cucumbers. It's a little piece of heaven, so I panicked when Berglund told me that he's toying with a different preparation -- a sandwich, perhaps. Still, the meatballs won't disappear entirely, and to that, I say, phew.
From the fields and waters
Duck, venison, lingcod and other Nordic staples, they're all here, and beautifully done. There's an initial modesty to the food -- actually, to the whole Bachelor Farmer experience -- that dovetails into the soft-spoken Midwestern ethos. Yet understated should not be confused with simplistic. The individual flavors locked inside a stunner of a seafood chowder are unmuddled; instead, they act in concert to create a memorable flavor chorus.
Bibb lettuce, dressed with a mellow cider vinegar dressing and gutsy blue cheese, is artfully arranged like the scalloped roof of the Danish-designed Sydney Opera House.
A satisfying golden pea soup, garnished with bits of fried sage, serves as an intro to a veritable porkfest -- a fat slice of house-cured ham and a hearty pork sausage -- that conjures up a modern-day farmhouse supper, at least one prepared by a rising-star chef.
Eggs are a favorite protein and a source of endless fascination for Berglund, and they're especially good in his capable hands. He scrambles them into pillow-like tenderness and serves them with an ever-changing array of pristine, expertly house-smoked fish (Arctic char, steelhead trout) and a cold potato salad peppered with tangy capers and a lively pesto. Or he poaches them, serving them with bite-sized, lovingly caramelized Brussels sprouts, farm-fresh vegetables -- snap peas, or space alien-looking Romanesco broccoli -- and a silky, tomato-infused béarnaise, turning dinner into brunch, happily.
A new twist on chicken
There's one standout among the otherwise sane portion sizes: A whole roast chicken. Rather than brined, it's liberally salted, a two-day method that slowly and evenly infuses salinity into the entire chicken, not just the skin. It exudes an abundance of concentrated, intrinsically chicken-y flavor, thanks to carefully raised birds, from Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn. The salt-crusted skin is tantalizingly crisp, and the meat -- with traces of thyme floating in and out -- is so melt-in-your-mouth succulent that its juices seem designed for running down chins, with abandon. Another welcome touch: Bits of pickled cauliflower, emboldened by a sharp vinegary bite. It's a real weak-in-the-knees kind of dish, and because it's prepared for two or more, it only underscores why the Bachelor Farmer is a fun communal dining destination.
Berglund's tightly focused, seasonally diligent menu has already evolved since his bosses -- brothers and first-time restaurateurs Eric and Andrew Dayton -- quietly launched their enterprise late this past summer. Although he's only barely dented the possibilities of Scandinavian cooking, an exciting yet strangely unexploited cuisine, it's a testament to his work to date that I can say, without hesitation, that I can't wait to see what the future holds for this restaurant. Just thinking about what Berglund could do with herring -- pulled from Lake Superior, or the Pacific variety he loves so much -- becomes an exercise in anticipation.
Sure, I have a few quibbles. The popovers, which are affectionate nods to the Dayton brothers' department store heritage (yes, they are scions of that Dayton family), are appropriately eggy and rich but not always the moist, piping-hot extravagances that they could be. I occasionally ran into overzealous seasoning and careless temperature control. Consistency can be another issue; potato pancakes jumped from too greasy to too crisp to ideal over the course of three visits. Desserts are similarly uneven; for every superb, inhale-every-morsel apple tart, there's a yogurt ice cream with a tanginess that needs dialing down.
The restaurant removes any doubt that the University of Minnesota plays a vital role in making our state a better place. Even when that role is tangential, because Berglund, a former Naval officer and an obvious self-starter -- he learned his craft on the job, during a six-year stint at the critically acclaimed Oliveto in Oakland, Calif. -- might not have relocated to Minneapolis if his wife wasn't studying at the U.
He wasn't the only savvy hire. Minneapolis architect James Dayton and Dallas interior designer Janet Gridley were recruited to transform what had been a forlorn brick-and-timber building into a dynamic, neighborhood-boosting destination. Its comfort-minded scale, vaguely residential, nicely balances historic against contemporary, classic with kitsch (it's safe to say that the Bachelor Farmer is going to single-handedly revive the wallpaper industry). Grown-ups can conduct actual conversations, an increasing rarity in today's louder-is-better dining landscape, and, unlike most actual farmhouses, the walls are peppered with thought-provoking works by top-echelon Minnesota artists. If only the main-floor bar, which doubles as overflow for the crowded dining room, possessed more charm.
A marvelous bar
That's not a problem at the lower-level Marvel Bar. Bearing all the trappings of a metrosexy man cave, it's a playground for plaid-ed, mostly bearded bartenders who concoct original libations with the painstaking determination of nuclear physicists. Procuring a drink may sometimes feel as if it requires the same time investment as braising a pork shoulder, but mixmaster Pip Hanson and his crew know exactly what they're doing, because the cocktails are almost illegally refreshing (don't miss the Oliveto and the Ever After).
The Marvel has a carefully cultivated in-the-know quality. Forget about helpful signage, and the entrance -- in the back of the building, and a half-flight down from the sidewalk -- has all the appeal of a trek to the recycling bin. It's all in good fun, I suppose, but its faux-secretiveness eventually comes off as a little silly, which is just about the last adjective I would otherwise enlist to describe this highly polished addition to the Minneapolis dining-and- drinking scene.