At the Grand Garage building in downtown Stillwater, someone had hastily taped a homemade sign to the glass doors, right under the words "public restroom." The inkjet-printed placard looked slicker than what might advertise a child's lemonade stand, but less polished than something created by a professional. "Crab cakes at The Kitchen," it read. "Have you tried them? DO IT!!!" With that, we yanked open the door and proceeded inside.
The Kitchen is the sophomore venture of Erick Harcey and Ben Hiza, who formerly worked as the executive chef and general manager of the Nicollet Island Inn and have recently started launching their own restaurants. Harcey and Hiza snapped up the Grand Garage space abandoned by Stone's just as they did the building vacated by Sauced in north Minneapolis, which they reopened as Victory 44 earlier this year.
The Kitchen doesn't feel so different from Stone's, with its pleasant but unremarkable interior and massive, worth-the-drive patio. Harcey and Hiza gave the space a bit of cheeky attitude with the addition of several retro-style paintings of curvaceous babes. The letter "i" in the Kitchen's logo doubles as a silhouette of a pinup girl—all legs, high heels, and micro-mini apron—with a chef's hat covering her curls and a meat cleaver tucked behind her back.
We asked our server about the crab cakes, of course, and he explained that the proprietor of one of the other Grand Garage shops had liked them so much that she devised her own promotion. "It's the best crab cake on the planet," our server advised. "The way they should be—99 percent crab." Ours arrived at the table just as promised, a bulging puck of pure seaside succulence. The cake was carefully complemented by pureed avocado, cilantro leaves, and a grapefruit segment, delicately stripped of its bitter membrane. To the two prior endorsements, I add my own: You really should order the crab cake.
Our server explained the menu as if delivering a religious oratory, with palpable sweat on his brow. He offered so much detail that it seemed he might have cooked the dishes himself. Turns out he wasn't the chef, Jim Kyndberg, whom Harcey and Hiza recruited after his elegant Bayport Cookery shuttered, though he was one of Kyndberg's former Bayport staffers, which explained his dedication to the fare.
With several of its owners and employees well versed in fine dining, the Kitchen exemplifies the idea that casual never needs to mean sloppy. The menu—mostly brasserie-style American comfort foods with a gourmet touch—includes several of my favorites from Victory: a mixed-greens salad with sliced apple and cheddar cheese, the remarkably crisp fish 'n' chips, and a "Piggy Platter," which resembled Victory's signature entrée. A few Stone's favorites have been reprised, too, including the pepper-edged, pastrami-style smoked salmon.
Many of the dishes bear Kyndberg's thoughtful, precise imprint, whether they feature foie gras or country fried chicken. His chicken, by the way, was a gentrified version of its soul-food kin: a crunchy, rough-hewn crust protecting the tender meat within. The chicken is slathered in mushroom-tarragon gravy for extra richness, and served with mashed parsnips and roasted asparagus instead of the typical potatoes and collard greens.
Grits, barbecue sauce, and a divine succotash added Southern flair to scallops—the plate was licked clean faster than you could whistle "Dixie." But Kyndberg's signature entrée is the Duck Duck Goose: sliced duck breast, duck hash made from confit duck legs, and a poached goose egg on top. Drizzled with a rich foie gras sauce and runny yolk, it's deliciously rich, but perhaps could have used one more balancing element.
I thought Kyndberg's work was better exemplified by his chowder, which is less like the traditional East Coast version than the deconstructed French onion and wild rice soups Steven Brown whipped up at Porter & Frye. The bowl arrived containing bits of ham hock, puffed wild rice, and shrimp, which our server drowned with a pitcher of liquid. The result was a delicate interplay of sweet-salty flavors and crunchy-creamy textures: ham, milky broth, crisp rice, and juicy corn kernels.
Harcey is a former pastry chef, and knowing his skill (I'm still dreaming of the Banoffee pie at Victory 44), I wasn't going to pass up dessert. We hit the jackpot with a gourmet s'more made with chocolate ganache, homemade graham cracker, and roasted marshmallow semifreddo. The semi-frozen cream tasted just like a fire-kissed campfire treat, and when we raved about it to our server, he brought out its main ingredient—a large platter of toasted marshmallow whose swirls resembled a meringue pie top—which gets folded right into the cream.
As we ate the elegant s'more, we noted the contrast between our meal and the room's sports-bar ambiance. (Did that server's T-shirt really say, "We've got great cleavage?") One of my friends looked at the televisions hanging above the bar and remarked, "It doesn't seem like this should be on our table," as she pointed to our graceful spread. Sports bar or not, I couldn't remember the last time a server at a place with such a casual ambiance replaced my silverware between every course. And I hope the Kitchen won't be the last one.
BEFORE RESTAURANT CRU opened this summer, the finest dining on the northernmost stretch of Central Avenue was a toss-up between the Bloody Mary breakfast at Nicklow's—seven days a week!—and the Planet of the Zombies Taco Burger at Space Alien's Bar & Grill. But thanks to a Heartland alum, chef Rob Moore, Blaine now has its own taste of upscale locavore fare.
The restaurant sits in new strip-mall digs, right around the corner from Menard's. But there's nothing DIY about Cru's dining room: It's dark, clubby, and sophisticated, with brick walls, black leather booths, and a wine-bottle decor. The restaurant's masculine vibe reminded me of Pittsburg Blue in Maple Grove, though the stemware set on the tables seemed to make Cru feel more posh—and perhaps a little standoffish for today's recession-conscious, downscaled mentality.
Moore's short menu is designed for snacking and pairing with the restaurant's carefully sourced, global wine list. On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, for example, he offers a raw bar of ceviche, tartare, and carpaccio. Typically, a half-dozen types of fresh oysters have also been flown in—Cru is the only place in the area with such a broad selection—served with a spunky red wine-shallot vinaigrette. Moore's approach is fairly ambitious, and when I dined at Cru, the enthusiastic staff seemed a little out of its league with the menu. When I asked about the differences in taste between the Kushi and Barron Point bivalves, my waiter looked slightly terrified. After a bit of stammering, he conceded defeat and headed to the kitchen to find out the answer—though I always prefer that choice to an uninformed bluff.
Moore's former boss, Lenny Russo, has a penchant for showcasing underdog ingredients—elk, hazelnuts, zucchini blossoms, headcheese—and Moore's menu follows suit. He gives nearly ubiquitous ahi tuna a fresh spin by pairing it with soffritto (the Italian term for a sautéed diced-vegetable base), wheat berries (whole wheat kernels), and anchovy coulis (a pureed fish sauce).
Moore's chicken salad doesn't follow the typical ladies-who-lunch formula. The meat is heavily smoked, which helps it marry with the flavors of poblano and red bell peppers, contrasted with flecks of fresh sweet corn. The salad is served with a grilled baguette and lightly dressed mizuna, a lesser-known peppery green. Not all of Moore's flavor pairings work. The homemade Parmesan Chèvre ravioli were a delight, but the Bolognaise sauce had a chili-powder taste that seemed a little off, as did the accompanying spoonful of olive tapenade. (At a place where most entrées cost less than $20, the ravioli seemed a tad spendy, at three for 12 bucks.)
Heartland's influence is strongest in Moore's signature Hunter's Plate, an autumnal platter of bison sausage link, leg of duck confit, purple cabbage, and a ramekin of slow-cooked rabbit tucked under a mashed-potato crown—it looked almost like a cupcake. Each element held its own but could have used a punch-up in seasoning—star anise, cinnamon, clove, or the like—or perhaps a side of fruit chutney to elevate it further from its meat-and-potatoes roots.
While I liked several other things I tried—a creamy asparagus vichyssoise topped with micro greens and chili oil, a strawberry-rhubarb buckle with citrus goat cheese—the most memorable dish was one of the simplest, a small side of glazed fennel. The celery-green vegetable was roasted until it was luscious, golden on the edges, and glazed with hints of sweetness tempered by bits of salty porcine flesh. The recipe wasn't exotic, but it showed how underappreciated things can really shine when approached with extra care. With a little fine-tuning, I think Cru will be just such a place, if it isn't too far ahead of its time.