The Depot at First Avenue and Green Mill's Twisted Fork
The First Avenue of my youth, where we traipsed around in combat boots and vintage sundresses, was a filthy place. Its insides were as black as the bottom of my friend Megan's foot after the night she lost a shoe in the We Might Be Giants mosh pit. Soundproofing material dripped off the Mainroom's ceiling like Spanish moss, and urinating outside on the then-vacant Block E seemed a more hygienic option than the Entry's graffiti-plastered, coed bathroom. The frozen pizza came out of a hole in the wall, served on a paper plate.
First Avenue is still a place a teenager might feel reluctant to let her mother survey before dropping her off for a concert, but its new bar-restaurant, the Depot, looks squeaky enough to belong in a suburban shopping mall. The First Avenue building originally housed a bus depot, and the new eatery, tacked onto the Seventh Street side in the former home of Unbank, reprises the name bestowed on the club's first incarnation. The space feels rather cavernous and kind of generic, save for the televisions that display live feeds from both of the stages, and the garage door opening onto the sidewalk, which draws in plenty of light, fresh air, and Twins fans in search of a pit stop.
The new Depot kitchen serves bar food, but it's certainly trying a lot harder than the food service in the Mainroom. Who thought you'd ever be able to order a Coconut Curry Chopped Salad at a club that's hosted Garbage and the Suicide Commandos? While the salad's nothing revolutionary—shredded Napa cabbage, various veggies, a coriander-heavy dressing, fried wonton strips—it's not a bad option for a sports bar.
After stints at the now-defunct Tejas and A Rebours, and as head chef of Joe's Garage, chef Karl Lichtfuss is going gourmet on hot dogs, burgers, and chili. Appetizers include jerk chicken wings, cayenne-dusted fried cheese curds, and some killer, thick-cut French fries that arrive with three dipping sauces from an array of house-made ketchups spiked with ginger, aiolis with curry, cornichons, and capers. We devoured the whole basket faster than anyone with a sense of decorum should probably acknowledge.
The rest of the menu consists of a few casual entrées, such as the Denver omelet and macaroni and cheese, along with several sandwiches, including a beef po' boy big enough to feed two (the meat's blandness, unfortunately, doesn't sustain interest as large as its portion). The Depot's star players are its Inside Out Burger and the Diamond Dog, both of which are over-the-top renditions that riff on the ballpark fare down the block. The burger is stuffed with bacon and American cheese, which makes it more compelling than a regular burger but not as good as Target Field's short rib-and-Gouda-stuffed Vincent Burger. If the Diamond Dog were a musical act, it would be Lady Gaga, dressed to dazzle. The quarter-pound tube steak is encased in a crusty bacon spiral that's been fused to the dog via a dip in the deep fryer. But its real innovation is its soft pretzel bun, which possesses the same leathery, salt-glazed crust and dense, chewy white flesh of those sold at street carts and concessions stands.
The best part of the Depot's ambiance is the people-watching from the entryway seats, between the parade that passes by on the sidewalk (the bar employs a staffer to shoo away loiterers) and the concert-goers filing out through a chute from the Entry. One night, after the band Train played a private show, the crowd dispersed with autographed promotional photos in hand. The manicured, middle-aged fans looked nothing like those I listened with—or danced with, or just stood around and tried to look cool with—back in the '90s. It left me a little nostalgic for everything about the old First Avenue. Except, of course, the food.
TWIN CITIES RESTAURANTS that espouse a local/sustainable/organic ethic tend to fall into three categories: hippie, hipster, or haute. Among the first are the old standbys, such as Ecopolitan and Tao Foods, which have been around since long before DragSmith Farms took on a Fendi-like cachet in some circles. The second are the others' hip contemporaries, such as the Red Stag and Common Roots. And the third are places like Restaurant Alma, Lucia's, Spoonriver, and Heartland, where those with bigger budgets are willing to pay for premium ingredients. For all these eateries' importance, one thing they aren't—yet, at least—is mainstream. The diners you find at the Craftsman don't tend to frequent McDonald's, and vice versa.
The new Twisted Fork Grille in St. Paul, which shares space and ownership with the Green Mill pizza chain, is staking out new territory in locavore land by confronting the question of how a burgeoning sustainable food movement might reach beyond the early adopters.
The Green Mill at Grand and Hamline avenues is anything but trendy; it began as a soda fountain called the Green Mill Inn, in the 1930s, and has been a neighborhood pub and restaurant ever since. (In fact, it's the oldest licensed pub in St. Paul.) In the mid-1970s, its owners started specializing in Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, which has led to a franchise of 28 locations across the Midwest.
Some of the Green Mill owners recognized that pizza was no longer packing the house and decided to split the Grand Avenue space in two and launch a new, adjoining restaurant. They hired Stephen Trojahn, formerly executive chef of Cosmos and Bradstreet Craftshouse, as a consultant to help them create the initial menus for a restaurant concept that had chef-driven elements, yet still reached the masses. Trojahn then handed the reins to Keven Kvalsten, chef-owner of the former Green Room in Waconia, which was noted for its seasonal menus that incorporated local and organic ingredients.
After Kvalsten applied for the job, he was surprised to find the restaurant was affiliated with Green Mill. "To be honest, I was a little put off," he says, thinking he'd be working with mass-produced ingredients and big-box suppliers. ("I hate buying cheap food because it really costs more in the end," he says.) But once Trojahn and the Green Mill owners told him their idea was to combine small-scale, local, sustainable purveyors with a more corporate structure, he was sold. "If we can get a typical Green Mill customer to come into our restaurant and try our food, I think that's a win," he says. "Sourcing from farmers isn't a new idea, but if you can bring it to a more general populous, let's say TGI Friday's or Applebee's, that would be wonderful. If each of those places could buy directly, it would be a win for the farmer, the customer, and the people cooking the food."
No whiff of stale pizza grease seeps into Twisted Fork, which looks like an upgraded chain pizza shop with its striped upholstery and dark wood bar. The menu and ambiance are reminiscent of the restaurants owned by the Blue Plate group, such as the Highland and Longfellow Grills: familiar comforts are prepared with—no surprise here—a twist. Mom's meatloaf is made with bison; the house-made potato chips are made with smoked-paprika-sprinkled sweet potato chips. Prices stay low: Most dinner entrées cost less than $20, with several in the $12-$13 range. You could get in and out of Twisted Fork for, well, about the price of a pizza.
To position itself as a neighborhood spot, Twisted Fork serves three meals a day, seven days a week. Breakfast takes things in the right direction but could use a little nudge to hit perfection. From among the savory meals, for example, pork shoulder hash was a tasty mash of poached eggs, potatoes, parsnips, and sweet potatoes, but the meat—from Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin—hadn't been cooked long enough to turn from chewy to melting. On the sweet side, traditional French toast is made from lemon-poppy seed bread, creating a pleasant sweet-tart balance with its garnishes of fresh blackberries, agave nectar, and Greek yogurt.
Dinner played out in a similar manner, mostly successful with a minor execution miss. The Minnesota Chopped Salad makes several smart ingredient choices, with smoked walleye to add richness and toasty grains of puffed wild rice to lend a snappy texture. The bison meatloaf was also a winner: succulent texture, infused with the savory notes of bacon bits, bacon fat, and wild mushrooms. The Ale-Braise Lamb Shank looked like a caveman's club but tasted a lot less menacing, its gamy flavor heightened with notes of juniper and clove. A bed of lentils—a domestically grown version of France's Lentils du Puy, sourced from Great Ciao—was sadly undercooked, with an unpleasant, grainy consistency, like biting into a mealy apple.
The Twisted Fork doesn't take its local, sustainable sourcing as far as it might. The kitchen uses Ames honey, Neuske bacon, and several Minnesota cheeses, but to keep prices low, Kvalsten buys the restaurant's chicken from Amish growers in Ohio and uses Atlantic salmon, considered less desirable in terms of the fish's quality and ecological imprint than pricier Pacific salmon.
For locavores, the restaurant might generate the same mixed feelings as Wal-Mart's move into organics did a few years back. But for diners who have never visited Corner Table and its brethren, a Twisted Fork burger may be their first introduction to naturally raised beef. And who knows, maybe at some point the North Dakota natural beef being used by Twisted Fork's side of the kitchen will replace the commodity beef of more mysterious origins being griddled for Green Mill diners. "It might have been a marketing exploit at first," Kvalsten says of Green Mill's foray into more sustainable eating, "but I honestly think they're on board with it. I certainly am."
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