Aperitif Restaurant & Bar, the slick newcomer in Woodbury, reminds me of a friend's attitude toward beautifully wrapped Christmas presents: Who cares about the contents when the paper and ribbon are so pretty?
Suburban restaurants and thoughtful, expensive-looking design seldom mix. But that's not the case here. It's one of those rare spaces that borders on enormous, but doesn't feel that way. Its vast rectangular footprint subtly delineates into separate zones without chopping up its impressive, football-field sweep.
One end is anchored by a mammoth stone and glass fireplace, the other by the kitchen's showy wood-burning oven. In between, the lounge's timbered ceiling contrasts nicely with the dining room's dramatic overhead vaults.
The handsome black walnut bar is topped by one of the state's first Enomatic wine dispensers, a conversation-starting appliance for storing, preserving and serving wines, one cost-conscious, 5-ounce pour at a time. Large windows let in light without revealing too much of the bleak suburban landscape; half look out on a spacious and what appears to be lavishly tricked-out patio that's still under construction.
Tables are set with crisp white linens and contemporary flatware, the furniture feels selected for maximum comfort and style, and the restrooms boast a spa-like plushness.
The restaurant's movie-star looks are the work of Trellage-Ferrill, and diners familiar with its high-concept portfolio (most notably Bacio and Zelo) know that the Minneapolis design firm's workshops go into overdrive to produce the striking glass and metal embellishments that pepper their looky projects, including Aperitif.
The surroundings are matched by a platoon of friendly, well-turned-out staffers (I'd love to get my hands on one of their pastel-striped neckties) who seem generally happy to be at work. So far so good, right?
The restaurant -- its ownership includes St. Paul developer Jerry Trooien -- sometimes tastes as good as it looks. It bills itself as "Mediterranean," a theme so generically mainstream that it really translates into "Let's put a few kebabs on our all-American menu and call it a concept."
Let's face it: The kitchen's fine rendition of wild rice soup, brimming with chunks of juicy, house-smoked chicken, and the delicate, piping-hot walleye fritters -- a wonderfully grown-up version of the fish sticks I used to hope to encounter at my high school's cafeteria -- are about as Mediterranean as my all-Lutheran background.
Why not just call the extensive menu what it is: a test-marketed, middle-of-the-road roster dressed up with a few fancy tricks? There's nothing wrong with catering to the broadest possible target audience, especially when chef Chad Grant manages to hit so many pleasant notes.
Particularly with seafood. I loved his paper-thin slices of cool, ruby red, barely seared tuna and his wonderfully unfussy shrimp, sautéed with lemon and garlic. He makes oysters (breaded and gently fried) and clams (steamed, with zesty chorizo and tons of garlic) seem like Minnesota naturals.
The beautifully composed salads were another high point (don't miss the just-right Caesar, the lovely Nicoise and the vibrant panzanella), and while the pizzas weren't quite right -- the crusts were undercooked and overdressed -- their more modest flatbread siblings were right on the money.
A well-sourced charcuterie-cheese board was impressive but expensive. One exceedingly happy touch: There isn't a burger in sight. Instead, Grant offers hearty, herb-flecked meatball sandwiches -- I can't imagine sitting at that knockout of a bar and not ordering them -- along with snappy skinned, coarsely ground pork sausages generously doused in grilled red peppers.
The drop-off comes during the big-portioned, protein-centric entrees. Aside from a thick-cut pork chop that popped with deep, porky flavor and a respectable rendition of chicken paillard, I found myself bored by many of the dozen or so choices. Nothing stood out. Beef and lamb tasted like, well, meat, but little more. Had I been blindfolded, I don't know that I could have discerned a difference between the two.
Tuna, swordfish and walleye were recognizably raised on water rather than on land, but that's as far as any of them fell on my internal taste-o-meter. Turkey, cleverly cut into a Porterhouse-style shape but tough and chewy, didn't taste like much of anything, let alone our de facto national bird. The pastas had little oomph, with one exception: those tasty veal meatballs, paired with zita and lots of perky basil.
Desserts follow that same predictable format. Weekend brunch isn't exactly full of surprises, but it's all very competently done. The meal starts with a few decent house-baked breads before moving on to several Benedict variations, a pizza topped with pancetta and a sunny-side-up egg, several well-stuffed fritattas and a gorgeous, distinctly delicious nutty brown skillet-sized pancake that's topped with a baked apple compote and drizzled with flavorful -- and blessedly real -- maple syrup.
Aperitif may come off as more corporate than it is soulful -- Trooien built the Sheraton down the street, a fitting connection since the restaurant reminds me of a well-run hotel property -- but the dining-out experience means different things to different people.
Besides, it's nice to see Woodbury get a professionally managed -- and visually appealing -- upscale restaurant. Finally.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757