Picture an old-school restaurant, decked out like Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. Think of the dining room—a vast chamber framed with dark wood paneling holding court to a sea of white tablecloths, polished silverware, fine china and sparkling glasses. Here is where you come to order shrimp cocktail, a nice steak, an expensive bottle of wine. It’s the kind of regal place where special occasions, such as an anniversary, were celebrated.
You don’t see many of these classic restaurants anymore. More attention has been paid to food trucks and gastropub grub. But what’s old is new again—provided it’s done well.
The Salt Cellar is the newest restaurant to grace the Cathedral Hill neighborhood in Saint Paul, and with executive chef Alan Bergo at the helm, it’s aiming to bring back old-school restaurant dining with tableside service in a way that’s a far cry from what your parents and grandparents ate when they went out.
“It was really hard for me to come to grips with the theme of the restaurant, because it’s so different from what I ever thought I’d do,” says Bergo, whose forte is inventive and contemporary cuisine. “But when I started thinking about it, I realized we wouldn’t exactly be chained to a formula. What if I’m coming up with things that have never been prepared tableside before?”
Welcome to the Cellar
The Salt Cellar, which opened in December is located on the corner of Selby and Western in the space that used to be the College of Visual Arts. Funded by the owners of Eagle Street Grille, The Salt Cellar is intended to resuscitate last century’s supper club and will focus on steak and seafood.
Chef and owner of Heartland, Lenny Russo, was chosen to guide the process and act as consultant. And Russo, in turn, recommended his longtime sous chef, Alan Bergo, to be executive chef at The Salt Cellar.
“The old-school style that they wanted The Salt Cellar to have is based in classic French technique, which was adopted by American hotels,” Bergo says. “I’ve studied a lot of cookbooks from the French masters like Paul Bocouse and Jean-Louis Palladin, so Lenny figured this role would be perfect for me.”
Bergo worked with Russo last fall to design the kitchen and develop the menu while the space itself was being gutted and transformed from art galleries into a kitchen, dining room, bar and private dining room.
Walk into the restaurant now and you’ll see that the kitchen is surrounded by giant panes of glass so diners and pedestrians can watch the cooks at work. The tables are draped with white tablecloths, and the walls are decked with black and white photos of historic Cathedral Hill. You’d think this place had been here for years.
MacGyvering the Menu
The menu at The Salt Cellar is a bit deceptive. At first glance it seems like the straightforward items you’d expect (strip steak, oysters, pork chops), but ask a few questions of the chef and you understand just how much time and effort goes into everything, from smoking the prime rib to making the fries.
“Every solitary scrap that a regular steakhouse would throw away, I’m saving and squirreling away to make other cool stuff,” Bergo says. “All the bones from the chicken and the trout get used to make stock. The beef lard gets rendered down and supplemented with beef suet, then used in the fryer to cook our rosemary French fries. And after my guys have stripped the leaves off fresh herbs, those spent herb twigs are dried and used to smoke the prime rib,” Bergo says.
He’s like a MacGyver in that way: Give Chef Bergo an ingredient, at whatever stage in its life, and he’ll find a way to make it delicious and unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. This experimentation and culinary daring is what makes this restaurant anything but old hat. Would a totally traditional steakhouse use milkweed stalks, leaves, buds and flowers in its dishes? What about sheep sorrel, pickled citrus or caramelized onions made with bacon fat? The Salt Cellar has a unique take on ingredients and preparation, which equals staying power that’s rooted in tradition.
Tonight: Steak and Caesar
The Salt Cellar’s steak is a culinary experience you must treat yourself to sooner than later. The restaurant serves certified Piedmontese beef and it just might be the leanest, best-tasting steak you’ll ever order. Try the prime rib [$46] which is rubbed with a savory herb blend and served alongside a complementary au jus.
Now for The Salt Cellar’s tableside element. If you’re seated in the dining room, you want to order a Caesar salad, which gets prepared before your eyes. Bergo spent days perfecting the recipe.
“I made the dressing 50 or 60 times before I got it right,” he says. “I almost burned my apartment down as I was poaching the garlic.” The secret to the dressing? Local Smude’s sunflower oil, with its inimitable aroma.
That creamy Caesar dressing is made tableside and served over greens with homemade buttery brioche croutons, Grana Padano cheese and boquerón, a Spanish anchovy ($20).
Other dishes prepared tableside include Châteaubriand , thick-cut steak served with rich sauce ($80) and flambéed bananas Foster ($24). In the future, Bergo is thinking of serving choucroute garnie (smoked meats and sausages with tangy sauerkraut), an Alsatian specialty.
A Lasting Impression
The 19th century expression “to be worth one’s salt” originated with the ancient Roman practice of paying its army partially with salt, a highly valued substance. To be worth your salt meant you were a good soldier. Today it means you earned your reward and accolades.
“I want The Salt Cellar to be known for incredibly creative cuisine,” Bergo says. “Making things that are eye-opening and using ingredients that people may have forgotten about or have never heard of.”
(Ingredients for a classic Caesar salad, prepared tableside.)