Sample Sale

Scratch cooking, from ketchup to caboodle

The Sample Room
2124 NE Marshall St.
Minneapolis
612.789.0333

How do you make ketchup from scratch? Overripe roma tomatoes, garlic, onions, cinnamon sticks, some secret stuff, stewing, melding, pureeing, straining--it's a hassle.

Why do you make ketchup from scratch? Because apparently you don't experience the fleeting passage of time the way the rest of us do: "I don't even feel the 80-hour weeks," explains the Sample Room's chef, Michael MacKay. "I make everything from scratch--my own ketchup, mustard, everything.

I really shouldn't. Oh, well, maybe just a taste: Tiny little dishes from the Sample Room
Michael Dvorak
I really shouldn't. Oh, well, maybe just a taste: Tiny little dishes from the Sample Room

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The Sample Room

2124 Marshall St. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Northeast Minneapolis

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"There is not a can in here. I've been working on my ketchup recipe for over four years. I did research on it: It was originally developed to cover the flavor of bad meat, it was pungent. Now [commercial ketchup] is basically a sugar sauce, while mine has maybe a teaspoon of sugar in the whole batch. I use 200-year-old cooking techniques. Homemade meat loaf with homemade demiglace, I've got veal stock going here five nights a week... That's why I'm putting in 80 or 100 hours a week."

Did you know there was a saloon on this very site in the 1890s called the Sample Room? There was, and, after a hundred-odd years, there is again. The old Sample Room probably served Gluek's beer with its homemade sausages, as the long-gone brewery was only a little ways up the street. And yes, lo and behold, this new Sample Room serves Gluek beer ($3.50) and homemade sausages.

How are those sausages? They're good. The restaurant makes two kinds: a classic pork bratwurst, and a subtle chicken, turkey, garlic, and sage one. There seems to be a nearly endless combination of ways to sample them: à la carte ($3.50 poultry, $4.95 bratwurst), on a bun with caraway sauerkraut and grilled onions ($6.25), or one of each on a plate with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables ($8.95). There are so many permutations because in addition to Old World farm-table and diner classics made from scratch, the kitchen serves up a world of tiny little dishes to, yes, sample. Some of these offerings are like yesterday's supper leftovers: cold roast beef ($3.95), chilled roast turkey breast ($2.95), potato salad ($2.50). Some of them are more along the lines of haute restaurant classics: gravlax, that cold cured salmon ($6.95); roasted asparagus with a balsamic reduction ($4.95); baked goat cheese with oven-dried tomatoes and basil oil ($5.25).

It's hard to count, because of repeats, specials, and complex side dishes, but I'm guessing the kitchen prepares 50-some items from scratch every day, which is a whole darn lot. And it's even more when you realize that the place is basically a one-room bar: They say they have 52 seats, but a bunch of those are at the grand old bar or at some nearby high-stool bar tables, leaving maybe 10 standard tables for the dinner-destination crowd. Is the Sample Room the only bar in North America making both its own Thousand Island salad dressing and foie gras pâté ($5.95) from scratch? I'm guessing yes.

I'm also guessing this is the very reason why it's been so hard for me to say whether I like the place or not. I have to admit I can't recommend the place at all as a destination restaurant, but I hardly have enough nice things to say about it as a neighborhood bar. How's that for schizophrenia in reviewing?

Consider the meat loaf: $11.95 as a platter with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables, or cold for $3.50, this classic blend of beef, pork, and veal is dense and bland, just like meat loaf is supposed to be, and while the shallot-mushroom sauce promised on the menu sounds like it will be all highfalutin, the version I had twice tastes just like plain brown gravy, no better, no worse. Garlic mashed potatoes are indeed made with roasted garlic, but so subtly that they just taste like plain mashed potatoes, but slightly better. Basically, this is the kind of plain meat loaf, plain gravy, and plain potatoes you'd be delighted to find at a truck stop off a highway somewhere.

Which is different from a destination restaurant. I couldn't find a single thing on the menu I'd drive out of my way for. Certainly not the ceviche, made with blueberry-size scallops that weren't fresh enough to support the simple lime-juice preparation the dish promises. That the thing was just covered with fiery rings of small, super-hot fresh green chile peppers was even more confounding: Who wants to eat three or four whole chile peppers during an appetizer? Roasted turkey breast ($10.95) was overcooked, dry, and cottony when I tried it. Baked Stickney Hill Goat Cheese with oven-dried roma tomatoes and basil oil ($5.25) was one of those dishes that seemed like a restaurant version dumbed down and reinterpreted by a catering kitchen or ambitious rural aunt: A small casserole dish was layered with disks of goat cheese heated to no great effect and interspersed with halves of oven-dried tomato that were no great addition of taste, and what a half-inch layer of basil-flavored oil was supposed to impart was mysterious. Even the burger (from $7.50) was sort of soft and pallid, lacking the taste of aged good-quality meat or exterior char I look for in great burgers.

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