The older we get, the harder it is for my best friend, Lynn, and me to wedge in time together.
She’s a chef who owns a restaurant in eastern Wisconsin, which is where my parents live, so when I’m there, we usually manage to squeeze in a visit. But for her to come here, she needs a few days off, which for a restaurant owner is tough to manage.
She had been following the Keg and Case development closely so I knew that I could lure her here with its opening, and I did. I talked her into coming for three days last month. It had been a few years since her last visit, and during that time, many of the restaurants I took her to — the ones I thought would inspire her — were in Minneapolis.
This time, I thought it would be fun to stay in St. Paul, my stomping grounds, where I spend most of my time eating out. We regretfully did not get to all the places I was hoping to go, but I think she got a really good look at the exciting things that are happening in the Saintly City’s food scene.
First things first. The reason she came was Keg and Case, so I figured we should head straight there.
We had reservations at In Bloom, but we went a bit early to walk around and get a cheese plate at Gatza and Enhancements.
Most of the market closes up pretty early, including Gatza’s kitchen — 6 p.m. on Sundays — so we decided to have a cocktail from their fun little list instead. It turns out that was probably best, given the feast we were about to partake in.
Lynn had been studying chef Thomas Boemer’s ambitious In Bloom menu online before we arrived. “It’s ballsy,” she said matter-of-factly, noting the entire section of venison and other seldom-seen items like cattails, which are definitely native to the area, but neither of us had ever eaten.
We sat at the counter, which gives diners a front-row view of the giant hearth upon which all the food is cooked at In Bloom. It also provides a bonfire-like amount of smoke and a fair amount of heat, which made me glad I wore a sleeveless shell under my cardigan.
We started with the delicate langoustine, two of which are gently cooked by sending butter through a cast-iron funnel, a process we watched from our seats. We also noshed on a super-savory cockles preparation, which mimics creamed corn with bacon — in a much fancier way, of course.
We were happy we ordered bread, which we used to sop up bits of langoustine butter and that delicious, bacony corn cream.
Duck hearts, cooked like traditional escargot, a tender, citrus-scented venison tartare and broiled oysters gilded with a bone marrow sabayon rounded out round one.
One of the most ambitious items on the In Bloom menu, the venison leg, comprised most of our main course, and though there were four of us dining, we didn’t even make it through half of the tender, lingonberry-topped roast, which looked and tasted like the roast beast from a Charles Dickens novel, complete with deeply roasted, slightly smoky vegetables.
Lynn, like me, is a firm believer in poultry — as in the bird should not be considered a throwaway dish. And the poussin (small chicken) for two was definitely a highlight of our In Bloom meal. Perfectly juicy and crisp-skinned, the bird is served atop giant croutons, which soak up the salty, savory drippings, creating what might have been our favorite bites of the night.
We ended with all four desserts, and though it was difficult to pick a favorite, the giant burnt marshmallow, turned into a very grown-up s’more, with ganache, honey ice cream and a ridiculously delicious caramel graham sauce really represented what the restaurant is about, and was the perfect ending to our meal.
Mondays are difficult days to dine out, because many chefs take that day off and close their restaurants. Lynn wanted to return to Keg and Case at some point during her visit, so we decided to head back straight away.
After noshing on a late-morning Rose Street Patisserie croissant (ordered at Five Watt along with some seriously creative coffee drinks) and a Bogart’s doughnut, it was time to hit Revival for lunch.
We ordered a smoky, glistening pork shoulder sandwich, and the ham sandwich to end all ham sandwiches, which consists of smoked-in-house ham, thickly sliced and topped with a gloriously generous scoop of cheese sauce. Of course, we couldn’t skip the buttery, cheesy grits, which are probably the best I’ve eaten. Lynn agreed.
Though we didn’t come close to finishing our lunches, I couldn’t let her leave the market without a quick stop at Sweet Science Ice Cream. Luckily, the spot sells mini scoops so we could try just a wee bit of their wonderfully nutty seasonal flavor, pistachio.
After lunch, it was time for a long dog walk to make room for dinner. We strolled near the river in tiny Mendota until our dogs were tuckered and we weren’t quite so full.
The craft beer scene in St. Paul is something special, so when we were ready to head out again, we stopped at 12welve Eyes Brewing to try out some milkshake IPAs and the “Clout Chocula,” a stout infused with Count Chocula cereal. Spooky.
For dinner, we strolled up the street and snacked on some oysters, shishito peppers and salt and pepper shrimp at Octo Fish Bar before heading into Birch’s Lowertown to sample one of my new favorite burgers and some of their house-made beer.
Lynn loves Mexican food and has an obsession with good mole, so I knew we would have to check out Pajarito, where fine dining chefs Tyge Nelson and Stephan Hesse have put their considerable skills to use creating some of the most imaginative Mexican food in the Twin Cities.
She of course loved the turkey enmoladas, or enchiladas, which are bathed in a light, complex mole, but also the brussels sprouts prepared in the style of elotes, which means they are tossed with ample amounts of mayo, cotija cheese and kicky chile, and served with lime slices for customizable acidity.
Time was running out, and Lynn still hadn’t picked up any beer to bring back to her staff, so we went to Barrel Theory Beer Company before dinner. In order to choose which crowlers she’d take home, we ended up sampling most of the menu. Conveniently, the restaurant offers 4-ounce pours, so we didn’t have to leave too much beer behind. She took home a variety of hazy IPAs, a specialty at Barrel Theory, along with a few Berliner Weisse beers and even a stout or two.
For our final dinner together, we went to Hyacinth, which at just 38 seats is the dream of many chefs. When a restaurant is that tiny, it’s easier to put special touches on every plate.
We started by noshing on my new favorite salad, comprised of celery, roasted celery root, nuts, cheese and pears, both of us marveling at what an under-used vegetable celery is.
From there, we sampled the restaurant’s fresh pastas, risotto and steelhead trout, along with some simple, delicious desserts, including a panna cotta that rivals my favorite (Lynn’s).
Though I was sad to see Lynn go, my stomach needed a break from all that eating out. Even professional cooks and eaters need a simple, home-cooked meal here and there.
Still, there was time for one more outing, so we soldiered on and hit one of my favorite lunch spots, Tori Ramen.
I can never decide which version of the Japanese noodle dish to get — they are all so good — but I settled on the Bali Bali, which gets its luxurious creamy texture and unexpected nutty flavor from tahini, while Lynn went with the salted duck, another of my favorites.
We washed it down with house-made kombucha and drinking vinegar to help rebalance our digestive systems and said our goodbyes.
Though she had a long drive ahead of her, Lynn couldn’t resist stopping by St. Paul’s new Rose Street Patisserie on the way out. She bought a smattering of John Kraus’ genius pastries to share with the folks back home, and called me on the way to say that his croissants and macarons are as good or better than the ones she’s had in Paris.
St. Paul for the win.