More details on the Salt Cellar, the Lenny Russo-influenced steakhouse heading to St. Paul

Alan Bergo will head up Salt Cellar in St. Paul
Alan Bergo will head up Salt Cellar in St. Paul

You might know him as the Forager Chef. Or you may know him as Lenny Russo's former sous chef at Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market. But soon you'll know Alan Bergo as the executive chef at St. Paul's forthcoming modern steakhouse, the Salt Cellar.

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The Salt Cellar, which is taking over the space kitty corner from W.A. Frost in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill, is the newest project from the owners of Eagle Street Grille in downtown St. Paul. But lest you think Eagle Street's casual aesthetic and mob-themed menu will have some bearing on Salt Cellar's sophisticated steak-and-seafood joint, think again.

While Eagle Street's owners are the financial backers for Salt Cellar, they brought on none other than three-time James Beard award nominee Lenny Russo to consult on the concept. Part of that deal included snagging Russo's best guy from Heartland to be the executive chef, which is why Bergo officially left the restaurant last Saturday. The parting was bittersweet.

"I've never worked so long at any job in my entire life," says Bergo. "Lenny changed my life. He made me think about food in a new way. He showed me that a restaurant's menu can change every day. He's a mentor, and he's like a father figure to me."

Bergo hopes to crank up operations in his new kitchen by early November. Salt Cellar will have a throwback steakhouse theme, but cast through Bergo's sophisticated lens. With no formal culinary training, Bergo weaned himself on the books of French masters -- Jean Louis Palladin, Fernand Point, Roger Verge. But you'll find no stuffy affectation here: Bergo is equally interested in the wild side of modern cuisine, as an avid hunter of wild mushrooms and indigenous vegetation. He is, in many ways, just a food geek, who's plied his craft with the one-track mind of any good chef.

"This will be a geek-out-a-thon," Bergo says of the Salt Cellar. "People are like, 'Are you going to try to put mushrooms on everything?' Wild food is not the concept of the restaurant, but I'd be lying if I said that stuff doesn't influence my food because I see Minnesota, our cuisine and our terroir, through a different lens. I'm not going to be making mushroom ice cream right off the bat, but I do want to use those items, just subtly."

Bergo's Blue Spruce ice cream. He's also perfected a mushroom ice cream he describes as having a creamy coffee flavor.
Bergo's Blue Spruce ice cream. He's also perfected a mushroom ice cream he describes as having a creamy coffee flavor.
Alan Bergo

So what does that entail? Bergo envisions using wild Szechuan peppercorns in the steak blend and a citrusy sumac sauce in walleye meunière. As for steakhouse classics, think table-side salad service, turtle soup, chateaubriand, beef bourguignon a la minute, cream of porcini soup, and, what Bergo and Russo are probably most excited about, a version of Fernand Point's pastry masterpiece, Gâteau Marjolaine.

"It took him three years to make it," says Bergo. "It looks like a cake, but you make long bands of meringue and you mix it with, we'll probably use hazelnut meal, and you take these thin layers and layer it with buttercream and shape it into a rectangle and frost the whole thing with chocolate and coat it with sliced nuts. It's freaking amazing. That will be the flagship dessert."

As for that mushroom ice cream (yes, he's serious -- it has an earthy, coffee sweetness), Bergo promises he'll share it with us at some point. For now, they're working up a fall menu rich with seasonal goodies, including a chestnut-heavy dessert menu. Bergo says he's also taking a bit of time off before the opening to "be a person."

"I haven't had more than two days off in the last six years," he says. With that kind of schedule, no wonder he's moving to an apartment just a block away from the Salt Cellar. "I basically have a mobile restaurant in all my stuff. Years and years' worth of kitchen equipment and hundreds of books. With an apartment right next door to the Salt Cellar, that's basically my research and development lab."

We'll gladly be the guinea pigs for those culinary experiments.

The Salt Cellar 173 Western Ave. N., St. Paul 651-219-4013

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