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Our server at Nectar Wine Bar & Bistro raised an eyebrow in mock surprise when she learned that we'd trekked from downtown Minneapolis to Osseo for dinner. When my friend remarked that the drive wasn't nearly as long as he had anticipated, she laughed. "The distance isn't geographical as much as it is psychological," she said.
All sociological discourse on the urban-suburban divide evaporated a few moments later, when a doozy of a double-cut pork chop landed at our table.
The monster cut was tantalizingly caramelized on the outside, barely pink on the inside, its considerable juiciness and fork-tender texture created, at least in part, by an apple cider brine. A side of tangy creamed leeks played nicely against the pork's inherent sweetness, a flavor note further emphasized by a crown of gently stewed apples. It's difficult to contemplate a more satisfying mid-autumn dinner.
It's also safe to say that chef/owner Kevin Nordeen just might be the best thing to happen to downtown Osseo since the city erected its iconic silver water tower.
He chose to put down roots in this haphazard collection of square footage because it was close to both his Brooklyn Park home and to the clientele he had nurtured while at the now-defunct Kay's Wine Bar & Bistro in nearby Maple Grove.
That dedication to his customer base has paid off. I was not expecting a full house -- it's just 40 seats, but still -- on a recent Tuesday evening, but that's what I encountered (turns out it's the night when most wines are sold at a discount). It was the same vibrant scene on the following Saturday, when the dimly lit room was buzzing with well-dressed date night-ers and groups of fun-seeking friends out for a night on the town, one that doesn't involve driving 15 miles into the city or turning to the chain restaurants that dominate the surrounding landscape.
Focus on the basics
Like the unpretentious surroundings, Nectar's menu sticks to basics and doesn't try to be all things to all people. There are roughly a half-dozen entrees and an equal number of starters, all served in portions that personify the word generous.
Nordeen changes it every two weeks, because "I get bored pretty quickly, and I'm the one back there doing the cooking," he said.
Diners often benefit from his short attention span, and from his straightforward aesthetic. Nordeen's skillfully prepared stews would be the pride of any well schooled dinner-party host.
Last week he was braising boneless beef short ribs with ancho chiles, garlic and Mexican cocoa powder, spooning the thick, savory results over mashed sweet potatoes teased with chipotle-generated heat. It was cool-weather comfort food at its best, the kind that inspires thoughts of Crock-Pots, full-bodied syrahs and friends gathered around the table.
Carefully roasted chicken thighs and legs were another homey treat, the savory dark meat rubbed with a jerk-inspired seasoning that was not too hot, but livelier than Minnesota's muted spice-rack mentality.
When it comes to spice-induced heat, Nordeen is adept at walking a fine line. Witness the subtle heat level within a Mediterranean-inspired tomato/green-olive stew that dressed a pan-roasted slab of snowy white barramundi.
Another example: the chile-fueled heat locked inside his best appetizer, a crispy tostada piled high with shredded chicken, bacon-fortified pinto beans and a crumble of aged Mexican white cheese.
Sometimes Nordeen's work feels too approachable. A big tangle of fettuccine tossed with grilled shrimp and colorful arugula and grape tomatoes wasn't anything I couldn't make at home in a pinch, and don't we dine out for the unexpected? Ditto a warm ramekin of goat and cream cheese buried under a layer of salsa, a popular item that seemed more at home at a Super Bowl party than a wine bar.
Occasionally too much
When the cooking grows more complicated, the results are mixed. I reveled in the showy soup that blended pumpkin, acorn and butternut squashes, those quintessential fall flavors fortified by a splash of walnut oil and bits of salty Cheddar.
But the intrinsic appeal of a perfectly roasted duck breast -- the rosy, fatty meat sliced thin and served with a just-right wild rice pilaf -- was mitigated by a misguided blueberry sauce. Even less successful: pepper-crusted mahi mahi, marred by a layer of less-than-pristine crab and an odd sweet-and-sour sauce that had been billed as a beurre blanc.
For a wine bar, the menu is noticeably weak on sharable snacks. Nordeen offers a few generic (and overpriced) cheeses, selling them separately with ho-hum embellishments along the lines of an onion relish; why not cut the portions and assemble a more appealingly graze-friendly plate? Another oddity: Once past the starters, vegetarians are completely out of luck.
Dessert is similarly limited. When he has the time, Nordeen pulls together decent treats like a caramel-laced bread pudding, but he remains true to one constant, a prepared-to-order molten chocolate cake.
While that sounds like the cliché that it is, its staying power isn't a mystery; this is one dessert that always hits the sweet spot, and the Nectar version, with its alluring bittersweet undertones, doesn't disappoint.
One definite strength is the bar. Nordeen has a knack for tracking down unfamiliar vintages and keeping the prices within the reach of mere mortals. Craft beers may be the new normal in urban addresses, but keeping a dozen or so on hand in this ZIP code is near revolutionary.
Bar manager Justin Wilmot's cocktails are a welcome blend of ingenuity and freshly prepared ingredients. And the bar itself is a treat, a dark and jovial slip of a thing. Try finding that at the Olive Garden.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib