Stillwater, Hopping Restaurants

Two new restaurants prove you don't have to buy a Tiffany lamp or a teddy bear in an apron to enjoy the trip

Stone's Restaurant
and Lounge

324 S. Main St., Stillwater
651.439.1900
www.stonesstillwater.com

BT Doyle's Rib Joint
423 S. Main St., Stillwater
651.439.2852
www.doylesribjoint.com

We are all of us somewhere in the seven stages of grief regarding the traffic pile-up at the south end of Stillwater, where Highway 95 seizes up in a dead halt in response to the convergence of stoplight, horse and carriage ride, tourists and baby stroller, and that one Harley dude wearing as his backpack a grape-schnapps-drunk bleachy chick.

Pepper-edged "pastrami" smoked salmon is served on the phenomenal Stone's patio
Kris Drake
Pepper-edged "pastrami" smoked salmon is served on the phenomenal Stone's patio

Denial is one of the most popular stages in regarding this pile-up, often including the thought: It's a cloudy Tuesday, there won't be stock-still traffic...wrong. Anger, of course, is another highly favored stage, and leads to counterintuitive but true statements such as: "The PT Cruiser furiously executed a three-point turn in the face of oncoming traffic" or "The Vanagon raged forward a few inches." Not me, though. I have, by neither leaning in nor looking away, by being with my breathing and by being mindful with my compassion, not only accepted the parking-lot highway that greets Stillwater visitors, I have come to enjoy it, in the same way that I kind of enjoy wrestling with wrapping paper in the days before Christmas—this is the hassle that precedes the happiness. Happiness like what? Like a dinner at one of Stillwater's newest restaurants, like Stone's.

Stone's is the product of a kind of supergroup of local restaurateurs—and I mean a really super supergroup, a Band Aid-sized, Supernova-sized group, which includes Toby Nidetz, of legendary, long-gone Coco Lezzone and a million, billion others; Josh Thoma, of La Belle Vie and Solera; Charlie Burroughs, of Axel's and the Bonfire Grill; Chip Isaacson, formerly of the Pickled Parrot and currently of Ike's, that famous retro burger joint in downtown Minneapolis; and, last but not least, Michael Stone, the main proprietor, who seems to have responded to this formidable Justice League of super-restaurateurs by scurrying around and putting stones everywhere so you don't forget about him—you'll find rocks in the entry foyer, in wire cages by the doors, in the drainage troughs of the artsy concrete sinks in the restrooms, and in a quarry-rivaling quantity in the lovely outdoor patio. As with any supergroup, Stone's was founded to cart money to the bank in overflowing wheelbarrows, and no doubt will: The place is essentially a game of tee-ball resulting in a thousand home runs.

The menu at Stone's is everything people like to eat today: appetizers of ahi tuna, calamari, mini-burgers, and crab-cakes; entrees of steak, barbecue, burgers, tuna, salmon, and (meaty) salads priced mostly around $12; cakes and cobblers for dessert that are priced for one person and feed four. I liked almost everything I tried at Stone's. The mini crab-cake sliders ($9.95) were sweet and buttery, and given a bit of pop with a chunky house tartar sauce. Calamari ($8.50) was pebbly and crisp with a distinct cornmeal crust, a crust that contrasted nicely with the unusually thick, wide, and tender lengths of squid that made up the dish. Pepper-edged "pastrami" smoked salmon ($8.95) was served as a personal sculpture garden on a giant white plate, featuring trapezoids of hand-chopped pickle, pretty squares of rye toast fanned out like a deck of cards, and an artful, spatula-rolled wand of mustard—it was a notably festive rendition of an old restaurant workhorse.

I wouldn't order the seared yellowfin tuna entree ($16) again; when I did, the tuna itself was limp and flavorless, though it veered alarmingly in the other direction when swabbed by the intensely salty ponzu sauce on the plate, and the accompanying broiled Japanese eggplant was so well charred that there was only maybe a bite or two that was edible. On the other hand, barbecued baby back pork ribs are sweet, smoky, and fall from the bone in classic candied-meat glory. (The pork ribs are available in an appetizer portion for $9.95, or as an entree solo or paired with a barbecued chicken quarter for $12.95.) I liked Stone's barbecued chicken ($10.95) even more than the ribs, because the tender smoke-saturated meat was accented, instead of dominated, by the peppery barbecue sauce. If there's a complaint to be made with the kitchen at Stone's, it's that they have a tendency to, of all things, over-pepper the food: Skip the too-wet, too-muddled stuffed and pepper-crusted blue cheese burger ($9.95), which is overwhelmed with wet caramelized onions and peppercorn steak sauce, in favor of one of the plainer burgers, and beware the gremolata on the otherwise excellent rosemary-grilled flatiron steak ($17.25), for the traditional combination of parsley, garlic, and lemon rind is here made mostly with crushed green pepper-corns, and that first bite is a doozy. The second bite, though, showcases a well marinated, nicely grilled steak, and as you alternate between it and the accompanying pile of matchstick truffle-oil sprinkled fries, you will no doubt feel happy and relaxed.

Speaking of happy and relaxed, feel free to order any of the desserts—each one that I tried was a joy of overabundant splurge. The peach cobbler ($7.95) easily served four, and featured a thick and crumbly sugar-cookie topping separating gooey, sweet, spiced peaches from a softball of good vanilla-bean ice-cream. The lemon ice-box cake ($5.50) was a gem, with sprightly lemon-butter-cream icing gilding the citrus lily of old-fashioned, simple lemon cake. Banana fritters ($6.50) were big chunks of banana, battered, fried till they were as adorable as State Fair mini-donuts, lined up like islands in a lush lagoon of five-spice dark caramel, and paired with a few mounds of fresh whipped cream decorated with cinnamon—nothing subtle here, but very happy-making.

For all you value-seeking cocktail connoisseurs, Stone's specialty drinks are equally happy. For instance, I ordered a "Margatini" for $9.95, which is a margarita served in a martini glass and made with Patrón Silver tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice, and was fairly agog when my server brought a full pint glass of liquor and ice topped with a strainer, poured an over-generous martini glass for me, and then left me with enough in the other glass for a second drink. Whoa! I have a healthy fear of returning from a Stillwater trip with a Tiffany lamp worth more than myself, so I didn't finish it, but I could suddenly see that Stone's vast, phenomenal patio, with its rocky waterfall, three private cabanas, teakwood couches, cozy groupings of Adirondack chairs, and see-and-be-seen island of high cocktail tables, might have appeal to many locals who wouldn't trade two crappies for ahi tuna. I mean, Stone's is the most popular reservation right now in Stillwater, and if you show up without one on a weekend night you may well face a two-hour wait.

This happened to me once, and I took the opportunity to check out another Stillwater newcomer, BT Doyle's Rib Joint. While BT Doyle's lacks the pizzazz, pop, now, and sheer piles of rocks of a snazzy joint like Stone's (the interior looks something like a set in a John Hughes late-'80s slice of suburban Americana), the ribs are excellent, the service is sweet and accommodating, the beer and the ice-cream drinks are cold, and there's a lovely little patio out on the main drag so you can people-, traffic-, and horse-and-carriage-watch to your heart's content.

Ribs are the big draw at BT Doyle's, and the Texas beef ribs ($14.95 for a half-slab) are the best I've had in Minnesota—for those who've never had beef ribs, they look ridiculous, like Fred Flintstone props, but when done right, as they are at BT Doyle's, they garnish the primal char of fire and smoke with the lush beefy indulgence of prime rib.

The beef ribs here are a bit sweet, as is the good, plump, apple-wood smoked chicken and the rich baby-back pork ribs (from $10.95), but I could easily see that they might become an object of cult fixation—the woman at the next table embarked on a long, mesmerizing tale of her awful day, one with work hassles, daycare hurdles, dog troubles, cat escapes, sitter problems, and car disasters, each obstacle punctuated with, "But I said, I've got to have my ribs!" The table on the other side of me hosted four young dads, each with a beer and his own pile of beef ribs, trading tales of emergency-room visits and baby teeth, magic markers and furniture. As we all sat there, happy, on BT Doyle's patio beside the stopped vehicles, the traffic light changed, and a gang of teens celebrated the fact that they were getting moving by mooning us—good grief.

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