Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Fried chicken at Revival in Minneapolis
The holy trinity of southern cooking: fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and mac ‘n’ cheese.
You can wait for two hours for fried chicken at Revival, the brand-new spot from the folks behind south Minneapolis high-end, award-magnet restaurant Corner Table. If you do wait, you’ll be squished into a window well, clutching a glass of wine, while staring wide-eyed at plate after plate of fried chicken as brown as biscuits resting on little rafts of Texas toast as white as snow—all of it sailing past you in an endless regatta of crunch. When you finally are seated, you may well have the same thought that I’ve had: Worth it.
What’s so great about Revival? A lot. The pork rinds are poufs of crisp, carnal, snacky glee, hot and lacy, dissolving in the mouth in a wash of porky ephemera. The plain old salad is great, a tangle of pristine greens scattered with pale coins of young radish, adorned with old-fashioned buttermilk dressing, the kind with tang and a light grace that never cloys. The fried chicken is humble (only $7.50 for two pieces) but a home run whenever I’ve had it. The crispy coating has a real taste to it, like a fragrant toasted biscuit, and the chicken inside is tender and not over-brined or tasteless (like nearly all other fried chicken is these days), but just pure and a little pheasant-like, as good chicken should be. The biscuits are warm, tasty little clouds. I’ve never had better butter beans (fat and creamy), and I could eat those crisp, sweet house pickles every day. And the chess pie! I’ve had many versions of that southern staple, said to get its name from being ‘just pie,’ which sounds like ‘jes pie,’ which morphed into chess pie. They’ve always been too sweet for my taste (at their worst, like a pecan pie without the pecans), and yet Revival’s version is pure and light, just a sweetie pie of a sunbeam, a la mode.
It’s hard to talk about Revival’s food without comparing it to the lousy fried chickens and biscuits commonly found elsewhere—that’s one of the problems with southern food: It’s often been loved so well that it gets battered into strange and unpleasant form, like a child’s favorite doll or a dog’s favorite chew toy. Not so at Revival, where chef Thomas Boemer reigns in the richness of southern food by keeping it close to farm ingredients. Meaty fried-green tomatoes are far more tomato than breading, which makes them interesting, and greater than the cliché that anything fried and breaded just tastes fried and breaded. Boemer also deploys fine dining elements judiciously, when a dish needs it; the endives and watercress in the salad topped with matchstick slices of crisp-fried pigs ears provide bitterness, buoyancy, and elegance to something that would otherwise be merely wonderfully crunchy.
There’s also a lot of bone-deep restaurant flow and management happening here. The kitchen starts frying chicken when people walk in the door, not when they order, so it can be ready in time. If this leads to unneeded, cold chicken, they save it for staff meal. Co-owner Nick Rancone makes the restaurant feel finer than just a fried-chicken joint by offering avant-garde cult wines like the acidic and musky Scholium Project Miss Texas verdelho, as well as $3 bottles of Miller High Life. Music is unexpected and just right, swooping from 100-year-old Americana to art-rock. Servers in the small space are always in sight.
The only thing that’s not great at Revival is the waiting. The place is small. They don’t take reservations. There’s nearly always a line, and they deserve the adulation. Revival has instantly vaulted into that rarefied strata of local restaurants that are functionally perfect in their chosen arena, not biting off more than they can chew, and doing exactly what they mean to do exceptionally well. I’m thinking of places like Broders’ Pasta Bar and St. Paul’s The Nook. Both Boemer and Rancone say that Revival is the first of what they plan to be a succession of individually focused restaurants along the lines of Revival—limited in concern, but exactingly executed. Sounds fun. But, a question arises: Who exactly are the folks behind this terrific new chicken joint?
They’re both West St. Paul boys, hailing from the Catholic middle-class communities south of downtown (but on the western side of the Mississippi, if you were navigating by river). Boemer, 35, was born to a German, Irish, and Slavic family in which all the boys went to Saint Thomas Academy—until his parents split up, and then he moved with his mother to Lexington, North Carolina. A deep love affair with neighborhood fried-chicken dinners ensued, interspersed with summers in Minnesota with his dad at the family cabin. He started working in restaurants when he was 16, and went to cooking school just as the Cordon Bleu program in Mendota Heights got started. He cooked at Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington, where a fellow chef pressed a copy of Alain Ducasse’s Grand Livre de Cuisine into his hands and said: Study this. Boemer did, and it changed his life.
A few years later, his French chef at Sofitel got him an interview with Ducasse in Las Vegas for a restaurant called Mix. He and his wife both quit their jobs, got an apartment and moved, before the interview. Happily, Boemer got the job. He learned a lot of things about truffles, caviar, systems, management, and cooking over the next few years, Boemer says. But then in 2005, he quit to come back to Minneapolis. To his great shock, during that cataclysmic year when the city lost a number of high-profile fine-dining restaurants, including Five, Auriga, and Red, he couldn’t find a cooking job. Anywhere. At all.
“I didn’t know anything else,” Boemer says. “I called up my brother [and asked] how did you get into being a carpenter?” He began work at a high-end Minneapolis cabinet shop, turning rough exotic trees into fine veneers. “If you screw up food on a plate, there’s another plate behind it,” Boemer says. “But a $10,000 piece of cabinetry? There’s a certain level of stress that’s completely different. I loved it.”
A lifelong guitar player, Boemer took his new carpentry skills and became a luthier, inventing his own guitar line in his basement. His wife had become a waitress at the Corner Table, the nose-to-tail pioneer restaurant founded by Scott Pampuch. Now and then, Boemer would help out, cooking at a farm dinner or pitching in when he needed cash and Pampuch needed more hands.
When the 2008 Great Recession hit, the market for $100,000 kitchens disintegrated. At the same time, Pampuch started telling his friends he was ready to sell his restaurant. Another server, Chenny Rancone, along with her husband, Nick, had always wanted to open a restaurant; the Rancones and Boemers found, sitting in the bar sipping an after-shift drink as they cleaned up the restaurant, that they really hit it off.
The Rancones bought the restaurant on a contract for deed, with almost no cash, and hired Boemer to lead the kitchen. Now leading his own restaurant after a break in carpentry, Boemer realized he was completely transformed as a cook. “We bought raw lumber. We’d mill it, rip it, run it through a planer—you go from tree to a high-end piece of furniture. With Ducasse, we started with caviar, truffles, foie gras—now I didn’t have any gold to gild any lilies. But I could get a whole hog for $2.40 a pound, while a bone-in pork chop is triple that.” And that, more or less, is how a local nose-to-tail star was born. Boemer did the finish carpentry for Revival, as well as all the recipes and training. When you’re there, take a close look at the moldings, they’ll tell you most everything you need to know about how carefully the fried chicken is built.
Chenny Rancone manages and runs the business operations at the restaurant. The other half of Revival’s poetry and detail that guests experience is brought by Nick Rancone, who grew up in a traditional Italian family. Sunday dinners were at Mancini’s. The family is immortalized in photographs on the walls of the St. Paul Italian deli institution Cossetta’s. He started making pizzas at Rocco’s when he was 15. During college in Chicago, he fell in love with the poetry of Raymond Carver and Saul Bellow, visual art (creating installations as part of an artists collective), wine (designing his first wine list at 22), and DJ’ing (spinning as DJ Garden Gnome), and he met his future wife Chenny. The two moved back to raise kids in Minneapolis where Chenny waited tables at Corner Table and Nick managed gigantic, ritzy restaurants like Seven and Bellanotte.
Nick Rancone has a unique approach to his dining rooms, looking at them with the eye of an installation artist, DJ, and host. “You’re setting the stage for letting people be present in the space,” he says. Anything that rips guests out of the immersive, pleasant space you’ve created for them is a failure. That’s why he will sit at one of his tables for two hours, working on his laptop, figuring out how the music sounds from a particular vantage point, what the guests’ eyes will rest on, how the chairs feel. Then he modifies the space, the music, the light, the saltshakers, until every seat seems just right. Was being an installation artist the perfect training for being a restaurateur? It seems, yes.
In fact, it seems like to open a perfect Minneapolis fried chicken joint you need: a woodworker, a luthier, an Alain Ducasse–trained chef, a baker, a butcher, a poet, a DJ, an installation artist, a sommelier, a business manager, and a bookkeeper—in three people.
It sounds tough, but it makes for very tender chicken.
4257 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls., 612-345-4516, revivalmpls.com.