The Hanger Room reinvents the small-town steak house

The Hanger Room does surf as well as turf: Prosciutto-wrapped cod with ravioli

The Hanger Room does surf as well as turf: Prosciutto-wrapped cod with ravioli

During dinner at the Hanger Room the other night, a man bit into 16 ounces of 42-day dry-aged rib eye steak and started to moan. As he chewed, his eyes went wide and his face flushed. It looked like the makings of Meg Ryan's pleasured outburst in the diner from When Harry Met Sally...—except that he wasn't faking.

Following the lead of high-end steak houses in New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas, the Hanger Room has become the first restaurant in Minnesota to dry age its own beef in a special, on-premise cooler that controls temperature, humidity, and airflow. The dry-aging process, beloved by steak connoisseurs, concentrates and intensifies beef's flavor, making it richer and more complex, much like the curing of pork. Hanger Room chef Leonard Anderson says that when he sliced into his first batch of dry-aged steaks, it was almost like cutting prosciutto.

Anderson's original menu offered 10-ounce rib eye steaks aged for 28 days, but he decided to increase the portion size and aging time due to the rib eye's high fat content and reputation as a steak-eater's steak. "When I offered the rib eye at 10 ounces," Anderson says, "I had a few gentlemen come in and order two of them."

The Hanger Room, whose name evokes a flavorful but lesser-known cut of beef, is restaurateur Nick Miller's first foray into steak house fare. Miller was one of the original partners in St. Paul's popular Happy Gnome, but he has since sold his share of that business and now co-owns Buster's on 28th in Minneapolis. When he decided to open the Hanger Room in Willernie, Miller conceived of it as both a hangout for locals and a destination restaurant for urban diners. Willernie sits just outside the northeast corner of the 494/694 beltway, at the southern tip of White Bear Lake, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's not on your radar: The .1-square-mile city rests wholly within Mahtomedi and is home to only 500-some people.

The Hanger Room's low-slung, nondescript building, which previously housed the Wildwood Bowl & Lounge, doesn't look like much from the outside, disguising its handsome interior. But after a full gutting, lobster tanks and clubby, dark wood panels have replaced the pins and lanes. The main entrance divides the two spaces: bar on the left, dining room on the right, in an arrangement like the Happy Gnome's. The bar is full of beer signs and high-backed booths that enclose their fair share of ball-cap and sweatshirt-wearing patrons. The dining room is more upscale, with linens on the tables and pretty windows, though their views are not great—no lake shore or cityscape, just a Grateful Dead banner displayed from the building across the street.

To head the kitchen, Miller brought in chef Leonard Anderson, who had previously cooked at the Happy Gnome and, before that, helmed the culinary team at W.A. Frost. Beyond the steak selections, the rest of the menu is similar to the ones Anderson developed for Frost: creative, contemporary American fare with a sensitivity to pairing interesting flavors with contrasting temperatures and textures. The appetizers range from carpaccio to ceviche, the entrées from barbecue ribs and elk loin.

"It's the juiciest," our server said when I ordered the aforementioned 42-day-aged rib eye, the restaurant's most expensive item, at $69. The steak wasn't exactly dripping liquid, but it was as moist as a butter-logged sponge and as tender as tenderloin, but with a far beefier flavor boost—the steak equivalent of a first-class wine. Yet it wasn't as perfect as I'd hoped considering the price. The narrow end of the steak had cooked faster than its center and came out closer to medium than the requested medium rare. And I would have preferred it more closely trimmed: When we'd dispensed of the meat, the glob of fat that remained on the plate looked like an unappetizing liposuction harvest.

Though the steaks really need no accompaniment, Anderson offers two options: a terrific cauliflower and potato puree with watercress, caramelized onions, and a fat onion ring on top, or, even better, baby bok choy braised in coconut cream with pearl onions, and a deep-fried stringy mass of crispy enoki mushrooms. If steak will bust your budget, try the burger, which is also made with dry-aged beef. The patty is fluffy, moist, and flavorful (the meat has a slight musky note, though freshly chopped herbs contribute more seasoning), but it deserves a better bun.

Apart from the steaks, consider starting your meal with a fried appetizer—the oyster trio is a little precious, so stick with the duck tenders. They're an upscale take on the chicken version, with more flavorful meat, a crusty exterior with hints of coriander, and a sweet-hot, sesame-laced dipping sauce. If you want to balance that indulgence with a salad, Anderson has a nice mizuna mix instead of the usual iceberg wedge salad. It's topped with pecorino cheese, blackberries, macadamia nuts, pomegranate seeds, and a bright balsamic vinaigrette also flavored with sesame.

Several of the seafood dishes are also excellent. The lobster risotto features lush bites of lobster meat, enriched with the delicate brininess of sea urchin and a sweet hint of vanilla. Scallops are precisely cooked, then paired with pork belly cubes, mushrooms, and microgreens. Only the mussels and fries were treated with a heavy hand. The spiciness of the piri piri chile and chorizo broth overwhelmed the mussels' flavor. The fries sounded promising, battered in panko breadcrumbs to add textural interest, but instead, the leaden, starchy cloak choked out the potato.

As for the house-made desserts, the chocolate trio bats .666, but the rich, moist almond torte is flawless. The sweet, dense cake comes with mango sorbet and little pearls of passion fruit "caviar" made by means of molecular gastronomy. It's certainly not the sort of thing you'd find at Gordy's, an old-school steakhouse across the street that tends toward classics like stuffed mushroom caps, walleye, and chicken Kiev.

Service is good by bar standards but at times misses a few of the details you'd expect to accompany a spendy dinner-room check. For example, one staffer started to remove the clean utensils our server had just brought in advance of our entrées; he then swiped a crumber across the tablecloth, but picked up air instead of several large crumbs. On another night, though, a different server made a much better impression. Though he admitted that he had never tried the restaurant's dry-aged steaks—shouldn't the management encourage its sales team to at least sample its signature product?—he still gave a thorough explanation of the aging process and its effect on the meat. He also knew enough about Scotch to recommend an Islay for a drinker seeking one with a smoky character.

In fact, the Hanger Room has one of the most extensive alcoholic beverage lists in the area, with a special selection of Scotches and whiskeys and an amazing beer list, which makes it especially depressing to see drinkers bypass the bar's 50 taps and opt for bottles of Coors Light and Michelob Ultra. There's no financial incentive to drink poorly—Pabst costs just as much as an Old Rasputin Imperial Stout; more likely, the mostly older crowd is less familiar with craft beer and tends to stick with what they know.

But risk-taking has its rewards, especially on the restaurant's creative mixed-drink list. One, dubbed the Blood of Christ, is a smooth, earthy, cucumber-laced, gin-based beverage whose beet juice-red hue does make it look rather like its name. It might be sacrilegious to admit that it tastes far better than most communion wine.