As I write this, the recession has its fangs deep in Minnesota’s jugular, and nearly all life has drained from our once-hopeful restaurant scene. Every restaurant owner and chef I talk to mutters about battening down the hatches and weathering the storm with the frenzied air of a guy hammering nails into his shutters as a hurricane darkens the horizon. On the other hand, dining is one of middle-class America’s chief forms of entertainment—it’s not like people are going to stop eating just because our banking system resembles a snake that got run over by a Hummer. However, while people won’t stop eating, they might stop eating foie gras.
And so, behold, the bold new restaurant concepts: pizza, hamburgers, and hot dogs!
I’m only sort of joking. Of the notable restaurants to open in the past few months, many really are just serving those all-American, budget-friendly foods. The best of the lot, unquestionably, is Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza, chef and owner Jordan Smith’s new pizza joint in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District. Avid restaurant hounds may recall Smith’s lengthy resumé as a gun-for-hire at various Twin Cities restaurants. He opened Mission American Kitchen, the Downtowner Woodfire Grill, and most of the D’Amico & Sons restaurants; he estimates that Black Sheep is the 23rd restaurant he’s opened.
Well, the 23rd time is the charm: Black Sheep easily vaults to the top of the Twin Cities pizza scene and is neck-in-neck with Punch Pizza and Pizza Nea as the best pizza we’ve got.
Why? So many reasons. The most obvious one is the taste. The crust of the pizzas here is just exceptional: crisp and crackling at the outside edges, light as crispy air otherwise, and delightfully tender at the subtle boundary where topping meets dough. The toppings are unique, at least for this market, and center around the American, prewar, Southern Italian immigrant experience. You can get feisty, garlic-rich, house-made meatballs as a topping, for instance, and the pepperoni or hot salami come from the San Francisco artisanal sausage maker Molinari.
The method of cooking—coal oven—also hews to that American, prewar, Southern-Italian immigrant experience. Black Sheep’s pizza oven is fueled by anthracite coal, the late 19th century’s preferred cooking method, thanks to its ability to generate exceedingly even, high heat. Today, you’ll still find coal-fired pizza cooked with pride throughout Pennsylvania and the Northeast. (The particular variety of nearly impurity-free coal used in a coal-fired pizza oven, blue coal, can only be found in Pennsylvania.)
What’s the difference between coal-fired and wood fired when it comes to pizza? When I asked Smith about this, he explained that a wood-fire operates at a sort of sine-wave of high heat. The heat increases and decreases slightly as the wood burns, while the coal-oven operates as a constant inferno; the lower part of the oven holding at a steady 550 to 560 degrees, while the upper part heats up to 800. To this eater, the difference between wood and coal is simple: The coal-fired crust lacks the wood-smoke flavor of the wood-fired one, and tastes much lighter, as if it’s half the weight of a wood-fired crust. Order a plain old all-American pepperoni pizza and you’ll quickly see the wonders that this ultra-hot oven creates. The circles of pepperoni remain red and pliant, yet sport tiny black blisters, like they’ve been touched by a passing sun flare. In fact, no offense to wood-fire partisans, but I think these are the prettiest, most photogenic, picture-postcardiest pizzas I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Every single one looked like it could zip into a swimsuit and handily win the Miss Pizza Universe crown. (And no, I hadn’t been drinking too much house wine when I thought of that analogy, though you should try the house wine, at $20 a liter, for two reasons: One, it’s darn good. It’s fruity and robust, a perfect pizza-chaser. And two, because it shows the magic of sticking to a good idea, for not only is this house wine, but it is house wine that Smith blends himself, from other bottled wines, which puts him in the noble prewar, Italian-American tradition of restaurant owner as small-scale winemaker.) So, you can pull up to this little spot in the Warehouse District and live like it’s Pittsburgh in 1917. Not in a kitschy, Buca di Beppo, Pope’s-head-in-a-grotto way. But in a pizza-connoisseur’s way.
Smith, whom I was surprised to find behind the counter slinging pizzas during every one of my visits, says that this strict adherence to a restaurant concept is no accident. “I’ve always felt that the key to a successful restaurant actually lies in developing the idea behind the restaurant,” he says. “Call it your concept or what you will, but use that as your lens to make your choices. I’ve gone into so many places where you’ve got steaks and you’ve got pasta and you’ve got kebabs—so you’re adding sushi? What are you? What’s going to make someone come back, besides the fact that they live three blocks away? I don’t care if you’re making hamburgers or you’re Manny’s, if you don’t know what you’re focused on, no one is going to want your food.”
His idea for Black Sheep was simple: an all-American pizzeria that could meet guest expectations quickly. “I thought I was too cynical to enjoy restaurants anymore,” he told me, “but this is just fun.” I couldn’t agree more: tasty, crispy, very welcome fun.
Other newcomers to the restaurant scene who have honed their concept to a fine point include two St. Paul newcomers, the Blue Door Pub and the new Lowertown Bulldog.
The idea behind the Blue Door Pub is pretty basic: microbrews, Juicy Lucys, and having them at the same time. The place is about as all-Minnesotan as a gastropub could be: There’s Spam and cheese curds on the appetizer list—both deep-fried (of course). The main event, though, is eight different Juicy Lucys, the classic cheese-stuffed burger, which they call “Juicy Blucys.” How could you possibly have eight different Juicy Lucys? One’s stuffed with mozzarella and pineapple chunks and topped with Canadian bacon; one is stuffed with blue cheese and garlic; one’s a sort of pizza—you get the idea. On my visits they hadn’t quite figured out the best way to cook the Juicy Lucys, which, as we all know, is no mean feat. You have to get the interior up to cheese-melting temperature without scorching the outside. When I had the Blucys, the kitchen was erring more on the scorched side, but neither I nor anyone at the table much cared. The place is just phenomenally likable, with a friendly staff, oodles of chilly local beers on tap, and a general aura of your good friends down the street throwing a party. Even on my first moments there, waiting for a table and spying on the various parties seated with babies and doctoral students with their beers I could see that the Blue Door had joined the first rank of great St. Paul neighborhood bars, bars for People Who Read Books But Don’t Make a Big Fuss About It (or PWRBBDMABFAI, for short), like the Groveland Tap, the Muddy Pig, and the Happy Gnome.
The new Lowertown Bulldog is also going to be a must-visit for St. Paul beer-obsessives. It has an unrivalled local tap lineup of some 40-odd draft beers, as well as a remarkable number of Belgian and British ones. I was, however, disappointed by this newest Bulldog’s food. It is nowhere near as ambitious or fine as its northeast sister, with burgers that are, compared to the Bulldog NE, positively leaden and uninspired. However, it has some great hot dogs and a nostalgic and proper Tater Tot hotdish casserole, which is a lovely thing to get in the midst of a long Minnesota winter.
Speaking of long-winters—is the recession over yet? I’m loving the flair with which people are embracing the basics, but if all the new restaurants next month are popcorn stands, this is going to get old.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.
Black Sheep Pizza
600 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis
The Blue Door Pub
1811 Selby Ave., St. Paul
The Bulldog, Lowertown
237 Sixth St. E., St. Paul