Case Study: St. Paul’s upmarket Keg and Case food hall is a triumph—and a gamble

The entrance to Keg and Case West 7th Market // Illustration by WACSO

The entrance to Keg and Case West 7th Market // Illustration by WACSO

With 33,000 square feet of space and more than 20 upscale vendors, the newly opened Keg and Case West 7th Market is in immediate contention to be among Minnesota’s foremost food destinations. It’s architecturally significant—the renovated Schmidt Brewery keg house looms with a muscular, industrial power that is softened and streamlined by the addition of new glass, smart signage, and chic tenants. It’s carefully curated—its shops include a new project by the Revival/Corner Table team (the hearth-driven In Bloom), a new location for the rising Five Watt coffee empire, and a second shop for Sweet Science Ice Cream. And it’s ambitious—a huge bite at the problem of how to create an organic, interdependent food community.

Thoroughfares and Windows

There are two big challenges to creating a welcoming space on a grand scale. Go too big, and you risk feeling like a convention center and making your guests feel small and exposed. Go too labyrinthine, and your guests feel boxed in, overwhelmed, and disoriented. The ideal space must be big enough to feel welcoming yet small enough to present many faces to guests—which is precisely what the two-level, semi-obstructed profile of Keg and Case pulls off. 

Keg and Case project developer Craig Cohen’s instinct led him to appreciate the building not just for its sheer size but also for its accessibility to sunlight and passing traffic. “What got me were the big openings, the thoroughfares that were obvious to me,” he says. “You have north, south, east, west, and you had all these windows. At the time they were stuccoed or bricked over, but we knew that we could put them in as a matter of right, because they existed during the period of historic significance.”

Points of interest like the wood-fired grill of In Bloom, the tower of mushrooms at Forest to Fork, and the sprawling mezzanine presence of Clutch Brewing give visitors points of reference and things to look at beyond the appealing cases of cheese, meat, and halva that stud the market. The way the market spills into a surrounding outdoor green space is smart, too—aggressive programming will create buzz that will bring visitors in from the street.

Missing from the market, however, is a populist touch. You wouldn’t know that Minnesota has copious banh mi and pho, dozens of first-generation taco shops, and a burgeoning East African food scene. In general, the market is angling for patronage by the rich and upper middle class, with few affordable-casual options for people looking for a quick lunch (K’nack is a happy exception).

Forest to Fork // Illustration by WACSO

Forest to Fork // Illustration by WACSO

The just-opened MN Slice—a project of John Kraus, proprietor of the Rose Street and Patisserie 46 bakeries—features pizza ranging from $6–$10 a slice. Even the more casual spots of Revival Smoked Meats and Wandering Kitchen clock in north of $10 for a typical entree. Missing, too, are even upscale takes on approachable “American” street food—there’s nowhere to go for red sauce Italian-American fare, burgers, or hot dogs. 

The market’s gourmet focus will appeal to a limited clientele with real spending power, and that’s not necessarily a bad move. But—with the crucial exception of the Schmidt Artist Lofts—it makes the spot a harder pitch to many of its neighbors on West 7th. 

A Taste of the Market 

We weren’t expecting it, but halva, a Middle Eastern dessert without a large Midwestern constituency, is a great fit. House of Halva slings beautiful desserts, like a chocolate pistachio halva ($8 for a quarter pound) that had a seriously nutty flavor accented by a mild, natural chocolate flavor and the mellow warmth of tahini. Don’t miss their Turkish delight, either—this gelatinous, typically rosewater and/or lemon-flavored sweet is unimpressive in its mass-marketed form, but the House of Halva product is remarkably tender and tasty.

Even if you’re not a cotton candy person—and who, seriously, is a cotton candy person?—give Spinning Wylde a shot. Watching them make the stuff is a legitimate show, and flavors are natural and well-defined. For example, the Serrano Strawberry cotton candy ($6) combines a bold (but not excessive) pepper kick accentuated by a sprinkling of real freeze-dried strawberries. 

Spinning Wylde // Illustration by WACSO

Spinning Wylde // Illustration by WACSO

In Bloom, the latest and greatest restaurant from the Corner Table and Revival team, is meant to anchor the Keg and Case experience, and oh Lord, anchor it does. The space is riveting—a sprawling hearth of iron and fire dominates an otherwise chic dining room, an undulating curtain of dangling petal-like shapes balancing the wall of oak- and hickory-fed flames. From its name to the interior design to the chefs’ use of edible flowers, In Bloom balances yin and yang and avoids becoming yet another meatheaded blood-and-bourbon steakhouse. And while fire is key to the food, there isn’t much hard charring or any aggressive smoke on the menu. 

We found our cocktails (Old Fashioned $13, Collins $12) competent—balanced and smooth, but conventionally presented and a little weak for our taste. But things perked up dramatically when the food hit the table. The Uni (sea urchin) was $12 for a few tender bites of echinoderm plated with bits of kombucha squash, but the complexity of the flavor—funky, oceanic, unctuous, earthy—was worth every penny. Our venison tartare ($13) was bright, light, and fresh, served in generous portions, and devoid of gamey flavor. But the escargot-like presentation of six duck hearts ($10) absolutely stole the show. The rich, tender, roasted meat was an ideal vehicle for the garlic butter it came swimming in, and every bite was a joy. A mixed vegetable side ($17) was a little dear, but it contained cattail rhizome, a traditional Anishinaabe food. The flavor was subtle, but the texture was delicate and layered. Our Pork Belly ($24) should have been the star of the show, but we found it a bit chewy and under flavored, falling short of the (high, high) standard set at Corner Table. Dessert at In Bloom will run you $12, which is alarming. But the house-made Burnt Marshmallow was stellar—an insanely light and tender, toasty and mellow play on a Baked Alaska, with a core of just-starting-to-melt basswood honey ice cream.

Not everything at Keg and Case hits the heights of In Bloom. Our $17 curated cheese plate at Gazta + Enhancements came with three ounces of cheese that included the good (earthy, full-flavored, balanced), the adequate (a mellow, affable Wisconsin cheddar), and the mediocre (a washed-out, characterless sheep’s milk cheese). Measured by the pound, that comes to about $90 per pound of cheese, roughly triple what you might expect to pay—retail—for some of the best cheese on earth. And the enhancements? Literally five Marcona almonds, three slices of off-the-rack farmhouse crisps, four pieces of baguette, and a couple dollops of fruit preserves. The gap between perceived value ($6–8) and actual cost ($17) is massive but could be partially addressed by adding four or five rounds from a couple of K’Nack sausages.

In theory, the cheese plate was custom-curated to complement our cocktail, a pinkish-looking, watery Old Fashioned ($11) that was almost entirely unrecognizable as such. In practice, our server didn’t explain the relationship between the drink and the cheese, and didn’t notice (or didn’t care) that we left the cocktail virtually untouched. A second cocktail, the mezcal-based Hobby Hacendado ($11), tasted like diet lemonade shot from a soda gun, with the earthiness and bite of its switchel and ginger liqueur utterly missing in action. Gazta needs to right its ship quickly—curated luxury dining has little room for error.

Our first dip into MN Slice (on their first day open) suggests that fine-tuning may be needed. Our rotating slice (Hot Dish, $10) featured tater tots, Forest to Fork mushrooms, and ground beef but needed some tangy acid (tomatoes, perhaps?) to fight back against all the heavy starch. Although the size was appropriate for the price (it’d make a light lunch for two), the delicate mushroom flavor got lost in the starchy fray, and the focaccia-like crust lacked any of the chew or char that a more traditional pizza would offer.

K'Nack // Illustration by WACSO

K’Nack // Illustration by WACSO

Tofu kung pao lettuce wraps from Wandering Kitchen felt pricey at $12, although the dish worked in terms of texture, heat level, and flavor. 

A bratwurst special from K’Nack ($4) was completely on point. The sausage had a nice tight snap with a firm but not tough interior. The $7 price for the shop’s sandwiches is a solid value for lunch—our hot ham and Swiss on a pretzel bun with Bavarian mustard was tender, unctuous, and savory, and a chicken salad sandwich was simple but pleasing.

A few spots are missing from this roundup—including Pimento Jamaican Kitchen, Revival Smoked Meats, Five Watt, Rose Street Patisserie, and Bogart’s Doughnut Co.  The first wasn’t open at the time of publication; all are versions of their already well-known, widely enjoyed original locations. Pimento’s food truck is currently slinging the restaurant’s food in the parking lot until the brick and mortar spot opens. 

There’s no doubt that Keg and Case is a visual and culinary powerhouse, and will quickly assume its place among the most visited food destinations in the state. But can a food hall in a working-class St. Paul neighborhood live on luxury alone? Even if the answer is “not quite,” Keg and Case has the time and opportunity to adjust its vendor mix in the months and years to come. It should be a memorable journey.

You can find more original work by illustrator WACSO at his website and via Instagram.