Postcard from Tom: Meatball love in Minneapolis
By Tom Sietsema,
Swedish meatballs are big in Minnesota, appearing at wedding receptions and sneeze-guard buffets alike. Also big is the name Dayton, a brand that once graced a beloved department store chain and now resonates with state voters, who made Mark Dayton first their senator and now their governor.
Put the dish and the family together, and you’ve got a Chamber of Commerce-ready business buoyed by a fresh global taste for Nordic cuisine: the Bachelor Farmer, introduced in the Minneapolis Warehouse District last summer by Dayton’s sons, first-time restaurateurs Andrew and Eric Dayton.
“I credit my mom with the name,” says Eric, 32. The governor’s former wife, a resident of Afton, near the Wisconsin border, refers to her neighbor as “an old bachelor farmer.” The folksy name benefits from its whiff of Garrison Keillor humor.
The restaurant concept, inspired by a trip that Eric and his fiancée-turned-wife took to Scandinavia five years ago, is by turns homespun and stylish. Cheery blue-and-white awnings welcome diners to the sprawling corner property, which factors in a clothing store up front (the focus of Andrew, 28) and an underground cocktail lounge, Marvel Bar, in the rear. Bridging the two concepts is the 92-seat restaurant that its owners hope will deliver “the best that Minneapolis has to offer,” says Eric, referring to the top local talent he has recruited, including master mixologist Pip Hanson and chef Paul Berglund.
Though Berglund flags the distinguished Italian restaurant Oliveto in Oakland, Calif., on his résumé, the 35-year-old chef came to his current roost from Heartland in St. Paul, a standard-bearer of Midwestern cooking. Interviewing good home cooks helps his cause, too, as when he practiced making spritz cookies with his wife’s Aunt Marge Peterson in Fort Dodge, Iowa, last year.
“Bread is a pillar of Nordic cooking,” says Berglund, pointing to Danish smorrebrod (open-face sandwiches) and Swedish smorgasbord (buffet with breads). The Bachelor Farmer devotes a menu category to toast, an idea that deserves wider attention. The kitchen bakes two kinds of bread — whole-wheat sourdough and an egg-enriched white loaf — that become vehicles for toppings as diverse as rolled roasted pork belly with English pea puree, Camembert with vegetable salad and herring from Lake Superior. The delivery of the thickly sliced warm bread is as impressive as the spreads. Online, the Daytons found a Texas couple eager to offload 100 silver-plated toast caddies tucked away in storage after their tea shop closed. Sold! The Bachelor Farmer also makes softball-size popovers, which locals figure are a nod to the signatures served at Dayton’s onetime department store. Not so, says Eric. “I just really like popovers.”
As at all conscientious restaurants, the menu changes with the seasons. The braised red cabbage with walnuts and lamb sausage that I caught in late April has since given way to chilled walleye mousse and Finnish breaded pork cutlets. On the roof of the Bachelor Farmer is a garden from which Berglund plucks radishes, turnips and herbs that dress his plates below.
Asked to define Minnesota cooking, Eric Dayton says it revolves around the simple use of a few ingredients, preferably local. “There’s a humilty to the cooking” in his state, he says. The description sums up my meal in his restaurant, where nothing shouted “Look at me!” but everything reveled in good taste, right through dessert. Presented in a squat Mason jar, goat’s milk cheesecake benefited from a cover of minced rhubarb and radish (crunch, crunch) that kept the dessert’s richness in check. In lieu of napkins, diners get dish towels to wipe away any toast crumbs or gravy stains.
Now about the Bachelor Farmer’s meatballs. Rick Nelson, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s restaurant critic, anoints them “the city’s best,” high praise for a dish that is offered wherever Lutherans are gathered. Berglund says that he isn’t trying to compete with anyone’s mother or grandmother, even though his beefy recipe — incorporating cured pork belly, caraway and fennel seed — raises the bar. The tender, gumball-size rounds come with a scoop of lovely mashed potatoes, slices of pickled cucumber and a ramekin of sweet-tart lingonberries.
Belly up to the bar early if you want to experience The Bachelor Farmer’s prime perch. A red leather mini-banquette in the corner of the marble counter is deemed the Best Seat in the House, not only because it’s semi-private and cozy but also because it looks through the foyer, the dining room, the kitchen and even beyond: At the right moment, you can even catch a train crossing the Mississippi River in the distance. That’s not to dismiss the rest of the interior, dressed with the lush work of Minnesota photographer Alec Soth, including a wintry snapshot of what appears to be a frontier village.
The most local touch has yet to go public. It’s the staff meal that occasionally takes the form of a casserole, or what Minnesotans know generically and affectionately as “hot dish.” While “potatoes are the guts of it,” Berglund says the one-dish meals are sophisticated. “No tater tots,” in other words.
“Minnesota Nice” is a label bestowed on the state’s stereotypically mild-mannered and courteous residents. The behavior was on display throughout my spring visit, most notably when a hostess dashed into the street to verify whether the freshly arrived taxi was in fact the one she had called for this anonymous customer.
Before the interior was completed, workers left paint samples on the walls near the restrooms. Early patrons took the liberty of adding graffiti to the expanse; in an attempt to “take back the hall,” Dayton and staff replaced the markings with customer comments torn from the pages of small notebooks that double as check holders.
The mash notes include poems, raves in Chinese and heartfelt salutes from folks who apparently know what they’re talking about. “Being someone who grew up on a farm,” wrote Joshua Donald Larson, “I appreciate the food choices because it’s a great twist on my childhood.” Also, praise from the lovelorn: “I just got dumped by a Swedish girl and my buddies brought me here . . . not cool,” shared someone who signed his note Alexander Cutler. “But the amazing cocktails, incredible food, and great service made it all better.”
In true Midwestern style, the jottings have a practical side, says Dayton. “They give people something to look at” while waiting in line.
With more than two dozen visits under his belt, Gov. Dayton has established himself as a regular at his sons’ establishment. And when the meatballs were temporarily retired from the menu recently, reports Eric, he “made his displeasure known.”
50 Second Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612-206-3920; thebachelor farmer.com. Entrees $16 to $28.