Butcher & the Boar makes impressive debut
Though it wasnt exactly planned this way, it seemed both auspicious and appropriate to visit Butcher and the Boar, in the heart of Minneapolis's Harmon District, the same week that The Hunger Games opened in theaters. Allow me to elaborate.
Consider the appetite of Suzanne Collins's ravenous fans. They devoured her disturbing allegorical trilogy as if it were grilled meat, and when they were done reading, rereading, and analyzing every last word, all that was left was to await the inevitable: a big-screen adaptation. Similarly, devotees of executive chef Jack Riebel's eclectic cooking have spent years following the trail of his buttery cornbread crumbs from Goodfellows to La Belle Vie (when it was still in Stillwater) to the Dakota, eagerly awaiting the inevitable: the opening of his very own restaurant. So both ventures were hotly anticipated and had established legions of fans, but here's the big difference (and maybe for some a big spoiler): Only one lived up to the hype.
The drumroll leading up to the opening of Butcher and the Boar was long and drawn-out, but the food is better for it. Riebel's original concept was for a downtown haunt that had plenty of beers on tap and would serve a handful of protein-rich snacks. The word was that his sausages would likely be an upscale version (they're served a footlong on a bun specially made for the restaurant by Salty Tart's Michelle Gayer), but from that description it sounds not unlike the experience one could have at Target Field. As plans further evolved, it was decided that the restaurant would focus on one blessed animal: the pig, specifically the wild boar. Yes, most all the dishes here that include pork in some wonderful incarnation actually use the bolder-tasting, but improbably not tougher, ancestor of the domesticated pig. In a sort of parallel move, the drink menu revolves almost exclusively around bourbon, including a toasty and lively single-barreled version made exclusively for Butcher and the Boar by Knob Creek. Showcasing the caramel-colored, badge-of-honor booze is not only a wise choice in terms of how it pairs with their smoky, Southern-tinged food, its also an homage to Riebel's grandmother, who was very partial to Wild Turkey 101.
But these tidbits are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lore of Butcher and the Boar. The whole place is a veritable treasure hunt, starting with the floor, which is made up of roughly $1,200 worth of literal pocket change, nearly all pennies, which makes it look either like a century-old burnished copper floor or a sophomoric practical joke. Rumor has it there are a few dimes hidden throughout, and their secret placement is the kind of trivial knowledge that might come in handy during a downtown scavenger hunt. The always-bustling bar has a distinctly masculine feel, managing to be chic but not chichi. You can eat here for a perfect on-the-fly, pre-theater dinner and return for late-night snacks and cocktails, especially the done-right whiskey sour, shaken with an egg white, or the Bourbon Shake Up with Old Grandad Bonded, with a bit of simple syrup and no less than a whole muddled lemon in a lowball glass.
Gaze through the panes of glass that divide the bar side from the larger dining room and you might see Riebel, donning a paper butcher's cap and giving mini-tours around the backyard (patio coming soon) smoker. Over the open grill a ruddy-faced line cook is squinting and expertly moving steaks from direct to indirect heat as smoke wafts up and singes what's left of his eyebrows. As he fans the flames, sparks fly, and I'm sure the people at the table closest to him are glad they aren't wearing synthetic hair. But as the food starts to arrive at the table, the sparks really start to fly. The charcuterie in the Butcher section of the menu is the perfect beginning to a meal here, so long as a little offal doesnt scare you. The turkey liver braunschweiger is dark, rich, wild-tasting, and has the exact texture of butter — delicious meat butter. House-made sausages with carefully chosen accompaniments come marching out like a tubesteak parade. Choices include lighter options like the wild rice and walleye with a fish-cake-like texture and the comforting flavors of an authentic Minnesota cabin dinner, or the fully vegetarian chorizo made with pinto beans and piquant Mexican flavors, or the oozy, gooey, full-fat Berkshire pork and cheddar, which is perfectly offset by the sweet, hard-cider-based sauce. Pardon the cliché, but I was in hog heaven.
Salads here are predictably substantial. There's a gem lettuce salad with crispy onions, bell peppers, and a bright vinaigrette that tasted almost of apple pie filling and a bit of the seedy flavor of mustard. The mixed greens salad with hefty chunks of bacon, cornbread croutons, and spicy radishes sliced as thin as butterfly wings would convert any diner who refers to lettuce as rabbit food. Meat and fish plates, as with all the dishes on the menu, are meant to be shared and are portioned that way. A mile-high double-cut pork chop is encased in a crackling layer of delectable fat that's been infused with all the flavor of a southern dessert: pecans, maple, blueberry, and of course butter. The decadent, creamy lobster grilled cheese sandwich is now on my list of the Cities' best sandwiches. Steaks are also given proper attention, and the flatiron, though smaller and thinner than other cuts on the menu, remained tender and juicy and carried the great flavor of the grill with it.
Speaking of steak, the meaty, cedar-planked mushrooms you can order as an à la carte side were a revelation. I don't usually think of mushrooms as juicy, but these were. Something about smoking them leaves the surface layer of the fungi smooth and dry, but one bite releases the meaty mushrooms' moisture, producing a near-steak experience. Other highlights in the sides section include puffy, Fulton beer-battered fries from potatoes soaked in milk before getting battered and fried; super-rich smothered greens with cream, hunks of smoky bacon, and the surprising burn of Fresno peppers; and a whole, skin-on, charred sweet potato, slathered in an umami-rich compound butter.
Haven't had your fill? Desserts are decent. The smoked s'mores are both rustic and whimsical, served on the signature B&B-branded cedar plank they use to prepare a handful of other dishes on the menu. The marshmallows were gooey enough to scoop but solid enough to use a cinnamon-sugar chip to slice down the center, revealing a pea-sized glob of very dark, truffle-like chocolate. The grasshopper pie is a refined take on the Mad Men-era classic, but the crust-to-filling ratio was a bit off. Go for the banana pudding with ginger snap crumbs, topped with lightly broiled meringue. It's sticky, retro, and perfect for sharing.
Perhaps it's too soon to say what the lasting contribution of Butcher and the Boar will be to the downtown restaurant landscape, but what it has accomplished so far is impressive. Its outdoor smoker alone has done the impossible; it's made this part of downtown smell so fantastic you'll want to hang around, ambling down Hennepin just a little slower than when you arrived, your belly rich with wild boar, bourbon, and lingering satisfaction.
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