The Bachelor Farmer is a new restaurant the way President Obama’s dog is a dog. I mean, the fact that he’s a dog is not why he gets a feature in People magazine. So, let’s be honest and acknowledge the elephant in the room—or should I say the donkey? The Bachelor Farmer is the new restaurant in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District owned by brothers Eric and Andrew Dayton, sons of Governor Mark Dayton and grandsons of Bruce B. Dayton, one of the great Daytons responsible for America’s first shopping mall (Southdale), America’s first Target (Target), plus much of the health and strength of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Walker Art Center, Minnesota Public Radio….you get the idea. Basically, if you’re a Minnesotan with money in your pocket or culture in your life, chances are some portion of that descends from a Dayton.
And now the Daytons have gone and opened up the big restaurant of the season. How’s the food? It’s good. It’s great. It’s boring and bad. It’s all over the place, frankly. But they’re serving popovers. Popovers! Every Minnesotan knows that popovers are owned lock, stock, and barrel, for now and forever by that classic department-store dining room, the Oak Grill, currently run by Macy’s, which bought Marshall Field’s, which bought Dayton’s. Which brings us back to Dayton’s again. Speaking of Dayton’s (the store), get this: the Bachelor Farmer has a front-of-the-house retail component, with clothing and various gewgaws, while popovers are dished out in the back. Now doesn’t this type of mixed-use building remind you a little of the original R.S. Goodfellow & Company, the dry-goods store that eventually turned into Dayton’s?
Goodfellow & Company inspired Goodfellow’s, that now-closed white-tablecloth restaurant which dominated Minneapolis’s restaurant scene for 20 years—and the place where the restaurant bug first bit young Eric Dayton. During a high-school internship there, he made friends with Jack Riebel, then the chef (and later chef at the Dakota, and soon chef at the Butcher and the Boar). After Goodfellow’s, Dayton got a firsthand introduction to the food and players at major Twin City restaurants, becoming friends with the staff at Restaurant Alma, Heartland, and La Belle Vie, among others. So, when he decided to buy a building downtown and turn it into a restaurant, Eric Dayton told me over the phone, he had a rich constellation of contacts to reach out to and ask: who is young, talented, and ready to make their name, but not entirely launched and known? (Please note that if the question had been “what established chef wants to get a big paycheck and work for young folk with deep pockets,” this would be an entirely different review.)
They got a clear answer: Pip Hanson, protégé of La Belle Vie’s Johnny Michaels, now installed in the speakeasy-ish Marvel Bar in the building’s ground floor. Hanson is working wonders down there, instantly vaulting his small but ambitious bar into the first rank of Minneapolis culinary cocktail emporium. Everything’s good, but be sure to try the astonishing Tomas Collins, a zingy Tom Collins variation made with pickle brine that will render you as sensually awake as a slice of lime slipped unexpectedly onto the tongue.
As far as finding a chef to realize their vision of a Minnesota-Scandinavian restaurant, the Daytons settled on Paul Berglund, a locavore who has previously worked with Lenny Russo at St. Paul’s Heartland. Berglund has his work cut out for him, charged with bringing coals to Newcastle as it were, or rather, bringing Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes to Minneapolis. As a critic, I have to confess I couldn’t make heads or tails of that particular dish—it was exactly as good as every other homemade Swedish meatball plate I’ve ever had. The meatballs were not particularly delicate nor particularly crusty; not particularly robust nor particularly gamey. These were just absolutely, 100-percent homemade and nice Swedish meatballs. If your grandma made them, you’d want thirds at every Christmas now and forever. For $18 in a restaurant, though, I don’t know—that would buy you a lot of Swedish-meatball mix at Ingebretsen’s, to similar result.
That said, I did find a few of Berglund’s dishes to be original, necessary, and even wonderful. Take the toasts, for example. Order one and you get a delicate silver caddy that looks like Jeeves should be serving it, filled with well-grilled slices of bread, buttered or not, depending on the rest of the plate. Unbuttered pieces, for instance, get paired with gloriously rich and fatty split-marrow bones, a scrumptious, luxurious, sensuous extravaganza sensibly presented with a zippy horseradish sauce; roll up your sleeves and indulge. Equally wonderful are the toasts that come with a runny, ultra-fresh cow’s-milk cheese topped with sweet cherry tomatoes and just-chopped cucumber and radishes. Sop up the cheese with the bread, load on the tomatoes, and you’ve got a summery vegetarian treat so good your toes will curl.
I wish more dishes were like that. I searched and searched through the big entrées for something spectacular, but mostly discovered either good plain cooking or too much salt. (One night a rabbit and chicken dish were indistinguishable, leaving the palate no impression but the chemical tingle of sodium.)
The greatness I found tended to be in the menu’s margins. I loved the poached eggs, swamped with an abundance of sweet, great summer produce—mainly cherry tomatoes and crisp peas, united by a buttery and herb-saturated Choron sauce. And I swooned over the popovers, which were buttercup yellow, tender, and crisp. Above all, I flipped for the delicate little Swedish pancakes, served once with fresh strawberries, another time with rhubarb cooked quickly with sugar. They were innocent of all pretension, and as charming as lace on a christening gown.
At its best, the Bachelor Farmer hits that heretofore unexplored culinary sweet spot of aw-shucks Minnesotan innocence.
Speaking of Minnesota, let’s not stop—ever. Yes, the name is a play on references from A Prairie Home Companion. “I ran into Garrison Keillor and told him about the restaurant,” Eric Dayton told me. “His response was that he didn’t think bachelor farmers were known for the quality of their cooking.”
Maybe not, but from my experience they can certainly pour a good drink, and, when they want to, they can give you so much to think about that you’ll be puzzling it out till the spring thaw.
The personal is political, and it’s culinary, too, now that the Dayton heirs have their own restaurant, bar, and retail operation in the North Loop.
Ideal Meal: A cocktail, an order of toasts, anything with boiled eggs, desserts for all. Tip: Entrées are the menu’s low point, so indulge in the rest of the menu before ordering bigger plates. Hours: Sunday–Thursday, 5:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m.; Friday–Saturday, 5:30 p.m.–10:30 p.m. Prices: Appetizers from $7; entrées from $18. Address: 50 Second Ave. N., Mpls., 612-206-3920, thebachelorfarmer.com