A former pastry chef turns his attention to diner fare, with delicious results.
The diner, that endangered piece of Americana, is staging a comeback -- at least at the Hot Plate. This eight-month-old enterprise has quickly distinguished itself as a destination for diner-inspired fare, with a twist: Owners Sam Beberg and Carrie Lewis buck diner protocol by incorporating premium-quality, locally sourced ingredients into thoughtfully crafted, re-energized versions of breakfast and lunch standards.
The results are often delicious. While the starlet-thin buttermilk pancakes are genuinely special, they're surpassed by the inspired pumpkin-buckwheat waffles. Brimming with brown sugar goodness and a deep pumpkin color, they land squarely in the tender rather than chewy end of the waffle-texture spectrum and radiate the full arsenal of flavors and scents -- ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves -- that make pumpkin pie so irresistible. As my current favorite carb-centric breakfast, they're unbeatable with just an unadulterated drizzle of pure Minnesota maple syrup, but achieve flat-out perfection when topped with a handful of candied pecans and a dollop of voluptuously rich whipped cream.
Other a.m. classics get a flourish, too: sourdough French toast is topped with apples sautéed in butter; eggs Benedict boast a supple Hollandaise over tenderly poached eggs and a slice of enticingly smoky ham; and a hearty scramble of smoked Lake Superior trout and cream cheese is paired with grilled asparagus and crunchy herb-roasted potatoes.
The daily special never waivers, at least in form: A single-serving strata, the timeless egg-bread dish filled with a delicious, ever-changing roster of ingredients. It's hot, it's cheesy, it's well-seasoned and it's loaded with a creative assortment of tasty meats and vegetables. What's not to like?
Lunch is similarly appealing. Juicy, he man-scaled burgers are crowned with a generous slab of melted brie, slices of roasted tomatoes (a wise solution for lousy winter tomatoes) and fresh spinach. Copious amounts of chicken, crisp bacon and cheddar make a club sandwich a standout. A savory grilled meat loaf, with a veritable mountain of smooth, buttermilk-laced mashed potatoes finished with a deeply flavorful demi-glace, is an invigorating take on the time-honored blue plate special.
The real standout is the daily hot dish, a piping-hot gratin of something hearty and nostalgic -- perhaps chicken, wild rice, tater tots or all of the above -- except that, unlike Everymom's version, nothing tastes as if it came from a can or the freezer.
It should come as no surprise that Beberg, a former pastry chef at Table of Contents and Dish, knocks out a notable selection of uncomplicated sweets. His signature is the Sameo, a playful riff on the Oreo that sandwiches two crisp, crinkle-topped dark-chocolate cookies around a luscious swoop of buttery, vanilla-kissed icing; you'll hate yourself for cashing out without grabbing at least one for the road.
Beberg's other DVD-sized cookies -- chewy peanut butters, sturdy shortbreads, walnut-studded chocolate chippers and soft, cinnamon-flecked Snickerdoodles -- also merit attention. And his rice pudding? Heavenly.
The cozy and colorful room is something of a triumph, a cheerful, lovingly curated pastiche of mid-century modern eye candy: vintage light fixtures, signage, furnishings and, most memorably, several murals composed of dozens of kooky paint-by-number pictures (don't miss Beberg and Lewis' genre-inspired portrait over the door, or the tutorials of paint-by-number creators Max Klein and Dan Robbins in the restrooms) diligently acquired through years of sales and auctions. Collectively, the setting makes a highly favorable impression without zooming over the top. You can't walk in without smiling.
Thumbing another diner tradition, the place is spotless. "Seriously, you could perform day surgery in here," said a friend of mine one afternoon as he engaged in a mental white-glove test. Best of all, service is fast and friendly, and prices rarely exceed $8. Sure, there are occasional botches -- tough pork chops, aggressively dressed salads, overcooked fries, low-brow maple-flavored pancake syrup (the real thing comes with a 75-cent surcharge) and acrid orange juice from concentrate standing in for fresh-squeezed -- but for the most part, Hot Plate is sizzling.
HOT PLATE *** (three out of four stars)
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Atmosphere: Clever, colorful but not overbearing collection of midcentury kitsch.
Sound level: Pleasant even when full.
Recommended dishes: Pumpkin waffles, buttermilk pancakes, strata, hot dish of the day, burger, meat loaf, Sameo cookies.
Price range: Breakfast entrees $3.50 to $8.50, lunch entrees $7 to $9.50.