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MNfusion: Salt Cellar Embodies St. Paul Culture With Retro, Old-School Style

It's a tough job to open a restaurant.

A fact the team at Salt Cellar in St. Paul knows all too well.

The new-fashioned steakhouse was set to open in October of 2014, but as the opening date neared certain aspects kept them from opening their doors.

The restaurant soldiered on and was finally able to open on Dec. 22, 2014 to eager crowds of hungry Minnesotans.

And after being open just over a month, the Salt Cellar is fast becoming a St. Paul institution.

So, I sat down with General Manager Blake Watson and Head Chef Alan Bergo to discuss all aspects of the restaurant, from the parking to the Piedmontese beef to it's place in St. Paul's food scene.

Salt Cellar Bar
(credit: CBS)

Congratulations on finally opening up! I know it was a bit of a journey to get here. Let's start from the beginning, tell me about the concept of the restaurant.

Bergo: I was working at Heartland with Lenny (Russo) and he approached me and talked to me about kind of a throwback steakhouse concept going into St. Paul. And when I think of that sort of concept a lot of the stuff I think of is food based in classical French technique, but in this way kind of updated a little bit and reinterpreted. And classical French technique and Italian technique is what I grew up cooking and what I taught myself. And [Russo] also said that if we put an older guy in a place like this, cooking old school themed food, it wouldn't work.  He thought that someone younger that has my particular sort of skill set would be a good fit for it.

Seems like he was right! Why did the owners chose this location on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul?

Watson: The two owners of the restaurant, Joe Kasel and Kevin Geisen, have lived in St. Paul all their lives. They own another restaurant called Eagle Street Bar & Grill which they've had for 12 years. It was always their passion to open up another restaurant that was a little bit more upscale than the restaurant that they have now. They're good old fashioned St. Paul boys. They grew up loving St. Paul. They want to bring something back and give something back to St. Paul as St. Paul has been so good to them. As far as this area up on the hill, we got lucky. It just made perfect sense. Because there was nothing like exactly what we're doing up on this hill, it made even more sense for us.

Why the Salt Cellar? Where did that name come from?

Bergo: Joe was up late one night looking at information about old St. Paul houses and he found that sometimes they would have a salt cellar, places where they would hold meat and things like that in the basement in these larger houses on Cathedral Hill. Which is a really cool thing.

How does the name of the restaurant influence the food?

Bergo: To me, from a culinary perspective, when I heard the word 'salt cellar' I was like 'Oh my God, that's so cool.' Because coming from where I'm from, Heartland, working with all sorts of different meat and preparations and doing all of our charcuterie in house, to me the word salt cellar evokes preservation, curing and being frugal but also being very creative with meat.

Watson: And [places on Cathedral Hill] were known for its eight-course meals that they used to do back in the day.

On the website the restaurant is described as "retro style of an old-school supper club." What does that mean?

Watson: It was try to give a it a different vibe. It was trying to think of all that an old school supper club was, very old and deep, but trying to give a retro twist to it. So, that was being able to see into the kitchen and it having an open feel as you walk into the restaurant. [It was] kind of trying to bring all ages together from the other generation to the younger generation. Not just putting a restaurant together where it was an old supper club feel where you have the younger generation not wanting to be a part of that. I think if you look at the restaurant itself, I think everything that we've done in here is very unique. You know you don't see a kings table sitting in the middle of a dining room anymore.

Salt Cellar Dining Room
(credit: CBS)

How do you think having an open kitchen enhances the feel of the restaurant?

Bergo: There's something different about seeing into a kitchen that is a working kitchen, that has different components that are like cogs turning and interlocking. You can see that these are real people back there who are working meticulously on these things. To me it's kind of like a little bit of a food concert.

Watson: It's a show that you get to see. Sitting in here in the dining room and being able to see an actual show, being able to see everyone work is as a team.

So, once the concept was created it came down to actually opening the establishment. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of opening the restaurant?

Watson: For us the process, I mean, it is what it is. It's not exactly what we thought we were going to have to go through. We were looking at trying to open the restaurant in October, then from October to November, then November to December. There's not too many restaurants that have to go through seven city hearings with the city council to get your liquor license. A lot of it had to do with the parking. [So now,] we have valet parking seven days a week, we also have contracted parking with Boy Scouts of America, which is a block and a half down Western [Avenue] where we have additional spots during the week and on the weekend we have an additional 75 spots. Now that we're up and running things have recovered really well. We were busy right out of the gate. And going into the month of January, which is typically the slowest time of the year for a restaurant, business has still been very good for us.

It's great to hear that all the hard work paid off and that business has been so consistent. So, let's move on to what the people are here for – the food! Tell me about the menu.

Bergo: Well, obviously the food and the menu are very close to my heart. Coming from Heartland the last thing I thought I would be doing would be working at a restaurant that has a la carte steaks. So it was a big challenge to figure out how can I make this work for me creatively, from what I feel personally about food, and eventually I think what we found is a meat-centric restaurant. So, we're kind of bridging a couple different worlds. We have a meat-centric restaurant like Murray's or Manny's or Mancini's or a place like that, and we combining that with the chef driven sensibilities of places where I come from. So in the end, we basically have a meat-centric ingredient driven restaurant.

Chef Bergo, you've noted that the beef is a very important part of this restaurant being that it is so meat-centric. Can you talk about the beef you use?

Bergo: The Piedmontese beef is an Italian heirloom breed. So, in theory, everyone is all hot about grass-fed beef and diners love it. Except when they taste it and they say it's chewy and tough and they send it back. From my experience. It is a complaint that I got at other places that I worked all the time. People love the idea and then complain about it. So, the Piedmontese beef is a grass-fed and grain-finished beef, and its particular characteristics is it has something called double muscling, which means that it has near identical health benefits of pure grass-fed beef but with a tenderness that the diners are looking for. So it's truly the best of both worlds. It is the only beef we use. We knew the beef had to be very, very special. It is our entire program.

Aside from the a la carte steaks, will there be items on the menu that will change seasonally?

Bergo: Absolutely. I mean if you look at the menu right now, we opened in the fall and into the winter. You won't find a fresh tomato on the menu. We've already had one decent menu change. At Heartland I would type the menu every day. So it's a bit of a challenge now because I feel like I should be changing it a lot more. And it won't be changing as much as something like [Heartland], but it will definitely be changing way more than a lot of the places with a similar concept, like the old school steak houses where the menu does not change. But absolutely, seasonality is huge for me. I see us, and we already are, buying large amounts of things in season, so things that can get put up and then preserved and then used throughout the entire year. So, when the first ramps and nettles come up in the spring I get those in large amounts and maybe, boom, it's the middle of summer and I put out a steak or a fish with ramp butter on it. And that's a truly Midwestern thing that you will not find at any other meat-centric restaurant.

Tell me a bit about the desert menu. It looks atypical to what traditional steakhouses generally have.

Bergo: In season, the things will change. We started out with the bananas foster because it's classic. Eventually, once cherry season comes around, I'd love to put a cherries jubilee with Michigan sweets out. The flagship desert is very, very French. That's the Gateau Marjolaine. It's made by one of my heroes, a guy named Fernand Point. It is layers of hazelnut meringue and buttercream with a little bit of chocolate. It's insanely rich. Very good. You'll see a lot of French influence definitely in the desert menu. One of the last things I had my pastry chef work on was a bavarois. So, everyone has had panna cotta. The bavarois is a really sexy version. It's super fluffy and perched on a sponge cake.

Sounds delicious! Tell me, what is your favorite dish on the menu?

Bergo: There's a couple of them. One that is really kind of evocative of my kind of style of cooking, which is using indigenous and obscure Midwestern ingredients, is a scallop dish. The scallop dish is made with a little bit of polenta, but the polenta is made with a root that is called a burdock [root]. The first time that I dug a burdock root it was on my dad's farm. I didn't know it was an ingredient that people only think of as pickled in sushi. I approached it from a European standpoint where I saw, OK, here's this root and when I cook it for a long time it tastes like oysters but it's very fibrous. So, I cooked the burdock and I pureed and creamed and passed it through a mesh strainer and cooked polenta in that. So, we serve the scallops on a little bit of polenta and it's like a strange combination of fish on fish. And the burdock grows in the Midwest all over the place. The relish tray is also one of my favorite parts of the restaurant. It's also one of the places where we get to be the most creative. Ours changes every day. It's usually an assortment of a couple different spreads and flavored butters. My favorite one is a white cheddar pureed with horseradish. The purpose of the relish tray was to get diners ready to drink. Things that are salty, sharp and kind of have a little punch to them.  [Ours] will usually have four of five different components, and it will change all the time depending on what we have.

The Salt Cellar is located at 173 Western Avenue on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul. They are open 4 – 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday. For reservations, call 651-219-4013. For more information on the restaurant and Chef Bergo, read his blog here


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