Blue fringe lampshades, inky azure walls stenciled with blue donkeys, a handful of chairs around a deeply scooped corner bar, a Jell-O shot sliding toward you, pushed by a woman with mischief sparkling in her eyes—wait, not you, respectable you, doing a Jell-O shot in a St. Paul basement? This is the essence of Gus Gus.
That Jell-O shot is made by Anna Morgan, who owns the restaurant, open since March 11, with her husband, chef Kevin Manley. Those shots are not too sweet, nicely citrus-bitter, made in haute style with sparkling wine, Aperol, Tattersall Bitter Orange, blood orange—and edible gold. They arrive square-cut, trembling in gold paper.
“I have a weird obsession with Jell-O shots,” says Morgan. “I’d always make them for St. Patrick’s Day for Kevin’s huge family. For them, St. Pat’s is like Christmas. We lived on West Seventh. We’d start at 9 a.m. with Irish coffees and six dozen green Jell-O shots.”
“Six dozen?” I echo, talking to Morgan on the phone.
“I’d give $20 in cash to petty cash at the restaurant, take home two sleeves of plastic ramekins, the kind you get to-go ketchup in. I make green-and-red Jell-O shots at Christmas; I’m obsessed. Nancy [St. Pierre, co-owner of 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa, and Snack Bar] would laugh at me, but everyone here embraces them. Two ladies in their 80s the other night, they had two Jell-O shots each and split a bottle of rosé. They were having so much fun. Another couple in their 80s, they had Jell-O shots. That’s how I want this place to be: the kind of spot I’d go on my day off and have a Jell-O shot and everyone in the neighborhood feels like it is just the fun place where you’re always welcome.”
Well, there’s fun, but I sat at a table at Gus Gus and plumbed the depths of the menu and discovered there’s also serious fun. Clam chowder based on a mirepoix of vegetables cut in tiny blocks rigorous enough to bring a smile to the grim visage of a Michelin restaurant inspector. A salad of paper-thin shaved root vegetables upon tender heaps of gem lettuce united by a vinaigrette of macerated shallots and champagne vinegar, given surprise with candied pistachios. Lengua sliders that take two days of cooking and land on the palate like White Castle steamers tossed down as softballs from heaven. A cult burger, french fries taken so seriously there’s a dedicated full-time potato prep chef, and the first important new take on the West Seventh staple of the Reuben that I can recall in my lifetime.
Meet the latest development in Minnesota restaurant culture as the generation of homegrown talent that came up in the kitchens of Isaac Becker marches east. We’ve been seeing this for a bit: chef Jason Hansen, formerly of 112, went out on his own and opened Estelle in St. Paul. Chef Denny Leaf-Smith, formerly of 112, went out on his own and opened All Saints in Northeast. And now, Morgan and Manley—two top lieutenants of 112 and key talent in opening Snack Bar—have painted a little basement home in inky azure tones and are inviting everyone over for burgers, salads, corn nuts, and Jell-O shots—albeit very well developed and elite-restaurant versions of all.
Consider the corn nuts! House-made, simmered, and spiced—these hold more of a story than you might imagine. They tell of Manley’s first important restaurant job, as the key sideman beside Sameh Wadi at much-missed Saffron. North African spices predominate, but they also taste of caraway and smoked paprika and have a little sweetness. They’re also a tribute to Manley’s childhood and an uncle who got up with him at the crack of dawn to make from-scratch creamed-corn casserole on Thanksgiving, rising in the dark, making roux, cracking open morning beers. And if that’s not enough lineage, the corn nuts also trace back to a garnish for a dish Manley made at 112.
To make these corn nuts, Manley soaks and simmers dried white hominy for a day, deep-fries it, and spices it with a blend of some two dozen ingredients—that’s a long road to go for a little $4 bar snack. “Sameh always told me, ‘You have to build in layers of flavor,’” explains Manley. “‘That’s what gives you depth in different places. If you only add salt in the end, you only taste end-salt.’ I live by that.” (Manley was beside Wadi in their legendary Iron Chef bout—stick around to the end of the shift if you want to hear what it was really like to go up against Chef Morimoto in a fish battle.)
Is that a lot of narrative for corn nuts to bear? Who cares! As you pop them into your mouth and peruse the cocktail list, you feel like you’re making the best sort of new friends, ones who are unpretentious and interesting and welcoming. Pass the corn nuts!
But at Gus Gus, there is also cooking of the most advanced variety. The clam chowder is a spectacular version, minutely constructed chowder served beneath half a dozen just-steamed littleneck clams, all of everything drizzled with a spicy dark red chorizo vinaigrette, creating a pretty rose-petals-on-snow effect. Better, this vinaigrette—made from spicy Spanish dried chorizo sizzled in olive oil and splashed with red wine vinegar till the smoky, earthy, and spicy notes become liberated—gives the chowder dimension and pop. It’s so pretty, it’s so flavorful, it’s so new. Ditto for the Spanish marinated boquerones, which are tempura-battered, fried, and served on an aioli blended with preserved lemons scattered with fried sage—it takes the concept of a traditional Italian antipasto of fried anchovies and sage and makes it fresh.
The smashed burger, which Manley developed with Jason Hansen of Estelle when the two were running this same kitchen in its last iteration, as Stewart’s, is stupendous: local Peterson chuck, flat-top smashed into a sizzling salt-and-pepper crust and served on a dewy bun from classic St. Paul bakery La Boulangerie Marguerite. Bite in, and it’s all the things: gooey, meaty, mild, rich.
The fries are even more astonishing: long as pencils, brown as toast, rich and crisp. “I’m zero compromise with fries,” laughs Manley. “I want them long as my hand. I start with a potato that’s maybe 18, 20 ounces. Brine them for 24 hours. I have a full-time potato prep guy who does nothing but fries and chips. My food reps are like, ‘You’re crazy.’ I’m like, ‘No. I’m St. Paul Irish. Don’t talk to me about potatoes; I already know what I need to know.’ People are going to go insane when they see my fries. They will never go anywhere else.”
This may be true.
It also may be true of the Gus Gus pork rillette sandwich, a confit pork shoulder served on rye with sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing—which of course gets you to Reuben territory, but then Manley adds cheese and a gorgeous fried egg. The whole thing turns into layers of flavor and richness gilded together with crisp sourness and more flavor and more richness, and you think, That’s what chefs cook for themselves after-bar. I finally lucked into this club.
“We had a hard time when we were doing our elevator sales pitch for this place,” explains Manley. “For Anna and me, our favorite thing in the world is little dive bars, like Sweeney’s. The Nook—everyone in there goes there once or twice a month. 112 as well: Go in on a Thursday afternoon at 5, it’s a bunch of guys in Twins jerseys across from a couple all dressed up celebrating their 50th anniversary. How do you explain that? You probably have to know Sweeney’s and 112, and how many people do?”
The people that do are probably St. Paul people, and Gus Gus is a very St. Paul place.
“We’ve lived in St. Paul 11 years together, and I was here for two years before that,” explains Morgan. “We live 10 minutes away on Grand Avenue. I saw this shirt: ‘Date Minneapolis. Marry St. Paul.’ We did.”
Those fringe lampshades? Morgan rigged them up herself, then got their real electrician to look them over. “He said they’ll work for a while,” says Morgan. “I said great. They’re not restaurant lampshades; they’re clearly house lampshades, and at least at first, I just want people to understand they’re coming into our boho, funky, eclectic home. That deer mount? My dad shot it when I was a kid. I took the photos on the wall. We have spritzes on the menu because that’s our thing when we’re traveling: It’s spritz o’clock. Maybe it’s a millennial thing, or a post-COVID thing, but I feel so strongly: Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else and get so stretched and stressed you burn out. So this is us. Very much us.”
Is St. Paul ready for new fun neighbors who know how to cook like they’re at 112 and party like they’re at Sweeney’s? I’m pretty sure St. Paul was born ready—but we’ll see what happens when the rest of the metro tries to get into the house.
128 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul, 651-645-4128, gusgusmn.com