If tuna crudo, seared scallops and a pork chop with sweet glaze all sound familiar, it's because they feature on nearly every New American restaurant menu in the Twin Cities. I've heard many diners cite these as their favorite dishes. They are mine, too.
But if you're beginning to tire of these recursive staples, then it may be time to pay a visit to Herbst, which is the most freewheeling restaurant I've seen open in the Twin Cities in years.
Herbst doesn't serve a crudo, nor scallops. They do serve a pork chop, though. Slender yet tender, it's buried with large onion furls that have charred at the edges, along with an unexpected companion — clams. Around it is a thin but potent broth, dotted with herb oil, as if applied by the equally freewheeling artist Yayoi Kusama.
Co-owners Jörg and Angie Pierach opened Herbst earlier this year, in May, after purchasing a 1920s building in South St. Anthony Park that once housed a grocery and meat market of the same name. It was so they could realize a vision of the restaurant they felt was missing — a neighborhood one, inspired by farm stands in Wisconsin's Driftless Area.
Herbst relies heavily on produce from a collective of farm stands, and it likely explains why quieter vegetables shine; why a pile of rapini could be a dish on its own and why it was the most memorable one I had during my first visit back in July. It had the color of a neon glow stick and tasted exactly like how I'd imagined: lush and bittersweet. Anchoring the vegetable was a harissa purée that doubled as a romesco of sorts, vibrating with spice; on top there were onions again, this time shaped into little half-moons, and fried.
I wish other dishes were similarly inventive and tightly edited. A plate of smashed radishes could have lived up to its place as a stand-alone appetizer, and it had a near-perfect script — crunchy, with a little heat — but the acidity was blighting. So, too, were the cranberry beans. They were flavorful but acidic, and served lukewarm, as if they had emerged from a can instead of an heirloom plant.
Depending on the week, you may get marble, red-skinned or fingerling potatoes. They were all waxy and creamy and serviceable, but the trout roe atop them wasn't briny enough, and the seaweed butter didn't pack enough of a punch. For $16, it matters.
It won't matter as much if a coursed dinner isn't the goal. Herbst's aesthetic invites more than one dining style. A horseshoe-shaped bar under a massive chandelier paneled with glass flowers is where you can enjoy thoughtful cocktails and a shared plate or two. Elsewhere, there are record players, booths covered in pastel-colored velvet, and kitschy wall sconces — decor you may find at the second home of your spunky, Wes Anderson-loving aunt looking to chip away at her big inheritance.
Still, it pays to know how to make the most out of your meal. The chef, Eric Simpson, spent years working for luminary chefs in New York, including Paul Liebrandt, whose ideas produced novel, complex dishes that baffled and impressed in equal measure. In addition to the pork chop, Simpson's grilled seppia at Herbst is reminiscent of this — a trompe l'oeil of burnt eggplant purée standing in for squid ink; cuttlefish as thin and supple as ribbons, cooked until gently chewy.
A dish of speck and cream could have been equally successful. The hazelnuts around it could have been the counterpoint to the salty cured meat, except it wasn't the right one. And the Parmesan broth became muddy — in both clarity and flavor — when it was poured into the cream.
I'm less convinced about some of Simpson's other dishes — the inventive takes on comfort classics. Pastina, a seasonal, elevated play on mac and cheese, was supposed to showcase roasted corn; however, the corn was muted, ceding to a strong cheese, while the pepicha (an herb not unlike cilantro and mint in flavor) rowdily overtook it all. A play on a hamburger sounded like good fun — beef tartare standing in for the patty, tonatto for the sauce, draped with tomato — but ate more like a bland amalgam of trickery.
Perhaps the better move is to lean simple. Simpson also cooked under Missy Robbins, who was known in New York for her unadorned but polished pastas. The ones at Herbst would hold up well against them all. In fact, the lumache was on the right path: Goldilocks texture, juicy nubs of lamb sausage, a cloak of pesto that wasn't rich like others yet somehow carried an unmistakable depth. But during a recent occasion, when the dish turned vegetarian, the pesto turned watery and wan. A better option today is their amatriciana pasta, though you must fully embrace cheese — there's a lot of it — to fully enjoy the dish.
Besides the pastas, the ricotta toast is excellent, and still a fair showcase for creativity despite the humdrum menu description. Who would turn up their nose against smooth, whipped ricotta on an airy focaccia? This one had tomatoes and Carmen peppers — a genius play on giardiniera.
Chicken liver mousse, similarly, will attract those detracted by eating offal, because there's a little sour cherry purée folded into it before it's whipped and shaped into a loose, creamy quenelle, with enough honey added to mute the livery taste.
Though unevenly cooked on a recent visit, the lamb is the best among the entrees, in part because of its accoutrements — meaty beets, an unfettered amount of chili crisp and the smooth feta that foils it. Not that the other entrees weren't promising. They could be, if Poussin were cooked less assertively so it could embrace its 48-hour, wildly flavorful dry-age; or if the green chile crema around the crisp-skinned sea bass were toned down.
Desserts may be another showcase for seasonality, but sometimes all we need is a bowl of indulgent comfort, not artisanal goat cheese ice cream that's gritty and icy, or a salty nut tart reminiscent of a Rice Krispies treat way past its prime.
Nitpicks, alas, can always be forgiven when you challenge the status quo. It's worth mentioning that the name Herbst (kind of) stands for harvest. This convinces me that they're just getting started.
Herbst Eatery & Farm Stand
⋆⋆ 1⁄2 highly recommended
Location: 779 Raymond Av., St. Paul, 651-340-0254, herbstsaintpaul.com
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight. Late night menu starts at 10 p.m.
Reservations: There's a $10 per person charge for reservations, which is promptly refunded when you arrive at the restaurant. The bar and patio area are reserved for walk-ins.
Prices: The menu is fluid, depending on what's in season. Appetizers hover in the $8-$17 range, sides $14-$18, pastas $23-$24, and main entrees up to $36. There's a handful of desserts, which top out at $16.
Beverage program: Cocktails are arranged by flavors — mineral, bitter, funky, earthy and seasonal — and each offers a full, low or zero-proof option ($14-$16). There's a tight list of red, white and sparkling wines ($11-$25) and a handful of beers ($5-$8).
Tip or no tip: Herbst applies a 21% surcharge to checks, so there's no tip line. But the bill does come with instructions on how to leave an additional gratuity, which muddies the tipping waters.
Noise level: Not uncomfortable, but its soaring ceilings could make hearing a challenge on busy nights.
Worth noting: Across the walkway from the dining room is the Farm Stand, which sells artisan gift items and foodstuffs from the farm co-ops they work with. The stock changes often. Hours are Mon.-Tue. From 5-9 p.m., and Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.