"I feel like I just walked into an Eileen Fisher sample sale," said my friend as he joined me for lunch at Mill Valley Kitchen. No kidding. From my vantage point, his entrance doubled the number of men dining in the crowded room. Until his arrival, I appeared to be the sole male diner.
I have tremendous affection for restaurants where whole groups of people are made to feel welcome, and this new St. Louis Park enterprise coddles its female demographic so successfully that I wouldn't be surprised if owner and first-time restaurateur Craig Bentdahl's strategy ended up in a Harvard Business School case study.
The gravitational pull starts with the surroundings. Anyone who says that decor doesn't matter has clearly never logged a few pleasant hours seated inside Mill Valley Kitchen. There, the Minneapolis design firm of Shea Inc. deftly demonstrates the transformative powers of crown molding and coffered ceilings, and then washes the whole sunny, wide-open square footage in a flattering cream color (it's Dover White by Sherwin-Williams) that will undoubtedly become the paint that launched a thousand kitchen renovations. It's a non-confrontational blend of contemporary and traditional that quietly dissolves into a backdrop for making the real stars of the show -- the customers -- stand out.
And they do. Mill Valley Kitchen has renewed my fascination with people-watching (and its even shallower sibling, style-watching) all over again. For armchair Jane Goodalls like me who want to make a study of prosperous, attractive and well-groomed females -- and yes, similarly tax-bracketed males, whose numbers grow at dinner -- Mill Valley Kitchen is your stamping grounds.
Chef Mike Rakun's cooking style is another draw. To throw the blanket and often pejorative label of spa food over his work would be wrong, at least the outmoded idea of what constitutes healthful-minded fare, which was mostly about deprivation.
Instead, Rakun is demonstrating that restaurant dining can deliver robust and satisfying flavors without relying upon clarified butter, rich animal proteins and a whole host of other dietary no-nos. With a few exceptions, his cooking is clean, sensible and occasionally exciting, a tough accomplishment when number-crunching dietary data is published on the menu. Oh, and when it comes to portion sizes, sanity reigns.
It's not as Weight Watchers-ish as it sounds. I would go back just for another crack at the exceptional juicy and crisp-skinned chicken, or the lean grass-fed filet grilled precisely to order, or the lively array of roasted vegetables that could have felt like a chore but were anything but.
It should not come as a surprise that the salads are thoughtfully composed and popping with bright, fresh flavors -- don't miss the spinach salads, one with a warm red-wine vinaigrette, the other tossed with sweet grilled plums -- although they can also be dressed with a heavy hand.
A half-dozen oval-shaped flatbreads respond well to the Cooking Light treatment. The crust, a blend of whole-wheat flour, millet and sunflower seeds, has an agreeable texture, and Rakun tops his guilt-free pizzas with an even more winning array of flavors. Best are a fantastic house-made chicken thigh-fennel sausage paired with green peppers and onions, a gorgeous blend of eggplant, red peppers and arugula and the play of tangy chevre against sweet onions that's finished with a flurry of fresh spinach.
Rakun's experience in several high-end Florida seafood restaurants clearly comes through in the menu's most memorable dishes: a beautiful miso-glazed pan-seared sea bass, velvety grilled salmon perched on a colorful and crunchy vegetable succotash and the cool pink tuna that is an essential component in kimchi- and brown-rice-filled lettuce wraps.
His best lunch-hour sandwich also utilizes tuna, folding braised hunks of it with roasted peppers, piquant capers and green olives, spicy arugula and just enough lemony aioli to hold it all together. OK, maybe second best: I could dig into his turkey-avocado club -- minus any sign of fatty bacon, naturally -- on a weekly basis. The casual weekend breakfast is a treat. The kitchen bakes up a few way-better-than-Nature Valley granola bars (with shockingly high calorie counts, yikes), and turns out pretty fruit bruschettas, well-stuffed scrambled egg burritos, several hot cereals and a few egg sandwiches, including one that makes good use of that fine chicken sausage. It all pairs well with the bar's refreshing and creative nonalcoholic beverages, which, happily, are not the excursions to sickening sweetness into which this genre so often falls.
Not all smooth sailing
The too-lengthy menu is interspersed with so-called power foods but doesn't necessarily rely upon the seasonality that should go hand-in-hand with healthful eating. Sometimes the cooking is a bit out of whack: Mushroom-flecked quinoa could have used a lot more of a ginger kick, perfectly textured kale had an on-fire spice level that lingered on my tongue well after the valet retrieved my car, the steamed edamame cries out for salt, and there was enough delightful natural sweetness in the pork tenderloin that Rakun nurtures on the grill, but he goes overboard with sweet potato and apple accents. Enjoy that awesome Duroc pork in lunch's tasty banh mi, instead.
Just when your body starts to involuntarily cry out for some gratuitous fat, along comes dessert in the form of three chocolate chip cookies, sterling examples of the beloved Toll House genre that rise high off the plate, with crispy, golden exteriors shielding tender, still-warm interiors filled with gooey, lick-your-fingers chocolate.
"So this is where they've been hiding the butter," said my friend, as we split the last one, although I greedily wanted it all for myself. They're served with a shot of decadent whole milk -- there's no room for skim or even 1 percent in Rakun's Go Big or Go Home moment -- and it's a naughty and indulgent way to end a visit at this feel-good restaurant. If this constitutes the birth of a chain, Bentdahl and Rakun are headed in a smart direction.