Critic Rick Nelson visits two suburban restaurants.
Now this is a novelty: Kona Grill constantly updates its stock price on its website (in case you're wondering, it's currently trading at about $3.25 per share on the NASDAQ). You've heard of chef-driven restaurants? This Arizona-based chain reads like an MBA-driven one.
Not that there's anything wrong with making money; after all, it's called the restaurant business for a reason. It's just that a quick tour of the company's vast new Eden Prairie outpost -- the state's first -- gives off a test-marketed scent at every turn. There's the showy aquarium, the exhibition kitchen, the cool sushi bar (decorated with knockoff Chihuly glass fixtures), the masculine-looking bar, the enormous four-season porch anchored by the rugged fireplace. It's all pleasantly attractive. And calculated.
In many ways, the menu follows the setting's lead: lots of obvious fusion-style trends, watered down to meet the needs of a largest-common-denominator demographic. The restaurant's cringe-worthy motto sums it up badly: "East Meets West. They Party." How did that stinker get past the focus groups?
The menu bears the traces of test-market scrutiny. There's plenty of sushi, although the choices are familiar and the raw selection is overpowered by far tamer fried, baked, blanched and smoked fish options.
The rest of the menu divides itself up into fairly standard segments -- appetizers, soups and salads, pizzas/sandwiches/noodles, entrees and desserts -- but the surprise here is that for every Caesar salad, Margherita pizza and 10-ounce filet paired with mashed potatoes, there's an engaging twist: crunchy egg rolls filled with avocado and dried tomatoes, a thick turkey burger, a slab of seared tuna inside a pesto-swiped Kaiser roll, meatloaf stuffed with two varieties of sausage, udon noodles tossed with beef and a garlic-black bean sauce and a pert passion fruit-infused crème brûlée.
The company makes a nod to its new Minnesota customers by offering walleye two ways (battered, deep-fried and folded into a sandwich, or crusted with almonds and bread crumbs and pan-fried) and acknowledges the crisp autumn air by baking up a cinnamon-laced apple crisp.
Earth-shattering, no, but perfectly pleasant. "Shopping mall food," as a friend of mine would say, and it fits for another reason: The outgoing staff was so eager to please that for a moment I wondered if we were in customer service-manic Nordstrom. Portions are generous, and prices are competitive.
11997 Singletree Lane, Eden Prairie, 952-941-3262, www.konagrill.com. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.Destination: Ham Lake
Meanwhile, in Ham Lake, restaurateur-on-the-go Corey Burstad is also catering to suburban (or, in this case, exurban) diners. But his T-Box Bar & Grill (named for an old college haunt) feels light years away from the slick, prepackaged big-box eateries that pepper the dining landscape beyond the I-494/694 ring.
Not that chef Chadd Keyes is fomenting a culinary revolution. On its face, his menu is all about conventional, crowd-pleasing American fare: sandwiches, salads, pastas, pizzas and a small, ever-changing array of meat-and-fish entrees. But Keyes (a vet from Blaine's former Neptune Cafe Italiana), cooks with flair and attention to detail, whether he's grilling up his own version of the Jucy Lucy (aka the molten cheese-filled burger), pulling together a fine slow-roasted pork sandwich finished with crunchy jicama slaw, turning out decent thin-crust pizzas or grilling up a New York strip steak exactly to order.
T-Box also sets itself apart with its adjacent market. Pastry chef Katie Shafer is the friendly face behind the counter, and when she's not pressing well-stuffed paninis or baking the restaurant's desserts (she makes a mean bread pudding), she's selling an array of meats, fish and seafood, deli grab-and-go items, breads and a small inventory of fancy groceries. My one wish: more, of everything. It's all good, but there isn't quite enough there there, to borrow from Gertrude Stein.
The good news is that Keyes uses the market as a laboratory of sorts, finding inspiration in its cases. One day I spied beautiful, silver-skinned rainbow trout as well as some great-looking lamb shanks, and sure enough, both were on Keyes' nightly specials menu next door, the former pan-roasted with delicate brown butter gnocchi, the latter stewed, puttanesca-style, with tomatoes and capers. Delicious.
Other reasons to crow? What looks like a strip mall on the outside resembles a cozy, upscale roadhouse on the inside. Burstad, who also counts a wine-focused liquor store among his holdings (as well as the ambitious Cru Restaurant, located a few miles to the south in Blaine), makes sure that his wine and beer rosters stray from the well-worn path (the specialty beers are particularly well chosen). The flexible pricing structure means that it's easy to eat well for $10, or pop up to $30 without feeling stretched. Service aims to please.
Now, could Burstad take a crack at the restaurant-starved southern, eastern and western suburbs?
1431 147th Av. NE., Ham Lake, 763-413-9950, www.tboxbarandgrill.com. Restaurant open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Market open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.