The good people of Burnsville should be showering the owners of Porter Creek Hardwood Grill with muffin baskets, fruit bouquets or whatever is the current socially acceptable means of expressing gratitude.
Not only because Lynn Reimer and John Sheehan have rid County Rd. 42 of an eyesore -- a Bakers Square outlet, the ultra-schlocky early 1980s model -- and replaced it with an understated and lavishly landscaped beauty. That would be reason enough. But with this new and eminently clone-able venture, the partnership behind Doolittles Woodfire Grill has also nailed down a great many of the critical but tough-to-master details that go into creating a warm-and-fuzzy dining-out experience. That they managed to accomplish this feat in restaurant-starved south-of-the-river suburbia is the proverbial icing on the cake.
That starts with the menu, one of those a-taste-for-every-demographic billboards.
Urban food freaks might typify the selection as predictable, but out in 55337, dishes such as lamb shanks and roast duck are borderline revolutionary. Even better, they're terrific: the lamb, served on a tennis racquet-sized bone, is carefully braised to fork tenderness, and the duck is served two ways: roasted to crisp-skinned perfection in the kitchen's wood-burning oven and prepared confit-style to succulent, fall-apart deliciousness.
They also look good. Careful presentation is another way this restaurant cleverly sets itself apart from the surrounding pack of copycat chains. "I've never seen a sandwich like that," said a woman seated next to me, with obvious admiration in her voice. She was right. It was a looker: layers of turkey, avocado, thick-cut bacon and tomato, sliced and stacked with a finesse far above the typical Panera pay grade. A few moments later, a skillfully seared piece of salmon, topped with a bright corn sauce that perfectly complemented the fish's deep terra cotta color, arrived at a nearby table. I fully expected to hear a well-deserved round of applause.Where there's smoke
That wood-burning oven gets a workout. Chef James Foley (Tejas, Via Cafe & Bar, Enjoy!) and his crew use it to burnish a series of nicely chewy, oval-shaped flatbreads, topping them with a flurry of well-matched ingredients, ranging from a barbecue-style shrimp-bacon combo to sweetly caramelized onions finished with a decent prosciutto and a blanket of fresh arugula. They put the rest of the menu's predictable but pleasant appetizers to shame, and if the kitchen prepared nothing else it would still have a hit on its hands.
Fortunately, firewood isn't restricted to the oven. A showy, self-basting rotisserie turns out a remarkably delicious wood-roasted chicken. The meat is juicy and tender and teasingly smoky, and it improves every dish it touches, whether it's served straight-up as a crispy skinned half-bird paired with creamy mashed potatoes, or after it has been cooled, forked and folded into a handful of enormous salads, most notably a feisty Southwestern-style chopped salad and an imaginatively plated and seasoned Israeli couscous salad.
This is a restaurant that knows how to cater to its audience while gently nudging it in new directions. Good-old walleye is nicely done, with a crisp Asiago crust that yields to steaming, clean-tasting fish. Steak is served four ways (best is a cold-smoked hanger steak, sliced and finished with a rich red wine demi-glace and roasted mushrooms). Then Foley tosses in halibut (with light lemon and tomato accents) and sea bass (dressed with mussels and polenta) and does it well -- not too out there, but still unique for a place next door to a Red Lobster.
Yes, there are the requisite pastas, and in a way it's a shame, because they bring down the menu's cumulative GPA, always a bit overcooked and overwrought. (But are they an improvement over anything at the nearby Olive Garden? Uh, yeah.) It was startling to reread the menu and discover that the bland white gravy in an oven-baked clay pan filled with pieces of Seafood 101 basics (salmon, shrimp, cod) was supposed to be a ginger sauce. Every soup I sampled tasted formulaic and reheated. It's peak tomato season, yet the kitchen, like so many in Minnesota, seems content to air reruns of "The Cottony and the Flavorless."
Desserts are sanely scaled and modestly priced, two admirable qualities. Some have been done to death, but two that make a favorable impression are a sweet-tart orange marmalade-glazed cake and an insanely luscious panna cotta. Value is another key Porter Creek element. The trappings may suggest Nordstrom, but the prices are squarely Kohl's.Looking good
Although the restaurant boasts enough square footage to rival that of a smallish mega-church, a thoughtful floor plan (the design is by Partners & Sirny of Minneapolis) deftly carves up the vast floor plate into neatly palatable bites. The kitchen hums behind dramatically framed glass walls, and each dining area is embellished with great-looking details, including custom iron and copper embellishments as well as tons -- literally -- of rustic beige stonework and dark woods.
To call the elaborate outdoor space a patio doesn't really do it justice; with its open-air bar, fire pits, water features, sheltering berms and Como Park-worthy blooming greenery, it's really a series of well-appointed outdoor rooms. Taken as a package, the spaces, indoor and out, feel special without teetering into special-occasion territory. They're designed to be used, frequently.
And they are. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that an hour wait for a table at 5:45 p.m. on a Saturday -- did I mention that the place seats nearly 400, yes, four hundred people? -- signals that Reimer and Sheehan have totally struck a chord. "We're just two guys who like to eat," said Sheehan. "We've always looked at Burnsville as a prime market for a restaurant done right."
Sheehan wouldn't speculate about expansion plans, but it can't be a stretch to think that their "restaurant done right" is going to be landing, sometime soon, in a prime suburban market near you. Consider yourself fortunate.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757