Hell's Kitchen's new digs rouse damn-near demonic desires for brunch
On any given Sunday, as the faithful gather at their churches to sing, praise, and pray, another kind of worshiper lines up on the stairway to Hell. It's a diverse group: guys in Vikings jerseys, suburban women clutching shopping bags, an elderly woman leaning against the wall as though it might become her final resting place if she isn't seated soon. The hostess, padding about in slippers and a slinky, low-cut bathrobe, leads guests to their tables. But just as quickly, new guests fill the gap. The demand for Hell seems insatiable.
"Why people would wait two hours for brunch boggles my mind," Hell's Kitchen chef/co-owner Mitch Omer says of the lines at his restaurant. "I wouldn't wait two hours to meet the pope." But many people find Omer's breakfasts divine. In their recent "Roadfood" column for Gourmet magazine, Jane and Michael Stern waxed so rapturously about the "sumptuous caramel" and "nutmeat luxury" of Omer's pecan rolls that I wondered if the doughy sweets had blocked the blood flow to their brains.
This past fall, Omer and his fellow chef-owner, Steve Meyer, moved Hell's Kitchen from a 120-seat space on the fringes of downtown Minneapolis (between a parking lot and a sleepy appliance store) into a vast, subterranean lair that was formerly the home of Rossi's steak house and jazz club. They added red and black accents to the dark, brick-lined space and painted over some of the beautiful cherry wood trim. "We took a perfectly good steak house and ruined it," Omer admits. The new space would command considerably more capital—nearly three times the labor and three times the rent. Yet, Omer says, they couldn't resist. "We liked the idea of Hell being underground."
The main dining room makes a fine gallery for Omer's collection of creepy Ralph Steadman illustrations. But its stage, when not being used for Sunday gospel performances, looks more like backstage, with its collection of music stands, cords, amps, and items that look like leftover theatrical props—a red piano, a faux-concrete angel, and an ersatz Christmas tree. The back dining area, or fireplace room, is a lighter, more formal space that feels a bit like a supper-club party room. Between the two main dining areas, more guests are stashed in a cozy pub with dark leather booths and devilish Gary Larson cartoons on the walls.
The restaurant's move from Tenth Street to Ninth underscores the realtors' mantra: location, location, location. "The irony is that we only moved one block away and now all of a sudden I feel like we're downtown," Omer says. The new space seems far more accessible, as it's connected to both the skyway system and a parking garage. With all the lights on the neighboring stores, the foot traffic headed toward Nicollet Mall, and the glowing Hell's Kitchen marquee, the block has started to look like it belongs in a major cosmopolitan city. "Now we're playing in the big leagues," Omer says.
Omer and Meyer have been cooking together for about 25 years ("That's longer than Steve's been married," Omer points out) at Pracna on Main, the Lowell Inn, and the Pickled Parrot, among others. But Hell's Kitchen—where stuffed ravens perch in tree limbs and the brunch shift wears pajamas—has the most personality. (One morning my server confided that she'd picked up her sock-monkey sleepwear at Savers and that a customer once offered to buy them off her back for $100.) A sign behind a row of tables near the kitchen door acknowledges that they're the worst seats in the house with the restaurant's signature cheeky humor. The seats are bad, the sign explains, for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that "You have no privacy because everyone else is reading this." In return for putting up with the seats, guests are treated to a free caramel roll.
About those rolls...I don't know that I'd sell my soul to the devil in exchange for the recipe, but they are pretty damned good. The rolls' concentric rings are thinner than most, for a better ratio of caramel to dough—because, really, who eats a caramel roll for the bread? They're a great example of Hell's Kitchen's ability to put a chef's touch on breakfast foods. And by that I don't mean making breakfast look like dinner, with multiple courses, fancy platings, and fussy garnishes. I mean taking familiar breakfast foods, like pecan-caramel rolls, and making tweaks that grandma never considered, like roasting the nuts, or salting the caramel to turbo-charge its sweetness.
Hell's serves all your basic pancakes, French toast, and Benedicts, but its most outstanding items are those designed to take the boredom out of breakfast. In several cases, the dishes' success comes from pairing sweet flavors with a hint of sour, salty, or savory. The lemon ricotta hotcakes are as light as angel wings and seem to melt as soon as they're in your mouth. But skip the syrup or you'll mask the brassiness of the tart, bitter zest. The sausage bread, priced $3.25 for a side, is one of Omer's most intriguing concoctions—it's not every chef who would toss bison sausage in a sweet batter bread. The thick-cut slices have the same moistness as zucchini or banana bread, but the dark, wild notes of spiced meat and black coffee lend a subtle edge to black currants and walnuts. Another of Omer's originals, the Mahnomin porridge, has attracted lots of accolades. While I like the idea of the milky-sweet slurry (it's made with hand-parched Ojibwe wild rice, hazelnuts, blueberries, cranberries, and maple syrup), I find it overly sweet and excessively creamy.
At lunch, Hell's Kitchen serves the usual Reubens and French dips alongside a few less typical meat-and-bread pairings. A ham-and-cheese sandwich layers the slow-roasted meat, Swiss, and Fontina with slices of poached pear—then knits the flavors together with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. Another innovation, the walleye BLT, combines two great sandwiches into one. It's not cheap—at $14.95, it's one of the priciest sandwiches in town—but it offers the best of both worlds, partnering a delicate, Parmesan-crusted fillet with thick slices of bacon, crunchy lettuce, and juicy tomato.
Hell's Kitchen serves several burgers, all made with bison from a family-run Wisconsin ranch. "I'm mad for bison," Omer says. "You cook it right and it's really better than beef." The burger has a denser texture and bolder flavor than ground beef, and while Omer touts bison as being leaner than skinless chicken, the burgers seem suspiciously juicy. Turns out the ground meat is mixed with butter.
When it moved to its new location, Hell's Kitchen added dinner service, supplementing its burgers, sandwiches, and salads with ribs, steaks, seafood, and pasta. Some of the dinner dishes seemed right at home. The gooey, garlicky mac and cheese was appropriately indulgent. The ribs—barbecue with chutzpah—were slathered with a spicy jam.
Others, though, seemed out of place. As a nod to Rossi's, Hell's serves strip steaks and rib eyes, but do they really want to compete with Ruth's Chris and Manny's? I picked the shrimp Lisabeth over the scallop-stuffed salmon and the lobster tacos per my waiter's recommendation: "It's a weird combination, but it works," he said. Maybe for his palate, but not mine. The plump, butter-sautéed shrimp might have been better served simply, on their bed of homemade spinach linguine. Instead, a woodsy curry sauce left an unpleasant, bitter tang that homemade chutney and shaved coconut were unable to salvage. I scavenged bites of my companions' sandwiches and burgers while my plate of curry-soaked noodles grew cold. Hell hath no fury like a restaurant critic gone hungry.
Though some of the more luxurious dishes, like the lobster-topped scrambled eggs, were better than I expected, I can't see ordering them at a place like Hell's Kitchen if I weren't dining as a reviewer. I think Hell's does best when it stays between the casual-food bounds, particularly now that it's become more accessible to a large pool of office workers looking for a quick but interesting lunch. Business at the restaurant's takeout window is growing, and they'll be adding delivery service any day now, which sounds like a helluva good idea to me.
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