A Southern restaurant that serves seafood, or a seafood restaurant that serves Southern food? And what do either of those things mean, much less matter, when they’re stuck right here in the heart of a mostly land-locked Upper Midwest?
Enter Chef Scott Pampuch. If he has anything to say about it (and, trust me, he does), 4 Bells aims to answer those very questions by taking diners on a rich culinary journey down the Mississippi River. One that highlights a range of traditions and techniques from Minneapolis to Memphis to the briny waters of the Gulf and beyond.
Taking over in February, Chef Pampuch has already embarked on an ambitious evolution of both the menu and venue itself. He’s adding new dishes (wait until I tell you about the “pork long bone”), while letting existing ones shine (the signature fried chicken is back on the menu, this time for good). Beyond the food, his effervescent impatience to breathe new life into an already lively space is palpable across the restaurant’s nine distinct dining vignettes.
You see, there isn’t just one journey on offer at 4 Bells. From the traditional main dining room to a patio with panoramic views of Loring Park and the downtown Minneapolis skyline, you can quite literally choose your own adventure.
My own gastronomic trip down the metaphorical Mississippi began a few weeks back at the raw bar with a couple friends. This main floor kitchen-side countertop is an ideal place for those who want to watch Chef and his team in action. As one who loves to see how the proverbial sausage is made, I was blessed with a ringside seat.
Right from the start, we dove into the seafood deep end with a flight of fresh oysters. This selection of four on the half shell brought the refreshing spray of the sea directly to our lips. A wonderful way to stir the taste buds and awaken the appetite.
Onward, we plunged headfirst into the snapper ceviche. Snappy flatbread crackers dusted with a hint of spice serve as perfect shovels for the extravagant pile of fresh, buttery snapper before us, tossed with chopped shallot, chiles, cucumber and radish. Is your mouth watering yet?
Our final appetizer, the smoked fish salad was, honestly, a delightful surprise. We know a thing or two about smoked fish around these parts, and this house-smoked whitefish is lovingly dressed with horseradish, fennel and capers. It felt, like much on the menu, familiar and comforting.
Speaking of comfort, let’s talk shrimp and grits. No good Southern coastal menu is complete without this classic. Where many attempt and most fail, 4 Bells flatters with more than old Southern charm. Tender shrimp hugged with rich Tasso and crawfish butter are nestled atop creamy white cheddar grits. Deeply satisfying, rib-sticking grits.
One of Chef Pampuch’s most creative and exciting additions to the menu revolves around a revolutionary cut of pork. Coined the Pork Long Bone, this mammoth piece of pig on a plate includes the chop, along with a portion of the rib and belly. A little something for everyone. Actually, it’s more like a lot of several things for one person. One very, very lucky person. Set adrift atop a healthy portion of the aforementioned grits, as well as mustard greens and a slathering of scratch-made red eye gravy (an espresso-infused Southern staple traditionally served with ham), this unique main course is sure to become a classic. And I couldn’t finish it fast enough. Even after the ample quantities I’d already consumed.
When you mention 4 Bells, you’ll often hear people talk about the fried chicken. And how, over time, it started to disappear from the menu. Good news. It’s back. This time, as I said, for good. After all, if you’re going to offer people a taste of the South, fried chicken is a must. Technically, this near religious experience isn’t just fried. It’s broasted; that is, deep fried under pressure.
The process ensures each and every brined piece of the bird comes out crispy and juicy. Served with a pair of sauces and a fresh biscuit for mopping, you’ll be licking your fingers in no time wondering where it all went. I can admit most of it went home with me.
Not before we sampled a couple of items of the dessert menu, of course. If for some bizarre reason you still have room for dessert (if you don’t, make room), I can recommend both the chocolate bread pudding and the lemon tart. The bread pudding is prepared like french toast, warm and heavenly, topped with vanilla ice cream. The lemon tart is a decidedly bright and vibrant way to end what was a supremely rich and satisfying meal.
Several courses and a set of full stomachs later, it’s clear that Chef Scott Pampuch and his team at 4 Bells are delivering on their promise to bring diners on a journey beyond our own prairie-lined backyard. And they’re doing so with more than just a few great dishes from a particular region. They’re telling stories with food. Grand stories that connect flavor and emotion with regions often overlooked or routinely underestimated.