"This is what you're going to start to see when you talk about that bubble bursting."
A local name chef told me this when I relayed a recent dining experience at the Salt Cellar, St. Paul's newest big-time, big-bank-account, swaggering steakhouse. The bubble he's referring to is the 100 or so restaurants that opened last year locally, just in time for a major deflation of good culinary talent in our local pro kitchens.
You see, it doesn't matter how good a chef is, he alone is just one man in charge of the switches at Valley Fair. The Corkscrew — it's an integral part of delighting the kids, it is! But what happens if the cotton candy guy can't get the floss to stay on the cones, and the ring toss guy just smashes all the bottles, and the ice cream man decides to kick back and smoke a pack of menthols, and the admission lady can't get the cash register to work so she just turns you away?
It takes a small army, almost a literal one (it's why French kitchens operate under the military-inspired "brigade" systems), to run a high-end restaurant, especially one that purports to re-invent the classic steakhouse for the modern palate, one where the wine list arrives not on mere paper but on the glowing screens of iPads, where the open kitchen exposes the inner workings of staff like so many dancers in The Nutcracker, where the heft of the furniture is as self-important as a rapper at the Grammys.
To say it is high-profile and hotly anticipated is not really doing the situation justice. There were serious media and public relations campaigns and some high-profile consulting by high-profile chef Lenny Russo. The main man in charge, Alan Bergo, the Forager Chef, is a young and promising talent with a blog to make Martha Stewart seethe with envy: He forages, he cooks, he writes, he shoots all the pictures himself (you'll see his handiwork in a couple of upcoming local cookbooks, including one forthcoming from Heartland, Russo's highly regarded restaurant where Bergo cut his chops for the past half-decade).
All of this is to say: What's happening here is confounding. It was supposed to be good. Really good.
If you've ever been on the business end of a restaurant going down in flames (as I have), you know it's a horrific feeling. Once the fat lady gets dropped on one end of the teeter totter, there's really no righting it. It's over. She's sung. You try, because you must, but it's not until the throngs begin to thin that you can mentally sage the air, thick with discontent and shame.
Ways to tell when a restaurant is understaffed: You wait long minutes to even be greeted. A general crackle of frenzy, like an exposed nerve. Visible beads of sweat forming on brows. Faces absent of smiles. Grasp of the menu language lost: The basic difference between a sirloin and a Kansas City Strip? "One has a bone and one doesn't." Suited managers circling the premises like packs of nervous, well-dressed hens, clueless as to which fire to put out first.
You, yourself begin to sweat as dishes begin to appear.
A Green Goddess Salad was nothing more, and nothing less, than a tangle of nicely mixed lettuces and some batons of watermelon radish for color. We dug around the plate for the usually delectable dressing that should be a blast of springtime with tarragon and green onion made bright with citrus and a little anchovy funk. Instead, it tasted of creamy air. Is that possible? It is at Salt Cellar.
One expects pork belly to be salty, but not so salty that one must sop up the surrounding utterly flavorless sauce gribiche to balance things. It saddened us to admit that we finally met a bacon we did not like.
We really wanted to like a Cream of Bolete (a meaty mushroom varietal) soup, but its boring two-dimensional notes of shroom and salt made that impossible. No shallot, no cognac, no garlic, no herb, no careful layers of flavor — just one low note of earth and one high of sodium. It was left mostly untouched. We can say similar things about a beef Bourguignon en croute that had none of the deep, silky, winey complexity that characterizes a soul-satisfying stew in the depths of winter. Instead, it was dry and over-braised, under-seasoned and lying flatly upon a square of puff pastry with an odd upper layer of dry salt. A manager noticed and removed it from the bill.
Certified Piedmontese beef, which Salt Cellar is serving for all of its steaks and butchering in-house, is a singularly highfalutin' product difficult to find outside of Italy. It is prized for its lean tenderness and therefore its nutritional value. But a 10-ounce sirloin ($25) arrived so rare on the inside, it jiggled. When sent back to be cooked properly to medium rare, it came back overdone on the outside. We watched as meat from other tables went back into the kitchen.
We liked some stuff. The Caesar salad and bananas Foster are both solid iterations of the classic dishes, the former nicely dressed with raw egg, Grana Padano, Pecorino, lemon, boquerones, and a local safflower oil. The latter is the same one you know and probably like fine if you do: a flambé of brown sugar, butter, liqueur, knobs of banana, and a big scoop of ice cream served prettily in a sugar tuile. That said, both could do without the table-side frippery and its attendant pricetag: $20 for the salad (serves two) and $24 for the dessert (also for two). Sometimes you just want a salad and your date does not, and you don't want to share and you don't want to watch a guy crack an egg into a bowl and you don't want to spend $44 on salad and dessert alone.
Beef fat pomme frites fried in Piedmontese beef tallow are one of the top three French fries in town, right after Tilia and Lake & Irving.
A dessert of parsnip cake was under-baked and bathed in a truly strange basil sauce; a vanilla bavarois had a well-executed vanilla bean-flecked pot de creme, but the attending pastry base tasted stale. We devoured the single dehydrated blood orange section that acted as garnish. It was the most memorable part of our meal along with a thimble-sized portion of wild mushrooms that come as accompaniment to the steaks.
Another visit was less frenzied on a quiet Sunday night, and we had an attentive barman almost completely to ourselves. While the experience was pleasant, we'll be damning with faint praise.
The best part of the meal was the Brussels sprouts, bright green as gumballs and nicely caramelized, served with an addictive choron sauce (bearnaise with tomato) much more useful than the completely off-balance and tragic house-made ketchup and steak sauces. But it was the first time in memory where it was necessary to salt a burger — the patty was completely devoid of seasoning, which is too bad because it was otherwise pleasant, on a pretzel bun with good white cheddar and bacon fat onions. A Ritz Old Fashioned was nicely done.
While the $45 16-ounce Kansas City Strip (with bone!) was cooked properly to temp this time, there was something about the experience that lacked the unctuous satisfaction of tucking into, say, a good ribeye. This steak was lean to the point of chewiness, with no marbling, just lots and lots of masticating. The lack of fat might have something to do with the cooking issues — less fat means a less forgiving cut, and less leeway for screw-ups.
After plunking down another C-note plus gratuity, we made our way back to the car and gazed with envy through the window of the adjacent mid-priced Red Cow burger joint. There were so many would-be diners they threatened to burst out of the vestibule.
Bursting. If these are the first sounds of a bubble going pop, we're betting there's one thing that won't go with it: value. You can't dress it up with embellishments and loop-de-loops. Good food done well is all in the guts — like the know-how of a battle-scarred general, the thorough seasoning of a burger patty, and a steady hand at the switches.
Send your story tips to Hot Dish.