One Christmas season when I was in college, I worked at Dayton’s, in the coat department. Periodically, merchandisers would come through and place little signs reading “The Trend Is” on top of the circular racks: “The Trend Is: Pea Coats.” “The Trend Is: Fur Trim.” “The Trend Is: Parkas.”
Leaving aside the obvious question—what Minnesota winter does not include a trend for parkas?—I often wondered if these signs sold more coats or fewer. Wouldn’t shoppers want to be ahead of the trend? Or to see themselves as timeless and trend-resistant? I still can’t answer those questions, and Dayton’s is long gone, but I couldn’t help but think of those signs after sampling the latest run of Twin Cities restaurants. They so clearly had an invisible sign hanging over them in the air, reading, “The Trend Is: Gastropub, Informed by Nose-to-Tail Cuisine.”
What is nose-to-tail cuisine? It means you eat all the parts of the animal in question, the hangar steaks and sweetbreads and shanks, as well as the premium steaks. The trend originated largely in England, where it was put into words by chefs like Fergus Henderson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but has been embraced worldwide. Partly, this is because it overlaps with other powerful trends, such as haute barnyard (elevating the status of farmers to something like co-chefs) and compassionate carnivorism (i.e., if you don’t eat nose-to-tail, you end up throwing most of an animal in the garbage, which isn’t terribly respectful to animals).
Plenty of Minnesota restaurants have been part of these trends, usually finer destination restaurants like St. Paul’s Heartland, Minneapolis’s Modern Café, Corner Table, Lucia’s, FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, Red Stag, Grand Café Minneapolis, and Duluth’s New Scenic Café. But the ethos hadn’t trickled down to the corner bar—until now. Three of the most notable new restaurants of the season are essentially nose-to-tail corner bars, or, in the lingo of the trade, gastropubs (as in, gastronomy + pub). Here’s my take on the lot.
Situated midway between the casual fine-dining restaurant Modern Café and the classic Nordeast juke-joint and roast-beef palace Mayslack’s, Northeast Social essentially splits the difference between the two. Like the Modern, it has straight-from-the-farm-inspired dishes that can be quite lovely, such as a salad of arugula, English peas, mint, and red onion, dressed with squares of smoky bacon and a light lemon vinaigrette. I also tried a local rainbow trout stuffed with red chard and wrapped in smoked ham, beautifully sautéed so that the ham was crisp as a potato chip, and served with plain but perfectly sweet fingerling potatoes and a watercress salad that I’d recommend to anyone. The panna cotta, infused with rosemary and served with honey, is a delight, both comforting and sophisticated at once.
Still, like Mayslack’s, Northeast Social essentially feels like a bar that serves food. For one thing, it’s so loud older patrons will want to pack their ear horns and younger ones may find it easier to text instead of talk. Additionally, many of the restaurant’s dishes feel like foods made for a bar, not a restaurant: fried chicken wings; a so-so burger topped with deep-fried rings of pickled chili peppers; and pretty good (but not pretty great) barbecued pork ribs. The gummy, stick-to-your-teeth gnocchi are nothing you’d expect in a self-respecting contemporary restaurant.
Yet, the main reason Northeast Social feels like a bar is that it works spectacularly well as a bar. The wine list favors highly fragrant and well-made but low-cost wines. The beer list is global and interesting. The room, with its ornate, almost rococo tin ceiling and contemporary but Victorian-feeling wooden bar, looks exactly the way a bar should. The bartenders are friendly, the customers are too. On warm nights, walls of windows open to let the outside in, café tables fill the sidewalk, and sometimes an accordion player makes this particular corner of northeast feel awfully European.
Victory 44 is one of those restaurants that spells out its location right in its name: It’s located at 44th Avenue North just off north Minneapolis’s Gold Coast, the leafy Victory Memorial Parkway. If you are reading this and thinking you didn’t know north Minneapolis had a Gold Coast, know that north Minneapolis is a lot more complicated and richer than what is portrayed on the evening news. And now it has a gastropub that feels very down-home, just a simple spot with bar stools, wooden benches, and neon beer signs. But it meets diners on whatever level they care to engage, either with a good basic burger topped with refrigerator pickles or more ambitious nose-to-tail fare.
The cooking is the work of young chef Erick Harcey, most recently of the Nicollet Island Inn. I thought his burger was very respectable, and particularly admired his light touch with some of the salads, especially one made with Dragsmith Farms micro greens, apples, and cheese. Zesty yet light, it had a balance that’s too rare among salads.
The house special, the “Victory 44,” is essentially a pork tasting menu in a bowl: crisp pork belly, long-cooked country ribs, and sausage all join one another in a bacony broth made with lemongrass and cilantro. It’s one of those rarest of all dishes, something never before seen on earth, in this case a sort of cross between the cuisine of nose-to-tail evangelist Fergus Henderson (pork, pork, and more pork) and Vietnamese pho.
The creativity of that pork-fest aside, I actually thought the kitchen’s best effort to be the roast chicken: half a terrifically tender bird with crisp and delectable skin, accompanied by warm beets that tasted sweet and caramelized and deeply resonant, like beet-truffle candies.
The Butcher Block
The former Fugaise space on East Hennepin across from Surdyk’s is now home to the Butcher Block, a gastropub with an Italian accent: The French fries here are patate fritte. The accent arises because chef Darin Koch and butcher Filippo Caffari have been cooking Italian for years at Buon Giorno and Osteria I Nonni in Lilydale. Front-of-the-house manager Fabrizio Cicconne, a local restaurateur who has had a hand in La Bodega, Nochee, Arezzo, and Café Agri, has deep Italian roots, too.
The new team has done wonders with the formerly claustrophobic Fugaise space. Lower lights and warmer tones make the space feel pleasantly secretive instead of confining. As the name promises, the menu is mainly meat. They serve a lovely beef Carpaccio that’s as rosy as berries and pleasantly rich and glossy. An entrée of braised-beef short ribs cacciatore was nothing short of exquisite, the meat tender as jelly, the flavors as intense and finely honed as I’ve ever experienced. With no entrée on the menu priced over $17 and plenty of bottles—yes, whole bottles—of wine priced at $15, the Butcher Block should quickly leap to the top of any local budget gourmet’s list.
That said, I’d stick to the meatier side of the menu. I was served a tomato-and-melon salad that was well past its prime, and I tried a salad of couscous, apples, raisins, and carrots that was so sweet it should have been a dessert. The desserts themselves were plain and dull.
I can’t make heads or tails of the Butcher Block’s selection of chicken wings, 29 flavors that run the gamut from Asian (sambal chile, Szechuan hoisin, and many more) to European (Marsala) to American bar fare (red-hot Buffalo, country-fried, maple brown sugar, and so on). On the one hand, chicken wings are clearly part of the nose-to-tail trend; if you sell all the chicken breasts for sandwiches, you can’t just dump the wings off the nearest high bridge. And yet, chicken wings? Traditionally they mean sports bar or soul food. I tried the house wings, which were nice, salty, and meaty, but not much more than that. I think if I wanted chicken wings, I’d still head to a bar or a soul-food joint.
Of course, one of the nice things about an international trend is that it finds unique expression wherever it lands. In Argentina, for instance, a new generation is using nose-to-tail eating as a call to resuscitate all sorts of fascinating Argentine-cowboy cooking methods involving blazing fires and metal racks. Mexican and Latin American nose-to-tail cooks are rediscovering their grandparents’ recipes for tripe and tongue. Who knows, perhaps the true flowering of the nose-to-tail movement in Minnesota will be to reclaim chicken wings for serious meals. Or maybe it will just be to make all our corner bars into places where we can expect scratch cooking from chefs who have one eye on their customers and another on the international culinary stage.
359 13th Ave., Mpls.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.