"Of all the dishes we serve, this one is my favorite plating," our server said with a smirk as she set an order of Wisconi Balls on our table at the Prairie Ale House. Two brown spheres—sausage-encased hard-cooked eggs—cozied up at one end of the platter with a phallic smear of mustard sauce protruding from their nexus.
This was nothing for a couple of City Pages staffers—hell, we'd seen more salacious imagery on our own website. But imagine the uncomfortable silence the plate might create between salesperson and client, or the impromptu birds-and-bees lesson it could inspire. Staffers say they shield children from the joke, but all adult parties are subject to the indecent exposure. Should your future in-laws place the order, you can only hope that the teenage wait assistant mumbles his line so you can slice up the balls and smear the sauce before someone asks, "What did he say?"
Foodies have come to expect a little playful raunch from Aaron Johnson, one of the restaurateurs who revived the Town Talk Diner on East Lake in 2006 and went on to open the cheekily named Strip Club steakhouse in St. Paul. "I think a little naughty is a lot of fun with people," Johnson says. Those who have drunk a few Panty Droppers at the former and eaten enough XXX-cargot butter at the latter wouldn't be fazed by the phallus. But what about Eden Prairie-ites?
Prairie Ale House's suburban digs are new territory for Johnson, who aims to offer an alternative to the area's homogenous menus of Asian chicken salads and buffalo chicken wraps. But he also knows he can't go too "gastro" with his pub-style fare. In the restaurant's opening weeks, servers passed out two food lists, one reminiscent of Town Talk's finer diner fare and one labeled the "bridge menu," with pepperoni pizzas and plain cheeseburgers. "It's for people who don't like our menu," our server bluntly explained. "It's for people who want something more like Champps or Ruby Tuesday—but we're not Champps or Ruby Tuesday."
In fact, Prairie rose from the ashes of a bankrupt restaurant chain. Its strip-mall home was previously occupied by Timber Lodge, which left behind little but the shadowy remains of its removed signage. (The way the front of the building now reads, one could be forgiven for thinking the new restaurant's name was "Prairie Ale House Steakhouse.")
Inside, the space looks like a vast sports bar, with the requisite stools, booths, high-top tables, long bar, and overhead televisions. It has a few more personalized details, including dark wood wainscoting, hanging utility lights with wire-caged bulbs, and the same hose-clamp napkin rings that Town Talk introduced. Behind the ersatz Tiffany lamp on the host's stand, paper placemats colored by youthful diners—diagrams of pork butchery cuts—hang on the wall. Prairie's remodel added a cozy "snug" room for private parties behind the bar, but it appears to have missed the restrooms, which are just a notch up from those of a fast-food joint.
While both the Strip Club and Johnson's incarnation of the Town Talk have received high praise for their menus, they succeeded on more than their food. Those restaurants offered historic character and extra-friendly service to neighborhoods long on city grit and short on dining options. But Prairie's space is more than twice the size of Johnson's previous restaurants, which makes the dining experience feel more anonymous, and lacks the vintage charm and charisma. The new restaurant has a lot more riding on its fare.
Johnson wisely recruited several Town Talk alum who already shared a rapport, including chef Tommy Begnaud and bar manager Adam Harness. (Some relationships go even further back; sous chef Tyler Wilcox, incidentally, is the brother of Harness's 1996 prom date.) Prairie's menu is mostly upscale bar food, plus a few entrées that run the gamut from gourmet mac 'n' cheese and stuffed pork chops to pan-seared scallops with Israeli cous cous, caramelized cauliflower, raisins, capers, and romesco sauce. There are plenty of deep-fried, decadent items, or what the staff calls "dirty food," but the kitchen still emphasizes good ingredients and sources its meats from the same local purveyors used by many fine-dining restaurants.
Though the Ale House is ostensibly a pub, it's designed to encourage repeat visits beyond the usual happy hour with co-workers or post-ball-game beer by adding options for Friday date nights and Sunday brunches. (For a first-rate morning meal, by the way, skip the house-made caramel roll and save the calories for the biscuits and gravy.)
Getting back to the appetizers, the Wisconi Balls' flavor doesn't match their shock factor: To be as good as the ones at Brit's Pub, they'd need a thicker, spicier layer of sausage. The Blue Cheese Tots—they're dusted with blue cheese powder, topped with scraps of fried chicken skin doused in buffalo sauce, and served with a cheesy dipping sauce—are the restaurant's most popular starter, though they probably don't deserve to be. That honor should go to the Sick Pickle, a state-fair special that arrives stabbed through its heart with a serrated knife. It's a little odd to eat a warm pickle, but cutting into the batter-fried treat you'll find a spicy, garlicky filling of melting cream cheese and flecks of Spam. Johnson describes its origins: "Tommy and I were sitting around, and we asked, 'What's the sickest thing we can do with a pickle that doesn't include a mannequin?'"
Pass on the Soy Ginger Tempeh, as it suggests a vegetarian banh mi gone wrong with its too-dense bread and too-sweet ribbons of pickled carrot. Better to go with the heaping portion of pot roast or one of the many burgers. The Loaded Burger—bacon, red onion marmalade, pickled jalapeño, cheese curds, fried egg, and Thousand Island dressing on a beef patty—is a gas, though its crumbly bun can't provide the structural support for all those toppings. The Butter Burger—peanut butter that is—would be better if it replaced its pickles in favor of hot peppers like the standard-bearer, the Blue Door Pub's Jiffy Burger. The burger's pork alternative is a tasty, puck-shaped, house-made bratwurst topped with spicy sauerkraut, bacon, and Gruyere cheese. The accompanying French fries can be ordered plain; seasoned with parsley, garlic, and Parmesan; or loaded with gravy and cheese curds, poutine-style. The last is oversalted, but not inedibly so, as it often is.
If you're looking for an excuse to order an alcoholic beverage, the tap water tastes terrible, as if it's been spiked with chlorine and metal. Prairie offers a nice beer selection, most of it bottled, and among the dozen taps, Budweiser has recently been bumped off by local beer maker Lift Bridge. But why not try one of the retro cocktails or alcoholic malts that got the town talking about Town Talk?
The Sidecar is perfectly balanced, garnished with a lemon twist, and priced a reasonable $7. The Jack O'Lantern "adult" malt runs $11, but its mix of pumpkin pie filling, vanilla ice cream, and brandy tastes like you just made a snow angel and warmed up by the fire. Harness admits that he's struggled a bit to sell Brazilian Caipirinhas to a Purple Hooter-shooting clientele. "It's a mid-'90s bar mentality," he says of the locals' taste for the sweet and syrupy. But with his list of pre-Prohibition cocktails and experiments with, say, jalapeño-infused whiskeys, he's making Prairie the kind of place where it pays to tell the bartender, "Just make me something."
The gregarious Johnson recognizes the importance of hospitality and has always pulled it off better than most restaurateurs in town. When he and Tim Niver first opened Town Talk, Johnson stationed himself behind the bar, shouting greetings to guests the moment they walked in the door, and Niver himself often waited tables. When the two launched the Strip Club, Niver worked the door as if it opened onto his own home—practically offering to add your coat to the pile in the bedroom—as Johnson cultivated regulars while he poured beverages. "A restaurant is four walls and a bunch of equipment," he says. "Everything else is the people and what they bring to it."
It's too bad that Prairie doesn't have quite the same warmth and intimacy of Town Talk or Strip club: The staff's chummy conviviality gets disbursed over the prodigious space, weakening its effect. But still, if you compare Prairie to its competitors in the sports-bar market, the pub stakes significant claim on a category typically known for unremarkable food. "Why can't someone sit down and watch the Vikings game and eat a really kickass meal?" Johnson asks. Say, perhaps, a special of duck confit with beet syrup? "Sounds like a good game-day meal to me," he says.