Strip Club serves up meaty hedonism
THE STRIP CLUB
378 Maria Avenue, St. Paul
entrees $14-$28; appetizers $4-$15
Phoebe wasn't the kind of girl to go to a strip club. But there she was anyway, wearing a glittery knit stocking cap and toting a candy-apple red purse, as she climbed the steps of an old brick building in Dayton's Bluff in St. Paul. Inside, she was approached by a charismatic man with tight, dark curls, who happened to run the place. "Phoebe?" he asked. "Why, yes," she replied, wondering, nearly aloud, Where were you on Valentine's Day? as he escorted her toward her friends at the bar.
Phoebe realized she'd gone to high school with the bartender, who promptly invented a new cocktail in her honor: the Phoebe—orange and cranberry juices, homemade lemoncello, Grand Marnier, and a champagne topper. "What was he like in high school?" the bartender's boss inquired. "I'll bet he had glasses and braces." Another patron piped up, "I was in here last night, and I saw him with headgear." Everybody laughed.
The Strip Club, it turns out, is a place where patrons pack on calories, rather than ogling those who've been avoiding them. (The name's just a cheeky pun on the restaurant's signature dish, the strip steak, which can be ordered with any number of scandalously named sauces, including "XXX-cargot" butter or "shrimp trampi.") During my visits, the Cheers-esque atmosphere reminded me of the Town Talk Diner in Minneapolis, where bartenders are known to share samples with those sitting at the counter. The Strip Club felt similar for good reason: It's a joint venture between Aaron Johnson and Tim Niver, two of Town Talk's founders.
Niver came up with the Strip Club name and steakhouse concept a few years ago, but had it on the back burner until the owner of the new restaurant's 1885 building asked him to come take a look at it. Dark and clubby, with gothic-looking fireplaces and an ornate spiral staircase, the space recalls the old-world speakeasies of St. Paul's gangster days. The black ceiling and electric candles lend it an air of The Munsters—particularly the upstairs fireplace that's actually a secret door.
"This is the Strip Club," Niver thought to himself as he and Johnson toured the space. The previous occupant, Pop's Family Cafe, had left it restaurant-ready, with tables and chairs, even cream and sugar caddies. "Dude, we could throw a party here tonight," Niver recalls saying to Johnson. "And if we'd had the keys, we probably would have."
But who, exactly, was going to come? The building was on an unknown corner in a neighborhood with little commercial activity and more than a few rough edges. But Niver and Johnson felt that if they had the right concept in the right space, that people would come. And as soon as 612-ers realize that the Strip Club is just two blocks off I-94, I think they'll be right. In the meantime, it's already full of neighborhood people who like a good steak, many of whom are old enough to remember how meat used to taste when animals were traditionally raised.
Chef J.D. Fratzke, formerly of Muffuletta, serves a New York strip that comes from grass-fed cattle at Thousand Hills in Cannon Falls. Fratzke says he chose the beef for its deep flavor and health benefits (more omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, a newly discovered good fat, than corn-fed beef), as well as the advantages that free-range grazing has for the environment and animal welfare. "Basically, the cattle are running around fat and happy until I make a phone call and put a hit on them," Fratzke says.
When you tear into the steak (I'd recommend ordering it medium rare, topped with "Le Moulin Rouge" crimini mushrooms), don't expect what you'd find at Murray's or Manny's. Grass-fed beef tastes different from corn-fed—it's leaner and has stronger flavor, which, no surprise, can be almost a little grassy. The texture is different, too. It doesn't melt in your mouth, but it stands up to chewing, without being chewy. The clearest way I can think to describe eating grass-fed beef is to say that it seems more like you're eating an animal, if that can be meant in a good way.
Strip Club isn't really a steak house, though, with only a strip and a ball tip on the menu. It's dubbed a meat-and-fish joint, which it is through and through (its website is www.domeats.com; a footnote on the menu reads, "Vegetarians regarded with benevolent amusement"). And it's one of the few such places where sustainable and humane animal husbandry is of major concern to the chef.
Fratzke says he sourced the meat for his pork-shank-for-two from the local producer Pastures of Plenty, because he was impressed that they had shopped around for a butcher they felt treated their animals most respectfully. The shanks are cooked till fork-tender and are served with Brussels sprouts, apples, shallots, and mashed potatoes. The combination tastes like it has about a hundred more flavors, though, because the meat is braised in a mix that includes everything from cinnamon sticks to Dijon mustard to cider vinegar. Pasture's pork also goes into the Swedish meatballs, and Fratzke amps up the traditional seasoning by going heavy on the allspice, then simmering the meatballs in a glogg-inspired broth of red wine and Madeira and topping them with black-truffle gravy.
The menu's meatstravaganza extends to the starters, including duck confit and shrimp scampi, and sandwiches, such as the Italian-style steak on ciabatta. And it includes both foie gras and the poor man's version, Braunschweiger. "It's like lutefisk," Fratzke says of the German liver sausage. "Unless you grew up eating it, you're not going to develop a taste for it later in life." His choice to pair it with Dijon mustard and port-wine-simmered shallots, though, might mask the livery flavor too much for people who like it—and not enough for those who don't.
By the end of one of my mostly-meat meals, I found myself forgoing a very tasty piece of pistachio-topped salmon in favor of feverishly finishing off the accompanying carrots. Was I coming down with a case of the rickets? The meat and fish were delicious, but sometimes a little much. I'm hoping Fratzke's next menu expands its offerings of lighter dishes, as, for me, those items best display his creative talents.
The tomato-celery root soup I tried was a perfect partner for the smartly seasonal, warm winter greens salad. Fratzke pan-sears frisée to bring out its sweetness, and then combines the bushy green with grapes, Lucques olives, pecans, and sharp shallot vinaigrette. It was so good it could have easily commanded twice its $5 price tag. The whole roasted tomato is another clever way to work within the season, by using heat to concentrate the tomato's flavor and then building on it with melty mozzarella and blue cheese. The wild rice salad served at lunch—lentils, pork sausage, grapes, and our state grain knit together with house-made remoulade—is a great example of Fratzke's flavorful, no-fuss philosophy, combining the hearty healthiness of a co-op deli with the comfort of a Lutheran church-basement potluck. "You've got to pay a little homage," Fratzke says.
While the salad is a definite keeper, I'd send a few items to the chopping block. The ahi tuna tasted like quilt batting and seemed oddly paired with balsamic vinegar. Deep-fried oysters were smothered in breading. Walleye fritters didn't taste of fish at all, just potato binder, and were horribly salty. And I never found a dessert I would order again. Fibrous blueberries ruined what would have been a good cobbler. The trifle had the right spirit—Chambord-infused custard, dried cherries, hunks of flourless chocolate torte—but left me feeling leaden.
If the food isn't always perfect, the room certainly is, especially if you sit in the loft and look down on St. Paul's skyline (though be careful how many Phoebes you order, or you'll be hanging onto the railing when you try to climb back down). At night, the pristine view, with its cluster of tiny lights, is a reminder of the energy that a good gathering place can inject into a community. Just as the burning bulbs of the Town Talk Diner have brightened the Hi-Lake neighborhood, the Strip Club offers east St. Paul much the same possibility.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.