RED STAG SUPPER CLUB
509 First Ave. NE, Minneapolis
It's hard to miss northeast Minneapolis's new Red Stag Supper Club: A huge cast-aluminum sculpture of, yes, a red stag hangs from the corner of the building, as if it's guarding the place. It adds a welcoming touch to a city block that was rather desolate in recent times, despite its close proximity to bustling East Hennepin Avenue. Situated near the building that once housed the late, lamented-by-some Bank's discount store, the restaurant is often packed with attractive hipsters, who are flocking to both a known commodity and an earth-friendly one.
Proprietor Kim Bartmann also owns two popular Uptown spots, the comfy and eclectic Bryant-Lake Bowl and the sexy Barbette, and she's working on opening a fourth, in the former Joe's Chicken Shack space off Nicollet on 26th Street. Bartmann's known for working with interesting chefs who aren't afraid to experiment but know a classic when they see one, and for promoting the use of local and organic products and sustainable practices. With her newest eatery, open since November, she takes the environmental consciousness a step further: The Red Stag is Minnesota's first LEED-certified restaurant. The acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a designation conferred by the U.S. Green Building Council. In other words, Al Gore would approve. Fortunately, those facts aren't pushed on diners—a supper club should be fun, not educational.
And that convivial, old-school supper-club aura has not been lost here. Chatty groups filling the bar and tables drown out the background music, at least until the late-night entertainment starts. One red wall sets off the others of exposed brick. The long, wood bar, behind which hang large, black-accented mirrors, takes center stage in the room, but the old piano across from it is prominent as well. The open kitchen along the back of the restaurant adds a modern feel, and even though it's from the '60s, so does a framed, Warhol-inspired paper dress featuring a Campbell's soup-can print. The room's environmentally friendly touches are mostly subtle, noticeable only if you're paying attention: Wooden tabletops are made from discarded doors, and that beautiful candlelight flickering from within an old-fashioned colored-glass holder on your table is actually an LED bulb. Green efforts are perhaps more evident in the restroom, where the hand dryer on the attractive black- and mirror-tiled wall looks space-age, and has indeed achieved a feat of modern science: It actually works.
WHILE THE LEED certification covers the building and energy use, the food at the Red Stag is also designed with the earth in mind. Head chef Bill Baskin recently cooked at Cosmos and has a résumé full of sustainable-food bona fides. "He really cares about local products," Bartmann says. "Some people pay lip service to it, but he's very committed." He's visited all of the farms that supply the restaurant, she adds. Baskin's winter menu is hearty enough to lure souls out even in our recent frigid weather: Squash appears in a few different guises, and there's even a stroganoff entrée.
Diners might want to begin with the small plates menu, which includes smelt fries served with Vidalia onion tartar sauce, a grilled flatbread with different toppings daily (Gruyère and asparagus on one visit), and several salads. There's a simple house salad with greens and beets, a Waldorf with the expected apples and walnuts plus shiitake mushrooms, and a chop salad ($7; $12 for a large portion) that was a pleasing, fresh combination of greens, frisée, diced onion, pomegranate seeds, Gruyère shavings, tiny squares of ham hock, and citrus, all topped with puffed wild rice, which added a contrasting nutty, slightly burnt flavor.
Meat aficionados should try the butcher plate ($15). Presented appropriately on a wood slab, it contains a "pig in a blanket," a sweet, flavorful pork sausage partially wrapped in puff pastry; a Scotch egg (a thin layer of sausage and breading covers a hard-boiled egg, all deep-fried); and a ramekin of potted duck: tender, spreadable bits of meat encased in its own creamy fat, served with toast points.
French fries ($5), flavored with parsley and garlic, are triple-cooked, creating thick yet very crispy, ultra-caramelized outer edges, with the soft potato on the inside rendered almost creamy. They're giant-sized and served with a smoky, house-made ketchup.
A side of macaroni and cheese gussied up with truffle oil and lobster ($8) was rich and filling. It was pleasingly bland and comforting, as mac and cheese should be, but the gourmet additions didn't liven up the flavor as much as I'd hoped. Also, the cheese sauce was a bit thin and failed to cling to the noodles, a problem that disappeared upon reheating later—the rare dish improved by the microwave. (To-go containers are of thin but sturdy, presumably easily biodegradable cardboard; no Styrofoam here.)
At dinner one evening, an appetizer special of light yet meaty lobster cakes was accompanied by a tasty, salty side of black-eyed peas with ham hocks and onions. The duck entrée ($19) was a generous portion of the fatty, succulent meat, cooked to a medium-rare that retained the juices wonderfully. It was served with a house-made ravioli stuffed with sweet, nutmeg-touched butternut squash, all atop a bed of wilted arugula and fat, sweet golden raisins. The combination tasted like a bounteous harvest.
Star Prairie Farms Trout ($20), gently fried and served with head and tail intact but bones removed, was light but satisfying, and the bitter, tangy turnip greens nicely complemented the sweeter pumpkin purée that accompanied the fish. A side order of skewered, roasted oyster mushrooms ($5) was barely seasoned, if at all, resulting in a strong, earthy flavor.
Whether a green-friendly, sustainable menu should include veal I'll leave for others to argue. I can tell you that here it's delicious. Three different preparations of the flavorful meat, along with some carrots and onions, form the veal "casserole" ($20). Breaded, deep-fried, super-moist chunks tasted like something that should be available at the state fair—but much too good to survive the large-scale transformation. Small, almost melt-in-your-mouth bits of braised veal floated in savory broth; and a steak-like cut of the meat was nicely charred on the outside, tender within.
Speaking of steaks, they're available in several portion sizes. A six-ounce flatiron ($19) was served with a mellow potato purée, roasted whole small white onions, and broccoli rabe: a perfect meat-and-potatoes meal, and probably the closest thing on the menu to what you'd have found in supper clubs of old (though there's also a fish fry every Friday). Bartmann has fond memories of such places, and while the concept here is so updated it comes close to being lost, touches like her old family photos on the walls help the down-home feel shine through the trendiness. Of course, most of the changes, especially on the menu, are welcome: No one misses iceberg-lettuce salads, dried-out baked potatoes, or overdone meat.
A brownie dessert one night was a warm, super-gooey concoction held together by phyllo, extra sweet and rich but with a slight hint of cayenne pepper. The accompanying homemade chocolate ice cream was a perfect foil; the ganache-like chocolate sauce over the whole thing was almost, but not quite, too much. Dessert selections change frequently; they weren't printed on a menu on any of the days I visited.
Specialty drinks run toward the old-fashioned—that's one that they have on the list, anyway, along with a Manhattan and a brandy Alexander, so your highball can accurately replicate the old supper-club experience. But, as expected, there is modernity at the bar, too: A delectable concoction called a Dark and Stormy was made with Meyer's rum, ginger beer, and lime. Fun cocktails can also be found at brunch; in addition to mimosas and bloody Marys, there's "Mom's chocolate milk"—with Bailey's and Kahlua. Brunch menu offerings include smoked trout, flaxseed waffles, a scramble with ever-changing ingredients, and perfectly cooked, very thinly cut hash browns. There's a scrumptious lobster- and egg-salad sandwich ($10), topped with sprouts and avocado (also found on the lunch menu, which is largely drawn from the dinner menu). Brioche French toast stuffed with peach preserves and soft cheese ($9), served with warm maple syrup, made a lovely brunch dessert.
The Red Stag really shines at night, though. This is still a supper club, after all, and the large yet cozy room is more alluring when it's dark outside. It may not be the supper club of bygone days, when multiple generations of families settled in at group tables for the night (though that's sure to happen once in a while), but the Red Stag is at least as inviting. The bar is open till 2:00 every night, and around 11:00 p.m. or so, past the primetime for dinner conversation, a DJ (Fridays and Saturdays) or a small combo (Tuesdays) might set up in front of the old-time piano and provide a reason for people to linger a little longer. Why go home when it's so comfy here?
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