Red Sauce Sundays
Every Sunday evening, Monello morphs into an entirely different restaurant, as chef Mike DeCamp converts his stylish dining room into a Rat Packey red-sauce house he’s affectionately dubbed Mama DeCampo’s.
“I grew up eating that food and remember a time in the Twin Cities when there were a lot of restaurants that served that kind of food and did it well,” he said. “They’ve dwindled over the years.”
What a great idea to resurrect that beloved genre. I suspect that if we were to step into a time machine, we might discover that those restaurants might not hold up to our contemporary tastes. Happily, DeCamp’s version does, and then some.
The main event is a multicourse spread that includes delectably old-school garlic bread, a hearty chopped salad, a heaping helping of either chicken Parmesan (highly recommended) or chicken piccata (also respectable), spaghetti tossed one of two ways — with either red sauce (lively) or cacio e pepe (simple and sublime) — and a choice of desserts: tiramisu (fine), cannolis (so-so), spumoni (lovely).
The price is $24 a pop, not exactly Olive Garden territory, but this isn’t exactly Olive Garden cooking (or service), either. There are also plenty of a la carte options — including all the dishes mentioned above — served in portions that would flatten a family of four. My favorite is the lasagna, a beautifully constructed and gloriously cheesy affair that radiates winter comfort food at its most satisfying.
DeCamp took cues from his mother’s recipe (“We’re not an Italian family; I’m just a Norwegian who loves Italian food,” he said) but ramped it up with plenty of chef-ed up flourishes, starting with delicate, house-made pasta (an eggless semolina-and-water formula), a robust pork-, beef- and bechemal-enriched sauce and layers of pepperoni, mozzarella and provolone. The secret — and decidedly plebeian ingredient — is, yes, that Minnesota hot-dish favorite, cottage cheese.
Half the fun of dining here is soaking up the restaurant’s all-in enthusiasm. Each Sunday, the staff hangs new curtains, pulls out red-and-white checkered tablecloths, switches out lampshades, lights candles shoved into Chianti bottles and temporarily decorates the place with copper Jell-O molds, white-and-blue Pyrex cookware and other scavenged, garage-sale accoutrements.
The bar gets into the act, too, with a short, highly approachable wine list (selling the bargain-priced house white and red by the half-liter and liter thoughtfully extends the kitchen’s let’s-all-share vibe) and mixing up classic supper-club cocktails. Refreshing sodas, too, from blood orange to amaretto.
“My idea is, if you do it, you do it all the way,” said DeCamp. “We want to be a completely different restaurant that one night of the week. Different enough, anyway. It’s nice for guests to see the restaurant in a different light, because at the end of the day, we’re a fancy restaurant. Doing this makes us not be that.”
Monello, 1115 2nd Av. S., Mpls., 612-353-6207, monellompls.com. Mama DeCampo’s is open 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Reservations accepted.
Tuesday-Wednesday at the beach
Sushi bar veteran Enkhbileg “Billy” Tserenbat sold his Sushi Fix restaurant last summer, shortly after opening his nearby Baja Haus.
“Ever since I sold the restaurant, I don’t do sushi,” he said. “And I miss raw fish, so much.”
Which is why he now devotes Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at Baja Haus to a restaurant-within-a-restaurant. He calls it Cebiche & Tapas, and he focuses on Peruvian-style ceviche.
It makes sense: At Baja Haus, Tserenbat and business partner Josh Friedt celebrate the ocean-fresh fare of Mexico’s Baja coast. When Tserenbat looked for raw-fish inspiration, he turned southward to Peru, which in turn has a history of culinary influence from China and Japan. The possibilities, he says, are endless.
“When you think about it, raw fish is the ultimate flavor,” he said. “Once it’s cooked, its hard to know much about that fish. But raw? You can tell so much, all the time. You just have to open your eyes.”
Each week, Tserenbat builds a 14-seat U-shaped counter and places his workstation at the center. Then he gets out his knife and starts carving.
Working with the precision of a sculptor, he slices his way through pristine salmon and tuna, then uses citric acids to “cook” the fish. From there, the improvising begins.
He adds herbs, chiles, tomatillos, avocados, onions and whatever else is fresh and on hand — the balance between sweet and sour is fascinating — then quickly funnels all that cool, clean-tasting goodness into pokes, tacos or aguachiles, or serves them with crisp, paper-thin jicama chips fried in a gossamer tempura batter.
(For a snack, be sure to order chef Zach Schugel’s preposterously addictive “crunchy cheese roll,” which is nothing more than grated and fried six-month-old manchego that’s shaped into a cone. It’s like the best flourless Cheez-It cracker imaginable.)
Prices fall in the $11 to $15 range, which is reasonable considering you’re seated in a one-man-show dinner theater. No one around the outgoing Tserenbat needs a conversation starter, but here’s one, just in case: Ask about his new obsession, mezcal.
“The guys who miss me at Sushi Fix, they come in here and hang out,” he said. “We have fun. We’re building a culture that’s representative of Mexico.”
Baja Haus, 830 E. Lake St., Wayzata, 952-476-0816, bajahaus.com. Cebiche & Tapas is available 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.
Wednesday is doughnut day
Sun Street Breads baker/co-owner Solveig Tofte got into the once-a-week doughnut business on a challenge.
“A friend of mine — he’s an old-school Chicago baker — told me that ‘You can’t call yourself a baker unless you fry,’ ” she said with a laugh. “They take their doughnuts seriously in Chicago.”
She does, too, using a yeast-powered formula that results in tender, airy but never cottony raised doughnuts, each one lavished with a sticky, vanilla-infused glaze.
This is a doughnut that is familiar with the word restraint. It’s quietly sweet rather than aggressively sugary, and even though there’s a deep fryer involved, there’s not the slightest trace of greasiness. At $2.50 a pop they’re not exactly inexpensive, but like all of Tofte’s handiwork, each bite radiates quality and craftsmanship.
4600 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-3414, sunstreetbreads.com. Doughnuts are available Wednesday starting at 6:30 a.m.
Thursday ramen in Richfield
Every Thursday, the kitchen at Lyn 65 takes a deep dive into the world of ramen.
They started out making their own noodles (“We’re stubborn that way,” said chef/co-owner Benjamin Rients with a laugh), but consistency was a problem, plus the less-than-pliant dough was breaking pasta extruders left and right; now they’re buying from premium supplier Sun Noodle, a favorite of star chefs David Chang and Marcus Samuelsson.
Everything else is fashioned on the premises, from the umami-laden pork bone broth to the constant stream (miso-roasted squash, perhaps) of seasonal vegetables.
Rients sees his Thursday night adventure as a win-win situation for all concerned.
“These soups allow us to put in all the prep on the back end, and then get something out to the table in two or three minutes,” he said. “That’s a dream come true for restaurants. It also allows our cooks to explore a different medium of cooking. And I love it because I get to eat a bowl of ramen every Thursday.”
Helpful hint: The crew reserves some of that spectacular smoked bacon and pork belly-fortified broth for its Sunday brunch crowd.
Lyn 65, 6439 Lyndale Av. S., Richfield, 612-353-5501, lyn65.com. Ramen is available 4 to 11 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
Friday all-weather barbecue
Every Friday, spouses Jill Moeller and Robert Lorch-Benysek set aside their day jobs — she works in health care, he’s a chef-turned-contractor — fire up the smoker on wheels they call “the pit” and sell smoked, spice-rubbed pork and beef to a dedicated coterie of fans.
Blk Mrkt StP, their once-a-week, sort-of food truck has an unusual berth: it’s parked on their quiet, bluff-hugging residential street in St. Paul’s picturesque West Side neighborhood.
No one hangs around and eats — at least not during the frigid sunset when I stopped by, when the temperature was barely beyond zero. Still, a half-dozen friendly folks were huddled around a blazing fire, talking if not actually eating barbecue.
“We like to make it a welcome place to come and hang out,” said Moeller. “St. Paul is a very small place, and we have so many amazing connections that happen randomly around this pit.”
While they accommodate a small number of drop-ins, the majority of customers order ahead — by 4 p.m. Thursday — via their couple’s website. It’s a smooth and streamlined operation, with fragrant orders of beef short ribs, low-and-slow beef brisket, pork shoulder and pork baby back ribs neatly packaged in white butcher’s paper, and transactions finalized with credit card swipes on an iPad. And a smile.
The tantalizingly smoked meats — mouth-wateringly crackled on the outside, fall-apart succulent on the inside — are expertly infused with smoke from cherry wood and rubbed with a custom spice mix that tiptoes between slightly sweet and slightly fiery.
“If you’re putting barbecue sauce on your barbecue, what are you covering up?” said Moeller.
When the weather turns warm, the couple add a few Saturday nights per month to their workload, parking at Summit Brewing Co. in St. Paul. But so far, that’s the extent of their ambitions. There is no brick-and-mortar future for this pop-up, at least not right now.
“It’s a hobby that pays for itself,” said Moeller. “We’re not here to make money, that’s not the priority. We like to feed people, and make people happy. It’s more of an adventure than anything.”
Blk Mrkt StP, 220 W. Isabel St., St. Paul, 651-560-0227, blackmarketbarbecue.com. Barbecue is available 5 to 7 p.m. Friday.
Saturday and Sunday: Deep-fried weekends
There’s a reason why Mucci’s Italian chef/partner Chris Uhrich turns his kitchen counter into a doughnut stand on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and it can be explained in one word: cannibalism.
Of the mercantile kind. As he and business partner Tim Niver were formulating the restaurant’s business plan, they realized that while they both enjoy brunch, they didn’t want to compete with their then-sister operations, the Strip Club and Saint Dinette.
“But I still wanted to do something fun, and on trend,” said Niver. “Our thought was that people will travel for doughnuts. Chris was doing doughnuts for the Strip Club brunch, and doing them really well, and I was, like, ‘Dude, let’s do doughnuts at Mucci’s.’ ”
End of story.
Uhrich’s output can’t be relegated to the mundane level of, say, the supermarket doughnut.
For starters, not only is he turning out fine specimens in the raised and cake realms, but he’s creating custard-filled Bismarck-like beauties, as well as remarkable doughnut-biscuit crossovers.
They’re all so oversized that they could almost be described as “events,” and Uhrich has all kinds of boundary-pushing fun with flavors. There’s nothing like them, anywhere.
His range is impressive, and his sense of humor is evident. In a nod to the restaurant’s Italian roots, there’s a cake doughnut finished with a lemon zest-dotted Pecorino Romano glaze. And when is the last time you encountered a doughnut that incorporated salami? Or foie gras? Or curry?
Uhrich doesn’t ignore classic tastes. He’s not above plain-old vanilla, or chocolate, or sprinkles — and he clearly has a sweet tooth; witness the colorful, Fruity Pebbles-crusted version. It’s all in good fun, and while the prices ($2.50 to $4) are out of the ordinary, so are the results.
For those uninterested in deep-fried fare, Uhrich also puts out single-serving squares of a foccacia-like dough, topped with all kinds of goodness, including crème fraîche, a cracked egg and spicy arugula. Now that’s a breakfast sandwich we can all get behind.
Mucci’s Italian, 786 Randolph Av., St. Paul, 651-330-2245, muccisitalian.com. Doughnuts are available 8 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday.