Maybe perfect tomatoes are meant to be worshiped simply — sliced and sprinkled with good salt, a few drops of real balsamic, and some torn basil.
That non-recipe has the best effort-to-benefit ratio I can think of. But around a decade ago, I first tasted an idealized version at Lucques, a restaurant in Harold Lloyd’s old carriage house in Los Angeles, and since then, when it’s tomato season (now) and I have the time (as often as possible), I make the amped-up salad (published in Sunday Suppers at Lucques and in a variation below). It’s a mix of as many varieties of the best heirloom tomatoes you can find, freshly made croutons, an herbal vinaigrette, and burrata to balance the acidity and add depth. It’s a cousin of the panzanella and the Caprese but really is something different.
Preparation involves several steps, but none is difficult. The dressing holds the recipe’s flavor-boosting secret: garlic, oregano leaves, and coarse salt pounded to a paste. If you want to simplify, make the dressing and mix it with tomato wedges.
Now that burrata is made by BelGioioso in Wisconsin, it’s easy to find in the metro area. Burrata has a fuzzy history. It seems to have arrived in Los Angeles around 1993 with a cheesemaking immigrant from Puglia, Italy, where it originated in the last century (anytime from 1920 to 1970, depending on the source). The name means either “buttered” or “bag,” again depending on the source. I vote for buttered (burro is butter in Italian, after all). In any case, it’s a thin shell of mozzarella holding a filling of mozzarella scraps and cream. It’s best very fresh, so look for the latest pull date.
When your vines or favorite farmer present you with colorful, delicious heirloom tomatoes, consider this recipe, and have fun tearing bread into leaves, cutting open a mildly explosive ball of burrata, and relishing a perfect salad.
HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD WITH BURRATA, TORN CROUTONS, AND BASIL
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques
⅓ pound ciabatta, levain, or baguette
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves
½ clove garlic
1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
½ pint (6 ounces) cherry tomatoes
3 pounds large heirloom tomatoes (feel free to use more cherry tomatoes and fewer large tomatoes; go for a variety of colors and sizes)
Maldon or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup fresh basil, rolled together and sliced (green and opal mixed is especially beautiful)
¾ pound burrata (look for the latest pull date)
½ cup thinly sliced shallots (optional)
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, rolled and sliced
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2. Cut the crust from the bread and tear the insides into leaflike shards around 1½ inches long. Place on a baking sheet and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Squeeze the bread so it absorbs the oil. Bake until the croutons are light brown, but not necessarily crisp to the center. Watch carefully. This should take around 10 minutes.
3. Add the oregano, garlic and ¼ teaspoon of salt to a mortar and pound to a paste. Alternately, chop with a knife, occasionally running the knife over the mixture, mashing and flattening it. Place the paste in a small bowl and add the vinegars. Stir. Then gradually beat in 6 tablespoons of oil. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Cut the large tomatoes into wedges and halve the cherry tomatoes. (Optional: I like to peel the large tomatoes, but this is not necessary. If the tomatoes are quite ripe, you can peel them without employing the usual technique of immersing them in boiling water for 10 seconds.) Place in a large mixing bowl. Add the optional shallots. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt, some grindings of pepper, and half the basil. Toss once or twice. Add about ¼ cup of the dressing and toss again. Taste for seasoning.
5. Add the toasted bread to the bowl and briefly toss the salad.
6. Turn the salad onto six plates. Cut each ball of burrata in half, or into 4 wedges, depending on size, and carefully arrange it around the edges of each salad. Sprinkle the tops with the remaining basil and the parsley.
Michigan’s famous beer bar HopCat recently expanded into Minnesota, and they’re making a local impression. The company, owned by Mark Sellers, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., now boasts over a dozen locations.
Rather than pass themselves off as local or small, HopCat states on the menu that it has several locations and strives to avoid a cookie-cutter approach; the hope is that each location will stand on its own as a reflection of its environment. The original space in downtown Grand Rapids is cozy and quaint, with warm wood, copper, and ample Michigan beer. The Kansas City iteration has more than a hundred taps plus a basement Tiki bar. And the Minneapolis location, along the Light Rail in Downtown East, already feels comfortably broken in.
The space is neither kitschy nor industrial but instead feels similar to Red Cow or The Freehouse inside, with a comfortable, loungelike patio on Nicollet Mall. The location, which no doubt will capitalize on Super Bowl foot traffic, sees competition from nearby Mercury Dining Room and Rail as well as Eastside, but the beer-forward restaurant is unlike its neighbors.
In fact, the combination of proper beer service and an exceptionally large tap list, alongside standard bar fare and a full liquor license, is somewhat rare. Locally, this model could be compared to the growing New Bohemia empire. In terms of national chains, HopCat is perhaps a less-stuffy take on California-based Yard House (which has a branch in St. Louis Park’s West End) or a more refined version of the Flying Saucer beer bars of the southeastern states.
HopCat features about 80 draft selections, including 50 local choices. Thirty of the Minnesota beers seldom change. On the whole, the out-of-state beers are somehow more intriguing, with rare offerings from The Bruery and Cascade Brewing Company, among others. Prices are reasonable, and afternoon and late-night happy hours make several of the beers a steal.
The most impressive element of the downtown newcomer is the attention to detail in the presentation of craft beer. There is an explanation of sizing that includes a visual of the glassware with precise volumes (meaning the term “tulip” will be less likely to lead to disappointment). Glassware is clean, and the menu is updated regularly. “On Deck” beers are listed, so there’s no reason to fret about turnover or freshness.
Food selection is downright yawn-worthy. The menu reads like a chain restaurant that feeds kids for free on Tuesdays. The pan-style vegetarian pizza was heavy on the bread but crisp around the edges, drawing mixed reviews. Choices are more substantial than at most bars, and prices are about as expected.
HopCat, 435 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612.276.5555; Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-midnight, Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun 10 a.m.-midnight.
The newly opened Seventh Street Truck Park has all the authenticity of a Guy Fieri S’mores Indoors Pizza, which is to say not a very large amount. We’ll unpack what that means in a moment; for now, here’s our evidence:
1. The entire “truck park” — which we were naively hoping might contain counters serving local food-truck menus or be some kind of a covered eating space at which actual food trucks could dock — is an indoor space with ersatz food-truck counters, lighted signage, computerized menus, and condiment stations. You are essentially eating in an up-to-date mall food court with a full bar. It’s one part street food, about six parts Disney.
2. There are big-screen televisions everywhere, to the point where there is essentially nowhere you can look without seeing four to six of the things. Name a sport, and it’s on the wall, often in several places at once. The effect is like being locked inside of an ESPN news ticker.
3. Legitimate food trucks push the envelope of food; the Seventh Street Truck Park plays it padded-helmet safe with a mixture of pizza, fried chicken, tacos, and ice cream sandwiches. There are a few local purveyors in the mix (Surly, Sebastian Joe’s, etc.), but nothing on the menu would be particularly out of place if you stepped back in time to 1989.
4. While we visited on Sunday night, a live band (yay!) performed a set comprised of pop song medleys (boo!) including a cover of Is This Love that must surely rank among the whitest musical events of modern America.
Now back to unpacking the “authenticity” thing. Let’s assume that you are a) in a crowd emerging from the Xcel Energy Center, b) drunk or about to become drunk, and c) in an open-minded or otherwise not horribly critical mood. Under these conditions, the Seventh Street Truck Park is a fun, busy, happening extension of the neighboring New Bohemia Wurst House (whose team also owns the Truck Park). It’s lively, it has a lot of menu options, and it feels like some strange but cheerful middle ground between a college bar, a house party, a food truck court, and an Applebee’s.
Although it might not be for everyone (notably: food people), the theme is coherent — it’s well-executed and likely to gain real traction in the market.
Sometimes in the chaos that defines our completist approach to Minnesota State Fair Food, we miss an item or two. Long lines (always a good sign, but logistically challenging) kept us from getting to the Wild Rice Cranberry Meatballs at the Hamline Church Dining Hall on Thursday, but we were able to make a second approach over the weekend and give them a shot.
This story was underwritten by generous support from the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
The sheer number of new food items at the Minnesota State Fair seems to have been dropping in recent years as the frenzy for novelty dies down. But what we found on this year’s fair expedition were some bold (and often excellent) new dishes that are powered by creative cultural fusion, some simple classics, and the sad fact that pork belly is not meant to be prepared in large quantities in a festival food-service environment. Read on, take notes, gird your loins, and get out there and eat!
THE DELECTABLE DOZEN
12. Spicy Thai Noodles | $10 | Oodles of Noodles
A dish like this isn’t something we’d typically seek out at the fair — call us old school, but we gravitate toward the classics. Yet we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and complex flavors in these spicy noodles. Even in this center of all things Minnesotan, they were actually spicy, and they carried some real flavor. Rice noodles, veggies, and chicken, all tossed in a tasty red curry sauce (next time, we’d skip the chicken — an add-on — which was mushy and unnecessary). All around, this dish was super tasty, and a rare gluten-free find in the land of breaded and fried everything. — Peter Sieve
11. Garlic Cream Cheese Wontons | $6 | Que Viet
Boom! These wontons were simple and ungimmicky, and unimpeachably delicious. Perfectly fried (not oily to the touch, and shatteringly crisp), and filled with a genuinely garlicky cream cheese. That’s it! No bacon, pork belly, or other BS crammed in there. Just a great wonton. Highly recommended. — P.S.
10. Pecan Marble Sundae | $8 | Bridgeman’s
Ain’t nothing wrong with salty nuts, real maple syrup, and sweet ice cream. Although this is a new item for the 2017 fair, the combination of sweet and salty is an ice cream shop classic, and amid all the other crazy items, it’s refreshingly simple and enjoyable. — James Norton
9. Giant Egg Roll on a Stick | $6 | Que Viet
Vietnamese food seems tailor-made for the fair, and we’re happy to say that the Giant Egg Roll on a Stick at Que Viet did the trick. Hefty, a bit greasy, but nice and crispy, this meaty roll was packed with nicely seasoned pork. Not a home run, but a solid base hit — and a nice flavor alternative to the omnipresent Pronto Pup and its many variations. — P.S.
8. Duck Bacon Wontons | $8.50 | Giggles’ Campfire Grill
Giggles’ is reliable for pushing out something new and tasty every year, and these wontons fit the bill for proper fair food. They had a good fry on ’em — crisp and bubbly — and the duck-bacon/sweet-corn/cream-cheese filling was rich and smoky (although without knowing otherwise, we’d have assumed that the duck bacon was just plain ol’ ham). Pair ’em with a dill-pickle beer, and you’ll be a happy camper. Or fairgoer. Whatever. — P.S.
7. Izzy’s S’more Fun Ice Cream | $5 | Hamline Dining Hall
Every year we seek out the Izzy’s Ice Cream contribution to the fair, and every year we are pleased and delighted. This year is no exception. Izzy’s renders a pleasant chocolate chunk / graham cracker swirl / toasted marshmallow ice cream that happily recalls campfire desserts in a frozen format. — J.N.
6. Vietnamese Iced Cold Press Coffee | $5 | Que Viet
Expectations were low going into this one … we hit this early in the morning, when the desire for good coffee (and not something sickly sweet) was running strong. Thankfully, this iced coffee was perfectly balanced, with a bold coffee kick and a pleasant undercurrent of sweetened condensed milk. In fact, our whole crew vastly preferred it to the far sweeter — and more expensive — Maple Cream Nitro Cold Press at the Farmers Union. — P.S.
5. Swing Dancer Sandwich | $12 | Hideaway Speakeasy
There’s no way around it. The newly launched Hideaway Speakeasy is one of our favorite spots at the fair thanks to a solidly conceived and well-executed menu including dishes like the (initially controversial) Swing Dancer Sandwich. This dish unites smoked salmon, cucumbers, capers, cream cheese, and fresh dill on pumpernickel bread. The softness of the bread and the prevalence of the cream cheese and snappy cukes takes it out of the “deli sandwich” realm and brings it somewhat more into the world of “British finger sandwiches,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. The ingredients tasted fresh and balanced, and the overall lightness of the sandwich was a pleasure. — J.N.