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.  

When I think about it, I think that wealthy people have often lived like this, in all those English country novels, for instance, where they keep a house in the city and are always rushing off to their country estates. Or Great Gatsby-era New York, with Long Island mansions and city apartments. Of course, all it took to derail those historical moments was some evening out of real estate values and the commute becoming unmanageable, so we'll see where we all are in 20 years.

Why am I telling you all of this? I dunno. There's something interesting afoot in terms of Minnesota's identity changing, with the massive immigration from out of state (where are all those projected new million Twin Cities area residents that are going to arrive between now and 2030? If they're wealthy, likely in this exact commuting pattern of city and country), There's a psychic change from an idea of having your heritage with European immigrants on The Farm to being from some TV room somewhere or other.

I don't know. I told you about the new restaurant that's going to open, and I'll let you all unpack your own duck-pockets of the various implications. I guess sometimes thoughtful food just provides so much food for thought I can't resist.



So now that the hunters of the north have their chef, what about the gatherers of the south? I mean, what about the shoppers at the Mall of America, and the Mall's best restaurant, the Napa Valley Grille? Who's in the kitchen now in Bloomington?

Christopher Ray is!

Which is really this week's last piece of good news. Last year Ray took over the kitchen at the NVG's sister restaurant, the gargantuan California Café at the Mall of America, and I went there once last winter thinking of reviewing it, but decided not to, because the menu was very weird. The specials were fantastic and fabulous, and the everyday menu was as banal as could be. I count an appetizer I had there to be one of the highlights of the year: It was center-cut, ruby-like tuna loin seared and presented with a bit of wasabi and soy, arranged around a beautifully pure watermelon salsa.

Well, three weeks ago Ray took over the kitchen at Napa Valley Grille, and I can't think it's anything but good news for everyone--diners, wine people, restaurant, and chef alike. Ray first came to my attention when he was cooking at Hudson, Wisconsin's San Pedro Café, working wonders with game, and doing very interesting things with tropical fruits and salsas. He's also a very friendly, cheerful, happy sort who roams around the dining room making customers feel welcome and appreciated, which is one of those skills that can't be taught. When he was in the open kitchen at San Pedro, his engaging patter very nearly amounted to a floor show.

Ray says his goal is to energize the culture at NVG, with more exciting presentations, more eye-popping dishes, lighter fare generally, and more of a focus on interacting with the customers. The way this might be achieved through food, he said, could be seen in a special last week that grew on that tuna preparation that I loved so much. It was this: center-cut tuna loin, rolled in cinnamon, red pepper, and salt, seared, presented with a little cordial glass of wasabi-soy dipping sauce, a demitasse cup of watermelon water, and little sides of Dijon-washed asparagus, carrot-sesame slaw, and papaya salsa. The whole thing was presented on some kind of slabs of marble. Does that sound exciting to you? It's got my heart racing.

I always thought that back in the day NVG really succeeded by catering to the tastes of women, serving light, novel things they couldn't think of doing themselves. Chef Tim Anderson was never a great fit for the place, partly because he'd rather have been fishing, and partly because his palate runs to the rugged, when I think mall traffic tips, especially during the day, toward the feminine. I mean, I remember when Valentine's Day saw the place selling out months in advance because that's where the ladies wanted to be taken on their big day. It hasn't been like that lately.  

Ray says we should all look for the full NVG revamp by mid-September. In the meantime, he's introduced Wild Game Wednesdays--did you know he published a game cookbook called Wild, Wild Cooking last winter? "I felt like things have been a little stagnant here," says Ray, "I've always been about diversity and energy, and that's what we're going to try to achieve, on the plates, in the kitchen, in the dining room, and everywhere. I'm hoping the customers raise their bar of expectation, because if they raise the bar then I'm succeeding."

I'm raising my bar of expectation for all of us hunters and gatherers: Oddly enough, it looks like what's good for the hunters of Brainerd is going to be just as good for the gatherers of Bloomington. Napa Valley Grille, 220 West Market, Mall of America, Bloomington, 952.858.9934

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220 W. Market
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