The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the restaurant industry permanently. Many places, regardless of how successful, already operated on margins. I had been sitting on this post for a while now, not wanting to post much about eating out during the struggles at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. But today, I learned that an institution of Northern cuisine in Minneapolis, and one of the most successful restaurants in the city, had shuttered as a consequence of the pandemic. I was heartbroken to see a small business, particularly one which I'd just had the chance to patronize, close permanently, and wanted to post this not just as an homage to the restaurant, but also a reminder of how precarious things are right now for small business, particularly in the service industry.
As things open up again, remember to be very thoughtful about where you spend your money, if you are lucky enough to have the money to spend. Corporations, chains, and big online retailers do NOT need more business––small business, already walking fine lines before the pandemic, are really hurting, and you CAN help them. If you feel safe dining out, I implore you to be very thoughtful in your choices, and support local businesses whose missions you believe in and can cherish. Places like this restaurant in Minneapolis are just such places.
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Back before the world stopped turning, I managed to slide in one last little trip with my Auntie Amy, who gifted me tickets to see John Waters' one-man show in Minneapolis.
We enjoyed a rural drive through Iowa and Minnesota fields blasting entire soundtracks to our favorite Broadway shows, and had a very gay blast of a weekend, featuring drag brunch with some of Amy's old friends, and a visit to the famous Gay 90s bar, as well as its notorious photo-opportunity.
Amy designated me the selector of a dinner location before heading off to see John Waters, and I picked the place I passed over for the wonderful Spoon and Stable last time I had occasion to be hanging around downtown Minneapolis––The Bachelor Farmer. This place is quite the institution in the hearts of foodie Minnesotans, as evidenced by three separate expressions of jealously from Auntie Cindy and each of her two kids, former denizens of the state, over my Instagram post of our dinner. When in Minneapolis a couple summers back, it was a tough choice between here and Spoon and Stable, so I was glad I got the opportunity to try both.
The emphasis, as with most trendy places, is local cuisine, local farms, sustainable practices, most notably whole-animal butchery. Chef Jonathan Ganz leads his kitchen in "an exploration of Northern food, featuring local ingredients according to the rhythm of the season." One thing they emphasize is a need for creativity due to the long northern winters, where they must use precisely what they can find in the season or preserve from the growing season. They operate the kitchen within a backdrop of supporting local, sustainable farming and animal husbandry which "represent[s] [their] awareness of the larger impact of The Bachelor Farmer" and their "commitment to stewardship of the North . . . working with farmers who share [their] concerns and practice sustainable agriculture so [their] home can be experienced and enjoyed for generations to come."
I can get behind all that!
Amy and I settled in with a nice cocktail––hers an old fashioned with a couple extra cherries, a standard for her, and mine a pear and honey cider concoction. Delicious.
There was just so much compelling on this menu, and we ordered a lot of it. Too much of it, really. Our first little bite came from the "Breads" section of the menu, and was a "popover," or a hollow, egg-batter bread, with a healthy serving of local whipped honey butter. Delicious, and a good way to start out the meal.
More bread was to be our next delicious thing––a toasted bread served with Red Wattle pork fat butter, complete with honey, thyme, and shallot compote. Decadent and so magnificent. Reminded me of the mouthwatering pork butter they serve at Cured in San Antonio.
From the "Veg" section of the menu, we selected three plates. The first to arrive were pork fat-fried smashed Yukon gold potatoes, complete with a wild ramp aioli, pork jowl bacon, and oregano. These were just stupid good. Uff da!
Craving a bit of a respite from the carbs and meat, the salad was our palate cleanser. Here we had glorious local romaine lettuce complemented by a simple lemon and olive oil dressing, fried garlic, and a Minnesota sheep's milk cheese. Fresh and snappy, and a good cleanser between bites of the decadent pork fat potatoes.
We probably should have stuck with two, but the sunchoke cream soup sounded really nice. Featuring the sunchoke purée and candied and crispy preparations of the tuber, the soup was good, but the most forgettable dish of the night. Forgettable enough, indeed, that I decided a blurry picture of it was sufficient.
I was most excited to try their entrées, which looked really outstanding on paper. Amy went with a glorious roasted pasture-raised chicken, a huge plate with oyster mushrooms, fermented squash, walnuts, and fresh oregano. Beautifully cooked and entirely too much food after our heavy appetizers, and I particularly loved the little hash of mushrooms, walnuts, and tangy squash.
Despite the price tag, I couldn't resist the steak. They get multiple cuts from a local Devon beef farmer, and change what they offer to each guest based on what cut they have available. We were eating early, so I was lucky enough to be offered a stunning New York strip. The steak itself was outstanding, and cooked to a perfect mid-rare, but the accoutrements were really special––a mouthwatering onion soubise, sweet caramelized parsnips, crispy and bitter radicchio, and rounded out by the evergreen snap of juniper sauce and pine buds. This dish seems to be a flagship for them––seasonal, farmer-driven, and distinctly Minnesotan.
We skipped dessert because our bellies were full and wallets empty, and made our way down to the beautiful local theatre to see Mr. Waters. Amy is a huge fan of his work, while I am really only familiar with Hairspray (duh) and his appearances on Bill Maher's show, but was looking forward to seeing the King of Sleaze in person. His acclaimed one-man show started with him emerging wearing a surgical mask, something that seemed absurd and hilarious at the time but now is all too real, and he took a tour through current issues, the gay community, the presidential race, and, of course, his storied career. Amy had purchased tickets that included a meet-and-greet, and also bought for me a copy of his latest book, and we got to sit down and chat with him, get our books signed, and get a photo.
Presciently, he said "I'm not shaking anyone's hand and you're not allowed on my side of the table."
One thing John Waters said that I'm reminded of in these tough times involved persistence––he spoke of his career, and how opportunity resembled his experience hitchhiking across the U.S.: "If everyone pulled over, you'd have a traffic jam, and to go 100 miles, it just takes one person to stop for you."
Stay persistent, folks––things seem dark now, but this is a good time to reflect and remember that we will emerge from this soon, hopefully stronger and more compassionate collectively than before. Soon, we shall share a fabulous meal at a restaurant of equal caliber to The Bachelor Farmer. In fact, I have a few little plans up my sleeve for (safe) travel over the summer months that I'm excited to share!
Until then, stay home and cook delicious things!