Farm-Fresh Find

Minneapolis butcher bridges the gap between local, sustainable agriculture and hopeful home cooks

Clancey's Meats & Fish
4307 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.926.0222

A few years ago, I found myself on a typical Minnesota night, cozy between quilt and feather bed, the cat curled in a dimple at my feet, the moonlight a glowing stripe above the curtains, peaceful as a dolly in a box. Except for one of those persistent, annoying little thoughts that sneak in on you sometimes: Just who exactly do you have to kill to get a fresh chicken in this town? Such are the night terrors of restaurant critics.

But really. Why exactly is it that to get great quality local lamb, you have to go to a restaurant, like Lucia's or Sapor? Doesn't it seem that in this rich city ringed by all this farmland, we should be wealthy beyond counting in products of the winter farm?

And yet, walk into almost every grocery store in town and the beef is from Colorado, the lamb is Australian, the chickens are driven in from Indiana. Even our fanciest grocery stores are like this. Especially, ashamedly, our fanciest grocery stores, and even some co-ops, are like this.

And you just know chickens, cows, hogs, and lambs are rambling all over the landscape by the zillion! And you just know our local family farmers are going broke out there selling their carefully raised animals on the commodity market, where their plump happy animals get mixed in with sick factory farm ones, and fetch the same price.

It's ridiculous, and it's been ridiculous for years. Here in the Twin Cities we have a bottomless pool of eager home cooks. Out past the suburbs we have a bottomless pool of family farmers making the tastiest products on earth. And there has been nearly no way for the two to meet. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to buy!

Which is why when I saw the banner in front of the old Linden Hills butcher shop announcing Clancey's Meats & Fish, I thought the same thing I always think: Is it you? Has someone finally chiseled a door into the treasure chest?

Paint me pink and call me Bubbalicious, Sugar, they sure have.

I walked my little self in there one lazy afternoon, got to chatting with new owner Kristin Tombers, who bought the place last October, and then got to chatting with Greg Westergreen, who got to mentioning that they had just gotten some lamb in from Joe and Bonnie from the Hill and Vale Farm, and if I had a few minutes he'd go in the back and French a rack for me. Now, I never in my life have refused a gentleman offering to French me a rack, and neither has any other sensible Minnesota lass (as proved by the recent failures of the teen abstinence programs), and this was one of the wisest decisions of my life.

When I got home and unwrapped the rack of lamb, with each of the dear little handle-bones cut free and scrubbed clean of any meat or fat (that's a Frenched rack), I felt like I was behind the line in a four-star kitchen. Mere civilians rarely see meat this beautiful. When I cooked it (as simply as possible, just pan-searing it, then gently warming it in a low oven) and dug in, I truly thought I might collapse in joy: The meat was so tender, so good, it was certainly the best lamb I've had in my life. Little chops with a wee black raspberry edge to the meat, a bit of cedar, herbal mist, the kind of food that tricks the deep, core carnivore out of a girl and leaves you wilted in your chair, panting. That's why we needed a local butcher shop!

It turns out that the butcher, Greg Westergreen, is far more than a butcher: He's the former chef from the Nicollet Island Inn, and so anytime you go into the place you're likely to find some of the most high-level gourmet take-out imaginable. One day they had Pekin Duck Wild Rice Soup, an unspeakably rich, velvety concoction of little pearls of curled wild rice swimming through nut-brown luxury. He puts together cold salads made with white beans the size of baby fists, tossed with roasted red peppers and roasted artichokes. Only the top restaurants in the state serve antipasto this good.

Westergreen even managed to impress me with olives--and I am quite jaded with olives, you know. But he took olives beyond themselves: Quail's-egg-sized hondrolias were marinated with slices of garlic and shallots in a sherry vinegar, and were so rich, meaty, and vibrating with flavor that I could only think, yes, such olives do require a butcher! Meanwhile, in a nearby bowl, green, sharp little luques were tossed with angel-hair curls of orange peel and sprigs of fresh thyme. These olives were a salt-and-citrus confetti on the tongue. They had me thinking about sitting by the sea in Sicily, and if I run off with the next Sicilian who crosses my path you'll know who to blame.

Over a series of visits I tried other things from the simple black plates that line Clancey's modest (for now) refrigerated cases: A subtle garlic sausage which cried out for a surrounding cassoulet, but still cut quite a figure when paired with scrambled eggs. A fine, mushroomy, robust, and noble pork tenderloin from Elgin, Minnesota's Hidden Stream Farm. A perfect, Clancey's-made gelatinous veal demi-glacé, so you can cook like a four-star chef without roasting bones all day. A fascinating grass-finished steak from Misty Meadows farm in Pine Island--fascinating because it was bright red, light tasting, and had a sort of musky sweetness to it, like a muskmelon does. It almost reminded me of sushi-grade tuna, not in terms of tasting like fish, but in the sense that the flavor was so light and clean and front-of-the-palate, not the classic rich thunder of beef. Think of the difference between a Beaujolais and a Burgundy. That pure, light taste is because the beef was grass-finished, which means that the cow put on at least its final 200 or 300 pounds living out of doors, eating pasture and hay.

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