The Suburbs Step It Up
For the past few weeks, the "Modern Love" column in the New York Times has been running the winning stories from its college essay contest. After reading a few essays on the state of modern relationships, I'm less worried that text messaging has stunted millennials' ability to write than that it has eroded their ability to think.
In last week's essay, the author came off as a selfish, insensitive cad, and while my friends and I debated which of his attitudes was most reprehensible—I lobbied for "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?"—we agreed on one thing: Taking a date to Chili's, as this guy had, was definitely a deal-breaker.
Even if you live in the suburbs, there's no excuse for such lack of imagination. Independent gems have long been tucked among the Buffalo Wild Wings and Boston Markets, and with more of them cropping up every day, they're no longer hard to find. So if you happen to be courting a gal in Maple Grove, St. Louis Park, or Waconia, here are three newcomers to help you make a classier impression than a Chili's Awesome Blossom or Bottomless Express Lunch ever could.
MAPLE GROVE'S SPRAWLING commercial district is starting to look as though the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes were reflected in an infinity mirror; the endless rows of neatly manicured Pottery Barns, Caribou Coffees, and Williams Sonomas could pass for a Desperate Housewives set. The new 3 Squares is the fifth and most franchisable restaurant launched by the Blue Plate group, which also owns the Edina, Highland, and Longfellow Grills, and the Groveland Tap. Three Squares most closely resembles the Edina Grill: Our waitress told us that Edina was Squares' "sister" and Highland its "mother." Squares and Edina have identical menus, and they both have a separate bar (the other restaurants just serve wine and beer). While Squares' decor is pleasantly inoffensive—rust-colored paint and carpet—it's certainly the homelier of the siblings, the dowdy wallflower compared to Edina's popular girl, which is decorated like a contemporary art gallery.
The Blue Plate restaurants specialize in home cooking with a twist: The turkey burger is seasoned with peanuts, jalapeños, and curry, though the flavors are mild; green beans are fried in a light tempura batter and served with a cloying plum sauce; mac and cheese is made with Asiago, Parmesan, and two kinds of cheddar; and breakfast is served all day and includes a killer banana waffle. When I've dined at Squares and some of the Grills, I can't say I've ever had a bad meal, though I've never found much to get excited about, either.
It's less the food and more the ability to connect with customers that sets Blue Plate restaurants apart from their competition (Olive Garden, Houlihan's, etc.). I know a family who signed up for the Blue Plate mailing list and raved for weeks about being invited to Edina Grill's soft opening, where free food was exchanged for feedback. When I visited Squares, its managers averted a potential crisis caused by an unexpected rush of diners by giving out appetizers and calling in extra staff. Our server, a cheery reserve, had the same characteristic chattiness I've found in other Blue Plate employees: telling us about her favorite dishes, and even revealing which co-worker she had a crush on (we were being a little nosy, admittedly). Rather than a case of Too Much Information, though, it made the place feel less like a generic mall restaurant and more like a small-town cafe.
LAREDO'S TEX-WEST GRILL is the third tenant to occupy its Excelsior and Grand space in about as many years, and this time I think they've figured out what the others missed. The first, a Brazilian steakhouse, was too foreign; the second, an Italian place, too familiar. In this incarnation, the management (they owned the Italian place, and also run McCoy's Public House) hung a stuffed bison head on the wall and served up tacos and tequila cocktails—a concept different enough to feel like a thrill, but one that's still recognizable and affordable.
Laredo's shines in nice weather, with plenty of umbrella-topped outdoor seating and an adjacent park that's a pleasant enough place to kill time until the vibrating buzzer signals that your table is ready. Stopping in the bar to sample something from the lengthy mixed-drink list—margaritas, "tex-tails," and "mexi-tinis"—can also make the wait go faster.
Laredo's promotes its guacamole as being "hand-hacked" tableside, which does, I suppose, reassure that it's the real thing and not some thawed green slime squeezed from a plastic bag. That said, watching your server smash two halved avocadoes with a fork isn't nearly as interesting as, say, seeing someone rolling sushi or lighting a cocktail on fire. For nine bucks, I'd hoped for a more dramatic presentation—perhaps the servers would stage a bar fight and mash the avocados with broken beer bottles?—and for the buttery avocado to be been better balanced with more lime and cilantro.
The tacos and enchiladas I tried fell somewhere between those served at Don Pablo's and more authentic places. The flavors in the chicken and chorizo were good but were masked by a cheesy blanket; the "spicy" ground beef was anything but. There are also several more experimental items, such as bacon-wrapped meatloaf stuffed with a cheese-filled Anaheim pepper and slathered with whiskey barbecue sauce. It was odd but rather tasty, though I'm not sure most patrons—especially the guys in the Hawaiian shirts, calling the waitresses "babe"—are looking for much more than a pail of corn chips and a few tequila shots.
IF YOU TIME YOUR DRIVE to Lola's Lakehouse just right, you'll arrive in Waconia at the bewitching hour, just before sunset, when the area's verdant grass, weathered red barns, and white split-rail fences are all cast in gold. The lighting creates a scene so picturesque that I found myself tempted to pull over at the sight of a "For Sale by Owner" sign. Lola's, the former home of Nancy's Landing freshened up with a coat of white paint, has a nautical feel reminiscent of Cape Cod. With its glass garage doors that open to the elements and waterfront deck that runs the length of the building, it's a pretty perch from which to look out on quaint Lake Waconia.
One of Lola's owners, Dermot Cowley, has now expanded his Irish empire (he runs Jake O'Connor's in Excelsior and O'Donovan's in Minneapolis) to include American fare: steaks, burgers, and wood-oven pizzas, along with lots of fresh seafood, including a raw bar serving oysters on the half-shell.
With a setting so rarefied, I had hoped the same would be true for the food. But Lola's seems to cast a wider, more crowd-pleasing net that's focused on drawing neighbors instead of destination diners. That means some items are optimized more for price and portion than refined presentation and flavors. In one of the salads, for example, Maryland blue crab got lost among jicama, carrots, snap peas, and enough lettuce to fill a lawnmower bag. And the meat in the lobster roll wasn't nearly as luscious as what I've eaten on the East Coast (though also not as fishy and tough as what I've eaten elsewhere in town).
But the seafood stew pot, served in a cast-iron skillet, made up for what the other dishes lacked. The spicy mélange of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and strips of bitter lemon peel enhanced the flavors of the fish, shrimp, mussels, clams, and andouille sausage. And if you follow it with a slice of maple walnut pie and a sunset, that should be reason enough to get out of the city.
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