If you’re from the Twin Cities there’s a chance you may have heard the saying, “You date Minneapolis but you marry St. Paul.”
Minneapolis is steak tartare while St. Paul is steak and potatoes.
Yet, while Minnesota’s capital city often gets a bad rap as Minneapolis’ dowdy sister, as the saying suggests it’s the comfort and the tradition that brings people to St. Paul to stay.
Lucky for us, St. Paul has some really amazing steak and potatoes, and one of its newest establishments is serving the traditional dish out in a classic way.
In October 2015, Citizen Supper Club opened its doors in downtown St. Paul.
But Citizen’s story begins years before its concept was even a reality.
In 2013, Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures purchased the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown St. Paul and brought in Graves Hospitality to manage the property. After almost two years of rebuilding and re-conceptualizing, the InterContinental opened in the fall of 2015.
It was during this building time that Chef John Occhiato was sought out from his current position within Graves.
“Previously, I was at the Graves 601 Hotel in Minneapolis,” Occhiato said.
As that hotel changed management around the same time, it was a perfect fit for Occhiato to move over to the InterContinental and to Citizen Supper Club.
As construction was taking place, plans were being shaped for Citizen Supper Club.
“We got excited about the idea that the hotel was built mid-60s, and if you look back at the old Hilton photos it was a beautiful property, mid-century,” Occhiato said. “Ben Graves, president of Graves Hospitality, had seen a photograph of Jon Hamm on the set of “Mad Men” in between takes playing with his iPhone. So, this concept was born of mid-century food for the modern person.”
All that was left was the name.
“Supper clubs from the 1960s are really popular and “citizen” is such a strong name just because this is Minnesota’s capital city,” Sarah Barten, Public Relations Manager for Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures said.
So, playing on the origin of the hotel and the classic, traditional feeling of St. Paul, Citizen Supper Club was born.
And while the food may be something diners are familiar with, Chef Occhiato is presenting it in an unfamiliar way.
“Instead of trying to wow you with something new and exciting in some combination that you’ve never had before, we’re going to take the same quality skills and same quality food and show you something you already know in a different way,” Occhiato said.
As Occhiato said, everything on the menu is based in comfort food but elevated to a new level.
Take the deviled eggs.
Occhiato and his chef de cuisine Jennifer Farni tested out 15 different types of deviled eggs, before going with a completely different recipe.
The final product plays up the classic New York Delis like Katz’s and Carnegie. Topped with smoked salmon, chives and cream cheese, the egg sits atop a plate of everything bagel crumbs.
The pot roast is served in slider form for lunch on Wednesday and the Chicken a la King is made as a risotto.
And few things could be more ’60s than a Velveeta topped cheeseburger.
“Again, just look at some buzz words from the 1960s,” Occhiato said. “And is there any difference between that an American cheese?”
But Occhiato moved beyond just American cuisine to incorporate flavor profiles that were also beginning to infiltrate homes during the decade.
“When I think of the 1960s I think of one big cocktail party. I think of French cuisine entering the household, pseudo-Polynesian cuisine,” Occhiato said. “People got a bit more creative with cooking in the house.”
Occhiato incorporates these flavors in his butter lettuce dish, a plate of hearts of palm, Singapore Sling vinaigrette, macadamia nuts and citrus.
It’s also seen in the “duck a l’orange,” a dish composed of pappardelle, braised duck, olive, prune and an orange sauce.
The most popular dish? Occhiato’s chicken and dumplings from Cosmos.
“It fit in the concept beautifully,” Occhiato said.
Fitting with the theme of classic, beloved dishes, when asked if the menu would change seasonally Occhiato said he didn’t see much reason to change things.
“I think 25 percent of the menu is open to change. A little bit of the seasonal,” he said. “To go along with the whole comfort food [and comfort space], it’s like an old sweater. Unless it’s broken I’m not in a hurry to fix it.”
This focus on tradition carries over into the drink menu, headed by food and beverage director Vinny D’Agostino.
The menu focuses on the classics – Old Fashioneds, La Palomas, Rob Roys, Moscow Mules, Aperol Spirtz – but offers a reimagined twist as well.
“We came up with the concept that we wanted to do just classic cocktails, forgotten cocktails and we came up with about 60 of them,” D’Agostino said.
“I think it’s the same concept as with the food. They’re instantly recognizable. We’re not reinventing. It’s reimagined,” Occhiato said.
The Old Fashioned comes traditionally, made with Jim Beam bourbon, Demerara Syrup and whiskey barrel bitters.
Reimagined, it’s made with Tin Cup Colorado Whiskey, honey syrup, orange marmalade syrup, Regan orange bitters and club soda.
The Rob Roy is made with Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey and sweet vermouth. Order the reimagined and you’ll get peach-steeped Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey, sweet vermouth and Fee’s Brothers peach bitters.
“You have this really cool flavor of peaches in the background because of the tea,” D’Agostino said. “It’s very unique.”
D’Agostino said the restaurant is also playing around with offering a Social Hour once a month where guests can learn how to make these traditional cocktails and what to pair them with.
And, of course, as spring approaches, a daiquiri and pina colada may find their way onto the menu.
In the months since opening, Occhiato said business has been good.
With the ever-rotating concerts, plays and Wild games, there’s always guests both in the hotel and out visiting the restaurant. Plus, opening around the holidays helped add to foot traffic.
But as the weather cools and events slow, Occhiato said he isn’t worried that traffic will follow suit.
“I think it’s a comfortable place. A place where you can go and have a few drinks and stay for dinner. And that’s the whole concept – the ’60s supper club. It was a place you would go and spend the evening.”