Wouldn't it be great if the outer ring of suburbs had restaurants like the Longfellow Grill? Say a Maple Grove Grill and an Eden Prairie Grill and an Apple Valley Grill, instead of those cookie-cutter chain restaurants like Applebee's and Chili's?
The Longfellow is far from perfect (more about that follows). But if the future of Twin Cities dining is in chain restaurants -- and it sure is starting to look that way -- then I would much rather have it be a chain of places like the Longfellow Grill and its sister restaurants, the Highland Grill in St. Paul's Highland Park and the Edina Grill in Edina.
The Longfellow Grill may be part of a chain, (if you can call the Blue Plate Restaurant Company's three restaurants a chain), but it doesn't feel like one -- or taste like one. It's locally owned, and although they have nearly identical menus, each restaurant in the chain has its own distinctive look.
Being part of a chain does have some advantages, such as economies of scale, which helps the Grills keep their prices low. The most expensive entrees are a chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto and Gruyére, and a savory seafood stew, both priced at $12.95. Nearly everything else on the menu costs less than $10.
At heart, the Longfellow Grill and its sisters are updated versions of the neighborhood diner, and they pay homage to that heritage with menu items such as chicken wings, an egg salad sandwich, an Elvis burger and a BLT, as well as French toast, buttermilk pancakes and other breakfast fare. They also have at least one waitress who calls people "sweetheart" and "honey" and "dear," in the best diner tradition.
But there is a lot on the menu that you won't find at traditional diners -- or at the big corporate chains. Instead of the usual deep-fried onion appetizer, they offer fresh lightly beer-battered green beans, with a lot more crunch and a lot fewer calories. The ethnic diversity runs the gamut from Polish pierogis and Mexican chicken enchiladas to an Australian version of fish and chips.
A friend who has given up red meat raves about the turkey burger, flavored with a blend of peanuts, jalapeÃ±os, onion, garlic and curry spices. But if you have given up meat entirely, you still have plenty of choices, from the grilled cheese sandwich (Cheddar and Cotswald with chutney on grilled sourdough) to a veggie burger, a black bean falafel sandwich and a pasta entree of rigatoni with pear and walnuts. I especially liked the crunchy risotto cakes with sweet pepper relish, served on a bed of field greens.
There's also a nice selection of entree salads, including an unusual and very tasty chicken maple salad, tossed with diced pears, chopped walnuts, craisins and field greens, in a maple-flavored vinaigrette. A salad of warm goat cheese medallions and roasted tomatoes was light and lively.
The seafood stew, brimming with mussels, shrimp, tuna, salmon and clams, had all the hearty flavor of a genuine French bouillabaisse, right down to the toasted French bread slathered with saffron-flavored mayonnaise. Meat-and-potatoes types will also enjoy the blackened pork chops, served with chipotle sauce and roasted potatoes.
Breakfast is a strong suit at the Grills. A weekly special of eggs scrambled with herbs, chives and prosciutto, tossed with field greens, was a refreshing change of pace from the usual breakfast fare. But if you want something more substantial, the extensive breakfast offerings also include a farmer's breakfast of hash browns, onions, cheese, scrambled eggs and toast, and a breakfast burrito so substantial that my server guaranteed that I wouldn't be able to finish it.
After half a dozen visits, I am still a fan of the Longfellow, but my enthusiasm is tempered a bit. My gripes are mostly petty, but they did start to add up: On one visit, my steak Cobb salad arrived minus any avocado and short on dressing, and on another, the chicken wing appetizer didn't arrive until after our entrees. Our server took it off the bill.) The Vietnamese chicken salad didn't taste very Vietnamese, or very good, and the linguine with shrimp and prosciutto (which was really ham) was overcooked. Service was friendly and attentive on some visits, very slow and disorganized on another.
Still, the overall batting average is pretty good, especially considering the prices. My friends from the Longfellow neighborhood tell me that the restaurant is a welcome addition, and I expect it would be even more welcome in the chain-dominated 'burbs.
So, out of curiosity, I asked David Burley, who owns the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. with his ex-wife Stephanie Shimp and her brother Luke, whether they would consider going to the outer tier. "We have no plans to go to Eden Prairie or Maple Grove," Burley told me. "We're urban dwellers."
**Â½ Longfellow Grill
Location: 2990 West River Pkwy., Minneapolis; 612-721-2711.