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Herbst’s Hard-Won Harvest – St. Paul, MN 

Nov 26, 2023 | eat/drink

Photos by Tim Evans

Herbst’s concord grape ice cream with sesame mousse on milk toast.

Chef Eric Simpson’s ambitious farm-to-table menu attests to the Upper Midwest’s agricultural bounty — and its ultimate precarity

Smashed kohlrabi, juniper poppy seed vinaigrette

A grey bowl with a dish of smashed kohlrabi pieces dressed with poppyseeds, sprigs of dill, and slivers of shallot.

Simpson sometimes uses turnips in this dish, depending on the season.

Herbst’s smashed kohlrabi dish, finished with dill, shallot, and a juniper poppy seed vinaigrette, has a cool minerality, like rose quartz or snowmelt. Simpson, having spent ample time in fine dining restaurants, grew tired of radishes and turnips sliced into wafers and held in water until they’re tasteless. He smashes the kohlrabi with a spatula or the palm of his hand right before it’s doused in the vinaigrette, expelling the vegetable’s volatile oils. There’s a certain risk to a smashed raw vegetable dish — “Dishes like this can piss off our customers when that’s not what they want, right?” — but he keeps one on the menu, rotating the kohlrabi with radishes (“It’s all about minerals and black pepper”) and turnips, which have a “beautiful alkalinity that comes across like horseradish.” It’s a delicate game, though: When Simpson last trekked south to Hidden Stream Farm to replenish his kohlrabi stock, the farmer he visited had lost his entire crop to a freak hailstorm.

“It’s a very different reality when you’re working this close to the source,” says Simpson. “It’s a huge investment of time, money, and brainpower to have it all disappear with one storm.”

Caramelized red kuri squash, creamed kale, Calabrian honey

Rings of orange squash over chunks of squash, finished with shavings of Parmesean, basil leaves, and pistachios, with a kale puree beneath the squash.
The squash is finished with a dusting of crushed pistachios.

Simpson insists that Herbst’s red kuri squash and creamed kale dish isn’t as complex as it looks. The squash is braised gently in a Parmesan broth, then caramelized in a hot honey infused with Calabrian chile. The creamed kale beneath, he says, is prepared European style — it’s a true puree, with a smooth, even texture. Small morsels of lightly grilled kale nestle beneath the squash, too. As for the glistening red kuri rings, Simpson cuts the squash on a slicer and cooks the rings in a glucose syrup. “It has the approach of making a sugar chip without the sweetness,” he says. “Then they’re just dehydrated. It looks like a pain, but it’s really not.” All the elements in this dish, save for the Parmesan, pistachio, and Calabrian chiles, are produced by the farmers of the Wisconsin Growers Cooperative.

Creste di gallo, chicken liver, black truffles

A beige stone bowl with creste di gallo pasta in a chicken liver sauce, topped with shaved black truffles and Parmesan.
The creste di gallo furls delicately at one edge.

Simpson says he steers clear of uber-rich dishes — but this chicken liver pasta, dotted with wafer-like black truffles, is the exception. It’s best fit for snowy nights. The livers come from Wild Acres, north of Brainerd, which supplies Herbst with 10 to 20 pounds a week. Simpson processes them with water instead of the typical heavy cream, keeping them ferric and light, and adds butter, honey, sherry vinegar, and salt. The black truffles, a coarser counterpart to white truffles, are sourced from Forage North, a local wild mushroom forager. Simpson finds a certain humility in both the livers and the truffles. “Customers say ‘Why aren’t they shaving them tableside?’” says Simpson. “It’s because you don’t shave black truffles tableside — they need the warmth of the food to build their flavor. White truffles don’t have flavor, they only have aroma.”

Grilled pork, coffee, grapefruit, caramelized garlic

A beige stone plate with hunks of roasted pork, a base of pureed, deep-green oregano, and chicory greens on top.
These glossy winter greens come from Waxwing Farm, less than an hour’s drive south from the Twin Cities.

This pork is grilled, glazed with coffee and malt, then drizzled in a vinaigrette of caramelized garlic, coffee, olive oil, and vinegar. Simpson finishes the plate with pine-dark chicory greens, a cold-weather crop from Waxwing Farm in Webster, Minnesota. An oregano emulsion is pooled at the base of the pork, which comes from the Dover Producers collective. “A lot of those ingredients are not in their primary roles everyone associates with them,” says Simpson. “The garlic is roasted to the point that the sugars are caramelized — it’s almost crispy on the outside, firm, [from] slow roasting it.” The coffee gives smoke and earth; the vinaigrette gives acid and floral notes. “There’s a lot of translation of farm math into restaurant math,” says Simpson. “When pigs are coming in at three dollars a pound for a whole animal, it’s like, oh my God, I have to translate this into how much a steak costs.” After Simpson buys the pork from the Dover farmers, he has it processed at JM Watkins, a small butcher in Plum City, Wisconsin.

Grilled milk toast, sesame mousse, Concord grape ice cream

A beige stone plate with a half-slice of milk toast, topped with sesame mousse and purple concord grape ice cream.
An ethereal PB & J creation, from pastry chef Maria Beck.

This Concord grape ice cream, sesame mousse, and ethereal milk toast dessert is the work of Herbst’s pastry chef Maria Beck. “The milk bread that she made for this is one of my favorite things,” says Simpson. “It’s such a simple bread, but it’s just so comforting and light and fluffy and delicious, and it toasts really nicely.” The PB & J connotations of this dish are strong, he says — both he and Beck are playful with the dessert menu, evoking familiar childhood flavors in simple forms. The Concord grapes actually come from the Pierachs’ farmhouse in the Driftless Area. When they first moved there, Simpson says, the property had a host of dead grape vines — but in the past few years, they’ve sprung back to life. This season, the Pierachs harvested about 120 pounds of grapes.

Herbst is open all nights of the week, with a special late-night menu on weekends starting at 10 p.m. Catch the fall menu before it’s gone.


Herbst Eatery & Farm Stand

779 Raymond Avenue
St. Paul, MN

Justine Jones is the editor of Eater Twin Cities.

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