Anyone with dreams of restaurant ownership would be well advised to spend some time at the studiously pleasant Blvd Kitchen & Bar, observing co-owner Dean Vlahos in action. You can't miss him. He's almost always there.
Vlahos is one of an increasingly rare breed of restaurateurs who realize that the front-of-the-house experience is as important as what comes out of the kitchen. At his latest venture, Vlahos -- the driving force behind such success stories as Champps Americana and Redstone American Grill -- deftly captures so many of the details that put a spring in the dining-out step.
Walk through the door and here's what happens: A wood-burning grill not only injects some sizzle and smoke into steaks, ribs, chops and other menu essentials, but it also transmits a scented welcome mat out in the restaurant. The greeting from the host stand is so genuine that I fully expect to find a Christmas card from the crew in my mailbox next month. The joint is crawling with accommodating staffers, looking sharp in their dark jeans, colorful striped ties and crisp white aprons.
Twin Cities interior designer Cynthia O'Connor has vanquished all traces of the previous tenant -- a Don Pablo's outlet -- and created a setting with a warehouse-loft-apartment-on-steroids aura, no easy task when the space in question is located in a suburban shopping mall next to a Michaels craft store. There are enough white subway tiles to outfit an entire downtown condo tower, well-worn hand-woven rugs cover rough-hewn pine plank floors, sunlight streams through plenty of windows and the space is sprinkled with funky furniture. Booths and tables flank a center bar, with one end opening into a sparkling exhibition kitchen. A bonfire crackles on the patio.
It's dining as theater, which comes second nature to Vlahos, a New Jersey native who grew up in his family's Greek diners. He migrated to Minnesota via Florida, where he traded up jobs in nightclubs and yacht brokering ("I wanted to see how the rich got rich," he said) into a gig running the Cabooze in Minneapolis. From there he has forged a remarkable hospitality career on smarts, moxie and honest-to-god hard work.
The food at Blvd isn't going to move the culinary needle, not that that seems to be the point. Vlahos developed the crowd-pleasing menu with his former Redstone cohort Scott Foster, and it's executed with sharp consistency by chef Mike Bursakaus. The food-obsessed aren't the restaurant's target market, although that's not to say that they won't find dishes that will make them happy.
Some thought has clearly gone into the plus-sized sandwiches, which are built on well-made ciabatta or pretzel-inspired rolls from Breadsmith. First up: A top-notch pulled pork, with tons of tender, slow-cooked pork liberally bathed in a sweet-hot sauce and finished with a crunchy slaw. Also notable is the breakfast-at-lunch combination of bacon, Cheddar and soft scrambled eggs, as well as the layers of thinly shaved rare rib-eye finished with a swipe of zesty arugula mayonnaise and crisp fried leeks.
Bursakaus grills up a memorable burger. Rather than relying on a single thick patty, he offers two slimmer ones, Big Mac-style, which means twice as much tasty, charred surface, prepared in roughly half the time (the food flies out of the kitchen here). He lets that wood-fired grill work its magic with salmon, halibut and tuna, doing little to get in the way of their intrinsic appeal; the same can be said for the three competitively priced cuts of beef.
A monster plate of ribs, with plenty of succulent meat on the bone, is slathered in a winning sauce that's seared into each bite. The comfort food continues with a half-dozen side dishes, including wonderfully creamy mashed potatoes. It's all priced right, it's uncomplicated, it tastes good. What's not to like?
Appetizers are up and down. It's difficult to imagine visiting Blvd and not indulging in one of the flatbreads, long, golden rectangles of chewy, blistered crust topped with mushrooms and arugula, or red onions and roast chicken brushed with a tangy barbecue sauce. I loved the slider trio, a mix-and-match array that gives diners a preview of several larger menu items, including the fabulous fried chicken and the swell turkey burger.
Grilled chicken wings are plump, juicy and fetchingly blackened. A crab cake, crispy on the outside with plenty of sweet crab flavor inside, is appealingly done. Less impressive was a sloppy, flavorless shrimp-avocado "salsa." Seared tuna has been done better elsewhere, and chicken tenders tasted as cliched as they sounded.
Desserts, roughly the size of a two-door Ford Focus, are a high point, especially a warm, lemon-laced bread pudding topped with a generous dollop of sweet whipped cream. Even better is a sundae, a few hefty scoops of Sebastian Joe's vanilla bean-flecked ice cream blanketed in a rich caramel sauce, the sweetness gently cut by sea salt. "I loved caramel sundaes as a kid, and no one ever does them," Vlahos said. "So we're doing them." Works for me.
Sunday brunch is a hit. The kitchen sends out salutation in the form of a basket of warm, gooey monkey bread, the bar squeezes orange juice so fresh I discovered a seed floating in my glass, and the menu sports well-prepared basics like eggs Benedict, corned beef hash, steak and eggs and liberally stuffed omelets. Again, few details are overlooked: The saucer-sized pancakes are tender and golden brown, the bacon is smoky and super-crisp, the hollandaise is supple and teasingly tart. One complaint: a gluey, aggressively spicy gravy that overpowered terrific Cheddar biscuits.
Blvd is an impressive comeback for Vlahos, whose journey through the Tom Petters financial scandal has been well-documented. "I'm creative and I can fill any room," Vlahos said. "I'm good at the restaurant business; they can't take that from me."
It shows. Half the fun of visiting Blvd is watching Vlahos at work, a whirlwind of well-groomed and sharply tailored energy. The Italians have a name for it: Bella figura, a polished facade that one presents to the world, and a metaphor for the slick package that is Blvd.
Because he's such an intrinsic part of the place, it's a shame that the Vlahos name isn't on the marquee. Maybe that's in deference to Gary Holmes, Vlahos' new business partner and the developer behind CSM Corp., which owns the shopping center where Blvd is located. But my guess is that Vlahos is too practical a businessman to go that whole name-up-in-lights route. After all, how many potential customers will ever be able to easily Google "Vlahos"?
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757