At the new Lowry restaurant on Hennepin Avenue, you can now order a stiff drink where you once rented Cocktail. The former Hollywood Video's shelves of dramas and romantic comedies have been replaced by booths and bar tables. The eatery, which is split into two wings and covered in warm wood and windows, bills itself an "urban diner," and I was just trying to figure out exactly what that meant when a server approached the table and addressed me as "honey." This was no apron-wearing 1950s gal, but a model-thin, tattoo-clad young man with a helium-high voice. And his customers certainly weren't the same crowd who rubbed shoulders with The Mighty Ducks at Mickey's.
The Lowry is the newest of the Blue Plate restaurant group's eateries, and the second, after the Italian-themed Scusi, to stray a bit from the company's successful Neighborhood Grill formula (Edina Grill, Highland Grill, etc.). The Lowry's menu shares several dishes with the Grills'—the turkey burger, the tempura green beans, and the steak and pierogies among them—but takes a slightly more sophisticated slant on the concept.
The restaurant's signage and menus hype four categories of fare: burgers, whiskey, oysters, and eggs. One evening, a few friends and I attempted to divine their relationship, and why they'd been singled out to define the restaurant. Burgers certainly have mass appeal, but oysters and whiskey are more polarizing—they're items equally likely to disgust as delight the average diner. As for the eggs, sure we scramble 'em up for breakfast and scarf up deviled ones at picnics, but they're not necessarily a food that entices one to a restaurant.
"It's man food," the lone male in our group suggested, noting the masculine aesthetic of the eatery's black leather booths. Okay. Burgers, check. Whiskey, check. Oysters, check. But eggs? "Think of the famous Paul Newman quote, 'I can eat 50 eggs,'" he said. Still, the rest of us weren't convinced the items went together. "In Esquire they do," the man replied. "This is the Esquire of restaurants."
Maybe so. But it's also Cosmo, People, Highlights, and AARP. The Lowry is a place for an early riser's 6:30 a.m. breakfast and a night owl's 1 a.m. nightcap. It's a place to bring a date, a client, or the kids.
And the burgers, by the way, are pretty good. The signature Lowry is a thick, juicy patty, smothered with bacon, sharp cheddar, and barbecue sauce. Its ho-hum tomato and shredded iceberg lettuce are a little too reminiscent of McDonald's, but its accompanying skinny fries are excellent, as is the raisin-studded coleslaw. Alongside the sandwiches are several new entrées, created by the Lowry's chef, Dustin Pallansch, with the help of Blue Plate executive chef Joan Ida. Crepes Pot-Au-Feu are thin French pancakes stuffed with tender braised beef, and they're delicious except for their too-salty gravy. A large, grilled, bone-in pork chop calls to mind Pallansch's most recent employer, the Strip Club Meat & Fish. The meat's char-marked flesh is robustly flavored and nicely married with polenta wedges and a rich mushroom-tomato sauce. The eggplant Parmesan is a little heavy, but it's a solid execution of the Italian staple. For something lighter, try the lovely platter of roasted vegetables heaped on a bed of arugula.
When I visited the Lowry, a month after its opening, the whiskey program appeared to be a little behind schedule. My server didn't have a printed menu and admitted that the staff's spirits training had been somewhat impeded by the state shutdown, which had delayed the restaurant's alcohol acquisition.
But if your server is unable to explain the difference between whiskey, bourbon, and scotch, he or she will hopefully go fetch a bartender who can. Whiskey, you will learn, is a broad term subject to regional variations. For example, Irish whiskey is usually made from barley, triple distilled, and aged in wooden barrels. Scotch, or whisky from Scotland (they spell it without the e), follows similar practices except it's typically double distilled and often treated with peat smoke to enhance the flavor. Bourbon is barrel-aged American whiskey, distilled from corn. Got all that?
Sampling helps. And the bartender can recommend a few favorites if you want to taste the difference between, say, a sweeter, caramel-scented Basil Hayden Kentucky bourbon and a more aggressive Redbreast Irish whiskey. The bar offers several whiskey cocktails, too, such as the Blood & Sand, which blends scotch with cherry liqueur, orange juice, and sweet vermouth. My favorite is the Lane Zamprey, which enhances rye whiskey by blending it with Grand Marnier, agave nectar, lemon juice, bitters, and the medicinal-tasting Italian liqueur Fernet-Branca. The drink has sweetness, tartness, and bitterness, plus an egg white's smooth, creamy froth. Just before the beverage is served, the bartender takes a lit match to an orange peel, warms it with the flame to release its oils, and rubs it around the rim of the glass. The act adds a heady citrus aroma and looks like a magic trick.
The craft cocktail list is just one part of the Lowry's beverage program, which is the most comprehensive of those at the Blue Plate restaurants. A carefully curated tap list is practically a requirement for a new restaurant these days, and the Lowry's manages to tuck in a few rarely seen brews among its mix of 37 local and international favorites, including everything from Grain Belt Nordeast to Belgium's Delirium Tremens. They also employ several trendy alcohol serving systems, including cask beer and keg wine.
There are restaurants in town with better oyster selections—the lists at Oceanaire and Meritage are longer and prices are slightly cheaper—but it's nice to see a foodstuff that ocean-deprived Midwesterners perceive as a gourmet indulgence offered in a more informal setting. The oysters I sampled from the Lowry's raw bar were perfectly fresh and briny and prettily presented with a setup of grilled lemon, cocktail sauce, saltines, and Tabasco. (For those squeamish about eating a still-living creature, oysters are also offered fried, either stuffed into a hoagie as a Peacemaker, or into a bun with bacon, scrambled eggs, greens, and chipotle ketchup, as a sandwich version of Hangtown fry.)
Among the other appetizers, the tuna poke is less appealing. When I ordered it, the fish had a rather mushy texture and contained an awful lot of chewy sinew—you'd find better poke at a supermarket deli on Maui. Fortunately, the tuna's flaws were mostly masked by the spark of green onions, soy sauce, capers, ginger, and wasabi.
Better to go with the more standard gastropub bites, such as the $4 cup of spiced and candied nuts, which are flecked with fresh herbs and sea salt. Or the jalapeño cheese curds to be dunked in sweet-salty blueberry ketchup. The fried cheese is breaded, which isn't as good as battered, but otherwise makes for an addictive snack. (If you have the stomach for it, order the curds as a part of the poutine, which pairs them with French fries, braised beef, and gravy.) The grilled Caesar salad offers another twist on a classic. Two thick lettuce planks are sliced lengthwise from a head of romaine and topped with Caesar dressing, anchovies, and a Parmesan crisp. It's fun to pick the whole thing up and eat it like bruschetta.
The Caesar comes with a bacon-and-relish-topped deviled egg, but the other egg dishes mostly show up on the breakfast menu, selections of which are available all day long. The eggs are served shirred or scrambled or in a frittata topped with chiffonade-cut spinach and basil, roasted tomatoes, and Brie. The hash browns are as crispy as they should be and best eaten with a few shakes of Cholula hot sauce. A side of toast or English muffin arrives with the diner staple of an individual-size plastic tub of jam.
The other Blue Plate restaurants are known for their Killer Banana Waffles, topped with ripe banana and praline, which duly live up to their name. The Lowry offers a peanut butter variation loaded with Skippy, vanilla custard, candied peanuts, and whipped cream. Consider it a justifiable way to eat what's essentially a Pearson's Salted Nut Roll for breakfast. Or try ordering it for dessert.
In the past, Blue Plate restaurants have popped up in underserved restaurant neighborhoods—yes, long ago, 50th and France belonged in that category—and this is the company's first venture into a more competitive market. The Parasole restaurant group, which shares some similarities with Blue Plate, already dominates the nearby Hennepin-Lake intersection with its Chino Latino, Il Gatto, and Uptown Cafeteria. While Parasole's restaurants are still neighborhood-friendly and versatile, they tend to attract a more celebratory, party-ready crowd than Blue Plate's, as well as lure more suburban diners.
By comparison, the Lowry is more of an everyday, drop-in joint for those less focused on being a part of Uptown's "scene." It's a place where a guy might seek employment after having grown out of delivering pizza dressed up as a superhero. Dining at a Blue Plate restaurant feels a little more personal than at those owned by Parasole, especially when the dining check arrives. "Food and service great? Tell your friends!" it reads. "Not so great? Tell me." It's signed by co-owner David Burley, who includes his email address and cell phone number.
Note: This will be my last Dish column for City Pages, so thanks very much for reading these past few years. May your cocktails be strong, may your steaks arrive cooked to temperature, and may you always tip generously. Happy eating! —Rachel Hutton