The 763 suburb, one of the state's fastest-growing communities, offers more for diners than an endless string of chains.
The phrase “home cooking” is a misfit in a commercial kitchen. Yet the appellation sort of fits at Carol’s Restaurant. Owner Carol Brown — a hostess-with-the-mostest if there ever was one — has been feeding this corner of the metro area since the early 1980s, first at her down-home Carol’s Calico Kitchen and, since 2003, at its much more up-to-date successor.
Meals here rekindle happy memories of Sunday dinners at my grandmother Hedvig’s house when I was a kid: practical, comfort-minded and generous. All those qualities are embodied in Brown’s Norman Rockwell-ish roast turkey dinner, a platter piled high with slabs of juicy white and dark meat, marvelously lumpy mashed potatoes (and flavorful, lump-free gravy), baked sweet potatoes and savory celery stuffing. Hedvig, a Swedish farmer’s daughter who was no pushover when it came to feeding her family, would have heartily approved.
Brown’s no-nonsense hot turkey sandwich is equally appealing, as are the daily blue plate specials: pot roast, baked chicken, meatballs. The dessert tray is laden with slices of triple-layer cakes and fruit-filled pies that could hold their own at any county fair.
“Where gravy is a spice” is how Miss Richfield 1981 famously — or is that infamously? — describes her suburban hometown; the same sentiment could apply to Carol’s. That mind-set is reflected in the hamburger-kidney bean chili, a bashful concoction that just barely contains chili seasoning — Schilling’s, perhaps? — a formula that will incite fond reminiscences for anyone who logged time in a Lutheran church basement. I know I loved it; leave that four-alarm stuff to Texas.
At breakfast, tender, nutty-brown pancakes seem to fly off the griddle, thick French toast starts with the kitchen’s sturdy cinnamon bread and the hearty corned beef hash will jump-start even the coldest subzero mornings. Instead of relying on Costco, Brown chops her own teasingly tart cranberry sauce and puts up her own tangy refrigerator pickles, among many thoughtful touches.
Another smile-inducing plus: the gregarious and fast-footed staff.
On the downside, I’d unplug the restaurant’s microwave oven right now if I could, before it ruins another flaky pie crust or turns even one more gigantic, gooey, pecan-studded caramel roll into cotton; I’d also lose the aftertaste-laden cooking oil. The spotless dining room is pleasant but generic, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because no soulless Bakers Square outlet can hold a candle to Carol Brown’s turkey-and-trimmings dinner, or her apple pie.
OfficeMax, Menard’s, sushi
An undistinguished string of strip-mall activity bordering Highway 65 is just about the last place I’d expect to encounter the stylish T-Asia Bar & Sushi Restaurant, but there it is, perched on one end of a vast, wind-blown parking lot opposite a Kohl’s outlet. Inside, nice-looking tables and booths fan out from a central bar, with one wall dominated by an open kitchen and its small sushi station.
The staff turns out all the familiar sashimi, nigiri and maki players, and if their handiwork doesn’t reflect the pristine elegance that is the hallmark of the genre, let’s face it, there are few Twin Cities practitioners that do. Still, the ingredients are fresh, there’s plenty of variety, prices are competitive and the food arrives in a flash.
The rest of the menu takes an Asian culinary travelogue approach, and it aims far higher than its strip-mall address might indicate. On the low end is a laundry list of indistinguishable deep-fried starters (including, mysteriously, French fries and onion rings), but the high ground is occupied by a number of imaginative, brightly seasoned entrees, many of which emphasize fresh seafood.
There’s also a select-your-own-ingredients stir-fry station. In other words, T-Asia offers something for just about everyone. Service is enthusiastic, the bar shakes up countless colorful libations and there’s a value-conscious happy hour.
Next door to Snap Fitness
Neptune Cafe Italiana would make a perfect case study in how to do the strip-mall restaurant right. At one end of his exhibition kitchen, owner Bryan Feist takes full advantage of his wood-burning oven, using its intense heat to put a gentle char on his fine crisp-crust pizzas, lay a mouth-watering finish on a ramekin filled with a rich artichoke spread or roast a salmon slab to succulent perfection.
The best seats in the house are at a long counter opposite the oven, just within earshot of the fire’s crackle, although no table is too far from its warm, woody scent, which acts like an invisible afghan as it permeates the spare but airy dining room. Feist, a vet of many top-tier Twin Cities restaurants, stocks a small but drinkable wine list that’s priced to move (it’s downright cheap on Wednesday’s half-price wine night) and keeps a watchful eye on his dining room, a convivial setting for the honest, well-prepared fare.
That includes a handful of pastas and a half-dozen uncomplicated entrees: that scrupulously roasted salmon, dressed with a tangy basil aioli and served over creamy mashed potatoes; a flavorful pan-roasted hanger steak; a juicy pan-roasted chicken served with gnocchi finished in brown butter. Take a few bites and you’ll know that Feist relies upon quality ingredients, with one glaring exception, the bruschetta’s flavorless, out-of-season tomatoes.
The biggest surprise was the tab: If Neptune were in Uptown Minneapolis or on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue — and thank goodness it isn’t, as the ’burbs need more restaurants like this — I’d bet what’s left of my 401(k) that the tally would be considerably higher.
Thanks, Mr. Feist.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757