Photo by Eliesa Johnson
The long anticipated Paul Dzubnar arrival to Uptown on the Coup D’Etat block at Lake and Girard, is finally coming to fruition in the form of the 220-seat indoor/outdoor spot Scena.
The White Bear Lake native who was part of the special operations Air Force group that protected President Bill Clinton before becoming owner of 27 Green Mill restaurants, partner in the three Town Hall brewery properties, Crooked Pint, and some others; is the defacto leader of the Fantatic Four-like super group behind Scena. Erik Anderson, Food & Wine Top Ten New Chef In America, and former-nationally-raved-about chef of Nashville’s Catbird Seat is the man behind the menu. But, since he's in Chicago cooking for the summer at Intro, Jamie Malone, also a Food & Wine Top Ten New Chef In America, for her work at Sea Change is the cheffing brains behind the opening. (And, yes, the power couple will still be launching Brut later this year. Rounding out the super crew, Nick Kosevich, of Bittercube and Eat Street Social fame, will be creating the Twin Cities first—the nation’s first?—crudo-driven martini program.
“I’ve been working on this, the concept and idea, for a full two years,” Dzubnar says. “I love Uptown, but it’s been missing something, that place you can have American fare with a Mediterranean influence. That hole in the market has been felt by others, and now this summer will see openings of Italian Monello (downtown) and Parella (a block away in Uptown, in the space occupied for generations by the legendary former Figlio).
While looking for the right chef for the Italian-influenced spot he was introduced to Anderson by Tilia's Steven Brown. “I fell in love with the guy,” Dzubnar says. “I like his work ethic, his attitude, everything. I explained the concept, and he said, 'Let me come over and I’ll make some food, and you can see what you think.'”
Nine months of test lunches in borrowed restaurants followed, and what has emerged is a menu—lunch, dinner, and late night—that’s recognizably Italian, but American-sourced. Think of pork liver terrine with pickled fruit, but the ingredients are all local, and charcuterie that includes southern American hams, and local Red Table Meats salami. Flatbreads will be a focus, with toppings both simple (margherita) and complex, such as scrambled egg, cotechino sausage, Sunday gravy, and fontina and pecorino cheese. Lunch will offer sandwiches like a fried chicken with provolone and a chard giardiniera. Dinner will have big entrees to share, like a steak or a roast chicken for two. There will be house-made pasta made from local semolina flour all the time, produced by a special pasta extruding machine being brought in from Italy.
“The Italian way of thinking is: You use what’s around you,” Anderson says. “So instead of Italian prosciutto, we’re going to the Hamery in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I’m not going to import Italian ham when there’s something so great made close to home.” There will also be dry-aged meatballs, and, yes, a cheeseburger. “I like a really good bar burger,” Anderson says. “American cheese, lettuce, onion, pickles, nothing too crazy. Just good.” Sounds highly necessary for 220 seats of indoor and outdoor Uptown bar with two areas for outdoor seating, on the Girard Avenue sidewalk and a large second floor balcony mezzanine.
And that’s not all! There will also be a small, 12-seat or so crudo bar that Anderson says will up the local Italian-style raw fish game, not just with fish, but with a higher level of service and experience, including the aforementioned crudo-oriented cocktails. “I want the whole idea to be that there’s something exclusive taking place” in those seats, Anderson says. “You’ll have one chef taking care of you, one server. You can order crudo in the entire restaurant, and the whole menu at the crudo bar, but for the people at the bar, special things that you’d never see anywhere else, anywhere.”
Like what? Like maybe a Mediterranean red prawn crudo served with an oil made from cooking the shells, and flavors of salt-cured olive, citrus, and fresh oregano, served with a martini finished by spraying the top with an atomizer of a tincture of the peel of the citrus that was used in the crudo. “I know a lot of people are opening raw bars and it’s very on trend,” Jamie Malone says. “But Erik was one of the first chefs to do it well in Minneapolis [when he was chef de cuisine of Sea Change], which I carried on, and I think it’s fun that he’s doing another restaurant with a crudo bar."
And why is a crudo-directed martini what Minnesota needs now? “With so much happening in cocktails, and with our foundation in this market being Eat Street Social, we always have to ask: What can we do that’s meaningful and different?” Nick Kosevich says. “The crudo menu allows us to really open up the martini, for what we’re calling: The Project Martini. You’ll have various gins to choose from, various vermouths—some house-made—and then different atomizers filled with tinctures or aromas inspired by or including components of the dish.”
Tinctures, Kosevich says, are made from a single ingredient—say, chamomile—or a few ingredients, not bitter, extracted using high-proof alcohol, and sometimes centrifuged for clarity. “A rosemary, orange, and espelette pepper preparation in the crudo bar might pair with a chef spraying a cocktail with an orange and rosemary tincture. What’s important, though, is that it’s going to work new territory in food and spirit pairing, to give people an experience that’s purposeful in the dining experience. And cool.”
In the rest of the restaurant, and at the three other bars, expect kegged cocktails, including seasonal sangrias, and a bar cart filled with unusual amari and house-made cordials, to accompany dessert.
Of course, a few big questions are suggested by these big revelations about Scena. One, where does this put Brut, Malone, and Anderson’s own restaurant? “It’s not a Jamie and Erik restaurant, it’s a Paul restaurant,” Anderson says flatly. “We consulted on the menu, we’re going to help train the staff, we will be there day to day, and it’s food I love to eat—but it’s not a Jamie and Erik restaurant.”
Malone agrees. “Brut and this are just super different. This food is so different from what we do, it’s very straight forward, but drawing from totally different inspirations. I’d hate to even compare the two restaurants. Brut’s food is going to be a lot more personal to Erik and I.”
Speaking of personal, Dzubnar, whose parents hail from the Iron Range, and whose mom’s family is Italian, says he has the family Iron Range porchetta recipe in his back pocket, for a sometime in 2016 reveal. He explained his master plan of opening, which included five weeks of full-staff, closed-door training, and then opening with servers working two table sections.
“I’m successful at running restaurants,” Dzubnar told me. “I’m creative, I understand management, service, we have low turnover with employees." Yet still, he recognizes this is his first entry into the high stakes world of massive-volume Uptown eating and drinking, and national-class chefs and bartenders. “I just hope people give us a chance,” he says brightly.
That chance starts in early September, right when you get back from cabin season.
2943 Girard Ave. S., Mpls., M–Th 11 a.m.–1 a.m. F 11 a.m.–2 a.m. Sa 10 a.m.–2 a.m. Su 10 a.m.–1 a.m.