"Can we go to that bacon place?" asked my friend.
Absolutely. I don't need to be asked twice to dine at the Wise Acre Eatery, particularly if I can get a crack at that carefully brined, barely smoked, teasingly fatty pork belly they modestly call bacon, each monumental slab nudged over a low heat until it achieves a perfect crispy-chewy balance. I get lightheaded just thinking about it.
While I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up crumbled on top of frozen custard -- wait, that's a totally awesome idea -- where this Maserati of bacons really stands out is on what chef Beth Fisher has christened her Shades of Summer salad. It's a seemingly improvisational plate of goodness composed with a flurry of harvested-that-morning lettuces that taste like nothing else available commercially, a selection of vegetables and herbs so seasonally of the moment that a person could set a clock by them, a toss of chicken and dainty quinoa and of course that bacon. The results elevate the phrase "farm-fresh" straight up to the penthouse.
Another one: The snap peas Fisher brushes in olive oil and sprinkles with sea salt and a pinch of sugar before tossing them on the grill, burnishing them with a light char to accentuate their natural sugars. Fisher playfully calls them Minnesota edamame, and I'm ready to declare them the summer's best snack.
The Wise Acre's story is in many ways all about real estate. Co-owners Scott Endres and Dean Engelmann, proprietors of the ultra-enchanting Tangletown Gardens nursery, sensed an opportunity when their neighbor, Liberty Frozen Custard, came up for sale. They snapped up the property, a sharply restored Eisenhower-era Standard Oil station, and began plotting their entry into the restaurant business.
Fortunately, they had an ace in the hole: the Engelmann family farm. The Plato, Minn., spread -- about 30 minutes west of Chaska -- is the restaurant's not-so-secret weapon, supplying chickens, hogs, beef cattle and all manner of vegetables and fruits. It's an extraordinary undertaking, made more so by the symbiotic relationship between town and country: The farm stocks Fisher's larder, and the restaurant feeds the farm's bottomless appetite for compost material.
Fisher's culinary approach is a commercial-scale rendition of the way my grandmother, Gay Olsen, kept her family well-fed during the 1940s, a daily kitchen ritual that transformed the bounty from the enormous victory garden that she and my grandfather cultivated in the empty lots surrounding their Robbinsdale house. (Well, maybe if Grandma had also possessed Fisher's powerhouse résumé, one that includes a decade at farm-focused Lucia's Restaurant followed by a 10-year run as a successful caterer with partner -- and Wise Acre general manager -- Caroline Glawe.)
Like Grandma used to make
The menu's ambitions hover in farmhouse supper territory, a supreme compliment. I can't remember the last time I've enjoyed a better fried chicken, Engelmann's and Endres' free-range fryers brined in sour pickle juice and then fried, low and slow, in a cast-iron pan ("just like my grandma used to do it," said Fisher) until the thin skin achieves a crackled crispness and the abundant meat turns mouthwateringly juicy.
That fried chicken has recently morphed into a similarly prepared wings appetizer, a reflection of the menu's constant harvest-driven evolution. What had been a blissfully unembellished, fork-tender pork steak -- wrapped in more of that soul-stirring bacon, which, like all the restaurant's animal products, is skillfully processed at Taylor Meats in Watertown, Minn. -- is now a slow-braised pork shoulder paired with toothy white beans, crunchy yellow wax beans and a spicy pork sausage.
Cuts of beef also journeyed across the animal, from a braised roast to grilled ribeye, all admirably good. There's always a burger, a third-pound monster topped with tangy house-made pickles and that bacon, of course, along with a side of a quintessentially Minnesota slaw composed of carrots, cabbage and nutty wild rice.
Those two premium paybacks for enduring winter -- tomatoes and sweet corn -- will soon start rolling in off the farm, and this diner can't wait to taste how Fisher treats them. As the weather turns cold, it's going to be fascinating to watch her make use of the avalanche of jams, sauces, relishes, pickled vegetables and other preserved products that the Wise Acre's kitchen crew is manically putting away each night. Sometime soon, Fisher hopes to find time to start baking, and when she does, look out: quiche crusts using the farm's pristine lard, anyone?
Some suggestions for improvement
A few quibbles. Fisher knows her way around same-plate juxtapositions -- hot/cold, crunchy/soft, sour/sweet -- but her sweet embellishments occasionally go overboard.
The reasonable prices more than demonstrate that "local foods" are not synonymous with "expensive." Yet the kids' meals are a not-cheap $9, although the incentive to join the Clean Plate Club is considerable: a free scoop of frozen custard.
And while no one appreciates a cleverly wrapped package more than yours truly -- the witty Wise Acre name ranks among my Top 10 favorite dining-out monikers, ever -- the restaurant's relentless rural-goodness marketing message can slink into preciousness; come on, do sandwiches really have to be wrapped in paper and tied in kite string? (Do not miss the spicy egg salad, by the way.)
The building's roots as a neighborhood frozen custard destination have not been forgotten. Fisher's recipe for this super-rich treat combines cream (from a Wisconsin organic farmstead dairy) and egg yolks (from the farm's laying hens) and sweetens them, ever so slightly, with a Minnesota-sourced honey. Both the vanilla and chocolate iterations are utterly addictive, especially when served sundae-style, over Mom-style brownies or lemon bars (from St. Paul's butter-worshipping Bars Bakery) and a generous wallop of swoon-worthy caramel-rhubarb sauce.
Fisher would probably sooner work the drive-thru window at McDonald's than develop a reputation for running a corn dog joint. But that hasn't prevented her from preparing what is, without question, the state's top cornmeal-dunked dog. The wieners -- mostly lean beef, fattened with a little pork -- boast a snappy bite, and they're only made better by a home-run of a batter, built with stone-ground organic cornmeal, whole-wheat flour and skim milk. A twist of the wrist, a dunk in canola oil and presto: corn dog heaven.
Oh, and while most chef-made ketchups pale in comparison with plain-old Heinz, Fisher's lively rhubarb ketchup trumps its supermarket competitor. Think about it: When you're asking for seconds on a condiment, you're definitely in very good hands.