Everyone loves to talk about the so-called rock star chef—young, brash, arrogant, a servant only to their own wild imagination—but truthfully there aren’t too many of them around. For the most part, restaurants aren’t stages that play host to wild performances. They’re businesses with carefully calculated margins that represent a holy covenant between the investors and the paying public. The chef is important but constrained.
But every once in awhile you catch a bit of unchained culinary magic. The recently opened St. Paul chef collective just/us is a legitimately wild place to dine, inasmuch as every dish feels immediate, having freshly leapt from the mind of the chef who created it to the kitchen to your plate, with few buffers or edits along the way.
The restaurant’s lunch program, which runs from 10am–5pm, Monday through Saturday, is bare bones in the extreme: burgers, fries, and salad. Practically speaking, if you don’t like burgers—specifically “Bob’s Burgers”-style punny theme burgers—you’re out of luck. But if you do like them, brace yourself for an almost implausible value.
Take, for example, the Livin’ La Vida Cocoa ($8). The only real knock is that this dark chocolate sauce / smoked mozzarella / chicharrones / caramelized onions burger doesn’t have much of a chocolate presence to it—the cocoa registers, if at all, as earthy depth that blends into the smoke of the cheese and the richness of the onions. But it really works: the just/us base burger has a pleasant, coarse grind, an assertive fat content that isn’t too aggressive, and a mellow but adequate base level of seasoning. Atop that solid foundation, the restaurant’s speciality toppings have an easy time representing themselves and scoring culinary points.
Our Let It Brie burger ($8) featured prominent almond butter, retiring brie, a pleasant apple chutney, and delicious caramelized onions, all of which supported each other and profited from close proximity to the juicy, savory meat patty. A more aggressive brie would have brought some welcome earthy funk, but that’s nitpicking—in terms of ingredients and concept, this is comfortably a $12–14 burger that you can steal for a bit more than half price.
Dinner is wildly different from lunch: a six-course, $45 prix fixe experience that rotates rapidly to take into account both seasonality and chefs’ whims. Because the chefs of the collective don’t edit each others’ courses, the meals are held together by a theme—in our case, Spice, which ran from July 25–August 11. (If you don’t want to commit to the full monty, you can pick up some selected courses for $7 a pop Wednesday through Saturday, 3pm–close.) Reservations are not required but are encouraged, and they’re easy to make through the restaurant’s website.
Atmosphere isn’t the strong suit of just/us. In terms of decor and design, the place feels like an unauthorized pop-up that slipped into a vacant building. The night we ate there, the air conditioning was busted and a sheen of condensation covered our glass water carafes; three courses into our meal, a panhandler dropped by our table and asked for a dollar before one of the chef/servers politely escorted him from the restaurant. Even with that caveat in mind, we found that the actual food at just/us ranged from good to better to excellent to fantastic to stellar.
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GOOD: Our starting dish was a play on a Reuben—beef-tongue pastrami kicked up with a blast of togarashi spice, pickled mustard seeds, and thin crispy flakes of Swiss cheese. The tongue was redolent with smoke and heat, but the side dishes surrounding it were strong enough to make themselves known.
Our grilled and spiced peach and mascarpone agnolotti dish was whisper-quiet compared to the brash din of our other courses, which was just fine with us—it was a break from the intensity of the rest of the meal. The agnolotti were tender, the filling creamy and pleasant, and the dish altogether agreeable.
BETTER: I’m a serious fan of falafel; I’ve eaten it in East Jerusalem and I often make it from scratch at home. The just/us spin on falafel—charmingly gussied up with an Aleppo charmoula, bright and bold pickled cherries, and a smoked walnut tahini—was done skillfully and creatively, and the falafel-meets-cherry tartness experience was terrific.
EXCELLENT: The braised goat curry with watermelon was a flavor bomb, fully saturated with toasty, smoky, complex spice notes and sitting happily atop a pile of light, delicate basmati rice, accented with a marinated kale salad. A whole entree of this powerful, pungent stuff would’ve crushed us; a small portion was exciting and delicious.
FANTASTIC: The restaurant’s half quail, strongly salted and peppered and rich with fatty intensity, was incredibly tasty by itself. But this high-octane bird was made for a challenge, which the plate’s sauces (concentrated Thai basil, and sweet, intense tomato) provided. The micro-thin Sriracha paper brought some welcome heat, and every bite—sauced up, and with or without the paper—was highly entertaining and pleasurable.
STELLAR: Dessert was an Indian-spiced carrot cake that is comfortably the best carrot cake we’ve tried. (We’ve tried many, liked plenty of them, and loved a few.) The interplay between the cream cheese frosting and the crushed pistachios on the plate recalled the nut-dusted cannoli we used to order and enjoy in Boston’s North End; the garam masala–laced cake itself was deeply spiced and fragrant with the essence of oranges, topped by delicate, crunchy, quietly sweet carrot chips.
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The fact that we received this journey—these flavors, these ideas, these experiences—for $45 is just bonkers. It’s simplicity itself to spend $45 at a TGI Friday’s or Red Lobster without experiencing anything at all; what we received at just/us was an edible story, ably and engagingly told.
There are no certainties in life, and even fewer in the world of restaurants. But if there’s any justice in the world, just/us will flourish along the lines of Travail Kitchen & Amusements—starting from a seed of pure passion and growing into something massive and persistent, but never fully tamed.
Where: 465 Wabasha St. N., St. Paul, MN 55102
Hours: Monday, 10am‒5pm; Tuesday, 10am‒9pm; Wednesday‒Saturday, 10am‒5pm (lunch); Wednesday–Thursday 6pm and 7pm dinners; Friday–Saturday 6pm, 7pm, and 8pm dinners; Sunday closed