Ask Troy Reding why he and business partner Brad Sorenson opened a restaurant in St. Paul Downtown Airport’s administration building — a Moderne limestone beauty that hasn’t hosted a food-and-drink operation since 1999 — and he’ll answer the question with a question.
“Because I’m crazy?” he said with a laugh. “But when I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool,’ although I didn’t know how I’d make a dime on it. But the conversation with the MAC [Metropolitan Airports Commission] kept going back and forth, and at some point it became, ‘I guess I’m doing it.’ ”
What a gift to the city. The duo, owners of two-year-old Rock Elm Tavern in Plymouth (a second is opening this summer, in Maple Grove) are covering a lot of bases, and doing it well. Perhaps working against its unusual location, Holman’s Table (the airfield is named for Charles “Speed” Holman, the first pilot hired by Northwest Airlines, now Delta) is one of those multipurpose restaurants that works, on many levels: business breakfast, impromptu lunch, date-night dinner.
Chef Cory Henkel’s lengthy menus have a something-for-everyone feel to them, but they’re also invested with plenty of impressive details. A well-composed salad is a winning contrast in color, texture and flavor: spinach glistening in a lively white balsamic vinaigrette, creamy avocado, nicely smoky salmon and chewy, teasingly nutty farro.
Another quality-first demonstration is Henkel’s devotion to the Black Angus beef raised at Revier Cattle Co. in Olivia, Minn., a superior product that makes its way into several terrific cuts: short ribs coaxed into fall-off-the-bone tenderness, a killer strip steak sandwich, a deeply flavorful hanger steak, a pair of notably juicy burgers.
One way to enjoy Henkel’s cooking is to graze through his varied, on-trend appetizers. There’s a gussied-up poutine, lovingly garnished with slow-braised wild boar and smothered in a decadent béchamel enriched with smoked Gouda. I loved the open-faced toasts, buried under a variety of roasted mushrooms and finished with a tangy, Wisconsin-made homage to Parmesan.
The richness of crab cakes, brimming with sweet, lumpy meat, is cleverly contrasted with a crunchy, palate-cleansing jicama slaw. And the qualities of firm, pearly kampachi (a member of the yellowtail family) are emphasized against the crunch of radishes and the cool, brightly acidic bite of red-fleshed Cara Cara oranges.
Sure, I encountered a few misguided efforts (for example, the less said about a runny, lifeless risotto, the better), probably the product of a kitchen that might benefit from a more focused, less crowd-pleasing menu. Still, there’s plenty to admire here.
Breakfast, for instance. There are a dozen or so main dishes, and while they cover a lot of ground — a paleo-friendly plate of roasted salmon with grilled vegetables and a colorful and hearty pistachio pesto, well-appointed steel-cut oats, hash enriched with tasty house-made corned beef, fluffy buttermilk pancakes with honest-to-goodness maple syrup, an a.m. play on farro with crunchy almonds, pickled Fresno chiles and a poached egg — they’re approached with integrity and a sense of delivering beyond the same-old, same-old.
With a few exceptions, prices remain solidly middle-market. Service is accommodating and enthusiastic, and the bar embraces the craft cocktail movement and keeps the modest wine selection’s prices well inside the “affordable” zone.
At first glance, the quasi-remote location doesn’t exactly exude promise; there’s a reason why the place was restaurant-free for 19 years. But the building, a holdover from the Works Progress Administration, is a gem (don’t miss the Instagram-magnet mosaic on the lobby floor) and it has in its possession a potent secret weapon: free, plentiful and convenient parking.
Interior designer Marit Zosel pretty much started with a blank slate — after being divided into offices for the past two decades, the place had been gutted — and she’s invested the dining room and its cozy bar with a low-key, contemporary warmth that’s entirely appropriate to the venue. No fake Deco overreach, thank goodness.
In a way, it’s a shame that the dining room (and the promising-looking patio, when it opens this spring) is oriented to the tarmac, because the opposite view, of the downtown skyline, is spectacular.
Holman’s Table, 644 Bayfield St., St. Paul, 651-800-5298, holmanstable.com. Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Reservations accepted.
Meanwhile, in the Saintly City’s oldest residential enclave, longtime resident (and preservationist attorney) Tom Schroeder found himself obsessed with a wreck of an 1850s building that had been sitting empty for several years.
“Vacant buildings deteriorate quickly,” he said. “They’re usually on a conveyor belt to demolition.”
He bought it in 2008 and began researching the property’s history. Turns out, what he’s christened Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery had started life as a lager beer saloon (its proprietor was Anton Waldmann), one of dozens that had once dotted the city, a discovery that informed every aspect of the painstaking restoration project.
“Making it work from an economic standpoint — finding a viable use for the structure — that’s the preservationist’s biggest challenge,” said Schroeder. Just then, the so-called “Surly law” passed, which sparked the craft brewery industry that Minnesotans now enjoy.
“Suddenly, we had a saloon, and we had a viable business model, proven from the earliest years of the state,” he said. “We eventually passed new zoning. That’s why this project has taken nine years.”
With no experience in the hospitality industry, Schroeder wisely recruited others. Working together, the Waldmann team has forged a truly singular, charming-as-all-get-out experience.
Brewer Drew Ruggles relies upon hop-forward heritage recipes to re-create the distinctive, pre-Prohibition lagers — a golden pilsener, a dry and full-bodied dunkel and a few seasonal options, all highly drinkable — that were favored by 19th- and early 20th-century German immigrants.
Chef Karl Gerstenberger’s uncomplicated, skillfully prepared fare more than suits the surroundings and partners beautifully with Ruggles’ handiwork. The star of the show is a handful of superb sausages, including a hearty pork bratwurst that sets itself apart with a mild curry seasoning, a finely ground pork-beef frankfurter imbued with hints of smoke, and a brunch-only weisswurst. Only the snappy hot dog is made elsewhere (Red Table Meat Co. in Minneapolis), and it’s fantastic.
Purchase them individually ($14), but the better option is buying the shareable three-wurst platter ($24), served with just-right condiments and a long list of beer-friendly side dishes.
Gerstenberger has a nose for first-rate products, buying jumbo, salt-crusted pretzels from Aki’s Breadhaus in northeast Minneapolis, and pairing the bakery’s sturdy rye with premium regional cheeses and Minnesota-sourced herring and smoked trout. Dessert is apple strudel, and it’s not to be missed.
A beer garden is on the docket, hopefully by mid-June.
A precaution: The neighborhood’s parking situation can be a challenge. Rather than drive, it’s better to rely upon Metro Transit, a taxi or ride-share service, or bike, or walk.
Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery, 445 Smith Av., St. Paul, 651-222-1857, waldmannbrewery.com. Kitchen open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; bar open to 10 p.m. Tue.-Thu. and 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. No reservations.