In the upper 'burbs, Lake House and Flame stand out
Ordinarily, I wouldn't drive nearly 40 miles for dinner. Particularly when gas prices are soaring, I don't think people who live in Minneapolis really want to start seeing signs for Duluth when they're heading out to a restaurant. But the new lakeside supper club in the northern suburb of Forest Lake, just northeast of where 35E and 35W reconnect, held promise of making the drive worthwhile. That's because it wasn't just any supper club, it was one with Joan Ida in the kitchen.
Ida has been cooking in the Twin Cities for years. In the early days of her career, she shared the Loring Cafe's kitchen with the likes of Lenny Russo, Steven Brown, and Doug Flicker. She was well known as the pastry chef at the late, lamented Goodfellow's, and more recently as the executive chef at Triä in North Oaks. After a two-year sabbatical launching restaurants in Hong Kong, Ida has landed at the Lake House, a long, nautical-looking building, slate blue with crisp white trim, that sits on the edge of Forest Lake.
The first time I visited the Lake House, its large parking lot was so full that eager drivers had pulled their vehicles onto the grass and abandoned them. The bar was stuffed with people dressed as casually as if they'd jumped off a jet ski: teens in board shorts, a guy in a muscle tank advertising "Ragged Ass Beach." The dining room contained mostly mature couples, traveling at a pontoon's pace and dressed for a country club: golf shirts for the men, manicured nails and hairsprayed coifs for the women. Except for the Tommy Bahama store at the Mall of America, I've never seen so many floral prints in one place—a luau band on the lam could have easily hidden itself.
Seated at a table beside the windows, I looked out at the boats tied up to the Lake House's dock—the restaurant offers boat-up takeout, natch. A beaver's snout poked through the water's surface and disappeared. At the table next to us, a foursome clasped hands, bowed heads, and prayed.
They had good reason to give thanks. The food at Lake House is all scratch made, and in addition to covering the typical clubhouse bar fare (sandwiches, chicken wings, etc.), Ida's menu has elements of fine dining not commonly seen outside the cities. The chicken liver pâté, for example, combined simple elegance with a bit of whimsy: Our server described it as being "like grown-up peanut butter and jelly." The pâté, molded like a flan, had a mild flavor and a light, custard-like texture. When spread on one of the shortbread-like biscuits with a slather of lip-puckering huckleberry jam, it was a sophisticated riff on childhood.
As an ode to lake culture, Ida serves a heaping pile of Ritz-cracker-crusted crappie fillets, which the menu describes as being "like mom made." Actually, the dish was inspired by Ida's grandparents, who used to live just a few houses down from the restaurant—Grandpa would catch 'em and Grandma would cook 'em. The arugula is Ida's touch ("I don't think my mom knows what arugula is," she admits), and its fresh, peppery bite, along with an addictive smoked-tomato aioli, were perfect counterpoints to the crispy fillets. Ida's choice to cook crappie instead of walleye was a good one, as the fish's flesh is more delicate and sweeter tasting. I gobbled the fillets as though they were popcorn; I believe it was the best fish fry I've ever had.
Ida's fine-dining background shines in the duck breast entrée: The skin is crispy, the meat blush-red and practically melting into an autumnal cherry chutney with spicy, woodsy notes of ginger and rosemary. The dish was completed with a couple of cute little spoonbreads, a Southern dish similar to a corn soufflé with a slightly pudding-like center.
The kitchen's attentiveness to detail elevates the Lake House's menu from others in the comfort-food genre. Even a sweet corn relish served with an appetizer contains clusters of kernels cut fresh off the cob, and it tastes so much the better for it. The ubiquitous dinner salad comes with homemade green goddess dressing and a textbook fresh-baked dinner roll.
After my first visit, the only things I could find to complain about were the hand dryers in the bathroom, which sound as loud as an airplane landing overhead, and the metallic tap water, which tastes like it came from a garden hose. In revisiting, I found a few more bones to pick. The flavors in the chorizo-salsa pizza muddled together and became indistinct, as did those of the crab cakes with artichoke gratin, where the crab got lost between the binding and the spiciness. When I tried the porketta with potato gratin and green beans, the slices of meat tasted far too similar to the slices of potato—mushy, salty, and as bland as a TV dinner. And while I loved the flavors in a scallop dish—they were wrapped with bacon, served with a parsnip puree and a creamy, smoked red pepper and tarragon sauce—the wide slabs of raw, fatty bacon were visually unappetizing.
Unsurprisingly, Ida outdid herself with desserts, particularly the signature Lake House s'more. A bitter, dark chocolate ganache is sandwiched between a graham cracker crust and a giant homemade marshmallow, blackened on top, with a soft, foamy interior. (It makes commercial marshmallows seem like rubber.) The plate was drizzled with Jack Daniel's caramel and scattered with roasted, honey-coated peanuts. Benchmarking this s'more against the Hershey's/Jet-Puffed/Honey Maid version was like comparing dinner at La Belle Vie to Lunchables.
The combination of the warm staff, the view of the lake, and the comforts of the cooking glossed my visits to the Lake House with a happy nostalgia. Each time, leaving the place felt a bit bittersweet, like coming home from summer camp.
ANOTHER SURPRISE FIND in the northern suburbs: the new restaurant Flame, at Rosedale. Anoush Ansari and Hadi Anbar, the duo behind Atlas Grill, Mission, and Via, recently opened the first independent restaurant among the mall's chain-only options.
My first impression of Flame, as I stood by the host's stand, was that I was having a hot flash—until I suspected its source was the grill in the open kitchen and the ring of decorative torches above it. (The ornamental flames will be great in winter, but when the air conditioning is on, fashion tends to compete with function.) In any case, the place looks sharp; it's another design from the Shea group (they did the showy interiors at Solera, Tryg's, and LoTo), with lots of welcoming characteristics: an open floor plan, crimson hues, big windows, spacious booths, and a whole wall of stacked firewood.
Flame's meat-heavy menu offers the standard burgers, salads, and sandwiches, plus plenty of atypical mall fare, including ceviche, kebobs, and rotisserie meats. While the theme's incorporation in the decor might be a bit overstated, the wonders fire does for food cannot be. The chicken kebob, like those served at some of Ansari and Anbar's other restaurants, is inspired by the Persian fare the two grew up on. The tender meat comes with a skewer of roasted red peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and zucchini, which are all infused with a subtle smokiness that pairs nicely with a bed of fluffy jasmine rice and a drizzle of beurre blanc. The dish was a gem, particularly compared to the greasy chicken stir-fries or dried-out chicken sandwiches that hungry shoppers usually get stuck with.
The other items I tried were good overall, though they missed a few details. The ribs had a deliciously jammy barbecue sauce, but the meat had been cooked a bit past tender and teetered on mushy. The mac and cheese had a good mix of garlic, Swiss, and cheddar, but curdled cream made the texture mealy.
I finished off a mess of melting vanilla ice cream and caramelized bananas with just a glimmer of disappointment: The weak blue flame that had burned off the rum didn't hold a candle to a wickedly blazing bananas Foster. Still, if I ever find myself at Roseville in need of refueling, Flame would be my first stop.
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