Won't You Be My Diner?
3907 W. 50th St., Edina; (612) 927-7933
Hours: Monday-Thursday 7:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m., Friday 7 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; Saturday 8:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m., Sunday 8:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
Do Edina and Highland Park have anything in common? At first blush most observers of the two neighborhoods would be tempted to answer no. The portion of St. Paul defined by the campuses of the University of St. Thomas, Macalester College, and the College of St. Catherine is bookish, brainy, and about as stylish as a newsprint-smeared cardigan; by contrast Edina, located in the orbit of Southdale, the Galleria, and the 50th and France boutique gulch, has all the depth of an aromatherapy tea light.
But consider the two neighborhoods the way restaurateur Stephanie Schiff does, and they look so much alike it's nearly eerie: "Traffic counts, buying trends, real, walking-around downtowns--when we studied neighborhoods, the similarities between Highland and Edina were just striking," she explains. To wit: Both communities have held on to neighborhood movie theaters (the Highland I & II and the Edina 4) and old-timey diners (Cecil's and Pearson's); each has a small, upscale Italian restaurant (Ristorante Luci and Locanda di Giorgio) and a Lunds; each is host to one of the metro's two branches of respected jeweler R.F. Moeller. And finally, both Edina and Highland Park boast a New American Diner--the sort of place where you can order a merlot and a grilled cheese sandwich--named after the respective burg. "Of course, Edina is a lot more tony and Highland is a lot more laid-back," concedes Schiff, who runs the Highland Grill--and, as of last year, the Edina Grill--with her longtime partner (and former husband) David Burley. "When I had to host at Edina last week I looked at my everyday office clothes--I bring my dogs to work--and I was like: 'Oh my God, I've got to go home and change first.' But both of the neighborhoods also really needed places that serve everyday food that isn't expensive and isn't Perkins. So here we are."
Here, too, are crowds drawn to the Grill's highbrow, pan-Western chow and the sort of core comforts that defined "suburb" before it became a dirty word: domestic artistry, sizzling burgers, toddlers flinging blue-corn-pancake wads with chubby-cheeked abandon. Those pancakes, by the way, are excellent, chewy inside and crisp on the surface; they can be dressed with a sweet jalapeño-honey butter for a more grown-up taste. As befits a diner, the dinner-plate-sized hotcakes are available four ways: $5.50 gets you three cakes straight up; $6.50 gets you two, smothered in blueberries, bananas, granola, peanuts, and honey; $5.50 will snare two eggs, two pancakes and two pork or turkey breakfast links; and $3.95 buys a simple short stack--ideal when you want to load up on other items, like the unbelievably decadent biscuits and gravy ($5.95).
Why decadent? Because the Edina Grill dishes up four deep-fried balls of dough and rests them in a veritable soup bowl of rich, buttery gravy studded with fiery clumps of Cajun andouille sausage and decorated with lots of fresh scallions. It's a delicious, salty, lively dish, but nearly terrifying in its caloric implications--someone should retitle these X-treme! Biscuits and market them to mountain bikers. Less scary, but equally good, was an appetizer plate of fried green tomatoes ($4.50)--cornmeal-crusted slices fried till crisp, drizzled with an avocado vinaigrette so rich it tasted almost like an olive-oil sabayon, and arranged around a pile of fresh, bright corn relish.
If that dish sounds more white-tablecloth than diner, there's a reason: Turns out that in February both Grills got a new chef, former St. Paul Grill sous chef Tom Ryan. An alum of St. Paul's most esteemed steak house, Ryan has brought real flair to the kitchens' meats and potatoes. Tender, hand-cut fried potato wedges accompany nearly every dish; hash browns ($2.75 à la carte) are crisp, greaseless, and very good; burgers ($6.50-$6.95) are tender and moist; and the steak sandwich ($9.95) is the best cheese steak I've had in town. It's made from a grilled, marinated flank steak sliced across the grain and inserted into a crusty roll along with a bounty of caramelized onions, green tomatoes, and tart, melted Cotswold cheese--simply wonderful.
Other standouts include a light spinach salad ($6.95) energized with candied walnuts, dried cranberries, and little slices of Brie; and, on the opposite end of the diner/white-tablecloth continuum, fish and chips ($7.95), featuring pieces of fish as big as my forearm surrounded in batter so crisp you could bounce a quarter off it. Wash them down with one of the fine beers on tap ($3.50-$4.95), or order a glass of red wine ($4.50-$6.50) with your steak sandwich, and you've got a meal that makes Edina feel like a sophisticated college town in the middle of the city.
Still, I'm not saying I didn't experience my share of disappointments at the Edina Grill. The chipotle chicken risotto ($8.95) was a plate of creamy, chilied rice with barely any chicken. A breakfast of smoked salmon hash ($7.50) arrived dripping with vegetable oil and missing any significant flavor from the smoked salmon, red peppers, onions, and herbs that were supposed to distinguish it. Every time I tried the sweet potato fries ($3.50) they were gummy and lacked flavor. Desserts tasted bakery-stale, so I'd advise sweet-seekers to focus instead on the luscious Andrew's Killer Banana Waffle ($6.50); the caramelized banana slices (and the caramel-butter sauce that comes from caramelizing banana slices) are knee-weakeningly good.
If all this has you sizing up your neighborhood for a Schiff and Burley diner--the Como Grill? the Lowry Hill Grill?--well, it could happen. Just get yourself a thriving, walkabout neighborhood core with a movie theater, an upscale grocery store, and some destination retail like a jewelry store; add a population in the habit of gravitating to that neighborhood center; and give it a couple of years. If you live it, they may come.
BARGAIN TOFFEE: On Sundays, the northwestern quadrant of the Minneapolis Farmers' Market is a snacker's delight: There are Tollefson-family grilled sausage samples in the farthest corner, Trout-Air trout tidbits on toothpicks a few steps east, and now, for the trifecta, free bites of chocolate. My favorite local chocolatier, B.T. McElrath, has set up an itsy-bitsy booth where he sells (and gives out samples of!) handmade gourmet chocolates with exotic flavors like Zinfandel-Balsamic Vinegar and Lavender-Black Peppercorn. Prices for his tasteful little brown-paper baskets are usually the same as those you'd pay in retail outlets like Surdyk's and Turtle Bread, a dollar or two per item.
The big bargain, though, is McElrath's bags of buttery, homemade toffee. The quarter-pound bag usually retails for $7, but at the market McElrath is offering it for $5; the half-pound bag ordinarily sells for $14, but at the market you'll pay just $9. What to do with all that toffee? If you can keep from devouring the whole bag in the car, try sprinkling pieces on ice cream, baking them into cookies, or playing keep-away with your youngest sibling.
SUMMER WINE: What would be the perfect thing to drink while celebrating the first long weekend of summer and the sacrifices made by our nation's fallen soldiers? I called up Ted Farrell, manager of the downtown Haskell's Wine Shop (www.haskells.com), as part of my new endeavor to find out what kind of wine is good, cheap, and available locally at any given moment. "Anything that comes off the grill will go with a shiraz," offered Farrell. "It's a brilliant match for barbecued ribs, bratwurst, or even grilled vegetables." He recommends Hardy's Nottage Hill shiraz (it sells at Haskell's for $7.49); for $12.99 there's the Australian Goundrey's Mount Barker shiraz/grenache (www.goundreywines.com.au)--a little lighter because of the added grenache. And for something on the fuller side, try Leasingham Cabernet/Malbec (www.brlhardy.com.au/
brands/leasingham.html), which also costs $12.99. "The quality levels at Leasingham are just amazing," gushes Farrell.
The downtown Haskell's is at 81 S. Ninth St., (612) 333-2434; the St. Paul one at 2221 Ford Pkwy.,(651) 698-8844. You'll also find Haskell's at 1 Water St., Excelsior, (612) 474-0935; 12900 Wayzata Blvd., Minnetonka, (612) 544-4456; and 5155 W. 98th St., Bloomington (612) 893-5440.
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