Grass Roots

At the Strip Club, chef J. D. Fratzke has found the secret to cooking exquisite grass-fed steaks

I like everything about grass-fed beef. I like the taste; I find it deeper, wine-ier, more berry-like than traditional corn-fed beef. I like that it contains omega-3 fatty acids, the same good-for-you fats found in ocean fish. I like that grass-fed animals are healthier, because grass is what God and nature designed them to eat, and feedlot diets of corn and soybeans make them sick. I like that grass pastures, unlike traditional tilled fields, don’t require “inputs” like synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, most of which wash away and destroy wild things in streams and rivers before heading down the Mississippi to create a big dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact, I’d say the only thing I don’t like about grass-fed beef is that every single time a major media outlet covers the topic they call up a bunch of people who serve corn-fed beef and get a lot of quotes along the lines of: “It’s trendy, but it’ll never fly—it’s just too tough!”

Every time I read that story I despair: Is this what it means to be an American today? We spend our mornings reading about downer cows forklifted into school lunches and our nights being such incompetent cooks that we can’t prepare a grass-fed steak? Unlike every single backyard cook in Argentina? Unlike every juke-joint fry cook in America before the Korean War? Should we just throw in the towel and declare ourselves unable to do anything more than Google, pour out bowls of breakfast cereal, and complain?

Don’t answer that. Happily, heaven heard my cry and supplied the one thing that grass-fed doubters can’t get around: A great restaurant specializing in tender, luxurious, tender, elegant, and, yes, tender grass-fed steaks. That restaurant is St. Paul’s newest steak house, the Strip Club Meat & Fish. If you’ve been a grass-fed doubter, or have been watching prices soar at your favorite old steak house because of the ethanol boom, or are simply looking for a good, affordable restaurant in St. Paul, you gotta get in there.

But first you have to find it. It’s tucked up near Metropolitan State University, just off that odd left-exit that zips up the bluffs from eastbound I-94. The building is a timeless, old, St. Paul rivertown-era brick storefront, the kind built on high ground with big glass windows, the kind that you find up and down the Mississippi, in places like Winona and Alma, Wisconsin.

The first thing that strikes you about the Strip Club is its risqué name (be prepared to explain at length to your baby-sitter). Many will be dismayed to find that theme carried onto the menu: You can add “XXX-cargot” butter to your steak. (Don’t.) However, look past the puns and you’ll find some perfectly serious cooking.

Photo by Terry Brennan

That cooking is done by up-and-coming chef J. D. Fratzke, recently of Muffuletta, who founded the Strip Club along with his longtime friend and Town Talk principal, Tim Niver, and some investors. There was a certain outdoorsy, ducks-and-sausages edge to Fratzke’s cooking when he led the team at Muffuletta, but now, in his own restaurant, his personal vision shines through unadulterated: I’d call it an exceptionally refined version of Men Celebrating the Hunt. His duck confit, for instance, is exquisite. It’s a full quarter of a duck, which Fratzke salt-packs with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. He lets it sit, then rinses and simmers the meat in fat until it’s as tender as pudding, then puts it in the oven until the skin is as crisp as a potato chip. The duck quarter is served with a pile of red grapes that have been grilled and roasted, and a frisée salad dressed with juice from some of those caramelized grapes. The overall effect is nothing short of electrifying. The meat is tender, rich, crisp, and subtle, while the grapes and frisée work to reset the palate and refocus the attention on the sensuality of the dish. It’s lush, it’s new. It’s lush, it’s new. Marvelous. For the caesar salad, Fratzke chars a head of romaine till it softens, dresses it boldly and adds plenty of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. It’s so powerful, it’s a steak of a salad.

I found some of Fratzke’s work on the fussier side of the menu less accomplished: Mussels disappeared beneath the chunks of sausage and leek accompanying them, and the shrimp Scampi was cooking-school-perfect, but nothing special.

It’s the steaks, though, where Fratzke does the work that will make his reputation. The $16 beef-ball tip steak, for instance, is what’s known as a “butcher’s cut,” or, less politely, a second-rate cut. But there’s nothing second rate about it—it’s phenomenal. It arrives before you already sliced to reveal the cabernet-veiled interior ringed by a black-edged, well grilled exterior. Each bite is a thunder of big beefy flavor unfurling subtle nuances of berry, new hay, pepper, and warmth. The sage-scented cannellini beans accompanying the steak enhance its wonder, bringing out the herbal, meadow notes that make local grass-fed beef so spectacular. (All of the Strip Club’s beef is grass-fed and comes from the local Thousand Hills Cattle Company.) The restaurant’s showpiece, the New York strip, is similarly spectacular. It tastes big and wild, like a spring thunderstorm booming through the Mississippi bluffs, but also subtle and tender—what dinner should be when you get the big promotion or toast the big anniversary.

How does he do it? Fratzke says his grass-fed-beef secrets are all about heat management. He first gives every steak a hard sear, then finishes it, according to the guests’ order, at much lower temperatures. Of course, this is how corn-fed beef is cooked at the big, conventional steak houses. Is the secret of cooking grass-fed steaks merely the will to do it well?

Fratzke certainly has that drive. “I grew up in Winona,” Fratzke says. “My great-grandparents came over from northern Germany 130 years ago and settled in the hills, but we gradually moved down into the city. And what is Winona but an island in the Mississippi? I grew up spending 100, 200 days a year either ice-fishing with my dad, goose or duck hunting, or just messing around. I still call it my river. When you’re little you admire your dad so much, and with the hunting, the fishing, he tagged an ethic on what we were doing: You take care of the land, you respect the creatures on it, you don’t hurt it…. Industrial beef hurts farmers, it hurts the land, it hurts my river. I don’t want to look out the window and think: I’m part of that. I know a lot of the farms these cattle come from,” he says. Thousand Hills cattle come from some 40 farmers and ranchers near Cannon Falls. “I know what pastures and hills they live on, I know what creeks they drink from,” Fratzke continues. “I feel like the best thing I can do is cook the best I can from the ethic I learned messing around on the Mississippi, and hope.”

The best Fratzke can do is very welcome indeed, not just because the steaks at the Strip Club are delicious, but because the restaurant provides a template for what a grass-fed, family farm supporting, land-sustaining, Minnesota-enhancing steak house can be.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.

The Strip Club Meat & Fish
378 Maria Ave., St. Paul
Open for lunch Tues.–Fri.; dinner
Tues.–Sat.; brunch weekends.
Reservations recommended for dinner.
Parking on street or in Metropolitan State University lot across Sixth Street.
Prices for appetizers range from $3–$15, entrées $9–$28.