Justin Grecco creates a mini food dynasty

Bellanotte's former chef runs Roman Anthony's, Grecco's, and Chef In A Box

Take a seat next to the open kitchen and you'll have a view of a vintage, French-style wall clock, an overbearing silk flower arrangement, an African mask, a statue of Buddha, and a bas-relief profile of a woman's face above a fireplace. There's also a mock tin ceiling, a large mirror, and several still-life paintings of fruit. Peeking into the adjacent dining room, you'll catch a glimpse of exposed brick, landscape paintings, art deco light fixtures, and a wood-beam wall with a wagon wheel embedded in it. In polite company, you'd call the decorating style eclectic, but garish is perhaps more descriptive. It looks like a canteen for House on the Rock.

One Wednesday evening, around 6 p.m., the restaurant was already half full and only a few seats remained in the back room, where two cooks and a dishwasher worked in a space barely larger than a suburban home kitchen. (Grecco's fiancée, Deanna DeYoung, is the restaurant's chef de cuisine, while Grecco now spends most of his time at Roman Anthony's.)

The restaurant's culinary process is very transparent—literally, there's a glass cooler containing everything from bubbled pods of fava beans and a bowl of truffles to pale pink tomatoes and a quart of Sysco orange juice. (Here's hoping those tomatoes have now been replaced by the 20 different heirlooms Grecco and crew planted on a small acreage in nearby Maiden Rock.) You'll sit close enough to the action that, if one of the cooks were to, say, break out in falsetto, you'd be able to identify the chorus of "What's Love Got to Do with It."

New- and old-school Italian: the lobster gnocchi at Roman Anthony's
Kris Drake for City Pages
New- and old-school Italian: the lobster gnocchi at Roman Anthony's

Location Info

Map

Grecco's on the Saint Croix

115 N. Washington St.
St. Croix Falls, MN 54024

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Wisconsin

Details

Chef in a Box
www.greccos.com
meals for two cost $38-$64,
plus shipping

Grecco's on the St. Croix
115 N. Washington St., St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin
715.483.5003; www.greccos.com
appetizers $6-$11; entrées $19-$29

Roman Anthony's Italian Restaurant
Birch Lake Square Mall, 1350 E. Highway 96, White Bear Lake
651.414.9613; www.romananthhonys.com
appetizers $7-$15; entrées $10-$31

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The menu at Grecco's is more ambitious than you'd expect for a small town whose Main Street can be walked from one end to the other in maybe three minutes flat. Several of the dishes come from a cultural melting pot as eclectic as the decor, including rabbit confit with Israeli cous cous and a lavender-honey glace, or scallops sprinkled with paprika and plated in a coconut and passion fruit butter sauce with lemon-basil orzo.

If you can't decide what to order, the $35 tasting menu should both simplify your life and provide good value. The night I ordered it, I was served two small entrée courses, sandwiched between a salad and strawberry shortcake. The tenderloin medallion with mashed potatoes and truffle was straightforward but nicely executed; the sockeye salmon with tomato saffron, beurre blanc, and salsa seemed a little over the top at first, but had a surprising synergy.

Grecco's doesn't have the same fine-dining appeal for Twin Citians as, say, La Belle Vie did during the Stillwater years, but it's certainly the most interesting place to dine in the area. The restaurant's proximity to the St. Croix River—the deck offers a lovely overlook—tends to draw a shorts-wearing, boat-driving clientele. But it also attracts performers and patrons of the town's Festival Theater, including two thespians who capped their meals off with double espressos and then headed to work.

WHAT IF YOU WANT TO SAMPLE JUSTIN GRECCO'S FOOD but don't want to make the trek to White Bear Lake or St. Croix Falls? Bring Grecco to your kitchen, via an instructional DVD that comes with Chef in a Box, alongside all the prepped ingredients for a gourmet dinner for two packaged in plastic and overnighted on ice.

Grecco's website offers five Chef in a Box meal options. I bypassed the Amish chicken and filet mignon for lobster gnocchi with spinach, a dish that I'd previously enjoyed in the restaurant. The next day, $52 plus shipping later, the ingredients arrived in the state they'd be found on the restaurant's line—just one order away from dinner.

Some of the Chef in a Box meals involve actually cooking—searing raw meat, for example—but the lobster gnocchi required only combining and heating. Grecco's instructional video was easy to follow, and, weirdly, since nothing more complicated than warming the ingredients takes place, Grecco made the process feel like actual learning and "cooking." (I think it's the part where he passes on a tip about adding the beurre blanc to the warmed cream slowly, so as not to cause the sauce to "break," or separate.)

One of the most interesting things about Chef in a Box is the wake-up call about the depth of indulgence of many restaurant dishes. The sauce for the lobster gnocchi contained four ounces of heavy cream and six ounces of beurre blanc, which is mostly butter, per serving. Holy heart attack, Batman! (These portions were awfully generous; my kit could have served three, or even four people with smaller appetites.)

In any case, in about 10 minutes I had a dish that was tasty—the gnocchi were tender, the lobster's claw meat briny and sweet, the cream sauce properly balanced with acidity—though not quite as good as I remembered from the restaurant. As you might expect, the virtual Grecco doesn't quite keep pace with the real one.

Chef in a Box isn't for everyone. A capable cook could pull off the same meal with roughly $20 worth of ingredients. But if your cooking skills extend to toasting a Pop Tart, or if you don't have easy access to ingredients such as lobster and lamb, or if you don't want to spring for a whole bottle of truffle oil that you'll probably never use again, or if you don't want to spend an hour boiling potatoes and hand-rolling gnocchi, then Chef in a Box might make sense. You'll have a gourmet dinner for two with nearly the speed and ease of opening a can and microwaving its contents.

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