Food Meets Beer Tries Some Innovative Food and Beer Pairings at Republic Calhoun Square
By John Garland, The Heavy Table
There’s a new chef in the kitchen at the Uptown Republic. We discover how the menu at the lauded Minneapolis beer bar is changing and witness a beer dinner’s conception from start to finish.
The First Glance
Chef Keven Kvalsten sits at a booth during a sparsely populated Monday happy hour at Republic Calhoun Square. The afternoon sun dapples the table, reflecting small beads of condensation on five bottles from Olvalde Farm and Brewing Company. It’s two weeks before a beer dinner, the second in the restaurant’s short history.
The swing-top bottles have their vintage stickers broken. As beers go, they smell strange, like a forest, wild and beautiful. They’re hazy and full of things like juniper, rhubarb and spruce. Kvalsten is smelling, taking notes and smiling. He looks content.
“That rhubarb immediately made me think of pork belly,” he says of the lightest beer, Olvalde’s rhubarb-aged Auroch’s Horn, that’s destined for his first course. Two weeks later, there will be no pork belly on the menu.
Kvalsten was seasoned in some of the Metro’s most chef-driven kitchens, including Lurcat, Barbette and Heartland, as well as opening Corner Table as chef de cuisine under Scott Pampuch. But he’s also gotten a taste of the corporate side, working to open Twisted Fork Grille and Crooked Pint Ale House.
“It’s perfect because Republic is a mix of the two,” says Republic owner Matty O’Reilly, who co-owned the erstwhile Green Room in Waconia with Kvalsten from 2006 to 2010. “We have the volume of those places, but with no corporate office coming down on him. So we want him to be super creative.”
Since Il Gatto and Primebar fizzled and others in the Hennepin-Lake area still serving a familiar brand of bar food, the time seems right for a more upscale slant on Republic’s menu.
“People are here to drink beer. Our number one seller is a burger,” says Kvalsten. “We’re keeping that in mind, and trying to drive a foodie impulse behind hit. Trying to create more of a dining atmosphere, it’s fun. It’s challenging – and rewarding.”
It hasn’t all been easy. A trio of duck (prosciutto, confit, and duck fat aioli on ciabatta) failed to attract any attention on the menu and suffered from too delicate a presentation. Now, the trio is pork – the belly with gigantes beans, pork shoulder and a bacon jam. It’s still a touch “foodie,” but seems more engineered to be a crowd-pleaser.
We sip together through Olvalde’s lineup. Kvalsten has never tasted these beers before and he hasn’t been dealt an easy hand. These are intriguing, rustic flavors to contend with. “There are also a ton of lees in these,” he remarks. The bottle conditioning leaves Olvalde’s brews with only a gentle carbonation and a yeasty, layered flavor.
With two weeks before the dinner, everything is on track. The menu looks composed. The proteins look kind of heavy; we worry they’ll overwhelm the more subtle beer. “It helps to write a menu and look at it periodically,” he explains, adding that his next two weeks will be spent figuring out sourcing issues, and techniques that will lend themselves to game-time efficiency.
The next time we see him, the menu is nearly unrecognizable from its first iteration.
On The Menu
Nineteen guests arrive for dinner on a sultry Tuesday evening, just shy of the two dozen seats O’Reilly had hoped to fill. We meet Olvalde brewer Joe Pond. He’s a jovial, engaging fellow and an outlier committed to old school brewing on his farm. He doesn’t actively cool his fermenters. He makes primary use of casks and barrels. He’s growing rhubarb and trimming spruce tips from his trees for flavor. It’s beer that reflects its terroir unlike any in Minnesota we’ve tasted.
“Most microbreweries are just downsized versions of the big ones,” says Pond. “That’s what’s great about farmhouse brewing. It’s a middle-man between homebrewing, where you get all that fresh, unique flavor, and industrial beer with some consistency built in.”
We sneak back into the kitchen. Bright orange salmon filets rest near the ovens, and the grill marks on each are crossed with an architect’s precision. A hotel pan of cubed rutabaga wafts a citrusy perfume. Kvalsten is manning one side of the kitchen by himself, with nineteen plates crammed on every available square inch of counter space. He doesn’t look stressed in the least.
We grab a table with O’Reilly and local beer knight Lanny Hoff, whose authority on bottle conditioned beers makes for apropos dining company. Hoff seems impressed with Olvalde throughout the dinner. “[Joe] is giving some serious thought to how these flavors come across,” he says. “He’s out in, what, Rollingstone? Wow. This is what the craft beer movement is all about right here.”
Before & After
The dinner goes off without a hitch. O’Reilly seems happy with the output, as do the diners. But it could have been different. It was supposed to be different. So what was the original conception for this dinner that Kvalsten had in mind? And why did it change?
First Course: Olvalde’s Auroch’s Horn Aged on Rhubarb.
At first: “It’s like a rhubarb cider. A sour, almost,” says Kvalsten, back at our happy hour two weeks prior to the dinner. “As soon as I tasted it, I thought pork belly. So I’m thinking a rhubarb-strawberry compote, pork belly, acid from the compote, fat from the pork belly. Acid and fat, I love bringing the two together.”
On the menu: Roulade of Chicken stuffed with wild rice and cherries, watercress salad, rhubarb vinagrette.
We were a bit skeptical of a strawberry/pork belly combo and were relieved to see Kvalsten had spun out something so completely different. He first learned the dish at a hotel and the stuffed chicken certainly echoes that aesthetic. The change was probably made for execution’s sake, to present a wide-appealing starter he’d made en masse before. The flavor profile was safe, maybe too safe, though no less than comforting and very Minnesotan.
With the beer: Pleasant, fruity and mild. The rhubarb shows off its sweet and sour side. It’s ever-present, but not overwhelming.
Second Course: Brynhildr’s Gift
At first: “Super heavy juniper” he remarks of the woodsy farmhouse ale. “When I have juniper I think of duck.” He looks set on that protein, but adds, “Also Scandinavian food, so salmon was a thought, with dill. Not everyone eats ramps and fiddle heads, but if we can hang on to some I’ll use those to keep things interesting.”
On the menu: Grilled Wild Salmon, rutabaga & orange, juniper beurre blanc, micro basil.
The plate is bursting with color. Roasting rutabaga in orange juice with a cinnamon stick is a deft maneuver. The beurre blanc, based on juniper berries steeped in white wine, elicited some very audible sighs of joy from the dining room.
With the Beer: Winner, winner, salmon dinner. Kvalsten said it was his best pairing of the night and nearly everyone agreed. The juniper with the fish was very Scandinavian and was balanced terrifically.
Third Course: Bourbon Cask Aged Ode
At first: “This one’s a beast,” he says, “I’m thinking very simple here, a fatty piece of rib eye.” He needs something to stand up to the bourbon and oak flavors in the heady porter, but nothing too overwhelming. It’s a nuanced beer, brewed in November 2011, that’s become more and more complex after aging stints in tank, cask, and finally in the bottle.
On the menu: Duo of pork—bourbon glazed ribs and seared tenderloin—drunken apples, new potatoes, braised greens and bacon.
It’s still somewhat in line with what Kvalsten was originally thinking. Bourbon and barbecue sauce are natural allies. Though the plate suffered from some redundancy, it was a hit. The apples brought some much-needed acid to the party and who can quibble with braised chard full of bacon drippings?
With the beer: The sticky glaze on the ribs was exactly the match the oak in the beer demanded. The bourbon essence framed the plate rather than controlling it.
Dessert: Ode to a Russian Shipwright
At first: “We’ll do a spice cake,” he says, “with raisins plumped in the beer, and an ice cream or sorbet with the beer. The beer will be in all three components, and possibly a fourth with a sauce.”
On the menu: Exactly that, with a brown sugar frosting and caramelized peaches. It proved the only dish he had nailed down from beginning to end. Although he had to use different stouts in the actual construction since the Shipwright only arrived at Republic earlier on the day of the dinner.
With the beer: The spruce flavor with the raisins and spongy cake reminded us of a Christmastime bread pudding. It wasn’t the meal he originally set out to cook, but Kvalsten did what good chefs do: he adapted and produced a memorable evening.
John Garland also writes about food and drink for the Heavy Table (heavytable.com)