Last night was the invite-only grand opening bash for Ringo, former Cargill exec Jim Ringo’s first of two upcoming forays into local dining. Ringo is at the The Shops at West End in St. Louis Park, a parking garage-studded McMain Street across from Costco and Home Depot. The juxtaposition is uncanny, raising questions: Is this a scene in a movie? A dream? An acid flashback?
That eerie feeling continued at Ringo’s opening bash, as the preening guests, gleaming furniture, and, especially, the magnificent robata grill made me feel like I was onscreen as an extra in a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock. Not being a regular at parties covered by C.J. from the Strib, this was far from normal. Thankfully, though, I soon met chef Ryan Aberle, an ebullient guy who, in a down-to-earth 10-minute conversation, showed that Ringo has a thoughful, un-manufactured side.
For instance, Aberle did some of the woodworking, although certainly not the intricate Thai carvings that hang over the bar. Several walls are covered in reclaimed wood from a barn in northern Minnesota, the “bad” seats by the bathroom are charming curved booths, and the huge open kitchen is visible from most every seat. Charcoal flames define Aberle’s menu, and smelling the charcoal while watching chefs turn searing meat was invigorating.
“[The grill is] a signature piece,” says Aberle, formerly chef at NorthCoast in Wayzata. “There’s only four of these that have been made. The company that made this for us also does a broiler called the Wood Show which is their claim to fame, but this is their fourth. It’s ceramic, with fire brick surrounding three different pits, and it’s charcoal fire. We use a blend of Wicked Good charcoal as my base, just a very neutral charcoal, and then I’ve got the Korean wood chips. You can smell some of that aromatic coming out.”
Ringo’s menu has three parts: comfort foods, “time-honored international dishes,” and a monthly “destination menu” (April is Seoul, South Korea; May is Brussels, Belgium). A cardinal sin of a restaurant is to have an overly ambitious, cluttered menu; Ringo’s was as tight as a three-pronged list could be. Small plates, five steaks, eight entrees, and a few salads, sandwiches, and burgers seemed about right, not counting the special Korean menu. And everything Aberle produced in bite-sized party portions was pretty good — standouts were three divine crab cakes, super-crispy walleye, a beyond-lemony Caesar salad, and a thick seafood bisque.
The Korean entrees available Monday were heavily charcoaled short ribs, bibb lettuce wraps with bulgogi, and a kimchi sampler of cabbage, daikon radish, and cucumber. I’m no Korean food expert, but it was tasty, and Aberle said the destination menu’s purpose was to interpret different cuisines, not define them.
“Grandmothers have been my greatest resource,” Aberle says. “I’ve got a couple of Korean grandmothers who we have consulted for the menu, and some of the things on the menu, they shake their heads at. Kimchi would be one of them because it’s not funky enough for them. It’s not authentic kimchi, but in the meantime, we have to put our spin on it. If I put out something you would recognize as authentic, three-months-in-the-ground kimchi, to folks here, we would probably have some issues. And I can’t fake that, either. I can’t fake three months in the ground. But I think we’re doing a fairly good job at it.”
Vegetarians be wary, especially non-fish eaters. Only a couple of salads, a grilled cheese on the lunch menu, and one Korean menu appetizer are meat- and fish-free, although that appetizer, rich sweet potatoes drizzled with almond syrup, sent our table into orbit. It would work for dessert, but then you’d miss the standout tiramisu. Seems like every restaurant has tiramisu, but Aberle’s version with chocolate ganache, orange zest, Grand Marnier, and ladyfingers dipped in espresso and Frangelico was delicious, and as a bonus includes an entire shot of not-baked-off liqueur. Our waiter said minors cannot order it.
Drinking at Ringo on somebody else’s dime would be sweet. The bar has “wings” on both sides that allow parties of three or more to sit together. “It allows my bartenders back there to be fairly efficient,” says Aberle, “but at the same time, you know that problem at the bar where you can’t sit four people and talk? Here you can sit in a group and have a good conversation.” Try The Garden: Hendrick’s gin, lime juice, chamomile syrup, fresh-squeezed cucumber juice, and mint. It was fantastic, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d almost pay the $11 for one. Bar manager Alicia Brown touted the Bacon Old Fashioned (“It tastes like breakfast”), with bacon-infused Bulleit bourbon, maple syrup, and whiskey barrel bitters, but at $14, it better come in a pint glass. The beer list is import-heavy; the only local options are Summit EPA on draft, Surly Furious in the can, and Crispin Cider. Sigh.
Overall, the impression Ringo gave during its preview is of a decent spot with a good chef, unique menu, cool decor, fancy bathrooms, and a nice patio. Were I in the neighborhood with the company credit card, I’d rush on over for happy hour. This setting should work for Aberle and his crew, especially when they work out the kinks and really get rolling.
“Let’s go to Belgium for a month,” Aberle says. “You’re going to get a lot of things cooked in beer. What’s wrong with that? And after that, we try to pin things with what’s going on in the world. In July, we’re going to Cape Town, South Africa [site of the World Cup]. So it’s been a lot of fun for me.”
5331 W 16th St
St. Louis Park, MN
OWNER / CHEF: Jim Ringo / Ryan Aberle
PRICES: Appetizers $9-$19, sandwiches $6-$12, entrees $15-39, salads $9-$21; international menu will vary but Korean runs $5-$25.