This is not the kind of admission that a person likes to make, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. Yours truly recently fell in love — well, a pretty hot-and-heavy case of like, anyway — with a plate of tater tots.
The venue in question was Tavern 4 & 5 in Eden Prairie (so named for its proximity to the County Rd. 4-Hwy. 5 crossroads), and those tater tots are a prime example of the restaurant’s ability to identify and repackage popular dining-out trends. Hipster Nation has embraced tater tots for the past few years, but rarely do they ascend to this level of bar-snack goodness, with creamy mashed potatoes formed into cork-shaped tots and then rolled in crunchy, panko-like crushed house-made potato chips.
With each bite, the gently crisp, golden brown exterior, twinkling with flecks of sea salt, collapses into a piping hot, snowy white and potato-rich interior. With deep-fried potatoes this good, why bother with Ore-Ida?
Or try the potato skins, the menu equivalent of big hair and open-toe Candie’s, right? Not here, with their prosciutto and fontina touches. Or what about a crazy — and crazily addictive — chips-and-dip version of the Reuben sandwich? Or a snappy-skinned ring bologna, grilled to tantalizing smokiness and served with a robust, beer-blended mustard? Or juicy pork, glazed with an assertive five-spice barbecue sauce and roasted, on the bone, a la chicken wings?
The kitchen — helmed by chef Zac Leeman — goes out of its way to matriculate beyond the now-familiar gastropub format that has been proliferating across the Twin Cities these past few years. And not just with the “beer food” portion of the menu.
Plate-size pizzas are a pleasant surprise, with puffy, lightly chewy crusts and a plethora of like-minded toppings, including a lively pesto, subtly sweet roasted red peppers and plenty of flavorful rotisserie chicken.
Health-conscious diners will appreciate pizzas with doughnut-like holes in their center, filled with a mound of fresh greens. Then there’s a series of basic but satisfying next-Gen diet plates, consisting of steamed seasonal vegetables, brown rice or fluffy red quinoa, salad greens and grilled salmon, tofu or chicken. Setting the world on fire? No. Satisfying a niche? Definitely.
Beyond bar food
Salads don’t stray too far from crowd-pleasing favorites, but they’re made with integrity and an eye on fresh components. A dozen or so sandwiches are also far beyond the rote iterations of the chain restaurants that Tavern 4 & 5 endeavors to outdo, whether it’s a gussied-up BLT, a fancy-schmancy grilled cheese and well-seasoned pulled pork, stacked high on a tasty onion bun, the sauce’s vinegar sassiness a fine foil to the sweet, crunchy coleslaw. Nicely done.
Larger dishes are often similarly pleasing. Rotisserie chickens are a cut above their supermarket counterparts, with crispy, well-seasoned skin crackling over abundantly juicy meat, a portion so generous my leftovers covered my chicken salad needs for not one but two lunchtime sandwiches. Several steaks were grilled to a tantalizingly caramelized sheen, and the slight sweetness of a brined, thick-cut pork chop was accentuated by complementary maple and apple accents.
Less successful were salmon and walleye entrees, both taken past their optimum temperatures. Oddly, what should be a highlight — the burgers — really aren’t, more a series of lustrousless iterations running up and down the gourmet burger roll call.
The menu also has its curious omissions. No charcuterie to speak of, and nothing in the way of cheeses, pickled vegetables or other beer-hall tent poles. As for the bar, it features enough of a variety of local craft beers to impress, but not so many as to overwhelm.
Three cheers for breakfast. Again, the kitchen doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it does more than go through the motions, with first-rate pancakes and crisp waffles, a few well-prepared Benedicts (don’t miss the Reuben-inspired version) and a rib-sticking corned beef hash. It’s miles above its corporate competition, at a (justifiably) slightly higher price point.
The comfort-minded desserts — bread pudding, warm chocolate chip cookies with milk, a monumental slab of chocolate layer cake — are noteworthy primarily for their abundant portions. One positive first impression comes in the form of a tall sundae of vanilla ice cream, liberally laced with buttery, salty caramel sauce, so simple and irresistible.
Service and setting
While the front-of-house staff might not routinely grasp basic dining-out fundamentals (yes, it’s always a good idea to clear the previous course’s detritus before arriving with the next), they more than compensate with a collective outpouring of enthusiasm and energy. It’s a treat, really, to find yourself amid people who genuinely seem to take pleasure in their work. Their infectious, high-spirited enthusiasm is one of the restaurant’s most appealing attributes.
Another plus: a great-looking room, thanks to the ministrations of Shea Inc., the Minneapolis design firm, which has erased most of the space’s most egregious strip mall-isms. Following the menu’s example, the space manages to modernize the tavern format without wholly remaking it.
Plenty of dark woods are contrasted against ceramic tiles, a wide U-shaped bar encourages lingering and furnishings appear chosen for their comfort. A side-by-side pizza oven and rotisserie provide far more drama than the incessant flat-screen televisions, so numerous that even a brief happy hour pit stop can feel like a whirl through Best Buy. If life as we know it can continue without smoking in bars and restaurants, can’t we agree to place a limit on visual pollution, too?
Owners Patrick Woodring and Scott Foster are the team behind Hazellewood Grill and Tap Room in Tonka Bay, and they clearly have a knack for unearthing opportunity in otherwise overlooked addresses. Just look at Chester’s Kitchen & Bar and Pescara, their two enormously popular — and very different — downtown Rochester restaurants. A third, focusing on Italian food, is opening next summer.
“We heard from anyone who was anyone that downtown Rochester would never work,” said Woodring. “But nothing could be further from the truth.”
Would I journey across town to dine at Tavern 4 & 5? Probably not. It’s not distinctive enough to merit that kind of time and mileage investment, but it’s not trying to be, either. What this well-managed restaurant does very well is serve the everyday needs of its neighborhood. If I lived or worked in the southwest suburbs, I’d be a regular.
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