3 Minneapolis restaurants hit their stride after new chefs take over
Gallery: McKinney Roe chef Scott Pampuch.
Restaurant: McKinney Roe, near U.S. Bank Stadium.
Chef: Scott Pampuch. Once the chef at the late Modern Cafe, Pampuch went on to become a leading locavore at his Corner Table.
Since selling that south Minneapolis restaurant in 2012, the Winona, Minn., native has spread his local-seasonal gospel at hotels, country clubs and the University of Minnesota, and most recently jump-started several new restaurants, including the kitchen at Fulton Brewing Co. He joined McKinney Roe in June.
What to expect: Through a steady series of incremental changes, Pampuch and chef de cuisine Niki Heber have steered this massive restaurant away from its generic beginnings.
This is no remake of Pampuch’s apple-cheeked Corner Table. For starters, the crowd-pleasing menus still clearly cater to the neighborhood’s wide-ranging clientele. Still, he’s wisely borrowing attributes from the Corner Table playbook to institute instantly noticeable improvements.
Forever on the lookout for fresh, seasonal ingredients, Pampuch is slowly but surely tapping his well-established network of regional purveyors, then collaborating with his crew to put them to good use.
A refreshing watermelon/sweet-corn salad — a hit during State Fair season — has given way to a hearty, just-right combination of beets, pistachios and an egg-caper sauce. Pillowy gnocchi is redolent of just-harvested squash, with crunchy pumpkin seeds adding texture. Pampuch’s affection for herbs — the more, the better — comes through in a dreamy side dish of roasted carrots, their inherent sweetness accentuated by honey.
At lunch, he’s added pep and nuance to what had been a rote sandwich-salad roster. Classics — steak tartare, a pretty Niçoise salad, plump shrimp cocktail with a lively sauce, roast chicken, French onion soup, the steakhouse burger to end all steakhouse burgers — have been neatly reinvigorated.
Best of all, Pampuch anchors dinner with a time-tested nightly special, from coq au vin (Tuesday) and fried chicken with Champagne (Wednesday) to Saturday’s thick slab of prime rib — so rare it practically has a heartbeat — and served with a decadent, eggy popover. The topper is Thursday. That’s when Pampuch goes deep with the nostalgia, recalling his Modern Cafe days with his rendition of that restaurant’s signature dish, pot roast with horseradish sauce and garlic-laced mashed potatoes.
Innovations: The recent addition of pastry chef Caitlin Espersen — a Seward Co-op and Rustica vet — is a promising improvement. Another is a revamp of the cocktail menu, a loose partnership with the libations brain trust at Tattersall Distilling. Be on the lookout for an ice bar on the restaurant’s huge patio; the winter amenity will be christened when the Vikings go up against the Packers on Nov. 25.
On Nov. 18, Pampuch is launching a once-a-month Sunday brunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) with a New Orleans flavor. “Being here on the Mississippi River, I think about the connection to New Orleans, a lot,” he said. “We’ll have beignets, shrimp étouffée, a crawfish Benedict, and a whiskey punch instead of the traditional mimosa conversation that’s so overplayed.”
The calendar will also include a half-dozen “terroir” dinners, introducing diners to winemaking regions not with single-vineyard events but multicourse meals playing off the restaurant’s enormous wine reserves. First up: a family-style Sicilian feast on Nov. 29.
McKinney Roe, 530 S. 4th St., Mpls., 612-545-5863, mckinneyroe.com. Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner 3-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 3-10 p.m. Fri., 4-10 p.m. Sat. Bar open to 10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., to midnight Fri.-Sat.
Restaurant: Esker Grove at Walker Art Center.
Chef: Denny Leaf-Smith. After more than a decade of training with top chefs Jay Sparks (Cafe Lurcat) and Isaac Becker (112 Eatery), Leaf-Smith spent several years in Philadelphia.
“I bounced around a couple of smaller, chef-driven restaurants, places with husband-and-wife teams, 20 to 30 seats and very fluid menus, where dishes we were serving on Tuesday wouldn’t be on the menu three days later,” he said. “It was a nice change from 112, where there would be a riot in the streets if you took Isaac’s foie gras meatballs or the tres leches cake off the menu. Which, by the way, is a nice problem to have.” Upon returning to Minneapolis in 2016, he settled into the kitchen at Eastside. He joined the Walker Art Center’s Esker Grove in late April.
What to expect: I loved the Walker’s great-looking restaurant from the minute it opened in late 2016, for all kinds of reasons.
It’s managed by Dallas-based Culinaire, and the food-and-drink giant behind the Guthrie Theater’s Sea Change and Fika at the American Swedish Institute was so smart to tap chefs Doug Flicker (he of four-star Piccolo — now closed — Bull’s Horn and Sandcastle) to create the restaurant’s character and T.J. Rawitzer to run the kitchen on a day-to-day basis.
After Rawitzer moved on and was replaced by Leaf-Smith (gifted barkeeper Jon Olson and general manager Kim Tong, one of the Twin Cities’ front-of-house stars, remain), the restaurant has only improved, and that’s no knock against Rawitzer.
Along with continuing to emphasize vegetables and grains, the menu somehow manages to feel more adventurous while simultaneously rooting itself in contemporary preparations of otherwise familiar fare.
This is a kitchen that dazzles with a pork chop, the thick-cut heritage-breed meat brined, air-dried, basted in thyme-infused butter and served with mustard-laced spaetzle. Pan-roasted maitake mushrooms are all about contrasts, their earthiness countered by a maple-sherry glaze, their richness accentuated by a poached duck egg.
A punchy arugula pesto added heft to gossamer, citrus-dappled tuna. And roasted carrots sang with the tang of preserved lemon and charmoula’s lingering bite.
A fried chicken sandwich — there’s a tantalizing maximum contrast between the crunchiness of the coating and the juicy tenderness of the meat — has a teasing peppery bite.
Toothy bucatini is dolled up with a can’t-miss blend of sweet crab and smoke-infused tomatoes. A simple open-faced sandwich becomes a work of art, with top-flight brioche blanketed in velvety shears of lox, a rich salmon rillette and crunchy, acidic pickled vegetables.
Brunch is when baker Anna Berzelius steals the spotlight, turning out picture-perfect bagels, doughnuts, coffee cakes and superb, beyond-flaky biscuits. Leaf-Smith responds in kind — a decadent French toast, a quiche for the ages — making this a gotta-try weekend destination.
Innovations: Leaf-Smith and Flicker are teaming up for “Dinner With Doug and Denny” (“We’re still working out the details on the name,” said Leaf-Smith with a laugh), a small series of five-course, fixed-priced dinners; the next are set for Nov. 13 and 14 at 6:30 p.m., a vegetable- and grain-centric evening for $55, with $30 wine pairings; reservations at 612-253-3404.
Leaf-Smith is also ironing out details for a three-course dinner to serve during the museum’s annual “British Arrow Awards” juggernaut (running Nov. 30 through Dec. 30).
“We’re working on a British-themed dinner, something more elevated than standard pub fare,” he said. “Maybe blood sausage with cabbage and apples. It’s hard to do a British-themed menu that’s vegetable- and grain-forward.”
Esker Grove, 723 Vineland Place, Mpls., 612-375-7542, eskergrove.com. Open 10:30 a.m.- 9 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Restaurant: Tullibee at Hewing Hotel.
Chef: Matt Leverty. The Stillwater native started his culinary career at the former 20.21. In 2007, he transferred out of that Walker Art Center/Wolfgang Puck operation, relocating to Las Vegas and working his way up the Puck career ladder.
“I’ve always said that Vegas is a place for a four-day weekend, and I ended up there for 11 years,” he said with a laugh.
An extended tour around Puck’s vast global empire eventually led Leverty back home.
“Once a Minnesotan, always a Minnesotan, right?” he said. “I was ready for a change of pace. Traveling around, opening restaurants, I kind of lost the focus of what it is to be a chef. I’m glad to be back in my own kitchen.” He joined the Hewing Hotel’s Tullibee in early summer.
What to expect: When the restaurant debuted two years ago, the Nordic-inspired menu was a bit precious, especially considering its one-size-fits-all hotel address.
Still, it was a shame to see opening chef Grae Nonas depart after a short-lived tenure. Nonas’ replacement, Bradley Day, took the restaurant into a less whimsical, more approachable direction. Leverty seems to have further de-emphasized the original New Scandinavian theme, but he’s also made the menu more appealing by continuing to deeply mine the local larder for inspiration.
That means rabbit with herb-packed dumplings, lamb lovingly nurtured over a crackling wood stove, and expertly roasted trout, the stove’s smoke sneaking into but not overwhelming the fish’s delicate flesh.
The cooking is scrupulous and consistent. Leverty and chef de cuisine Ben Sanders are skilled soupmakers (their chicken-packed wild rice version is eons better than the usual ponderously cream-clogged iteration), and crank out a definitive cheeseburger. Fried chicken fans will want to taste-test the Tullibee version; ditto the pastrami sandwich.
As for breakfast, if I were asked to conduct business in the a.m., Tullibee would definitely earn a berth in my dining-out rotation.
Innovations: “The Grill at Tullibee” is a Saturday late-night menu prepared specifically for the 10 seats fronting the kitchen’s showy wood-burning grill.
Leverty changes the menu weekly; last week’s ode to Japan featured a dozen dishes in the $3-to-$10 range, and included robata skewers (pheasant thigh, salmon belly, beef short rib) and small plates along the lines of uni tempura and deep-fried tofu. The fun starts at 11 p.m. — availability is on a first come, first served basis — and it runs as long as supplies last.
Oh, and Leverty’s response to the hotel dropping the members-only caveat from its slick rooftop bar and lounge? He crafted a highly grazeable snacks menu (average price hovers around $9) that ranges from Reuben sliders and a board groaning with house-cured hams to wild rice croquettes, duck fat fries and that top-notch burger.
Tullibee, 300 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 651-468-0600, hewinghotel.com. Breakfast served 6:30 a.m.-11 a.m. daily, lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays, dinner 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat., brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.