brunch.

Brunch is a pretty powerful word. For those outside of the industry, it conjures up images of sun-soaked urban patios, crisp, sparkling mimosas, stunningly blonde omelettes, glistening with butter, dressed simply with chives, and a crack of pepper. Your cup of coffee will never be empty, and your friends will always be near. It is family at your side, across the table, over a mason-jar vase of delicate wild flowers.

The ritualistic late-morning meal has become as much a part of the American identity as apple pie and football on Sunday. It’s significance is rooted in a break from routine; the end of the work-week. Brunch is hitting snooze an extra two, or seven times. It’s gathering with friends over a meal, as opposed to over our smartphones or email correspondence. Brunch encourages lingering; relaxing, breaking from the schedule. It is the start of a lazy Saturday, a relaxing Sunday; a chance to recharge before the upcoming week.

Restaurants, especially of the higher-end variety, get flower deliveries for brunch. Servers and hosts get an amateur lesson in floral arrangement, in between brewing gallons of coffee, and polishing limitless flatware. Quarts upon quarts of orange slices are prepared by bartenders with sub-par knives, on tiny cutting boards. Glassware is shined to near invisibility, so that when guests are being sat, the dining room looks like a palace.

“It’s not quite breakfast, not quite lunch, but you get a slice of cantaloupe at the end.”

-Jacques (The Simpsons)

 


 

Even the most seasoned fry-cooks can be brought to their knees by a trying brunch service. Cooks often arrive around 5am, sometimes shooing out last night’s closing team. As many eggs are cracked and blended for omelettes, it will not be enough. Some restaurants need to thaw their English muffins, others have one person dedicated to cooking muffins from the moment they get there, up until service begins.

In the front of house, servers move with lightening speed; frenzied yet controlled, maintaining the relaxed atmosphere for the guests. Bussers turn tables at twice the speed they would for dinner. Guests are sat along with their napkins and their plates. The bartenders recycling bin will be filled with empty Cava bottles before the day is anywhere close to finished. And there will always be a pot of coffee brewing, along with a reassuring smile to every guest.

Pans get hotter throughout the morning, eggs cook faster, and every cold cup of coffee seems to do less and less to help focus. Once the brunch service begins, it’s end can seem miles and years away. Tickets start entering the kitchen at 9am, and chances are good the benedict being sent out at 3:15pm is topped with a very thinned out hollandaise. The end of brunch for the cook, usually means breaking down and cleaning your station as fast as you can, so the dinner line-cook can get themselves set up for a certainly busy night.


 

To most in the industry, brunch is the anti-service. It is the service where chaos reigns supreme; where quantity outpaces quality. During dinner, the dining room is dark, mysterious, romantic. Blemishes hide under dim-lighting, soft music, and the lull of controlled conversation. Food moves slower, wine pairings cater differently to each guest. Each dish is composed, thoughtful, and given an extra eye before leaving the kitchen to be certain it’s perfect.

Brunch lets all the natural light in, be it in the dining room or on the patio. Every nick and scratch the restaurant has to offer is on full display. Enthusiastic conversation peppers the room, with spikes of laughter, and delighted howls punctuated by folk-rock, or bluegrass music. Plates leave the kitchen faster than servers can move to-and-from tables, with exceptions made in the preference of timeliness. A slightly unset omelette, or a waffle with marginally less fruit, will make it out to the guest, who waited an extra two minutes because of a fumble on the table before them.

And most of the guests who come for brunch will have a very memorable experience. Because the break from the routine, the time spent with family and friends, and that slightly unset omelette are all part of it. They’re all part of the ability to let time slow down around you for a minute; caught in the flurry of the wait-staff refilling your coffee, and bussing the table next to you. It’s a tradition, a ritual, and for all of the chaos surrounding brunch, it is inexplicably perfect.

 

 

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Lucky Peach

At the start of what was sure to be a particularly grueling Friday night, my friend and line-mate casually mentioned an article he had read about ramen. We were sitting up on a stone planter across bustling Duluth St., in Montreal. It was summer, and the stench of hot garbage and second-hand smoke was euphoric.

As the ticket machine began spitting out paper, our cadence intensified. Sweat began to appear on our foreheads as the evening sun disappeared beyond the buildings. Cool night air wafted through the open bistro, as we juggled hot pans, and trips to and from the deep-fryer. Through all the chaos all I could think of ramen, and the prospect of tucking into a hot bowl of soup on my next day off.

My line-mate and I finished strong that night, and the beer couldn’t’ve tasted better. Then we got to talking about ramen.

I had always known the dry noodle packets, and recently I had been exposed to some excellent bowls while living in Montreal, but the wealth of knowledge my friend possessed seemed limitless. I learned as we were leaving where his current obsession was coming from, as he handed me an issue of Lucky Peach, and said, “just read this dude. It’s fucking insane.”

My walk home was shrouded in suspense; I felt like I had a secret in my backpack, or something illegal. I had only had a second to scan the cover, before stuffing it in my bag next to my dirty jacket and knife roll. It looked more like a comic than a magazine. Upon turning it’s pages I felt more and more as if I had been let into an exclusive club. The writing was real, and raw, and intense. The illustrations were jarring, and exciting. The photography wasn’t afraid to show the ugly side of the food industry.


 

2011 was a rough year for food writing. Most of the premier magazines had sold out to multi-page advertising, opting instead to sell their readers on kitchen gadgets, rather than recipes and cultural food writing. Bon Appetite had glossed over most of it’s inventive writing in place of articles sponsered by mass-produced pasta sauce, and Breville. Food & Wine became Wine & Wine, with little to no substance in terms of food writing and the human connection with food.

Lucky Peach came as a breath of fresh air. It was a magazine which held cooks high, and spelled out the often harsh truths of life in the kitchen. And for someone slugging through scorching kitchens, in a culinary hot-bed of Canada, it certainly felt like the people at Lucky Peach were writing for me, and my group of greasy kitchen workers.


 

The announcement of the dissolution of Lucky Peach is a hard pill to swallow for me, and I’m sure for all involved in the project, and all their readers. I will be eagerly looking forward to my final issue, which I plan to read in the way I always have. With a feeling of belonging, and understanding, along with profound excitement. Knowing that there’s someone out there, publishing a magazine for the cooks. It’s a relief to know, while you’re in the thick of your life in front of the stove, that someone out there gets it.

Esker Grove; importance

importance

noun
the state or fact of being of great significance or value.

Admittedly, I have never visited the now closed Piccolo. Though many have extolled the virtuous culinary work of chef Doug Flicker. I read their menu multiple times, and was lucky to work with several people who had worked under Flicker. His food and his approach struck me as honest, and open. Like a conversation with a good friend. Flicker’s dishes never seemed to fear vegetables, rather he held them high, and coaxed out their natural beauty and flavour. But this was all hearsay.


 

My first visit to Esker Grove at the Walker was for lunch, during their soft opening. We were encouraged to do counter service, but opted instead to sit at the bar, and have service. I settled into a mid-afternoon Classic Sazerac, and gazed into the construction of the sculpture garden, painted in the pastel of an overcast Tuesday.

Initially the construction came across as a bother. It’s ugly, the lawns are soiled, with turned up dirt, machinery, and bits of busted chain-link fence scattered about. But with that is a good reminder that construction is temporary, and brings on beautiful things.

We ordered a smorgasbord, which was playful and delicious. The fermented vegetables ended up being the stars; funky, briny, and decidedly tart. The kind of a pickle that takes time to make, and takes time to enjoy. Long after swallowing, another dimension to its sourness tickles the back of your tongue, enticing you into one more.

The smoked sturgeon rillette was a revelation. Punctuated with crunchy, earthy celery-root, and just a faint heat of horseradish; the smoked sturgeon shined through and tasted like a distant corner of the world.


 

Our second visit was with a skeptic.

A great friend who traveled a considerable distance, and while he had enjoyed some of the fruits of the Minnesota’s impressive culinary scene, he always expected to see steak and potatoes on every restaurant menu. His palate was always geared towards to finer foods, often seeking Michelin-starred restaurants. He was very excited to visit Esker Grove.

On that night, we ate like royalty.  One highlight was the chestnut soup, beautifully balanced with rich bone marrow, and just enough mustardy heat to compose the whole dish. My friend nodded in approval. We were unable to pass up the salsify, a root which never gets the love it deserves. Paired with brown butter and grapefruit, this milky, earthy vegetable is right at home.

Parsnips are complimented excellently with goats milk, coffee, and escarole, and a $19 price tag which is sure to upset some. To taste is to believe, and one bite into the dish should convince you that $19 is a steal. Smoked potato becomes best friends with clams, tied together with bitter, and crunchy kale.

My friend, of course, was unable to contain his excitement at a NY strip on the menu, feeling there was no way he could visit Minneapolis and not order a steak. And while it’s accompaniments were magnificent in the way carrots and truffle can be, the steak fell short, being both under-seasoned, and over cooked. We didn’t really come for steak anyways.

Dessert came and went in a flawless flurry. Parsnips showcase themselves again in a magnificent cheesecake. Financier is elevated to its purest form with compliments of thyme and lemon.

A bottle of wine, three cocktails, eight dishes later, and we were presented with our meager bill. For the quality of food we had just eaten, the price did not match. It was the kind of dinner that we would pay double for in New York City.


 

I visited Esker Grove recently for brunch, and was once again floored by the quality and consistency of the food. Boudin noir from Lowry Hill Meats, on a bed of warm aligot, with starchy-sweet chestnuts, and sour, pickled pears, complimented my Esker Bloody perfectly. The Letherbee gin, married the robust boudin in ways I had never before seen.


 

Stepping into Esker Grove is stepping into the future for a second. The maitre d’ is always calm, and happy to see you. Servers say hello as they walk by. Bartenders mix, and pour with confidence and energy. Esker Grove swells during busy nights, and it’s confidence shines through. When your plate is presented to you, it is explained. When your water glass empties, it is refilled. Everything in the dining room moves so smoothly, so efficiently, you can turn your brain off for a second, and simply focus on the beauty and excellence of Flicker’s food.

Esker Grove is not the first fine dining establishment in Minneapolis, but along with some recent, and reinvented gems, they are solidifying their identity in a city whose culinary identity is ever changing. The future of fine dining in Minneapolis is exciting, bold, and decidedly its own thing. Chefs like Flicker are embracing their surroundings, the seasons, listening to their clientele, and adapting to create the kinds of restaurants that remind us how great food and dining can be.

This is fine dining in Minneapolis, and this is of great significance and value.

Inspiration, or a lack of creative fatigue

The summer is hot. This summer in particular, is hot. And in addition to great heat, seems to come great moisture in the air. Some days, the humidity seems to heavy you could scoop it up with a spoon, and serve it in a bowl with a side of sluggishness. But what of that sluggishness that comes with the dog days of summer? Watering the garden becomes a chore, for one. Staying indoors seems easier, for another. And the idea of cooking over a hot stove sounds undeniably like the least appealing thing you could do on a sticky, humid summer day.

With that, our inspiration begins to fail.

No part of me wanted to venture out in to the garden today to pick peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and onions. But the recent gift of a brilliantly created cookbook by chef Justin Smillie and Wall Street Journal columnist Kitty Greenwald, compelled me to venture out into the heat.

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Intricate descriptions and dialect pair beautifully with stunning photography

Slow Fires is an encyclopedic collection of recipes and techniques, designed to encourage home cooks to embrace new ways to utilize heat. It’s vibrant and telling photography pulls you deeply in to the book, sometimes spending more time oggling the pictures than actually reading the recipes. No wonder, it comes from the endlessly talented Ed Anderson, a photographer who’s ability to capture the energy of any chef’s food, is unparalleled.

Turning the pages through Slow Fires, it’s clear to see Smillie is introducing something, perhaps new, to throngs of home cooks. Patience.


In professional kitchens, we move at an astonishingly fast pace. We do everything at once, we let flavours develop, we embrace the Maillard reaction, even taking it to the farthest reaches of caramelization. Sometimes this is intentional, and sometimes, maybe we forgot exactly how long that pan was on the heat for. When you’re juggling four or more pans and plates, communicating with three other line-mates, and dutifully listening to the chef’s constant drone of orders, things get lost.

A minute in the professional kitchen, in reality, is about fifteen seconds.

At home, things tend to move much slower. We are significantly more relaxed in the home kitchen. No ticket machine is buzzing in our ear, we aren’t shuffling for stove space, and there’s likely a glass of wine or cocktail involved. With this easier, more care-free approach, it’s natural we are going to spend more time playing with our food.

Smillie’s approach to direction encourages patience in the kitchen. Recipes in Slow Fires often instruct the cook to leave things in the pan, undisturbed, for long periods of time. The time it takes to properly brown a vegetable, or a meat, is without a doubt one of the hardest things to master in the kitchen.


The minute my eggplants and zucchinis are in the pan, my inspiration returns. As the vegetables for Caramelized Caponata with Caper Vinaigrette and Herbed Mozzarella brown in my casty, I prepare the vinaigrette. The classic fishy saltiness of anchovies blended with a citrusy, spicy olive oil are immediately compliments to briny, and tart capers. The vinaigrette appears almost too intense, but paired with the intensely browned, sweet spring onions, it balances perfectly.

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Necessary components

Tragically, my cherry tomatoes aren’t doing as well this year as they did last year, but the substitution of black krims (one slightly under ripe, one slightly over) added acidic body and velvety texture to the completed medley.

I work in batches, as I’ve learned in the professional kitchen, carefully caramelizing skin and flesh of the sweet peppers, and dropping them in to a bowl to mix once they’re ready. I opt to spoon the vinaigrette over, as opposed to mixing all in. A melange of mind, basil, and parsley, chopped, not torn, sprinkle their way to the finished plate. The omission of the herbed mozzarella is not intentional in this case; I simply forgot to turn the page for the recipe.

It’s hard to find something more satisfying than making a meal. The caponata recipe acts as more of a guideline, or maybe a trail map, to restoration of inspiration. I could have substituted every vegetable and still sit down to a soul-nourishing plate, because just the act of forcing yourself back in to the kitchen is enough to shake off the dust of culinary stagnancy.


Of course, it’s a delicious plate, which helps. Neither vinaigrette or vegetables are fighting for center stage; both compliment each other excellently. A slice of toasted sourdough bread (rubbed with garlic, of course) brings a new layer of texture and roast to the dish. I will be trying it again with herbed mozzarella, and with it another reminder to never stop cooking.

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Lack of creative fatigue

It’s easy to get into a culinary rut, and forget the satisfying feeling of a hot pan. Or the sound of an eggplant searing in oil, or the smell of an anchovy-rich vinaigrette. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge from a new cookbook, or an old one you haven’t opened in a while.

Small Community Keg House

Community is a great thing. In its essence, community is a group of like-minded people, living in close proximity to one another, who help each other out in order to make their part of the world a better place.

When the people behind Community Keg House in Northeast Minneapolis first presented their business, most agreed it would be an absolute treasure for the brewery-laden neighborhood. Imagine a NE brewery tour, a treat in and of itself, ending at a place like Community Keg House, where you could sample some of the best beers from around the state, or even out-state? It could be like two brewery tours in one.

Community Keg House even offers a unique ‘pour your own pint’ style of service, which is a gimmick destined for a short life. It does offer some connection for the drinker to their beer, more could be experienced from visiting a brewery and chatting with a brewer or a particularly knowledgeable bartender.

But something seems oddly familiar when you enter Community Keg House. 56Brewing, Boom Island, Fair State, Bauhaus, Sociable…It seems the community keg house is serving, more or less what you can already get in and around the neighborhood. Hammerheart makes an appearance in the way of their Oatmeal Stout, Badger Hill’s white IPA is available. But so is Surly Cynic, and a Summit Seasonal tap, beers which you could easily find at any self-respecting restaurant or bar in the Twin Cities.

Essentially it is a craft beer bar which serves mostly Northeast craft beer, which wouldn’t be a problem in any other part of the state, but when it’s located in the area with which its beer primarily comes from, something of a fatigue can come on quickly. No love for Mankato, Junkyard, Castle Danger, Forager, or even Montgomery Brewing? Sad.

Minnesota is a community, with a love of craft beers, as our many breweries could tell anyone. Craft beer bars in the metropolitan area should be taking it upon themselves to share the great beers of our state, and of the mid-west to thirsty and curious drinkers. Legal restrictions will stop some beers from crossing our state lines, but with a little research and legwork, great beer can come from beyond our backyards.

For the record, I settled on a pint of the always excellent Pomp Le Moose from Fair State, which I would’ve consumed happily at their taproom.

Parella, an Opinion

In this industry, it is said that if you can survive three years, you will make it another ten. Every day, a new restaurant opens, and an old restaurant closes. This week, a media darling closed. Twitter erupted after the announcement with industry professionals, bloggers, and those in the media expressing condolences over the loss of a brand new restaurant, slated to be one of the mainstays of the Twin Cities dining scene for years to come. The heartbreak felt by a city with a budding, ambitious, and reputable restaurant scene was palpable and heavy.

The landscape of the Twin Cities food scene is young, and often rough. While our restaurants are slowly creeping their way onto national lists, most people in ‘food cities’ would still be hard pressed to name a city in Minnesota, let alone a restaurant. So the closure of any new spot hits us maybe a bit harder than it would for a New Yorker, or San Franciscan.

We love food, and we love restaurants, and Minneapolis/St. Paul will certainly be referred to as a food destination some day, though for now I’m happy to keep it our little secret. Everyone wants to see their favorite restaurant succeed, and everyone wants to be part of a dining culture they can be proud of. It is for this, Parella’s closing has hit us so hard.

But are we sad to lose Parella, or are we sad for what losing Parella represents?


 

Perhaps it wasn’t Parella’s closing that shocked so many people, as it was the reality of the volatility of the industry. Restaurants come, and restaurants go. Parella received (mostly) rave reviews, which it consistently failed to live up to. Clumsy service and mussels dropped on the floor. Salty appetizers and bland mains. A limoncello program which confused bartenders, servers, and left imbibing guests wondering why something would even exist without the proper attention to detail it demanded. Promoting a multi-course style of dining, yet failing to provide adequate and necessary table clearing of course, will only cause more harm.

Some tweets decried the condition of the neighborhood, claiming Uptown isn’t what it used to be. While I agree to an extent, Uptown is still a high-traffic neighborhood which is currently in a massive restaurant recession. Others (owner Michael Larson included) claimed that Parella was too far ahead of the curve, and that Uptown wasn’t ready for such a radical fine-Italian dining experience. There is nothing radical about raw eggplant puree, unless you count the burning sensation left in my mouth for hours after consumption.

Quite simply, Parella missed the mark. Their vision was excellent, as the Twin Cities are hurting for some excellent fine-Italian right now. Something was muddled along the way, and the vision was lost, and the diners suffered. Had the vision of bold, Italian cuisine in the heart of Uptown held up, there may have been a different story to tell, but we are now left with an empty (apparently cursed) restaurant spot, in a part of Minneapolis which is craving a good neighborhood restaurant.

Perhaps Parella was too ambitious and the neighborhood wanted a more casual place. Since Calhoun Square gave the boot to both Republic and Chang Mai Thai, maybe it’s time for an easier going, neighborhood friendly spot to open up. Given the times, Uptown could certainly use it.

 

Nighthawks, diner bar

Since its inception, the American diner has been something of a icon. Immortalized in photograph, song, novel, and painting, the diner has become as much a part of pop-culture, as it has our identity. These are communal spaces, whether in small towns or big cities across America. A cup of coffee is mandatory, a conversation can be personal or mundane, the breakfast is cheap, and plentiful. Beyond the scope of Mickey’s in St. Paul, BandBox, Tony’s and a handful of bacon n’ egg joints, the Twin Cities isn’t exactly bursting with diners.

Nighthawks never claimed to fill that void. “Adventures in Griddling” is their tagline, and it feels like that truly is their entire mission. A fair mission, certainly. A diner, certainly not. While they offer quality home-style blue plate specials, all-day (as long as your day starts at 4pm) and bottomless coffee, they do fail to meet a specific or two of any great diner.

One of the best things about a diner is the impeccable service. Staff is always warm, welcoming, and happy to help. More than once I’ve been made to feel like an inconvenience while dining at Nighthawks. It is a common problem in the industry, so this can be chalked up to simple wishful thinking. Sitting at the bar fared no better in terms of a helpful and kind bartender. The service is certainly far from terrible, but wouldn’t it be nice for a diner-themed restaurant to provide that warm and welcoming diner service?

Food at Nighthawks is not what you would expect if you were expecting a diner. You can get pancakes at 10pm, and a hot dog and beer for $10 at happy hour. The turkey gizzards are a perfect offal gateway drug, being all together rich, crunchy, and tangy. Passing by the excellently balanced spicy cauliflower would surely leave you disappointed. Although, in recent visits, this staple has gone from being glazed, to being simply ‘sauced’. Flavor rules supreme, and this case is no exception is made for the classic combination of habañero and lime.

The Kramarczuk’s hot dogs are perfectly executed, with the ‘Minnesoter’ being the standout here. Roe, sour cucumber, pickled herring, and of course potato salad combine to make it an exceptional homage to this beautiful state. The ‘Galaxy’ is topped with Fritos, enough said.

Of course worth mentioning is the blue plate specials. Meatloaf, chicken dinner, fish & chips, and other diner staples. The fish & chips are good. The meatloaf is good. The fried chicken dinner is good. Are they exceptional? No. For $18, I’d sooner go to mom and dad’s, or any other diner in town. I would love nothing more than to write lush descriptions of these blue plate specials, but I have nothing. They are what they are, and exactly how they’re described, no more, and no less.

Drinks at Nighthawks are pleasurable and fun, with a great craft beer menu, and their flagship ‘pickled PBR’, which is the Milwaukee standard pulled through a Randall* stuffed with pickling spices. Order this beer earlier in the day, as the spices will have their flavors spent later on leaving you with PBR that tastes more like grandma’s attic than her cellar.

Nighthawks pulses from 4pm to midnight, Monday to Saturday, with brunch on Saturday and Sunday. The space is huge, with a drinking bar, on one end of its horseshoe, and an open kitchen on the other end. There seems to be plans to expand hours eventually, which would certainly add to the ‘diner’ appeal of the restaurant.

While Nighthawks clearly won’t be the place to find our working class grabbing quick and cheap breakfast and watery coffee, it will be filling a certain void. Most of us are hungry, and most of us are searching for a comfortable stand-by with a crowd-pleasing yet adventurous menu. A diner, Nighthawks is not, but an adventure in griddling, it definitely is.

 

*A time-of-service infusion system, generally reserved for adding a punch of hop character to a beer as it’s poured. Famously coined ‘The Hop Rocket’ by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.