Restaurant review: Salt Cellar

New retro steakhouse in St. Paul succeeds with its prime course but struggles with many other dishes.

RICK NELSON
Updated 5/14/2015

The surest way to kill a conversation at Salt Cellar, the intriguing but uneven steakhouse in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood, has nothing to do with introducing politics, religion or some other contentious topic into the dialogue. All you have to do is order the Caesar salad.

It’s prepared tableside, and for what feels like a lifetime — OK, it’s about five minutes, but you get the idea — you’re held captive as a staffer gamely goes through the tedious paces of tossing together the next course.

“Wouldn’t you rather watch Ina Garten do this?” asked my friend, and he was right. The Food Network’s ability to efficiently and entertainingly transmit culinary expertise into our homes has effectively killed the audience for showy tableside service, or at least put its rooted-in-nostalgia sentiments on life support.

There’s another problem: After all that tedium, the salad is a letdown. The problem is the dressing, which is built on a backbone of golden sunflower oil.

“It’s the olive oil of Minnesota,” said our server, and while that’s a charming sentiment, the two oils are hardly equivalents, and if there’s one thing that a formula for Caesar Cardini’s immortal salad requires, it’s a hefty, fruity olive oil.

Still, meals commence on a strong and decidedly steakhouse note. Two, actually, and both herald the restaurant’s retro-tinged intentions.

First are the soft, butter-drenched Parker House rolls, teasingly sweet-salty and defiantly irresistible. Second is an ever-evolving relish tray that’s mindful of the seasons and reflects chef Alan Bergo’s considerable fermentation skills and interests.

Raised on his family’s Grove City, Minn., farm, Bergo started cooking as a kid after his grandmother gave him a cookbook to pass the time while he was grounded for some teenaged infraction. “And I never looked back,” he said.

His four-plus years under chef Lenny Russo’s tutelage at Heartland are evident up and down the Salt Cellar menu, from its emphasis on regional ingredients to its we-make-everything-here ethos.

The shining star is definitely his eye-catching and well-crafted charcuterie platter, a superb array of terrines, pâtés, hams, sausages and rillettes that Bergo views as a direct reflection of the restaurant’s meat-preservation-minded name.

I’d become a Salt Cellar regular just for the opportunity to graze my way through this ever-changing (and value-conscious) assortment. The mix changes frequently, and while Bergo enjoys experimenting with the meat scraps that inevitably accumulate, he always includes a head cheese (his great-grandmother’s formula), and the punchy house-made mustard hails from his grandmother’s recipe file.

Yes, there are steaks, and they’re terrific. Bergo concentrates on five familiar cuts — sirloin, strip, tenderloin, rib-eye and hanger — treating them with obvious care and serving them a la carte. The premium (with prices to match) beef hails from a Nebraska purveyor of an Italian breed that’s raised on grass, finished on grain and lives up to its reputation for lean, flavor-forward and surprisingly tender meat.

Beyond the steaks

The rest of the menu occasionally flirts with the steakhouse format but doesn’t always end up in a full-on embrace. Wedge and green goddess-style salads are right on the money, and a handful of side dishes are noteworthy for their admirable attention to detail; don’t miss the excellent fries, brought to life in — what else? — a rich beef fat.

I love the gravlax, a wonderfully fatty salmon cured with sumac, rosemary and juniper and served with crispy lotus root chips and tangy crème fraîche. A boyhood memory of cleaning freshly caught sunfish on the back steps with his father inspired Bergo to serve the same mild fish (sourced from Canada), preserving its gentle flavor by doing little more than dredging it in paprika-dusted cornmeal and frying it in a hot pan, a lovely little shore lunch done up appetizer-style.

Among the half-dozen or so nonsteak entrees, two definitely rank as hall-of-famers. Both are whole-animal preparations, a style that harks back to the supper clubs of yesteryear.

First is a succulent, herb-marinated roast chicken that’s served with parsnip-enriched mashed potatoes and deeply savory pan juices fortified with black trumpet mushrooms. Second is an ingenious and elegant spin on trout almondine, crusting the skin of the moist, clean-tasting fish in finely chopped pumpkin seeds.

Then again …

Still, when the kitchen goes off the rails, it crash-lands with a resounding thud. I’m not sure how beef stewed in red wine can go amiss — after all, it has been 54 years since Julia Child published a foolproof footprint in her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” to universal and eternal acclaim — yet the version I encountered at Salt Cellar was a tough, one-note dish not worthy of the proud boeuf bourguignon mantle.

Accentuating scallops’ quiet sweetness by inserting similarly sweet burdock isn’t a wise choice.

Beautifully presented soups — in particular, a rich, creamy porcini mushroom concoction — were 90 percent there, but lacked fundamental finishing touches; a brightening splash of acid here, a supple jolt of texture-inducing dairy there.

I never encountered a pasta that wasn’t inedibly salty. Oh, and an all-vegetable pot-au-feu was disastrous, a sad mélange of limp vegetables and lifeless broth that felt like a punishment for vegetarians daring to dine at steakhouse.

Pastry chef Emma Vagt turns out a few dolled-up variations on familiar desserts, with up-and-down results. Her best work? An array of skillfully prepared ice creams.

Behind the scenes

The restaurant is the work of Kevin Geisen and Joe Kasel — co-owners of the far more populist Eagle Street Grille — who have clearly invested some dough converting a former art school into a generically handsome bar and restaurant, memorable for its showy views into the gleaming kitchen.

As the meal winds down, the tableside cart stands poised, ready for a repeat performance.

This time, it’s dessert. Regrettably, it’s too early to tap Michigan’s orchards, so no cherries jubilee. Instead, prepare yourself for bananas Foster.

Yep, there’s the requisite, alcohol-fueled flame-up (massive enough that my mind immediately wandered to fire insurance actuarial tables) and a heaping helping of stilted chatter.

Yet in the end, despite Vagt’s delightfully tangy buttermilk ice cream, all that’s left are some undercooked bananas, a barely-hanging-together caramel sauce and an eyebrow-raising price tag. It hardly seems worth the effort.

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