Mill Valley Kitchen offers Midwestern take on California cuisine
Every shirt you throw on your back comes with a label telling you what material it's made from—legally, clothing manufacturers are obligated to disclose that information. But sit down for a restaurant meal, and most eateries haven't even calculated the nutritional contents of what you're about to put in your body. When they do, it's often not pretty. That fried macaroni and cheese at the Cheesecake Factory contains 63 grams of saturated fat, more than what's recommended in a three-day period.
The new Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park is spearheading the idea, locally anyway, of printing the number of calories, as well as the amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrates in each dish, right on the menu. Hankering for a cup of vegan chili? That's 90 calories, with 5, 11, and 3 grams apiece of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Herb roasted chicken? At 670 calories, it's currently the kitchen's most fuel-rich dish. Sure, sometimes it's nice to dine unaware of such data, but since so many meals are being eaten at fast-food and table-service restaurants—one every other day, on average—if Americans don't want to become any more Supersized, every meal out can't come with a large order of fries.
Mill Valley Kitchen's name is meant to evoke Northern California, and its menu was inspired by the region's farm-fresh, healthful, produce-heavy cuisine. Craig Bentdahl, the former Excel Bank CEO, launched the restaurant with the help of Anoush Ansari of Hemisphere Companies, and was inspired by foods served at the health-focused Canyon Ranch Spas and Resorts. Chef Michael Rakun, formerly of the St. Paul Hotel and Ansari's Mission American Kitchen, says that he took the restaurant's mission as a challenge and retooled some of his original recipes to try to boost the good numbers and bring down the bad ones—without sacrificing flavor.
The restaurant is located in the first floor of the new Eclipse apartment building at the corner of France and Excelsior Avenues, and the space feels more urban than pastoral, even with its palette of whites and spring greens and organic accent materials. The layout includes a bar and lounge area, a large dining room, a private wine room, and a small outdoor patio. The design, created by Shea, makes efficient use of the space. Too efficient, perhaps, in one spot: Shelving on the open kitchen's exterior wall displays stacks of plates and takeout containers that create unnecessary visual clutter.
On weekend nights, Mill Valley Kitchen quickly fills to capacity. The bar starts running out of both martini and champagne glasses, and diners are drinking French 77s like they're water. The staff usually keeps its cool, but can get a little flustered by the crush. One evening, the lack of effectiveness with which multiple young hostesses directed and seated guests was enough to make one wonder if she'd walked into one of those light-bulb jokes.
The Mill Valley crowd creates a vibe similar to those at suburban hotspots such as Redstone, BLVD Kitchen, and the restaurants at St. Louis Park's Shops at West End. It's casual enough that people wear hats in the bar, though moneyed enough that their jeans might cost as much as a junky car. If a guy whose pecs strain against his T-shirt comes up to the bar for a glass of Pinot, you'll likely smell him before you see him. Thankfully, all it takes is one loud CLAP from the bartender spanking mint leaves in the palm of his hand, and a nose-clearing aroma will trump the cologne.
But what are you drinking? A pint of kombucha, of course—so very California! Kombucha is a variant of the ancient Russian beverage kvass, which is made by fermenting rye bread in water. To create kombucha, sweetened tea is inoculated with a culture of bacteria and yeast, which imbues the brew with supposed health benefits, as well as a small amount of alcohol. The product served at Mill Valley, made in St. Paul by Deane's Kombucha, is the first local on-tap offering and a good introduction to the beverage. It's lighter on the acidity and effervescence than some blends, but with just enough of an edge to make it especially refreshing.
Mill Valley stocks a full bar, but it also has an attractive assortment of non-alcoholic refreshments made with health-food favorites like citrus juices, coconut water, and agave nectar. And there are smoothies, some of which could double as a meal—especially the Superfood, which packs 470 calories' worth of fruit, kale, broccoli, and nuts into a glass. The thick, bright-green sludge tastes a lot better than it looks.
Rakun's plates emphasize nutrient density and so-called "superfoods." While the menu includes several ingredients with strong hippie associations, even the bland-sounding Vegetable Plate with Brown Rice turns out to have a certain gracefulness and spunk, especially the fiery, chile-flecked kale. The list is approachable enough to include a health-focused take on such fast-food staples as pizza and hamburgers.
Mill Valley's burgers are offered with a choice of grass-feed beef, bison, or a wild-mushroom vegetarian patty. If the bison isn't overcooked, it's a slightly leaner approximation of beef that's still juicy enough to saturate its spongy, seed-flecked bun. (And don't expect French fries from a 320-calorie plate. You'll be getting a still-tasty side of lightly dressed salad greens.)
Rakun's flatbreads seem like another species entirely than the typical Domino's pie. They're based on a thin but soft whole-grain crust and topped with things like spinach, onions, and a few blotches of chèvre. It's the rare pizza that could legitimately be considered a balanced meal.
The menu's more substantial entrées, which top out at $24, are mostly straightforward but well executed. The grass-fed beef filet has good flavor for its tenderness, and is classically accompanied by potatoes, mushrooms, and onions. Day boat scallops arrive on a bed of barley with a lively romesco sauce.
The miso-glazed sea bass best exemplifies the restaurant's light-but-flavorful approach. It's a dish that will leave you full, but not weighed down. The fish is certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, and it's handled with a deft, light touch: The lightly blackened crust on the skin is as appealing as the charred bits of hash browns that lingered on the griddle. A pile of Incan red quinoa adds the textural pop of tiny little beads and a nutty flavor that's rather like wild rice. A finishing drizzle of miso contributes a touch of salt and lip-smacking umami. It's a dish that's good for you—and just plain good.
Mill Valley's dessert menu cuts diners a little slack by dispensing with nutritional numbers entirely—though they are available upon request. Perhaps the kitchen wants to remind us that life can only be so data-driven, and that food, of course, is about far more than physical sustenance. (It's well worth the extra 220 calories to upgrade from the Grilled Plum salad to the Rustic Three Bean with roasted red peppers and Parmesan, for example.) In any case, the dessert "miniatures" offer a shot-glass-size portion of something rich: Triple Chocolate, Maple Panna Cotta, and Key Lime Pie are all excellent picks. For those who prefer sharing, the kitchen bakes a killer plate of warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies that drip melted chips when cracked apart. They're short on nutrition, but long on nostalgia.
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