The Bachelor Farmer celebrates the Nordic palate
What use might a bachelor farmer have for a toast caddy, except employing it to scrape the mud off his boots? Your average bachelor farmer probably doesn't tote his toast in a decorative rack. Or replace the flatware after each course. Indeed, his dining room is likely less elegant than the one recently unveiled in Minneapolis's North Loop—during harvest season he might take his meals in his combine cab. But better for all of us that the Bachelor Farmer restaurant romanticizes this stoic Midwestern icon. Otherwise we probably wouldn't be enjoying fine French wine and roasted Arctic char.
Eric Dayton, son of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, bought the Bachelor Farmer's 100-plus-year-old digs, originally the Northwestern Hide and Fur Building, in 2008. After finishing business school, Eric started developing the building into a restaurant, bar, event space, and retail clothing shop, and invited his brother, Andrew, who was completing a law degree, to be his partner.
The former warehouse required extensive renovations, so the brothers enlisted the help of architect James Dayton (their fathers are cousins) to modernize the space in a way that would still highlight its thick brick walls and massive wooden beams. The finished dining room feels both rustic and chic. Its blue-and-white patterned wallpaper might have been ripped from a rural farmhouse, but varnished plywood tabletops and haunting Alec Soth photographs keep the space from becoming too cutesy. The banquette seats are hard as church pews, but their colorful cushions and close quarters encourage guests to get cozier than the typical Lutheran congregation. The Bachelor Farmer politely requests that diners refrain from cell phone use and photography as a courtesy to other guests. Aside from Eric's high school cooking job at the long-shuttered Goodfellow's, the brothers don't have much in the way of restaurant experience, but they've tackled the project with measured diligence. (Andrew says they took to heart wisdom passed on by their grandfather, Bruce, longtime head of the family's department store empire: "You get what you inspect, not what you expect.") And they've made smart hires in the kitchen and bar, so that during dinner service those two operations mostly run themselves and leave the brothers free to circulate and welcome guests.
The kitchen is helmed by chef Paul Berglund, who worked at Oakland, California's famed Italian restaurant Oliveto before moving to Minneapolis last year. Berglund's menu presents contemporary Nordic cuisine that's a far cry from the lutefisk suppers we tend to associate with Scandinavian food—cuisine that's been missing from Twin Cities restaurants since Aquavit closed nearly a decade ago. (One night a group of elderly diners toasted the culinary revival by raising their glasses and crying, "Skål.") Dishes pay homage to the region without feeling bound by tradition, and they often rely on fresh, locally sourced ingredients, including produce raised in the building's rooftop garden. Compositions of vibrant ingredients are presented simply and treated with respect. The approach is straightforward, yet much of it feels novel.
In lieu of a breadbasket, the servers bring a setup of crisp, juicy radishes with salt, butter, and paper-thin, house-made crackers. This sets the tone for the rest of the appetizer section, much of which riffs on Scandinavia's famous open-faced sandwiches. Grilled bread is ferried to the table in toast caddies that look lifted from the Victorian era. The dramatic display might seem excessive, but the nutty, char-marked, naturally leavened bread is duly deserving of the honor. (Before joining the Daytons' team, Berglund honed his baking skills at Heartland and Rustica.) The toasts may be spread with a lovely rabbit liver paté, whose richness is cut by garnishes of mustard, dried cherries, and hazelnuts. Or they might be dipped in melted Camembert that coats cauliflower and zucchini, turning the normally pedestrian vegetables into something marvelous.
The rest of the restaurant's snack list is also first-rate. Thick slabs of house-cured, lightly smoked salmon are served on a cloud of creamy scrambled eggs. It's a dish that could be eaten any time of day—or all day long. Ditto the house-made sausage link served with pickled beets and a lefse round that's less flaky and more elastic than old-time recipes, resembling a potato-rich fresh pasta sheet. Berglund also offers herring, the Northern European staple, but serves it fried instead of pickled. The fish is coated in a tempura-style batter, along with green beans and onions, and cooked to perfect crispness.
Chilled kale soup is one of the menu's boundary-pushers. The dill-spiked puree is relentlessly green, tasting grassy and mineral-rich. But a full serving can be a little much—it might be better portioned into tall shot glasses than bowls. The less adventurous can always order the Bibb lettuce salad: a heap of rumpled leaves speckled with walnuts and grated blue cheese, which distributes its musky flavor better than crumbles.
Among the entrées, Swedish meatballs are the most overtly Scandinavian item. The meat is suitably seasoned with fennel, caraway, and other sweet spices, then garnished with lingonberries, thin-sliced pickles, and a more modest portion of mashed potatoes than typically accompanies the dish. The Scandinavian diet includes a fair amount of game, but in lieu of, say, moose or reindeer, Berglund offers Wisconsin-raised rabbit. The kitchen staff practices whole-animal butchery, so the dish alternates between the grilled loin and the slow-cooked legs and shoulders. The loin tastes rather like a cross between duck breast and pork tenderloin, so if you prefer the richness of braised rabbit, as I do, you'll want to order the leg/shoulder version. In either case, the meat is well paired with Savoy cabbage, pole beans, and a bit of Scandinavia's beloved brunost cheese, which contributes a caramel sweetness. The fish and chicken entrées are more common—cod or char with sweet corn and tomatoes, roast bird with potatoes and baby arugula—but equally well executed.
In keeping with Scandinavian tastes, Berglund offers a vegetarian entrée of two poached eggs perched atop a summery mix of cherry tomatoes, leeks, and snap peas. It's certainly tasty, but the relation of the dish's $17 price tag to its ingredient cost will likely deter anybody who's working hard for the money.
Like the rest of the menu, desserts feel rooted in restraint, intended to round out a meal, not upstage it. An adorable stack of Swedish pancakes—they're like tiny crepes—is served with ice cream and lingonberries. Cultured dairy is popular in Nordic countries, and Berglund's frozen yogurt bests most of the stuff that's swirled out at local fro-yo shops. Paired with orange caramel and shortbread cookies, it feels decidedly more civilized than the usual crushed Oreo cookies and gummi bears.
The restaurant's European-focused wine list is heavy on French vintages from 2006-2010, and everything on it may be ordered by the half-bottle. The two remaining glasses are then listed on the dining room's chalkboard to be claimed by other drinkers. When my table requested a just-listed Vouvray one evening, our server immediately halted his plate collection and raced to the board to make sure we got it before someone else did. The system creates more by-the-glass offerings as a sort of low-tech alternative to the newly trendy pressurized gas-based preservation systems. It might not be as effective, but it adds to the dining experience's charm and sense of adventure.
But don't drink too much, because you're going to want to follow your meal—if you didn't already precede it—with a trip to the subterranean Marvel Bar. Head to the north side of the building, next to the Cedar Lake bicycle trail connection, and look for a door whose location suggests it's used only by kitchen workers taking out the trash. Go through that door, down the hall, and enter the purple one.
Marvel looks like a sophisticated speakeasy, with frenzied, mismatched patterns on the walls, carpets, and chairs. It's the underground lair of a team of bartenders who sometimes sport vests and fedoras and shake the drinks in energetic bursts. Their ice supply arrives weekly, in 300-pound blocks, and they chip it by hand with sharp metal picks. If you're seated at the counter, prepare to get hit by the shards.
The bar features the same list of classic cocktails served upstairs—Negroni, Manhattan, Aviation, among others, as well as the Old Fashioned with which Marvel's mixmaster, Pip Hanson, formerly of Café Maude, earned himself the job. The flip side of the menu includes a full list of Hanson's original concoctions. The bar offers just one thing to eat: $1 cups of Cheetos. (If you're on a date, don't fret. The snacks are delivered with moist towelettes to remove the orange powder from your fingertips.)
Marvel can feel more like an R&D lab than a run-of-the-mill bar, as every one of Hanson's original cocktails seems to contain at least one ingredient most drinkers have never encountered. Flavor combinations are often unlikely. For example, the Silverado blends tequila with Chartreuse, lime, grapefruit, horseradish, and coconut. (Unfortunately, the horseradish's bite made the drink taste like a margarita that uses a harsh, throat-burning tequila.)
But mostly Hanson's mixes connect—and then knock it out of the park. (And may knock you out, too. Be aware that Hanson tends to dispense with the usual soda-or-fruit-juice dilutions and blend straight alcohol.) Take the Deuce-Deuce, which mixes liquors that most Americans rarely drink—two bitters and two sweet vermouths—with rye whiskey. The blend is odd, rich, and bracing, with bright notes of citrus, undertones of chocolate, and several more mysterious flavors. It seems just the thing Mad Men's suave but self-loathing Don Draper would drink when he's brooding.
The Oliveto is altogether cheerier: a rounded tumbler of gin, lemon, and the sweet, vanilla-scented Licor 43, which takes on a creamy frothiness when shaken with egg white and olive oil—an ingredient that may very well be making its cocktail debut. If you're looking for something simpler, start with the Tomas Collins, a Scandinavian take on the Tom Collins, which marries aquavit with seltzer, lime, and a splash of pickle brine.
The bar, by the way, takes its name from the former owner's business, Marvel Rack, a manufacturer of wire cutters. The name of the restaurant upstairs was suggested by Eric and Andrew's mother. The brothers liked the way it referenced the kitchen's Nordic inspiration, via Garrison Keillor's archetypical Norwegian bachelor farmer, as well as its agricultural rooftop.
When I spoke with Andrew over the phone, I learned that he is, in fact, a bachelor—so I had to ask if crowds of singles had been flocking to the place, hoping for a chance to meet him. His awkward laugh suggested, perhaps, a little modest blushing. "Not that I can tell," he ventured before quipping, "but we'll take all the customers we can get."
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