On Sept. 24, Herbie's on the Park, Wild owner Craig Leipold's upscale Americana restaurant, opened to the public in downtown St. Paul. Executive Chef Tim Kovacs has been at the helm through it all, from development to planning to designing a thoughtfully crafted menu. Wild.com caught up with Kovacs to hear his thoughts on Herbie's and why the restaurant is on its way to becoming an icon.
Wild.com: What to you is so special about Herbie's?
Kovacs: It's not just another restaurant. In my opinion, it's a big, historic restaurant that's not gonna go away. It's gonna be here for years and years. I may be the chef here for the next three or four years, but even after I'm gone, Herbie's is still gonna be here and be a legacy. And what the restaurant is about, you have a legendary coach and I just thought this would be a great opportunity to be part of something historic in downtown St. Paul. You look at the restaurants that are downtown here, like St. Paul Grill and Kincaid's, they've all been here 15 years, some of them much longer, and they all are iconic restaurants. This was to be part of a new iconic restaurant.
Video: Herbie's on the Park Construction Time Lapse
W: What went into creating the menu for Herbie's, and what did that process look like?
K: It was basically an idea of what they wanted Herbie's to be. They came to me and said, "Here's what we're thinking. Here's the style of food. We want it to be a social house. We want it to be something that Herb Brooks himself would've enjoyed eating." But at the same time, I tried to elevate it a little bit, put some iconic twists on it. That's how we came up with the idea of doing upscale Americana food. So it's kind of American classics with twists; we put a contemporary twist on it. We do things and then do them kind of a fun way.
W: Where did you get the inspiration for the menu?
K: A lot of the ideas just came from things I've done. Inspiration is from my cooking past and experiences. I thought it'd be fun at Herbie's to do pie on the menu. Well, pie's not known as something very fancy or elegant. But I thought we could just do a really cool, kickass piece of pie and serve it in the restaurant, and everyone would come in just to enjoy that really good piece of pie. [We chose] things that were simple, things that we could just do and do them well. The ginger beer float was another good one.
W: What is your favorite menu item?
K: That's tough. I don't always have favorites because they change, but right now, an item I really like is our Cobb salad. Our walleye cake is also very popular. I enjoy that myself; I have a lot of family and friends that come in, so I recommend that one. I like our pork shank, too. It's hard because I don't take particular favorites when I go out to eat. I always change items. I like to try new things; that's just me.
W: If you could only recommend an appetizer, entree, dessert and drink, which one of each category would you recommend?
K: Well, the walleye cake for the appetizer, definitely. For the entree, it really depends on what you like. But I really like our pepper crusted New York strip. Our Moscow Mule is a win-win. For dessert, that's a tough one, because we have so many good dessert items. Our creme brulee is very iconic as well as our pie, but I'm gonna say it's the ginger beer float, because it's super simple. Everyone knows what a root beer float is, so it's the same thing, only we use really good vanilla bean gelato, and instead of root beer, it's ginger beer, and then we garnish with ginger.
W: What has the reception of Herbie's been like so far?
K: The reception has been warm. I think we've received a lot of positive comments. It's still early; we're only a few weeks into it, so we're still getting feedback. We're trying to work on making it a smoother operation as far as the guest experience goes, whether it's the service or it's the way the food is delivered or the food itself. So I think it's been positive. We had a concert here the other night, Def Leppard, the same time the Ordway was having a show next door. So Herbie's was filled with older folks, an older generation, I'd say 60s and 70s, all in suits and ties, very prim and proper. And then we had people who were attending the Def Leppard concert who were all in short-sleeved black T-shirts that were probably in their mid-40s. And they were all sitting next to each other. It was fun to see, because that was what we wanted to go for with Herbie's. We wanted it to be what they call a social house. We want it to be approachable, casual, but elevated tavern food.
W: What are you looking forward to as Herbie's grows into itself?
K: I'm looking forward to getting better at what we're doing and getting people to come back, that really make Herbie's their home, people that are regulars. And I can't wait to see where this restaurant will continue to go.