Wayzata Ways

NorthCoast, the first of two planned California-accented restaurants, debuts swimmingly

Northcoast
294 East Grove Lane; Wayzata
952.475.4960

Answer me this: Why would a man of a certain heft--a certain financial heft, mostly, but substantial other weight as well--why, why would such a man clothe himself in loose pastel linen shorts and no socks, so that his boat-tanned limbs would shoot out of these shorts like the bones of lollipops, culminating effetely in brown points?

I do mean effetely. Like a pillar without a plinth. Like a statue without a pedestal. Like a hippopotamus in ballet flats. And, then, if one single man of a certain heft would do it, fine, that's merely eccentric. But then why would they all do it? Because I'll tell you what, I've been spending a lot of time in Wayzata, and they're all doing it.

A little slice of California in Wayzata: NorthCoast's smoked lobster cocktail
Bill Kelley
A little slice of California in Wayzata: NorthCoast's smoked lobster cocktail

What exactly is it that the rich have against socks? Is it a boat thing? Is it the Reverse Cadillac Effect? A friend explained this to me once: At one time Cadillacs were the purview of the restricted country club, and flotillas of them sailed through local semicircular driveways. A few decades later, Cadillacs became the status symbols of those lowly sorts hideously disfigured by stunted, or even completely missing, municipal bond portfolios. As one, the horsy set abandoned the Cadillac, determining that any car whatsoever, and especially a busted-up old Volvo, conveyed social and racial purity more clearly.

Is that the deal with socks? Look at any old picture of a dust-bowl farmer, a cannery worker, or even that lovable old RCA dog, and: no socks. Meanwhile, people driving Bentleys through the jazz age? They wore socks, and even sock garters. But nowadays, with the Wal-Mart economy, you can't even find a meth lab where the denizens don't own a few pairs of good cotton foot wrappers. Could this be why the wealthy have abandoned them like last week's food pyramid?

I mean, Wayzata. Where women in white pants wed men without socks, taking one another for better, or for better yet.

Wayzata. Where the interiors are engineered by professionals, and the posteriors are too.

Wayzata, liquid assets on a liquid lake.

Feel free to repeat these bons mots while you sit in the lobby at NorthCoast, waiting for a table. You will wait, too, since the restaurant doesn't take reservations, and humans have all got in the habit of dining at similar hours. Go figure. Oh well. By the time you do get a table you'll find that being born on third base and calling it a triple really does have its advantages.

Now, NorthCoast is not just the newest restaurant on Lake Minnetonka, it's a restaurant that's likely to dominate the wealthiest suburbs of Minnesota for years to come--another NorthCoast will debut soon in Stillwater. It's also a restaurant I've been waiting for for several years, ever since chef Steve Vranian first left the California Café chain with intentions to found his own place. Now, Vranian is a below-the-radar powerhouse, a chef who has a bigger, deeper résumé than nearly everyone in Minnesota. He's a veteran of the "New American Cuisine" revolution in cooking in California, where he once lived, and he worked intimately with that group of folks who changed the food world and included Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Mark Miller, and Jeremiah Tower, for whom Vranian opened a Stars restaurant in Singapore.

When I first encountered his cooking, in 1998, at the California Café, I was dazzled by Vranian's ability to turn out beautifully fresh and nuanced plates, 500 at a time. He left that chain to go to Murray's--yes, that Murray's--the venerable old steakhouse downtown, where he seemed to have little effect on the tradition-bound menu. Ever since then he's been trying to get his own place off the ground, in the difficult restaurant economy post 9/11.

After a few visits I can report that NorthCoast is not all I'd hoped for--but my hopes were sky-high. I'd hoped for something thrilling and groundbreaking, and what NorthCoast is, is a useful addition to a neighborhood, and, more than that, it is safe. It is safe as a safe in a safe, actually.

Outside, the restaurant has pretty tables on a waterside deck. Inside, there's a large central bar, a fireplace, and two levels of table seating for lunch and dinner. The menu offers something for everyone--really. For the bar-food set there's a sloppy-Joe quesadilla ($7), which is junk-food heaven: It's a little spicy, a little meaty, a little melty, gloppy, crispy. It's a Joe-Sixpack pleaser, and could vie with any of the best other junk foods in town, such as, oh, the Chicago hot dog ($5), an utterly Chicago-perfect rendition, with the sport peppers, the tomato, the piercing green relish, the poppy-seed bun, and that sweet, sweet-salty taste that tells you you're in a Chicago drive-through, not a Minnesota boat-through.

NorthCoast offers plenty more on the excellent junk-food tip: house-cut fries and onion rings ($5), crunchy calamari fries ($8), chicken wings, burgers, pizzas. For the fancy-restaurant conversant, there are some delightful variations on the usual themes: Instead of crab cakes, Vranian makes crab cake sliders ($9), wee, terrifically rich, charmingly creamy crab cakes served on tiny little butter-grilled sweet buns; they look like dollhouse burgers, and taste like luxury. The Ahi tuna cones ($10) are a trio of thin, fried cones filled up with vibrantly fresh cubes of ahi tuna tossed with spicy oil, mellowed with a dollop of avocado cream, and given playful pep with a cap of wasabi tobiko. They're fresh, light, rich, and very nearly addictive, so various are the flavors, so vibrant the textures and tones.

A dozen clams, served chilled with a pale, creamy sauce called, oddly, a white gazpacho, were clean and pricked the appetite. I'd avoid the crab and scallop rice-paper rolls ($9). They were squishy, and the textures--too much cilantro, slippery fresh mango, stringy crab--came together in an off-putting way. The smoked lobster cocktail ($13) with a bit of coconut dressing was nice--pure and plain.

All of the entrees I tried were deftly accomplished. The center-cut filet ($35), served with your choice of grilled asparagus or fries, was textbook perfect. The sautéed walleye ($22) was so light it might have been held together with air, and while the green and yellow string beans beside it were a little greasy and over-buttered, I would certainly recommend it to anyone searching for good walleye. A halibut fillet ($18) was crisp and brown without, tender and pure within, though the bed of ratatouille it was on seemed oddly concentrated and heavy. In short, only a food critic could find fault with anything I tried. That's saying a lot.

The wine list is food-friendly, lifestyle-useful, and thoughtful. The Dry Creek Vineyard Fumé Blanc ($28 a bottle) is lemony and pure with a distinct meadow-smoke sort of undertone; it goes beautifully with the chilled seafoods, and does fine with the fried ones too. A glass of Murphy Goode Tin Roof Sauvignon Blanc ($6 a glass) is clean with a lemon-peel and summer-grass scent; it's ideal alongside a lunchtime salad. The restaurant offers plenty of bottles in the $20 range for sharing with friends on the deck, and enough prestige reds so that you can prove that all your cash isn't tied up in your yacht.

Really, the only thing NorthCoast needs, besides an actual reservations policy, is a better dessert program. In the worst case, desserts tasted like they came from a lackluster commercial bakery (the pallid and saccharine banana cream pie, $5), while in the best case desserts are Sonny's ice cream. Which is charming, as it's the best ice cream around, but, you know, still. You spend a few years waiting for a restaurant and you hope for a pastry chef. Oh well, I suppose that's why expectation rhymes with defenestration.

For me, I can't see driving out to NorthCoast again. It's the kind of place that's invaluable if it's nearby, but grows less interesting with every mile you must travel to get there. Though, to be fair, I should admit that there's an appetizer I never tried: the Wayzata Grand Platter, with its $65 price tag. It might just be brilliant. I'll tell you what, though. If the gentlemen of my acquaintance ever become in the preponderance sockless, I'll let you know how it tastes.

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