Justin Grecco creates a mini food dynasty
Next time you hear a waiter say, "If you want to, go all caveman on the head," I suggest you heed his advice. That's how I ended up with my lips pursed around a sardine's eye socket, sucking. The fish's eyeball resisted for a second, then dislodged, and I felt something like a small tapioca pearl roll across my tongue. The piscine peeper was chewy and contained a hard bit, like a kiwi seed. I swallowed it as fast as I could.
The second-best bit of advice I heard that night at Roman Anthony's in White Bear Lake was offered to a table of four middle-aged women seated to my right. "Have another bottle of Riesling," their server advised. Relaxed inhibitions, loosened tongues, and eavesdropping offered insight into the plight of the suburban wife. "I don't actually want him to sacrifice for me," one woman lamented. "I just want him to want to sacrifice for me."
The new Roman Anthony's is owned and operated by chef Justin Grecco, who opened Bellanotte and spent several years at the Afton House Inn. It's Grecco's second restaurant, named after his young son and tucked into a nondescript strip mall. (The large parking lot tends to empty in the evenings; one night I pulled in to find a group of unathletic-looking 40-somethings inexplicably running sprints.)
The restaurant has a vintage Italian-American look. It's dimly lit, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and tapered candles jammed in wine bottles dripping white waxcicles. While my friends and I checked in with the hostess, a waiter pushed a Caesar salad cart past us, setting off a chain reaction of orders from half the parties in the area. Within half an hour, diners of all sorts—old guys, dates, and parents who permitted their young son to wear a Hooter's baseball cap at the dinner table—were crunching on croutons and romaine.
"You don't mind if I take off my jacket, do you?" our server asked, as he stripped down to a black dress shirt. He stretched his arms and rolled his neck, as if conducting an athletic warm-up. This was tableside Caesar, salad-making as sport: a once-popular practice that's fallen as far out of fashion as hoop rolling.
First, our waiter mashed the garlic cloves into the bottom of a wooden bowl with the tines of a fork, then added an anchovy and pulverized it to a paste. He cracked a whole raw egg into the bowl and gave it a whirl. Next, he added aged balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper, before squeezing in the juice of half a lemon and whisking it all together. He tossed a bottle of Worcestershire sauce from one hand to the other, à la Tom Cruise bartending in Cocktail, then tossed in the lettuce, croutons, and Parmesan cheese. Portioning the salad onto chilled plates, he offered a historical tidbit—the first Caesar salad was created in Mexico by an Italian-American restaurateur—and admitted that, while the tableside prep looks cool, the dressing probably emulsifies better in a food processor.
In the end, it was more fun to watch the salad than to eat it; the balsamic tends to overpower all the other ingredients save the garlic. The Arancina Fried Risotto Cakes, three mandarin-size balls of saffron risotto, stuffed with porcini mushroom and house-made mozzarella, are perhaps a better appetizer. They're coated in egg wash and panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried to create a crust as satisfying as that found in a Korean stone pot bibimbap.
The entrée options are fairly extensive, including basics such as spaghetti and meatballs and more experimental dishes, such as fennel pollen-crusted sea scallops with pesto, chili butter sauce, faro, and broccoli raab. There's a classic osso buco, or veal shank, tender enough to eat with the same spoon you'll use to pry a few bites of buttery marrow from the center bone. Creamy gnocchi are served in a lemony beurre blanc that brightens up melting spinach and thick hunks of lobster.
The night I ordered a plate of grilled sardines, the waiter looked at me—askance at first, I thought—and then broke into a wide grin. "Is that okay?" I asked. He said that it was a dish ordered only by those in the know: Despite sardines' fishy reputation of funky, tinned pungency, their merits are legion. And the method with which they are served at Roman Anthony's, on a fried polenta cake with puttanesca sauce and gremolata, perfectly complements the fish's bold musk.
If the prospect of eating a whole fish seems intimidating, the waiter can helpfully demonstrate a technique for removing the flesh from the bone. Using a fork to hold the body in place, make a slit behind the head and slide the knife along the spine, toward the tail. Without flipping the fish, repeat the same motion on the other side. And the head? Well, you already know what to do with that.
IF YOU FIND YOURSELF in the mood for a road trip, Justin Grecco's first restaurant, Grecco's on the St. Croix, just across the river from Taylors Falls, is worth a visit. Not necessarily for its looks, though, as the divvied-up space, which includes three small dining rooms, a bar, and a back patio, resembles a pack rat's estate sale.
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."
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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