Is Brainerd the New Napa?

Everyone, please: Strip off your waders, empty the duck-pocket of your hunting jacket, kick back and rest your hiking boots on the nearest barrel of wild rice, and ask yourself, is Brainerd the new Napa Valley? I didn't think so. Well, how about you run through a bottle of Canadian Club for me? Is it the new Napa now?

Well, if it isn't now it might be next winter, because locally legendary chef Tim Anderson has departed the Napa Valley Grille for life in the Brainerd area, and hopes to open a cheap, casual restaurant called Prairie Bay just south of Brainerd, in a town called Baxter, sometime next winter.

Did I say cheap? Anderson really, really wants me to emphasize cheap, and really, really doesn't want me to mention a thing about his super-illustrious cooking history, especially the G-word. But I say nuts to him, because without his past, there is no story here, and no place for the massive cultural and sociological pronouncements I want to make.

So, what's the G-word? Goodfellow's, of course. Anderson was the opening chef at Goodfellow's a decade ago, which capped a career cooking in prestigious restaurants all over the country, most notably in the California scene that spurred all of our current American bistro cooking, and then in Texas's Mansion at Turtle Creek and Routh Street Café, which were places that popularized southwestern flavors in upscale cooking. (Anytime you see an ancho-anything glaze, it came from that scene.) With an illustrious 30-odd-year career like that, you'd think Anderson would be show-offy with his vitae, but not so!

"People hear the word Goodfellow's and think it's going to cost $100," says Anderson. "Do me a favor and don't mention that word. At the Mall of America, people would cross over to the other side of the hallway instead of walking by the Napa Valley Grille, because they thought if they got too close it would magically vacuum money out of their pockets. [Prairie Bay] is going to have $9.95 lunch specials, and if people hear Goodfellow's they'll never remember the $9.95, and they'll be scared to death and never come in."

Prairie Bay, says Anderson, will be in the same price range as chains like Applebees, will have dinners that are cheaper than those prime-rib supper clubs that dot our northern lakes, but will utilize all the technique, fresh local ingredients, and thoughtful execution that transformed Minneapolis's entire food landscape. Anderson was one of the pioneers in the Minnesota-grown movement in local restaurants, and says he plans to use as many products from local farmers as he can, as well as poultry from his friend and hunting buddy Pat Ebnet's marvelous Wild Acres, which provides the best pheasant in the country, he says, as well as wild turkeys, ducks, rabbits, excellent chickens, and more. There will also be a real wood-fired oven.

Anderson would not tell me what he might do with the pheasant, because pheasant is not the message he wants to get across, "cheap" is. However, I remember a smoked Wild Acres duck breast I had once when he was chef at Napa Valley Grille that came with a beautiful roast pear, black pepper demi-glaze. So maybe something will be like that, just outside of Brainerd, if you can believe it.

Anderson says that the Brainerd area has changed vastly, without anyone in Restaurant World much noticing. He says there are a quarter of a million people up in the region in the summer, and when he talks to local builders, what they're mainly building are five-bedroom showpiece homes equipped with gourmet kitchens. He says that it reminds him of the Napa Valley of 30 years ago, when the only restaurants in the region were for farmers, but San Francisco-area commuters were snapping up land. He says the Emeril-trained, cable-modemed cabin builders of today are not going to be satisfied with those little cups of frozen vegetables that still dominate his putative competition, rural lakeside supper clubs.

"What's funny is that the food up here, for the most part, is not cheap," notes Anderson. "I've been to places where you get smaller portions of scallops for $4 more than I was charging at the Napa Valley Grille. Same prices, a lot less quality." Anderson says he'll use his background growing up in the woods of Arkansas as well as his considerable technique to make a life where he can live where he wants--namely, in hunting and fishing territory--doing the cooking he wants--namely, fresh, home-style, and serving both the Mother's-Day-brunch and burger-after-fishing crowd.

Will it fly? I'm guessing yes.

Because make room for the pronouncements! I think that this gentrifying of the North Country is going to be the major thing that happens in that part of Minnesota that's within three hours of the Twin Cities. I think the rise of partial telecommuting, such that people only have to go to an office a few times a week, the rising price of Twin Cities real estate, the expanding of workdays into 24-hour mosaics that take place in various locations, such as home, car, and office, meaning that no one has time to do things like clean gutters or trim hedges, and the psychic invulnerability provided by SUVs all will work together so that the preferred lifestyle for empty-nesters is going to be a condo or townhouse downtown, and a showplace lake mansion farther outstate. I think this is already happening, which is why downtown restaurants like Sapor aren't ever quite seeing the customer base they thought they would; a lot of the residents of downtown simply aren't around very much.

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