Lou Nanne’s chef Josh Hill has opinions about crabcakes.
“When I want to eat a crabcake — and if I’m spending the money on a crabcake — then it had better be all about crab,” he said. “I want it to be 95 percent crab and 5 percent everything else.”Preaching to the choir on that one. But yes, with Hill’s all-about-crab formula, it comes as no surprise that his version ranks right up there in any Best in the City-style smackdown.
He loosely packs prodigiously plump chunks of sweet, juicy, Colossal-grade meat — it radiates a just-off-the-dock freshness — then calls upon a disciplined combination of brioche, heavy cream, mayonnaise and egg yolks to act as a binder.
The cakes are seared in clarified butter, turning the edges a deep caramel but preserving the tender, decadently creamy interiors. They’re spectacular, and, given that they’re served two to an order, their $19 price tag is not out of bounds.
Another can’t-get-enough-of-it dish? The meaty pork ribs. Hill obviously invests copious amounts of tender loving care into each monster of a serving, giving them an overnight dry rub, followed by a stint in the hickory-fueled smoker and a slow, nurturing braise.
Just as the plentiful meat approaches the point where it’s easily nudged off the bone, out comes plenty of smoky barbecue sauce, a blend that tiptoes into sweet (molasses) and spicy (cayenne) notes, but doesn’t go overboard on either. Then the ribs are grilled until the glazed meat attains a sticky crunchiness outside and exudes a mouthwatering tenderness inside. Yeah, so good.
Neatly summarizing Lou Nanne’s isn’t easy. Steakhouse? Not really, although much of the menu certainly shares traits with that genre, a reflection of Hill’s seven-year stint at what is arguably the state’s porterhouse pinnacle, Manny’s Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis.
It’s no sports bar, either. Mr. Nanne’s Wheaties-level brand of celebrity (forged through a celebrated career as a former Minnesota North Stars player, coach, general manager and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer) isn’t being invoked to hawk jalapeño poppers, Buffalo wings and other banalities.
Far from it. Instead, McDermott Restaurants (Rojo Mexican Grill, Ling & Louie’s) is using its star partner’s drawing power to cater to tradition-hungry diners.
Hill’s American grill menu will never be mistaken for innovative, but that doesn’t mean that he does the same-old, same-old in the kitchen. In fact, he demonstrates some well-practiced cooking chops.
Starting with those steaks, sourced from small, quality-minded producers and meticulously aged to a dense, firm texture.
Then the firepower of the kitchen’s 1,200-degree charbroiler works its magic, burnishing Hill’s seasoning blend (kosher salt and sea salt, garlic pepper, paprika) into a best-of-all-possible steak worlds: a crusted exterior that gives way to a plush, juicy interior. And big, bold flavor of all seven varieties, from hearty bone-in rib-eye to rugged flatiron (the two prime-graded options) and a filet.
The most unusual is a nod to Hill’s Hawaiian childhood, a rib-eye that’s marinated overnight in a mix of garlic, brown sugar, pineapple juice and soy sauce, with inklings of ginger and garlic. The beef’s brash flavor comes through, but the marinade imbues it with an appealing sweet-salty hue.
But the steakhouse-esque selection also brings up the steakhouse Achilles heel(s): prices and portion size.
Really, no premium beef under $30? And not to mimic the Food Police — because, truly, nothing is more tedious — but with the USDA recommending that adult men limit their weekly intake of animal proteins to 26 ounces, is a 24-ounce porterhouse advisable?
In true steakhouse fashion, Hill offers a long list of Sunday supper-style side dishes, served in shareable portions. He also serves a duo of well-garnished charbroiled burgers, with patties composed of prime scraps — steak and short rib — with a bit of brisket to fatten up the flavor-packed bite.
Several other steakhouse tent poles — briny oysters with just-right accompaniments, jumbo shrimp with a bracing, horseradish-laced cocktail sauce — are also given their due.
The distinct absence of a bread basket might be considered a sign that the restaurant doesn’t want to be placed in the same orbit as the Ruth’s Chrises of the world. Ditto the half-dozen salads, all appealingly fresh and colorful.
Still, this is one meat-heavy menu. It’s no coincidence that the worst appetizer is vegetarian, an ill-conceived spinach-artichoke dip that repeats the same tortilla chips served with the (not great) guacamole.
Or that the best starter (well, second only to those crabcakes) is an over-the-top slab of Minnesota-raised Duroc pork belly. It’s expertly smoked, braised in apple cider and honey and then grilled.
On the subject of simple-pleasure dishes and their virtues, one hails from Francine Nanne, Lou’s wife. She’s the Nanne behind the Nanne’s Bolognese, the menu’s sole pasta offering. Hill’s version of the multigenerational family recipe is a generous bowl of thick, toothy bucatini liberally tossed in a milky, garlicky tomato sauce that pops with oregano, thyme and plenty of prime ground beef.
Less successful is a gigantic enchilada. The beef is superb — top-shelf short rib, braised in earthy guajillo chiles — but it’s buried under a bland tomatillo sauce and what feels like a pound of drab asadero cheese.
Sometimes the reverse is true, and it’s a Seasoning Gone Wild situation. Seared tuna, so deeply ruby red it could have been mistaken for a beet, was overshadowed by a tart ponzu sauce that went overboard on the serranos. Or a heavy hand overdoes it when tossing those entree-size salads, or spicing up the guacamole.
It’s encouraging to know that Hill plans to add breakfast and brunch in the fall. As for the kitchen’s wood-burning oven, he’s toying with the idea of pizza.
The straightforward desserts include Key lime pie with a tasty pistachio-flecked crust, a berry-topped crème brûlée, a by-the-books flourless chocolate cake and a luscious, tarted-up banana pudding. They’re fine, but at $11 a pop, most are brazenly overpriced, despite their plus-size dimensions.
Kudos to the Cuningham Group, the Minneapolis architectural firm, for performing the design equivalent of an exorcism.
Gone is every last possible trace of the previous tenant, a dreary Romano’s Macaroni Grill. In its place is welcoming loft-like space (and an equally handsome bar) that’s done up in casual creams, browns and coppers.
It’s far more tasteful than the address — a generic, ripped-from-the-suburbs-of-Dallas office park — might otherwise suggest. Two other assets: acoustics that support rather than prevent conversation, and an instant classic of a patio.
Those expecting a fawning shrine to the hockey great will be disappointed, as the sports imagery remains fairly low-key. With one exception: a host stand portrait depicting Nanne’s blazingly green-and-gold North Stars era, complete with Lee Majors-like sideburns. It’s not painted on velvet, but it could be, and it’s fantastic.
I never spied the savvy Mr. Nanne, but staffers noted that he’s a regular presence. It’s reassuring to discover that he’s attached his name to a dining establishment that’s commensurate with his sterling reputation.