Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Kansas City strip steak at The Salt Cellar in St. Paul
Kansas City strip steak with house-made sauce
What is the Midwest? Is it the place we are—or is it a meaningless construct the rest of the country fixes us with once it has carved out all the places that make sense, like New England, the Pacific Northwest, the South, the Southwest, the West, and Texas? Would our name in fact be “the Mideast” if California had been settled before Massachusetts? What if we’re not in the Midwest but actually in the North? Maybe even Far North?
When I first heard this idea—voiced by Eric Dayton of The Bachelor Farmer—that the Midwest was a useless construct, hindering us from enjoying our true identity I thought, Hmm. Are we trying to say we’re better than Akron, Ohio? I mean, we do have things in common with Akron. We all have garages. We all like cheese. They’re nice people!
But the idea sat with me for a year or two, and slowly I began to realize that the same thing we Twin Cities folks have in common with Akron, we also have in common with Seattle, San Diego, New York, and Raleigh. Nothing against Akron, but it’s nearly 800 miles away. London is closer to Oslo, Venice, and Prague than Minneapolis is to Akron. The website Thrillist recently featured “21 Things You’ve Definitely Eaten If You Grew Up in the Midwest,” which included South Dakota chislic and Cincinnati chili. It’s more than 1,000 miles between South Dakota and Ohio. If we can accept that London, Venice, and Oslo are distant enough from one another to have different food cultures, why do we need to consider Sioux Falls and Cincinnati as a single unit?
When it comes to food, this whole idea of whether we’re the Midwest or the North means something. In the North, we have wild foods unique to here—like smelt fries, lake herring, walleye, and chokecherry. We use local ingredients like pheasant, duck, grouse, goose, venison, and morels differently than in, say, Seattle or St. Louis. We have farm foods that are better here than elsewhere, like rhubarb and sweet corn, hogs and cheese, beef and butter. And we have a cultural inheritance unique to us, with roast beef commercial sandwiches, seven-layer bars, hot dish, and bundt cakes. Tangerine trends and fascinations with France might distract, but we have our own unique food culture here, and it’s not the Midwestern one of the St. Louis toasted ravioli or Chicago hot dogs. This issue of a northern identity and a northern food culture seems more relevant than ever right now with two supper clubs, one new and one with a new top chef, each doing good work in food that’s not just midwestern, but truly northern.
THE SALT CELLAR
St. Paul’s brand new Salt Cellar opened right before Christmas. It is the second restaurant by the owners of the Eagle Street Grille, a burger and beer bar near the Xcel Center. For this fancy new spot, the owners hired Lenny Russo of Heartland as a consultant, and Russo’s former sous chef, Alan Bergo, as head chef. Bergo is best known locally as a passionate mushroom hunter and wild-food gatherer who runs the blog Forager Chef.
The restaurant, kitty-corner from Cathedral Hill anchor W.A. Frost, is done up in a stately new steakhouse style, with dark wood enveloping the space and a large gas fireplace roaring in the dining room. The food matches the room: Buttery house-made Parker House rolls are the softest, lushest, best rolls in town. They’re well accompanied by the complimentary relish tray with pickles, house-made butter, and pub cheese.
The menu offers all sorts of steak and chops, and golden oldies like tableside Caesar salad. If you look carefully, the food is a little more interesting than it needs to be, a little more northern: The butter might be given a tart prickle with local sumac berries, the pickles might include pickled milkweed buds. Supper club standards like lettuces tossed with Green Goddess dressing and an Oysters Rockefeller variation are textbook correct and good, though I imagine the restaurant will really make its name on its grass-raised, corn-finished Piedmontese beef prime rib, a very tender, deeply flavored version. When was the last time prime rib showed up on a new restaurant’s menu? I haven’t seen it in a chef-driven restaurant, ever—which is too bad, because for lots of people it’s the very incarnation of the every-dad’s birthday.
Speaking of dads, chef Bergo grew up in Willmar, on a 1,000-acre corn and soybean farm at the side of his father, working the land and going to the local truck stop to eat beef commercial sandwiches. Bergo plans to serve a beef commercial sandwich using prime rib leftovers in the bar one day soon. That will be a glorious day in northern food.
The restaurant does need to work on a few things. The service staff is friendly but often clueless about the food and wine they’re serving. One night, a server informed me that she couldn’t recommend a wine but, if I pawed at the iPad list, I could read up on what they have. Another server told me the sauce choron accompanying the $80 chateaubriand for two was “basically hollandaise with ketchup in it.” Close, but no cigar; Bergo is obviously using the old-fashioned Escoffier sauce (which does have tomato paste as an ingredient, though not ketchup) to summon the grand hotel food of the Gilded Age, from which so much Midwestern food descends.
This flies over the heads of the servers and may well fly over the heads of most of the guests, but understanding what your chef is up to is necessary for a server. And for the rest of us, making sense of our northern food history is a worthy effort. So is the delightful bananas foster, which is done tableside, with leaping flames, and would no doubt enchant anyone wandering the streets of Crocus Hill in 1950 as much as it enthralls a modern northerner today.
173 Western Ave. N., St. Paul, 651-219-4013, saltcellarsaintpaul.com
RED STAG SUPPERCLUB
In late October, J.P. Samuelson, the chef behind the sorely missed jP American Bistro, took over as the top consulting chef for Minnesota’s best-known throwback supper club, Northeast Minneapolis’s Red Stag Supperclub. Over the course of a few recent visits, I found it not only the best the restaurant has ever been, but also nothing short of terrific.
Supper club classics, like the relish plate, were reinvented and surprising: bright pickled daikon, sweet pickled carrots, tender pickled eggs, pickled beans, pickled fish, cinnamon pickled apple slices. Altogether, it was two pounds of pickled stuff that tasted, impossibly, very, very different and very, very good. The grilled flatbread floored me; I tried one with a rich fontina topping and crispy bits that has to be tasted to be believed. The La Quercia pancetta bits turned into a sort of chicharrón that was equal parts crisp and knee-weakening. The people at my table were all asking, “Are we hallucinating, it can’t be this good, can it?” A repeat visit confirmed: Yes, it can.
The version of beef stroganoff was the best I’ve ever had. Samuelson deconstructed the dish, placing a good chunk of fork-tender braised beef next to a creamy pile of house-made egg noodles. Beside that was a mix of oyster and shiitake mushrooms, braised until they were like butter silk. Then, all around the plate, were small roast onions, playful chopped gherkins, chopped celery leaves, and herbs. Wreck the composition by mixing it all together with your fork, and you create something as creamy as a casserole, as beefy as a pot roast, and as surprising and new as a chef-composed dish. That’s some stroganoff.
A nightly special of duck cassoulet might have been even better. The beans achieved that highly sought-after state in which they’re soft as custard in the middle but a bit al dente right at their edges, like beany little bubbles. The house-made duck andouille sausage had just enough spice and heft, while the duck confit crowning the cassoulet was textbook perfect, with glassy crisp skin and buttery-rich meat.
Red Stag also offered the dessert of my year to date: small buttery warm financier cakes that were more like miniature pound cakes than anything too French or fancy. The cakes rested in a tart and sensuous house-made blood-orange marmalade perked up with strips of rough-cut orange. Was this what J.P. Samuelson learned from his mother when she was the pastry chef for Stillwater’s famed Lowell Inn? No. Samuelson reports he stole the recipe from Joel Robuchon when he was cooking at New York City’s Bouley. Yet here, it feels uniquely northern. Is that a mere trick of the mind?
Could Joel Robuchon, or even someone from the Midwest of Akron, Ohio, have as easily made this good modern, hearty, beefy northern supper club food? Maybe—but maybe not. There are so many distinctly northern elements on both menus, like wild rice (in risotto at Red Stag and in turtle soup at Salt Cellar), like duck, like house-cured pork, like Wisconsin cheese everywhere. These are the foods of a distinct land—a place where we might need to drop everything and shovel snow for an hour or stay out fishing till 10 o’clock at night because the sun’s still out—so we’d better eat hearty.
509 1st Ave. NE, Mpls., 612-767-7766, redstagsupperclub.com