Here's what's for dinner, er, supper, at the new Wise Acre Eatery: picked-this-morning lettuces piled with crunchy snap peas, radishes, pickled egg, chicken salad, and a thick slab of smoky bacon. It's a feast so fresh with flavor that it doesn't even need its vinaigrette. (If this is how we should be eating—mostly vegetables, treating meat as a garnish—then why is it so hard to find such an enticing, meal-worthy salad on a restaurant menu?) This Shades of Spring salad is even more unique because it's what you might call a single-origin, or estate-grown dish: All the ingredients come from one farm, near Plato, Minnesota, which grows produce and raises cattle, pigs, and chickens.
Wise Acre Eatery is the restaurant for which Twin Cities locavores have long been waiting. Seeds of the venture were planted about nine years ago, when two grown-up farm boys, Scott Endres and Dean Engelmann, started the Tangletown Gardens retail shop and landscape business. The two grew plants for the garden store on Engelmann's family farm, located about an hour southwest of the Twin Cities. Then, roughly five years ago, Endres and Engelmann began raising livestock on the farm, and three years ago they started selling the farm's produce at the garden store. Last summer, the duo supplied a 300-member CSA and sold the surplus goods as jam, chutneys, and pickles. The farm operates with a sustainability-minded ethic and is now home to a herd of about 50 Scottish Highland cattle, 50 Large Black and Berkshire hogs, hundreds of egg- and meat-producing chickens, plus ducks, turkeys, and even three miniature donkeys to protect the free-range flock from coyotes and foxes. Engelmann oversees the country side of the enterprise while Endres manages the business in town.
Last winter, when Tangletown's owners learned that their neighbors across the street, Liberty Frozen Custard, were ready to move on, they bought the building and opened Wise Acre. They've created a symbiotic relationship in which farm ingredients are dropped off at the restaurant and exchanged for compostable food waste that will eventually become soil for growing more farm crops. Other restaurants certainly have a close farm-to-table connection, but Wise Acre is the first local eatery to source so much of its raw material from its sister farm and sell some of those ingredients at its retail counter. After finishing your meal, you can take home everything from eggs (cheaper than the co-op's at $3 a dozen) to first-of-the-season strawberries (sold at the practically pick-your-own price of $3 a pint).
The former Liberty Custard's 1950s-era Standard Oil station is still covered in its vintage porcelain-enameled steel panels, which take on a lovely glow when the Wise Acre Eatery sign is lit. The same grand garage doors open onto a small patio with umbrella-topped tables. On the north end of the building is a walk-up window where diners can order sandwiches and such.
Beautiful greenery has, unsurprisingly, migrated from the garden center to the restaurant, inside and out, with the landscaping even including some edibles. High up on one of the dining room walls, an array of dirt-and-plant-filled pouches adds greenery and absorbs sound. (The restaurant may want to consider incorporating even more plants, because the space can get awfully loud when the garage doors are closed.) The restaurant's decor might be described as a sort of Northern California, country-meets-contemporary style, as if Chez Panisse or the French Laundry moved into the heart of San Francisco. Out went Liberty's vintage arcade games, Coca-Cola signage, and patriotic color scheme. In came new table and bar tops hewn from rustic white oak boards reclaimed from the former plank road behind the Mill City Museum. To symbolically fuse the farm to the restaurant, Plato soil was incorporated in the bar's rammed-earth base. Vintage mechanic's trouble lights hanging from the ceiling pay homage to the building's automotive history. The bulbs, which vary in their wattages and dangle at irregular heights, are meant to evoke a rural sky full of fireflies.
Endres and Engelmann hired partners Beth Fisher and Caroline Glawe to run Wise Acre's kitchen and the front of the house, respectively. Fisher and Glawe are both Lucia's alumnae who have spent the past several years doing boutique catering and teaching cooking classes. The two approached Endres and Engelmann about consulting on the project, but after visiting the farm they knew they wanted more involvement.
Fisher calls the field-to-kitchen arrangement "a chef's dream." Cattle and hogs are slaughtered every couple of weeks to supply the kitchen with meat, and the restaurant receives its produce deliveries daily—all the more reason to order one of Fisher's immaculate salads. The Field combines greens and vegetables (roasted zucchini and red peppers when I had it) with toasted pumpkin seeds, smoked beef-and-pork sausage links, buttermilk dressing, and a sprinkle of tiny purple chive blossoms. I'd happily eat it at every meal, though there's another variation on the brunch menu that's topped with two poached eggs.
Wise Acre's focus is everyday food, and the juicy Royal Brie & Bacon Burger is something that would be nice to indulge in again and again. The French fries sometimes come out soft and oily, but, on the plus side, they're served skin-on and actually taste like potatoes. The kitchen's fryer does better with the corn dog, which replicates the delightful crunchy-soft batter of the dipped-to-order State Fair treat, except without the mystery meat.
The restaurant's beef comes from grass-fed, long-horned creatures that look rather like shaggy, four-legged Wookiees. Fisher's opening menu incorporated the animals' braising cuts (brisket, chuck, top round) while she stashed the prime cuts, such as the tenderloins, in the freezer to offer as grilled steak specials. The grass-fed beef has robust flavor and good tenderness, but it's a leaner meat, so even when braised it tends to have less rich succulence than conventional pot roasts.
Poultry from the farm is served as Dill Pickle Fried Chicken, a dish inspired by Fisher's Southern belle mother. The name comes from the liquid used for the bird's 12-hour brine, which helps keep the meat tender and juicy while its crust is fried crisp. In several spots on the menu, Fisher incorporates sweetness into savory dishes and vice versa—an approach that can often add a welcome flavor dynamic. But in a few cases, including the chicken's shallot marmalade and black strap molasses, the sweetness was too overpowering for my taste. (I'll also leave the ham and pea fritters swimming in honey and molasses to the sweet tea sippers.)
The restaurant's vegetarian options don't have the same appeal as the meat-based dishes. The tasty Black Bean Burger, which revives the recipe from the former My-T-Fine Café, seems under-garnished with just a couple of basil leaves—unless the patty is piled with a few forkfuls of the accompanying wild rice coleslaw. The Wild Rice & Ramp Pudding is a riff on Southern spoonbread that substitutes Minnesota's state grain for cornmeal, but its bites of asparagus and mushrooms outshone the dish's bland, soufflé-like base.
Wise Acre is an extremely versatile restaurant, offering quick weekday breakfasts and leisurely weekend brunches in addition to lunches and dinners. The patio is lovely except for its proximity to the airport's flight paths. A gal can get a little grumpy having to endure 14 jets careening overhead before she gets her morning latte.
At present, Bars Bakery in St. Paul supplies most of Wise Acre's pastries and sweets, except for the also-resurrected My-T-Fine sugar buns. (By the way, Bars' caramel rolls, made famous at Swede Hollow, are a triumph in soft, buttery-sweet richness and not to be missed.) Fisher's menu pays tribute to Engelmann and Endres with a couple of morning meals: the Farmer Dean soufflé and the Great Scott, a tasty meatloaf-and-fried egg toad in the hole. The sweet-savory combination shows up again in a breakfast slider that stuffs scrambled egg and a house-made sausage patty between a sliced Baker's Wife donut. Unless you're one to mix syrup with your breakfast meat, the last component is best eaten separately.
Wise Acre isn't a strictly locavore operation, so coffee snobs and oenophiles will be glad to see Bull Run beans and sustainably produced wines from around the globe (budget drinkers will appreciate the fact that all the by-the-glass offerings are priced at $8 or less). Still, the beverage program keeps the rest of its offerings close, including several Upper Midwest beers and delightful house-made sodas. The lemon verbena ginger is as nuanced as it is refreshing, especially with the mild burn it leaves in the back of the throat.
Wise Acre is reviving a regional agricultural model that many diners are hungry for these days. It's a system we nearly lost in just two generations, as children moved off their small family farms and ate foods poured from boxes or pushed out of drive-thru windows, instead of plants or animals that they had tended.
Scratch cooking requires more labor and patience than, say, whipping up a cake from a Betty Crocker mix. It would be much easier for chef Fisher not to run overnight kitchen shifts to preserve surplus produce, or to test out 22 varieties of potatoes grown on the farm before selecting the one to plant for next year's French fry supply. But the Wise Acre model has multiple external benefits: It inspires diners to eat more real food, cultivates an ethic of environmental stewardship, and, more than most restaurants, makes an authentic connection with the earth.
So with my head in one place and my stomach in the other, it pains me a little to say that I miss Liberty's frozen custard.
I was thrilled to learn that Wise Acre kept Liberty's frozen custard machine, and that they'd be making the dreamy frozen dessert with egg yolks from the farm, organic dairy from Castle Rock, and Ames Farm honey—a feel-good locavore formula if I've ever seen one.
So I brought some of Wise Acre's vanilla custard home and reached into my freezer, where I'd stashed a nearly identical pint of one of the last remaining samples of Liberty Custard's product. I tasted both, blind, three times to make certain.
Each time, I preferred the old version—the one created from a trucked-in mix of mysterious origins, including dairy products that were not likely organic and possibly even sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. The Wise Acre custard was the lighter and milkier of the two, with a slightly floral, caramel flavor. The Liberty custard had a stronger taste of vanilla and a creamier mouthfeel. The new formula simply lacked the old one's voluptuousness.
Liberty's custard probably wasn't as good for me, or the environment, as Wise Acre's version, but it tasted better—a fact that made all the otherwise admirable changes a little bittersweet.