Saint Dinette pop-up offers a sneak peek at Tim Niver and J.D. Fratzke's next venture
"We love our hugs here," says Strip Club co-owner Tim Niver.
It's true. Stepping into Strip Club often feels like walking into someone's living room, where you're welcomed with a hug and a bite to eat. And as Niver opened the doors Monday night to a new experience -- a sneak preview of his new restaurant concept, Saint Dinette, soon to open in Lowertown St. Paul -- that same casual and loving atmosphere shined through. Niver and his co-owner, chef J.D. Fratzke, circulated, sharing stories and smiles with every table. Seating was communal, with new and old friends mingling throughout the small room. And yes -- many hugs were given.
This hospitality is cultivated and intentional, a key part of the concept Niver, Fratzke, and business partner Brad Tetzloff are working to create. And while the food may not have felt quite as much like a hug on a plate as an elegant double-cheek kiss, the warmth was still there.
Blending a distinctly Southern soul food sensibility with a refinement and clean flavors, each dish had depth of flavor and texture that showed a true elevation from the always excellent cooking that comes out of the Strip Club kitchen. It was clear the chef team of Fratzke, Saint Dinette chef de cuisine Adam Eaton (recently of La Belle Vie), and Chris Uhrich worked as a seamless unit, and the food coming out of the kitchen felt coherent as a result.
The first course was exemplary, blending an earthy duck carpaccio with a bed of watermelon, lime, and cilantro as refreshing as a cocktail. Textural contrast came from a scattering of perfect duck skin chicharrones, spiked with a touch of achiote and spice.
As Niver delivered the second course, a fried oyster on cornbread crostini, he instructed us to eat with our hands. The multi-sensory experience extended across many of the dishes, bringing the tension between casual and fine dining into sharp relief.
The mellow, vinegary heat of the homemade hot sauce was a highlight of the oyster dish, as was the perfectly crusty cornbread, but the real gem was a smear of sweet, fruity jam hidden atop the cornbread, yoking all the flavors in a sweet-hot harmony.
The next course -- a cucumber consommé served with a lox, caviar and crème fraiche crostini -- looked incredibly simple, but the clear liquid delivered an unexpected depth of flavor, distinctly salty and somehow also refreshing, with a sharp dill tang. Paired with the lox, "it's like an entire Jewish deli on one plate," said Fratzke. (Heaven knows that's something we need in the Twin Cities.)
The first entrée course, wild salmon with beurre blanc and razor clams, seemed to be the general favorite in the room. More than one person (ourselves included) could be seen looking for anything possible on their plate to sop up every last drop of the creamy, buttery sauce.
Chicken may not be a protein most think of as particularly decadent, but pressed into a terrine of sorts with bacon and cradled by a smear of creole mustard, it was pure indulgence. As with the exceptional tenderloin tartare egg rolls on the Strip Club menu, cherry tomatoes provided a welcome pop of freshness to cut through the fatty, unctuous meat.
The only miss of the night was the somewhat soggy pain perdu accompanying the chicken. While it was welcome as a vehicle to sop up the excellent mustard, it didn't add much by way of texture or flavor to the dish.
The dessert course was billed as churros, but let's be real -- these were doughnuts. Damn good ones at that. Bringing back the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dig-in mentality from earlier in the night, this was true state-fair style, get-your-hands-covered-in-sugar decadence. And if they're smart, Fratzke and Niver will bottle and sell that cayenne caramel dipping sauce.
The short cocktail list was well received throughout the night. A vieux carre delivered smoke in every element from the rye to the smoked cherry garnish. A bitter orange tequila cocktail with caramel, coriander, Domaine de Canton, and lime tasted "like spring break....but spring break with money. Cabo, not Cancun," according to one of our dining companions.
At the end of the night, the room burst into applause as the chefs emerged from the kitchen. (In true Strip Club style, nothing was too formal; Eaton managed to hit his head on the ceiling as he climbed up on a bar stool to wave hi to everyone.)
It's been almost exactly a year since Niver and Fratzke announced their original intentions to open a new restaurant in Lowertown. It got its cute name in November. But as they ran into challenges with location, the "mid-soon" opening (a phrase Niver borrowed from Lorin Zinter of Heyday) continued to slide back.
Luckily, the food was more than worth the wait.
The next pop-up is sold out, but Niver has promised more dates to come in October. Follow Saint Dinette on Twitter (@saintdinette) to find out more about pop-ups and the actual opening date.
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