My Steaky Valentine
50 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis
It was 10 below outside on Sixth Street, without windchill, but that didn't mean there wasn't any. No, the wind was crashing down the ugly brown stone of the Multifoods Tower with malice and indescribable power, like something out of science fiction, like the catastrophe outside the spaceship that makes people have to stay inside with the monster. But inside, inside on Sixth Street, separated from the Pluto-like outside by only some thin glass and cute snow-tipped pine boughs, it was warm, it was hopping, it was a timeless, ageless cluster of camaraderie amongst the barstools.
Seriously, timeless: servers wrapped stolidly in steakhouse jackets; chefs crowned puffily with high white hats; walls trimmed men's-club-style in dark burnished wood; a pink squirrel on every menu; a steak on every plate.
Timeless enough for you? If not, get this: One young diner at a neighboring booth was so cowed by the old-school of it all that she wrapped her long winter muffler around her alarming broadsheet of butt cleavage and just settled in to dinner, likely dreaming of the days when ladies drew attention with the billboards of their hats.
That timelessness wasn't the only reason I was charmed by Ike's, the new budget-friendly, retro, non-corporate supper club that opened late this past January in the formidable strip of Sixth Street that holds three steakhouses in a block--Murray's, Nick & Tony's, and Morton's. (Do we call Sixth Street "Steakhouse Row" or "The Great Steak Way"? We should start.) Much of the reason I like the place has to do with the cocktails: stingers, Negronis, rusty nails, Rob Roys--all the oldest of the old reliables, done just right. The stingers--brandy complemented with crème de menthe, especially popular during Prohibition when the taste of bathtub booze needed masking--are served on the rocks in faceted old-fashioned glasses, and make it seem like as long as your hat is blocked and the seams in your stockings are straight all must be right with the world. The sidecars are made with fresh lemon juice and served up in a traditional footed cocktail glass. Do you know the legend of the sidecar, and how it supposedly arose after a World War I officer got chilled as he was driven around Paris in the sidecar of his chauffeured motorcycle?
If you're reeling with the idea of a chauffeured motorcycle, settle your stomach with a burger that is truly worth reckoning with: Angus beef, perfectly soft and fluffy and offering none of the offending stiffness of over-handled meat, seared, tucked into a sweet and lightly toasted, buttered bun, and the whole thing topped, if you like, with fried onions and aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese. The burger comes wrapped in wax paper, accompanied on its plate by all the fixings--leaf lettuce, sliced tomato, red onion, a dill pickle, a little ramekin of coleslaw, and a considerable heap of Ike's lovable fries. And these home-made-tasting things, cut from specially aged potatoes that are fried till they're dark and glossy, are just like the ones (no kidding) my grandma used to make. This large and satisfying platter of Americana is yours for less than what a single cosmo costs at most of our upscale bars--a mere $7.95 at lunch, $8.95 at dinner. Which is a stunning bargain, until you get to considering the Roadhouse steak dinner. In which, for $13.95, you get a 16-ounce prime Angus strip steak, a pile of fries, a cup of homemade soup (one night I tried a homemade and nicely milky clam chowder), a composed salad topped with wedges of hard-boiled egg and discrete sections of Widmer's aged cheddar and mozzarella cheese, accompanied by a little sauceboat of thick house dressing. And, for your less-than-$14, which nets you a pound of steak, a good pound of salad crested with many cheeses, French fries, and soup, you also get a miniature loaf of bread. In case you were still hungry. Is it any wonder that, try as I might, I could never seem to spend more than $30 a head at Ike's?
I did sample widely off their menu of "small plates," too. See, the little place, which is basically a ring of tables and booths arranged around a central bar, changes slightly from lunch to dinner. Before 4:00 p.m. there are mostly just sandwiches, such as a house-roasted sage-rubbed turkey. But after 4:00 p.m. a menu of more than a dozen "small plates" debuts, with things like guacamole prepared tableside ($7.95), which is served with a whole fryer basket of still-sizzling chips--and these spice-dusted things are dangerously good. An excellent shrimp cocktail ($8.95) is as straightforward and high-quality as anyone could hope for: sturdy, fresh, plump shrimp standing around a perfectly correct bath of cocktail sauce. Still, the best "little plate" is the "Charlie's Café Exceptionale" sandwiches ($8.95), rare slabs of shockingly tender beef tenderloin, served with exquisite onions, cooked on the grill until they're vanishing strings, the whole thing topped with a dollop of perky horseradish sauce and served on good, soft rolls, one pumpernickel, one sourdough. Me, I did not know that a simple roast beef sandwich could be this good--it's rich, plain, whole, complicated. It's got that simple but profound resonance that you get from something plain and perfect, like a roasted chicken, a pastrami sandwich, a ripe peach. I grew up in the era when sandwiches made with roast beef were corporate products of cost-cutting and dire farming, and I simply had no idea of the excellence that could be achieved. If a couple of places in town had sandwiches like this, we would have a cult of beef sandwiches the way New York has a cult of pastrami. That these little gems are served on plates salvaged from the long-gone Charlie's Café only makes them that much sweeter: a little bit of continuity! A little bit of history! And not in a cheesy way, but in a real, useful, tasty, affordable way! It's a miracle.
The dessert drinks at Ike's--made with local favorite Sebastian Joe's ice cream--are miraculous, too. I must confess that before I went to Ike's I always thought that ice-cream drinks were simply a nice affectation, like fake roses on hats. Now I have seen the light, because the cognac Alexander here--a martini glass filled with a blend of vanilla ice cream, Martell cognac, dark crème de cacao, and a sprinkle of nutmeg--is a wonderful, craveable thing, better than many bowls of dessert soup I've had in restaurants four times as expensive.
I can hardly think to enumerate all the other little things I liked at Ike's. The place has all the charming little take-home bar knickknacks that went out around the same time Nixon did, cocktail stirrers, golf pencils, little pads of notepaper, cow-shaped plastic doohickies that stick into your burger and say "rare," and such. Every server I encountered was helpful, smiling, and kind. Really, the only thing I can even imagine complaining about at Ike's was the few duds that are concentrated in the contemporary seafood small plates. Seared day-boat scallops ($7.95), for example, which were gummy and undercooked; or the sloppy beer-steamed shrimp ($8.95); or the tuna tataki ($8.95), an uninteresting piece of tuna, seared and served in a simple soy sauce and scallion. Better to leave dishes like those to the sushi bars and restaurants with name-brand chefs, and besides, nostalgia is a dish best served without Asian-fusion.
Still, while nostalgia might be the dominant impression one gets at Ike's--well, nostalgia and a delightfully soothing attention to detail--Chip Isaacson, one of the new eatery's owners and the creative force at the restaurant, says that nostalgia wasn't his motivating principle. "The space, which is only 33 feet wide and 150 feet deep, dictated the big-city, urban feel the restaurant had to have. The space generally told me what it wanted to be. Some locations are predestined to be something; what we put in here was exactly what was needed for this particular piece of real estate."
When Isaacson said that it, sort of surprised me. Because when people talk about listening to empty spaces I'm more used to them being not men, but swaying women, clutching burning clumps of sage. And especially not businessy men such as Isaacson, who has worked in the rough-and- tumble world of restaurants for 25 years (10 of them at the rib-party that was the downtown Pickled Parrot) and has named his distinctly masculine restaurant after his father Ike, and has even made a point of referencing his father's favorite clubby restaurant. But I guess that listening to the space is just another way of listening to the city, and the city of Minneapolis has said the one thing it almost always seems to be saying, which is this: I think I'd like some nice little place for a nice drink and a nice sandwich. Which is why, on a freezing night when leaving the house made as much sense as sunbathing on the dark side of the moon, on a night when icy tumbleweeds seemed to be blowing through nearly every other restaurant I walked past, nice people were swarming in the nice warmth of tiny Ike's.
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