Purple Sandpiper and BLVD Kitchen bring culinary ambition to suburbs

At BLVD, steer toward the ribs

At BLVD, steer toward the ribs

Generally, the most innovative, food-forward restaurants tend to spring up in the urban core, leaving suburbanites to settle for sustenance as bland as their Levittown architecture. Good luck trying to find sweetbreads or pancetta within a soccer field's distance of a Wal-Mart.

But two new restaurants in Bloomington and Minnetonka have swapped the typical tabletop shakers for French sea salt—a signal that their kitchens have higher ambitions than most of their neighbors. Purple Sandpiper and BLVD Kitchen & Bar are spreading the foodie gospel to mainstream markets as they introduce new ingredients and flavor pairings to more conservative diners. Depending on how well they execute, they have the potential to turn skeptics into more adventurous eaters—or scare them right back into their old comfort zones.

AT FIRST WE THOUGHT it was a joke: a carnivorous chef's kiss-off to the vegetarians. The Cauliflower Soba Noodles might have been mistaken for day-old cat vomit, had they been discovered behind the couch, soaked into the carpet, instead of presented on a plate.

Only Oliver Twist's workhouse might get away with serving such wet, gray slop—not a restaurant hoping to make income from paying customers. But perhaps this was the dish's secret: The only way a kitchen would offer something so visually repulsive would be if it tasted mind-blowing, right?

But one bite of the noodles—angel-hair thin, blended with bleu cheese béchamel and roasted cauliflower—proved otherwise. The dish tasted like vaguely vegetal, slightly molded wallpaper paste. Its pickled cauliflower garnish, I decided, was the best thing about the worst dish I'd eaten all year.

Purple Sandpiper, which opened September 1 on South Lyndale Avenue, aims to bring creative, chef-driven fare to a staid, chain-restaurant dining scene, while keeping prices competitive (all entrées are less than $20). But the opening chef, Ryan Aberle, who showed impressive spark at NorthCoast and, briefly, at Ringo, parted ways with the restaurant less than two months after its launch. And visits just before his departure found Purple Sandpiper struggling to hone and execute its menu.

The restaurant should be commended for its ability to sell veal glands to the Caesar salad and Chardonnay crowd. The sweetbread nachos—crisp pasta chips with spicy, livery meat chunks, spiked with roasted jalapeños, pickled onion, balsamic vinegar, and blue cheese—were far tastier than the sum of their ingredients suggested. I also liked a salad of poached turnips and turnip greens with cheddar cheese (minus the apples, whose sweetness was at odds with the other sharp-bitter elements). The butter burger is certainly an easier sell, being fat, juicy, and served with a side of sweet potato fries and cinnamon-flavored aioli.

But most of Purple Sandpiper's more experimental flavor pairings weren't as good as the classics. Matching Au Bon Canard duck confit with pumpkin sounded sensible, but it didn't have the merit of a more conventional choice, like white beans. Chocolate "Black 'n' Tan" cake was another interesting idea, but the stout flavor was just too bitter for mainstream tastes. Plain chocolate would have been preferable.

One of the most unusual dishes I tried, a lake trout lox "sundae," was inspired—brown-sugar-cured Lake Superior fish with a scoop of "everything bagel" ice cream that was literally studded with seed-flecked bits of bread—but the ice cream resembled a dense, cold butter. Its texture and temperature paired oddly with the cured fish and would have worked better, frankly, on a bagel.

The post-Aberle menu has scaled back, axing several of the dishes that seemed to be trying too hard: weird simply for the sake of being weird. The lox "sundae," the "Black 'n' Tan" cake, and the turnips are now gone, but also, sadly, are the sweetbreads. Their replacements are the more commonplace PEI mussels, lobster mac and cheese, and chocolate flourless torte.

While the menu is being reworked, the dining room, too, could use a few tweaks. It has some pretty elements—large windows and a couple of roomy booths covered in mod, polka-dot upholstery—but food court-grade tables, generic wood paneling, and bad Muzak detract from the ambiance. Service is friendly and comfortable but at times a little too casual. One night, some friends and I were seated at a four-top so tiny our knees practically touched, while one of the spacious booths was sloppily strewn with papers and a crumpled apron, as if the remnants of a staff meeting gone wrong hadn't been cleared before dinner service.

The restaurant is in the process of bringing on a new executive chef, so until that transition is made and things stabilize, breakfast and beer may be Purple Sandpiper's most reliable offerings—they're certainly far more interesting than what's available at the Perkins down the block. Lobster Benedict features briny claw meat on an English muffin with poached eggs and a lemony hollandaise. Pumpkin ricotta hotcakes were a moist, delicately spiced alternative to the standard flapjack. The French toast, though a little dry, arrived with fresh strawberries, real maple syrup, and a glassy maple brittle. All three would have been even better had the plates not arrived lukewarm. On the plus side, Purple Sandpiper's beer inventory reads like that of a craft beer shop. It's surely among the best beer bars in the south metro, stocking everything from Tyranena Hop Whore, an intense Imperial India Pale Ale, to bottles of the Flemish sour ale Rodenbach Grand Cru. You won't find those at IHOP.

AFTER RECOVERING from the havoc his former friend, Tom Petters, wreaked on his finances, Dean Vlahos has reemerged on the restaurant scene. Vlahos founded the Champps chain and went on to launch Redstone. His new venture, BLVD Kitchen and Bar, is another suburban concept that replaces an old Don Pablo's off 394 and Hopkins Crossroads, next to Michael's crafts and Dick's sporting goods stores.

Vlahos is famously connected, and his Redstones have become places for the wealthy to relax when they're not at the country club. (The Eden Prairie Redstone will forever be remembered as the place where Kirby Puckett was arrested after allegedly groping a woman in the restroom.) "It's almost like Dean is the mayor of Minnetonka," says BLVD's executive chef Mike Burkauskas. "Everyone seems to know the guy."

BLVD is an upgraded version of both of Vlahos's previous concepts, replacing Champps' "Americana" and Redstone's "American Grill" taglines with the more foodie-oriented "Kitchen and Bar." The restaurant has a vaguely European vibe with embossed panels on its high ceiling and white subway tile along the open kitchen. But it also feels like a man room with its large central bar and ring of televisions.

Children are sparse at BLVD—it's more of an after-work joint, designed with groups in mind, with a modest party room and patio. Tall tables in a back corner tend to collect groups of guys in buttoned-down shirts who stand around with drinks in their hands, shouting over the din.

Several details elevate BLVD from the typical freeway-lining chain eatery: knowledgeable servers wearing crisp white shirts and smart striped neckties with long kitchen aprons around the waist; hostesses who offer to switch your white napkin for black for those wearing dark colors; cloth hand towels in the restrooms; buttery Brussels sprouts served in cast-iron crocks with nubs of pancetta and sprigs of fresh thyme; house-made potato chips—overcooked and under-salted when I had them, unfortunately—cutely wrapped in brown paper and tucked into metal cups.

Vlahos recruited Mike Burkauskas after admiring the chef's menu at a clubby Chicago steakhouse called Gibsons, and Burkauskas worked with longtime local consulting chef Tobie Nidetz to develop BLVD's dishes, source vendors, and hire staff. The restaurant's list of American comfort food with a twist bears some resemblance to the menus Nidetz created at Jimmy's Food and Cocktails in Minnetonka and the now-closed Stone's in Stillwater. There are the familiar chicken wings and tomato basil soup, but also seasonally changing small plates and entrée specials.

There are better places to eat seafood than BLVD. A halibut fillet had a pleasant grilled char, but the flesh tasted rather dry. The accompanying relish was made with kernels hand-sliced off the cob, but they were sadly thick-husked and not very succulent—the dish begged for more juice or acid. The oh-so-trendy lobster mac and cheese (made with curly cellentani pasta, actually) had nice hints of sweetness and spice, but some lobster bites had the texture of a mealy apple.

Next time, I'd stick with the bar food. The ribs are great—jammy sweet and smoky, leading with a whiff of vinegar and finishing with a mess on the fingers—though not a savvy order in any professional context. When I tried the Royale with Cheese, its double patties were overcooked and piled with too-salty American cheese, yet it made two great innovations in the been-there-ate-that burger world: a haystack of "frizzled" leeks (they're soaked in buttermilk, fried in seasoned flour, and finished with a blend of dehydrated brown sugar and salt) and a pretzel bun, which is dense and chewy, with a pleasantly taut crust (St. Agnes does BLVD's baking, using the restaurant's recipes). Better to get the slider trio and balance out a beef burger with one of the tender fried chicken and another with coleslaw-topped pulled pork that's less sweet but more spicy than usual. The shaved rib eye sandwich has a lot going for it, between the tender, juicy meat, pillowy bun, melted mozzarella cheese, and frizzled leeks, but it needs to overcome its blandness with some spicy or pickled condiments to be as good as a Philly cheesesteak.

The bar scene at BLVD will surely make it a social hub of the western suburbs, even though, right now, its food and beverage offerings are somewhat uneven. One meal, for example, that started with an insult to Bloody Marys everywhere—watery mix, blah spicing, harsh alcohol flavor—was redeemed, by its end, with Sebastian Joe's vanilla ice cream in a lush puddle of salted caramel and cinnamon-sprinkled, shortbread-style cookies. Still, for a tired restaurant category that could use inspiration, BLVD is headed in the right direction.