Apertif and Terra Waconia: Is the drive worth it?
Our meal began with a little pop quiz. "So what does the restaurant's name mean, Aperitif?" I asked our server, butchering the pronunciation in an attempt to sound genuinely uncertain.
"You know, we were asked the same question on our hiring test—and I got it wrong," he replied. Our affable, if candid, server explained that he had confused the term with digestif, an alcoholic beverage consumed after the meal, instead of one that's sipped before.
"Oh, like Campari?" I asked.
"What's Campari?" he replied.
I wouldn't expect a newly hired server to know that Campari is perhaps the most famous aperitif of all, red as a ruby, bitter as Cruella de Vil, and bottled in Italy since 1860. But I would have expected Aperitif's management to pass that information on to its servers before sending them out on their first shifts.
In our server's defense, what he lacked in knowledge or experience—he neglected to ID one of my friends who is barely over the drinking age and could pass for even younger—he made up for with enthusiasm and charm. Still, the fact is this: Suburban restaurants will always struggle to lure skilled staff away from places like La Belle Vie or Cosmos. In exchange for the cheaper land and reduced competition their locations offer, the restaurant's management is probably going to need to do more staff training so that, if a guest asks for help selecting a $10 glass of wine, for example, her server will offer more useful descriptors than "dry," "high-rated," and "popular."
Generally, though, Aperitif is one of those chic, comfortable, upscale, contemporary suburban restaurants, with an open floor plan, high ceilings, oversize brown leather booths, doublewide bar stools, stone and wood accents, and a roaring fireplace in the lounge area. Trance music with a pulsing beat plays on the stereo, and funky, Kandinsky-esque light fixtures hang from the ceiling near a bold, colorful mural that references Mediterranean culture in the vaguest terms possible. (Interspersed between sketches of suns and moons, the mural lists locales such as Crete, Corsica, Madrid, and Torino and culinary terms like ziti and pesto.) In many ways the space reminded me of Edina's Ciao Bella, circa 1997.
The restaurant's signature Aperitif cocktail will likely only have niche appeal: It smells of the cucumbers muddled in the base of the glass but tastes pungently of piney gin and bitters. No wonder my server had tried to steer me toward the Lemon Twist, made with limoncello and a powdered sugar rim. (By the way, the servers do look smart—dapper, even—with their natty ties, striped dress shirts, and crisp white aprons.)
The menus at Aperitif are as big as concert posters, listing mostly Italian pizzas, pastas, and meaty entrées that lean into the likes of France (hanger steak) and Greece (flaming shish kebab), along with a few outliers like walleye fritters.
The pizzas from the wood-burning oven are fine, but no match for the Neapolitan or coal-fired beauties served in other parts of town. I had one with sausage and prosciutto that was reasonably tasty, but its center was limp and soggy, and roasted tomatoes were pinkish water balloons instead of the expected concentrated, crimson gems. The Clams Aperitif—phyllo triangles filled with clams, bacon, and spinach—tasted fine except for their underbellies' sodden dough. A better choice: a string bean and onion salad served with crumbled feta and fig vinaigrette that had some lovely, citrus-like notes.
Among the entrées, the lamb osso buco—an alternative to the traditional veal shank—offered a large portion of tender, gamey meat accompanied with sides of polenta and roasted vegetables. Again, it tasted good, but it wasn't as rich or deeply flavored as the osso buco served just down the freeway at I Nonni. Another downside: The center bone was so narrow at its tip that we missed out on plumbing for its delicious marrow.
In fact, I preferred the cioppino, a seafood stew laced together with a saffron tomato broth that arrived, still steaming, in a too-hot-to-handle earthenware bowl. I loved the way the smoky liquid turned a hunk of bread into a soft, creamy mush to be paired with bites of baby scallops or steaky fish. The only downside? It costs $28. Without much competition in the area—mainly Cravings Wine Bar across the street, which feels more downscale than Aperitif with its strip-mall digs and menu of burgers, artichoke dip, and sourdough bread-bowl soup—prices are such that one person could easily spend $50 on an entrée, alcoholic beverage, and tip.
But if Aperitif is the nicest place to dine in the area—and it is—most guests won't have much of a problem paying $8 for a hefty wedge of Cappuccino Pie. It was a lovely layering of vanilla-bean ice cream flavored with coffee, toffee, and crumbled chocolate cookies—a trend from the '90s very much worth reviving.
WACONIA SITS IN the transitional zone between two distinct biomes of suburban development and agricultural acreage. Heading west from the Twin Cities on Highway 5, the landscape starts to look more rural until, just outside Waconia, it culminates in the sight of a faded red barn with a hand-lettered sign advertising organic eggs for sale.
Downtown Waconia looks like a quintessential small-town Main Street, between the quaint storefronts and billowing American flags. Among the bars and theater and chiropractic offices sits the restaurant Terra Waconia, tucked into the first floor of a narrow, barn-red home. The space previously housed the Green Room, which spent about four years as the westernmost point on the Twin Cities' gourmet farm-to-table dining map. Two former Green Room employees, head chef Craig Sharp and general manager Tracy LeTourneau, recently bought the business and have kept the dining concept pointed in a similar direction, while also giving it a stamp of their own.
The tiny space looks as charming as ever, with a local artist's paintings of ice-fishing scenes lining the walls and a pretty wine rack at the restaurant's rear. A slight whiff of char in the air gives the room a homey, wood-stove scent, and a large chalkboard menu reads as spare as a poem: Mussels. Brussels. Cheese. Duck confit. A few salads and entrées: Walleye. Pasta. Duck. Chicken. Risotto. Pork.
It's a nice contrast to overbearing menus that read like CVs, where each ingredient on each plate comes with its own provenance and pedigree. While the approach encourages guests to interact with servers, the process can feel a little amateurish for the first few tables of the evening if the server relies heavily on notes.
One of my favorite dishes at Terra Waconia was a simple—and generous—bowl of mussels soaking in a buttery broth with a slight kick of chiles. My friends and I greedily sopped up the liquid with slices of bread and used the empty shells to scoop the remainder into our mouths.
The other items I tried were good but not as remarkable. Risotto with seared scallops had a gently woodsy flavor from its tender, spicy lamb sausage. Duck confit had a luscious texture but was overpowered by a scatter of kosher salt between the bird and its bed of spinach and almonds. Roast pork on a pool of molten polenta was a welcome comfort for the chill of early spring, though it would have perhaps been better served with either tomatoes or tomatillos, rather than both. The only outright disaster was a Clementine curd cake with piercingly sweet frosting and a dry, crumbly interior. I would have preferred just a thimble full of the bright, potent curd.
The restaurant's entrée prices, which hover in the low $20s, seem appropriate for an upscale-but-neighborhoody restaurant, though by-the-glass wine selections could risk feeling out of reach, with most priced in the $9 to $10 range. (When I visited, the only glass less than $7.50 was a young or "green" and typically inexpensive vinho verde.)
But especially with peak produce season on the horizon, I think neighbors will be grateful to have a restaurant like Terra Waconia furthering a locavore ethic. Sharp, who says he's generally skeptical of Minnesota wines, was so impressed with those produced by Parley Lake Winery, an upstart Waconia vineyard, that he hopes to include Parley Lake in a few upcoming wine dinners.
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