When The Sample Room opened over eleven years ago, serving a menu of small tasting plates hadn’t yet become de rigueur in the Twin Cities. The plaudits came rushing in from as far afield as Anthony Bourdain and the Wall Street Journal. But the intervening years would not be as easy. The menu was growing stagnant, the recession hit, and people wondered if they had lost their spark.
The restaurant received a new burst of life in 2013 thanks to Geoff Hausmann. Formerly of Victory 44 and Travail, Hausmann shook up the menu with his trademark curation of cured meats until the perfect opportunity lured him away at the end of October. He’s rejoined the Travail team at UMAMI, their instantly popular dim sum eatery in Northeast.
Re-enter Knudsen, who spent nine months as a sous chef at The Sample Room before signing on to a mammoth undertaking—opening the new brick-and-mortar Smack Shack in the North Loop. He found himself executing cuisine at a volume he had never dreamed of. “Now I can scale it back,” he says, “and give that same amount of attention and passion to a small place where I can really get my hands on the food.”
You might hear Matt called “Noodles.” Knudsen claims the moniker is a lazy mutation of his last name, not any reference to pasta, but it fits him well nonetheless. He’s un-tattooed and otherwise unadorned, with short, nearly translucent hair topping his stocky build. He looks exactly like a chef or rather, the type of chef we had before trendy chefs started looking more like pirates.
We nibble on a slice of meatloaf and drink a Wall’s End from Northgate Brewing, a beer from just down the road. We can’t remember tasting a more pleasing meatloaf (ok, maybe Sun Street Breads’) and with the mellow brown ale, it makes a homey and comforting pair. Knudsen seems pleased to be back in familiar territory.
“This has always been my ideal place,” he says. “I like the style, the intimacy. I like the small kitchen and the scratch-made everything. It’s very hands-on. That’s always been the basis of my food: simple, old-school techniques, no smoke and mirrors.”