Never underestimate the power of a great-looking restaurant. Cov Wayzata, for instance.
Just taking a seat inside its preppy and vaguely nautical surroundings is a mood elevator more effective than a handful of vitamin D tablets. Its Cape Cod-by-way-of-Lake Minnetonka setting is akin to dining on the soundstage of one of Nancy Meyers’ playground-of-the-rich movies — maybe Diane Keaton’s beach house in “Something’s Gotta Give,” crossed with Meryl Streep’s bakery in “It’s Complicated.”
Fortunately, the restaurant isn’t supermodel skin-deep. One of the kitchen’s most admirable traits is its ability to turn out appealing iterations of familiar, slightly upscale fare, with an emphasis on seafood.
First of all, Cov is ready, willing and able to touch the very depths of the western suburbs’ crab-cake-craving soul. If the restaurant’s rendition of this Chesapeake Bay classic resembles the version that has been a cornerstone of the Oceanaire Seafood Room’s menu since the late 1990s, it’s not a coincidence; Cov’s opening chef, Cory York, logged some time with the Oceanaire chain.
Current executive chef Clay Gibbins wisely maintains his predecessor’s recipe, a bruiser of a thing that’s roughly 95 percent lumpy crab meat, loosely formed into a patty and barely held together by a whisper of breadcrumbs, seasoned mayonnaise and egg. It’s baked in a cast-iron skillet until it achieves a lightly browned, fall-apart monument to the glory that is sweet, freshly harvested crab. It’s worth every penny of its $19 price tag, and then some.
Another standout is the thick, creamy guacamole, punched with plenty of lime and salt. It’s brimming with generous chunks of tender, juicy lobster that’s tossed in a delicate citrus-cilantro dressing, and all laid out on a crunchy jicama slaw. I can’t imagine visiting without ordering it.
A busy wood-fired grill
The monster of a prime rib is a thing of beefy beauty, nurtured in a smoker until it barely nudges the outer edges of medium-rare, each tender bite teased with a hint of smoke. The meat, shaved thin, becomes the star in a terrific French dip sandwich dressed with a zippy horseradish sauce.
I loved the ribs, too, which also get a skilled spin through the smoker before they’re blackened on the wood-fired grill until the succulent meat — liberally sauced with just-right sweet and acidic notes — is easily nudged off the bone.
Exercising restraint would do a world of good. A lighter touch would definitely improve the overdressed flatbreads, as would a tweak to the too-tough crust. Gnocchi’s well-prepared attributes are buried under an avalanche of pesto cream sauce.
The idea of bruschetta topped with goat cheese and deeply colorful (and surprisingly flavorful) bite-size tomatoes is fine on paper, but what arrives is a way-too-much exercise in oily basil pesto and overpowering balsamic vinegar. It’s hard to say which made a less favorable impression: the tragically overcooked swordfish, its firm, meaty essence obliterated into rubbery lifelessness, or the overwhelming pile-on of finishing touches.
And some dishes are just a smidgen away from being fully realized: The chimichurri accompanying a fork-tender hanger steak could benefit from more pizazz; the scallops and lobster in an otherwise lovely cioppino were taken just beyond their optimum cooking point, and a silky smoked salmon gave off traces of fishiness.
But then Gibbins, who opened the restaurant with York last summer and hails from McCormick & Schmick’s, regains his footing with a number of flat-out crowd pleasers: a gleefully overstuffed shrimp roll; a handsomely rendered wedge salad; roasted beets accented by tarragon and avocado, and big, meaty and well-seasoned poached shrimp, chilled and served with a lively cocktail sauce.
There’s a limited oyster selection — just two daily picks, one from the East Coast, the other from the West — but they’re wonderfully fresh and briny, and their carefully grilled counterparts keep the folderol (an anise compound butter, cheesy breadcrumbs) to a minimum. And anyone in search of addictive chicken wings, take a seat at the comfortable bar and get eating.
Desserts, no. Brunch, yes.
As for the desserts, I just can’t. The most admirable effort, a changes-with-the-seasons fruit cobbler, barely cuts it. The less said about a gluey chocolate-peanut butter bread pudding, the better. Nothing against first-rate Talenti gelato, but serving a pint — still in the container — with a tepid spread of make-your-own sundae fixings, well, isn’t really trying.
The signature sweet is a towering, triple-layer slab of jet-black chocolate cake slathered in sludgy vanilla icing. It’s dubbed Sonni Cake, and it could be reasonably viewed as an affectionate homage to the life-altering Patticake served at Yum! Kitchen and Bakery in St. Louis Park. That’s how my server described it, anyway (although that “life-altering” part is strictly yours truly).
Cov outsources its version to nearby Wuollet Bakery, and to paraphrase the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, I know Patticake. I’ve tasted Patticake. Patticake is a friend of mine. Sonni Cake is no Patticake.
Sunday brunch is a better bet. That crab cake to end all crab cakes is the glorious centerpiece of a fantastic, carefully built Benedict. The kitchen could end right there and all would remain well with the world, but Gibbins presses on with a fairly standard but spot-on assortment, turning out fluffy and golden pancakes, a multilayered huevos rancheros, well-stuffed omelets paired with richly addictive hash browns, even a sharply rendered edition of the classic two eggs, bacon and toast combination.
Gibbins has a greater success, treats-wise, with a ridiculously oversized cinnamon roll, its sweet, pull-apart dough wonderfully dense and swirled with raspberry jam, caramel sauce and strawberry-laced cream cheese, a combination that sounds dreadful but turns out to be anything but. The tangy and colorful blood orange mimosas are a welcome addition, and the bar also knows its way around a bloody mary.
And who wouldn’t want it to park it in that room on a Sunday? Come summertime, co-owners Dean Vlahos and Steve Wagenheim will kick open the restaurant’s boardwalk-style lakeside patio. There’s one caveat: A railroad line separates the diners from the water (not all James J. Hill legacies are as beloved as the library, or the Summit Avenue mansion, that bear his name), and the tracks do not sit fallow.
But Vlahos (formerly of Redstone American Grill and Blvd Kitchen & Bar) and Wagenheim (Granite City Food & Brewery) are on it. Each time another string of boxcars lumbers past, a bartender clangs an overhead bell, and voilà: What could be a scenery-blocking negative becomes all jaunty and fun-loving, a sleight-of-hand as transformative as the remake of the former gloom-and-doom Sunsets (the work of Shea Inc., the Minneapolis design firm, and interior designer Jennifer Cashman) into this sparkling, Instagram-able property.
My friend summed it up best.
“Who cares if a freight train is rumbling a few feet away?” he said, looking around the room. “I feel like we’re on Martha’s Vineyard. Would you please stop hogging that lobster guacamole and pass it my way?”
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib