Daron Close is from White Bear Lake, so he can get away with saying things like this about his hometown.
“When I used to try to take my mom to lunch, there was nothing to take her to,” he said. “When I grew up here it used to be all fried mushrooms. We’re seeing a lot more cooking from scratch these days.”
Today Close, the owner of a mini-empire of east metro gastronomy — six places in Stillwater, Forest Lake and White Bear Lake — is preparing to add a seventh, and in a key location: On the shore of White Bear Lake, at an old boatworks the city has been hoping for decades to redevelop.
Close is bringing Mizu and its Japanese cuisine there, to a town already admired for its sushi. The restaurant is the last major piece of a mixed-use project with apartments and public space called Boatworks Commons because it was long the site of sailboat builder Johnson Boat Works.
Community Development Director Anne Kane, who once called the effort to “reclaim the lakefront for public enjoyment” as her proudest career accomplishment, admitted it wasn’t easy getting to this point.
“There were seasonal ups and downs, the location was hidden from Hwy. 61, there were questions about shared parking being adequate, it had a two-story configuration and the footprint was shallow for an ideal kitchen location,” she said.
“It took years, but we couldn’t be happier now.”
In its latest issue, Mpls.St.Paul magazine puts the sushi in White Bear Lake at No. 33 on its list of 52 reasons to love the Twin Cities. The magazine notes that Red Lantern in White Bear Lake became a landing place for talent that dispersed from downtown Minneapolis restaurant Origami when it closed in 2015.
Meanwhile, the Washington County Board last week officially recognized Close’s Forest Lake version of Acqua, a highly praised Italian-themed restaurant, for having one of the top 100 brunches in America. The honor came via Open Table, an online restaurant service, based on reviews by more than 10 million patrons.
Acqua made it an east metro sweep, with the only other Minnesota restaurants so honored being the Lake Elmo Inn and the M St. Café at the St. Paul Hotel.
Star Tribune food critic Rick Nelson once praised Acqua for “hauling water to the desert” when it came to first-class cuisine in the north suburbs. But Close isn’t the only chef drawing attention there.
“A lot of talented chefs from the cities are moving out this way and into small spaces,” he said.
Tom Snell, executive director of the White Bear Chamber of Commerce, said it’s a big deal for the boatworks area to be built out after such a long wait.
“It’s very important for our economic development,” he said. “We need to attract more young professionals,” and the right kinds of amenities, he added, can help.
Snell confessed he can’t always afford top-drawer sushi. “You can spend $75 to $100 at a sushi bar if you like the high-end stuff, so it’s twice a year for me,” he said.
Close said the typical ticket at Mizu will run $20 to $25 for food, not including craft cocktails and other options. Food will be mostly sushi, but with other Japanese offerings.
His chef, Jordan Wolterstorff, has split off from Red Lantern’s Japan-born owner to join Mizu, which will have an open kitchen.
“I’ve never seen someone at Jordan’s level,” Close said. “He’s really progressive; he’s been to Japan a bunch of times and he showcases his passion with a great personality.”
With Mizu’s arrival, Close will be employing 130 people at his suburban outlets, which include Meet Market craft sandwiches and the more recent Pi Pizzeria — a seven-day-a-week operation in contrast to many chef-driven suburban spots that need to be cautious on hours and staff.
“Mizu will start at Wednesday to Sunday, dinnertime only except for weekend lunch,” he said. “When you’re just starting you don’t want to overextend on hours. You can lose money fast.”