Tastes Like Now
3118 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
Once upon a time, and a long, long time ago it was, the pretty little wives in the happy, prosperous, but never ever ostentatious Tudor homes back behind the city lakes, these wives would, once, and once a year only, have a birthday. Consequently their husbands would have the boy at the garage polish the car, a car that was made with tons and tons of actual steel, a car that might even have little fins on the back, like a shark, if you can even imagine such a thing, and that husband would go and get that wife and take her to Nora's, a supper club halfway between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles. There, the happy couple would meet another happy couple, and they would all eat steaks and walleye and salads with French dressing, and they would drink lots and lots of martinis, and the ladies' pearls would glow as if saturated by moonlight, in the warm, smoky supper club, which was as richly dark as a night on a Norwegian cruise.
Then, eons passed. Eons.
Alice Waters was born, Julia Child died, the refrigerators got computer sensors and learned to crush their own ice, and suddenly all the dads at peewee hockey got cell phones so they could reschedule racquetball in case the wife's nonstop from Tokyo got delayed...and so the bulldozers came and knocked Nora's down.
Two months ago, in its place, Tryg Truelson, son of Nora Truelson, opened Tryg's. Walk in the door and everything looks sort of Flintstones-future-ski-lodge, with lots of rough-hewn limestone, polished copper, and tufts of grasses sprouting from the tops of half-walls separating rows of tables. Look to the menu, and you find two sorts of dishes: old-fashioned American classics, and new-fashioned American classics. On the old-fashioned side of things we have onion soup and meatloaf, prepared the way we like them now, made out of first-quality materials from local farms. On the new-fashioned side, we've got all the things people really want to see when they go out to dinner lately, like feather-light calamari and ruby-red grilled ahi tuna.
Look up at the servers, when they bring your martini, if you want one, or your Central Coast Pinot Noir by the glass, which is more likely your bag nowadays, since your doctor and Elle magazine both recommended it, and you will find the same nice, friendly, eager-to-please sort of crew that was there in the Nora's days, except now none of them have cat's-eye glasses on golden chains and call you sweetheart. Or at least, none of them did that I saw.
In fact, on a trio of recent visits to Tryg's, I was almost capsized with the strangest feeling of déjà vu, not so much of something already experienced, but more of something restored to the exact point in the universe where it's supposed to be. Tryg's is exactly the restaurant that needs to be in that exact spot on the prosperous, but never ostentatious, family-oriented strip on the city's...well, not gold coast, because that would be the eastern shores of the lakes, right? And not silver coast, because that sounds old. Platinum coast is just silly. Cashmere coast? Burberry coast? Volkswagen coast? Something in there. Let's call it the perfect restaurant for Minnesota's own Volkswagens, warm mittens, and peonies-in-June west coast.
Unless you're a food snob in hot pursuit of the outer limits of avant-garde cooking, I can almost guarantee that you will like every single thing on Tryg's menu. The panko-fried calamari ($9) is served in a playful paper cone. Each little squiddy bit is a crunchy little cloud, made decadent if you sop it through the icing-rich pool of accompanying aioli, jazzed up with salty green lucque olives and lemon thyme. The roasted beet salad ($8) is a charming version, with both red and deep orange beets roasted for maximum flavor concentration, and served as brilliant wedges on a generous bed of arugula next to snowy planks of Humboldt Fog goat cheese and crispy little bits of bacon. The onion soup ($7) is one of the best versions in town, the rich caramelized onion broth not at all too salty--a miracle! In fact, it's winey and deep, the fat sourdough crouton up top bursting with a rich, meaty intensity, created by good-quality Gruyère. In fact, my only quibble with any of the starters I tried was that the artichoke ($8), served trimmed and roasted on a large glass platter, would be nicer if there was some way to keep it hot.
The comforts keep coming with the entrées. A sweet, nicely weighty veal meatloaf ($14) is served as an open-face sandwich crowned with a clever variation on ketchup, a dense calamata olive and stewed tomato concoction that looks restaurant-fancy, but tastes Toll House Cookie-comfortable. A rotisserie Long Island duck ($22) will probably be better once they find a local source for the bird: The rare duck breast was nearly flavorless, but the stewed leg of the bird was truly great, spicy in the way that a racy pumpkin pie is spicy, sweet, rich, and fragrant.
All of the vegetable sides that I tried were wonderful. A butternut squash puree gilded with vanilla bean-infused cream was like silk on the tongue, all buoyant grace and lilting finesse. The roasted Brussels sprouts, which are blanched, caramelized with clarified butter, roasted with shallots and garlic, and finished with blue cheese, are nothing short of genius. Imagine Brussels sprouts as rich, crispy, and addictive as the bacon-filled potato skins of yesteryear, but with a more sophisticated winter-cabbage edge. Seriously. If you suddenly find yourself in Tryg's bar glomming down handfuls of Brussels sprouts with your after-work beer, don't say I didn't warn you.
The menu and cooking excellence is the work of chef Philip Dorwart, the founding and once-renowned chef of the original Table of Contents in St. Paul. The dish of his I tried that was most reminiscent of the work he did in that small kitchen a decade ago was a marvelous plump fillet of mahi-mahi, seared crisp and served in a bowl of corn broth, the concoction crowned with a light salad of shredded fennel and radish. It was elegantly understated, thoroughly accomplished, and just a jim-dandy of a dinner. Which will have many of you asking, So just where has Dorwart been since Table of Contents crashed and burned, brought down by the weight of its two lackluster spin-offs, Dish and Red Fish Blue?
"Just laying low," Dorwart told me, when I spoke to him on the phone for this story. "I made a decision a few years ago: I want to cook, I don't want to run restaurants. When I signed on at Table of Contents I was one of four partners, and I was in charge of the kitchen end. [Dish and Red Fish Blue] were both projects that I did not want to do; they were not good projects. Suddenly I found myself doing this kitschy, crappy, kid-friendly stuff. I'm somewhat bitter about it, because if anything it tarnished what I built at Table of Contents. But it's been great since I've been here to find out what a huge following Table of Contents had. We probably have at least 10 guests a day who come in and say, 'We're so glad you're here.'
"Now things are much better. Tryg and I have really hit it off, and I'm doing what I love: cooking. When I wake up now I love going to work, because I'm a chef. Here at Tryg's, I'm just trying to really focus on the food itself: The cheese in the cheddar-potato pie with the pork shank is four years old, the beef is Meyer beef, all natural, and certified humane. The farmers who supply just about everything are folks I've collected over the last decade. If you call it gussied-up comfort food, that's fine with me; it's simple food, done with the best ingredients we can get."
Nowhere is this simple-food-done-right aesthetic more apparent than in Tryg's brunch: On weekends the place puts all of their 155 seats in service to the best thing to happen to brunch since the invention of corned beef hash. By this I refer to their prime rib hash, cinnamon chicken hash, wild mushroom hash, smoked salmon hash, and roasted duck hash. All of the hash ingredients make their appearance in the dinner menu, and I cannot tell you what satisfaction I get from the simple, old-fashioned economy of the process: prime rib for dinner, prime rib hash for breakfast! (It really speaks to the industrial-food perversions of the last two decades that I find this remarkable at all, but, sigh, there it is.)
That prime rib hash ($11) is salty, roasty, and potent, with tiny squares of Yukon gold potatoes nestled against tiny cubes of the garlic prime rib. A pair of poached eggs dressed with a little bit of delectable béarnaise sauce perch on top of the potatoes. The cinnamon chicken hash ($9) is fantastic, pieces of lightly spiced rotisserie chicken (the cinnamon is a subtle grace note, not a dominant flavor) paired with potato and shreds of sweet leek and perky bits of parsnip. The vegetables really transform the dish into something vibrant and cheerful, and the fried eggs up top were so fresh the yolks stood up like balloons. I also tried Tryg's French toast ($8), made with a pecan pound cake and served with organic maple syrup and lots of fresh strawberries.
One morning at Tryg's I tried a wonderful phyllo tart shell filled with mascarpone cream and topped with a cheerful carnival of fruit cut into fun geometric shapes and piled high. In fact, every dessert or pastry I tried looked as frivolous as a giggle but exhibited serious pastry skills: Pastry chef Sun Cowles has a captivating way with sweets and is able to arrange things in such a lighthearted and fanciful way that your eyes are as charmed as your palate. The chocolate mousse terrine ($6) is stacked stripes of white and dark chocolate caught in a glossy band of ganache and served with a scoop of white chocolate ice cream. It looks like something made of plastic for the Cat in the Hat to eat, but devastates with a trio of profound chocolate notes. The lemon meringue tartlet ($6) is filled with a real French custard, all fresh lemon juice, butter, and glowing egg yolk, but the ebullient star cutout cookie that crowns it, the crinkly phyllo skirt that dresses it, and the pouf of crowning meringue give notice of nothing but fun.
There simply isn't a better place in the southwest metro for a big multigenerational brunch celebration. Tryg's is wheelchair accessible, the hostesses are happy to set up a high chair for a little one, and then there are all those hashes. Stick a candle in one of the breakfast pastries and you'll never feel crabby about Uncle Bert's birthday get-together again.
Basically, the only question I still have about Tryg's is, What will happen in the year 2050? When they bulldoze Tryg's and replace it with the newest thing, what will we find when our grandchildren wheel us in for our 75th birthday brunch? Lycopene empanadas? Peanut-infused chimichurri water? Something tells me that whatever it is, it will be exactly what we will want.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.