Standing outside Butcher & The Boar, waiting for our dining companion and a table, we had some time to consider the name. It sounds like a sequel to one of Hemingway’s novels, substituting a noble and tusked wild pig for the old marlin. If it were, burned out English majors would only have to wander down Hennepin Avenue to find out how the epic battle ended. There the scent of roasted pork, sweet and smoky, lingers outside the restaurant’s doors — clearly, the butcher has triumphed.
If we hadn’t already been planning to eat there, we would not have been able to resist the smell, no matter the wait. If you go — and you should — it’s easy enough to get a reservation, which we recommend lest you end up on the sidewalk outside this much-lauded restaurant making up stories rather than inside drinking whiskey and eating all kinds of tasty, tasty meat.
Hemingway probably would have approved of the Butcher & The Boar on the whiskey alone. As previously mentioned, we counted 63 different bourbons, ranging in price from $3 to $14 for a one-ounce shot or $12 to $15 for a flight. At 5:30 on a weeknight the bar is packed with fellows with one hand thrown back over the chair and the other cradling a bourbon, talking work and enjoying the restaurant’s comfortable yet industrial vibe. The bar seating is all white leather dimly lit by broad steel beams set with bare incandescent bulbs, filaments aglow; the dining area is open and airy, with wood tables and a view into the shiny, stainless steel kitchen. They may be enjoying it too much, as one fellow was heard to say, “I gotta go. I haven’t seen my kid for a week; I need to go home and tuck him in.”
If you don’t favor bourbon, there’s also wine and an impressive list of some 58 or so local, national, and imported beers on tap and in the bottle. We do, and so ordered a Hennepin Avenue Manhattan ($10), which combined Makers Mark with elderflower liqueur, sweet and dry vermouth, bitters, and three macerated cherries to create a nicely balanced drink; smooth, flavorful, just sweet enough — and rather deadly. (We recently learned that the secret to macerating cherries is soaking dried cherries, not fresh, in a simple syrup and spice concoction overnight before you put them in the brandy.)
On the fruitier side, the Juicy Basil ($10) layers Basil Hayden and Triple Sec in a tall, summery glass with orange and cranberry juices. It was so refreshing and tasty that a dining companion, who decided she did not love her Manhattan as well, stole mine.
On another night, we enjoyed the Negroni ($9), a concoction of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. We had tried a similar drink at Marvel Bar, which tasted delightfully like a super-fortified Campari and very nearly put us under the table. Although still aperitif forward, the Negroni was smoother and less like an herbal remedy — just right before dinner.
Then there was the meat. Chef Jack Riebel (formerly of the Dakota) has created a menu that mimics the formula of classic steakhouses with a la carte meat and giant, shareable sides, but not the flavors. Instead, his dishes feature aggressive notes of acid, smoke, and heat. It makes sense: if you are going to emphasize bourbon, you need all those big flavors to stand up to it.
Only once did this prove an issue: The Green Salad ($9) came dressed in a sweet vinegar and, seemingly, nothing else. It curled our tongues, which was a shame because, between beautiful spring greens, giant chunks of bacon, and sweet cornbread croutons, this simple salad should have been a winner. On the other hand, The Petite Wedges ($10) were a universally beloved. Here the chefs managed to balance a handful flavors and textures — blue cheese, candied nuts, sweet tomato syrup, vinegar, and pepper — and create a highly successful update of the classic. Without bacon!
We also sampled the charcuterie with the plate called For The Table ($18). The Wild Boar Headcheese was out of this world: a bit like sushi, it paired layers of meat, soft creamy bits, and aspic with a bitter-sweet mustard that popped. Thin, tender slices of lightly Pickled Heart Marcella tasted, in a good way, like leftover steak. The Wild Boar Ham had a great pepper kick, and was so pleasant on its own we preferred to pair its molasses bread with the headcheese. Although a bit light next to its companions, the Venison Summer Sausage was appropriately mild and tangy — we wouldn’t kick it off a camping trip.
If we had to compare the charcuterie to plates around town, Butcher & The Boar is on par with Haute Dish and Craftsman, but the latter is better value. Still, two people could potentially make a meal of the charcuterie plate if they combined it with the wedge salad and a side of Texas Toast ($3 hot, buttered, awesome).
Charcuterie isn’t the only thing that unites Butcher & The Boar with its local contemporaries — the restaurant is firmly on trend with the likes of HauteDish, The Strip Club, and The Sample Room, serving up manly, gutsy food that has one foot planted firmly in the land of meat and potatoes and another squarely in the world of contemporary gastronomy. Call it a reinvented steakhouse if you must, where tradition takes a firm modern twist without losing sight of what made un-reconstructed steakhouses so popular in the first place.
The only issue with making a meal out of the charcuterie plate is that you would miss the Turkey Braunschweiger with Black Truffle ($10), which is not included — and that would be a travesty. Light as air, it tasted briefly of whipped bologna, and then melted away, leaving only the truffle, musky and delicious. We fought over it.
You’d also miss out on the big meat, not the least of which was the Smoked Beef Long Rib ($32). Coated in a classic barbecue sauce, spicy hot and sweet with molasses, the rib was described like this by a bourbon-infused Texan: “This rib falls apart at a harsh word, damn near as good as my daddy’s.” It came with a warm yet still crunchy slaw of carrot, cabbage, cilantro, and tortilla — a nice surprise — that complemented the rib nicely.
The Double Cut Berkshire Pork Chop ($27) was also met with enthusiasm for its rich smoke tang and maple flavor. Somehow the outside of the chop was wonderfully succulent, while the inside was less so — that did not stop us from devouring it. At four fingers tall, it definitely was enough for two, especially paired with a side of Bourbon Orange Carrots ($8), which were subtly sweet and beautifully presented in a range of light yellow and orange hues.
Alternatively, if you’ve had enough sweet and vinegar, the Blackened Cauliflower ($7) is seasoned only with salt and pepper and very pleasing with a nutty, roasted flavor.
The 8oz Flatiron ($24) was a perfect, rosy medium rare served slightly charred with salt and pepper on top. It came with an elusive yet appealing smokehouse sauce that tasted vaguely of sriracha and horseradish. The waitress, protecting house secrets, would only say, “We take the flavors out of the smokehouse and make an aioli.” What does that mean?
Even the sauce could not save the funky beer-battered potato sticks served alongside the steak; they were oddly mushy on the inside and overly salty. (How can this be? We loved his fries at the Dakota.)
And now for something completely different: We ordered the Fish of the Month ($Market), which turned out to be a beautiful little trout, stuffed with greens, wrapped in bacon, drizzled with green goddess dressing and radishes — set on a bed of broccoli foam! Not only was fish on foam a little disconcerting — bringing to mind polluted storm water on the tide — but it was also incongruous with the rest of the menu. Here was this trussed up fish among all these simple plates of meat.
All silliness aside, the fish ended up being a favorite. The meat and greens melded together, tender and smoky under the bacon, and paired beautifully with the tarragon-dominant dressing. The foam may have been superfluous, but it tasted just like buttered broccoli. One dining companion declared she could eat a bowl of it.
After all that, it was hard to think about dessert, but we did, and so ordered the Bourbon and Coke Float ($7). Made with Mexican coke, Jim Beam, and caramel ice cream, it went down incredibly smooth and delicious — and soothed our scratchy throats. This is our only real complaint of the place: During the dinner rush, the noise builds to a roar, and it’s almost impossible to be heard without yelling.
All in all it was a fantastic meal, and we are looking forward returning this summer to dig into the sausage menu — and enjoy another Juicy Basil in the relative quiet of the outdoor patio.
Best bet: Start with the Petite Wedges ($10) and Turkey Braunschweiger ($10), and then move onto the Smoked Beef Long Rib ($32).
Butcher & The Boar
Meat-forward American in downtown Minneapolis
1121 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55403
CHEF: Jack Riebel
Sunday 5pm – 10pm
Monday to Saturday 5pm – 12am
BAR: Full (Open ‘til 12am Sun, 1am Mon-Thurs, 2am Fri & Sat)
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes (limited to sides and salads) / No
ENTREE RANGE: $9-$85