News-A-Rama

Restaurant Massacre in St. Paul; Top-Secret Most-Ambitious-Restaurant-Ever Debuts in Minneapolis—What a Season!

We have so much shocking news this week I don't even know where to begin. Okay. Deep breath. Pour yourself a martini, and get ready to wrap your head around this one: We are about to get the most important, most ambitious, most luxurious restaurant in the history of Minnesota—again! Again! We got the most ambitious, luxurious restaurant in the history of Minnesota twice when Cosmos and dear, departed Restaurant Levain opened, and then we got it again when La Belle Vie opened, and now it just keeps coming and coming and coming. And the next one is coming in December. Which is practically tomorrow. And it's got Steven Brown at the head of it!

Yes, that Steven Brown! Chef, underdog, incredible home-grown talent, last heard from when he shelved plans to open his own place in order to launch downtown Minneapolis gastropub Harry's Food and Cocktails, which is up and running, but which he is now only consulting at. So who's running Harry's? Promising newcomer Colin Murray has taken over the day-to-day affairs of the kitchen. Murray, a 26-year-old Stillwater native, is a former cook at Restaurant Levain, Auriga, Solera, and Bayport Cookery; he also did a long stint in Hawaii at Roy's Restaurant. He tells me he plans to use the menu Brown developed and add his own comfort-food take to it, "like going to Mom's house, but with a little extra."

But back to Brown. So, Brown, who rang in 2007 by closing Restaurant Levain, is now officially chef for the restaurant Porter & Frye, at the soon-to-open Hotel Ivy, the Midwest's first ultra-prestigious "Luxury Collection by Starwood" hotel (1115 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.333.4489; www.ivympls.com). You know the Ivy, right? It's the Old Britain-looking building, by the Minneapolis Convention Center, that's been under construction forever while they pack it full of prestige. I mean, you may be asking yourself, how prestigious is a Luxury Collection by Starwood Hotel? Boy howdy, we're talking luxury: Sister properties include a Frank Gehry-designed inn in Rioja, resorts in Bali and Santorini, and Vienna's famed Hotel Imperial. You're not familiar with Vienna's famed Hotel Imperial? Well, get a jet already, buddy, it's time to kick it up a notch.

Owner Jeff Laux at Porter & Frye, in the soon-to-be luxurious Hotel Ivy
Sean Smuda
Owner Jeff Laux at Porter & Frye, in the soon-to-be luxurious Hotel Ivy

I spoke for a little while with Alister Glen, the hotel's general manager, who comes to us from Cape Town, South Africa, via Atlanta, and he explained to me that, more or less, this place is going to double, maybe triple whatever we might currently know in this town as luxury: Think the priciest penthouse between Chicago and Seattle, think wood-paneled individually designed suites, think a 17,000-square-foot spa and gym. No, that's not a typo, really, a 17,000-square-foot spa (www.ivyspaclub.com) at which you can have caviar facials, soak in an "anti-stress milk bath," and score what is sure to be the Target executive's new status move of the year: The neck-and-shoulder massage, manicure, and box-lunch combo package. (That particular package comes at a non-member price of $89; but if you're one of those people whose bank balance doesn't joke around, you can join the Ivy Spa as a member. If you do, I think you'll get some really snazzy robes.)

Luxury and prestige aside, what is most interesting to this Minnesota champion is that the emphasis of "Luxury Collection by Starwood" properties is "exceptional indigenous experiences," meaning that they intend to create something unique to each city they're in, and, by extension our city—not something that's trying to be New York or Paris, or, for that matter, Austria.

"We will be bringing in travelers from around the globe and around the country," Glen told me. "And when we do, we want them to have an experience that isn't intimidating or snobby, that is above all warm and comforting, but is also unlike anywhere else, and is unforgettable." So, while the Austrian Luxury Collection Hotel Imperial by Starwood property is all gilt, Baroque plaster, silken tapestries, gold tassels, meringue pastries, and other super-Austrian things, our new Hotel Ivy will be...something else. Something essentially Minnesotan. It's hard to say, but Glen kept emphasizing the words warm and comforting, and didn't say they were going to glue wild rice and rough-hewn pine logs to the walls, so I wait with bated breath. Really, someone is going to take being here seriously? I have waited my whole life for this moment.

"My charge is to make it indigenous," Brown told me from his new office near the Ivy. "So, I've been thinking a lot about what that means. The menu will be at least evocative of what it is to be Minnesotan, what it is to be in Minneapolis in the year 2007. You could say that Porter & Frye will serve, roughly, modern American food, in an iconic way." Brown wouldn't tell me too much more, except that the restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and he is working with some ideas originally developed for the Hotel Ivy by a Minnesota team of super-chefs, namely Stuart Woodman, formerly of Levain and Five, and now of the eagerly anticipated Heidi's, which, as of this writing, was within days of opening (819 W 50th St., 612.354.3512, Minneapolis); Charlie Torgerson, a legendary local restaurant consultant, and Russell Klein, formerly of W.A. Frost, and more on him in a minute.

So, in sum: The most luxurious luxury hotel ever in the history of Minnesota is debuting a new restaurant, gestated by super-chefs, executed by one of the greatest home-grown talents we have, all so we can have a new definition of excellence in local dining, to open in December.

Remember how last winter we wondered whether independent restaurants could survive, when so many deep-pocket restaurants were opening attached to hotels, theaters, museums, and such? Well, get ready for more of the same: Starwood, the hotel group, has five, count 'em, five luxury hotels opening with big-destination restaurants in the metro in the next year: Hotel Ivy; the W at the Foshay (now not scheduled to open till August '08); something called an Aloft Hotel, which seems to be boutiquey and ultra-contemporary, near the Guthrie; a Westin attached to the Galleria in Edina; and, finally, a Sheraton in Woodbury. Is it possible the scorched earth of last winter in Minneapolis was merely, like, one of those ecological prairie-type things where you need the fire so the new seeds can sprout?

If I were a St. Paul booster I'd certainly hope so. Okay, in case you have not been keeping score at home, downtown St. Paul started its year with three restaurants that are no longer with us: Au Rebours, Fhima, and Café Margaux. They all closed, with Au Rebours and Café Margaux's demises particularly taking most people by surprise. So: Is St. Paul dead? Is St. Paul over? Is St. Paul—whoops! Don't finish that thought. St. Paul's back! The Au Rebours space is poised to open in late October as Meritage, and some of the people who begat Town Talk Diner are set to open a new St. Paul restaurant, too. Isn't that so St. Paul? No time for melodrama, it's just nose-to-the-grindstone survival. Okay, here's the lowdown on the new places.

Meritage (rhymes with heritage) is the new spot by chef Russell Klein and his wife Desta Maree Klein (410 St. Peter Street, St. Paul; meritage-stpaul.com). Klein came to Minnesota as a sort of 9/11 refugee, after the restaurant where he was cooking at the time, David Bouley's Danube, closed for several months, as it was close to Ground Zero. Klein spent several months volunteering as a cook for rescue workers, putting the skills he had learned in some of New York's best-regarded restaurants, including La Caravelle, Picholine, and the JUdson Grill, to good work.

Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, long-term volunteer work was found to be incompatible with the hopes and dreams of his landlord, and Klein left his native New York to take over the kitchen at W.A. Frost. He had been planning a new spot with his new wife, a longtime banquet manager for D'Amico Catering, when, as he puts it, "I was unceremoniously dumped from Frost when they realized they could replace me with my sous chef for half the money." Well, once again, Klein's misfortune is our gain: He has now signed a lease for the former Au Rebours space, and plans to open sometime this month.

"We're not going to change too much about the space," Klein told me. "We had our wedding reception here, we love it, so why would we mess with it? Although, when I say that, I realize that one of my biggest fears is that people are going to say it's just Au Rebours with different owners. We are going to accent the brasserie aspect of the space—we found some 12-foot-wide Parisian mirrors at Architectural Antiques that we think will really highlight the decor, not change it."

When I heard "brasserie," I asked in if he'd have a raw bar and sautéed calf's livers, as those are two things I always think of when I want to know whether people mean brasserie, or they just mean a place with burgers and fries with a French name. No raw bar, he told me, they don't have room, but otherwise, it will really be French.

"Somehow French has become a four-letter word in this town," said Klein, "but more and more I'm realizing, I'm not afraid to say it: We're going to be a French restaurant, with seasonal cooking." Expect a raft of little $3 amusements with which to start the meal, such as oxtail strudel. At lunch there will be a range of sandwiches priced under $10, as well as entrees in the $12 to $15 range. And at dinner, Klein plans entrees such as bouillabaisse, seule meunière, blanquette de veau, pike quenelles, and coq au vin, all priced between $18 and $25.

"Of course, we'll have a hamburger, too. We're in downtown St. Paul and we've got to be realistic," says Klein. "We hope to appeal to the meat-and-potatoes people, and the more adventurous ones as well. I also am thinking of serving some of the foods that touch on the heritage I grew up with: chicken soup with matzo balls, potato kugel, that sort of thing. I always hear Italian chefs talking about serving the food their grandmother made them, and I'm not going to do exactly that because my grandmother was a terrible cook, but that sort of food touches a place in my heart, and I think there's some sort of place for it."

But is there a place for a cheese cart? If you are one of the early diners at Meritage, be sure to tell Desta and Russell what you think about cheese carts, as they are opening with one, but have some anxiety about whether that will put people off. "In five years at Frost I learned that people in St. Paul want value, they want to go home full, preferably with a doggie bag for the next day. But I also learned they really appreciate good cheese more than diners in other cities," Klein told me.

"What I don't know is whether a cheese cart will scare people off as being too formal. But I ordered one, so we're trying it. White linen is another unknown, we're going to start with it, but if it puts people off, we'll go to the plain mahogany tabletop." One thing Klein is not nervous about is the future of downtown St. Paul: "I think all this talk about how downtown St. Paul is a dead zone is just ridiculous," he told me. "You go into Pazzaluna, the St. Paul Grill, Kincaid's—they're jam-packed."

Tim Niver, one of the founders of the Town Talk Diner, also thinks talk of doom in St. Paul is silly: To prove it, he's planning on opening a steak-centered restaurant in the former Pop's space up by Metropolitan State University on the hill overlooking downtown St. Paul. Name? The Strip Club.

If you are wondering what happened to Niver's last planned spot, the East Lake Pasta Shop, please know that the pasta shop is in the crowded graveyard of restaurant dreams. "Yeah, that was a case of not all the money being there in time, and other people stepping in and scooping up the space," he told me. "But you know, we're trying to keep it freaking positive. It's the same thing with the Strip Club, until it's done it's not done, but how can I not talk about it? In my heart, it's happening."

So, the restaurant in his heart "will have a dark butcher-shop kind of feel to it, and, you know, we're not going to pretend to be Manny's, we're not going to have $40 steaks on the menu, but we will have steaks, and lots of braised meats and down-home foods." Basically, Niver told me, just as the Town Talk took the classic American diner and injected a little fine cuisine into the mix, so will they take the idea of the steakhouse and take the price point down a bit by emphasizing home-cooking comfort foods. Niver also has faith in St. Paul, even east St. Paul: "It's a neighborhood in transition, just like people said [the area around the] Town Talk Diner was. It's amazing what you find when you give people a reason to come out of their houses."

If that's not enough remarkable new restaurants for you, I've got one more, one that should be open by the time you read this: Nick and Eddie (1612 Harmon Place, Minneapolis; www.nickandeddie.net).

Now, the reason Nick and Eddie is worth looking forward to is that it is helmed by two local powerhouses: The first is Steve Vranian, an endlessly credentialed California-cuisine chef who moved here 10 years ago after a spell spent running the Singapore branch of the Jeremiah Tower restaurant Stars. I was first thrilled by Vranian's cooking when he was working at the California Café almost 10 years ago, and have been waiting for him to open his own place ever since. Finally, the day is here!

He is opening Nick and Eddie with Jessica Anderson and her husband Doug Anderson—Jessica, the legendary pastry chef who baked at Lucia's for years, and then rocked the whole city with her breads and pastry at the original Bakery on Grand. To the despair of many, Jessica stepped back from baking, and then she and her husband left Bakery on Grand, but it looks like she will be baking in all her glory at Nick and Eddie. (Remember her butterscotch pudding? With its rich, creamy, toffee innocence? I loved that stuff.) Terry Chance, the designer and builder who made the iconic former Au Rebours space in conjunction with Doug Anderson, has done the design here, and reportedly the space is beautiful.

Chef Vranian, who has been dealing with opening delays since June, told me he would rather let his food speak for itself than talk about it, but he did say it will be slightly California (ingredient-driven with deceptively simple preparations) and slightly New York (strongly spiced meats) with some classic French technique (I'm going to read that as duck fat).

"People keep telling us, you have to have a signature dish," Vranian told me. "You know what? Your customer decides what your signature dish is, five years down the line, not you." Nick and Eddie will open as dinner-only, then expand to serving lunch and brunch, and, if customers demand it, even late-night food. Do you feel a desire to hang out at Loring Park again? The general goal of Nick and Eddie is to bring a sense of community back to Loring Park, which many people feel was lost once the old Loring Café closed. Is the old rock, rebel, and creative-job community out there, waiting for something to come back? We'll see.

If there's one thing this month has taught me, it's that this restaurant community we live in is, above all, surprising. Surprising like lightning!

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