345 Kellogg Blvd. W.
(between Mulberry St. and John Ireland Blvd.)
The Minnesota History Center, near the State Capitol in St. Paul, is taking its mission into the kitchen. Making culinary history these days on its lunch/brunch offerings in its food venue, Café Minnesota, is new Exec Chef Christian Pieper—an Excelsior, Minn., home boy who earned his culinary chops at the New England Culinary Institute, leading to positions in Providence, R.I., and Boston. Well, he’s baaack, and starring as a key player of Bon Appetit Management Company, which manages the museum’s café and catering operations.
Speaking of catering, I’m wondering how to get on the guest list of the guy I ran into at a recent event at the museum: “My daughter’s having her wedding reception here,” he noted, as we fought for seconds of the kinds of hors d’oeuvres being passed that put pigs in a blanket to rest forever: Think walleye croquettes with lemon aioli; charred asparagus wrapped with duck prosciutto, sweetened with lingonberry “caviar”; and a domino-sized beet stack spliced with local goat’s cheese, dressed up with sprigs of spicy arugula and passion fruit caviar (don’t ask: it’s done with a special little beading machine that you won’t find at Target).
Clever readers, you’ve probably picked up on the theme song running through this kitchen’s symphony: ingredients that celebrate Minnesota (right: walleye, local goat’s cheese, beets, game, etc.) Another guiding Northstar driving the menu is “sustainable.” Oh, and “humanely-raised.” Bon Appetit dictates these high standards, but not the menu itself; that’s why they hired Chef Christian. So when you visit the History Center, you, too, can swoon (as I did; maybe they should keep paramedics on staff) over his Minnesota root beer-braised short ribs, sourced from Thousand Hills Cattle Company of Cannon Falls, served with mashed Yukons and broccoli for (What? Did they forget a digit?) $6.99. Or the root vegetable pasta bake, which allies tender chunks of carrots, potatoes, beets and their kin with Minnesota-made ricotta, then kicks it up a notch with a splash of peppery harissa beneath its cheesy coiffure. It’s served with house salad and garlic bread for another user-friendly price tag of $6.99.
Start with the wild rice soup that puts many another to shame, rich with nutty, hand-harvested grains from Leech Lake, then enriches the grains with lots of cream and tender chicken ($4). Or vote for a sandwich, such as the wicked-good grilled cheese, melding Eichten Farms’ gouda and Westby Creamery’s aged cheddar on sturdy multigrain bread. Or the Café Minnesota BLT, built with Pastures-a-Plenty’s thick-cut bacon, Bushel Boy tomatoes, arugula for spice, and a suave rosemary aioli scenting a focaccia roll. Or Ferndale Farm’s turkey burger (organic, natch) dolled up with sweet red peppers, onions, roasted corn, Southwestern spices, and chipotle aioli, spilling from a Kaiser roll (each $8).
You’ll find desserts winking at you from the pastry counter, along with the beverage of your choice (sodas, wine, caffeine). Watch, too, for weekly-changing menu specials, inspired by the current exhibit, such as, at the moment, Minnesota Ojibwe George Morrison’s artworks, and, coming later, items from the Hmong culture.
Closed Mondays. Open Tuesdays until 8 p.m., other days until 5 p.m.