Since Saint Dinette’s opening in June, its 27-year-old chef de cuisine Adam Eaton is having fun building a menu around what he labels "elevated fat-kid food."
Inspired by his five years working in the kitchen of Minneapolis’ late, great La Belle Vie, Eaton pulled up stakes and high-tailed it to St. Paul to assist in the opening of the still-new Lowertown gem.
Directly adjacent to the fancy new Saints stadium and across the street from the farmer’s market in the rejuvenated Rayette Lofts building, Saint Dinette brings a dash of panache to this fast-growing section of the capital city.
Eaton’s bosses—J.D. Fratzke and Tim Niver of The Strip Club Meat & Fish in St. Paul—have placed a substantial bet atop the shoulders of their fresh-faced top chef. Living just a half-block away from the restaurant, Eaton loves the neighborhood. He walks to work, and hopes more restaurateurs plant their flag nearby in the coming years.
His bologna sandwich and turducken—evidence of the mantra—are two of his favorites on the menu. The rest is decidedly more upscale and pretty ambitious for a "fat-kid" foodie. Duck tartare, grilled octopus, sturgeon with caviar, short ribs in sour beer, fried smelt and matzah ball soup are a few of the current signature items that evoke time spent pleasing fine-dining customers at La Belle Vie.
"I owe everything to that restaurant," he said. "It pushed me, it never made me complacent and I learned every single day I was there."
Of his menu, Eaton said, "people either like it and get it or they don’t." While there’s at least one significant change to the menu every week, he added that some items aren’t going away any time soon, such as the cheeseburger.
"We try to think of really craveable food that we can elevate and make really nice for people, and show some finesse and technique with it," he said. "People aren’t going to come back to your restaurant if there aren’t certain dishes they can rely on."
Eaton keeps a list of future ideas for simple items, like his bologna sandwich, he can elevate. New items, he added, always require tweaks elsewhere on the menu to maintain balance.
"You always look at the big picture of what you want the menu to look like, and it’s important because we have a small menu," he said. "When you change one thing, there are usually three other things that need to change right away."
St. Paul is the only city Eaton’s lived in, yet he feels more tied to Montreal than to any other city outside of Minnesota, and has explored the city’s world-class restaurant scene for ideas he can bring back home.
"Food that’s comforting and cheesy and gravy and all those things are really good," he said. "I like turducken a lot. It’s Thanksgiving on a plate, and that’s the type of food I want to eat around this time of year."
Even though he’s young for a head chef, Saint Dinette’s owners give Eaton and front-of-the-house manager Laurel Elm—another La Belle Vie vet—full control to build their own systems, create their own dishes and build wine and cocktail programs.
"If we mess something up, we’re going to hear about it," he said, "but at the end of the day we just do it."
The staff’s greatest challenge is preparing for an unpredictable client base. On a Saints game day, for example, Eaton said they know they’ll eventually fill up, but it’s nearly impossible to determine when the crowds will arrive. The farmer’s market brings similar challenges. So it goes in one of the metro’s most dynamic, evolving neighborhoods.
"The question is never ‘Are we going to be busy or are we not going to be busy?’" he said. "It’s when are we going to be and what kind of a crowd is it going to be? Is it going to be a burger night or people-dining kind of night? It’s all over the place."
Gizzards for Confit
1 cup duck gizzards
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp pink salt
2 cups melted duck fat
Mix together: Both salts, sugar and gizzards, and leave in cooler for 24 hours. After 24 hours, rinse the gizzards and pat dry. Transfer gizzards to a baking dish and pour fat on top. Gizzards should be submerged. Cover in foil. Bake at 300 degrees for 3 hours.
1 cup confit gizzards
1 cup duck hearts
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp dijon mustard
2 Tbsp diced celery
2 Tbsp diced onion
2 Tbsp diced kosher dill pickles
1 tsp cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
In a hot pan: Quickly sear the duck hearts, just enough to get color on one side. Transfer to fridge to cool down. Once cold, take the hearts and confit gizzards and chop as fine as possible. Add all the remaining ingredients and serve. We suggest serving with your favorite bottle of hot sauce and Ritz crackers.