I’ll never forget the sight of Mike Brown charging me with a blowtorch. It was 2010, Brown was cooking at Victory 44, and the tableside blowtorch—the finishing element to a cake—vaporized bits of orange oil and melted a sheet of chocolate. That use of industrial or laboratory equipment for avant-garde food preparation was something that had been happening around the world in fine dining kitchens, especially El Bulli in Spain and Alinea in Chicago, but it never happened in a corner bar for a $20 meal at the table. Until Victory 44, that is, in which chef/owner Erick Harcey replaced the whole kitchen and service staff at his neighborhood spot with a handful of stratospherically ambitious young chefs who had come to the Twin Cities from different parts of the country hell-bent on doing something—something national, something their own.
The group splintered into factions almost immediately, like Gauguin and Van Gogh or Matisse and Picasso, and some chefs went up to Robbinsdale to open Travail, which was later named one of the most important new American restaurants of 2011 by Bon Appetit. The food being cooked at Travail and Victory 44, for a few years now, has been unlike any other in the country: It’s spontaneous, silly, personable, exquisitely executed rock and roll. But now something new is happening. Those restaurants are spawning second-generation iterations, all around the Twin Cities, all at once. Here’s what’s happening:
Borough and Parlor
Tyler Shipton and Nick O’Leary are young chefs of note who had been kicking around town—O’Leary notably as the preferred sous-chef of Kevin Kathmann, former French Laundry key player, and Shipton in the kitchen of Isaac Becker at Bar La Grassa. Both were hungry to learn as much as they could and ended up at Travail early, and for several years.
Of course, they also wanted their own place, and this January they got it: a deluxe, multilevel, chic North Loop spot that’s all dark and reclaimed industry in a sexy, candlelit sort of way. Parlour is the basement-level bar and the new home of Jesse Held, one of the best of the new breed of creative artisanal cocktail makers. Upstairs is where chefs and part-owners O’Leary and Shipton are working to make their own names by putting out food that builds on their Travail training to be both improvisatory and creative, but also more friendly to the average diner. They take reservations, for instance, and serve, of all things, full entrées, just like people used to do in the 20th century.
A few of the greatest delights at Borough: a bison tartare of silky, finely minced bison given a deeper forest quality with pine nuts and shaved matsutake mushrooms, which grow most often with pine trees. The elements come together in a sensuous, simple way, one made accessible by an accompanying bit of horseradish cream. Fried cauliflower and oysters are a confident riff on the yin-yang of the flavors of earth and sour: The cauliflower is deep-fried till it’s crispy and golden, as are fresh oysters and segments of Fresno chilies, then all three are jumbled together with capers, pickled jalapeños, and a red chili vinaigrette, then plated on top of a unifying dollop of rich cauliflower puree. First it’s toasty, then spicy, then briny, earthy, sour—there’s a world in this cauliflower.
The menu at Borough is designed in various portion sizes—small, medium, and so on. The chefs say this is because of how they like to eat, to amass the greatest possible number of experiences. But there are entrée-sized portions at Borough, and they’re some of the most interesting parts of the menu. A composition of Skuna Bay salmon, for instance, is butchered from a whole fish, part of it served simply seared, part of it smoked and blended with fresh salmon, turned into a cylinder, poached, sliced, seared—there’s a horseradish broth, compressed apple sauce, and some bubbles in there too. But overall, the dish reads like dinner, not like art for art’s sake. “If we were still at Travail there would probably be a powder and a chip on there too,” Shipton told me. “The difference between Borough and Travail is that I’m drawn these days to classic flavors, and we can think about a dish for a couple weeks and fine-tune it, while [at Travail] they’re pushing the envelope every day; they’re on to the new best thing all the time.”
Does Minneapolis need a future-cooking, young-chef restaurant with the grace notes of easy grown-up life, like a full bar and reservations? Boy howdy, the place has been deservedly packed since it opened. This summer will see a large outdoor covered patio and, quite possibly, simple bar food in the downstairs cocktail lounge, which currently has a limited menu of mostly cold items, plus fish and chips.
The Sample Room
Not all of the new generation of post-Travail/Victory restaurants are new restaurants, exactly. Geoff Hausmann was one of the original band of chefs who made news at Victory 44 and then went on to Travail. He left Travail to make charcuterie for the various Kim Bartmann restaurants, notably Pat’s Tap, and late last fall landed at Northeast’s Sample Room, an all-scratch neighborhood spot that’s been, for the last few years, rather lackluster. Not anymore.
Hausmann, a charcuterie master, has redesigned the menu—keeping with the restaurant’s theme of affordable and from-scratch but adding a whole lot of wow. For instance, a slice of foie gras bologna wasn’t just buttery, rich, and sweet, but full-on succulent and ethereal—bet you can’t eat just one. Seared scallops were expertly cooked, with a hard crunchy sear outside, the inside still delicate, with a chunky tomato marmalade possessed of a tart, sweet vivacity. A slice of salmon was so perfectly seared it could have come out of Le Bernardin, and it was served elegantly with a bit of sunchoke puree and three lemon elements: pithless lemon segments, lemon powder made from lemon zest, and lemon pearls. Corner-bar food doesn’t get any better.
“What you learn at Travail is, if it’s appealing, if the standard is high, if it’s delicious and enjoyable, people trust you,” says Hausmann. “The other night I did a goose and goose liver terrine and called it meat pie—we sold the hell out of it.
“When I first started as a cook, my parents were like: ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ I said, ‘I want to have fun.’ ‘But you have to be professional!’ What clicked for me cooking with Brownie [at Travail] was that you can have that camaraderie, that fun excitement, break boundaries, do [food] you never thought possible, make friends out of your customers. Is it going to be hard? Yes. Can you do it? Yes.”
Meanwhile, Victory 44 has made the first step in what could be a metropolis-wide expansion. At first glance that first step, Parka, is an odd duck. It occupies the western third of modern furnishings store Forage Modern Workshop; there are only a dozen tables and you walk through the store to find the restrooms. That oddness aside, it’s a thrilling spot.
It’s the first outpost of a new company called Stock and Badge, which is Erick Harcey from Victory 44 and the principals at Dogwood Coffee and Rustica Bakery. “We’re hoping to open a bunch of places,” explains Harcey. “They’ll all be different but will have the essentials of coffee, food, and pastry. We can do one that’s mainly coffee, another that’s predominantly a restaurant, or all breakfast. We have a ton of flexibility.”
Parka is the first of these, and it’s a little odd (the space) and entirely charming (everything else). There are the simple, humble, good elements that have endeared Rustica to the city, including flawless pastries in a glass case, and the elite coffees that have made Dogwood so important. And then there’s the Victory part, an open kitchen from which tattooed chefs whisk together supremely chef-driven and very affordable treats, such as a wild rice soup you’ll need about eight bucks to buy and half an hour to understand.
This soup starts with a roast chicken stock, scallops of king oyster mushroom, and a simple well-cut mirepoix, and goes on to encompass compressed celery, a puffed wild rice crispy bar, a quenelle of five-hour reduced brown butter, lemon pearls, kale crisps, shiitake mushroom bacon—and surely something I’ve forgotten. This whole elite terrarium is served in a glass sphere, and your server pours the broth into the sphere at the table, typically from a cute little old-fashioned creamer shaped like a cow or chicken. And it tastes fun—like wild rice soup presented with a dozen sunken treasures. As a sampler Valentine’s box of chocolates is to chocolate, this dish is to wild rice soup. Stick your spoon in and come back with a different delight every time. “Most chefs do three ingredients; we try to do 75,” Harcey told me dryly. “That’s what sets us apart.” There’s an equally riveting pork chop, one with fried shiitake bacon and mushrooms, seared in thyme butter, dressed with a version of redeye gravy made with third-wave coffee, and served with a sort of deconstructed green bean casserole.
That said, my favorite thing about Parka may be the buttered noodles—one of the several $6 kids’ meals. One night, my first-grade son (a notable fancy food despiser) and I had the most delightful dinner we’ve ever had. He started with a croissant, moved on to plain buttered noodles, and finished with a bittersweet chocolate cookie. I had smoked whitefish with wasabi tobiko eggs, the pork chop, and the best banana cream pie I’ve ever had. Deconstructed 10 ways, it featured brown butter–crusted fresh bananas, a plank of flaky lard crust, a pool of cream pie filling, and an exquisite cream mousse.
Harcey says more of these next-generation Stock and Badge projects are coming, even later this year. Will this be the great unification that wine connoisseur parents and their picky kids have been awaiting? Maybe. But this much is sure: Food ideas are nothing without context and community. The various spheres, pearls, gels, and doodads of molecular cooking may have been born in elite kitchens thousands of miles away, but they’ve come to live in a very different way here in Minnesota. That way has been largely about affordable, 20-something hipster fun. But now these ideas are going out into new communities, to come to life in new ways, and it’s exciting to watch—and eat.
Where to Find It
Borough and Parlour 730 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-354-3135, boroughmpls.com
Parka Minneapolis 4021 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-886-1585, parkampls.com
The Sample Room 2124 NE Marshall St., Mpls., 612-789-0333, the-sample-room.com