Please don’t say there’s nowhere interesting to dine in the suburbs, because that’s just not the case.
Let’s start in Wayzata.
Alex Dayton (no, the Iowa-raised chef isn’t one of those Daytons) has compiled an enviable résumé for a 28-year-old. Particularly when it comes to the pizza and pasta arts, since he’s cooked in the kitchens at Flour + Water in San Francisco and Tenant, the Kenwood and Red Wagon Pizza Co. in Minneapolis.
Now he’s focusing on those two basic food groups at his own place, aptly titled the Dough Room. The restaurant, which has taken over the former home of District Fresh Kitchen + Bar, places these two disciplines at the forefront of its appealing menu.
Seven scrupulously prepared pastas ($11 to $34) include a giant raviolo filled with creamy housemade ricotta and a barely cooked egg yolk, the plate dressed with butternut squash, brown butter and tart, crunchy pickled apples. It’s an ideal winter meal.
A tangle of firm, golden bigoli, a thick spaghetti, is blanketed in butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano to become a study in life’s simple pleasures. (Dayton could be more aggressive with the black pepper, however.) Kale, transformed into a powder, becomes a dye for delicate, vivid green agnolotti, which are filled with a lively Bolognese.
Dayton is a gifted pizza maker, topping golden, chewy crusts ($15 to $21) with a creative flurry of ingredients: a gutsy fennel sausage with tons of lively Calabrian chiles, ham with balsamic vinegar, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts with harissa.
Flour aside, a handful of entrees ($19 to $42) include a steak showcasing dry-aged, Wisconsin-raised beef, a double-cut pork chop from that same farm and roast chicken with parsnips in half- and full-portion sizes. Starters range from well-seasoned meatballs in red sauce and chicken liver mousse to a few salads and a crock of supple burrata dressed with crunchy winter-larder vegetables and mellow balsamic, spread on hearty breads.
Dayton’s best dessert ($8) involves dough, of course. Specifically, a skillfully crafted bread pudding finished with a luscious creme fraiche ice cream. Service is attentive and knowledgeable, the setting is handsome and comfortable, and the wine list is roughly 98 percent Italian. Yeah, I can’t wait to return.
300 Superior Blvd., Wayzata, 952-473-6500, thedoughroommpls.com. Dinner daily.
Miracle on Main Street
When chef Erick Harcey was running his Upton 43 and Victory 44 restaurants in Minneapolis — both closed in 2017 — his daily commute from his home in Cambridge, Minn., was a soul-sucking hour in each direction. His new gig in downtown Cambridge has trimmed that drive to a matter of minutes.
“The only downside is that it’s so short that my car doesn’t warm up,” he said with a laugh.
Now he’s working at the Leader, an old-school Main Street department store. Talk about a homecoming: When he was a kid, Harcey worked in the store’s formalwear department. Grant Johnson, Harcey’s business partner, hails from the family that has owned the store for a century.
Together they’ve not only remade the retail side of the business, but they’ve carved out a significant portion of the building’s square footage for a remarkable and stylish restaurant they’ve christened Willards.
Comeback stories are irresistible, and this one radiates rebirth on multiple dimensions. Not only does Willards represent an exciting new chapter for a beloved civic institution, but it’s also a delicious new platform for a talented chef returning to — and improving — his hometown.
Harcey, working with former Tullibee chef Bradley Day, is producing the kind of confident, meticulous and approachable cooking that creates culinary destinations. Yes, the Perfect Burger, an idealized bacon cheeseburger from Harcey’s Victory 44 days, is here, and it’s better than ever. Ditto the dreamy Swedish meatballs that made the demise of the short-lived Upton 43 so painful.
You’re craving toast Skagen, that Swedish open-face sandwich? Harcey has it on the menu, with tiny shrimp tossed in a lemon-packed mayonnaise and plenty of dill. A braised beef sandwich, served with a decadent potato purée and a pool of rich gravy, is an explicit nod to Harcey’s grandfather. Delicate, puffed-up fry bread becomes the delivery vehicle of choice for a luscious Cheddar spread, its richness cut with bright black currants.
Drop in for a post-9 a.m. breakfast and dig into a photo-worthy fried egg paired with slab-cut bacon, or knobbly Cheddar- and chive-packed biscuits smothered in a maple sausage gravy, or a stack of dainty little waffles colorfully dressed with lingonberries and candied pecans. During the day, prices hover in the low teens; at night, few venture beyond the low $20s.
At dinner, there’s a pork chop with wild rice pilaf, a grilled rib-eye with a loaded-to-the-gills baked potato, and potato-cheese dumplings, all, no doubt, receiving the full-on Harcey treatment. Dessert includes an inventive and nutty wild rice ice cream, and hand pie boasting the flakiest of doughs (using duck fat helps) and filled with tender, sweet apples.
With hundreds of people descending upon the place every day, Cambridge obviously knows that a good thing — scratch that, a great thing — has landed in its midst. Well done, all around.
133-135 Main St. S., Cambridge, Minn., 763-689-5600, willardsmn.com. Breakfast-lunch (doors open at 9 a.m.) and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Brand-new in Bayport
What a delight to see chef Mike Willenbring being his own boss. After a seven-year run at Revé Bistro & Bar in Stillwater, Willenbring and his wife, Nicole, took over the extremely cozy and charming former home of L’Etoile du Nord Cafe and opened Manger Restaurant & Wine Bar.
It’s easy to see — since the kitchen is visible from every seat in the house — that Willenbring is all about wholesome, cutting-no-corners cooking. When I stopped in for lunch, the scent of burning wood was wafting from the oven, where Willenberg — another 28-year-old whiz — was baking plate-sized pizzas, the crisped-up crusts topped with well-edited, obviously fresh choices.
I also encountered a beautifully appointed beet salad, and the kind of fragrant tomato bisque that warms a winter-addled person from the inside out. Oh, and oysters, two varieties from the East Coast and two from the West.
At dinner, Willenbring is promising staples along the lines of beef short ribs with a parsnip purée, housemade tagliatelle tossed with lobster, steak frites and roast duck. That all sounds just about right for the neighborhood.
320 5th Av. N., Bayport, 651-324-9313, mangerrestaurant.com. Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
At the strip mall
After producing page-turning cookbook after cookbook, it looks as if Minneapolis-based author Raghavan Iyer is on the cusp of launching another delicious and influential Minnesota export.
His Pizza Karma, which opened last month in a strip mall that also contains one of the metro area’s better Indian restaurants (India Spice House, indiaspicehouseep.com), seems poised to break out as the Next Big Chain.
It’s a terrific idea: using naan (yes, there’s a gluten-free option), baked in showy tandoor ovens, as the basis for generously topped flatbreads. Iyer wisely takes a global approach to toppings — spiced-up shrimp with curry leaves, cardamom-scented lamb meatballs, tandoor-roasted chicken marinated in yogurt and garlic, chile-rubbed pork — and keeps the oval-shaped pies in the $10-$12 range. There are build-your-own options (love the lively harissa sauce) and a half-dozen house specialties.
Don’t skip the starters, particularly the pan-fried potato cakes, a stick-to-your-ribs treat served with a ginger-golden raisin sauce. The recipe is in Iyer’s essential “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled, and Baked” cookbook, and I’m shocked that a food truck hasn’t co-opted them as a house specialty.
Service is friendly and fleet, and there’s an admirable dedication to recycling and composting.
8451 Joiner Way, Eden Prairie, 952-467-6100, pizzakarma.com. Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.