"I wasn't expecting this," said my friend in admiration. Given our generic strip-mall surroundings, I wasn't, either.
He was tearing into a stunner of a dish, a whole Wisconsin-raised trout, stuffed with a lemon-thyme butter and roasted to perfection. The oven's heat cast a slight caramelized hue on the lemon slices strewn across the top of the fish, and the trout's pink flesh played nicely against the pale yellow citrus and long, just-crunchy green beans.
On my side of the table, I was making quick work of a generous hunk of Minnesota-raised lamb shoulder, slow-braised in tomatoes and a chicken-duck stock until the meat yielded to my fork's slightest touch. It was crowned with mellow, slow-cooked onions and paired with a hearty parsnip mash and wonderfully toothy Swiss chard. I couldn't imagine a more satisfying midwinter meal. Here's the best news: My pal's entree was $17, and mine was a buck more.
Hurray for the suburbs, right? Urban diners -- present company included -- tend to take the ever-expanding local foods movement for granted. But outside the 494/694 ring, the support-your-nearby-farmer phenomenon remains something of a rarity. Which is why it's such a treat to encounter the Purple Sandpiper Bakehouse & Pub.
Beyond his commitment to sourcing ingredients from regional family farms, chef Chris Johaningsmeir is following in the footsteps of his mentor, Lucia Watson, in another important way. (He worked in the kitchen at Watson's eponymous Uptown Minneapolis restaurant for six years before stepping into the Purple Sandpiper last November.)
He's proving that it's possible to do delicious things to fresh, regionally raised fare without busting dining-out budgets. Even better, he's demonstrating to diners that familiar dishes can taste anew when they're treated with care.
Anyone in search of a memorable burger needs to look no further. On his lunch menu, Johaningsmeir grinds and liberally seasons locally raised beef, forms it into a fat patty, grills it in butter exactly to order until it sports a tantalizing char, tops it with aged Wisconsin Cheddar and a criss-cross of thick-cut smoked bacon and slips it into a toasted bun. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
There's a lamb-pita version, too, a shining example of alluring simplicity. Another noon-hour star is a colorful and tasty vegetarian panini, built upon a chewy foccacia with a thick, aromatic swipe of spinach-sunflower seed pesto and piled high with lightly charred onions and peppers. Sandwiches are served with tender, golden, hand-cut sweet potato fries, a welcome switch from their ever-present potato brethren.
The flatbreads are a treat, too, free-form circles of thin but sturdy dough blanketed with like-minded ingredients. On one visit I lucked into an open-face version of that pesto sandwich, topped with tons of roasted fennel, red onions and pine nuts. It disappeared, fast, mirroring the speedy midday service, which was thoughtfully mindful of our lunch-hour time constraints.
Tasty and more tasty
Other highlights? A creamy risotto studded with sweet peas, earthy mushrooms and ham that actually tasted like ham (from Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, Minn., one of our state's unsung treasures). Kudos also to a satisfying beer-braised pot roast, a rich mac-and-cheese fortified with roasted cauliflower and an excellent duck confit paired with a white bean cassoulet.
The latter has been removed from the menu due to lack of sales -- as was another favorite, a zesty pork sausage dressed with white beans and kale -- which makes me want to stand in the restaurant's parking lot and shout, "Bloomington! Do you know what you're missing?" Here's hoping they return someday as daily specials.
Johaningsmeir has slowly but surely been making the menu his own, and I'm looking forward to seeing what will inspire him once the growing season blossoms. For now, he's perking up the dead of February with a crunchy and colorful apple-celery root slaw, the kind of Waldorf-inspired treat my mother used to make, only so much better. Sorry, Mom, but it's true.
I also loved the big plate of chopped, deeply green Romaine -- with each bite, I could practically sense its nutrients enriching my vitamin-deprived winter self -- tossed with pistachios and snips of that excellent bacon and dressed in a buttermilk dressing with hints of Faribault-sourced blue cheese. Although I suspect that the carefully crafted soups are treated as a dumping ground for leftover ingredients, the results manage to pop with bright, appealing flavors.
Then again, not perfect
Some dishes didn't work. Saffron-scented risotto cakes sounded great on paper, but turned out to be gluey and plain. Ditto a greasy chicken paprikash, where the sum of its compelling parts didn't quite add up. I know that somewhere along the way I tasted pan-seared salmon, but to be honest I can't recall a single trait other than it bore traces of ginger. That can't be a good sign, right?
It's not unreasonable to expect more in the baked-goods department -- after all, the word "bakeshop" appears in the restaurant's name; was it wrong to think that diners might encounter a bakery counter?
Still, pastry chef Tom Supplee's work demonstrates some promise. His flourless chocolate cake is satisfying -- ditto his buttery, fruity crisps -- but the slim selection is predictable, and not treated with particular care. On one occasion, a serving of pistachio ice cream, each spoonful laced with a throat-tickling dose of cardamom, arrived half-melted, obviously scooped into a warm-from-the-dishwasher bowl. What a disrespectful way to treat such a luscious, house-made product.
That said, I'm still daydreaming about the must-consume-every-bite cinnamon roll I encountered during a very pleasant brunch. Weekend days, when the sparse setting was soaked in sunlight, are when the Lucia's influence felt particularly pronounced, in a good way, with dishes that included a lovely prosciutto-fig salad, an expertly made chèvre-spinach frittata, a decadent lobster Benedict and tender pumpkin-molasses hotcakes.
Owner M. Haider should put some effort into the forgettable decor, which appears to be little more than a patchwork of the string of failed restaurants that preceded it. His customers -- many of whom, I suspect, are quickly becoming regulars -- deserve better. Service is friendly if a bit spotty. Still, if I lived or worked in Bloomington, this is where I'd be eating. Frequently.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757