For weeks now, my family has been clearing out my grandparents' house — a little split-level suburban home where they carved hams and raised children and grew a garden and held Easter egg hunts for more than a half-century. The process has unearthed just as many inexplicable objects (a doll made from a feather duster, molds of human teeth, teddy bear tank tops) as it has treasures, which to me equals old-timey baking equipment. There were barely used individual-sized bundt pans; a cake breaker still in its original packaging; a cookbook with a recipe for something called "nibble teasers," which I first read as something more explicit; an iron for making rosettes and patty shells; and a cookie press that I plan to bust out at Christmas. In the box, next to the barely used attachments, was a note written by one of my aunts: "You wanted me to remind you to have the girls over and make fancy cookies." Whenever I go out in Lowertown, I get an urge to leave myself a similar reminder to go back.
After a great show at the Amsterdam, a bowl of soba noodles at Tanpopo, or a lift from a chatty pedicab driver, I'm always poking my friends about how we should hang out in Lowertown more. "This is fun! It's so cute here! I love all these old signs! Everything is so easy to get to!" Lowertown is like the fancy cookie press: old, maybe a little patinaed, and receiving some much-deserved appreciation from a new audience. The neighborhood's latest addition, the Buttered Tin, on Seventh Street East and Wacouta, is a sunny cafe and bakery that appeals equally to long-established residents and first-time visitors with a made-from-scratch philosophy that extends from its food to its very formation.
Friends and industry vets Jennifer Lueck, whose background is in public relations and restaurant consulting, and Alicia Hinze, baker and former catering manager at Cupcake on University Avenue, knew two things for certain when they came together to create their business plan. "We knew we wanted to develop our own restaurant rather than buy an existing one, and that it would be a real neighborhood place," Lueck says. "For us that neighborhood was always Lowertown." The pair also decided early on that, despite Hinze's merry and masterful baking skills (best displayed in her hot fudge sundae cupcakes, oatmeal raisin whoopie pies, and homemade cream-filled, ganache-dipped Ho Hos), their business plan would include more than just cupcakes. "We wanted it to be as much about the eats as it was about the sweets," Lueck explains. "Any meal can effectively bring people together, but I think that happens especially at breakfast. We wanted our customers to have that cozy, comfy Sunday-morning experience all day, every day of the week."
The concise menu contains lots of breakfast classics — airy buttermilk pancakes served with lardons and maple syrup; crusty French toast with flambéed bananas and whipped cream; and sticky, yeasty caramel rolls that have a tendency to get snatched up early. But its most exciting and best-executed items tend to be the ones on the savory side. Fish may be a hard sell for some in the early morning, but the TBT hash with quartered roasted potatoes, chive crème frâiche, perfectly poached eggs, and generous hunks — not measly flakes — of salty smoked trout, served with a little green salad, was terrific. Tall, flaky, thyme-scented biscuits and gravy were delicious, and though the poached eggs (again, done just right, which is not easy at a high volume) and creamy sausage gravy balanced out the salt factor of the biscuits nicely, there was just not enough sauce. These are all well and good, but the allure of the Buttered Tin's huevos rancheros Benedict is just too strong to ignore. The dish starts with one of Hinze's slightly sweet cornbread muffins and gets layered with robust Mexican flavors: black bean salsa, mild red ranchero sauce, avocado, and cilantro sour cream-topped poached eggs. It's a steal too at under $9.
Hinze, baker Anna Berzelius (formerly of Isaac Becker's Burch), and chef Jason Schellin (Muffuletta, Smack Shack) squeeze a whole lot of product out of their little kitchen. "We do as much as possible ourselves — pickles, jams, granola, some cheeses, and our own breads for sandwiches," Lueck says. Their housemade focaccia is an impressive component of a sophisticated Mediterranean tuna melt that remains crunchy and light thanks to the addition of olives, cucumbers, roasted tomatoes, and just a swipe of rosemary mayo. The hearty Easter Dinner sandwich, made with slabs of Fischer Farms ham, is one of Lueck's creations. "I always thought there had to be a way to get scalloped potatoes on a sandwich," Lueck says. As good as that bite of homey holiday leftovers tasted on a ciabatta bun (one of the few breads not made onsite), I was even more taken with the beef short ribs Reuben on caraway-flecked rye bread. Tender-crisp braised red cabbage and caramelized onions replace the sometimes overpowering sauerkraut on a classic Reuben, and instead of gloppy dressing, they go easy on the mustard-mayo so as not to compete with the incredibly flavorful rib meat. Crazy good.
Lueck says the Buttered Tin will continue to focus on bakery, breakfast, and lunch for now. "I have no plans to add dinner service any time in the near future. Our philosophy is to do one thing really well, so that's what we're working on." Lueck says being open only until 3 p.m. gives the staff time to recharge and allows the restaurant to be available for special events. "I'd love to let Jason just run wild with a special farmers' market dinner or something," Lueck says. "That's a definite possibility."
Hinze is also doing full cakes and cupcakes by special order and will be working on making a consistent schedule for the bakery, so customers know what to expect in stock on any given day. As it stands, Lueck says they already have regulars who stop by more than once a day. "We are so pleased with the support from our neighbors," Lueck says. "I love that we already know names and have regulars. I really wanted to have a 'Norm!' situation in our restaurant."
What Colossal Cafe did for St. Anthony Park, I believe the Buttered Tin will do for Lowertown. It falls easily into that category of "true treasures." All you have to do is remind yourself to remind yourself that it's there.
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